Chapter 11

The Road Trip begins!

Sydney/Port Stephens/Port Macquarie/Urunga

5 Dec 11 - Overcast but at least dry! No sign of the Lorikeets this morning. After breakfast our first stop was to an Opticians where the very pleasant girl assistant fixed my glasses with no charge. The second stop was to the Post Office to pick up a package that Mike's sister Rosie had kindly forwarded from the UK and which had been sitting in the Post Office for a couple of weeks waiting for someone to collect and sign for it. The package was indeed the long-awaited replacement Credit Card - hooray! The third stop was to pick up our motorhome from the 'Around Australia Motorhomes' depot in Thornleigh. The vehicle was a touch bigger than Mike had expected, I think!

After twenty minutes or so in the office spent form-filling and signing our lives away, we were taken to meet 'Wayne' who then showed us round the outside and then the inside of our allocated motorhome - a process which took another thirty to forty minutes - there really was a lot to see and learn!

After we had signed yet more bits of paper we were at last able to drive the motorhome to Caroline’s to load up. I’m glad there are only two of us in the van as it is rather snug with regard to storage space. We unpacked our suitcases and put most of the contents into the on-board storage cupboards and left our cases with Caroline, she has very kindly let us leave a load of stuff with her to be picked up at the end of the trip. After she had made us a nice BLT for lunch we took a deep breath, primed 'George' (the trusty GPS) thanked Caroline and said goodbye for now and set off for our first day on the road.

We had been told that we were now members of the rapidly growing band of ‘Grey Nomads’ - the name given to retired couples who take off travelling around Australia/New Zealand in motorhomes or caravans for months (or even years) at a time. We were to meet many of them during our travels. At this stage we were very much ‘Grey Nomad Virgins’!

Taking advice we decided to head for Port Stephens, on the coast north of Sydney, and so we rang ahead to book into the 'One Mile Beach Holiday Park' there for the next two nights.

Mike found the motorhome remarkably easy to drive and we soon felt at home in it. We arrived two and a half hours after leaving Westleigh with no problems - nice campsite with all facilities, very friendly people. Once we'd found our plot we drove a few kilometres back down the road and bought a few provisions plus a freshly cooked pizza for supper. Back at the campsite we settled down for the evening and enjoyed a cosy supper listening to classical music on the radio. Very pleasant.

I phoned son Michael at home, which was really nice, but mainly because I had to use up some of the credit on my phone (I was about to lose it) before Mike spent some time talking to Vodafone trying to top up my mobile. This proved singularly unsuccessful as Vodafone were experiencing lots of technical problems! All very frustrating!

We had forgotten to turn on the water heater so come bedtime and darkness the water was still cold so I chickened out and went to bed without washing my face - a first! We decided to sleep where the table is rather than risk life and limb sleeping above the driver’s cab, which would necessitate climbing up and down the ladder - not a sensible idea during the night! There followed a rather hilarious ten minutes or so working out how the table came apart and then how it and the seats were to be re-arranged to make up a double bed! Eventually we cracked it and settled down to sleep in what appeared, on face value, to be a reasonably comfortable bed.

6 Dec 11 - We had a pretty good night although at some time during the night we heard a ‘crittur’ walking about on the roof which was a little unnerving. In the morning we decided it had probably been a possum - although we have yet to see one! Our more experienced camping neighbours had also heard the same on their roof and assured us that a possum was the most likely culprit.

We took advantage of the facilities at the campsite in the morning and both had excellent long hot showers in the nearby Amenities Block.

We spent the day pottering, just sorting out our next few days' accommodation, booking up the campsites in advance, exploring the current site, getting familiar with the motorhome and generally chilling out. The weather remained overcast and although the sun came out briefly, as soon as I put on some sunscreen it disappeared and then it started to rain!

We had heard some snorting noises the evening before, just after dark and in the early evening, and learned from a local that, although it sounded like a pig, it was actually a koala - Mike had thought it was a bullfrog!

We thought we would eat at the campsite café but when we walked over there we found it was only open Wed to Sat - today was Tuesday! Since we had no food in we had no option but to stow everything away, disconnect the electricity, turn off the gas and drive the few kilometres back into Anna Bay where we bought fish and chips for supper from 'Aussie Bob's', which we took back to the motorhome to eat. Spent the rest of the evening reading and chatting and went to bed 10-ish.

7 Dec 11 - Woke early and went for showers - just in time, as it started to rain whilst I was still a-doing of. Mike very kindly came and waited for me with my rain jacket, otherwise I would have got soaked! My hero! We had to leave the campsite by the check-out time of 10.00 am and managed to get on our way a little earlier.

The weather was overcast with frequent showers, some pretty heavy, but we arrived unscathed at our next campsite in Port Macquarie, the 'Melaleuca Caravan Park'. This was much smaller than the previous site but fairly smart with good facilities. Looking at the sky we decided to go shopping for provisions before doing anything else which was a good move as the first drops of rain started to fall as we came out of Aldi (not the best of supermarkets but there was no other nearby choice). Mike went off in the rain in search of a 'bottle shop' (supermarkets aren’t allowed to sell alcohol in Australia) and arrived back wet but triumphant - he had also managed to obtain a couple of stemless wine glasses free (the motor home does not have any wine glasses) by buying a second bottle of wine! What else could he do!

The rain really started to come down then so our plans of sitting outside in our camp chairs enjoying the Aussie evening sunshine were scuppered once more and so we settled inside in the dry and hunkered down. It reminded us of England - yet again! In fact several people (Aussies) have asked us if we had brought the rain with us! It rained all evening but we were nice and snug in our little home. We cooked spaghetti for supper - steamed up the whole place, I left the windows open to let the steam out and found that the rain was pouring in so had to mop up smartish! We'll learn...!

8 Dec 11 - It rained all night, heavily at times, but by morning, thank heavens, it had stopped! We both had leisurely showers and then I did the washing - including the less than sweet smelling quilt ('doona') that we had been using (I had thought it didn’t smell very nice the first night but didn’t investigate further then). It smelt considerably better once it had gone through the washing machine and had had some good healthy air to blow around in. All the bedding subsequently got washed! I shall be having words with the company re the cleanliness of their linen on our return. Everything dried very quickly as it was warm and very windy.

