Kimberley Road Trip

Like many others, exploring the Kimberley region of Western Australia, a vast pristine wilderness full of beautiful gorges cut through ancient orange and red Kimberley rock and possessing a dramatic and largely untouched coastline has been on our bucket list for a long time.

Windjana Gorge, the Kimberley region, Western Australia

While there are many ways to experience this wonderful part of Australia including luxury cruises and tours, we allocated ourselves six weeks and leaving on the first of June, drove from Byron Bay to Cape Leveque and back in our trusty Toyota Prado towing nothing.

All packed, only 15,000 kms to go!

Choosing this option gave us the freedom to customize our trip. We were able to visit parts of Queensland we had never seen, detour to Darwin to visit family and veer a little from the usual tourist path when opportunity presented itself. And our decision not to tow a caravan or camper trailer enabled us to sample a variety of accommodation which included motels, airbnb, roadhouses, outback pubs, glamping at spectacular resorts and camping in our very own, quite comfortable, two room tent. We loved the variety and the occasional touch of luxury and choosing to travel like this saved us a lot of time over all as we were able to travel faster and didn’t have to set up and pack up camp all the time.

Byron Bay to Katherine

The first stage of our adventure involved driving from Byron Bay to Katherine in the Northern Territory, a journey of around 3000 kms. We wanted the journey as well as our Kimberley destination to be memorable, so only drove for approximately 600 kms each day. This gave us an enjoyable taste of what there is to see and do in this part of the world. We stopped at Mitchell, Longreach, Mt Isa and the Three Ways roadhouse on our way to Katherine. Each destination and sometimes the little towns in between, many of which I had never heard of before, had something special to remember them by.

Our first stop was the little town of Mitchell in the Maranoa Region of South West Queensland.

Mitchell is on the Maranoa River, which despite the drought is still flowing. Beautiful gum trees line the banks. And actually it rained a little overnight. The only rain we experienced on our trip.

We stayed in a delightful Airbnb, Serenity House which was a delightful little cottage on acreage on the outskirts of town.

A magnificent sunset was just the start of a delightful stay.

Although we could have easily dined in, we chose the friendly restaurant attached to the local motel for a delicious dinner. But really, the most memorable thing about Mitchell was the Great Artesian Spa.

Situated in the main street, not far from the river bridge, the Spa sources mineral rich water at 40 degrees from the Great Artesian Basin, a blissful temperature on a frosty winter’s morning. We swam, soaked and swam some more. Kenn did try the cold pool for a ‘refreshing’ change but not surprisingly, he didn’t have any followers. A wonderful way to begin our drive to Longreach.

We especially enjoyed the drive from this point on as we had an excellent straight road mainly to ourselves.

We were traveling along the Matilda Way, an iconic outback highway. We stopped at Tambo but as it was a Sunday, couldn’t stop at the famous Tambo Teddies but contented ourselves with an early lunch at the Tambo Lake and rest area.

The lake was lovely and the rest area very well appointed.
And there was a very pleasant walking path around part of the lake which took you to a bird watching hide. If we had felt more energetic, the rest area also boasted a great outdoor gym.
And I couldn’t help but notice that the locals still know how to have a good time.

All too soon, we were back in the car and on our way to Longreach, still a few hours away. We arrived with plenty of time to find our motel and visit the Stockman’s Hall of Fame before dinner at the Services Club.

This is an excellent museum. Lots of interactive features as well as great items from our pioneering past. There was an informative indigenous section and an art gallery.

There is a lot to see and do in Longreach but we couldn’t see it all on this trip. After all, the Kimberley was our priority. Our next stop was Mount Isa but on the way, we stopped at the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum at Winton. This spur of the moment decision, (we just happened to see a billboard on the side of the road) became one of the highlights of our trip. The museum is located on the top of a ‘jump up’ a kind of flat topped hill, about 20 kms from Winton. The views over the plains from the top are wonderful.

It is easy to envisage that there was an inland sea out there, millions of years ago. The kind of place where dinosaurs liked to hang out.
And at the entry to the museum, a replica of Matilda, one of the most complete dinosaur fossils to be found in Australia, is waiting to say ‘hello’.

The entry fee is not inexpensive but so worth it. And it is possible to customise your visit to suit your family or personal interests.

Firstly we viewed a short documentary about the dinosaur discoveries around Winton, their lifestyle back in the day and the manner of their death. A paleontologist then showed us the actual fossils of the two most famous dinosaurs found at Winton, who have been named Banjo and Matilda, explaining what can be deduced from them. To be so up close and personal with the remains of creatures who roamed Australia so long ago was a thrill. While this was a great orientation what really appealed to us about this museum was the visit to the Dinosaur Canyon. This is situated a kilometer or two from the main building and is accessed by a cute motorised train. The Dinosaur Canyon attraction consists of a spectacular building perched on a cliff overlooking a 300 metre elevated concrete pathway through a gorge, along which five outdoor dinosaur galleries have been positioned.

