Chapter 5

Cairns/Thala Beach

15 Nov 11 - After an early breakfast we left the Cairns Hilton at 8.45 am to transfer to ‘Thala Beach Lodge’. Stopping on the way to visit the ‘Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park’ where we were treated to a demonstration of superb didgeridoo playing by two Aborigines who were in full native costume and body decoration - it was superb. Apparently, the way to play the instrument is to breathe out as you are breathing in all at the same time!! A technique known as ‘circular breathing’. I tried it – impossible! One very cultured Aborigine player told us that it takes at least two years to master the technique - I’m not surprised.

A display consisting of part film and part live performance was laid on for us which tried (not particularly successfully) to portray the Aboriginal version of ‘The Creation’. We then moved on to watch seven dancers on an open air stage performing some very energetic and enjoyable traditional singing and dancing, again all were in full costume and body decoration - the performance was excellent (even taking Colin's contribution into account ...!)

Lastly, we were all taken to an outdoor grassed area where, after a short demonstration, we all had a go at spear throwing. We were all, of course, fairly useless (apart, surprisingly, from Colin who scored a bulls-eye!). Next we all attempted boomerang throwing and, once again, we were all fairly useless although Mike did manage to get his second attempt to violently return and almost hit some power lines far behind him! The Aborigines were so skilled, it was amazing.

The coach then continued on to ‘Thala Beach Lodge’ which was hidden in the rain forest between Cairns and Port Douglas. The journey culminated in a very steep uphill final approach to the Lodge reception area where we were greeted with a very welcome cocktail of coconut milk, fruit and vodka, made to a secret recipe and served in a whole coconut with a straw. We were then shown to our individual lodges. Ours was a log-cabin set in the rain forest and had a veranda overlooking the sea (the sea was just visible through the trees). We had a sandwich lunch sitting on the veranda and I successfully redid the e-mail that had got lost in the ether of cyberspace (see Chapter 4!).

It was very warm and humid and so we showered and changed ready for the planned ‘Highlight Dinner’ that evening. Scenic Tours had decided that they were going to hold their own inaugural version of a ‘Bushtucker Trial’ (from “I’m a Celebrity, Get me Outta Here”!) and for which (unbelievably) Mike had immediately volunteered and, with a little bit of encouragement, so had Tim.

We all assembled in the Dining Room of the Main Lodge at 6.00 pm, thinking it would all be a lot of hype and nothing really unpleasant would be dished up - we were SO WRONG!! Three covered plates were placed in front of Tim and Mike - before the contents of each of the plates was revealed they, and we, were shown a slightly different covered plate.

The first plate we were shown contained... a ten inch long live Stick Insect which proceeded to walk slowly around the plate and then up the chef’s arm and over her shoulders!! Mike and Tim’s plates were then revealed to them – they were relieved to find that the offering on the plate was dead but it was actually a breaded and fried Stick Insect which they both promptly ate; with quiet gusto by Tim and with much less gusto by Mike accompanied with a load of comments such as “Aarrrggghhh it’s horrible”, “It’s disgusting” etc!

On to plate two ... the one shown to us, but not to Mike and Tim, contained one dead and one very much alive and wriggling Witchety Grub! Mike and Tim’s second course was then revealed to them – two roasted Witchety Grubs and an overturned cup. Amidst, by now, rapt attention from the rest of our group, the Chef, the waitresses and a few onlookers, they each proceeded to eat their two roasted grubs (Mike said that a squeeze of lime juice helped!). Then the cups were lifted revealing one very much alive and frantically wriggling live Witchety Grub on each plate!!!

By then I was saying “OMG”, and Mike continued with “It’s horrible”, “It’s absolutely revolting” etc but he manfully popped the live bug whole into his mouth. Meanwhile, Tim stolidly munched away quietly.

