Sunday, February 22, 2009

Australia Zoo: Crikey indeed!

OK, I admit it. I was fully prepared to be cynical about Australia Zoo. How can you not be, when you can't travel more than about 100 metres in Australia without seeing a billboard or magazine ad with a picture of Steve Irwin or his precocious daughter Bindi? It does get a bit tiresome.
But you can't come to Queensland without going at least once, particularly not when we're living less than an hour's drive away. So on Sunday we went.
And what a great day it turned out to be! The zoo is fantastic, with plenty of opportunities to see animals and even touch them, without making you feel like you're in an artificial environment that is stressing the animals.
Even better was the tour we got of the new animal hospital (part of a media package I arranged, since I was also on assignment for this one). The hospital cares for any injured wildlife, both from the zoo and from the community. We spent about two hours touring it.
One photo shows the kids and a "wildlife carer" with a brush-tail possum she had brought in for treatment of contact dermatitis. The other shows us getting a chance to feel how soft a koala's paws are. We also fed elephants and kangaroos, got to feel a python, and saw just about every kind of Australian land creature you can imagine, from dingos and tasmanian devils to cassowaries and wedge-tailed eagles. And yes, there were plenty of crocs. And no, they don't let you hand-feed them.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Presenting.... the tree frog hunter

Tomorrow we're off to Australia Zoo, home of Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter. In anticipation may I present Isaiah, our own wildlife expert.

This tree frog was spotted on the wall of our house. Yes, it really is that big. Isaiah caught it gently in the pool net, then we watched it for a while before letting it hop away in peace. A truly beautiful frog, it is so much prettier than those ugly, ugly cane toads.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Left brain thinking

Well, it happened, and sooner than I had expected. Driving on the left feels normal.

How do I know? The other night Sharon and I were watching a movie (Burn After Reading, which is absolutely hilarious), and there was a shot of a car driving down the road. Both of us gave our heads a shake and said "Hey!" Then realized that, no, there wasn't anything wrong with the film. The car was indeed supposed to be driving on the right side of the road since the movie is set in the U.S..

Fortunately, driving on the left has felt normal for a while. Even if I do go around to the wrong side of the car at least once a week.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Afraid of bats? Don't read this post

This morning I was driving across Weyba Creek in south Noosa, and noticed a huge flock of brown birds circling over the water. Then I realized they weren't birds at all but bats. Hundreds of them, circling and swooping. I was on a bridge so I couldn't stop, but naturally I turned around at the next roundabout and navigated my way around to the base of the bridge.
What I saw made my jaw drop. Flying foxes. Thousands of them. The trees on either side of the road were thick with them, and the sound of their chattering was deafening.
A sign at the base of one tree said they were here feeding on blossoms, and would be roosting in the area for a couple of months. Obviously this is an annual event, but it's not one I've ever seen written up in a tourist brochure. I suppose I can understand why; "Noosa, home of the big freaky bats" lacks a certain something as a tourism promotion slogan. Quite an amazing sight, though.
We've seen flying foxes in the area before -- the first time we saw one we were driving at night and one flew across the road about 40 metres in front of us. At first I thought it was a big owl, then it turned and I could see the unmistakeable shape of bat's wings. They really are enormous: black flying foxes, which these ones are, can have a wing span over a metre!
I didn't have the video camera with me, but I'll go back and see if I can get some good video. This is something you really have to see in action to appreciate.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

No fires, no floods

I've had a couple of emails in the past few days asking if we're either under water or burned out of our homes. (Apparently some of the news reports in Canada are simply describing the fires "in Australia" or floods "in Queensland".)

The fires are some 1600 kms to the south of us, in Victoria. For those who haven't heard, they've had a terrible heat wave there with temps in the mid-40s. That's dried everything out, making fires all but inevitable. When the fires came, they turned out to be the worst Australia has ever seen -- hundreds of thousands of hectares burned, entire towns wiped out. Right now they're reporting over 700 homes lost and 108 people dead, but that number is expected to rise. Unbelievably, there are now reports that some fires have been deliberately set, and that others are being relit by arsonists.

On the other side of the country, much of Queensland is under water thanks to cyclones that have dumped hundreds of millimetres of rain. Two thirds of the state is flooded, many towns are cut off, farmers have had to simply abandon their livestock, and helicopters and boats are being used to distribute food, fuel and medicine. One spot has received a metre of rain since the beginning of January. Again, the affected areas are far from us -- anywhere from a few hundred to a couple of thousand kms away.

The editorial cartoon in the Sunshine Coast Daily today had a reference to Dorothea McKellar's 1906 poem, I Love a Sunburnt Country. It seems appropriate to share it today.

The love of field and coppice,
Of green and shaded Lanes,
Of ordered woods and gardens,
Is running in your veins;
Strong love of grey-blue distance,
Brown streams and soft, dim skies -
I know but cannot share it,
My love is otherwise.

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of drought and flooding rains,
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel sea,
Her beauty and her terror -
The wide brown land for me.

The tragic ring-barked forests
Stark white beneath the moon,
The sapphire-misted mountains,
The hot gold hush of noon.
Green tangle of the brushes
Where lithe lianas coil,
And orchids deck the tree-tops
And ferns the crimson soil.

Core of my heart, my country!
Her pitiless blue sky,
When sick at heart around us
We see the cattle die -
But then the grey clouds gather
And we can bless again
The drumming of an army,
The steady, soaking rain.