As you can see, the path is very accessible and follows the natural contours of the jump up. Surrounded by massive boulders and aromatic Australian bush, the dinosaur galleries give you a glimpse of life as it would have been during the Cretaceous Period, over 95 million years ago. The galleries include
The recreation of the billabong where Banjo and Matilda met their deaths. How the paleontologists can put the bones back together though is a mystery to me.
And further along, a little group of pterosaurs sits precariously atop a giant boulder. These were flying reptiles, members of the Pterodactylus family, not dinosaurs and definitely not the ancestors of birds or bats. I thought they looked a little grasshopper like but with big beaks.
And then there was the recreation of the famous dinosaur stampede found at Lark Creek. Hundreds of dinosaur footprints have been found and they believe that these little dinosaurs were running away from …
This … a big bad and hungry sauropod! I would run too.
And then there were these dudes. Just hanging out having a good time. They had a very fancy name: Kunbarrasaurus ieversi. I think I prefer cool dude.

While it was fascinating to look at these wonderful bronze exhibits in the wild as it were and listen to the informative commentary, children and adults alike were encouraged to make brass rubbings at each exhibit and take away a personal reminder of their visit.

One gallery remains very much a work in progress. This is the valley of the Cycads. This is because drought and white ants have damaged the original plantings but the curators are determined to succeed.

These beauties are waiting to be planted.

I will admit that our visit was enhanced by the weather. It was a glorious early June day and all around us, the bush was flowering and the birds were in full song.

I couldn’t capture it, but this bush was covered in butterflies.
I assumed that this was some kind of wattle tree
And even the grasses were lovely

Back at the reception area, we lunched at the cafe, which also has a lovely outlook. I appreciated my cappucchino, something not always readily available in the Outback. Back in the Prado, we still had a quite a way to go to reach Mount Isa by nightfall but managed it easily.

Our overnight stay at the Copper Gate Motel was very pleasant and after refueling we headed north and west over the Barkly Tableland. It was sad to see how the drought has really put its mark on this area. Even so, it had an eerie beauty of its own.

The dry grassland and the sky just seem to go on forever
And the road just keeps on going west all the way to the Northern Territory.

Our next stop was the Three Ways Roadhouse where luckily we didn’t have to fill up with fuel as it was well into the $1.90’s for diesel. Our accommodation in one of the ‘Glendale’ rooms was very basic but clean and relatively quiet.

However the sunset certainly wasn’t basic!

Next morning, we were on the road early as we wanted to stop at Mataranka and take a dip in the Thermal pools before reaching Katherine. I could easily spend a couple of days here and noticed that the camping facilities were very good.  The area was made famous by the novel We of the Never Never – a book written about nearby Elsey Station by Jeannie Gunn and there is a lot of memorabilia about Jeannie at Mataranka Homestead where we stopped for lunch and had a quick swim in the Thermal Pool. This was a lovely experience but we enjoyed our trip to Bitter Springs which lies about two kilometers to the north even more.

The walk into the Springs is framed by these lovely palm trees. So lush in an otherwise dry landscape.
And the springs themselves are a lovely colour and are not crowded. It’s just you and nature.

But our time in Nature’s hot tubs was not at an end. Arriving in Katherine, we got to spend quality time with our daughter Lyndsay, husband Reece and eleven month old Ilyssia. And where better than the Katherine Hot Springs which are in the middle of a major restoration.

There are two main sections separated by a little waterfall. As we had Ilyssia with us, we stayed in the shallower, less occupied upper section.
This was an excellent option as we could float, swim or walk down the creek to the waterfall and we had this section virtually to ourselves.
After her swim, Ilyssia was ready for a nap while her mum and grandparents sampled the delights of a pop up restaurant in the adjoining park.

As we had two nights in Katherine, we also visited Katherine Gorge. Although we last visited the gorge a few years ago, I was surprised to see that the cost of kayaking and cruising the gorge had more than doubled. This time, we chose to complete a bush walk which brought us out to a great lookout.

All the colours of the rock reflected in the water! So beautiful.

The first part of our big adventure had come to an end. I was surprised by how rewarding this part of the trip was. Even though I experienced some serious twinges of NB (numb bum) syndrome as a result of sitting for too long in a seat that could only recline a couple of inches, the changing landscapes, the experiences and the people made the journey a worthwhile end in itself. And still the Western Kimberley beckoned. Would it live up to all the hype? I’ll let you know next time.

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Tweed River Cruise



Recently, Kenn and I finally redeemed a Red Balloon experience voucher
that our favourite Darwinites: Lyndsay and Reece had gifted us for Christmas. Luckily for me, the experience didn’t involve throwing myself out of a plane at 20,000 feet, bungee jumping off a bridge or hang gliding around the lighthouse at Byron Bay: the stuff of heart attacks or death by misadventure for as you would know if you’re a regular reader, I’m not the most coordinated of people. Instead a beautiful, peaceful river cruise on the beautiful Tweed River which flows into the Pacific Ocean just south of the NSW and Queensland border awaited us.

This was our cruise boat. I liked how accessible it was. I noticed that one of the passengers was in a wheelchair and it didn’t pose a problem.