We decided to walk into town for a look around and to get a meal - it ended up being a three mile hike along the very busy main road (it was the only way into town). The town was touristy, dusty and busy - we weren’t too impressed. We eventually found the restaurant we were looking for which was situated on the foreshore - this was a very pretty location and the nicest part of the town we had seen. We both enjoyed an excellent fillet steak with chips and salad. I then had the most enormous ice cream and then we walked the three miles back to the campsite.

We spent a couple of hours sitting outside the motorhome watching the sun go down before retiring inside for the rest of the evening. We had eventually got our wish to be able to sit outside and enjoy the evening sunshine!

The weather is looking better for the next few days - fingers crossed we’ll be able to do more. We spent the evening reading and listening to a Dire Straits concert on the radio which had been recorded live in Sydney in 1986!

9 Dec 11 - Woken by rain but luckily it didn’t last long. Packed up and left Port Macquarie at 10.00 am, heading North along the Pacific Highway towards Urunga. Good drive apart from the state of the roads - there were so many potholes that Mike’s fillings were in danger of falling out!

On the way along the Pacific Highway we passed a Rest (a sort of lay-by with loos) called 'Paddy’s Rest', so we had to stop to see what it was like! (For those who might not know, Paddy is Mike’s brother-in-law and he does enjoy a 'rest'!). All the rest areas have dunnies (v basic loos) and this one was, according to someone ahead of us in the queue, absolutely appalling! We decided to use our 'onboard' facilities instead!

After two hours driving we drew into the 'Urunga Heads Caravan Park' and found the most idyllic place that we could imagine. It was right on a tidal river estuary set in immaculate lawned grounds with lots of seabirds and waders and land birds such as Ospreys, Variegated Fairy Wrens (they have blue heads), Scaly Breasted Lorikeets (all bright green with red beaks), Galah Cockatoos (grey and pink) plus a fair number of brown, white and grey rabbits all hopping around happily, oblivious to we humans.

The shops were nearby and were what I call proper shops - not the rather tatty examples most towns have. What a pleasant surprise - we bought some lamb kebabs from the butcher for supper and then had a quick trip round the local Spar Supermarket before we went for a walk along the board-walk. This amazing construction stretched for about a kilometre across the mudflats and mangrove swamps alongside the estuary to a beach that we could see from the camp-site.

As we walked along we spotted a pretty large kangaroo grazing on its own in the mangrove swamp and we chatted to a couple of locals who said there were about eight of them who lived there, some were even bigger apparently. It was like living amongst the wildlife and wetlands, so quiet - no noise from cars, just the sounds of the birds and the waves breaking. We may well stay here longer than the two nights we have already booked!

Mike phoned his father’s cousin Janet Murray and her husband Alan who lived just up the road from the campsite and who said they would come and see us here at the site the following morning at 9.00 am - so that will be an early start for us!

We sat outside watching the birds flying madly around us, particularly the Galah Cockatoos that were very vocal, arguing amongst themselves, and the rabbits who happily sat and nibbled the grass and bounded around us, so close that we thought they might jump up the steps into the motor home!

Chapter 12

Urunga/Armidale

10 Dec 11 - Got up at 7.00 am so as to be ready for when Janet and Alan came round to see us. They arrived promptly at 9.00 am as they said they would, and we sat and chatted under cover as it had already started to rain! We went back with them briefly to their house about a kilometre away and Alan then dropped us back at the campsite after Janet had invited us to come for supper at 6.00 pm - Alan would pick us up.

We stayed in the van all afternoon whilst it poured down relentlessly! The couple in the caravan next to us, Bob and Meg, had very generously given us some fresh whiting that he had caught the previous morning - Bob had already filleted the fish and Meg had breaded them - so they were cooked for lunch and were delicious!

Bob and Meg had been on the road for the last five years and were now looking for a place to buy and settle down. I sent loads of e-mails during the afternoon whilst it rained remorselessly. Eventually it stopped, shortly before Alan came to collect us at 6.00 pm. We got to their house and met two of their sons, Jonathan and Peter, and Peter’s wife Kerry.

Janet had cooked a delicious curry with rice for us all, which she served with an apple and lemon coleslaw, chopped salad and fruit. This was followed by fresh mango and ice cream for us and apple crumble and ice cream for Peter and Kerry (because "they didn’t visit very often and it was Peter’s favourite"!). Mums and sons, eh!

We spent a lovely evening chatting and laughing, and Mike and Janet reminisced about their shared past - Janet is Mike’s late father’s cousin (Mike was seven when Janet and Alan left England with Marjorie, Janet’s mother, to go to Kenya - Alan worked as a police inspector there at the time of the Mau Mau troubles. Marjorie was a nurse working with the Red Cross tending the children injured and generally traumatised by the Mau Mau - fairly hair raising times!). Janet and Alan also lived and worked for a while in Mombasa before coming to Australia in 1971.

Jonathan kindly gave us a lift back to the campsite where the peace and quiet had given way to loud music blaring from loudspeakers somewhere in the town. Thank heavens Saturday only occurs once a week! Luckily it stopped around 11.30 pm and we managed to get an undisturbed night’s sleep.

11 Dec 11 - Woke to sunshine and blue skies! Took the opportunity to do some washing which dried very quickly in the warm air. I was so excited I did three loads! Had breakfast outside - very civilised - and then had a lovely stroll along the two boardwalks, watching the fish swimming in the very clear water.

Mangrove trees have lots of air roots which stick up above the water taking in oxygen when the tide is out which then supply the roots of the mangroves when the tide is in. The tide was in when we first walked the boards, although it was starting to go out quite quickly. We watched various logs and branches being carried along in the current at quite a lick.

There were lots of children and families enjoying the water and playground area and there was a children’s party going on on the foreshore. The children were having a whale of a time! The weather began to change again - the forecast was for more rain and possible thunderstorms! Oh joy!! At 4.00 pm it started to rain and thunder rumbled around - we had been warned! We battened down the hatches (yet again) and settled down to another wet evening. And did it rain...!!!

However, it was not all gloomy, we had a nice spaghetti with tomato and tuna (this time we managed not to steam up the motor home) watching the rabbits and Galahs feeding on the grass. We also saw an Osprey being mobbed by a Galah earlier in the evening. They are quite assertive birds!

