Top Attractions

Taronga Western Plains Zoo, Dubbo

The best advice given to us by the brochures of Taronga Western Plains Zoo was to get there early, as the animals are most active then.  We heeded their advice, and were in just as the park opened.  They were right, the animals we saw early were all up and about and close to the boundary.  It set up the excitement for the day.

GiraffeCoby measures up.Visitors have several options for moving around the park.  You can hire electric carts that seat 4 to 6 people.  These look like so much fun, but get in early as they go fast.  There is also a wide variety of bikes to hire, with seats or towing vehicles for small children.  Older kids can tandem with a parent, or hire their own bike, depending on their ability.

Of course, you can also drive around in your own car, and you can do the circuit as many times as you wish.  Throughout the day we did the circuit 4 times to fit in with our plans and to see all the animal feeds and talks we wanted.

The main road through the park is around 5 km long, but there are many loop walks and detours to see all the animal enclosures.  There is plenty of parking for both bikes and cars/carts at all the stops.  There are also plenty of facilities dotted around the park, such as toilets, picnic areas and kiosks.

African elephantHippopotamusOne of the things we loved most about the zoo, apart from the space, is that the animals are easy to see.  The way the enclosures are designed, you can view and photograph the animals without fencing or wire inhibiting the shot.  Now I love my photography, and I especially love getting great photos of my visit.  Of course, some of the animals are nocturnal, or are just not very active during the heat of the day, so you are not guaranteed a great view.  But overall, we got to see and photograph practically everything.  For our favourite (or at least the kids favourite) animals, we went to the keepers feed and talks sessions that were on offer, and got some great action shots.  Their favourites were the hippos and African elephants.

Another thing worth considering when planning a trip to Dubbo and the zoo, all tickets are actually valid for two days. This is a wonderful feature, especially if you have small children.  It is worth planning a two day visit, because there is so much to see, and you can avoid the afternoon over-tired tantrums.  It also gives you two mornings to see animals when they are at their most active, and your choice of keeper talks.

Apart from the animals, the kids loved the safari adventure playground.  We had our picnic lunch watching the ring-tailed lemurs, and then the kids ran off to play with all the other little monkeys on the playground.

Dubbo is an easy distance from Sydney, Wollongong and Newcastle for a weekend, long weekend, or extended trip.  There are many other attractions in Dubbo, and they really cater for the tourist.  It is certainly worth a visit, especially to see this wonderful zoo.  You can also feel good about the fact that your visit helps to support wildlife conservation and research to help protect endangered and threatened species from extinction.Meerkats

We had a really wonderful day, and we hope to visit again sometime in the future.

Taronga Western Plains Zoo, Dubbo

TWP Zoo logo

Murray River Paddle Steamers

The Murray/Darling river system is the biggest river system in Australia.  Before trucks and an extensive rail network, it was the lifeblood of many communities as it was relied upon for transport of goods and people.  Paddle steamers on the Murray were a big part of the regional history.

Pride of the MurrayEchuca old townToday, a trip on a Paddle steamer is a great way to see part of the Murray, and to learn a bit about an important chapter of our countries past.

After wandering around the old town of Echuca, we headed down to wharf one to board ‘The Pride of the Murray’ a beautifully restored vessel from the 19th century.

For the first part of the trip, we sat upstairs to get a bird’s eye view of the scenic Echuca Wharfs.  They are currently restoring and extending the main wharf to near it original length and grandeur, which will add even more to the historic ambience of the town.  They are keeping in with the original design and materials, with only a few modern alterations.

Ps canberraPaddle Steamer CruiseThe Captain also gave us a brief history of the area, and some of the other steamers moored up in the main wharf.  We also got to view some privately owned boats, including two little historic paddle steamers, and several houseboats.

It was lovely kicking back and relaxing while cruising along the river.

On the way back, we sat downstairs to take in the beauty of the boat, and the cooler conditions.  This boat is fitted with a kiosk and cooking facilities, so during busy times, you can do sunset dinner cruises.

The ‘Pride of the Murray’ currently has around four trips every day, operating approximately every two hours.  Other boats, including PS Canberra and PS Emmylou, also have several options, so you can easily book a trip on a boat and at a time to suit your party. 

www.emmylou.com.auMRPS logo

Sarina Sugar Shed

The family was booked in for the tour, and we were greeted by Desley, one of the experienced and knowledgeable guides at the Sarina Sugar Shed.

Sugar Shed Tour Tasting cane juiceSugar Shed Tour Mini MillFirst we watched an interesting DVD about the sugar industry in Australia, and the role of the area and the local sugar mill in that industry.  Next, Desley showed us all the old equipment they still possessed, demonstrating how cane had been cut and transported over the years.  I have to say, to be a cane farmer/worker in the past was a pretty tough job.  She also talked about the current process, and how the cane arrives at the mill from the farms.  It’s all pretty tight, as the cane should be processed within 16 hours of cutting to maximize yields and quality.

Next we got to see the miniature mill in action.  The process hasn’t changed much over the past 100 years, but these days, every single by-product has a use.  Nothing is wasted.  They are also developing new ways to minimise water and energy usage at the mill.  It was all very impressive.

For something that is quite technical, Desley managed to make the tour fun and interactive for the kids as well.  I liked the way they were included, so they enjoyed the morning too.

Sugar Shed SaucesSugar Shed Tour fairy flossThe most fun bit was towards the end of the tour, where we got to taste all the yummy sauces, marinades and liqueurs, as well as their very own ginger beer.  All the sugar products come from the mill.  Some of the ingredients used in the chef’s creations (such as chilli’s and herbs) are sourced from the local high school, which have a farming and agriculture program.  It’s great to see they are supporting local education projects.

Currently, as of the end of 2011, there are ongoing major road works outside of the Sarina Sugar Shed.  There visitor numbers have dropped off as a result, as it is a bit harder to find and people might assume it is closed. The Sugar Shed is well and truly open, so make the effort to go in and discover the mill for yourself.  You will definitely get a new appreciation for the importance of the sugar industry in Australia.