 


There were a few different cruises available to choose from but Lyndsay and Reece had selected Tweed Eco Cruises for us. Based at the Tweed Marina, 2 River Terrace Tweed Heads, they were only about an hour away from Byron Bay, and easy to find. There was ample off street parking. The Marina itself was very picturesque.

There were yachts bobbing around
Houseboats for hire
And the prawn fishing fleet was in dock.

Right on time, we chugged away through the Terranora Inlet. We chose to sit on the upper deck on comfy deckchairs to enjoy the open air and the breeze. The passengers were mainly tourists, many from overseas and varied in age from a little four year old girl to a couple of very elderly ladies.

I liked how these chairs were moveable so that you could follow the shade.

As we passed through the Inlet on our way to the main branch of the river, the captain provided just the right amount of commentary on the early history of the river and current developments.

He pointed out the repair to the boardwalk at Keith Curran Reserve. This boardwalk is one of those gems that unless you knew it was there, you wouldn’t know it exited. The walking skirts the inlet and finishes at a pergola draped in vines.

This gives way to an open grassy expanse overlooking a sandy beach. The walkway officially re- opened two days ago and Kenn and I can’t wait to explore it .

Passing the reserve, we found ourselves on the main part of the river heading towards the river mouth at Fingal Head and then we turned around and went upstream towards Tumbulgum, a quaint riverside village. The views were lovely. Sugarcane fields and tea tree plantations surrounded us and we passed an amazing floating island.

The water was such a beautiful colour and always in the distance you could see the unmistakable silhouette of Mt Warning, the extinct volcano which dominates the landscape of the Tweed. The walk to the summit is a hard yet rewarding experience. The views on a clear day are amazing. But be warned. The indigenous people of the area call the mountain, Wollumbin meaning ‘cloud catcher’ and many including myself have begun the climb in sunshine only to reach the summit and find themselves surrounded by mist!
Sugarcane fields as far as the eye can see. Certainly an easy way to enjoy a delicious morning tea.
And a tea tree plantation.

We passed Stott’s Island which is classified as a floating island, as the river’s floods and tides have eroded the subsoil away. The island is anchored to the bed of the river by the roots of the large rainforest trees such as the Morton Bay fig in the centre of the photo.

Just before we arrived at Tumbulgum, we witnessed a bird of prey feeding from the back of the boat.

The eagles and the pelicans swooping down was wonderful to watch

Tumbulgum awaited. We had an hour to explore the village and enjoy a welcome drink at the pub while the crew prepared our lunch.

There are a couple of eateries, a gallery , a riverside walk and the pub. In the pub was a fascinating collection of photos from the pioneer days. The size of the cedar trees that were felled have to be seen to be believed.

Time was up in Tumbulgum and lunch awaited. As we retraced our steps along the river, we enjoyed a tasty seafood buffet. The salads were fresh and plentiful and the seafood generous: three or four oysters, at least half a dozen king prawns and large pieces of crab together with a complementary glass of wine as the crew had had some trouble with the barbecue. Those who had chosen the barbecue option were not disappointed either. Their steak looked wonderful and they had prawns as well.

Our cruise had taken about four and a half hours and we were home in plenty of time for dinner. While this was not as exciting as cruising and snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef or as historically significant as the Gordon River Cruise in Tasmania, this was a very pleasant experience, one that I would share with visitors to our home in the future as it’s so accessible. Do you have a favourite?

Byron Bay’s beautiful and peaceful Three Sisters’ walk.

Looking down at the incoming surf from the Three Sisters’ track, at Broken Head, Byron Bay

Most visitors to Byron Bay love the walk that takes them up to the Bay’s iconic lighthouse and down to the Australia’s most easterly point. It offers those who are willing to tackle the steps to the top, lovely beach and coastal rainforest vistas. And leaning on the fence at the point, you can gaze out over a seemingly limitless Pacific ocean or peruse the bottom of the cliff where turtles and dolphins like to hang out. And because it is so lovely, there are always lots of people to share the moment with you.

But if you hanker for a little bit of shady solitude or want to imagine yourself castaway on your own private, pristine little cove then meandering along the Three Sisters’ walk at Broken Head just to the south of the centre of Byron Bay might be for you. It certainly suited our daughter Lyndsay who together with baby Ilyssia was visiting us from Darwin.

Ilyssia loves hiking with her mum.  Perfect for a cat nap

Jingi Walla” you are welcomed to the track, which begins to the right of the Broken Head carpark, by the traditional owners and joint custodians of the Broken Head Nature Reserve, the Bundjalung people of Byron Bay. The track is only 1.6 kms return and follows the clifftop to a lookout over Kings Beach.

Initially, you enter a shady tunnel of greenery where
the lighthouse can be glimpsed through the trees, standing firm at the northern end of Tallows Beach
Even though it has been very dry, the Cottonwood canapy provides welcome shade as you wind around the headland and …
across little wooden bridges.

