Weeks 68 - 70: Spring Down Under
(04/06/07)

Ever heard of a fierce snake? Also known as the inland taipan, it is the most poisonous snake in the world. How about the eastern brown snake? It's the world's deadliest snake - its venom is less strong, but it has a nasty temper; so it bites, and kills, more frequently than its fierce friend. These two reptilian characters lead the pack of the 10 most dangerous snakes on the planet, all of which live in Australia, and all of which make the black spitting cobra look like a fire ant. Does it shock you that I voluntarily took my children into their native habitat? Frankly, it shocks me too. But wow, what a trip!

At the end of March, Greg, the boys, and I left the relative safety of Singapore and met my brother, Brian, and the Texas grandparent contingency for 10 days of adventures down under. We started our Spring Break in Brisbane, on the continent's eastern coast, where we were introduced to a glorious new beverage: the Australian-brewed Hahn Beer. Those of you who are beer drinkers, or light beer drinkers at least (I can't stomach the smell of a Guinness, much less the taste), would greatly appreciate the delicate complexities of this flavorful, yet not too heavy, libation.

From our initial home base in Brisbane (Queensland's capital, which we really didn't see much of), we made a quick one-hour drive to the Australia Zoo, home of the late Steve Irwin, a personal hero of mine. While it's not a large zoo, this Sunshine Coast attraction it is an amazing place, at least once you recover from the scary "how to survive in Australia" lesson camouflaged as a must-see crocodile show. Seriously: during the show, the friendly (and shockingly attractive) zookeepers lectured on the steps necessary to prevent surprise crocodile attacks - which are, apparently, not uncommon - then performed a little skit about how to treat a bite from a poisonous snake. I walked away from the "show" with a resolve to never linger near the edge of a murky body of water again, and a desire to go purchase a case of ace bandages, lest I need to tightly wrap a bite wound while simultaneously mobilizing a victim and calling for an ambulance. After the scared-straight presentation, the rest of the zoo was pleasantly tame. Throughout the park, we were allowed and encouraged to pet kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, and even a young crocodile. Everyone who works there is obviously very serious about carrying on Steve's vision of conservation and general planetary respect. If only this well-warranted environmental concern were more prevalent back home …

After our short stay in Brisbane we drove an hour south to the Gold Coast Hinterlands and spent the next three days at a beautiful equestrian resort, where, oddly, we never even saw the horses. We did, however, make it to Surfer's Paradise: a little city on the beach dedicated to the active and entertaining lifestyle of surfers. It was way too windy for the beach (for us anyway), so we spent the better part of our afternoon there at a little arcade, where the boys played an endless variety of games, and followed up the fun with some of the aforementioned Hahn beer at an al fresco café.

The next day we hit Movie World: a cinematic junkie's paradise, filled with rides and all manner of memorabilia dedicated to Warner Brothers productions. The highlight of the Movie World visit - and of the entire trip, according to my children - was the "Scooby Doo Spooky Coaster." Should you ever choose to travel to Australia and visit this particular theme park, I must warn you that this allegedly child friendly ride is a real roller coaster, with a way-too-short height requirement. It may not have any loopedy-loops, but there were at least two serious drops practically straight down from heights that made my own stomach flip (one was a drop backwards for heaven's sake), and a very tight spiral part that I'm confident involved some serious g-force. As luck would have it, the boys chose to ride with the thrill-seeking grandmothers, and Brian and I rode in the next wave. When we finally climbed out of the car, I raced out of the souvenir shop (cleverly placed at the ride's exit) and saw Alec turn to me, with tears of fear streaming down his face, as Cameron fervently replayed the experience with a giant grin on his face: "That was the scariest thing I have ever seen in my life! I am NEVER doing that again!" Now, he and Alec both want to go back just to ride that darn ride.

Our last day in Gold Coast we spent just lazing around the resort. I even joined Greg, Troy, and Brian for 9 holes of pitch-and-putt golf. I have never played an actual game of golf before (assuming that putt-putt doesn't count), so I was nervous; but it was fun. I see now how people spend so much of their time on this equally exciting and frustrating activity. Hitting the ball just right - something I almost accomplished - can be quite a high.

