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Australia: The Highlights ... with a side of Fiji - our family trip Down Under

Australia: The Highlights ... with a side of Fiji - our family trip Down Under

Aug 27th, 2019, 04:14 PM
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Australia: The Highlights ... with a side of Fiji - our family trip Down Under

Family: Me, Surfdad (SD), Kid #1 (19yo), Kid #2 (17yo), Kid #3 (15yo)

Why Australia in Winter? Because it was the only time we could find 2 weeks to go… We originally chewed on a few different ideas…
- Greece (we would want to rent a catamaran, and August isn’t the time to count on the weather between islands due to the potential of winds).
- Africa – couldn’t pull together the itinerary as we wanted it.
- Australia it is!

Day 1 – Newark to Hamilton Island

We arrived in Newark without issue - got through security, and then realized our 4pm flight was delayed about 30 minutes due to air traffic control in San Francisco. The delay stretched to an hour, but since we planned for a 3 1/2 hour layover, we thought we would be fine.

We boarded, and just as we expected to push away from the gate, the captain came on with an announcement that we were delayed for at least 3 hours and we would all be getting off. So, the boarding process that they had just finished, they undid… and everyone - and their stuff - got off. They would make another decision at 6/6:30 about what time we would take off. We did the math and knew it could be tight - our planned 3 1/2 hour layover was gone- so I went to customer service and tried to (A) get another earlier flight to San Francisco (nope). (B) get to Sydney via Los Angeles (flights were full). (C) get to Hamilton Island a different way - not through Sydney (nope).

There was a connecting flight through Auckland that left 10 minutes after our scheduled flight (from SFO) that they could put us on if we didn’t make our connection. We weren’t convinced that 10 minutes would help, but at least it was one option.

We then talked to a local operations guy who was extremely helpful. He explained there were 15 people from our Newark flight for the Sydney flight - which would help our chances of them holding the Sydney flight. He gave us lots of information about how much time in the air (5 hours 45 minutes) and how much taxi time - and what time we would get an update and when we would board, etc.

The flight was listed as delayed until 7:00pm - and they actually boarded us about then. Said we would depart at 7:30. Well, we pushed away from the gate then, but sat on the tarmac for a while (which we expected to happen). The captain was hoping to get an earlier slot. Our arrival was listed first at 10:30. Ok, we knew it would be tight, but could make it.

We finally took off and the arrival still said 10:30. We knew our plane to Sydney was late arriving in San Francisco, so hoping that 15 minutes could help us. Then our arrival slipped a little to 10:45. Eek. Then it slipped to 11:00 because we had to fly around thunderstorms in Wyoming... Argh! I’m the meantime, I talked to two different flight attendants and asked if there was a way they could call ahead and have our flight held (we would run!) ... and SD was tweeting with United customer service on the plane (who looked at our exact confirmation code).

They announced that the Sydney flight was being held for the 15 passengers and asked people ending in San Francisco to let us out first. People around us knew we were trying to get on that flight and were all wishing us good luck. We sent the kids ahead (they are faster) while I did my best to keep running (carrying my backpack and duffel bag).

And we made it! I think the 15 from our flight were the last to board!

(And this is why we carry-on only. While it was a massive hassle carrying them through the airport, I don’t know if all the bags for all 15 passengers made the connection).

And as a massive bonus: we had extra seats between us. I had booked aisle (SD) then in the row behind aisle /window with the middle one open between them. And aisle / window behind them with the open middle. On the San Francisco flight, it was totally full, so we lost that open middle seat. On the Sydney flight, it stayed open. Which was so awesome knowing it was a 14+ hour flight. The flight ended up being delayed about 90 minutes due to air traffic control in Sydney. Most of that was spent on the tarmac in San Fran with doors closed and pushed away from gate.

The actual flight was fine / kids did an amazing job of sleeping most of it. Adults slept a little and watched movies and read. Food was ok - not great, but not awful. The dozen bagels that we carried on were finished about 2 hours before we landed.

Once we landed, we were through customs and transferred to our next flight. We had time to sit down and get croissants and tea, and had about 30 minutes to wait at the gate. Felt nice not to be running!