And then the rainforest comes to an end and you find yourself high on a grassy headland overlooking the Three Sisters which give their name to the track.
A sad but cautionary tale.
These little coves are easily accessible at low tide but the currents can be quite dangerous. It is a paddle and picnic spot for me.
There is always a lovely breeze here as well as stunning views.

From the lookout you can see Kings Beach in the background.
At low tide you can access the beach from the lookout otherwise access is via a steep rainforest track found along the Broken Head Nature Reserve dirt road. Although this is a clothing optional beach, it is a lovely excursion for cooler days.
And then its back to where we began.

As well as the Three Sisters Walk, Broken Head has a beautiful beach which is patrolled in school holidays. Across the dunes from the beach is a large grassy play area complete with undercover picnic tables and barbecues. There is also an amenities block and basic supplies such as an essential ice cream or two, can be obtained from the kiosk in the adjoining Holiday Park.

Maybe I’ll see you on the headland sometime soon.

A Weekend Golf Trip: A very fun thing to do with friends!

group tenterfield
The Tenterfield Golf Course turned it on for us

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     When I picked up a golf club for the very first time a couple of years ago and swung it enthusiastically this way and that, I had no idea that Golf would offer so much more than mere exercise. Indeed, despite the very high level of frustration that can be engendered by a disobedient little white ball, I’ve discovered that there’s a lot of fun to be had both on and off the course!

This was especially true of my first ever golfing weekend away from home which took place in a month or so ago. A girl’s weekend always has much to recommend it but when that weekend includes shopping, lunching, yarning over nibbles and drinks, dinner, dancing and a game of golf here and there, you know you’re on a winner. And even more so when your companions are the Mullumbimby Saturday Lady Golfers, affectionately known as “The Chooks.”

As the name suggests, this is a group of ladies who don’t take themselves too seriously, who  know how to party and who are always willing to help a friend. Now the Chooks hold by the saying, “What happens on tour, stays on tour,”  so no  stories that might have inspired the director of ‘The Hangover’ will darken this post!

The girls have been collecting all manner of Chooks for good luck . Some are more appealing than others apparently.

 

Betty, our club captain had generously offered Kerrie and I a lift and so on a sunny Friday morning, I found myself heading for Tenterfield, which is about three hours away from home.  Now you wouldn’t want the journey to be too boring, so the Chooks had agreed to meet up for morning tea in Casino.  Travel requires frequent refueling after all!  A  quick  coffee and cake, a bit of a natter and a  wander around the shopping district and we were back in the car ready to climb the Great Dividing Range. Betty and Kerrie were very familiar with the road but I hadn’t traveled on it for over 20 years.  Unlike most of NSW, there had been plenty of rain and and little villages like Tabulum were picture postcard perfect. 

This will be the last time I will be able to drive over the historic Tabulum Bridge, ( it is the longest wooden bridge in the Southern Hemisphere) before it’s demolished for a modern one.

 

It seemed to me that even the bends in the road had been smoothed out and before too long we were approaching our home away from home for the next two nights: Tenterfield.

A beautiful avenue of trees greeted us as we entered the town. 
We stayed at the Bowling Club Motor Inn which is located within easy walking distance of the main street.
Kerrie and I had a lovely view of the bowling greens from our private patio. Our room was a generous size and they also supplied a continental breakfast .

 

There was time on that first afternoon for a leisurely walk through town,  before returning for afternoon drinks and nibbles at the motel.

Despite the threatening storm clouds, the weather did not hinder us in any way. So lucky!

 

A night of dinner and dancing followed. Many of the girls were able to show some very  fancy moves on the dance floor. They are definitely ‘girls who know how to have fun.’  Next morning our championship game awaited at the picture perfect Tenterfield golf course.

A perfect late spring day. Views to the mountains very lovely

 

After our group photo, I was in for a surprise. As this was my first trip, I was presented at the start of play with a tiara  as I was the “virgin” of the group.  I was to wear the tiara throughout the day’s play and abide by some ‘special rules of play’ which would be revealed as the day progressed!

 
I was very lucky to score Michelle, our club president, as my partner for the day.
An unlucky bounce and I was in the car park – special rule for virgins: play every ball where you find it!
Despite one or two little hiccups, it was fun zooming here, zooming there on this lovely course.  And no one lost a ball to the water!

But there can only be one winner and this year it was Nancy who came out on top.

Debbie congratulating Nancy on her success.
And here are the members of the winning team!

 

But the fun didn’t stop there. The following morning after checkout, we all headed to Casino where we would be playing our second round of golf.  Again, another lovely day awaited us. Casino is a more challenging course than Tenterfield and I must confess, my beginner skills were tested! 

Alas all good things come to an end and after lunch and presentations, we headed home. I am already looking forward to next year’s jaunt.

 

 

Darwin dream baby

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The sea, the sky!

 

 July 2018: a wonderful time of year in Darwin when the days were endlessly sunny and it wasn’t too hot and humid. When there was nothing much nicer than floating around beside the Arafura Sea in one of Australia’s most scenic swimming pools or savouring fresh barramundi and chips on an evening picnic,  as you watched the sun sink in a fiery ball into the sea.