Finally plate three ... we were all shown a live Giant Cockroach!!! Ugh! Mike and Tim’s plates each contained one (mercifully!) dead Giant Cockroach which had been battered and deep fried. Mike managed just one bite of this monstrosity, gagged and immediately conceded victory to Tim who had steadily munched his way completely through the whole one and was thus pronounced the Winner!

In case the above photos don't do the critturs justice, this is what they look like in the wild ...

Actually I think they were both winners just for taking part - Mike said he had been warned when a lot younger never to volunteer for anything and vows he never will again!! Luckily there was a plentiful supply of red wine available which Mike, in particular, and Tim only slightly less so, poured down their throats throughout the Trial to help them with their arduous task.

Once everyone had recovered from all the excitement we were then served with a superb 'Bush Tucker' meal during which Tim was presented with a bottle of chilled bubbly which he generously shared with us and with Ian and Joyce who were also on our table. Mike and I had a Carpaccio of Green Ant Gravlax (smoked salmon studded with real crushed green ants - actually delicious), followed by a main course of Barramundi Fillet for Mike and a superb Spiced Kangaroo Loin for me, we both finished with a selection of puds - Coconut Brulée with Tapioca Pearls and Coconut Sorbet. It really was very good.

Rather amazingly, neither Mike nor Tim’s appetites seemed to have been adversely affected by their ordeal and they tucked in to the meal with relish and appeared not to have any ill effects from their ‘appetisers’. After the dinner had finished Mike, Tim and I joined a few others and went stargazing, well away from the bright lights, guided by a very knowledgeable and enthusiastic young lady who knew the Southern constellations well. We were able to see loads of stars in the very dark night sky. At least four of Jupiter’s moons were clearly visible through her telescopes. It was very strange to see Orion - normally regarded as a Northern hemisphere Winter constellation - but here it was upside down in Summer! A great end to a splendid evening.

16 Nov 11 - Onto the coach at 9.00 am - our coach driver, Warren ("Wazza"), was yet another very droll Aussie (they all seem to be!) - it was his birthday and, when we had to stop for a while at road works, he got out a ukulele and played it for ten minutes to entertain us until the traffic started moving again!

The coach took us to Port Douglas where we boarded a large catamaran ferry at Marina Mirage which then took us on a one and a half hour fast journey out to the Outer Barrier Reef. The Cat moored alongside a large multilevel floating pontoon which was to be our base for the afternoon.

We were ferried in groups of four on a small motor boat for 400 yards over to a very small pontoon from which each group were treated to a ten minute helicopter trip very low over the Reef. The helicopter was flown by a lady pilot (called ‘Jack’) who was very young, very skilful and very pretty!

The weather wasn’t particularly good, although it was dry it was very overcast. We were able to see the Outer Reef but unfortunately the colours weren’t as good as they would have been in bright sunshine. Our flight was with Tim and Jen and we had a brilliant trip - Mike loved it!

Then a very quick trip back to the main pontoon - the boatman was doing a sterling job dropping off those who had completed their flight and taking the next four over to the helicopter pontoon for their trip.

Once back to the main pontoon we went out in a semi-submersible craft for a half hour underwater trip around the Reef so that we could enjoy fabulous close-up views of the corals and the fish - we even saw a turtle!

It was very hot down there so I was glad to get out. Jen, Tim and I then went out snorkelling - we had to wear black ‘anti-stinger’ suits to keep us safe from the jelly fish - however I found that couldn’t put my face in the water for more than a few seconds without panicking, so for me the snorkelling was short lived! It was quite rough anyway and I wasn’t the only one who had problems!

After a shower (guess who forgot to bring a comb? You can imagine what a sight I looked) - we had a really nice salad lunch in the pontoon restaurant and then transferred back to the catamaran for the trip back to Port Douglas. This took an hour and a half and the sea was quite choppy.

