Allen and Sofia's honeymoon in Queensland, Australia


The strong American dollar made this really cheap: A$1 = US$0.54 or so in the following. (And "I" = Allen.)

July 16. We got on a plane from LA in the evening, and after changing planes several times, arrived in Townsville on Wednesday the 18th (having crossed the international dateline). First step: rent a car, and begin driving on the wrong side. All over Townsville (and elsewhere) there are "keep left" signs to reinforce this behavior.

Checked in at Aquarius on the Beach, which has glorious suites facing the ocean. (We got to see a number of sunrises from there, being severely screwed up time-wise.) Walked along the Strand, a strip along the beach. Signs everywhere about being careful to not get stung by box jellyfish while swimming, and what to do if you are (pour vinegar on the wound, and there is emergency vinegar supplied). Not relevant to us as they are only around during the Australian summer. Along the Strand are some amazing banyan trees. We went for dinner on Flinders East, and discovered the Townsville Paradox - all the restaurants are open, but there's no one eating. Isn't this high tourist season? we asked. Oh yes, it's much busier on weekends, they claimed.

Two common items on the various menus: bugs and rockets. We never ended up eating either.

July 19. Went first thing in the morning to Billabong Sanctuary (except for grabbing breakfast from Brumby's bakery, which was yummy). Saw our first kangaroo, hopping across the road, very exciting. As we entered the sanctuary were greeted by a kangaroo with joey in pouch, which we could walk up to and pet! (A couple of hours later they were all gone, but early morning, there were tons of kangaroos. They come out again at dusk.) The kangaroo's claws are rather impressive.
The highlights of our half-day there were of course the "Hold a Koala" and "Hold a Wombat" segments. Koalas subscribe to the theory that if one opposable thumb is good, two are even better, and while we may seem to be cradling them they were in fact nearly leaving bruises on us.

Sofia managed to also pet an emu (very skittish). Saw crocodile, echidna, bats, many parrots, and many many ducks and geese.

The koalas we held were junior males. (We were told that they were fully paid up members of the koala union, and as such only got held half an hour every other day.)

Note that this mature male koala has a scent gland on his chest. We were supposed to be careful not to get scented by it, or else we might get attacked by other koalas.

The ants here are different, too. Sofia got attacked by a different species at one point, of brown, biting ants.

It turns out that everything in Australia is named billabong - it means (roughly) a watering hole. Billabong Hotel, Billabong Rentals, etc.

Grocery differences: Woolworths is a grocery. No liquor in groceries in Queensland. Rice Krispies are instead Rice Bubbles. "Sanitarium" is a brand of cereal. Arnott's is a huge brand, but is apparently no longer Australian-owned, so you're supposed to buy e.g. the Dick Smith brand, but that uses beef fats in the crackers.

We drove up to Castle Hill, then drove around to see up close what we'd seen from up high. Found McDonald's, Sizzler, Blockbuster, but no Starbucks. (Burger King is there, but is sometimes called Hungry Jack's.) Rented rollerblades and bladed on the Strand, remembering to pass oncoming people on the left.

July 20. Drove to Cairns, the tourist capitol of Queensland. Stopped at Babinda Boulders along the way; nice rainforest walk and impressive creek cutting through stone. I hadn't seen rainforest before and was really impressed with the density of vines.

Cairns is extremely touristy and has a big downtown walking area with hotels practically atop one another. Went into Country Comforts, was offered B&B at A$120. Not what we wanted for this particular night, when we wished to just crash and leave very early, so the guy asked what we were looking to spend; we said A$70. So he offered just bed at A$85. We'd had no idea that these things were negotiable! (This wasn't a ma-and-pa place, but a hotel chain.) After driving around and finding everything else taken (including at Trinity Beach, which turns out to be a nice place to live but you wouldn't want to visit - no hotel beds, just holiday apartments), we took the Country Comfort offer. It turns out we had come to Cairns on the last day of some three-day Cairns holiday, and that was why everything was booked. We had several scheduling coincidences like this during the trip.

We also went to the emergency medical center to get our dive medical exams. It was about a 5-minute wait.

July 21. Went at 8 AM to the dock, to catch the boat to Fitzroy Island, and start our three-day dive course. The islands are all green, nothing like California. Spent all morning in the classroom, watching videotape about diving practice, then hearing the same material read aloud from hardcopies of PowerPoint slides, then took quizzes. We also had to sign a waiver, giving up our right to sue for murder ("death resulting from negligence, either passive _or_active_"). (Sofia crossed that part out, figuring correctly that no one would look at it.)

