Saturday, August 5, 2017

Oz 2017

This is our family travel journal from a recent 5Mm (that's 5 mega meters) 3-week road trip up the coast of Australia.

A typical day:

Mom and Dad bird within screaming distance of the tents while the Fellins sleep and/or hooliganate in their tent.

An hour after sunrise
Time for Weet-Bix or yogurt+granola+banana. Optional: take down the tents (we got this down to a 10-minute dance).

Explore on foot somewhere, preferably somewhere with astounding bird life.

PB&J, hummus, chips, olives, whatever.

Play at a park, climb stuff, or marinate in water, because that's how we roll. Optional: drive somewhere, 2-7 hours.

Enjoy lukewarm chili heated on the engine block. If necessary: set up tents (like a well-oiled machine).

Do "space questions" and "animal questions." Walk around with headlamps looking for owls, frogmouths, frogs, bats, possums, et al. Sleep!


This map shows where we spent each night, with numbers corresponding to dates in July. We camped backpacking-style for 20 nights, with strategically placed hotels every week or so just to freshen up a bit.


Disclaimer: I was not kidding when I said this would be a travel journal.  

1: Arrive Sydney

We had ultra-cheap tickets from JetStar, but that also means we needed to travel ultralight to avoid crazy baggage fees. But this suited our overall minimalist impulses (or, at least, Dad's). 

2: Sydney

We spent a day walking around such obscure destinations as the Sydney Opera House, the Royal Botanic Gardens, etc. 

We found Bud in silent reverie, having discovered something fascinating. 

The first playground of a three-week spree. 

We spent the night camping at Bonnie Vale in the Royal National Park. When we arrived after dark, our headlights illuminated something standing still and facing us impassively in the middle of the field we intended to pitch our tents in. It stood looking at us and walked closer. It turned out to be a girl in a Winnie the Pooh costume soaking wet and looking all horror-movie. She walked straight to the passenger side of the car where Mom sat. Dad, thoughtful guy, opened the window. Mom... didn't like that. 

Anyway, we spent the next few hours with Winnie the Pooh helping her get warm and call her parents. It was a weird scene, but we saw a boobook so it was all cool. 

3: The Royal National Park

Laughing kookaburras were our consistent dawn alarm for the next three weeks. We spent this day slowly exploring a number of trails in this fantastic park. Birds, you know, that kind of thing. 

Sulfur-crested cockatoo in sunrise light. 

Our alarm clock. 

Bud contemplates kookooburra contemplating Bud. 

No idea.

Our general strategy: choose a hyper-birdy trail and spend a few hours exploring it very slowly. Make it boring enough that the Fellins wandered off and just played somewhere and left us alone. That almost always worked perfectly. They did some weird stuff though. 

We drove down to Kangaroo Valley to spend a night with wombats. We could hear them masticating and pooping next to our tent all night long. Wombats are adorable. 

4: Barren Grounds to Capertee

Morning in Kangaroo Valley was all about wombat poop and fog. I have pictures of one but not the other. 

Littler has always been all about the early mornings

We went and hiked for a few hours in Barren Grounds to see all the special birds there and saw none of them. So we climbed things instead. 

Little is a good climber but is anxious, Littler is a mediocre climber with no fear, Bud is a terrific climber with a sensible amount of fear. So, obviously, Littler always made it highest and furthest. 

We drove to the Capertee Valley to spend the next two nights. Our campsite at Glen Davis was perfectly engineered to our specifications: (1) free, (2) ultrabirdy, (3) completely empty and (4) had a small playground. When night fell, we went spotlighting for owls. 


Eastern barn owl

5: Capertee

We spent the whole day looking for birds in the magnificent Capertee Valley. It was a bonanza. 

Wombats are basically ground koalas. They're adorable when they run. 

Our kids prize swings above any other earthly treasure (Honolulu has pathetic public works). They played for countless hours on the two swings at the Glen Davis campground. 

American 'possums are ratlike evolutionary holdouts. Australian possums are downright cool (common brushtail possum). 

6: To The Pilliga

Rather than head straight north, we veered inland to see some dryer, wilder country. We ended up at Sculptures in the Scrub, which is a place that has sculptures in the scrub. 

7: To Lamington

We just drove all day. On the left side of the road, like lunatics.

8: Lamington: Green Mountains

We spent the day exploring on foot around Lamington National Park, a magnificent high-altitude rainforest with a locally endemic bird that we've been dreaming about seeing for years: Albert's lyrebird. We encountered more terrible "liarbird" puns than lyrebirds on this day though. In fact, bad puns were an unexpected trip theme: "oh. my. god. look at that buttress (thanks, Mom)", "Lamington isn't lame, it's cool! (Bud)", etc. 

A satin bowerbird inspects our campsite. 

A local lodge feeds wild birds every day and Ally convinced a crimson rosella to use her as a perch. 