Core of my heart, my country!
Land of the Rainbow Gold,
For flood and fire and famine,
She pays us back threefold;
Over the thirsty paddocks,
Watch, after many days,
The filmy veil of greenness
That thickens as we gaze.

An opal-hearted country,
A wilful, lavish land -
All you who have not loved her,
You will not understand -
Though Earth holds many splendours,
Wherever I may die,
I know to what brown Country
My homing thoughts will fly.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

School uniforms

Took me a while, but here's a shot of Isaiah and Charlotte as they head off to school. I'll see if I can get a shot of Ana in her uniform, but I may need to pull a bit of paparazzi work to get it.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Behind the Headlines

This post is for the journos. Nothing to do with Australia, really (other than calling journalists "journos"). Just something I wanted to share.
I couldn't sleep the other night, so I watched a bit of 2 a.m. television. I caught a film called Behind The Headlines, starring Lee Tracy and Diana Gibson. Made in 1937, it tells of the love-hate rivalry between two reporters, one who works for a mainstream newspaper, the other who works for the upstart radio station. While Gibson (the print reporter) and all the other scribblers follow their beats, attending press conferences and writing the news, Tracy is scooping them all over the place by putting news on the air as it happens. It's the classic battle of technologies, and should be required viewing for any print journo who is watching circulation decline while blog viewership goes up.
In one scene Gibson gets chewed out by her publisher, who says "every time he scoops you, our circulation goes down." Sounds familiar? Then the publisher laments that he's trying to sell the paper, but "if circulation keeps dropping I'm going to have to pay someone to take this paper off my hands." In another scene, the publisher listens in as Tracy broadcasts live from a fire, then says "I hate to admit it, but that was the most fascinating broadcast I've ever heard."
Gibson's a feisty one, though, and she hits back at Tracy. Hiring thugs to stop him doesn't work, so she attacks his credibility. Twice she grabs his mic during a live broadcast and tells his listeners that he's just making it all up, and that they're not on the scene of the action at all, but are just standing in a studio. Again, sound familiar?
The parallels with our times are quite remarkable. This isn't great movie-making, but at just 58 minutes long, it is a quick and entertaining glimpse at the struggles we poor ink-stained wretches have been waging for over 70 years.
As the movie poster put it, "He made the yellow journals green with envy...the "short-wave" reporter who put the news on the air the moment it happened!"
It doesn't seem to be available on DVD, but if it's ever on late night tv, it's worth staying up to see. Or at least capturing on Tivo or tape.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Blue Bottles

Two things every Canadian knows about Australia: the toilets swirl the other way when they flush, and the country is full of poisonous and venomous creatures. The first is nonsense (I suppose you could say it's a load of crap) since Australian toilets don't swirl at all; the second, though, is quite true. There is an amazing number of dangerous and deadly creatures here.
And no, I'm not just talking about AFL fans on a bender. Anyone who's read Bill Bryson's book, In A Sunburnt Country, knows the stats: all of the world's most venomous snakes, spiders, jellyfish and insects are found in this country. This week a teenager was stung by an irukandji jellyfish off Fraser Island. The kid survived, but people have died from a single sting of this one-inch-wide packet of death. And that's just one of many tiny, deadly creatures that lurk in the woods, waters, deserts and back yards.
Of course, faced with this reality, Australians have two choices: they can either stay inside and lock the doors, or they can take sensible precautions and go ahead and enjoy the outdoors. Naturally most of them do the latter.
The trick for visitors is figuring out what sensible precautions look like. So far we've not seen much in the way of dangerous wildlife, at least not that we know of (there was a massive spider in the pool the other day, and I saw a snake on the beach that was about a metre and a half long, but since we don't know what kind they were, we're not counting them.) What we have seen, though, are bluebottles. These are little jellyfish that are known in other parts of the world as the Portugese man o'war. They give a nasty sting, which is apparently extremely painful although it's not deadly.
You see them on the beaches quite regularly, but they don't seem to keep people out of the water. And that's where it gets tricky for a visitor. You arrive at a beach, it's a hot day and you're ready for a swim. You go to the flags in the sand that mark the lifeguards' positions, and read the board that tells you the day's conditions: Stingers are present, it says. You look on the sand at the high tide mark, and sure enough you can see them every couple of metres, a blueish air sack a bit bigger than a marble or perhaps as big as a golf ball and a long, thin blue tail that can be a couple of metres long.
If we encountered them in Canada, we'd stay out the water. In Australia, though, the beaches are full and nobody seems to worry too much about them. People swim, someone occasionally gets stung, and life goes on.
The other day, though, I saw a sight that was keeping just about every Australian out of the water. After dropping Ana off at school I went for my usual walk from Sunrise Beach to Sunshine Beach. There were thousands upon thousands of bluebottles on the sand. Instead of one or two here and there, there were big clumps of them all along the shore. You couldn't even walk in the shallow water without seeing them swishing all around. It was amazing.
Yet even then, there were a couple of people in the water. I stopped to chat to the lifeguard at Sunshine Beach and asked him about them. "Some people don't worry about them at all," he said, "and other people get really freaked out if there's even one around." His tone implied that the sensible choice is somewhere between those two extremes, and that's certainly where I plan to stay.
For more on the bluebottle, go here: