04 Nov 11 - Well, we arrived in Perth - in the rain! Couldn't believe it but, yes, it was pouring down on arrival - apparently the weather had not been good for days and we were scheduled for more of the same over the time that we were due to spend there! Another long flight, this time seven hours of trying to sleep sitting upright - I can honestly say I did not sleep a wink, but at least I caught up with episodes of The Archers on my iPod! It took an hour to get through Immigration and Customs (which apparently was quite quick) loads of people were having their luggage completely stripped and searched but we were lucky and once we got to the head of the queue we were cleared straight through.
A very chirpy bus driver took us all to the 'Pan Pacific Hotel', we had great views of the Swan River on the way. Our room at the hotel had a huge bed! We both had very welcome and necessary showers and then we went out to explore. Buses within the city centre of Perth are free - hop on and hop off - so we caught one into the city centre, had a coffee and a wander and watched a street performer dancing and miming. We strolled round the market and explored the city. Caught a bus back - Mike enjoyed seeing ‘The WACA’ (Western Australia Cricket Association) ground which we passed on the way!
We bought a bottle of wine and a large packet of crisps from a nearby ‘bottle shop’ and retired to our hotel room. Despite the earlier rain there was an impressive sunset over the Swan River visible from our window. We went to bed very early as we were both exhausted!
05 Nov 11 - Next morning we met our Tour Director for the first time. The delightful Jo Walker told us that most of the other tour members wouldn't be arriving until the following day and she suggested that we spend the day in Freemantle, just down the coast, which could easily be reached by train. This we did in the company of another two couples, Jennifer and Tim and Ian and Joyce all of whom we had first met in the Eaton Plaza Hotel foyer as we waited for the bus to take us to the airport in Hong Kong.
On arrival we found an excellent market which was not far from the railway station in Freemantle - the goods on display were far from the usual ‘tat’ that we have found in other markets around the World! We all decided to visit Freemantle Gaol which was actively used until 1992. A huge tropical rainstorm ensured that we were all soaked on the way to the Gaol - thank goodness I remembered to bring the rain jacket.
Great tour - very informative and entertaining; luckily we were 'let out for good behaviour' after an hour and a half. We were soaked once again by a downpour on the way back to the station - it was absolutely pelting down. We caught the train back to Perth and reached our hotel in time to have a shower before meeting up with Jo and the rest of the tour members - on first impression they seemed to be a good crowd.
Fact: Perth is the sunniest city in Australia with an average of 8 hours of sunshine per day, 365 days a year! What happened?!
We joined those of the group that had arrived already for an excellent buffet supper in the hotel restaurant in the evening and we had a good gas with several of the couples - it promises to be a very enjoyable tour!
06 Nov 11 - After an early breakfast we headed off onto a coach for a tour of Perth. An excellent commentary given by the driver, John, a very droll/dry humoured Aussie, kept us entertained. We spent some time at King's Park, a beautiful park and botanical gardens which had great views over Perth and the Swan River, then drove to nearby Cottesloe Beach where we were nearly blown away by high winds!
Last stop was a visit to the ‘Swan Bells’ which were housed in a modern bell tower on the waterfront back in Perth. We were able to join in a proper bell ringing session - we found the actual ringing to be considerably harder than we thought it would be. One of our group, Michael, had been bell ringing for the last forty-four years (and took it very seriously) and he impressed the resident 'professional' ringers with his skill. We suspect that that was the reason that the whole group was allowed into the ‘inner sanctum’ - we were told we were the first group ever to be allowed in. Michael was very deservedly rewarded with a 'Swan Bells' T-shirt for his efforts. Great fun!
In the afternoon Mike and I went for a tour around the Perth Mint, the oldest working mint in Australia. We saw the second largest gold nugget ever found in Australia, 26 kg, unfortunately securely held behind alarmed glass! As a very poor consolation prize we had a 'photo-opportunity' with plastic replicas of both the largest and the second largest nuggets ever to be found. A very spectacular demonstration of how to cast a gold ingot was also one of the attractions. We finished the day in the pub over the road from the hotel for supper (an excellent Steak & Guinness Pie for Mike and a Fish Pie for Claire) and a glass or two of red and then to bed. Weather forecast for next few days is not good ...
07 Nov 11 - Today we had a leisurely morning and then met up at the quayside for a pre-arranged Swan River cruise and wine tasting. This was really nice and relaxing - luckily the boat was covered-in as it started raining hard as soon as we boarded and didn't stop until we reached the winery. We had an excellent buffet lunch with wine on the way so the outward trip passed very pleasantly! The ‘Water's Edge Winery’ was fairly predictably commercial but the wines were quite nice, with a very tasty Port to finish! The boat ride back to Perth was enjoyable with coffee and cakes served on the way - a very civilised way to pass a few hours!