Our flight left Sydney at 10:10 and arrived Hamilton Island at 12:45. We were happy to get on the ground! Our driver was waiting for us - he took the luggage and two of us and the others followed in the golf buggy. The island only has a few vans - mostly for transporting people and luggage. Everyone has golf buggies – one of which came with our villa.

We got to our villa. Wow!!! It is gorgeous. Very new - finished in October. Three bedrooms/three baths, so nice to have the space. Lots of outdoors space, so we can open the big sliding glass doors and use the outside. There are two big balconies - a dining table in the level of the kitchen and a big sofa on the level below.

The kids chilled for a bit while SD and I went down to the marina (“town”). There are a bunch of restaurants and stores. And a grocery store. We got provisions for us and grabbed a few pizzas for lunch. The kids had gone down to the community pool, but it was too cold to swim, so they played cards waiting for us to return with food. After we all ate, we decided to go exploring. We took two trips to Catseye Beach - it is the big beach by the resort where the activities take place. We checked in for tomorrow’s boat trip. Then we walked along the beach - threw the football, waded in the water, and found sea glass! (And #2 found a fully intact sand dollar!)

We headed back to the villa - where SD made dinner of grilled chicken, bread and olive oil, and strawberries and cantaloupe. We walked down to the beach by our resort and hoped to watch the sunset, but with the cloud cover, didn’t see much. After dinner, SD and the kids went down to the marina to get gelati. (The golf cart only holds 4 people, so anywhere we go needs 2 trips, so I just opted out of this one. We could put 5 people in it, but if we see security or the police, we could get a ticket. Not worth dealing with the hassle.) I was asleep by 8pm - I think the rest of the family lasted longer, but not by much.

The weather is unsettled. A little windy, then would spit rain on and off, but then the sun came out. Overnight it poured a few times, will see what tomorrow holds.

surfmom is offline  
Aug 27th, 2019, 04:19 PM
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Day 2 – Hamilton Island

During the night, we had strong rain storms but they seemed to be through by morning. The kids awoke at 5:30/6 ish and adults about 7am. They all ran down to the bakery for breakfast and we enjoyed croissants and treats on the deck.

We headed down to the marina to meet our boat at 9:45. Today, we are going on a full day (and sunset) cruise on a boat called Ricochet. It is a 47 foot catamaran owned by the sailor who sails for Richard Branson.

The weather is still a little windy with some blue skies trying to pop through. As the day progressed, it became sunnier and the gray clouds disappeared. It is still a little chilly - almost 70 degrees.

During the safety briefing, we saw whales in the distance and a little while later, a turtle. We sailed for a bit and then stopped at a small cove/beach to snorkel. The captain (Lucas) took us in the dinghy to a reef just off Scrubhead Beach. We were the only boat there at the time. The coral was nice, but not a ton of fish to see. After we returned to the boat, we had lunch - bread, rolls, and wraps with turkey, chicken, ham, or trout.

The boat has the captain and his crew/chef. Ironically, she is from a beach town near us! We come all the way to Australia to meet someone from nearby.

After lunch, we motored on to moor next to Tongue Beach. We hiked up to Hill Inlet lookout - which looks out over Whitehaven Beach. Whitehaven Beach is created by natural tides - so pretty. We then walked down to the actual beach. The sand is 80% silica - so it doesn’t get hot in the sunshine. It is very fine - almost like superfine sugar. The beaches were clean - especially considering it isn’t groomed.

After spending a little bit of time on Whitehaven Beach, we walked back across the island and took the tender back to the catamaran. We headed for Hamilton Island. We watched an amazing sunset and had munchies - crackers, cheese, vegetables. We arrived back at the marina about 6:30 pm (totally dark at this point).

SD took #2 and #3 back to the villa while #1 and I ordered food. We just got more garlic bread and a pizza for SD. Back at the villa, SD also made a pot of noodles and we added the leftover strawberries and cantaloupe.

