December 2006


It’s much colder where you guys are, so in solidarity with our family and friends as you huddle by your hearths we sought out Australia’s highest and coldest place this holiday season. We holed up in Jindabyne, in the Snowy Mountains, a town made famous in this, this, and of course this movie.

Strange weather has pursued us down the coast. We had rain and mist in Sydney, where there is no rain and mist. We had pea-soup fog in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. And then, in the sundrenched, drought-stricken Kosciuszko National Park, we got downpour of the torrential variety.

“We’re in the worst drought in recorded history,” said Dave, owner of Jindabyne’s local video store. “Of course, it doesn’t seem that way now,” as the water poured off his roof in rivers.

Happy Holidays from AustraliaThe rain continued all night. The next day, Christmas Eve – a fact of little significance to us: a strange by-product of constant travel – we hiked into Kosciuszko, which oddly enough is named for a Polish hero of the American Revolution. Mount Kosciuszko is the continent’s highest peak at 2,228 meters (about 750 feet higher than the highest mountain of the Appalachians).

Maybe it was the rain but the wildflowers in the park were especially vibrant on our little hike, a 10-km jaunt along a ridge near the peak called Dead Horse Gap, then down through a hillside of dead snow gum trees – new buds sprouting out of the hollow white husks – and along the Thredbo River for a real change of scenery. From alpine to riparian in three hours.

Moss flowers

Above the treeline the place was the most Wyoming-like of all the places we’ve visited. The flowers looked the same: lupine, gentian, buttercup, others we recognized but couldn’t name. The whole landscape seemed transplanted from the high plains of the Rockies: brown grasses and terre verte, windswept dryness; boulder fields and granite-granola pathways snaking around snow fences. Many familiar shapes and colors, and violent blasts of wind, which always remind us of the Cowboy State.

We basically came here by closing our eyes and pointing at a map. So the discovery was a particularly happy one for Lisa, who loves her beaches but will always be a mountain girl at heart. “I love it. I went to Wyoming for Christmas.” The range even shares a name with Lisa’s home mountains: The Snowies.

Snowy Mountains

More storms that night. It’s as if the wet cold we left in Auckland has caught up with us. There was even a chance of snow in Thredbo, Australia’s Aspen, on Christmas morning. We never thought we’d get a white Christmas on a continent otherwise becoming an inferno.

If you’ve heard anything about Australia in the media you’ve heard about the bushfires. They’ve been going without a lull since spring, raging all over Tasmania, Victoria and southern New South Wales. But the rain we got the night of Dec. 23-24 stopped some fires and slowed several more big ones … and saved hundreds of homes and let the firefighters go home for Christmas.

And on that note: Merry Christmas everyone!

Happy Holidays! xoxo, Lisa and Marc

Love, Lisa and Marc

P.S. Christmas crackers are a very English stocking-stuffer.

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SYDNEY, Dec. 17 — It was once remarked that Brits and Americans are separated by a common language. The same is true for Australia and the U.S. Here are some helpful definitions if you’re contemplating a trip here:

Ankle biters: toddlers

Boot/bonnet: car trunk/hood

Bottle shop: liquor store

Capsicum: red pepper

Chemist: pharmacist

Fair dinkum: real, authentic 

Lead: leash

P-platers: teen, or probationary, drivers

Ute: car with open bed, like a truck

Strange, yes. The sports are odd too. But fun. Been watching a lot of cricket here in Sydney. Really getting into it. The Ashes are being played now and the country is on high alert as the Aussies lead England 2-0.

The third test is on in Perth and some history was made yesterday when Adam Gilchrist recorded the second-fastest century ever: in just 56 balls! Today Glenn McGrath gave Australia hope for a sweep when he notched a two-wicket maiden, including Matthew Hoggard’s duck, in his 94th over, right before play was halted for darkness. McGrath’s gem gave the Aussies five wickets after they’d spent much of the day struggling to get past one. A low point was Alistair Cook’s century for England.

We’re keeping our fingers crossed for five more wickets tomorrow before the Brits can notch the 292 runs they need to eke out a win. And then The Ashes return Down Under!

We go back to Melbourne for New Year’s and may have a chance to see some cricket live as The Ashes continue there. An all-day affair — Lisa will be in heaven.

croc-pic.jpg 

We hummed soundlessly down the Daintree River in our covered flatboat. At first the wildlife seemed to be warned of our approach and kept its distance. But as we advanced more creatures showed themselves.

With an engine powered by a battery and sustained by solar panels on the boat’s aluminum roof, we were the only craft that made no noise as we moved along the banks of the wide Daintree. No noise, that is, besides the occasional lap of water or the scream – at first intermittent, then incessant – of the small Dutch child sitting right across from us. But both the silence and the screaming proved to be advantageous in our quest to observe one of Daintree National Park’s 200 resident crocodiles: the silence for sneaking, and the screams for attracting.