12 Dec 11 - It rained all night so we didn’t hurry to get up. But, at 9.00 am, there was a knock on the motorhome door and there was Janet! She gets up around 5.00 am each morning (I felt faint when I heard!) so for her this was very late.

Mike had just had his shower but I was still in bed contemplating going for mine! He sensibly put the kettle on for a cup of tea whilst Janet sat on the bed chatting and I tottered off for my shower. She thought we would be up raring to go and had planned to whisk us off for the day there and then - a quick amendment to her plans was needed.

She and Alan returned an hour later and took us out for a great tour of the area - Alan drove us around the Urunga area stopping at little bays with sandy beaches with great surf and through small rural communities such as Bonville, Valery and Sawtell. We stopped for coffee and biscuits that they had very thoughtfully brought along with them. We had an excellent fish and chip lunch at Coff’s Harbour Yacht Club and then Alan drove us up to Sealy Lookout high above Coff’s Harbour for a fabulous view of the harbour and surrounding area.

The sky was looking very ominous - rain was imminent! On the way back from Coff’s Harbour to Urunga it started - slowly at first and then it really hammered down - it all seemed too familiar! It continued raining hard for several hours - we had tea and then supper with Janet and Alan, whilst Mike and Janet looked at photographs and did more reminiscing, and still it rained! In fact, the local TV weatherman said that Coff’s Harbour/Urunga had had 70 mm of rain during that day - nearly three inches! I could easily believe it! We parted with lots of hugs and promises to keep in touch (which we will do once we get back home). It was still drizzling when Alan drove us back to the motor home at 9.00 pm after a very pleasant and very full day.

13 Dec 11 - Woke at 6.15 am to see a fire engine parked by the beach with the crew disappearing off down the board-walk - no idea what was going on as, after about twenty minutes, it and they left just as quietly! However, it did mean than I saw a gorgeous sunrise just before falling back to sleep for another two hours. Woke to a wonderful day - blue sky and SUNSHINE! Hooray!

We left Urunga with lots of sadness as we had had a lovely four days there. We set off towards Bellingen along Waterfall Way (which continued all the way to Armidale) with wonderful scenery, very green with lots of trees, with the road climbing and winding its way to Dorrigo. Just before the town we turned off to visit the Dorrigo Rainforest Centre. Here we walked out onto the Skywalk for a bird’s eye view of the rainforest canopy, and walked through the rainforest where we heard and saw two ''Eastern Whip Birds', which have a very distinctive and very loud ‘whip-cracking’ call. We also saw a Brush Turkey strutting along the path in front of us before it disappeared into the undergrowth. Apparently they have a tendency to jump onto the tables of the cafe and knock the crockery to the ground - diners are requested to take their used crockery inside after they have finished with it to minimise the breakages!

We enjoyed an egg and bacon brekkie/lunch there - no problem with the brush turkeys today. Suitably replenished we set off again and at Dorrigo branched off briefly to view the Dangar Falls which were pretty spectacular. From Dorrigo we continued along Waterfall Way to Ebor where again we stopped to admire and photograph the waterfalls there - both the upper and lower waterfalls - again very spectacular.

We continued on towards Armidale and eventually arrived at the 'Pembroke Tourist and Leisure Park', which apparently had won the 'Best Inland Tourist Park' accolade in 2008. It seemed vey nice but not particularly special.

We found our site and parked and then immediately discovered to our horror that we had acquired a stowaway - a very small, brown, and very cute rabbit that we had last seen at Urunga - it would appear that he had hopped into the sump guard just before we had left Urunga and had ridden with us all the way to Armidale, some 200 km along all the bumpy, winding and twisty roads with the many stops that we had had! He seemed reluctant to leave his ‘warren’ despite our best efforts, so we’ll have to see whether he has left us in the morning or whether we’ll have to think again! Apart from ‘Bob’, as Mike has christened him, we were pleased to see that the site was host to more Galah cockatoos and also to King Parrots, many of which we saw flying madly along our route today.

Chapter 13

Armidale/Sandy Hollow/Blackheath

G’day all! To continue... Apologies for the delay in sending this instalment but, as you will read later, we have been out of both phone and internet contact so have been unable to send or receive anything for three days.

14 Dec 11 - Yesterday we were told by our then neighbour (who left today) that we could go on a free heritage bus tour of Armidale which was laid on by the local council. We got up early at 7.30 am and booked our places on the tour at the site office with the unbelievably cheerful (or was it manic?!) manager, Michael. We set off at just after 9.00 am for a half hour fast walk to the Tourist Information Office in Armidale (the lady there told us that Michael is always that cheerful!), and joined three others for a three hour free tour in a minibus with Alan the driver/guide. It was only his second week of doing the job so he was a little nervous - however, what we didn’t learn about Armidale from him probably wasn’t worth knowing! All the information could probably have been somewhat condensed, but it was nevertheless very interesting.

Briefly, Armidale is one of the Tableland towns in the Great Dividing Range - although technically it is a city as it has a cathedral - it is therefore the highest city in New South Wales and was originally founded by the aborigines. Europeans arrived in 1830 with George James McDonald arriving from Armadale in Scotland, hence the name, although the spelling is different (no one seems to know why). The early settlers were wool producers whose wool was considered to be the best in the World, it was shipped to England and other countries. Alan had many pictures showing what a hard life the wool trade was in those days.

The town survived a Gold Rush and was heavily involved in the mining industry for a period. In 1882 the railway was established, linking New South Wales to Victoria and Queensland, quite a feat at that time which revolutionised transport and trade throughout Australia and the World. Now Armidale is a very important centre for education and culture and has a fine university (the University of New England), many high quality schools, a Museum of Modern Art and an Aborigine Culture Centre and for many years the town has been recognised as the prime centre for teacher training.

After all this information we needed some sustenance, and repaired for lunch to the local pub, which was offering a discount per meal that day - gratefully received! Fortified again we walked around the shops and enjoyed a coffee whilst watching the world go by - the temperature by now had really risen and it was very hot so it was good to just sit. We had been told that there was to be a Carol Service in Armidale Park during the evening and would have liked to have stayed on to enjoy it but, with the prospect of having to find somewhere to while away five hours in the heat, we decided to walk back to the campsite instead. On arriving back we found our little rabbit happily nibbling the grass around the motor home and bolting back to his new home in the sump guard every time we tried to catch him! Not sure how we are going to manage this one!!

We enjoyed a meal of lamb chops and green beans followed by gorgeous black cherries - we’re certainly eating well! Mike finally managed to top up the credit on my phone - hooray! - the technical problem Vodafone had seems to been resolved. We spent the rest of the evening reading.

15 Dec 11 - Awoke to a cloudy, chilly but dry day! Got organised early (we're beginning to crack this camping lark) and left the campsite just before 10 am. There was no sign of our little rabbit - Mike thought he had probably been supper for a couple of huge and very evil looking Australian Bell Magpies who had been eyeing him up yesterday as a possible meal. He was only little. I don’t want to think about it ...

We set off for 'Sandy Hollow Tourist Park', near Muswellbrook - had a good trip overall; roads were reasonable although the road surface at times was pretty bad - lots of potholes, most of which appeared to have had been filled unsuccessfully in the past. The scenery was ever changing, some flat plains, some very hilly areas, with lots of trees. We have been impressed with the road signs in Australia - my favourite is "Stop, Revive, Survive" which I'm sure really does make drivers think.

One thing we have realised is just how big Australia is - I know it is obvious, but it is only by driving for hours at a time and not getting very far on the map that one gets the message! The important thing is that the miles we have driven have been through some unbelievably lovely and constantly changing scenery. Many of the small communities that we have passed through look as though they are quite run down, with a lot of the buildings made of wood and with corrugated iron roofs.

We have also enjoyed some of the names of places we have passed - I thought you might appreciate a few of them:- Thunderbolts Rock, Dunduckety Creek, Poison Swamp Creek, Kootingel, Yarrandabbie Road, Boilingdown Creek, Flaggy Gully, Goonoo Goonoo Plains, Wallabadah, Tin Hut Gully etc!

We arrived at the next campsite at Sandy Hollow at around 3.00 pm to find it in a glorious grass and woodland setting, rather isolated but for us that was a bonus. The facilities were adequate although Mike was a little disconcerted to find that he was sharing the wash basin with several large cockroaches (only some of them dead!). He said he tried to swill one huge live one down the plughole by running a lot of water after it! (Luckily in the Ladies there were just a few dead insects, no live ones!).

Mike was even more put out to find that the promised Wi-Fi signal was not available - in fact he had no 3G either! What will he do for two days? There was no Vodafone coverage at the campsite whatsoever (I said it was isolated) but Mike managed to activate our Telstra phone SIM cards, which Caroline had kindly organised for us, so we do at least have contact with the outside world - just no e-mail or internet whilst here!

It gets dark all of a sudden in this part of the World - the campsite is basically in the middle of nowhere and there are very few lights but luckily our phones have flashlights so we are at least able find our way to the loos! We were treated to a huge cacophony of bird noises all evening, some pleasant singing, some strident squabbling screeches from all the various types around.

[Bird images © ozwildlife]

On the way to the campsite we had seen a Wedge Tailed Eagle soaring, it was enormous, and at the campsite we have flocks of very noisy Little Corollas, lots of Galahs, an Eastern Rosella, as well as hordes of, also very noisy, Pied Butcher Birds, and various others such as several Noisy Miner Birds and the occasional Crested Pigeon. [Thank you Jo for the loan of your bird book - we are referring to it often!]. We snacked on nuts, crisps and fruit and therefore didn’t fancy any proper supper and went to bed at 10.30 pm.

16 Dec 11 - Awoke to clear blue sky and sunshine! Unfortunately within the hour it had clouded over but there was still some sunshine around. I discovered the laundry facilities and proceeded to wash practically everything - with the iffy Australian weather one has to do the washing when one can! I decided to sit outside and write the next instalment (this one) and all of a sudden I pressed something I shouldn’t have and it all vanished (yet again)! As you can imagine I was not happy - Mike eventually managed to retrieve most of it from wherever it had gone, I'm pretty sure that he had no idea where it had gone either!

Crisis averted, we sat and enjoyed watching the wildlife around us whilst sitting having a beer/cup of tea. There are some lovely butterflies, not that I could name any of them - a small blue one and a large black one with white tips to the wings as well as a large brown/orange one. We were also treated to a lovely black-eared variety of the Yellow Throated Miner Bird that sat in the tree about twenty feet from where we were. Unlike his cousin the Noisy Miner Bird this one was silent. It really is idyllic here. The sun came out for the afternoon and it was really hot - I am becoming quite brown (well, very brown for me) shame I won’t be able to show it off when we come back home.

© Clinton Phillips

[Christmas Beetle © Clinton Phillips]

Mike described the wildlife in the Gents to Dave, one of the owners, who said that the huge bronze and green beetle he had found (which he had tried to wash down the sink and which he thought was a cockroach) was in fact called a Christmas Beetle - it is a member of the scarab beetle family, of which there are around three thousand types in Australia, and only lives for a very short few days at this time of year.

We were the only people on the site that evening so it was as if we were in our personal wildlife park - the only problem was the less than wonderful facilities. Mike had a worse time of it than me with the various bugs but the owners had only taken over the site two weeks previously and were working at sorting out all the problems - Rome wasn’t built in a day after all, and they were very nice!

We were getting short of food supplies and there were no shops for miles apparently, so we had tinned salmon and salad with cheese and biscuits for supper - actually delicious and more than sufficient. It was quite cold once the sun had gone down, not surprising as we were at about three thousand feet above sea level - it was also very dark with limited lights so I chickened out going over to the amenities block just before bed and instead used the motorhome facilities!

17 Dec 11 - The day dawned dry, cloudy and sunny. We left the campsite quite reluctantly (although we won’t be missing the company in the showers!) and set off for Blackheath in the Blue Mountains, driving through the Wollemi and Yengo National Parks. The drive was fabulous, the scenery as we climbed up and up was stupendous - I kept exclaiming at the views and then telling Mike not to look as there were an awful lot of hairpin bends! Even the roads were in better condition overall, far fewer potholes than we had become accustomed to, and not too many vehicles either.