Spent all afternoon in a very cold outdoor pool learning to use scuba equipment. People look very different wearing a snorkel mask with their teeth chattering. Everybody's least favorite points: the cold, and the "remove your mask and breathe, without breathing through your nose, for one minute" exercise. Basically, the dive course was closer to army training than vacation.

At dinner we hung out with our compatriots (three other couples, all approximately our age, two English one Scottish), our common hardships giving a feeling of camaraderie. The bar was showing 70's and early 80's videos throughout, which was a definite plus. Beautiful starfield, including the Milky Way and the Southern Cross (easily recognizable from the Australian currency). Also Orion, with his sword upside down.

There are many weird trees here; the "fern palms" are among the coolest (and look exactly like you'd think from the name). Another is a sort of planar palm tree; the fronds only go in two directions. I don't know what this tree is.

The beaches here are amazing - there is no sand, only bits of coral! Walking on it, or hearing the surf roll back through it, sounds just like broken glass. It's amazing to think that everything on the beach was once the skeleton of a living animal. Also, all the roads on the island are marked not with gravel, but with coral (not obvious on a first look; we assumed it to be some form of concrete that came in small turdlike shapes).

July 22. We awoke incredibly sore, some from the bunkhouse accomodations (think summer camp) but mostly from having carried around these heavy tanks for much of the previous day.

More scuba; our first two actual dives. Mostly pretty murky but we did see a giant clam, about rib-cage sized. It was open enough that one could clearly see its intake and outflow holes. Sofia touched one edge of the opening and whoosh, it closed up about halfway. Rather few fish, but whole forests of anemones. We have to kneel on the bottom for the scuba exercises (like, signal that you're out of air, tell your buddy you want to share, expel your regulator, find his, blow the extra water out of it, and start sucking on that). As such, everybody's knees are scraped up. What with the soreness and the cold, Sofia is miserable, and the Scottish girl actually drops out of the course.

At night we saw at least five bats, often very close by (something whistles past your face at night; probably not an owl).

July 23. Our third and fourth dive. I saw five or so great big batfish in midwater, looking very surprised at our presence (or so I imagined). Hanging out in midwater was very beautiful, blue water with divers below spewing air bubbles. Our dive instructor picked up a big black sea cucumber and we passed it around.

Took the boat back to Cairns; car was where we left it (lucky thing, since we weren't so good at interpreting the parking signs). So nice to shower in hot water!

July 24. Little done. Had breakfast at the fine Old Ambulance Bistro on Grafton and Aplin. There, we were approached by a seventh-generation penal colonist who was very insistent on our going to an aboriginal village. We went to the information kiosk and reserved a Great Barrier Reef dive with TUSA. (Pretty daring, given that a day before we weren't sure we ever wanted to dive again!)

In the evening we went to the ReefTeach show, which was rather overdone on the voice acting but fascinating in the biology and the ecology. Lots of time spent reassuring us that fish pose no danger to us, in particular sharks, then said "but there are some VERY BIG fish down there". Next slide, a sweetlips fish about three times the size of the divers around it. "I saw one about 2/3 the size of this one last week" as audience continues to gasp. But in fact this fish is just close to the camera, while the divers were far behind! D'ohh!

We learned some fascinating stuff in this talk, like the fact that coral and giant clams are essentially photosynthetic - they've got one-celled plants in them that they feed and derive energy from them. The sex life of coral is really odd too - it all happens once a year on a certain early morning in November close to a full moon, when the ocean is flooded with coral eggs. We bought a laminated card with fish pictures and names on it, designed to go on your diving vest.

July 25. Went to Kuranda in the morning; a lovely drive through rainforest. Kuranda is mainly known for its open-air market, which was mostly selling dull tourist stuff, but there was someone selling coinpurses made from cane toads, a terrible scourge. We saw them and said "these look like toads!" since they had faces and front legs, then "these ARE toads" and Sofia was totally grossed out.

From there we drove to Chillagoe to see the limestone caves, over many miles of dirt road that get washed out during The Wet (what Queenslanders call the Australian summer). Along the way we saw literally thousands of termite mounds, up to four feet tall! It makes sense if you think of the fact that all trees eventually end up termite food, but where are the American termites? Underground, I guess. (More info here; this and other references say that the mounds can get more like twenty-five feet tall!)

Chillagoe is a tiny place with maybe ten businesses; one goes there to see the limestone caves. These are rather imposing and scary looking from the outside, whereas on the inside they get weird formations called "cave coral" which require wet cave walls and dry air, an uncommon combination elsewhere. Actually, we almost missed seeing the caves, but luckily we were there on a Wednesday, when there's an extra tour that we were snuck onto.