A decision was made to stay in Port Douglas instead of going back to the Lodge and so we enjoyed drinks and a very nice meal at The ‘Tin Shack’, a restaurant overlooking the harbour. I had grilled Mangrove Jack (a reef fish) served on a veggie pattie in a saffron and tomato broth - delicious! The others all had the Seafood Basket - a posh Gougons and Chips!

We found our way to ‘The Iron Bar’ pub where we spent a fun hour watching Cane Toad Racing - Jen got picked to compete and had to kiss her toad!!

After all that excitement we crossed the road and caught a mini-bus which returned us at breakneck speed to Thala Beach by 10.30 pm. After another splendid day it was time again for bed.

17 Nov 11 - Up early at 7.30 am to go on a nature walk with one of the gardeners who had worked at the Lodge for over 23 years and who knew the grounds inside out, he had even planted many of the trees and plants that we saw himself. Initially it was raining and the sky was very overcast but the Sun came out at the start of the walk. David, our guide, pointed out and talked us through the many different plants and the trees of the rainforest and also identified every one of the large number of birds that we saw - his speciality. The walk lasted about one and a half hours and ended at a lily pond where we saw the most beautiful water lilies with flowers all open surrounded by loads of dragonflies.

I had a quiet rest of the day by the pool chatting to Tim and Jen and tried to remain hydrated. A magnificent five foot long Lace Goanna (Lace Monitor) strolled out of the bushes and around the pool whilst ignoring us completely as, incidentally, did all the other wildlife!

Walked down to the beach just before dusk, not able to go in the water due to the high probability of stinger jelly fish being there but we enjoyed simply walking on the sand.

We had a lovely meal in the Main Lodge restaurant that evening with Jen and Tim - expensive but well worth it! A quick coffee afterwards at their lodge and then we went back to get packed ready for another early start the next day for our flight to Sydney.

Chapter 6


18 Nov 11 - Up at 5.00 am (!), bags packed by 6.00 am, in the coach at 7.00 am for an hour's trip to the airport. Flight to Sydney lasted three hours, arrived at around 1.15 pm local time. Met by another coach with another very nice, droll Aussie driver who took us to the Four Seasons Hotel via a tour of Sydney first. Our room on the 23rd floor was gorgeous with an amazing view of the Harbour and the Opera House. Wow!

After taking piccies of the view from the hotel window we took a quick stroll down to Circular Quay where we enjoyed some more didgeridoo playing in the sunshine - it was so good that I bought the CD that the musicians were selling!

Back to the hotel in time for a quick change before meeting the rest of the group to walk back to the quayside to board a 'Captain Cook' dinner cruise around the harbour. This was really good, an excellent three course meal with free wine and champagne - I enjoyed the champagne as you can imagine! We ate with Tim and Jen again - most enjoyable. Took lots of great piccies of the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. The trip lasted about an hour and a half - the crew did well to get us all fed and watered in the time, they are obviously very practised at it.

On return Mike and I walked along George Street, one of the main streets in Sydney, to find the location of the Sydney HQ of HSBC (which turned out to be about a twenty minute walk away) as we needed to sort out some banking problems. Unfortunately the branch was closed and would not open again until Monday. We passed the Victoria Building in which there was an enormous Christmas tree taking up three floors and which was covered with Swarovski crystals - a sight to behold!

19 Nov 11 - Fairly leisurely start, excellent breakfast, the bill came to A$84 (around £65) - thank goodness breakfast is included in the price of our tour! We walked to the Opera House and joined the 11.00 am tour which lasted about an hour. Excellent and enjoyable/informative tour guide, Robbie, a very young 'Justin Bieber look-a-like'.

It was wonderfully warm. We met up with my friend Caroline at around midday and found a place to sit and have a beer and some very good fish and chips and nattered for an hour or so and then took the ferry over to Manly - loads of sailing boats on the water and it was pretty windy during the crossing.