And the sauces are fabulous.  We stocked up for Christmas…

http://www.sarinasugarshed.com.auSugar Shed Logo

 Paronella Park

We heard about Paronella Park from many fellow travellers, and were really intrigued by the notion of a castle in the rainforest.  A visit was definitely on the cards. But we had no idea what to expect.

The previous night was spent at Innisfail, so it was a quick and easy drive to the park.  It could be a day trip from several nearby tourist towns, including Cairns and Mission Beach.  However, we wanted the full experience with the night tour so an overnighter was planned.

After setting up, we joined one of the day tours to get an overview of the park.  Tours leave every half hour, and are the best way to start off your visit.  The guide gave us an interesting history of the park since its conception by José.  Doing the tour also meant we got to go into the ‘Tunnel of Love’, which is otherwise off-limits for various reasons.  The tunnel is also a breeding ground for the rare and lovely micro bats, which are left alone to breed and live in peace.

Lover's LaneRainforest flowersI loved the thought and design that went into creating the Park.  Everything seemed to be build around the spectacular Mena Creek Falls, which can be viewed through the Kauri Avenue and as the centre piece through the Refreshment Rooms.  Kauri Avenue was planted by José himself eighty years ago, and the trees are now at an impressive size.

The gardens are extensive, and left as a rainforest wonderland.  If you are really into your plants, you can do a self-guided tour with a booklet to help you identify over 80 species.  Even strolling through the gardens is a peaceful and tranquil experience.

After wandering around, and feeding the fish, we stopped for a lunch break.  After lunch, Coby insisted on pulling out her dress-up box and putting on her fairy princess dress, wings, tiara and wand.  She and I spent the best part of the afternoon wandering around again, visiting the wishing well, grand staircase and skipping around the tennis court in front of the fountains.  Coby was in fantasy heaven, and I’m sure she is not the first person to feel this way.  Nothing could wipe the smile from her face and she danced and pranced around, pretending to be her favourite storybook characters.The Grand Staircase

This park is so extraordinarily beautiful; it can inspire and captivate minds both young, and young at heart.  The more serious person will no doubt be impressed by the architecture of the buildings and the engineering of the hydro electric generator.  José was certainly before his time.

As night time approached, we headed back to the main entrance for the night tour.  Torches are provided, and the guided tour is different from the day tour, so you are not getting the same information again.

Fairy hiding on Kauri AvenueMena Ck fallsWandering around at night, we spotted bandicoots as well as different insects and frogs that live in the rainforest.  Of course the highlight of the night tour is seeing the buildings and waterfall lit up.  The backdrop makes for some fantastic photos, so bring your tripod.

Over the next eight or nine years the current owners (Mark and Judy Evans) plan on spending several million dollars on restoration work.  They have no intention on pulling down and rebuilding.  It is mostly structural improvements for health and safety reasons.  The buildings are heritage listed, and they have no intention of removing the rustic charm of the original dream. 

The restoration work has already started with the overhaul of the Hydro Electric Generator in 2009.  The parks electrical requirements are more than covered by this clean and efficient system. Any over supply is put straight back into the grid.

After a great night’s sleep, we couldn’t resist one more explore around the park before we headed on to the coast.

We would definitely recommend a visit to Paronella Park.  It was so much more than we were expecting, and we look forward to visiting again one day in the future.  The dream continues….

Paronella Park logo

Skyrail Rainforest Cableway

When we reached the Skyrail station in Kuranda, I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Louise Marshall, the Communications Manager for Skyrail.  We spoke about the Skyrail setup and the wonderful experience it provides to tourists.  All the staff we met on the day have a real passion for what Skyrail hopes to achieve.

Just on the surface, Skyrail is a great tourist attraction, a fantastic way to view the rainforest from above the canopy, across and down the slopes of the Great Dividing Range.  The whole experience is fantastic, but it is so much more.

Skyrail CarsRainforest viewsLooking at the wonderful interpretive centre you can see that Skyrail has much bigger goals.  Ultimately, they want to educate everyone in the diversity and importance of the Australian Rainforest. They are really committed to ‘raising and distributing funds to support rainforest research and education’.

Apart from the general tourist experience of Skyrail, you can arrange to be involved in some more intimate group activities to learn even more about our World Heritage Area. 

Giant Kauri This includes:

  1.        a group Interpretive Ranger Option, where your group can have a personalised tour through the tropical rainforest
  2.        the Nature Link where you can learn more about the cultural, historic and environmental importance of Australia tropical rainforests
  3.        becoming involved with Skyrail Rainforest link, a project to assist in a rainforest regeneration program to provide wildlife with a tree corridor to link them with the forest and a freshwater lake near the Caravonica Terminal

Skyrail views to coastSkyrail is committed to Rainforest Research through their Rainforest Foundation, and are committed to raising funds to assist this vital research.  If you are interested, please contact them through www.skyrailfoundation.org

Our family thanks Skyrail for our wonderful day learning about the rainforest.  We really enjoyed it, and are looking forward to coming back someday.

SKYRAIL Logo

www.skyrail.com.au

Crocodylus Park Darwin

It was Coby’s 5th birthday, and we wanted to do something extra special for her big day.  We decided to save a visit to Crocodylus Park until the end of our stay in Darwin, to coincide with our little princess’s big day.

We got there early, and spent some time wandering around the exotic animals section, which included primates, ostriches, ocelots, baboons and the ever popular lions.  The lions especially were very active this morning, and we were treated to some roaring, a rare sound at any zoo.  All the monkeys and macaques were also lively, running around and posing for photos.  Coby thought they were very cute, and it ended up being difficult dragging them away for the croc feeding.  Bribery works almost every time, as we promised a revisit at the end of the day.