We are trying to stay awake, but everyone is dragging. It was a fun day!

surfmom is offline  
Aug 27th, 2019, 06:38 PM
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Smooth sailing after a bumpy start, Surfmom! I’m enjoying what I hope is the first of many chapters on your time in our beautiful country. Thanks for sharing it with us.
Bokhara2 is offline  
Aug 28th, 2019, 01:21 AM
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how wonderful. you have picked a great time to visit, and you have missed the hoards of people in Europe and the opressive heat.
I hope you enjoy my country.. it is a beauty.
millie2112 is offline  
Aug 28th, 2019, 03:14 AM
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I’m glad you and your family made it to Australia as scheduled in spite of the flight challenges. Sounds like you all had a near perfect couple of days. Love the photo of your family in the water. Looking forward for more. Haven’t been to Fiji so will be awaiting with curious intentions.
tripplanner001 is online now  
Aug 28th, 2019, 04:58 PM
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This is great to read, thanks for sharing. Your flight dramas sound horrible, I would have been so stressed. We had a similar problem once connecting from Denver to LAX, to fly back to Australia, and it was awful (but did make it the end).

Tell us more....

KayF is offline  
Aug 28th, 2019, 08:16 PM
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Waiting here for the next instalment!
margo_oz is offline  
Aug 30th, 2019, 11:35 AM
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Thanks guys for reading! (our TR for Bora Bora was sadly lacking in readership). It was a great trip, but when I say the highlights, I really mean that...

buckle your seatbelts, we are moving fast!
surfmom is offline  
Aug 30th, 2019, 12:08 PM
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Well...I just read your Bora Bora report - and instantly wanted to go there!
margo_oz is offline  
Aug 30th, 2019, 12:23 PM
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Day 3 – Hamilton Island => Melbourne

We woke up to gorgeous blue skies this morning. SD and #2 went to the marina bakery and came back with breakfast. After breakfast and getting packed up, we headed down to Wildlife Hamilton Island for our koala cuddle. We got there early - there was a koala breakfast going on - but we weren’t impressed with the food, so skipped that and got right in line for the koala cuddle. We had a few minutes to wait, and the koalas just seemed to be doing lots of snoozing!

The nice thing is that we were first, so at 9:30, each kid got to hold a koala, for a photo, and then we took a family photo with the koala. Unfortunately, in the meantime, we realized that our golf cart hadn’t charged, so SD found a charging station at a nearby resort.

After the koala encounter, #1 and SD tried to drive back to the villa, but it wouldn’t make it up the hill, so #1 walked ahead and SD brought it back to the resort to plug in. SD caught back up with her and they got swimsuits for the beach (at the resort). After everyone changed, we walked along the beach for a bit - found some sea glass, played ball. We even saw a small manta ray in close to shore. #2 and I decided to walk back to the resort to get our stuff packed up and organized while #1, #3, and SD swam.

Luckily, the golf cart received enough charge that SD dropped off #1 and #3 at the marina and came back to the villa to retrieve #2 and I. We were thankful he came back because the worst part of the trip would have been the five hilly switchbacks getting out of the villa complex. And we were carrying the stinky trash to throw away at the top of the neighborhood!

We went back to the marina and went to Popeye’s Fish and chips for lunch. SD had fish and chips, #1 and I had chicken sandwiches, and #3 had a burger.

The birds were aggressive in their pursuit of food just as they were at our villa. There were cockatoos that would aggressively sit on the patio railing while we were eating outside. And we were warned not to leave the doors open if we left. (The cockatoos were pretty neat looking though).
After lunch, we walked to the meeting spot at the marina to meet our flight - we would be doing a one hour scenic flight over Whitehaven Beach, the Great Barrier Reef, and the Heart Reef. Whitehaven Beach is a natural inlet that changes colors and the sand bars change as the tides go in and out. We had been there yesterday but it was neat to see if from the air.

We then flew over the Great Barrier Reef (specifically Hardy Reef) and then over the Heart Reef. The Heart Reef is a small reef that looks like a heart shape from the air - it was discovered over 25 years ago by a pilot and is a big destination for flights. You can’t get there by boat. We also saw “Reefworld” which is a floating pontoon next to Hardy Reef. They run large day trip boats there and you can snorkel, or take a helicopter flight, or even sleep there. It probably accommodates 200-300 people at one time, so it’s rather large.