It took about 90 minutes and in that time we saw plenty of other wonderful, rare creatures: a couple tree snakes, a python, a small seven-year-old crocodile resting in shallow water beneath the overhanging branches of a hibiscus tree. And the birds: the metallic starling; the sunbird; the koel; lorikeets galore; and the azure kingfisher, a sighting by Lisa that delighted even our pilot, David, who has navigated the river thousands of times and knows its every snag and mudbank.

Trips like the short tours given by Solar Whisper of Daintree offer frequent surprises even for the most experienced naturalist or river pilot. Of course, as self-taught anthropologists, biologists, botanists and philosophers, we are in a position to be surprised and delighted many different ways every day. But one of my favorite experiences is to witness someone like David, a 35-year-old with an almost child-like love for all the organic forms of the Daintree, an ecosystem with an array of plant and animal life so vast as to be nearly impossible to catalogue.

As we watched a white-bellied sea eagle torment a colony of fruit bats I almost got more enjoyment watching David’s reaction to the drama: he narrated the event in typically laconic Australian style but couldn’t disguise the undercurrent of excitement he felt in witnessing it. That kind of thing is contagious and it sustains you on a trip of this scope and duration. For days after our visit we would remember it and it would fuel us.

And that was without even the best part of the afternoon.

Afternoon is usually the worst time to try to spot a croc. We caught the final tour of the day and one of the first things David imparted was this: crocs like to sleep through the afternoon, the hottest part of the day, usually in deep, cool water. So after we spotted the youngster – who measured about a meter-and-a-half – lazing catatonically in the clear water off a mudbank, we expected no better.

It was almost enough to hear David expound on the intricacies of the mangrove biota: Daintree boasts more than 30 species of mangrove tree, one of the few places where so many are concentrated: there are only 70 species in the world. The mango trees and umbrella trees and drooping hibiscus add layers that veil the forest’s interior in a green mayhem. We slipped into reverie watching the chaotic tangle as we hummed soundlessly along the mangrove line.

Then began the screams. The child – a cute little redhaired girl – had, at first, been sedate, intrigued by the boat’s resident white-lipped green tree frog and happy to sit on her mother’s lap. Then inexplicably came the change. It happened quickly. At first I thought she must have been stung by a wasp. She began emitting a succession of bloodcurdling screams. Nothing would make her stop. A wave of despair washed over the boat’s dozen or so passengers, not least the little girl’s hapless parents.

But not David. He continued narrating in a pleasant tone about the archer fish, which gets its meals by shooting insects with spit (I threw a quick grin in Lisa’s direction), and the fact that farmers across Queensland now shoot flying foxes on sight, on principle, despite very strict laws against doing so.

Bu the problem wasn’t going away. As the little girl achieved new octaves to the consternation of all, David said:

“You know, the sound of a baby crying has been known to attract crocodiles. They are very interested in the sounds of an animal in distress.”

Just as he uttered those words we saw, not 50 meters ahead, a very large, spiny body disengage from the bank and head across the river. It was, unmistakably, the deadly prehistoric form of the crocodile. Crocodylidae: the Thunder Lizard. And a big ‘un.

“Folks, I am not psychic,” David said.

The croc, named Scarface for the evidence all over its head of pitched battles with other males, was the area’s dominant male, a 4-meter monster that probably weighed between 400 and 500 kilograms. He was around 60 years old and through the vagaries of croc life had been reduced to only about six teeth in his head.

“That does not mean he is harmless,” David said. “I have seen this one eating a cow.”

We drew close to Scarface as he swam across the river. But not too close, lest we scare him into submerging, a croc’s common response to snooping tourists. In any event we got a good long look at him, and some terrific pictures.

Strangely enough, though she seemed totally unaware of the croc’s presence (or the presence of anything beyond her fraught, ineffectual parents), the little girl chose the moment when we were closest to the croc to stop crying entirely.

I’m not saying it was her sudden proximity to the world’s largest man-eating reptile that quashed her outburst. But all creatures possess some kind of survival instinct.

The crashing sound of the breakwater and the purl of surf on the beach couldn’t drown out the hundred or so footsteps that marched in disorder under the bright moonlight. The hard-packed sand gave a kind of squeaking crunch under the boots, flip-flops, sandals, and running shoes of the motley group as it followed, at a short distance, the bobbing headlamp and clarion voice of its ponytailed guide.