We stopped for lunch at 'The Grey Gum Cafe', the only place that we had come across to eat en-route, and then continued on to our destination. We were only able to drive at about forty-five miles an hour most of the way because the roads were so windy and we were either ascending or descending quite severe gradients. We kept collecting long convoys of cars and lorries behind us and had to pull over frequently to allow them to pass. We also saw quite a lot of kangaroos along the way but unfortunately they were all dead by the side of the road - horrible to see.

We got to the campsite at Blackheath at about 4.00 pm - Mike was glad to stop driving as he was pretty tired, a lot of concentration had been needed. We were most impressed with this campsite which was spotlessly clean with more than acceptable and with (more importantly) insect free loos and wonderfully quiet! We have booked for two nights but may well stay longer or move on briefly and then return for Christmas. We just had time for Mike to have a well deserved beer before we walked into the town (about ten minutes) to replenish our stores. Our cooking facilities are a little limited but as principal chef I managed to produce a pretty good steak and salad followed by the rest of the cherries for supper - delicious!

We also managed to tune the radio to a classical channel and enjoyed a glorious rendition of Mozart’s orchestration of Handel’s Messiah live from Melbourne, slightly different from the familiar version. What a lovely way to spend an evening! I nearly forgot to say that Mike was ecstatic that he managed to get back 3G access to the internet and had spent the time since we arrived glued to his iPad! He said how good it was to be back in touch with the World ...

The temperature dropped sharply once the sun set - we were not able to get any heating working in the motorhome - it should be there but it only pumps out cold air when we try! It may be time to bring out the jumpers and fleeces!

Hope everyone is enjoying the preparations for Christmas! We are thinking of you all.

Chapter 14

Blackheath

18 Dec 11 - We spent the night frozen almost to death despite having two double duvets on the bed and each of us resorting to wearing a pair of Mike’s socks! It was like being in Siberia - okay, I exaggerate a tad, but it was really cold!

The birds were unbelievably noisy from about 3.00 am so what with the cold and the wildlife, very little sleep was had by both of us. Luckily the showers were lovely and hot, so we managed to thaw out sufficiently to stop shivering, donned all our cold weather gear and hunkered down in the motor home and watched the ducks and birds. We had the place to ourselves when we woke up - no sounds of traffic, wonderful! The forecast for the next few days was rain, possible thunderstorms and diminishing temperatures - not a happy prospect - so after a short discussion we decided to extend our stay here until after Christmas and use the campsite as a base from which to explore the area, weather permitting.

One of the reasons we decided on this was that the motorhome was finally parked on a level concrete base (the ground in many of the previous campsites was either uneven or obviously sloping which made moving around the interior of the van feel as though one was drunk, and it was also very difficult to get the water to empty out of the sink!) and another was that we weren’t on grass which gets very soggy and muddy when wet! Mike understandably did not want to drive anywhere - drive one day and rest the next is his policy - so we spent the day reading and waiting for the rain, which didn’t come until the evening. Although it was still chilly it was decidedly warmer than it had been first thing!

One good thing - Mike managed to get the heater to work so, joy of joys, we managed to get our little home warm! We spent a quiet evening, had more steak and salad for supper - I said the cooking facilities were limited - and went to bed early - and warm!

19 Dec 11 - It rained for most of the night, some of it very heavy, but overall we had a much better night from the comfort point of view. It was dry when we woke up and we decided to drive to the town to top up supplies (mainly of the liquid variety) and afterwards drove to the Visitor’s Centre in Blackheath some six kilometres away to get a feel for what was around in the area. The lady there was most helpful and we came back armed with loads of pamphlets and leaflets as well as bus and train timetables.

The sky was looking pretty ominous so we decided to stay put for the rest of the day. This turned out to be a very good decision for not long after we got back to our site the rain started - slowly at first and then with meaning, until it absolutely bucketed it down around 4.00 pm. It continued to pound down for most of the evening, with thunder grumbling away for several hours as well for good measure!

You know the phrase ‘nice weather for ducks’...? Supper was spaghetti and a not very nice tinned sauce, most of which was condemned to the bin (Mike liked it, but, believe me, it was not very nice!) - luckily we had nuts, crisps and wine! It was still raining when we went to bed...

20.12.11 - Woke to blue sky and sunshine! Sadly it was not to last and by 10.00 am low cloud had descended over the campsite. However, we decided to brave the elements and visit the Jenolan Caves which were about an hour and a half drive away and, much to our surprise, the weather improved with even the odd glimpse of sunshine!

The last EIGHT miles of the drive to the Caves were down an incredibly narrow, incredibly steep road with zillions of hairpin bends and steep drops - very hairy! I was so glad I wasn’t driving - not at all good for the blood pressure! It was worth it once we got there though - after a stiff coffee to steady the nerves we bought tickets for the 1.30 pm tour of 'Lucas Cave', the biggest of the cave systems, and then had time for a sandwich in the motorhome for lunch.

Suitably fortified we walked down to the start of the tour, passing a rock wallaby which was so tame it just ignored all the tourists around it (got a good photo!). There were about forty of us waiting for the tour to start, quite a few children amongst them, and we set off with John, our guide, up the first of 910 steps we were to climb either up or down during the next hour and a half.

The Caves were really spectacular and John was very informative and interesting. He managed to keep talking despite the wailing of two of the children, one of them almost constantly from the start! 'Lucas Cave' was described in the literature as "an awe-inspiring cave containing our highest and largest chambers, one of our most photographed features, the 'Broken Column', and a tantalising glimpse of the underground river". (A column forms when a stalactite and a stalagmite join together - it breaks when the ground shifts beneath it).

Jenolan Caves are apparently the oldest known caves in the world and the Government officially made them a 'Reserve' in 1866 after years of agitation by regular cave visitor and Member of Parliament John Lucas, after whom this cave is named. The Caves are of limestone and fossils found in them suggest that they may be up to 430 million years old.

The sun was out when we emerged into the outside again, and we decided to come back to the campsite via the circular tourist route so that we could see more of the wonderful scenery of the Blue Mountains. It was indeed lovely apart from the state of the roads, which once again was not brilliant at best and appalling at worst - the number of potholes was staggering! Some of them were so bad that we feared for the health of the motorhome - it will be a miracle if it arrives back in Sydney without something (probably vital) missing or broken!