Belairs lagoon FeedingRaising PenThe hour long croc feeding tours are held regularly throughout the day.  The tour starts with and information session, whilst feeding some of the maturing crocs in a shared pen.  They are encouraged to jump up for their food, which mimics their natural behavior in the wild.  Next, the breeding pairs are fed in their pens.  Both Mike and I got the opportunity to feed a croc from the safety of the overhanging platform, dangling a piece of meat from a stick and teasing a large male until he jumped for it.  What a unique experience.  They really have some mammoth crocs for breeding, the longest being around 4.9m and the heaviest being just over ½ ton.

The breeding pairs are important for the main function of the park, raising crocs sustainably for their meat and skins.  In total, they have around 10,000 crocs they have to feed, at various stages of development.  We got to see a large number of them in the ‘attack lagoon’, which holds around 700 juvenile crocs.  It’s a really impressive sight, seeing so many crocs together.

Tour Guide TyBaby Croc TimeThe final stage of the tour, we all got the opportunity to hold a baby croc.  The skin, especially on the belly, is smoother and softer than you would imagine just by looking at it.  The kids just loved the experience.

It was starting to really warm up, so we had a break from looking at the animals, and treated the kids to ice creams on the balcony of the information centre.  Then we ventured onward to take a peek at their snake collection, which included an impressive 92 kg Burmese python.  He was the biggest snake I had ever seen, and was almost as scary as the crocs themselves.

Right near the snakes, and the entrance/café they have an impressive museum, which displays detailed information about the entire crocodilian family.  Personally, I find thing like this fascinating, and I could read and view the displays while the children were impressed by the visual documentaries and numerous photographs.  Needless to say, they weren’t begging me to leave after 5 minutes, as they were thoroughly entertained.

Burmese PythonAntilopine WallarooBack across the park to admire the native animals (mostly), including Wallaroos, pure dingoes and some Timor ponies, which is a pony specially bred in Timor for local conditions.  Given Coby’s recent pony riding experience, this delighted her to no end.

We also really liked the collection of turtles, tortoises and iguanas they held.  They are all such interesting reptiles.

As promised, we revisited the exotic animals section to look again at the cats and primates.  Unfortunately the tigers were having a holiday from being on display, but they do have them, and ocelots along with the lions.

Now Coby got a camera for her birthday, so she loved playing photographer, taking wildlife pictures to her heart’s content.  While she is definitely an inexperienced beginner, she had a blast snapping away.  We had heaps of fun watching her.

We spent a very full half day here, and loved every minute of it.  I was not expecting the Crocodylus Park to have so much to see and appreciate, apart from the actual crocs.  It was well worth the visit, and our little tykes just loved the day.

Of course when we left, we purchased some crocodile meat to try on the BBQ back at the caravan.  I’ll leave that little adventure for another night. Please visit the website to learn about the parks history and aims.

Crocodylus Park Logo

 www.crocodyluspark.com

Animal Tracks Safari – Kakadu

We have met a lot of travelling families on our trip around Australia.  One of the highlights for most of us city folks is seeing and learning more about the traditional owners of this great country of ours.  Throughout the top end we have seen a lot of beautiful rock art, some more than 10,000 years old.  But throughout our travels, there has been little opportunity to get a real hands-on experience of aboriginal culture.  So when we found out about Animal Tracks Safaris, we jumped at the opportunity to learn and experience the old ways from a real hunter/gatherer.  Our guide was lady who has spent her entire life living in the traditional way.

Kids with Buffalo jeepAnimal Tracks busSean picked us all up, and drove us to Patsy’s place, which is situated within the Kakadu Buffalo Farm.  This is a farm owned and run by aborigines so they can still have access to buffalo meat.  Throughout Kakadu, the water buffalo population is highly controlled, as in the past their vast numbers caused huge amounts of damage to the wetlands.  This farm is fenced and highly regulated to provide free meat for the communities that live here.

Animal Tracks Safaris have exclusive access to the farm, and also to Gindjala (Goose Camp), the beautiful wetlands where we ended our day watching the sunset and tens of thousands of water birds.  But more on that later.

Exactly what you see and do on this tour is very seasonal.  The aborigines in this region recognize six different seasons. Different foods can be collected, depending on what is available during the season.  We started off with water lilies, tasting the seeds and stems.  Patsy made Coby a necklace out of one of the water lilies.  Wearing it is supposed to stop children from fighting with each other.  It certainly worked today, but the kids were too interested in what they were doing to squabble with each other.

We drove around looking at various trees and plants, and talked about how to identify them, and what they can be used for.  For example, the roots of one tree can be used for dyeing pandanus strings for baskets and dilliybags.  Iron bark trees are the hardest wood that grows in the area, and is usually used to make spears, and clapping sticks as instruments in music and song.

Coby gathering musselsDown by the water’s edge, we dug for freshwater mussels to cook and taste later.  Both Coby and Rhys wanted a go, and took great delight in finding and digging up their own.  Patsy made an impromptu basket out of paper bark to collect and carry them for later, and Coby got the honor of filling the basket with our bounty.

We also talked about medicines, and what to use for everyday aliments such as insect repellant for mosquitoes, headaches and constipation.  Green ants are used to treat headaches, and I was astonished that Coby was willing to try a small mouthful of crushed ants.  She even requested seconds; they have a rather citrus flavor.Crushed Green ants - yummy

We then went to some dried mud flats to dig for water chestnuts.  It was pretty tough work, and I reckon that you would expel more energy collecting the nuts than what you would get from them for sustenance.  But they do taste pretty good once cooked.

The experience has shown us that a hunter/gatherer lifestyle can be pretty tough.  In years gone by, communities flourished here because of the abundance of food during some of the seasons, but you have to work hard to gather enough.

Towards the end of the day, we headed down to Gindjala for some bird watching, to cook some dinner and watch the sunset.  No other tour company has access to these wetlands apart from Animal Tracks.  After spending time at other wetland areas in the Northern Territory and Northern WA, even I was amazed about the quantity and variety of birds around here. Various birds take flight Driving in we saw a huge flock of brolga’s (Australia’s second largest crane) in the distance that flew off in spectacular fashion the moment we were detected.  We also saw whistling ducks, magpie geese, kites, eagles, ibis, egrets and numerous other species of bird populating the landscape.