July 2018: and we could finally go to the famous or ‘infamous’ Beer Can Regatta which is held each year on Mindil Beach. We discovered that there was a special protocol which needed to be followed for building and propelling your hand made, beer can vessel.

tin can commandments
Gives a whole new perspective to recycling !

And as well as the main race, the Battle of Mindil,  there were lots of other events to keep those camera phones busy: people watching,  kayak races, tug of war,  an Iron Person competition, Thong Throwing (only in Australia!) and the  Henley on Mindil.

 

regatta 2
So entertaining!

darwin regatta
Despite the heat, unlike the swimmers behind me, this was as far as my toes went into the water.  I wasn’t convinced that the irukandji jellyfish knew that they were supposed to be taking a holiday away from Mindil Beach

As well as the formal programme, there were lots of entertainment for young and old alike and fabulous stalls to explore at the market.

regatta 3
Didj players

regatta 4
and a really cute puppet show among many other acts.

 

July 2018: when we were able to witness a  fabulous star gazing event, a blood red moon caused by the longest, total eclipse this century and accompanied by Mars, which was at it’s brightest and closest for 15 years.

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Obviously, the moon didn’t appear this big to the naked eye, but it was still very impressive. Did you, like me get up early to watch it in the early dawn?

And  most importantly at  11 pm  on the 26th July, 2018, our Darwin Dream baby arrived.

After a delay of a week or two, Ilyssia Claire Black finally made her way into the world following an emergency Caesaraen section and she was just so beautiful!

newborn
That was all a bit much, Mum. Think I’ll just  rest for a bit!

It has been one of the joys in life for Kenn and I to witness each of our children welcoming their own little miracles into the world. Words and images can’t really capture that extraordinary depth of feeling as you experience so many firsts.

newborn asleep
That first sleep on Mummy’s tummy

 

newborn with daddy
That first sleep with daddy

hannibal meets ilyssia
That first meeting with her canine protector, Hannibal.

 

And even though I can see Reece, her father looking out at me, gazing at her asleep takes me back to when Lyndsay was a wee little baby.

lyndsay
Lyndsay was a little older, perhaps three months old.

Alas, all too soon it was time to share her with other members of the family and we had to fly home to Byron to prepare for our trip to China. But I wasn’t too sad as I had already booked my return ticket to Darwin for a catch up visit.

Early September, and it was feeling a little like deja vu, as I traveled to Brisbane to catch a flight to Darwin. Lys was now 6 weeks old and Lyndsay was finally able to get out and about.

foreshore dinner
This is the life, a cruise along the Foreshore and a nap while Mum and Nanna enjoy dinner at the Pop-up Pizza restaurant. Looks yum!

popup pizza
did we really eat all that by ourselves?

Ilyssia has already become a cafe aficionado. She enjoys acai berries and matcha tea lattes! She is such a good baby: just feeds, sleeps and gurgles. Lyndsay  looked quite rested for a new mum as well. Lys has obviously decided that she’s not a party animal yet. Sleeping for 5 to 6 hours at a stretch through the night, she is being very considerate of her parents.

Luckily for us, four weeks later, Lyndsay had to attend a conference of the Gold Coast and present a paper as part of her PHD and she asked if Kenn and I would like to babysit Ilyssia between sessions. Of course we jumped at the opportunity to spend more time with our Darwin baby. We were staying at Broadbeach, within 5 mins walk from the Crown Casino where the conference was being held. There we went for long walks with Lys along the beachfront.

beach babe
Even though it was a little cloudy, the weather agreed with this beach babe.

broadbeach
And made for very atmospheric skies

A couple of times, Lyndsay was able to join us and we would explore further afield. One such place was the Cascade Gardens. Snuggled close to Mum, Lys  took in the sights.

squished face
I’m just a wee bit squished

cascade gardens
The gardens back onto the canals and are a lovely picnic spot

kokoda memorial cascade gardens
And we noticed that there was a Vietnam memorial there .

 

Following the conference, Lyndsay and Lys were able to spend a couple of days in Byron and meet her cousin Hudson. Huddy didn’t really want to share his mummy with Ilyssia but did think Lys was very special, especially when she came on a beach walk with him.

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This is such fun! Soon you’ll be running like me, Ilyssia!

lys at windy byron
Even when it’s windy, Byron doesn’t disappoint.

Far too soon, it was time for Lyndsay and Ilyssia to fly home but not before Lys had filled our home with smiles.

lys smiley
I wonder what she’s thinking?

 

As with our other wonderfully unique and special grandchildren: Genevieve, Francesca and Hudson, little Ilyssia fills our lives with love and hope, such precious gifts.

 

 

 

 

 

TripADeal: 2 for 1 trip to China – a great deal?

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One small section of the Great Wall! Not many made it this far on a very hot day!

Have you ever wondered what those amazing internet travel deals are really like?

Are they merely the ‘Fawlty Towers‘ of travel or are they genuine value for money?