We saw an Echidna on the side of the road as we drove by on the climb back up from the Jenolan Caves, as I was taking its photo it curled up into a ball!  Echidnas, along with the platypus, are the only members of the monotreme family, mammals that lay eggs and produce milk for their young. They are sometimes referred to as spiny anteaters and resemble the hedgehog and the porcupine in that they are covered with sharp spines. An echidna has a pointy snout and a long sticky tongue to catch ants and termites.

We got back to Blackheath at around 6.30 pm to find that the campsite was now quite crowded - it is obviously hotting up before Christmas! We had to smile when we noticed that our neighbour two slots away, who had erected the most enormous tent in the pouring rain yesterday, had put up blue flashing Christmas lights all around the outside of the tent!

The evening remained dry (since we have had so much rain I now need to comment on the dry and sunny episodes) and we had more spaghetti for supper (the leftovers from last night reheated - surprisingly well - with a different and much nicer sauce) strawberries and chocolate - yum! More reading and then bed.

21 Dec 11 - Woke to what we thought was rain but when we looked out we saw that we were immersed in cloud, very wet dripping cloud! It looked like thick fog and took most of the morning to clear to just a cloudy sky. We took the opportunity to walk to the shops and top up with supplies and then sat and watched the birds and ducks. There are quite a lot of birds here, a lot of Bell Magpies whose songs are incredibly melodic - they sound as though they are having a conversation with one another - two Red Wattlebirds in the blossom tree just at the back of the motorhome and, a big treat, an Eastern Spinebill Honeyeater - a beautiful brightly coloured small hovering bird also which was after the blossom in the same tree. I also counted fourteen ducks not sure what type, they could be the Australian Grey Teal, and they spent most of the day sitting on the grass feeding.

It started to rain around 6.00 pm and the visibility got worse until yet again the campsite was shrouded in more cloud - the forecast was for rain until Friday! To cheer us up Mike cooked bacon, eggs, sausage and toast for supper which was delicious! Had a nice chat via Skype to wish my sister Gabrielle a happy birthday and also phoned Caroline, my friend in Sydney, and then we went to bed.

Chapter 15

Blackheath

Hello again - the last chapter before Christmas!

22 Dec 11 - Woke to, yes you’ve guessed it, rain - although to be more exact, the wet dripping low cloud that seems to beset this campsite! We donned full rain gear as we trudged over to the Amenities Block for our daily ablutions and then settled down for another morning in the rain.

However, by mid morning the worst of the cloud had lifted and we decided to venture forth and see whether things were a little better out of the campsite. We thought Katoomba was as good a place as any as it was only about ten kilometres from ‘home’ and, indeed, the weather did seem brighter as we headed in that direction. We thought we would drive down to see the main views, but even as we parked the low cloud rolled in and visibility was reduced to only a few metres, not a chance of seeing any decent views!

We amended our plans and instead walked into the town, which seemed to be full of aging 1960’s hippies! However, just as it started raining (!) we found the very nice 'Carrington Hotel' where we had a delicious lunch and I indulged in a champagne cocktail in the very plush "Champagne Charlie's Lounge" (well, I had to!). Thank you Adrienne and James for tipping us off!

Dating from 1882 the hotel was originally called 'The Great Western' and was renamed 'The Carrington' in 1886 after the then Governor of New South Wales, Lord Carrington. It was so well respected that in the early 1900’s the newspapers of the day often cited it as the only rival to 'Raffles' in Singapore within The Empire. After many decades of being known as the honeymoon destination of choice it closed its doors in 1985, remaining empty and derelict until 1991 when it was bought with the aim of restoring and relaunching what was called the 'Grand Old Lady of the Mountains'. 'The Carrington' reopened her doors in December 1998 after eight years of restoration, and works are still continuing on the restoration of the gardens, garages, stables and powerhouse. It certainly looked a very impressive Victorian hotel which had been beautifully renovated and decorated.

We walked back to the motor home via the supermarket and bottle shop, where we stocked up on a few Christmas goodies, we also bought a small gold Christmas tree from a charity shop! Then, as it was raining, decided to return to the campsite.

However, we thought that while we were in the area we might as well drive around the Scenic Tourist Route and, much to our amazement, the weather cleared, so we parked up and went and enjoyed the absolutely stunning views from Echo Point, including a great view of the Three Sisters. Even without the sun shining it was wonderful. We walked along the path which took us to the Three Sisters Point, which was interesting because the view made it seem as though there was only one Sister, the other two were hidden behind it!

There was a sign saying 'Giant Stairway' and also on the sign ‘very steep - strong walkers only’. Mike decided he was too sensible (decrepit!?) to attempt it but I thought I would give it a go and set off on what was I thought ninety steps down the mountain. It turned out to be many more than that and the steps were very uneven, wet, slippery and extremely steep - eventually I asked someone who was on the way back up how much further it was to the bottom and he said that I had about another 35% of the steps still to go! I decided that if I continued down I might need to be rescued and that would be too humiliating, so headed back up. As you can imagine, going up was hard work - my legs haven’t worked so hard for a long time! The other rather unpleasant thing was that I had been warned that there were leeches around, and the two people who told me this knew what they were talking about as they were trying to staunch the blood from their own wounds at the time! I didn’t dare take off my raincoat as I really didn’t want to be a third victim, so I arrived back at the top extremely out of breath and very hot, but leech free! I did get Mike to check me though!

After allowing me a suitable length of time to recover we walked back to the motor home and drove back to the campsite for a very welcome cup of tea/beer. It started raining around 6.00 pm and continued throughout the evening which we spent, as was now becoming usual, reading. After a very good supper of enormous, beautifully cooked (by me!), chump chops and green beans we retired to bed with the usual rain pattering on the roof!

23 Dec 11 - Not for the first morning we were awoken at around 3.00 am by a very raucous and repetitive bird, reminding us of a cockerel waking up the neighbourhood. So far we have not been able to identify what sort of bird it is but it announces itself every morning about the same time in the same noisy way!

It was drizzling and overcast first thing but this quickly cleared up and unbelievably the sun came out! We could hardly believe it and quickly got out the chairs and sat outside soaking up the sun for the first time in a week - it was lovely to feel the warmth on our skin again!