On the way back we saw lots of kangaroos on the road, usually in threes or fours. Boing boing boing!

July 26. We went for our first post-certification dives, at the Great Barrier Reef, with TUSA. We recommend them warmly - they were very efficient, very pleasant, handled all our cares, and served a surprisingly good lunch! We left at 8 AM, had two dives, returning around 4 PM.

One more thing TUSA does right is to bring along a videographer, so you don't have to even think about taking pictures - instead of a few badly taken still frames for which you sacrifice some of your dive time, you get an hour of expertly taken video (including of yourself), a bit expensive but well worth it.

The single most awesome moment came on the first dive, finding a giant hawksbill turtle - about as large as us, and surely older. Pretty soon there was a great big cluster of humans around, admiring this turtle (so it's easy to compare size on the video, and see that I'm not exaggerating the size!). He (?) was tearing at the coral with his mouth, and sweeping it up with his front fins. Pretty impressive, given that we'd generally thought of coral as being like rock!

We hired a dive guide (A$30/dive for the two of us), partly because he knew the reef where we were diving and could point out the more interesting stationary things, but mainly because we wanted someone else to handle the job of getting us back to the boat at a reasonable time. My sense of direction is already bad enough in 2-d!

Sofia's ReefTeach card (with all the fish - of whom we saw and identified about half) came off through no fault of hers, but just before surfacing we saw it on the sand below, and our guide rescued it.

Some other highlights: a lionfish, which our dive guide carefully teased out of its lair (you mustn't touch them -- they are aquatic porqupines); christmas tree coral, which instantly disappear into their holes if you wave nearby them; unicorn fish, which look like Pinocchio; lagoon stingray; many psychedelic parrot fish.

That night we ate at Marinades, a fantastic Sikh restaurant in Cairns. Incidentally, these were the only Indian/Pakistani-looking people we saw in Cairns (except for Sofia), and we never did see anyone of African descent. We were told that Sydney is rather more cosmopolitan in this way.

July 27. Drove to Yungaburra, which is in the Atherton Tablelands, a huge mesa at 2500m elevation comprising many towns. The Curtain Fig Tree is up there. Apparently fig trees start life on the branch of another tree, send down roots (through the air), then slowly strangle their host. This one's host died and fell onto another tree, at which point the process repeated; this is also why this one's so big. The little white splotch in the middle bottom is my shirt.

This first night we stayed in the Lake Eacham Lodge, which is a 19th century hunting-lodge-looking place, with an enormous lounge with wood paneling everywhere and fireplace. The fireplace was a necessity, as at this elevation we actually began to believe it was winter (at night it got to 38 Fahrenheit!). We got a room with no windows; everything else in town was booked, apparently because the next day was to be the monthly crafts fair (one more bit of scheduling luck). We went out to see wild platypus in the stream - there's a standard place, where one guy mentioned having seen one earlier that afternoon - but no luck.

Incidentally, one thing that really struck me consciously on this trip that hadn't before was that every animal you see in a zoo, or a pet store, has a native habitat somewhere. More about that to come.

July 28. Stayed in Yungaburra, both of us pretty torpid due to a nasty cold we must've caught diving. Canoed for an hour on Lake Tinaroo and I got badly sunburned on my legs. Watched Aussie TV; the weather report came with a fish report. First they showed two proud guys with rather large fish, then this other proud guy with this ridiculous little fish, about the size of his two hands. Was this an enormous minnow or something?

July 29. Slow recovery from our cold. Drove from Yungaburra back to Townsville, which we could now see is just as dead on weekends as on weekdays. Weird! We dined at Bountiful Thai, which Sofia loved - all fresh herbs. There were so many lorikeets outside (a particularly colorful kind of parrot), creating such a din, that we had to move farther from the restaurant door. We couldn't believe that such beautiful birds are out there, where Americans or Europeans would have pigeons. Conversely, if pigeons sounded like lorikeets, people would have them exterminated, or an active hawk-breeding program, or something.
July 30. End of honeymoon. Spent a couple more days in Canberra, working with Terry Tao, and admiring the sight (but not the sound) of the wild cockatoos on campus. These are the white kind with the yellow crest, and are if anything more annoying than the lorikeets. The other picture at right is, we think, a possum (again from campus); if so, Aussie possums are also cooler than American ones. Update 2002: We now think that it's a red-necked pademelon.
Odds and ends: this is from the Ibis hotel we stayed at near the airport. The cylinder in the corner is the bathroom!