When we arrived back we went off to visit an exhibition of Aboriginal art and history at a nearby Exhibition Centre - it was well worth the visit and we were pleased that we had decided to go. It had been raining heavily while we were in the exhibition and it continued as we tried to walk back to the hotel - we did have our rain jackets with us but the storm was so heavy that we were forced to shelter until the worst was over. Back to the hotel to warm up (it's very cold here!) and then out to the pub for another supper and more wine, braving the torrential rain and high winds!! Word has it that the weather is due to improve tomorrow - hmm!
Well, tomorrow we go to the beach at Mandurah to stay a couple of nights in an apartment with a washing machine! Guess what I'll be doing tomorrow afternoon?!
08 Nov 11 - We woke early so that Mike could go into Perth to try and get some mobile phones organised for us both. Meanwhile, I packed ready for the next leg of the journey and went down to breakfast on my own. Mobile phones sorted, we joined the others for a coach ride to ‘Seashells Resort’ in the holiday town of Mandurah, just down the coast a short distance. On the way the coach stopped at a supermarket for 20 minutes so that we could all buy some provisions (we didn’t need much because most meals are provided). The overall trip took about an hour and we drove through pouring rain and high winds virtually the whole way.
Our self-catering apartment at ‘Seashells’ was splendid, very modern and comfortable, fully self-contained with washing machine, dryer, dishwasher, microwave, hob and fridge. I spent the whole afternoon washing, drying and ironing - felt very virtuous having sorted out all our laundry!
In the early evening we met up with the rest of the group in the lobby and we all walked to a very nice restaurant called ‘Catch 22’ which was situated on the Marina. We had an excellent three course meal of baby Calamari followed by a choice of beef, pork or chicken dishes with a Raspberry Crumble for pud. We strolled back to the apartment after the meal and spent the rest of the evening listening to music on our iPods.
09 Nov 11 - Woke to sunny skies with very little cloud. Walked back to the Marina where a full ‘Aussie Breakfast’ (bacon, eggs, sausages etc) was served at ‘Catch 22’. The breakfast was very substantial and so we went for an extended stroll around the waterfront and beach afterwards to recover!
We met up with the others at 12.15 pm and walked down to the harbour where we boarded a cruise boat for a trip around the Peel-Harvey Estuary including a barbeque lunch on board. We saw lots of birds and some very expensive water-side houses. Most of the properties were apparently holiday homes and were rarely occupied, despite having values up to A$5m (about £3.2m). The wind on the water was very cold and we sat inside whilst the boat toured the estuary looking for dolphins. We were very lucky after a while to be joined by a pod of five or six that swam in formation along our port side offering great photo opportunities (if you were quick enough!).
I spent the afternoon by the pool whilst the Sun ducked in and out of the clouds. It was only just warm enough for sunbathing!
Jen and Tim came to our apartment in the evening for supper and we cooked a splendid meal of steak, green salad, tomatoes and jacket potatoes - preceded by very generous G&Ts and washed down with a lovely bottle of ‘Cab Sav’ that we had bought from the winery visited during the Swan River cruise. A very convivial evening! Early to bed as we were expecting an early start the next day.
10 Nov 11 - Right, the last chapter ended with us in Mandurah, awaiting our trip to Uluru. That morning we had an early breakfast, at 6.00 am, at the 'Catch 22' restaurant and the coach picked us up from the hotel at 7.00 am (the driver tried to get the coach up the drive to the apartment block and nearly got stuck as the drive was not very big and he had to reverse out, not an easy task!). The trip back to Perth airport took about an hour and a half and we then took a two and a half hour flight deep into the Red Centre to Connellan/Ayres Rock Airport in the Northern Territories. We were met by another coach that took us the short distance to the Desert Gardens Hotel in the resort town of Yulara. At last it was hot - but, unfortunately, it was VERY hot. We were drinking loads of water, luckily loads of water was available to us!
The time zone at Ayers Rock was an hour and a half ahead of Perth - this is important as you will discover later!! Our room was about a five to ten minutes walk from the lobby of the hotel and was very acceptable. However, we had no time to appreciate it as we were whisked straight off on another coach, driven by the excellent Gavin, 55 km south to visit Kata Tjuta (or ‘The Olgas’). Kata Tjuta (meaning ‘many heads’) is an amazing group of some 36 large domed sandstone rock formations which along with Uluru form the two major landmarks within the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.