Hamilton Island (part of the Whitsundays) is technically not part of the Great Barrier Reef, but just inland. The Whitsundays have race week - sailboat racing in about 10 days - and that is really what they became known for. In fact, we saw the boat “Wild Oats”, which is owned by the Oatley family. It has won the Sydney to Hobart race a few times. We also saw other boats and crew getting ready for race week.

Since we were at the airport, we sent SD back to town to get the buggy (the airplane company just took us on a van from the marina meeting spot, so they took everyone back there) and the rest of us walked to the passenger terminal. It would have been faster (and easier!) to walk along the inside of the tarmac, but we were not allowed. Instead, we walked along the road to a roundabout and up and over and back down a hill to get there. The driver for the villa company met us there with our luggage and we checked in for our flight to Melbourne. (SD left the buggy for the villa company).

We are flying Virgin Australia to Melbourne and happy to be in rows 4 and 5 with an empty seat between SD and I. Flight was uneventful - headed into Melbourne. Headed to an Irish pub for dinner and back for bed.

surfmom is offline  
Aug 30th, 2019, 12:25 PM
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margo_oz We * loved * Bora Bora! go... go... go.

(or don't, leave it for the rest of us!)
surfmom is offline  
Aug 30th, 2019, 12:39 PM
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Day 4 - Melbourne

We woke up to small spitting rain in Melbourne even though it was not in the forecast. We met our tour guide for the day - Simon - about 9am. We spent the morning on a city tour of Melbourne - seeing the cheese and fruit markets, the city, the cultural hub, the Formula One race track, the sports stadiums, the botanical garden, the colorful murals. In an attempt to cut down on graffiti, the city of Melbourne has designated certain streets and alleys as “graffiti zones” where artists are allowed to paint and tag the walls as they choose. The city paints black over it once/year and starts the process again.

It was interesting to learn about the history of Melbourne. It is a vibrant and growing city - lots of cranes and large sky scrapers. It is expected to pass Sydney in population in about 20 years.

We had stopped for tea/coffee and brioche at a famous Italian bakery/pastry shop called Brunetti’s. It was founded in 1950’s by the chef that traveled with the Italian team for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. He immigrated to Melbourne and started his restaurant and it has become a local favorite. We were impressed with the quality and quantity of baked goods, pastries, and sandwiches and it was hard to choose!

We also stopped at the Brighton Beach bathing boxes. They are colorful little sheds that are right on the beach for people to store beach chairs, surf equipment, towels, etc. in summer. To purchase one is about $500,000 AUD (about $375,000 USD)! For a shed. For lunch, we stopped in a little alley that was lined with food stalls selling all sorts of yummy sandwiches and lunch options. We grabbed baguette sandwiches and ate on the road while driving to the Mornington Peninsula.

Once we arrived at Philip Island, we stopped at a koala conservation center. We saw wallaby’s and koalas - maybe 7 or 8. Simon explained they sleep most of the day, but they must have just received fresh eucalyptus because 3 or 4 were munching away. We even saw a mom holding a baby! The baby was a few months old and tucked into moms belly but we saw little legs and toes stretching.

After the koalas, we walked to the boardwalk at the Nobbies - the end of the island. The Nobbies are large rock formations just off the coast. It was a scenic walk along the water and the sun was poking out for a very pretty view. It was windy, but Simon explained it was a north wind, so not as cold as the south wind that comes from Antarctica. We went back to the penguin center for the next part.

From the penguin center to the Nobbies, there used to be about 200 homes. The government instituted a home buyback plan and the area is all wild now. There used to be about 4,000 penguins that lived on the island, but with their conservation efforts, it has raised the population to about 40,000.

We met the ranger for a guided tour - which was great. We learned interesting information about the penguins - this breed is known as Little Penguins. They spend 2-3 weeks at sea and then come into their burrows to re-oil their feathers, mate, and be social with their neighbors. Our guided ranger tour had a special viewing area which was awesome. Not only was it closer to where the penguins came in from the sea, we didn’t have to get in our seats 30 minutes early. It was fun to watch them come into shore - they come in as small groups and hang out at the edge of the water.