On arrival at Manly, huge numbers of people surged off the ferry and we were carried along in a great wave of humanity heading towards the beach! We would have gone there even if we hadn't wanted to as it was impossible to go in any other direction! Mike and I walked along the beach to the headland and back, a bit of a power walk as we said we would be back by 4.00 pm and it was further than we thought. We had left Caroline doing some people watching (and there were plenty of them to keep her occupied!).

We arrived back with her only about five mins late and treated ourselves to huge ice-creams before walking back to the ferry to go back to Circular Quay.

Caroline came back to our hotel room where we rustled up a cup of tea and had further chats and then I walked with her to the station for her train home. Too short a time, but we'll be seeing her again next week after we've been to Melbourne. After a shower and change Mike and I walked to the Rocks and had a very nice meal and bottle of wine at 'Russell's Wine Bar' before wandering around the harbour enjoying the warm evening and the lights. Sydney was buzzing!

20 Nov 11 - A leisurely breakfast. Weather was overcast and rain was forecast. I started to write my next missive and then realised that the best part of the day was going to be the morning, so we went off to the Rocks Sunday Market which we found to be heaving - mainly because a huge cruise liner had recently docked and thousands of Americans were milling around the shore and, yes, around the Rocks Market!

Enjoyed a beer and a peppermint tea sitting outside 'Wine Odyssey' bar in Argyll Street and enjoyed listening to a young guitarist/street singer who sounded like James Blunt [his name was Mark Wilkinson]. I liked him so much that I bought his CD for A$5!

It started to rain so we hot footed it back to the hotel and I spent the rest of the afternoon working on the next Chapter of my diary (still working on it!). Trouble is, each day is so crammed with activities that we have very little time to do anything else! Met Tim and Jen at 6.00 pm and, with umbrellas borrowed from the hotel (it was raining quite hard), we strolled up to the Rocks and, after dismissing a few restaurants, ended up having dinner at the same restaurant we had been to that morning - 'Wine Odyssey' - where we had a delicious meal and a couple of bottles of plonk. The men had lamb and Jen and I had swordfish and we all shared a plate of assorted Australian cheeses. Yum! It was absolutely pouring down during the meal - we were sitting in a sort of posh lean-to outside which luckily didn't leak - and the rain was very noisy. It had mercifully settled to a fine drizzle by the time we left so we didn't get too wet. Returned to the hotel room to complete my log before the very expensive internet access we had purchased for the day expired!

21 Nov 11 - Met everyone in the foyer at 8.40 am and we walked to the quayside to take the fast ferry at 9.00 am to Rose Bay. Very quick trip - a lot of Sydney residents take the ferries to work, a bit like using a shuttle bus or vaporetto. No hanging around, quick stop for people to get off and on and it's off again!

A short walk to the quayside at Rose Bay where the seaplanes were berthed and we were put into groups for our flights. After a quick safety talk we put on our lifejackets and then boarded our seaplane - a Cessna Caravan C208 which seated eight. I managed to get Mike into the co-pilot's seat and he didn't stop grinning for the whole flight! The trip over Sydney Harbour lasted just 15 mins and was piloted by Andy, a young blond Aussie, who gave us plenty of photo opportunities.

It was over all far too quickly and, after taking a quick photo of Mike with the pilot, we left the quayside to find a cup of coffee to help Mike come down to earth before we caught the ferry back the Circular Quay via Double Bay.

We still had had some minor banking issues to sort out with HSBC and this took us a couple of hours to conclude after which we had a snack lunch at Circular Quay before walking to and around the Botanical Gardens - we saw loads of huge Fruit Bats in the trees in the Gardens, it reminded us of Cairns. We were also nearly run down by Princess Mary of Denmark's motorcade as it sped out of the Governor's House! Eventually we walked back via the Opera House and got ready for the evening's 'Tour Highlight Dinner' (it should have been the final dinner had we not had our Sydney/Melbourne dates swapped...).