‘The Olgas’ were amazing and we took loads of pics. We walked along a gorge between two of the bigger rocks for a short way but it was SO hot that we came back to the coach to seek refuge in its air conditioning - having been cool/cold for so long it was such a shock to the system! You may have some sympathy when I tell you that the outside temperature was at least 38°C! Apparently it had been 42°C during the previous few days so we counted ourselves lucky it was so low! Gavin then drove us on to a vantage point so that we could watch the sunset over Uluru (for those who don't know ‘Uluru’ is the Aboriginal name for Ayers Rock). We had seen the Rock from various distances and viewpoints all afternoon. Apart from Kata Tjuta, everywhere else is very flat so it was hard not to be able to see the Rock no matter where we were!
We had a really good vantage spot and, together with several hundred other tourists, took loads of photos of course whilst watching the colour of the Rock changing every few minutes as sunset got closer. Jo (our Scenic Tours Leader) had managed to get us a great spot, she had organised stools for us all to sit on and we sat there sipping champagne or red wine and enjoying some nibbles! Fabulous!
Once the sun had set the coach took us back to the hotel. The whole experience was enhanced by the sight of a full Moon almost over Uluru. We couldn’t face a full meal so we went to the resort’s food shop and bought bread, butter, salad, crisps and a tin of tuna and so had tuna 'sarnies' in our room for supper. After a quick shower we went off to bed anticipating the very early start scheduled for the next day.
11 Nov 11 (11.11.11) - Mike's 65th birthday! It didn't start well! We were supposed to be on the coach at 4.55 am ready for a sunrise visit to Uluru. I woke at 4.45 am - Mike had set the alarm on his iPhone but had forgotten to put the clock forward one and a half hours to be on Ayers Rock time!! Mad scramble - we just climbed into our clothes, grabbed bags, water, sun-screen and cameras and hot-footed it to the lobby (which was a good 5-10 mins walk away normally!). In the dark, despite me getting lost and running round the swimming pool (not on the route to the lobby...), we made it onto the bus by 5.01 am! I know this was accurate as the bus had a digital clock on board. Thankfully the bus had waited for us (probably because they all knew that it was Mike's birthday and knew how much he was looking forward to the trip). He was greeted with a chorus of 'Happy Birthday' and with lots of ribald comments. He was still in shock an hour later!
Thanks to some great driving by Gavin, our driver/guide, we made it to the lookout point in plenty of time and we snapped away capturing the fabulous changing colours of Uluru as the Sun slowly rose behind us, colour changes so subtle that it is only by looking later at the sequence of photos that one can really appreciate the differences.
Once the sun was up we set off in the coach for an Aboriginal Cultural Centre where we had a good breakfast, it was most welcome. Gavin gave us fascinating in-depth info on the flora and fauna and the culture of the Aboriginal indigenous population. His passion and knowledge shone through and this greatly enhanced our enjoyment of the whole experience.
We then drove around the base of the Rock and also walked for stretches in the blistering sun with reams of great information provided by the trusty Gavin to accompany us.
We eventually arrived back at the hotel at around 11.00 am to enjoy a much needed shower, and I was at last able to wish Mike a happy birthday! Shortly after, a chilled bottle of champagne was delivered to the room for him from the hotel! What a treat! We sat and drank the champagne and had the rest of the salad (last night's leftovers) in sandwiches with crisps for lunch. Delicious! Had to drink an awful lot of water after this as the temp was still high, around 36°C! The coach picked us up at 6.00 pm - all glammed up - to go to the ‘Sounds of Silence’ dinner. We had to walk down a red sandy path to the venue which overlooked both Uluru and Kata Tjuta. We were greeted with yet more champagne and canapes while we watched the sunset - fabulous! Along another sandy path we found the beautifully laid up dining area with white table-cloths and candle-lights on every table where we enjoyed a fabulous barbecue meal with lots of wine and port.
A didgeridoo was played whilst we had our meal then all the lights were extinguished and a ‘Startalker’ described the southern hemisphere night sky to us. Unfortunately the sky was not as brilliant as it would normally be because of the full Moon! Those who wanted to were able to look through a powerful telescope - needless to say Mike was there in a shot and was ecstatic to clearly see three of Jupiter's moons, something he had not seen before. I didn't go for a viewing, mainly because I thought I might fall over due to the generous amount of champagne that I had drunk!