Well  a  few weeks ago, Kenn and I took the plunge and decided to put one to the test. We traveled to China for the first time on a 10 day tour with TripADeal. It seemed too good to be true! The basic tour price was $1999 for two people which included accommodation, breakfasts, tours and direct flights with Qantas and not an airline we had never heard of and which might drop us into the the South China Sea at any moment!  An extension to see the Terracotta Warriors which has always been on my bucket list  was also available for an additional $1000.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained as the saying goes, so Kenn and I contacted our wonderful niece, Amanda Sullivan at Dynamic Travel  who organised everything,  including our visas for us.  And just like that, together with my sister Jenny, her good friend Pauline and about 30 others, Kenn and I found ourselves flying off to the forbidden kingdom.

The  itinerary took us from Beijing down to Xian (to see the warriors) and across to Hangzhou, Suzhou and Shanghai and gave us a taste of some of the wonders of  Imperial China as well as some of the new China’s technological marvels while inviting us to appreciate some of China’s natural beauty and culture.

Beijing

We arrived in Beijing in the evening and were met by our super friendly and helpful guide Frank. Soon our luggage was stowed on our coach and we were on our way to the Schonbrunn Hotel which was a considerable distance from the city centre.

This was an older hotel and I was a little disappointed in our room which had a very smokey smell, something you don’t encounter in Australia. Frank told me later that I could have asked for a room change but at the time I didn’t want to be that ‘difficult person’.  In retrospect, I should have as we spent 3 nights here.

Nevertheless, the bed was reasonably comfortable, the linen nicely pressed and the hot water plentiful.   If space is something that you value when travelling then I would opt for a twin room as I noticed that the rooms Jenny and Pauline shared were much larger than our doubles. Breakfast was included and while western options were a little limited, it was more than satisfactory. Kenn and I enjoyed our morning omelette, resuming our tussle with toaster and exploring the  buffet each day.

Our first day in Beijing saw us visit a pearl factory,  explore Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City,  enjoy dinner in Beijing’s theatre precinct and marvel at  the special effects of a theatrical performance entitled, The Golden Mask Dynasty.

While the pearl factory was interesting, the visit to Tiananmen Square and the forbidden City was the highlight of the day. Despite it being school holidays, (which we didn’t know when we booked) and very hot (high 30s), the square is so huge that the crowds weren’t a problem and the communication headsets enabled us to enjoy Frank’s commentary.

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Jenny, Pauline and myself in Tiananmen  Square.  Behind us is Chairman’s Mao’s tomb.

The forbidden city too was vast. While the pavilions and the emperor’s throne room remain intact, most of the furnishings have been removed so it is difficult to gain a sense of how people lived here when the emperors ruled.

And it is very barren which surprised me. The city is built upon metres of paving bricks to prevent the possibility of underground attacks, surrounded by walls, guard towers and a moat, so there are no gardens. Consequently, the whole area radiates heat! There was however an icecream vendor with a delicious selection of gelati which was very welcome as was our air conditioned coach at the conclusion of our tour.

forbidden city
Red and gold predominate as these were imperial colours and the decorative features were intricate.  Interestingly, the pavilions are wooden and built in such a way that they withstand earthquakes

This was followed by dinner and the theatrical performance, The Golden Mask Dynasty which was an optional tour but well worth it.

golden mask 2
This show was visually spectacular. They even unleashed a waterfall on stage!

The following day dawned hot and sunny but proved to be one of the highlights of the trip, the visit to the Great Wall.

On the way there, we visited a jade factory.

jade
Watching the artisans at work was a treat. So many variations of Jade, so many beautiful objects.

Then we drove through the countryside until we reached the Juyong Pass section of the Great Wall.

great wall 3
The view is  spectacular with the wall  snaking across the hills

This part of the wall dates from the Ming dynasty and if we wanted to, we could climb to Watchtower number 4 from the headquarters below.

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Jenny on the ramparts of the garrison headquarters. Behind her is the first of four watchtowers that we were allowed to climb to.

All I can say is that the Ming soldiers had to be incredibly fit to fulfill their duties. The steps are incredibly steep and quite uneven. The Ming obviously hadn’t heard of  workplace health and safety regulations!

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This is the easiest section to climb!

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Once you reach the first watchtower, the path narrows and becomes even more uneven. Every little bit of shade was like manna from heaven. I’m sure that it exceeded 40 degrees on the wall itself! I only made it to the second guardhouse! The call of an iced tea and an ice cream consumed in air conditioned comfort was too tantalising too resist and I may have been just … just a tad knackered!

But Kenn was not so easily daunted and the final guardhouse and the most spectacular view was waiting for him.

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Imagine how hard this would be in ice and snow … not a job for the fainthearted.

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In the end, it didn’t matter how high or far you climbed, just taking a few steps on a monument so awe inspiring was magical.  And there were little surprises like the temple on the ridge line to savour.

That evening we joined an optional tour to see Bejing’s 700 year old Hutong area by pedicab as well as visiting the three lakes area of the city.

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The Hutong tour was great. We were treated to a performance by one of Bejing’s cricket men  (as in insects not the sport), enjoyed a meal prepared in a traditional way as well as travelling in style in a pedicab. The lake area was lovely and  popular with locals who were enjoying boat rides or just promenading  along the shore.