All glammed up we met in the foyer and walked to the Waterfront Restaurant on the Harbour close to the Bridge and opposite the Opera House. First of all we had a group photo taken and then we all went in to the restaurant where we spread out over over three long tables. We all had a fabulous meal aided by generous amounts of champagne/wine! Everyone was very sociable!

The Rogues Gallery! (all the splendid folk who braved the
Nov 2011 'Scenic Tours Grand Australia' experience)

Back: Michael, David, Ray, Colin, Mike, Chris, Rod, Robin, Eamon, Brian, Tim, Ian
Middle: Jo, Linda, Helen, Chris, Janet, Jennifer, Geraldine, Iris, Claire, Jen, Eddie, Neville
Front: Lydia, Margaret, Diana, Sheila, Joyce, Moira, Susan, Jeff, John

Sheila & Ray Joyce & Ian Lydia & Eamon (and their daughter!) Diana & John Roderick & Margaret Neville & Moira Susan & Jeff Mike & Michael Geraldine & Eddie David & Helen Jo Walker Janet & Colin Iris & Robin Jennifer & Brian Chris & Chris! Linda & Michael Mike & Joyce Mike, Jo, Michael, (Lydia's daughter) & Tim Tim & Claire Jennifer, Brian & Jen Claire!

As we left the restaurant it was raining! We got a bit damp walking home, forgot to bring a brolly of course. Off to bed around 11.30 pm. What a full day! Ready for Melbourne tomorrow.

Chapter 7


22 Nov 11 - Up at 8.00 am, left the hotel at 11.00 am. A coach took us to the airport for a 1.00 pm flight to Melbourne. Felt chilly on landing! Another coach took us for a short tour around Melbourne on the way to the 'Crown Promenade Hotel', which is right by the Yarra River. The hotel is part of a huge complex which includes a massive Casino which we went to look at before eating. It was a real eye opener - the Casino floor was filled with hundreds of Chinese gamblers and hundreds of very fat ladies - there appeared to be no-one else there! It was horrendous - I couldn’t get out of there quickly enough!

We found somewhere to eat and then had to find our way out of the complex - I hated it so much and vowed never to return! It was rather like a subculture of people living completely different lives from the rest of us - apparently the Casino is busy all around the clock - unbelievable. We went back to the hotel when we managed to escape the maze of beeping machines and flashing lights, put on warm fleeces and went out to explore.

Once outside the hotel and the Casino, Melbourne was wonderful. We enjoyed strolling around the wide streets and pavements and seeing the many unusual buildings. Federation Square was particularly unusual.

I was still cold and even Mike agreed that it was chilly so we came back to the hotel and had a drink at the bar (yet another glass of champagne!) using a free voucher that we had been given. We joined three other couples from the group and had a very pleasant chat before retiring to bed.

23 Nov 11 - We spent the morning wandering around the streets by the river and I managed to find a shop in a rather seedy backwater at the back of the station that stocked my hair shampoo! - very few places stock it - and so bought up fresh supplies for the next stage of our trip.

A sandwich lunch eaten in our hotel room and then we got ourselves organised to leave by midday for the trip to see the penguins at Phillip Island. It was very windy and cold so Jo tried to arrange extra blankets for us all from the hotel, unfortunately unsuccessfully, so we all smuggled the hotel blankets from our rooms out with us (most stuffed into Jo’s suitcase under the pretext that that was going to the menders to have the broken handle repaired - I am so naive that I actually thought the case was going to the menders!).

We were picked up by Peter in a mini-bus and taken initially to 'Moonlit Sanctuary' Park where we saw a variety of Australia's wildlife including many Emus - they were the other side of a wire fence but stuck their heads and necks over this to be hand fed - they peck very hard! We also saw lots of Wallabies, some with babies in their pouches, and we hand fed these as well. They were gorgeous and so gentle, just nibbling delicately at the special mix we bought for them. Loads of photos! We also saw many birds such as Kookaburra, Cockatiels, and green-beaked geese (Cape Barren Geese). We also saw a Tasmanian Devil, which is apparently quite rare and endangered, and also some sleeping Koalas.