They are most at risk of being eaten when they run across the sand to their burrows, so they are very hesitant to make a break for it. It was fun to watch them storm the beaches in small groups. They always go up the same “highways” or paths, so if one comes into the wrong section of beach, it may have to walk across the beach to the right path. (We saw a few that ran horizontal across the beach but not many).

They count the penguins coming in- the previous night there had been 670 penguins that came in. It was fun to walk over the boardwalk and watch them preen, visit, “talk” and find their burrows.

We weren’t allowed to take photos or videos of the penguins - the bright lights will damage their eyes and confuse them.

After the penguins, our driver took us back to Melbourne - we arrived back about 8:45 and just got organized and headed to bed.

surfmom is offline  
Aug 30th, 2019, 12:41 PM
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I thought this was interesting:


And this (I saw while we were in Australia!)

surfmom is offline  
Aug 30th, 2019, 01:18 PM
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Thanks for another interesting & entertaining chapter, Surfmom.

Looks like the tour you did with Simon in Melbourne was well worthwhile for your group. We often have enquiries about individual tours & I wonder if I may ask for his contact details, please?

A note in the cockatoos you saw at Hamilton island: Sulfur crested cockatoos are clever, playful, inventive & are said to have the intelligence of about a 4 year old human. They can live to 40 or so, and are great speakers & mimics.

We had one as a pet when I was a child. He had a damaged wing & my father rescued him.

The advice to keep your doors closed was spot on. A few years ago, I used to feed occasional cockatoo visitors on my deck. One day, I left the box of sunflower seeds on the coffee table, when I went out. The doors were closed, but windows open, with just flyscreens closed. When I came home, I was surprised to find the lid off the box. One of those that have “handles” that clip over to lock the lid on.

Further inspection revealed the neatest, cockatoo sized round hole in the flyscreen. All I could do was laugh - clearly, the cockies had decided I’d left them a snack! Served me right for being too lazy to put the seed away

Bokhara2 is offline  
Aug 30th, 2019, 02:56 PM
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Awesome!! Love the cockatoos. Sounds like you had a great day on Philip Island. Whitehaven Beach looks gorgeous too.
tripplanner001 is online now  
Aug 31st, 2019, 07:14 PM
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those koala's look so cute, but I saw one run once.. they are really fast and they make the most horrible screaming noise. could not believe it.
millie2112 is offline  
Sep 3rd, 2019, 04:24 AM
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Enjoyed reading your report . I have coffee every Monday at Brunettis !!!
northie is offline  
Sep 3rd, 2019, 04:07 PM
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Bokhara2 We loved our tour with Simon. He was able to combine a Melbourne city tour and the Philip Island tour into a long day for us - but we saw a lot!

I can recommend him without hesitation.

Such an interesting cockatoo story! For a small child, I can imagine they could be scary.

millie2112 Seeing a koala run?!? We heard the audio tape of them screeching, but they were happily munching and climbing when we watched.

northie loved Brunettis. would be a dangerous habit it we were closer!
surfmom is offline  
Sep 3rd, 2019, 04:20 PM
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Day 5 – Melbourne =>Ayers Rock

We woke up and got a cab to the Melbourne airport. We were there early, so had time to stop at Brunetti’s in the airport and get tea and croissants for breakfast. (And then the kids found a waffle with whipped cream and strawberries also!) We have carried on for each of our flights - but this was on Jetstar - a low-cost carrier for Qantas. I paid extra for EconomyX (I think that is what they called it) which allowed our carryons to be 10kg instead of 7kg. The kids all made it, but my bag and SD's bag were too heavy (even with the extra allowance). We knew it was probably going to happen and just decided not to sweat it out. When we were pulled aside to the lady checking bags, she said, "oh, you know you have extra allowance?" We said, "yes. And we still didn't make it. bummer." She looked surprised at us and I joked, "We are just being honest. Does honesty pay?" She laughed and said, "sure. I'll just charge you for one bag instead of two." So we were happy with that - and she was probably happy we didn't give her a hard time!