Our final day in Beijing was also full of fun and exciting experiences.  We visited the Bejing Zoo to see the giant pandas. And we learnt about traditional Chinese medicine at Tongrentang in the city centre, where we had the opportunity to be assessed by a traditional practitioner.  The talk was very persuasive, but I couldn’t get stories of wild animals being hunted to extinction to become products for Chinese medicine out of my mind so couldn’t make myself try some of their products. I was in the minority though! A fantastic lunch at one of Bejing’s best dumpling restaurants followed and then it was time to catch the very fast bullet train to Xian, a journey of about five hours.

Xian

A fabulous experience, the train proved to be very fast, smooth and comfortable even when reaching speeds of 300 kms an hour and it was a real pleasure to travel through such a vast swathe of the countryside.  But there was one little hiccup. We thought that the train would have a great dining car and planned to enjoy dining a la the Orient Express. But alas, the dining car was more like a truck stop with a very limited menu which sold out of food very quickly. Then we noticed that most of the Chinese passengers on board had packed their own obviously aware of the dining car’s limitations.  We wished that we had done the same.

Nevertheless, we arrived safely in Xian. Driving along lamplit, tree lined boulevards I  could have imagined that I was in Paris except for the Chinese signage. Our hotel, the Grand Nobel Hotel was lovely. We were sorry that we didn’t get to spend more time there, but on the following day the Terracotta warriors awaited.

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There was a chance to become a warrior!

And the chance to wallow in the marvels of one of the world’s great archaeological sites.

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The scale of the museum is mind boggling. Only the Chinese would have built a museum over an archaeological site. You can view the warriors in their ranks as they would originally have been placed there, see them in pieces still stuck in the mud and see them in various phases of restoration.

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Every face is unique. For a sum you can even have your own face put on a warrior and shipped home. Makes a change from your everyday buddha or garden gnome.

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The horses too were fascinating. The museum is set in beautiful grounds that would be spectacular in Spring or Autumn.

We also enjoyed a lunch featuring local dishes of Xian before heading to the airport for our evening flight to Hangzhou.

Hangzhou/ Suzhou

Our flight was very pleasant and a couple of hours later we landed in Hangzhou. Can you imagine our consternation when our guide, Thomas told us how happy he was to see us as we had flown directly into the path of a typhoon! However, despite some wet weather, we were soon comfortably settled in another very comfortable hotel.

The next morning saw us exploring a tea plantation for Hangzhou is considered the tea capital of China. It was stunningly beautiful.

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Confucius ushered us into the tea house

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The tea house is surrounded by beautiful gardens. Maybe that’s why the green tea tasted so amazing?

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Even the  goldfish seemed happy

From the tea plantation, we made our way to West Lake an UNESCO world heritage site and was easy to see why.

We walked to the lake through woods fringed by lotus ponds and tea pavilions

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Our cruise boat was charming

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while the lake vistas were stunning.

There were lots of choices for lunch and soon we were on our way to Suzhou.  It took about two hours by bus. Our hotel in Suzhou, the Snowy Sea Hotel was in my opinion the best we experienced on the tour.

The following day, we visited a silk factory and took a tour along one of the many canals in Suzhou.

But the highlight for me was the visit to the famous Lingering Garden, another UNESCO heritage site.

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The house is built around a series of ponds and views of the garden are gained from both within and outside the house

Needless to say I would have loved to have included many more photos but this post is already too long. What is interesting is that this garden is only one of many you can visit in Suzhou. Late that afternoon, we were on the bus again, this time for Shanghai, our last port of call on the tour.

Shanghai

Shanghai is a fabulous city. We enjoyed every moment of our time there. But there was one drawback. Our hotel was pleasant but situated a long way out of the city. This meant that if you wanted to immerse yourself in the city, you needed to take the optional tours as getting to and from the hotel under your own steam might have been a little difficult and expensive.

Consequently, we took the optional tour to see the acrobatic show ‘ERA’ and enjoy dinner in the centre of the city. This show was enjoyable but I really was expecting something better. And to make matters worse, our bus had been delayed by a couple of tardy passengers, something that I imagine happens quite often on tours. But it meant that the dinner I had been looking forward to had to be rushed. Half an hour is not sufficient to savour one’s food in an exotic, expensive restaurant!

The following morning, Kenn and I parted company with Jenny and Pauline and decided to take an optional tour to travel on the fastest train in the world: the Maglev train. I couldn’t believe my eyes when it reached  430kms an hour! It was thrilling. Then we rejoined the tour at the bund. This riverfront promenade is delightful and the heritage buildings built by the Europeans in the 19th century impressive.  Our trip back in time continued at the Shanghai museum. There were so many treasures to see. I loved the pottery including a variety of Tang horses as well as the beautiful Ming furniture in particular.

As for fabulous places to eat, our tour guide, Thomas took us to the French Quarter for lunch where Kenn and I stumbled on a very trendy warehouse eatery. Oh the dilemma of what to choose!