Plucking the magpie geeseTraditional aboriginal ground ovenAt camp, two fires were lit.  One was turned into a ground oven to cook Barramundi and Magpie Goose with tea-tree leaves, the other to boil billy tea, cook the mussels and water chestnuts and to make damper.  Everything cooked over an open fire tastes so good, especially if you had some input into collecting.

While everything was cooking, Patsy sat down with us to turn fresh pandanus leaves into usable string.  This is usually the starting point for making baskets and mats, and is a very labour intensive craft.  Although Coby lacked the skill of her teacher, she had a really good go at making the string.  I caught her days later with a similar leaf having another go, so Patsy’s skills must have really impressed her.

That night we feasted.  I’m not sure everything on the menu appealed to everyone’s tastes, but Mike and I found the food amazing, and we enjoyed every moment of it.  The spectacular sunset with birds flocking in the distance added to the ambience of the evening.

We spent the ride home wildlife spotting, and listening to some of Patsy’s amazing stories of growing up in a hunter/gatherer lifestyle.  We heard about her dreaming, and the dreaming of neighboring clans, and a bit about how communities interact.Sunset over Goose camp

I know one day is just not enough time to truly learn and appreciate such a old and complex culture such as Patsy’s, but we honestly felt this tour had given us such a real and unique experience into aboriginal culture and existence.  It was such a fantastic day, and a grand experience that will stay with us forever.  Thanks to Sean and Patsy (and Rachael) for giving us such a tremendous experience.  I feel so happy that I got to show my children something real about the traditional owners of Australia.

Please visit the Animal tracks website to learn more about what they do and the various awards they have received.

Animal Tracks Logo

 www.animaltracks.com.au

 

Malcolm Douglas Crocodile Park and Wildlife Park

Malcolm Douglas.  I remember watching his wildlife documentaries as a child, years before the other crocodile hunter became popular.  I always knew about his crocodile park in Broome, so I was very excited about finally having the opportunity to visit it, and share the experience with my family.

Malcolm Douglas Wildlife ParkMalcolm Douglas Croc Park GuideThere are two parks in Broome created by Malcolm Douglas.  The Crocodile Park is near Cable Beach on Cable Beach Road in town, and the Wilderness Wildlife and Animal Refuge is approximately 15 km from town on the Broome Highway.  Until I came to Broome, I didn’t realize there were two parks, so we decided we should visit both of them.

Before they were protected, both the freshwater and the saltwater crocodile were hunted to serious decline.  They were protected in all states by 1974, and their numbers have taken decades to recover substantially.   The Crocodile Park was created to provide refuge to unruly crocs that would have otherwise been shot because they were causing a menace to communities or townships.  Many of these crocs are used for their breeding program, to provide skins and meat for the consumer market, and to take away the desire to poach wild crocs. 

We have been speaking with the children constantly about crocodiles, as we are now in croc territory, and want to teach them to not go wandering off themselves near waterholes and even on beaches anymore.  This has been difficult as crocs have not been an issue for beach trips up until now.  It was great that we had the opportunity to show them why.

We rocked up to the park, and spent a while looking around all then enclosures, seeing who could spot the biggest croc there.  We also had fun looking at the differences between the freshies and the salties, and comparing them to the American Alligators that were also at the park.  As it was a cold day by Broome standards, the crocs were not at all active, so our warnings were not really getting through to the kids, as the crocs were kind of statue-like and placid.  And then we watched the croc feeding tour.

Coby & CrocOur guide showed us how territorial and aggressive a croc can be.  Feeding time can be a real frenzy.  The kids were totally fascinated, but a little scared; as they watched the bigger crocs get thrown some fish and chicken.  It was awesome to see them in action, and the sight of it all sent the message home to the kids about how dangerous these creatures are. 

FatsoSpeaking of which, during the tour we got to meet the famous ‘Fatso’.  Last July, a drunken idiot climbed into his enclosure with the intension of sitting on him.  Luckily for him, it was a cold winter night in Broome and Fatso was feeling a little lazy, so only gave him a nibble that required 60 stitches.  Once Fatso loosened his grip, the guy managed to jump back over the fence and went back to the pub, where the staff ended up calling for help.  Definitely a Darwin Award Honorable mention.

Towards the end of our tour, we got the opportunity to hold a baby croc, with its jaws banded together of course.  When the guide asked who would like to hold one, both Coby and Rhys were practically pushing adults out of the way to have a go.  Maybe some more education is required after all.  But I’m pretty happy the kids were so enthralled by it all.

So when we told them about our impending visit to the Wilderness Wildlife Park, they were really eager.  This park also houses crocodiles, but there is so much more to see.  Malcolm was very passionate about conservation, so this place has become a refuge to many endangered species, with an established breeding program for rare kangaroos and wallabies.

One of the big highlights for us was the night walk.  As so much of Australia’s wildlife is nocturnal, seeing them in their natural habitat is a rare experience for the average person.  So being able to see these beautiful creatures active in the night walk was an absolute treat.  The Bilby was the big highlight.  Before Malcolm’s death last year, he planned to have a night walk with around eight to ten species, so I hope they are successful in expanding this.

The 11 am tour was of the dingoes, and we got to meet and greet some rare pure dingoes from the alpine region of NSW.  The female was in the process of being trained, so she could be used to interact with people.  Both Coby and Rhys got to pet her, which they thought was terrific.

Blue Winged KookaburraReady to strikeWe wandered around the park, enjoying the animals.  All the rare and little known wallabies and kangaroos had just been fed, so most of them were on full show at the front of their enclosures.  The bird collection was also impressive, with the barking owl creating the most interest.  They really do sound like they are barking, with a woof-woof sound.  The kids were also fascinated by the bats, and how they were always upside down.  We had a big discussion with them about why bats were not birds.

The bird billabong has a great viewing platform, where wild birds are free to come and go at their leisure, as they migrate past Broome.

We had a great picnic lunch in the shade overlooking the main crocodile enclosure, where approximately 70 crocs reside.  It was fun to see them lurking in the water, and we even saw a tussle or two between some of the more domineering males.

Our second tour gave the kids an opportunity to pat a 3 meter olive python, and another baby croc.  I have to add fear of snakes to our discussion list for the kids.  They were way too eager to touch him.  From there we fed the cassowaries, and the barking owls.  The kids really loved this interaction with the animals.Rhys holds a Croc

Unfortunately, Malcolm Douglas passed away September 2010.  There was some uncertainty around the future of the parks continuing without him.  Well, I’m pleased to report the parks are still running, with friendly and enthusiastic staff, and terrific tours and animal interaction opportunities, especially for children.  Young children especially retain what they see and experience through these interactions, so it was a great learning experience for them, and a whole lot of fun.  If you are visiting Broome, be sure not to miss seeing the parks.

Malcolm Douglas logo

www.malcolmdouglas.com.au

Broome Top Deck Tours

I lived in London for almost 8 years, and one of the essential touristy things to do is a tour of London in a red double decker bus.  Most major cities in the world have a version to take in the sites, usually a condensed whistle stop tour of the city for those in hurry, or wanting an overall picture before they planned their itinerary.  When I saw Broome had its very own Top Deck Tour, I was intrigued.

Broome Top Deck BusAll aboard theBroome Top Deck BusYes, the bus was a red double decker, built in London in the early seventies, but was put together in Sydney and spent most of its service life in Newcastle.  The current owners had it shipped over, and restored over 9 months to give the tours around Broome.  Double deckers are a novelty with the kids, and there was great excitement as they clambered up the stairs, ready for the drive around town.

We left Broome Visitors Centre at 10 am, and made a few pickups from some central points around town.  It was a pleasant morning, and the top of the bus was open, airy, and shaded, making the entire trip comfortable.

Our driver and guide, Calvin, has lived in Broome for over 25 years, so he is practically a local, despite the English accent.  He obviously has a great knowledge and passion for the area. We drove around the sites of Broome, where he was able to point out all the historic buildings and landmarks.  The abundance of stories and legends were both interesting and entertaining.   I never could have imagined that a town such as Broome could have such a history.

We drove though some of the residential areas, and could marvel at some of the ritzier properties on Cable Beach, a bit like doing a celebrity tour around LA.  As our family were staying out in the sticks at the most distant caravan park from town, I was especially interested in viewing the more up market accommodation (for when we win the lottery).

Boab TreeSun Picture TheatreOne thing I really loved about Broome is the gardens, trees and lushness.  Along with the Asian inspired architecture, no doubt from its vast multicultural history, there were loads of established native and imported trees such as tamarind, mango, boab species from Africa and Madagascar, and a wide variety of palms.  The sights and smells (as well as the temperature) made me feel like I was in a town in Asia, not Broome.  Calvin pointed out all his favorite trees, and how many of the older trees came into being in the town.

We got off the bus to visit the Japanese Cemetery, where the Japanese divers employed during the birth and boom of the industry were buried.  Most of them died from the bends, while some fell victim to cyclones and shipwrecks.  It’s a lovely little place that just adds to the rich history of the area.

Japanese CemetryRoebuck BayThese days, the biggest local industry is tourism, but pearls was the main reason Broome initially existed as a large town, and the industry is still alive.  It influences everything from resort names to trinkets you can buy in the town center.  The multicultural atmosphere of the place makes it one of the most unique places we have visited in our travels

The 2½ hour tour just flew by.  I would certainly recommend doing the tour at the beginning of your trip to Broome.  It helps you to get your bearings, learn about all that is on offer, and then make the most of your trip.  Of course, on the top deck of the bus is a great vantage point to take photos of some of the more interesting sights, and Calvin stopped at all the great spots.  Now I’m just left wondering if the week we planned to stay here is enough time to do everything we want to do.

Top Deck Tours Logo

www.broometopdecktours.com.au

Ningaloo Reef Dreaming – Whaleshark Tour

Whale sharking is something I never knew about until this year.  I first heard about it from a fellow traveler in South Australia back when we started our adventure.  Being an absolute nature lover, and always wanting to see species in their natural habitat as much as possible, I was keen.

Exmouth is a real hub for seeing whale sharks for one real reason, coral spawning.  Uniquely, Ningaloo Reef has a major and a minor coral spawning every year.  Usually in March for the major event, and April for the minor spawning.  This event increases the production of krill, whale sharks major source of food.  As a result, you are almost guaranteed to see them from March to July, but April to June is the peak of the season. 

Initially we chose Ningaloo Reef Dreaming because of its reputation.  Because whale sharks are in fact sharks and not whales, you cannot spot them because of breaching or spouting, and they often dive for hours at a time.  Thus you need planes to spot them on the reef, if they choose to cruise along the surface for a while.  Unlike other companies, Ningaloo Reef Dreaming have their own spotter plane, which means, on average, clients have a longer amount of time swimming with the whale sharks they spot.  The other companies have to share more, so you can have three or more boats taking turns.  But, as I found out, this was not the only reason to support this company.

Both Mike and I had the brilliant opportunity to meet Dr Brent Stewart, a famous and internationally recognized Senior Research Scientist from the Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute in San Diego.  He is one of the world leading researchers in large marine vertebrates, and he was in Exmouth continuing some of his work.  Ningaloo Reef Dreaming was the only whale sharking tour company in Australia that supported and contributed to the vital research of whale sharks that Brent was undertaking.

Safety BriefingSharon SnorkellingThere is not a lot know about whale sharks. Nobody has ever seen them mating, nobody has ever seen a live baby, and rarely seen an older specimen.  Along Ningaloo Reef, it is mostly juvenile males that are spotted (between 3 and 10 meters), and rarely females of the species.  They know they live in the tropics, but not a lot of their natural environment is known.  Brent was heading a long term research project of tagging and gathering data about these majestic creatures, to learn more about their movements and habitats, and hopefully take measures to protect them.  The staff of Ningaloo Reef Dreaming were licensed, insured and trained to remove tags from sharks.  Any tags collected will be sent to Brent, and data analysed to add to their information database.  The staff were all thrilled to be a part of this vital work, and it just goes to show the passion they have for their jobs.

Mike and I couldn’t go whale sharking together.  We had the kids to consider, and a full day on a boat with them was not an option.  We didn’t want to spoil our own, and everyone else’s day by them getting seasick, or fed up.  So we chose to go on this adventure separately.

Anyway, our day started off by us being picked up promptly at 7:15 am by the Ningaloo Reef Dreaming bus.  We were taken to Tantabiddi Boat Ramp and transferred onto Skydiver for our day out Whale Sharking.  There we undertook the preliminary and compulsory training (a requirement of their license) before we set off to find some fish.

I would just like to point out at this stage that Mike and I happened to arrive in Exmouth during unseasonably rainy weather.  So far this season, Ningaloo Reef Dreaming had had a 100% success rate for clients seeing and swimming with whale sharks.  Unfortunately for us, the rain started falling once we reached Exmouth, and never really stopped until well after we left. 

Mike was the first of use to have a day out sharking.  The weather was terrible, and there were some issues with the boat, so ultimately they had the first fail day of the season so far.  No matter, Mike was happily rebooked for two days time for another shot.

I went out and the weather was even worse.  In such bleak conditions, the sharks are difficult to spot, even with a plane.  We did manage to find one, but it dived soon after we spotted it, so not everyone on the boat got to swim with it, me included.  Again, I managed to rebook another day.

Mike went out for his second try with waning spirits.  It was overcast and promised to be another unseasonably rubbish day.  But luck was on his side.  Almost all the other companies cancelled early due to the weather, but Ningaloo Reef Dreaming was the last to give up.  The weather turned and they ended up having the most awesome day ever.  They spotted a shark just after lunch, and everyone got two drops with it.  The visibility was great, and he got to swim next to the 3.5 meter male in line with the head.  His view was as good as the picture, and this is the shark he saw.WhaleShark (2)

As is the case most of the time, the shark was quite happy hanging out at the surface for a while.  Everyone had plenty of time for everyone on board to see and experience this amazing creature.

The day wasn’t over yet.  They went off to find other creatures, and everyone also got to swim with a huge manta ray.  They also saw Humpback whales breaching, Minke whales, turtles and a dugong with her calf.  Mike came back that afternoon on cloud nine after having the most amazing day.  Ningaloo Reef Dreaming has a dedicated photographer, and provides everyone with photos of their day.

TurtleManta RayIt was my turn for a second go the next day.  Alas, I wasn’t so lucky.  From the moment I woke up until the day was finally cancelled around 11 am, there had been non-stop rain.  There was zero visibility from the air, and no sign that the weather would turn.  We could have hung around for a few more days for another go, but the weather forecast was not kind.  If the kids were forced another day in the caravan they would have exploded.

It was with great regret I never actually got to see one, but I was so very happy Mike had such a great experience.  On a positive note, I got to meet Brent and speak with him about his work.  For a fellow boffin, I was pretty happy to do this much.   I will be back someday to have another crack at it.

A very big thank you to Ningaloo Reef Dreaming staff for a great day anyway.  Their passion and enthusiasm brought some sunshine.  See you in a few years time.

Check out their website via the link below.Ningaloo Reef Dreaming Logo

www.ningaloodreaming.com

Kalbarri Wilderness Canoeing

I hadn’t ever considered doing a canoeing trip, since my only experience of plastic boats with paddles was from the ‘Teen Ranch’ camping trip in year 7 at high school.  I had tried to wipe that cold and cramped memory from my mind years ago.  So when Mike suggested a canoeing trip for the day, I wasn’t overly keen.

To humor him, I decided to entertain the idea and called Kalbarri Wilderness Canoeing.  One of the owners, Alex, calmed my fears and assured me this trip was for everyone, young and old.  They have families with young children doing the trip all the time, as last week they even had an 82 year old grandmother join in.  It doesn’t have to be strenuous, and there is little walking or climbing for those unable to do it.  Anyway, he convinced me to give it a go.

We were picked up promptly from our caravan park at 8:30 am in an Oka Truck, an Aussie built, 13 seater tank designed to go anywhere.  After picking up all the passengers, it was just a short drive out of town to Murchison Station for the start of our canoeing adventure.  Murchison Station was one of the only working sheep stations in Kalbarri National Park, but these days they muster feral goats and export them to the Middle East.  Cabin accommodation and camping are available here.

After a quick introduction and safety talk from our guide, Mick, the kids got fitted with lifejackets.  As Mike and I can swim with confidence, we go an inflatable lifejacket in a belt pack, which is less bulky than the kid’s versions.  We then took the short walk to the river and our canoe’s and paddles.  The sturdy canoes have three seats, but we could easily fit all four of us in one canoe.  The children just took turns in sitting in the boat or in the middle seat.

It was an incredibly balmy morning, and the river was calm and still.  The Murchison River is a tidal river for about 25 km from the river mouth, but even though the current was against us, it was still a leisurely paddle up the river, with a nice cool breeze.  We spent the first stage of the day paddling up to Gregory’s Rock, and stunning landscape and typical of the regions beautiful National Park.  Here we stopped to hear from Mick about the history of the local area, its namesake and the current trivia.  We also had a chance to wander around ourselves and take pictures.

The area had experienced its greatest flood on record in 2006.  These past 12 months they had 2 flood periods, and Mick pointed out the evidence.  Things were pretty much back to normal now, but it was difficult to imagine the river being much higher than when we saw it.