The ducks had acquired a few more ponds on the grass around our motor home overnight due to the amount of rain and we enjoyed watching them paddling and feeding whilst we sat outside. The Red Wattle Birds were also very active and acrobatic in the blossom tree. Soon, though, there were ominous rumbles of thunder and by about 4.00 pm it had started to rain again. Ho hum! However, it was still warm. We enjoyed another spaghetti meal for supper and spent the evening as usual reading and chatting.

24 Dec 11 - Christmas Eve! Sunshine greeted us when we woke and after breakfast we walked into the town to buy our Christmas Day lunch! It was hot even at 10.00 am - we’d got used to the chilly weather so the heat took us unawares.

Pleased with our purchases we returned to the campsite and decided to sit outside and enjoy the wonderful sunshine. As the day wore on the campsite began to fill up and it looked like there would be quite a few people celebrating Christmas Day here!

I noticed what I initially thought was a snake moving through the long grass right by our motor home and was thrilled to see that it was in fact a beautiful, quite large lizard with lovely markings. It kept very still for a long time, soaking up the sun, so I was able to take lots of photos. Our spirits were buoyed up by some really good news from home and we celebrated with the first mince pies of the season! We also made contact with Mike’s niece, Hannah, and her husband Les, who are in Melbourne for Christmas but will be in Sydney after New Year and we arranged to meet them on 1st Jan for lunch.

Temp is around 28°C today, and tomorrow is set fair according to the weather forecast, with only a 2% chance of rain! Hooray! Our next door neighbours at the campsite came across and had a chat - Merv (an Aussie) and Carol (a Kiwi who had been in Australia since 1985).

They had brought with them a Sturt’s Desert Pea, an Australian pea plant which is the floral emblem of South Australia. This species, a member of the pea family, is confined to Australia where it occurs in all mainland States except Victoria and is a protected plant in South Australia. It has blood red or scarlet flowers and occurs in arid woodlands and on open plains, often following heavy rain and is able to survive the marked extremes of temperature experienced in inland deserts as well as being able to withstand mild frosts. Merv and Carol had grown the plant from seed, apparently quite a difficult feat and, as it was starting to flower when they were leaving for their Christmas break, they brought the plant with them. They proudly showed it to us and it was certainly worth seeing.

We were able to sit outside and enjoy the sun until after 7.00 pm and then after supper listened to Nine Lessons and Carols from St. George’s Cathedral in Perth, which was very good and a lovely start to Christmas.

Both Mike and I wish you all a very happy Christmas. We will raise a glass to you tomorrow on Christmas Day and even though we are several thousand miles away we will be with every one of you in spirit!

Chapter 16

Blackheath/Bathurst

25 Dec 11 - Christmas Day! Awoke to a beautiful blue sky and sunshine again, couldn’t ask for more. There were lots of people including a few children in the campsite and we enjoyed sitting in the sun reading and watching and listening to the birds and the people. Our next door neighbours Merv and Carol came to give us Christmas greetings and Carol brought us a bowl of fruits, nuts and sweets which was a lovely gesture. We had a coffee all together and arranged to have a drink later.

Shortly after I was so cross with myself - I stood up to help Mike do something and put my Kindle on my seat and then promptly sat on it! There was a ‘crack’ and the screen had broken - no way could it be sorted! Mike was really nice as he said I could use his - wasn’t that kind?

Our neighbours across the way, Laurie and Jocelyn, also came over and chatted and we spent a couple of hours talking to them; they had been on the road for the last eight months in a slightly smaller motorhome than ours which they had bought new this year. This was after a very scary episode last year that Jocelyn recounted - she was driving their old motor home (dating from circa 1974) going down a very steep, narrow and windy road when the brakes failed as they approached a particularly tight bend and she had to put the van on its side to prevent it going over the sheer drop!! My jaw was on my knees as she was telling me this - I’m glad I didn’t know this when Mike was driving down the very steep, narrow, windy road to the Jenolan Caves!

The sun disappeared around 5.00 pm and we even had a few spots of rain. Around 6.00 pm our four neighbours joined us for drinks, including a bottle of fizz and a couple of bottles of red, and we all spent a very enjoyable three hours chatting. Unbelievably during the evening Laurie and Carol realised that they both came from the same very small town in New Zealand and had even gone to the same school! What are the chances of that?

Our Christmas meal was rather later than we planned as a consequence but was no less enjoyable - steak with green beans and carrots followed by hot mince pies! We thoroughly enjoyed it!

26 Dec 11 - Boxing Day. The day dawned overcast with the promise of rain, probably heavy later. I was not impressed that my watch battery decided to fail in the morning, and of course there was nowhere open to get a replacement until at least the next day - it’s very weird not having a watch.

We had a very quiet day waiting for the rain to start - it was predicted from about midday but actually the weather was quite nice all through the afternoon, although cool. We enjoyed again watching the Red Wattlebirds scrapping in the trees, and were treated to around five very noisy Laughing Kookaburras squabbling, three of them perched in the tree at the back of our motorhome for a while. They are apparently the largest species of kingfisher in the world, and are certainly very fine looking birds.

Merv and Carol arrived back from a day in Katoomba around 5.30 pm and invited us over to their tented caravan for drinks and nibbles, and we had no sooner sat down than the rain came down - and did it come down; we had one humdinger of a storm, with thunder and lightning and torrential rain for about three hours before it settled to just a drizzle. We had to raise our voices to hear each other speak! The four of us got on really well and they have invited us to come and stay with them in Queensland when we next come over - we certainly hope to come back sooner rather than later - we love it here!

At around 8.30 pm we were pretty chilly sitting outside, even though we were under cover, and decided we ought to eat supper so we returned to our little home and I cooked Mike some spaghetti to warm him up - I had eaten so many nuts and crisps that I wasn’t hungry! Just before it became dark we were heartened to see a red sky so hoped that the next day would be a fine one.

27 Dec 11 - Awoke to drizzle and overcast skies. After breakfast we said goodbye to Merv and Carol and set off towards Bathurst, where we had booked to spend the next three days. As it was only about fifty miles away we decided to divert and drive via Mount Tomah and visit the Botanical Gardens there. We were lucky when we arrived as the car park was virtually empty, so we were able to park the motor home reasonably easily - it’s so big that it is difficult to fit in a normal parking bay slot.