Voices were hushed. But collectively they gave an unintelligible background noise to the scene that even the high wind of an especially windy night couldn’t entirely quiet. The group was stopped and started and stopped again as directions were confusedly transmitted over a walkie-talkie. Mysterious coordinates were conveyed:

“Are you right at Seven?”

“Right at it.”

“Righty-o.”

Again the group moved out. Despite the presence of old women and adolescents and adults unfit for the rigor of brisk walking the assembly was made to climb a sandy rise, stumbling over tussocks of tough beach grass, then shuffle along a two-track road beneath a copse of overhanging trees that obscured the moonlight. The more skittish participants entertained fears of the highly poisonous brown snake: known to prefer this exact habitat, the brown snake is nocturnal and easily agitated.

Once more the group, ungainly and grumbling, was halted. It had arrived at Seven. No brown snakes, or any other nefarious Australian predators, were spotted, felt, stepped on, or otherwise provoked.

The guide gave hasty instructions. After viewing a video in which she figured prominently, the group placed absolute trust in her. She directed everyone down a final grassy dune and formed the group into a semicircle, where it finally beheld the object of its search: a great snuffling twitching prehistoric shell that seemed in the bright blue bath of moonlight to be swimming in sand.

Patches of light shifted on the surface of the ocean well out from the wide track of sand that extended many miles north and south. Sudden quiet: even the wind seemed to die down.

The turtle, a scarred green and yellow creature the size of a small coffee table, continued its digging, reaching into the hole with back flippers that scooped the sand like hands – better than hands – and deposited it in piles on either side. After about 15 minutes the flatback – one of three species that frequent the rookery at Mon Remos Conservation Park in southern Queensland – finished and perceptibly squatted over the hole.

The audience eased forward. A flashlight placed at the crest of the hole by the guide illuminated the event. Undismayed by the crowd or the light the turtle laid 54 billiard ball-sized eggs, often two and three at a time. She then buried them before submitting – reluctantly but without violence – to a series of tests of size and weight and the scoring on her flippers and shell. Weight had to be measured by strapping ropes around the turtle’s front and back flippers and across her belly and lifting her awkwardly among four volunteers. Only the ninth flatback to deposit a clutch here this season, she was the object of resolute scientific inquiry.

Tests completed, the beast ambled back to sea, pausing once in her twin ruts of sand to look around as the rolling film of surf came up to meet her, then continuing in a lurching mosey to the water where she soon disappeared into the low tide.

Chatter erupted like soda from a shaken bottle but was soon hushed again and not by the rising wind, now so strong as to whip grains of sand painfully against any exposed legs. The guide announced that the new clutch was too near the water – susceptible to drowning when the tide came up, a common problem – and would have to be moved.

“Do we have any volunteers?”

Everyone lined up with cupped hands and accepted a small white egg – still malleable, to withstand collisions with other eggs – and brought it to a volunteer waiting at a newly dug cavity a few meters up the beach.

The process was time-consuming. Midnight approached. The moon disappeared behind scudding regiments of cloud, then reappeared to wash the beach in blue, a pattern of illumination and darkness that few noticed after time. Most were too exhausted. The strain of concentration was more than they were used to.

Then came the news: another turtle, a loggerhead, caretta caretta, had been spotted by one of a squad of volunteers walking the beach. It was digging on a dune safely above high tide some 150 meters north.

Exhaustion melted away. The loggerhead is the resident turtle of Mon Remos. The population of loggerheads that uses the beach is the most significant in the South Pacific. It is a rare turtle, endangered, but this is the place to see one. The group unanimously voted to go.

The night wore on. Everyone forgot the wind, the sea, cold, soreness. It was a good night for the tourists and a better one for science. Several large groups (containing fifty people each, at $10 a head) witnessed the laying of several clutches by all three types of turtle, including the green turtle, a species that returned here this summer for the first time since 2001.

Some turtles were previously tagged, signifying returnees; some were first-time mothers – also encouraging as efforts intensify to bring these endangered turtles back from the brink of extinction. Starting in January visitors will see hatchlings crawl out of the sand and down to the sea.

On Dec. 10, 1976, Lisa Archer was born to grace the world. Happy Birthday Lisa!

Hello everyone,

The Journey Map, after much labor and laptop-cursing, is now wholly operational. Lisa spent a lot of time on this so please take a look. It has just about all of our photos to date, 90 percent of which were taken, downloaded, photoshopped (when necessary), and uploaded online by her — a time-consuming process. And you wonder why she hasn’t been posting to the blog.

Speaking of which, we’re in Australia now, menacing the roads of Queensland, which means it’s time for Lisa to write about the country we just left: New Zealand. So look for that soon.

We miss all of you and in case we forget: Happy Holidays!