Back in the canoes for another meander up the river.  Mick gave us an interesting overview of the local fauna and flora.  We spotted Whistling Kites gliding overhead, and various other local bird species.  Rhys and Coby loved watching the jumping mullet, which apparently nobody is certain why they jump out of the water so often.  Apparently it is good luck for one of them to jump into your boat, so long as you kiss it before you throw it back.

By this stage, our paddling confidence was growing, so Mick challenged us into trying some maneuvers under branches of gums on the banks of the river.  As the ‘Captain’, Mike was in charge of following the lead, and getting us safely through the trees.  We only got trapped once on the first obstacle, and had fun conquering the rest, finishing with a turn and some back paddling.

Next stop, brunch.  We paddled to a great little beach, all set up with a picnic table and extra chairs, billy and BBQ.  Mick cooked us a delicious brunch of bacon, eggs, sausage, beans and a bread roll with a cup of tea or coffee.

Back in the canoe, and we started paddling back upstream.  The sun was getting higher and the day hotter, so we had a bit of banter and splash with Mick and the kids.  We paddled to an open beach where we had the opportunity to have a bit of a swim and play.  Coby is just starting to grow in confidence with her swimming, and was incredibly happy to discover the floatation her lifejacket provided.  She was happy to stay in the water, practicing her kicking and dog paddling, with a massive smile on her face.  The water was calm, and it was lovely to cool off in the river.

Of course we were blessed with incredibly pleasant weather.  Kalbarri can get particularly hot in the summer months.  But on hot days, an extra swim is added to the day, and passengers tend to ‘fall in’ more frequently.

Then there was one last chance for a paddle and to take in the scenery, and we were back to where we started.  Mick took charge of getting the canoes rinsed and tied back up for tomorrow, and we headed back to the truck.  We were all dropped back to our accommodation by 1:30.

I am now officially a canoeing convert.  We all really enjoyed our day.  It was relaxed, picturesque, entertaining and fun.  The kids were so exhausted there were no complaints when we put them down for a nap (and they didn’t even do any paddling).  This is an activity anyone can do, but is especially great for families with kids of any age.  Kalbarri Wilderness Canoeing endeavour to cater for all ages and abilities, kids under 6 are free to encourage the whole family to join in. You won’t be disappointed.

Rockingham Wild Encounters – Penguin Island

We stayed in Perth for just over a week, and while we were there, we didn’t want to miss Penguin Island with Wild encounters, just 45 minutes drive from central Perth, and around 30 minutes from Fremantle.

The Shoalwater Islands Marine Park is situated just off Rockingham, south of Perth.  We arrived just in time to take the 10 am ferry to Penguin Island.  It is literally a 5 minute ferry ride across Shoalwater Bay to the island.

Penguin islandPenguin island FairysOnce we were there, it was time for a quick kids snack, and then to see the penguin feeding at 10:30 am.  The beautiful and very cute ‘little’ penguins are fed for the public three times per day by one of the enthusiastic staff, who obviously are very attached to the little colony.  The 10 penguins that reside at the Discovery Centre were either rescued as babies when orphaned, or were born in captivity from the rescued birds.  It was thought that they could not be rehabilitated to return to the wild, so it was kinder to give them a lovely home in the centre, and rear them for public education.

 ‘Little’ penguins are also known as ‘fairy’ or ‘blue’ penguins, and are the only species of penguin to breed in Australia.  In captivity, they live for around 20 years, longer than in the wild where they have many predators.  Unlike many other species of bird or animal, they self regulate their food, only eating what they require and do not tend to get ‘fat’ by laziness or overeating.  All the penguins at the centre are approximately the same weight as wild penguins, even though they get less exercise.  On the island, there are around 1200 penguins, but during the day they are usually feeding at sea or hiding in their burrows, so the discovery centre is a great guaranteed way of meeting the islands namesake.  They are incredibly cute creatures, and Coby and Rhys were mesmerized by their activity at the feeding session.  It was difficult to convince them to leave the feeding session to see the other wonders of the island.

At 11:15 we boarded a glass-bottom boat to have a trip around the bay.  The highlight was visiting Seal Island, to see the rare and endangered Australian Sea-lion.  Our guide was very knowledgeable about the area, geography and the sea-lions themselves.  Only bulls (male) seals reside on Seal Island, but we were able to get close and get a really great view of the lazy males basking in the sun, without any chance of disturbing them.

Tough life for a Sea LionSea-lions were hunted to almost extinction by 1895, and their numbers have never really recovered since.  Around 12,000 exist in the wild, which it why it is so important to have marine parks such as this one, where a healthy colony of the species can exist in peace.  

Also on our cruise, we were able to do some bird-watching, mostly pelicans and cormorants.  Whilst pelicans are a relatively common species, it was great to have the opportunity to see so many of these majestic birds at once.  There was plenty of opportunity to get some great photos of flocks of them in flight, landing close to the nesting site and the northern end of Penguin Island.

On one of the other Shoalwater Bay Islands contained a colony of cormorants.  From a distance they look a lot like the little penguins (due to evolutionary reasons) but are very different creatures.  They are coloured similarly, so they are camouflaged from above by being blue-grey like the sea, and from below by being white so they blend in with the white light from the sky.  Both are good swimmers, but penguins are unable to fly.

So after our Sea-lion cruise, we had some time to really explore Penguin Island.  The kids were famished, so we sat in the wonderful picnic area to enjoy our lunch.  The picnic area was situated near the arrival jetty, so you could enjoy the view of the bay.  It was really green and lush, with shade provided by numerous trees overhanging the picnic tables.  Even sitting here we could bird watch, as various birds came up to say hello.