Mike was thrilled to be given a card and a present - a bottle of beer and an Aussie ‘talking’ can opener! He was also presented with a chocolate cake by the catering staff, which he felt duty bound to eat although as most of you know he doesn't really like chocolate (can you imagine not liking chocolate?!) At the end of the night we tottered back up the red sandy path (now lit) to the coach and returned to the hotel. A very long day but a very good day. Mike said it was the best birthday he had ever had!
12 Nov 11 - A much more leisurely start today - just as well as I had had a rather disturbed night having had to drink loads of water to try and offset the quantity of alcohol consumed during the day and evening before! We spent the morning at the resort enjoying an Aboriginal art and culture exhibition and trying to stay out of the sun. The coach took us to the airport in good time for our flight to Cairns at 3.30 pm - Cairns time is a further half an hour ahead of Ayers Rock.
On arrival at Cairns Airport another coach took us to the Hilton Hotel where we managed to get upgraded to a room with an ocean view.
We went out into the town late evening and had a great meal of Barramundi, a white fish rather like Cod, one of the specialities of Cairns. We were shattered and so were early to bed. It's hard work this holidaying lark!
13 Nov 11 - We enjoyed an excellent early breakfast and then piled onto yet another coach at 8.30 am to go on a ‘Scenic Railway’ trip to Kuranda. We climbed aboard wonderful old carriages for a journey which slowly wended its way up into the mountains.
The line started at Freshwater Station (so named as it was the first place where the railway men found fresh water!), up through fifteen hand carved tunnels, past Stoney Creek Falls (very spectacular), through Barron Gorge and past Barron Falls (equally spectacular), and finally on to Kuranda Station high on the plateau.
Here everyone disembarked and we had a three hour sojourn in the town of Kuranda before our planned journey back to Freshwater Station on the ‘Skyrail’ cable-car.
We spent the time in Kuranda wandering around the town shops and the markets and having a prawn salad lunch - Mike had a ‘Tasie’ (Tasmanian) beer or two ("James Boag’s") - and then we visited ‘Koala World’ where I cuddled a koala, who was apparently called 'Hugo' and who was gorgeous, soft and sleepy! We saw an enormous wombat, several wallabies and kangaroos with babies and loads of very sleepy (thank goodness) freshwater crocs.
A quick walk back to the ‘Skyrail’ Terminal and we then set off back down to Freshwater Station on a cable-car high over the treetops. We stopped off a couple of times to walk boardwalks in the rainforest and visit some great viewing platforms. Altogether it was an unforgettable experience.
Once back at the railway station the coach took us back to the Hilton and, after a quick shower and change, we left the hotel and walked along the Esplanade (which runs along the seafront) and found a very good fish restaurant called ‘The Raw Prawn’. We had an excellent fish meal there washed down by an equally excellent bottle of a McLaren Vale Shiraz. We strolled around the Esplanade after the meal - people were there cooking outdoor meals on the communal electric barbecues provided by the City, some were swimming in the huge public swimming pool shaped like Queensland on the seafront and others were just strolling like us. Cairns is well known for being the ‘Backpackers Capital’ of Australia and there were many youngsters out on the streets - they were all well behaved and obviously enjoying themselves. It was all very good-natured and there was a wonderful atmosphere.
Eventually we wandered back to the hotel and, after chatting briefly to some of the others in our group, we retired to our room to watch the F1 Grand Prix from Abu Dhabi live on the TV - great drive Lewis!!
14 Nov 11 - Wash day! Managed to find a launderette and left our dirty laundry there to be washed for us. Mike enjoyed a beer or two (me, I had water - it was too hot for alcohol!) whilst we waited and we collected our freshly laundered clothes just an hour later. We explored Cairns for an hour or two after dropping the laundry back at the hotel. Giant (and very noisy) Fruit Bats roosting in all the trees along one road really caught our attention!
We sat on the balcony of our hotel room to eat a snack lunch. I spent two hours writing this e-mail which then promptly disappeared from the screen! I had been saving it regularly but for some reason best known to itself it just went - where to who knows and despite Mike's best efforts at recovery only the first paragraph had been saved!! As you can imagine I was less than pleased - in fact you could say I was livid! However, despite my tantrum, the text was still lost so I had to get over it! I was slightly mollified when, after a much needed shower and change of clothes, we met up with the group for a cocktail hour with yet more champagne!
Jen and Tim and Mike and I then went off to a very nice fish restaurant called ‘Peschi's’ for more Barramundi for me and giant prawns for the others. Delicious. After another stroll in the warm night air it was back to the hotel to pack ready for our trip to Thala Beach Lodge just south of Port Douglas in the morning. It's all go!
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