Category Archives: Holiday Trips

Australian Adventure – The Birds of Australia – 1

Our trip to Australia was primarily to spend time with family, but being the avid birder that I am, I was particularly looking forward to seeing and identifying as many Australian birds as circumstances would allow. Keen birders will know that thrill that comes with visiting a new part of your home country and it is doubly so when you visit a new country, specially one known for its variety of birds.

My first thrill was being presented with a fine Australian Bird book by Stephan and family on arrival and I was soon into it, marking up with a green highlighter all the birds that could reasonably be found in the State of Victoria.

For the first few days birding was limited to what I could pick up in the small garden and the surrounding neighbourhood, as well as on short trips into town. Once I got to know the area better I took longer walks to the local parks and lakes which expanded the birding opportunities greatly. Thereafter it was a matter of “taking my (birding) chances” when they arose.

So, just to sort the 68 bird species that I saw into some sort of order, I decided to list them by general habitat, starting with……

Gardens and suburbia

Common Myna – It just had to be the first bird on my list – that brashest of all species, strutting about the garden and stealing Maggie’s food (she being the family pet dog). They occur in abundance all along the east coast of Australia and are a declared pest, having been introduced in 1860 in a failed attempt to control insects. Little did they know……. The bird book actually suggests that you “destroy nests, trap and dispose of birds where possible” which is what a lot of people in South Africa would like to do!

Common Myna, Sale, Victoria

Pied Currawong (Strepera graculina) – a much more pleasant species with a pleasing voice – known for and named after the melodic “curre-wong” sound that one hears from afar. Common endemic which occurs along the east coast and inland areas of Australia, forming flocks in winter.

Pied Currawong, Sale, Victoria

Common Starling (Sternis vulgaris) – another species introduced into Australia, also in the 1860’s and also declared a pest, (We could learn from the Aussies). Abundant in the SE of Australia (No photo)

Red Wattlebird (Anthochaera caranculata) – an attractive species that we came across in parks, woodlands and gardens in several places. A common endemic and the largest honeyeater in Australia, which occurs from east to west along the southern side of Australia. Nomadic, with small to large groups following flowering events. This bird reminded me of the Cape Sugarbird which comes into our garden in Mossel Bay, both in appearance and actions. It’s named for the red wattles that hang on the sides of its face but are not always noticeable.

New Holland Honeyeater (Phylidonyris novaehollandiae) -I first came across this bird in the park and subsequently saw it a few times in gardens. I was immediately entranced by its bold colouring and active nature. A common endemic whose reliance on nectar makes it protective of its chosen source and it will energetically chase other birds that may venture too close. That intimidating eye should be enough warning on its own!

Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus) – another species introduced in the 1860’s, its distribution is limited to the south east corner of Australia

Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Female), Apollo Bay

Australian Magpie (Cracticus tibicen) – widespread and common, this distinctive large bird is found in suburbia and just about everywhere else. It has a variety of calls, often melodious and complex. There is a “computer-generated sound” quality to their calls at times

Magpie-lark (Grallina cyanoleuca) – One of my favourite visitors to the garden, where it forages for insects on the ground, this striking bird is common across Australia.

Spotted Dove (Streptopelia chinensis) – introduced from China, this dove is present in coastal eastern Australia.

Common Blackbird (Turdus merula) – yet another introduced species from the 1850’s but its distribution is limited to the south east corner of Australia. Visits the garden and, typically thrush-like, forages amongst the leaf litter. Not easy to photograph as they are very skittish.

Crested Pigeon (Ocyphaps lophotes) – I enjoyed the few sightings of this species which looks unlike any other dove/pigeon with its prominent thin upright crest. Occurs over most of Australia and an endemic to boot!

Common Bronzewing (Phaps chalcoptera) – we had just one sighting of this handsome pigeon, while viewing Koala Bears on Raymond Island. An Endemic, it occurs across Australia but is a shy and wary species

Parks, fields and farmland

Superb Fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus) – the familiar “Blue-wren” of southeastern Australia, this endemic species can be tricky to see as it works its way briskly through dense thickets. One has to be patient and follow its movement until it hops into view, usually briefly. In non-breeding plumage it is far less colourful but still an attractive species to see

Superb Fairywren, Lake Guyatt Sale

Brown Thornbill (Acanthiza pusilla) – endemic species that forages in mid to upper foliage and also requires some patience in order to get a photo. Distribution covers the southeatern coastal and inland areas of Australia

Noisy Miner (Manorina melanocephala) – the name is apparently based on its raucous “pee-pee-pee” call but I never heard it call despite several encounters in parks. Endemic and a vigorous defender of territory.