It was still very overcast and the low cloud meant the wonderful mountain views were virtually obscured, so we had a coffee, visited the small exhibition and then had a very nice lunch in the restaurant before setting off to walk around the gardens. The drizzle had stopped by then and the visibility was slightly improved although the sun was still refusing to come out. Even in the gloom the gardens were beautiful - wonderful trees and plants with lots of wildlife such as lizards, big Carp swimming in the pools, several Honeyeaters, and even a pair of Superb Blue Wrens, the male brilliantly coloured blue, black, brown & white and the female a very dull brown - all captured on my excellent trusty camera!

The final part of our walk was along the ‘Gondwanaland Path’. Gondwana was one of two supercontinents that existed from approximately 510 to 180 million years ago and which included most of the land masses in today’s Southern Hemisphere including Antarctica, South America, Africa, Madagascar and the Australian continent as well as the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian sub-continent, the latter having now moved entirely into the Northern Hemisphere. All of the plants and trees in this area of the gardens come from the original plants found at that time, amongst them the 'Wollemi Pines'. The 'Wollemis' were first discovered in 1994 in the National Park in Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains by David Noble, a NSW National Parks and Wildlife Officer and avid bushwalker.

The 'Wollemi Pine' belongs to the 200 million year old Araucariaceae family, the oldest known fossil of which is 90 million years old! Fewer than a hundred mature trees are known to be growing in the wild and the tree is now being propagated and made available to botanical gardens throughout the World. The ones we saw were all behind barbed wire fencing to protect them.  Seedlings of the genus were available to purchase for the equivalent of about £30!!

When we left the gardens we drove on to Bathurst via Lithgow - once we had left the mountains the sun came out - reaching Bathurst around 5.00 pm. We had stopped to buy some essential provisions at Woolworths in Lithgow - the Australian Woolworths and its rival Coles are similar to our Tesco and Sainsburys. The caravan site was quite a large one, catering for families with children, but although it was quite full it seemed fairly quiet - we shall see over the next few days!

It was lovely to sit outside again in the sun enjoying a cup of tea and reading Mike’s Kindle! We had had such a big lunch that we just had some smoked salmon and salad for supper. A little later as I was taking photos of the new moon with Venus just above it (with the lights out), Mike managed to spill his red wine over himself and the seat (third time now!). He’s not happy with me telling on him! Other than that small excitement the evening passed uneventfully.

Hope you all had a really lovely Christmas and Boxing Day - we thought of all of you and raised our glasses to you!

Chapter 17

Bathurst/Sydney

Hello again - not too many more of these to come!

28 Dec 11 - Woke to a fine day, lots of blue sky and sunshine. With all the rain we had been having the washing had built up so the washing fairy spent the morning sorting it all out - I even had to buy more pegs! Apart from that we didn’t do much apart from sit in the shade and read as it was too hot (yes, really!) to sit in the sun. Although the campsite was fairly full, with a fair number of children, most of them spent their time in or around the pool, so it was pretty quiet where we were apart from the birds.

Around dawn we thought we could hear the sound of an alarm, but we realised it was probably a Superb Lyrebird imitating an alarm clock although we were not fortunate enough to see it! The only thing of note really was that when I went into the Ladies I felt something land on my head and instinctively brushed it off - it took a few minutes to find what it was - a Christmas Beetle! I went straight back to the van to get my camera and managed to get a couple of photos of it. Now we have both seen one.

29 Dec 11 - Another glorious day of sunshine - it really changes the way one looks at the world. My Christmas Beetle was still in the Ladies despite said Ladies having undergone the daily cleaning process. It was a very attractive beetle - shame it’ll only live for a few more days as they only live for two weeks or so over the Christmas period.

We decided to walk along the road towards Bathurst to see what was there, and after about a quarter of a mile along the busy dusty road found a very nice fruit and vegetable shop from which we bought some lovely peaches, grapes and blueberries and then walked back to the campsite as there was nothing else to be seen other than furniture showrooms and the inevitable McDonalds.

It was very hot in the sunshine so we sat outside the motor home alternating between the full sun and the shade and enjoying watching and listening to the birds around us. The most exhausting thing we had to decide was what to eat for supper!

30 Dec 11 - Yet another beautiful day but we were off back to Sydney so we packed up and left around 10.00 am. Our route took us back through Lithgow, Bilpin (where we stopped and bought a couple of homemade apple pies), Windsor and then into the outskirts of Sydney before we branched off to Hornsby to see Caroline.

The journey took us just under four hours (without 'George', our trusty sat-nav, it might have taken us twice as long!) and we arrived at Caroline’s around 2.00 pm. Having not stopped for lunch we were easily persuaded by Caroline to have a piece of the apple pie we had given to her and we enjoyed this with some thick cream sitting in the garden with a cup of tea. As we were not able to leave the motorhome outside or near Caroline’s house we left to go to Greenwich to stay at Ben’s flat for the next three days.

Parking the motorhome was always a bit of a challenge as it is not only long (23 feet) but it is tall (11 feet) and the overhanging trees along Greenwich Road made it difficult to find a parking space. Eventually we found a space conveniently just outside Ben's apartment block and hoped that we wouldn’t get a parking ticket as it was only 4.00 pm when we arrived! Parking restrictions were only on weekdays between 8.00 am and 8.00 pm, so parking at the weekend should be OK.

We needed to sort out food for the weekend so set off to walk to Coles at St Leonard’s station before it closed for the Bank Holiday and, amongst other things, bought a hot cooked half chicken each for supper. They were delicious! We sat on the terrace enjoying the late evening sun and eventually the gorgeous last but one sunset of 2011, watching the Galahs and Sulphur Crested Cockatoos and listening to the Noisy Miner Birds and the Kookaburras.

I decided that as New Year’s Eve is going to be a 'dry' evening/night (NSW has wisely decided to make most of the Sydney Harbour outdoor areas 'dry' to try to reduce the amount of general disorderly behaviour) that I ought to celebrate the occasion early so popped the cork on a bottle of chilled bubbly! Several glasses later and feeling very relaxed it was time for bed!

So.... Happy New Year to everybody! We hope 2012 will be happy and healthy for one and all!

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