We headed to our gate and boarded - arrived in Ayers Rock about 30 minutes late. One interesting thing was - as we were about to land, the pilot pulled up quickly. When I say about to land, we were close to the ground - felt like just about to touch. We all looked at each other in surprise. We circled around Ayers Rock (so all sides of the plane got to see it from the air!) and landed just fine the second time. SD was guessing that we were coming in a little high for the runway and maybe it was a short one, so he (she?) decided to try again. I will say, we had a small sigh of relief as we landed safely. We got our rental car and drove to the resort - and we happy to have a rental car. The main bus that takes everyone was still trying to load people, so we were happy to walk the 20 paces to the car and drive off.

The resort is made up of 5 hotels and a campground and about 12 restaurants. It is easy to walk between the resorts and to the "village" (if you can call it that). It is very touristy - and expensive. But there aren't many options. We stayed at Emu's Walk Apartments. I had read mixed reviews, but we were happy. It was clean. Nothing fancy, but we used the kitchen and the extra space was nice with all 5 of us. Unfortunately, I couldn't get a 2 bedroom, so we had to pay for two 1-bedroom apartments. We were able to check in at 1:15pm when we arrived, so we were just satisfied with that.

Right now, the hotels are all booked to capacity. Uluru (Ayers Rock) is a sacred ground for the local aboriginals and they have discouraged people from climbing it due to its significance to them. There are, however, still many people who climb it. When we were here 25 years ago, we climbed it, but there wasn’t the pressure not to climb it like there is now. On October 26, 2019, the Australian government (and the surrounding national park) has agreed to ban everyone from climbing Uluru. So anyone who has had it on their bucket list to climb it is coming before the end of October so everything is very booked.

We had lunch at Gecko’s Cafe - SD had chicken pot pie, #1 and #2 shared a pizza and a grilled chicken sandwich, and I had spaghetti bolognese. It was edible. We walked back to our resort, changed into shorts and met our guide, Alex, at 2:30.

We are fans of private tours. With a family of 5 people, many times if we pay for a generic tour, it is only about 10% more to just get a private one. When I started looking, we struggled to find someone, but eventually found SEIT that could accommodate us. We were happy with Alex - we had him both this afternoon as well as the next morning. He was a little more serious in the beginning, but lightened up as he figured out our personalities.

We drove about 45 minutes to Kata Tutja - known as The Olgas. We hiked into the Valley of the Winds - about 3 km in and back. It is really interesting to see the geology and how immense the area is. The flies were bad as we were about to walk in, but they weren’t as bothersome as we got further in. It really is beautiful when you look up.

One fun fact we learned is about how spears were made. The spear vine (can’t remember the name) is stripped and made ready for the shaft. For the tip, it is made of acacia wood, which is very strong. Then there is a grass - when stripped and pulverized, has its sap which turns into a superglue to hold them together. For extra strength, kangaroo leg tendons are stripped, chewed on to soften them, and then wrapped around the joint of the spear. When they dry, they stretch and get very tough and strong.

After a few photo stops, we headed back to Uluru. We parked and had a sundowner - bread with olive oil, vinegar, and local spices (bush dukkah… loved it!), and crackers and dip. We watched the sunset and the colors of Uluru. About 7pm, he brought us back to our hotel.

After a break, we met the tour bus at 8:30 for the Fields of Light. This was started as an art installation of millions of LED lights about mid-thigh high. You walk on a lighted path around the fields of different colored lights and each different “field” is changing colors. The stars also were amazing - we could see the Milky Way.

We returned to our hotel about 9:30 - SD made a pot of noodles (we knew most of the restaurants were closed by this time, so we had stopped at the IGA and gotten a few provisions). All headed to bed then.

surfmom is offline  
Sep 3rd, 2019, 04:22 PM
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a few points:
sorry the photos are so large. I try to re-size them and failed. So I am just inserting them so they get in!

Many of the explanations are somewhat simplistic and might be obvious for those who know Australia. At the end of each night (or the following morning), I wrote these. I send them as emails back to grandmas and grandpa who love to read them. Makes it easy for me to remember all the small details, so I just cut and paste - maybe add a few more details - and take out names of the innocent. So you are reading the real-time version!
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