Penguin island CormorantsNearing the end of the island loopAfter lunch we all took a leisurely stroll around the island, enjoying the natural fauna of the island, and taking a second look at the pelican colony, as well as getting up close and personal with all the seagulls.  The path around the island is mostly boardwalk, with a shoot off path to the islands highest point for a great view of the Bay, the surf and the coastal reef.  Part of the path is along the beach, where the kids had a ball paddling and looking for shells.  At one point, we had to time the waves to duck around the rocky enclaves, but again, this was all part of the fun of Penguin Island.  Coby loved the small caves within the rocky enclosures, pretending sea fairies lived there.

For families, or indeed anyone, without young children, there are some more exciting activities available. The main beach near the picnic area is on the calm side of the island, so is perfect for swimming and paddling for children and less experienced swimmers.  From the island you can snorkel, Kayak scuba dive and even try wind surfing.

Although the penguins and sea lion trip was the bulk of our trip, and almost filled a day for us, if you really want to add to the marine experience, you can also do the dolphin watching option.  This includes a two hour dolphin watch Eco-adventure, as well as all the activities Penguin Island has to offer.  Just be warned that this would be a very full day, but loads of fun for the energetic.

So after a very full day, we headed back to the mainland on the 3pm ferry with two very tired children.  I think we were only in the car for 5 minutes headed back to Perth and both kids were sparko in the back seat.  But we had all had a great day, and had even more fun reminiscing about the day when we uploaded all the photos.

Rockingham Wild Encounters Website

Wild Encounters Logo

Bushtucker Tours – Margaret River

Mike and I are quite partial to a glass of wine or two, and having never ever been on a wine tour in Australia before, we weren’t going to pass through the famous Margaret River without sampling a few local offerings.  But what to do with the children?  Would fellow tasters be annoyed with the children around?  Would the kids get bored and be badly behaved?   Do wine tours with children mix?

Bushtucker Tours (ph 08 9757 9084) were more than happy to have the children come for the ride.  They even offer a family ticket and discount, and assured that the kids were more than welcome on their tours.

We were all picked up at 10 o’clock sharp by Silvano, our driver and guide for the day.  Everyone was picked up at their accommodation, and the bus was pretty much full.  Silvano made sure everyone was introduced, and how he remembered everyone’s name from the beginning I’ll never know.The Grove Liqueur Factory

Kids Playing at Xanadu WineryOur first stop was Xanadu, probably the largest of the wineries we visited during the day, and one of the oldest winery’s in the region.  Here we were given an informal lesson in the art of wine tasting by our guide, and allowed to sample the signature wines of the Estate, including Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.  After our lesson, Silvano showed Coby and Rhys the little playground across from the cellar door.  They played for a while whilst we tasted.  When they wandered back inside, they were presented with some crayons and colouring by the friendly staff.

Our next stop was Adinfern Estate, for a tasting and for lunch.  Adinfern started off as a sheep farm for wool and lamb.  The owners first started planting grapevines in 1996, and started producing wine in 1999.  While we listened to our host, the children were happy to stand back and look at the photos and watch Silvano setting up for lunch.  We all sat round together on a huge table, for an absolutely scrumptious feast. 

Coby Enjoying lunchMike becomes a grub brotherBushtucker LunchTrue to the company’s name, there was a variety of bush tucker, including kangaroo and smoked wild turkey.  The chutneys contained some native ingredients, including black peppercorns from Tasmania.  The meal also had a Mediterranean influence, with marinated mushrooms, sundried tomatoes and pesto.  We also had the opportunity to try some native bush fruits.  There was plenty of food, and the quality and variety was just superb.  The kids just hoed into the bread, cheese and meat.  Even the sometimes finicky Coby had enough to tempt her to fullness.

After lunch was the Margaret River Dairy company, where we were able to sample 10 different and totally gorgeous chesses.  There was single and double cream Brie and Camembert, marinated Feta, baked ricotta and several types of cheddar.  Cheese is another of my big weaknesses, so this was a real treat.

The family owned and run Churchview Estate was the next stop on our tour.  Being a big fan of Chardonnay, I was happy to see they had both an oaked and unwooded variety on offer, and we were able to taste the difference in the production methods.  This winery has won numerous awards for its wine, but still manages to keep its prices reasonable.  It was probably the best value winery we visited during the tour.The Coloniel Brewery

Margaret River Chocolate CompanyThe next stop was certainly a highlight for Coby and Rhys.  It was the Margaret River Chocolate Company, where you could try generous samples of white, milk and dark chocolate, as well as purchase any of their products, of which there was an enormous amount on offer.  They also had a café with an ice cream parlour.  The kids were in heaven.

For something a little be different, we also visited The Grove Liqueur Factory where we sampled some interesting ports and liqueurs, including a delicious chocolate port.  Our host, Steve, was sarcastically entertaining, and never missed a beat.  It was at this point that the children started showing signs of tiredness and irritability, although everyone else on the trip had remarked at how well behaved they had been all day.  I think it was mainly the start of a sugar crash.

So our final stop at the Colonial Brewing Company was well timed.  They had a massive playground in a spacious beergarden flowing from the bar and verandah.  The kids were happy to run off and burn some energy.  Meanwhile, Mike worked his way through a tasting paddle while I finished the day with a glass of sparkling.  None of the breweries in the region provide free tastings, but it was a lovely atmospheric place to end the day, especially for the children.The kids with Silvano

Us with the busSo off home we went, everyone tired but happy after a great day out.  Silvano was the perfect guide, and managed to orchestrate a relaxed and entertaining day.  The mix of places we visited was just right to get a good feel for the region and its produce.   Silvano told us that as a company, they visit most of the wineries in the region, but select a different combination for each tour.  I’m sure they considered our children for today’s selection, which was much appreciated, and allowed us all to have a very pleasant day.

As well as the brilliant wine tours, Bushtucker Tours also do and a Cave and River tour, which includes canoeing on Margaret River, and a bush tucker lunch.  This is also a family friendly option with a family ticket available.

I highly recommend Bushtucker Tours as a relaxed and entertaining wine tour, especially if you have children.  Just let them know when you book, and they will go out of their way to create a day to include them.

Bushtucker Tours Logo

www.bushtuckertours.com

 

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