We then continued our journey with a stop at a chocolate factory/shop - well you have to buy some don’t you! We carried on stopping at various scenic points for walks and photo opportunities before finally stopping for a very good fish and chip supper at the 'Nobbies Centre'.

This final stop was at the site of the 'Penguin Parade' and we made our way through the Visitor's Centre down the boardwalks to the viewing platforms. Dusk was approaching as we watched for the first of the tiny penguins to return to shore after a day spent fishing at sea. It was the breeding season so one parent stays in the burrow with the chick whilst the other one goes fishing, returning at night. The following day the parent who had stayed at home goes fishing and the other one stays with the chick.

As dusk settled the first little penguins were spotted in the surf - too timid to cross the sand to their burrows as it was still too light. The numbers increased and, as it became darker, they grew in confidence and waddled in lines up the beach to their burrows. Some had a long walk - they all knew exactly where their burrows were. The only problem was a crowd of Chinese who kept standing up, shouting and blocking everyone else's view - the Rangers were very good and were quick to go over and tell them to sit down. When it became too dark to see the birds on the shore we walked back up the boardwalk, accompanied by loads of little penguins waddling up the path that ran alongside us! It was really lovely.

Photos were banned because camera flashes would temporarily blind the penguins and make it harder for them to find their burrows. We then had a two hour trip back in the mini-bus to the hotel - I handed round the chocolate I had bought, which was seemingly very welcome, and we smuggled the blankets back in Jo’s suitcase (unfortunately the menders had not been able to fix it...!!!). A long day but well worth it.

24 Nov 11 - After breakfast we walked along the river, passed the Rod Laver Tennis Arena and various other impressive sporting stadia, to the MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground) and enjoyed a one and a quarter hour tour of the MGC for A$30 each. It was well worth it - Carol, our volunteer guide, was like a ‘ship in full sail’ and we were quite exhausted at the end with the amount of information she churned out!

I managed to lose another hat (the one I had bought in Freemantle to replace the one I lost there!) - I must have dropped it somewhere on the tour; we reported it to Lost Property but by the time we left there was no sign of it. They did take my number though and promised to call if it turned up.

It was hot and windy and we walked across town to the Melbourne Museum to see the Tutankhamun Exhibition which was in its last week in Melbourne before it returned to Cairo. It was stunning - I’m so glad we went. Mike had seen it in the ‘70s in Chicago but was very pleased to see it again. Unfortunately some of the exhibits, in particular the fabulous gold mask, were not on show - the mask was apparently too fragile to travel and was only to be seen in Cairo. Will have to go there sometime.

We walked back to Federation Square and were just too late to see an apparently very good Aborigine Art Exhibition which had closed at 5.00 pm, so returned to the hotel to get ready for the very last evening’s dinner.

Just before we all met up we had a free drink in the bar - which Jo wangled (she's got the cheek of the devil!). The whole group then walked the few hundred metres to a tram stop to wait the arrival of the special Restaurant Tram. We boarded at about 8.30 pm and had three hours of the tram travelling leisurely around Melbourne at night whilst we were served a three course meal. The Menu consisted of Kangaroo Steaks for starters, Fillet Steak for main and a Chocolate Parfait or Sticky Date Pudding for ‘afters’, all helped down by as much champagne and wine that we could drink! The meal was topped off with tea or coffee and port, cheese and chocolates. A girl could get very used to this way of living!

To show our appreciation of the excellent way that she had kept us all on our toes throughout the tour, we had collected some money for Jo which Jen presented whilst reading to her a poem she had written.

Suffice it to say a good time was had by all. However, the evening was tinged with much sadness as this was the last evening that we would all spend together and we had to say goodbye. After many hugs and promises to keep in touch and exchanges of e-mail addresses we went back to the hotel and to bed.  Off back to Sydney tomorrow!

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