And then it was onto the Yu Garden, a haven of peace in a bustling metropolis.

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Back in the day, they had a thing for limestone creations.  And we noticed the Chinese have a thing for willow trees … not just a pretty china motif.

But the best was yet to come: the Night Cruise on the Huangpu River. If you do only one optional tour, this is the one to choose. The light show rivals that of Singapore and that’s saying something. These shots taken with my phone hopefully give you a taste of what you will see on the cruise.

And then we woke up and it was our last day.  We were free to explore on our own, but TripAdeal organised a fun day for us a very little extra cost. We visited a Buddhist temple,

and an outlet mall which was super fun among other things.

Then it was time to bid China farewell as we caught our night flight home.

Final Thoughts

This tour was good value for money. If I had my time over, I would choose to travel either in Spring or Autumn as August was way too hot and I’m used to heat! Of course the hotels in the two major cities of Beijing and Shanghai were the most basic of those offered on the tour but not unexpected given the price point of the tour. You are on the go all the time on this tour which was a good thing for us but some might like to travel at a gentler pace. The tour guides were really excellent and nothing seemed too much trouble.  Yes I did have a ‘fawlty towers’ moment in Beijing but overall I would have to say, TripADeal is a great deal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thomas the Tank and B1 and B2 live it up at Huddy’s 2nd birthday party

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‘I’ve got my boiler steaming so come aboard Huddy and I’ll  take you on an adventure,’ whistled Thomas

Hudson turned two on the 16th June and it was time to party. Where has the baby boy gone? Almost surreptitiously Huddy has morphed into an adventurous little boy who has mastered the art of making his desires known (can say ‘No’ in many different languages) and who can put on a turn of speed that forces his grandparents into embarrassing public displays of sprinting. (When I was 13 and participating in the school athletics carnival,  I recall my mother remarking that I ran like a duck and that I should retire from sprint events while the going was good!  Sadly,  I haven’t improved with time. My inner duck has not learnt to fly.)

Like many children, he loves the outdoors, especially finding ‘buff flys’ and birds and picking unsuspecting flowers ‘for Mummy’.  And like most little boys I know, Huddy loves Thomas the Tank engine and the Bananas in Pyjamas, B1 and B2. I must admit to having developed more than a passing regard for them as well. After all, every afternoon after bathtime, they deliver a peaceful half hour or so before Huddy goes home.

Not suprisingly, Thomas and B1 and B2 provided the theme for Huddy’s birthday brunch. It was amazing to see how with just cardboard, masking tape, paint, stripey pyjamas, some imagination and  a smidgen  of time,  a memorable birthday celebration was created that amused and delighted the birthday boy and his guests.

In secret, Ben wrangled cardboard into a tank engine while Melissa slapped on paint and attached  essential accessories such as smoke balloons and a driving wheel complete with sound effects.  Huddy couldn’t believe his eyes when on the party morning, he walked out of his bedroom and saw that Thomas had come to play at his house!

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‘There’s room for two in my cab’ tooted Thomas.

Soon the guests were assembled and the party fun began. A delightful brunch was served complete with Byron Bay coffee.

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While the adults devoured the croissant bar and the cheese platter, the children loved the coconut fruit yogurt pots and the fruit platter. They were such good sharers as well!

 

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Huddy  was almost too busy to eat. After all who wants to eat when you can race with new firetrucks  with my friend Harley?

After brunch, there was a knock at the door. Huddy ran over to the stairs and couldn’t believe his eyes: B1 and B2 were there.

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Are you thinking what I’m thinking B1?  I think I am, B2! It’s chase Huddy time!

B1 and B2 sang, danced, fell over and played games for the children.

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‘It’s bubble. bubble, bubble time B1.’ ‘ That’s right B2. Listen everyone, we have prizes for anyone who can catch a bubble and bring it to us, that’s right isn’t B1?’ ‘Yes that’s right B2!’                    Sadly no bubbles were caught.

They were hilarious. This animation which Google photos created from a video gives you an idea of their performance.

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As you can see, they had a captivated audience.  Even Ninja the dog got into the act.  What a lovely surprise for all. Thank you B1 ( Kenn) and B2 (Helen Jarvis) for your wonderful shenanigans. 

Soon it was time for the Bananas to make their departure to the refrain of

‘Bananas in pyjamas are going down the stairs / Bananas in pyjamas are going down in pairs  / Cause on birthdays, they all  like to escape unawares’ ( apologies to the ABC)

And then it was time for cake, presents and home time.

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This was very tasty, but the cake was so long, Melissa had to use a snowboard  as a cake stand.

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So many thoughtful gifts! Huddy really enjoyed opening his presents. 

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There’s always something special about a party box. 

We had a lovely time and no child dissolved into tears. Always a plus.  With the little ones all headed for an afternoon nap,  and Kenn divested of his B1 costume, we made the most of the beautiful day and walked up to the Lighthouse for some whale spotting. And they were there, just off the point, jumping  and flashing their tails around. Always a special moment. It was a great way to finish a special day. Happy Birthday, Huddy!