Next on the itinerary was a quick flight to Cairns, then an hour-long drive to Port Douglas - still on the eastern coast of Australia, but much further north. We spent most of our time in this quaint little town wandering the shops on Macrossan street or hanging out at one of the hotel's amazing pools, equipped with its own little sandy beach area. Although the actual beach was less than 30 feet from the pool, the end of March is part of "stinger" season, so people are warned (from the moment they check in) to not enter the ocean, as the coast is ripe with box jellyfish at this time of year; a sting from one of these floating monsters can stop your heart in three minutes. I had no trouble at all staying away from the water, and the boys were happy to keep their sand frolicking limited to the man-made beach.

We did get to experience the ocean, though, just not from the shore, when we took a day cruise way out into the sea (relatively speaking) to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef. I must admit that paranoia had a significant grip on me where the waters around Australia were concerned (quite a surprise, no?), and I honestly had no intention of letting my children dip as much as a toe into their hazardous depths. Because even though box jellyfish prefer the shallow waters of the coastline, the less lethal, but still very nasty, Irukandji jellyfish are not so particular, and they like to spread their menace all over the place. Plus, at only an inch in size, they're too small too see until it's too late. And, like I said, it was stinger season. The crew, however, was sensitive to my fears (after I voiced them repeatedly), and they assured me that my children would be safe. Plus, everyone was ordered to wear a "stinger suit" (a variation of a wet suit), just in case. When I started to freak out at the last minute, they assured me that the jellyfish I saw casually floating at the edge of the boat, the very edge from which we were told to enter the water, was not, in fact, one of the dangerous ones.

So I did my best to suppress my reportedly irrational fears, and we all jumped in. Both boys adapted to the snorkeling concept immediately, thanks, in large part, to the floating noodles the crew thoughtfully provided, and they loved every second of it. And, honestly, I have never seen anything so amazing in my life. We saw all of the beautiful marine fish one typically sees in big salt-water aquariums, plus sea cucumbers, giant clams, a whole family of squids, and more varieties of coral than I could count. All just inches away. Because it was the boat's maiden voyage - I did have a few pangs of Titanic fear when they announced that - they didn't have any of their camera equipment set up, so there were no once-in-a-lifetime underwater photos available for purchase. Fortunately, Katherine's little digital camera claimed to be waterproof up to 30 feet, and she was willing to let me test such a bold claim; so I filled up her entire memory card with what turned out to be some decent pictures (to anyone trying to photograph fish in the ocean: it is very difficult to capture a moving image when you yourself are moving). At the end of the day, we were all completely exhausted, but filled with awe at the beauty of the reef. And everyone returned to the safety of the boat fully intact - no one ran into a single stinger, and nary a shark was seen. Not even a barracuda. 

For our last night in Australia we ventured back to Macrossan Street for a night of cane toad racing. This intriguing sporting event, naturally headquartered in a bar, featured a bucketful of native cane toads (who are poisonous in their own right if not handled properly), placed at one end of a slab of plywood, then encouraged to hop to the other end via vigorous use of noisy party favors and raucous cheering from the crowd. The toad master selected participants by drawing pre-purchased tickets from a hat, and he sadistically required the owner of each winning ticket to plant a mandatory kiss on the head of the chosen toad (even the guy with toad-a-phobia had to kiss his assigned racer). Despite the large crowd, both boys got to participate in one of the evening's three races, and Greg got to kiss two toads - a dubious honor for which he was rewarded with a bottle of specially-brewed Cane Toad Lager, that he said was quite tasty. We left the experience with said lager and two rubbery frog's legs, given as consolation prizes for "jockeys" whose toads did not win (both of ours came in dead last). It was a fitting end to an all-around amazing vacation, one that I would happily repeat from any home country.

Take care,
Shannon et al.

 
Click below for more pictures:

      

Brian in front of a coral wall on the Great Barrier Reef

 

Katherine & kangaroo at the Australia Zoo

 

Alec, in the sand at Port Douglas

 

Cameron, playing games at Surfers Paradise in Gold Coast