Australian logrunner, one of Dad's all-time favorites.

Logrunner antics. Our videography skills leave much to be desired.

Bud just decided to take a dump right in the middle of the campsite. We have no idea why; the bathroom was 50m away. 

Red-necked pademelon. Bud named him "fuzzy."

We climbed a canopy tower. Bud declared: "I'm too cute to die!"

9: Green Mountains and Gold Coast

Wonga pigeon. Old snow in a coal-mining town. 

Regent bowerbird!

We spent hours whacking through bushes chasing lyrebird songs but didn't lay eyes on the bird itself. We drove down to Gold Coast to meet old friends on the beach and play in the water. Ally conquered Elephant Rock and the other kids tried without success to. 

Bud looking for Littler, playing hide-and-seek on the beach at Currumbin. 

10: Gold Coast

We spent the night in Lamington National Park again, this time in Binna Burra. We spent all morning hacking around for Albert's lyrebirds, losing plenty of blood and sweat in the process, and finally saw an ascending tangle of feathers and chickenlegs that constituted our only lyrebird sighting of the trip. 

The rest of the day we played at monumental parks in Gold Coast and ended up camping at Mt. Tamborine. 

Bush stone-curlew

11: To Gladstone

A long driving day.

These rainbow lorikeets had a keen eye for messy families eating brekkie. 

Jumping-jacks and lunch by the side of the road. 

At the end of the day: a warm shower and actual beds, for the first time in 10 days. 

12: To Eungella National Park

We had two reasons to head to Eungella: (1) platypus, and (2) the endemic Eungella honeyeater. The first were easy, the second were impossible. 

Bud was apparently expecting platypus to be hippo-sized, because he refused to believe that we saw anything but tiny babies. 

13: Eungella to Alligator Creek

The fog at Eungella made seeing tiny honeyeaters--and each other--rather difficult. 

Tawny frogmouth! We found several throughout the trip, but they always inspired.

Blue-winged kookaburra at Alligator Creek. A kookier kookaburra. 

14: Alligator Creek to Paluma

We spent the morning swimming and climbing at Alligator Creek. As always, Littler was the first in the water and the first on the rocks. Dad may have gone for a dip in his undies. 

We drove through Townsville and stopped for a lovely stretch of birding at the Town Commons and subsequent obligatory playground stop at Soroptimist Park. Eventually we ended up at our base for the next two nights: Big Crystal Creek, at the base of Paluma Range National Park. 

More frogmouths at Big Crystal Creek. I couldn't resist!

15: Paluma

This lovely little mountain rainforest town is rumored to have cassowaries, which we didn't see. We hiked around in the rain and dropped a small fortune on a rare hot meal in a dry cafe, saw chowchillas, the northern cousin of the logrunners, and (stop me if you've heard this) played at the town park until well past sunset. Mom and Dad stalked an elusive spotted catbird in the dying dusk while Littler and Bud played a duet on the park vibraphone somewhere just within earshot. 

Little is very demanding of her siblings, and it was wonderful to see her secretly adoring them. 

Bud worked on his superhero poses throughout the trip. 

Dad dropped a shameful pun, probably. 

16: To Henrietta Creek

We drove to TYTO wetlands early and explored until we'd had enough. 

All of us wanted to see, above all else, the tremendous Southern cassowary. So we spent a lot of time hunting for them at Mission Beach, with no luck. We drove on to Henrietta Creek, another lovely, cool, rainforest campsite

17: Hypipamee

We spent 7 hours at Mt. Hypipamee looking for golden bowerbirds. We found a female fairly quickly but needed to see a male. Also, we heard cassowaries are sometimes seen there, so it seemed worth a day. 

We ran into an encyclopedic and gracious local guide who showed us a golden bowerbird bower, which was absolutely unbelievable. A major highlight of the trip for (almost) all of us (it doesn't beat cold chili in Little's book). 

Investigating the elaborate bower of a golden bowerbird.

Just as we were leaving, we finally saw the male bowerbird. Fantastic!

Lumholtz's tree kangaroo, endemic to the region. 

Little red (?) flying fox

We camped for the night at Lake Eacham Tourist park, an unusual private campground with untold thousands of human hours of care and attention invested in it. At night, a striped possum foraged in the bamboo above our tent, raining detritus over our rainfly all night long. 

18: Crater Lakes

We spent all the next day looking for Victoria's riflebirds at Lake Barrine and Lake Eacham. We heard several, and saw females, but could not get eyes on a male.

The most Littler story ever: we showed up at Lake Barrine very early, and within 10 minutes she had a job watching a puppy for the caretaker. 

Barred cuckooshrike

Australian brush-turkey hoping for a handout

Doing water things at Lake Eacham. 

Female Victoria's riflebird

19: Northern tablelands

On a whim, we headed to Curtain Fig Tree on our way out of Lake Eacham the next morning. We heard a riflebird immediately, and rolled our eyes. They always sound close, but are impossible to see. But!

Male Victoria's riflebird!!!

This is a bird of paradise, folks. 

All five of us got to watch him preen, fluff up his feathers, then start his day with a quick brekkie. 

We drove up to Mareeba and went from rainforest to essentially desert in absolutely no time. 

Bud thought this emu might like to see a picture of himself in the field guide. 

We decided to find out what a termite mound feels like. 

We ended up a Birds on Barron, a fairly new laid-back private campground located at an old tobacco farm. We played around in the river for hours, then just picked a patch of ground and threw our tents down. 

Our kids find "currents" to be an endless source of fascination and fun. 

Littler adopted another dog, named Dora. 

When Little likes something, she punches it. Here, she likes Dad. 

Little's single greatest desire in life is to own a dog. This is a look of pure happiness. 

We made a makeshift fire on a small patch of bare ground. Little lit matches without ceasing. 

20: Cairns

Morning at Birds on Barron was fabulous. 

We found two great bowerbird bowers near the ranch office and spent the morning watching a male frantically court a female. It was spectacular and elaborate. 

Great bowerbird with his bower and collection of shells. 

He kept on trying different objects to impress the lady, this one presumably he chose to match the little patch of pink on the back of his head. 

Male and female peer at each other through the bower. This is all part of the ritual. 

Brekkie at BoB. 

Today was a day designed for Little. We drove into Cairns, rented bikes, and rode around the city. We spent some time at a bouldering park and ended up at a hotel for the night to get cleaned and rested up for a big day. 

21: Great Barrier Reef

We snorkeled in the Great Barrier Reef, leaving at 7am and returning 5pm. It was very nice, but probably impressed non-Hawaiians more than it did us.

The reef was bleached and only subtly more exciting than local reefs we frequent. The main moment of excitement was when dad tried to look into a giant clam with the GoPro and it snapped shut, expelling the camera with a powerful jet of water.

Still, snorkeling is fun, so we have videos. Littler snorkeled the most out of the kids. Bud was disappointed that we weren't seeing dugongs or sharks or something spectacular like that, and Little was overall unimpressed.

Afterwords, we drove up to Noah Beach in the Daintree, the oldest rainforest in the world, passing over a tiny cable ferry to cross the Daintree river at night. The main draw was cassowaries, and fairly remote tropical beaches. 

22: The Daintree

We spent all day looking for Cassowaries. Eventually...

Cassowary!! At Jindalba Boardwalk. This is a dinosaur. 

Seeing the cassowaries was a life-changing experience for almost all of us (even Little was quite impressed). 

Shining flycatcher. 

We took the kids back to Noah Beach and they spent several hours drawing elaborate diagrams and pictures in the sand. Dad found a small croc and Mom read. 

Bud was so excited to show Little and Littler his drawing that he spent several minutes dancing and jumping around on the sand and yelling "yes!" 

23: Daintree Boat Tour

We spent the morning on a lovely small boat tour around the Daintree River with the Daintree Boatman. We finally saw a big croc (which incinerated Bud's brain), saw several roosting Papuan frogmouths, and, critically, Little got to go very fast. That is her kind of thing. 

Welcome swallow

We hiked around Mossman Gorge, which was nice but no more spectacular than much more-accessible and less-touristy rainforest spots in the area. Meh. 

Littler doing Littler. 

That night we camped for one last time at Speewah, a wonderful and completely underappreciated rainforest campsite not far outside Cairns. For the second time on the trip, we heard lesser sooty owl--the kind of bird that holds a mystical sway with us.  We hadn't planned on really even trying to see it on the trip because of how elusive it is. But no! With playback we easily saw one, placing an unbeatable capstone on top of what was already an unparalleled trip. 

23: To home

Our bumper fell off 10 minutes before returning the rental. We hadn't splurged on insurance. Ugh. And when we got home, we got an $1100 (USD) speeding ticket in the mail, suddenly making all our penny-pinching sacrifices during the trip seem ridiculous. Double-ugh.


This trip was magical. All previous trips we've done together have been vacations from life. But this one was a short life itself. For three weeks we lived a lifestyle of outdoor exploration, discovery, free play, and adventure. And our on-the-ground expenses were generally small (free or cheap campsites, modest amounts of driving, living off of canned chili and 1kg buckets of yogurt and hummus). We've never seen anything like Aussie birds, and the parks were world-class. Little even learned to appreciate her siblings, sometimes. It was beyond perfect.

The trip as told by Dad's lifelist

As if this post wasn't long enough, we will now include our life list additions from this trip, because we like to tell the story of a trip through birds. And... there are a lot. 180 new species, of which an astounding 90+ are Australian endemics.