Grey Fantail (Rhipidura albiscapa) – a common endemic which occurs over most of Australia, this species did its best to elude my binos and my camera as it actively made its way through the lower canopy, frequently fanning its tail (Photo from Complete Guide to Australian BIrds)

Grey Fantail

Eastern Spinebill (Acanthorhynchus tenuirostris) – another common endemic, this is one of the more distinctive and handsome birds that I came across and found to be quite accommodating in perching in an open position for a reasonable photo. Found in the southeastern parts of Australia, its fine, long, down-curved bill identifies it as a nectar feeder.

The second part of The Birds of Australia will cover the birds of Lakes and Rivers, Coast and Sea – not to be missed!

Australian Adventure – The Last Day, Melbourne

After close to 6 weeks in Sale, Victoria, of which one week was taken up by a very pleasurable road trip exploring the Great Ocean Road, we felt ready to return home, nevertheless sad to say our goodbyes to Stephan and Liesl and Jocelyn and Christopher.

Up at 5am for final packing to catch the 6.55am train from Sale to Southern Cross station in central Melbourne – a relaxing and comfortable train in plush first class seats – this is the way to do it!

The 6,55am train arrives at Sale station in the mist

At Southern Cross we found our way to the baggage hall which we found had a facilty to store our bags for the day while we discovered some of Melbourne. This was also the moment for bureacracy to go a little mad as the baggage attendant weighed our bags before accepting them for storage (no transport involved, mind you) and finding them, to his apparent horror, to be almost one kg over their 20kg limit, insisted we remove some articles (our books did it) to reduce the weight, which he then placed on top of the bags and took them through a door into the storeroom all of 3 metres away. We did as instructed and left him muttering about the personnel at Sale station who had allowed this gross flouting of the baggage rules.

After that bizarre encounter we found a coffee shop and, suitably calmed and refreshed, we set off to find the Hop-on, Hop-off city bus terminal with the help of Google maps which even showed us which tram to take (thanks Stephan for showing me this useful feature). The tram trip was a mini-adventure in itself despite being just three stops and with some walking we found the terminal at Federation Square.

Bus terminal at Federation Square, Red Bus waiting

It’s always good to see a city at pavement level, warts and all, while walking the streets and seeing the citizens going about their normal business – we passed by the gracious St Paul’s Cathedral and the historic Flinders Street Station, both nicely preserved. The trams are an efficient way of getting around the city and as a bonus are free in the central city.

We boarded the Red Bus for the two hour round trip with 14 stops at points of interest, only disembarking at one as we still had to get ourselves out to the airport hotel that afternoon. This gave us a good overview without any real “wow” moments. The inner city as seen from the lower level of a bus looks much like most other modern cities, but once we moved further out there was enough to keep us interested …….

  • Melbourne University with its vast sports fields
  • Melbourne Star Observation Wheel in the Docklands precinct
  • The iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground / MCG which Aussies like to call the “G”. It draws big crowds (90 – 100,000) for some of the major sports events including that incredibly popular sport called “Footie” or Australian Rules Football.
  • Glimpses of Little Italy and Chinatown on the city fringes

We disembarked at Fitzroy gardens and walked through lovely parkland with autumn leaves falling (do they say “fall leaves falling” in the States?) and covering the vast lawns with a multi-coloured carpet.

In one section was Captain Cook’s cottage, which the blurb said is the oldest building in Australia – but there’s a catch to that – it was originally built in 1755 in Yorkshire, England by the parents of Captain James Cook and was brought to Melbourne in 1934. Apparently each brick was numbered, packed into barrels and then shipped to Australia where it was reconstructed in the gardens.

Captain Cook’s cottage, Fitzroy Gardens

While trying to get a photo without other tourists posing in front, I was curious about the people in period dress wandering about in the small garden – they turned out to be volunteers who “add to the memorable experience” and provide period clothing for tourists to dress alike and have photos taken, at a cost of course (I must apologise at this point for not enthusing about this potential “memorable experience” which I decided to forego)

Captain Cook’s cottage

We were peckish by this time and headed to the garden cafe where we were told that lunch was “finished”, so we ended up having tea and “party pies” – tiny vegetable pies – plus a slice of banana/walnut bread, which was an odd lunch but rather nice.

Then it was time to catch the red bus again, where it had dropped us off earlier and after a short wait one appeared. It wasn’t long before we were back at Federation Square and we retraced our steps to Southern Cross station, collected our bags (and put the books back in them) and found the Skybus to take us to the airport and our hotel for the night. All that remained was the flight back to South Africa the next day. It had been a busy but worthwhile day and a good way to round off our Australian adventure. We had seen but a glimpse of Melbourne and resolved to see more of it when the opportunity arose.

Melbourne Airport – early morning view from our hotel

Australian Adventure – Victoria : Philip Island

We left our overnight accommodation in Geelong after a hearty breakfast – destination Queenscliff. With plenty of time before our reserved ferry trip, we had coffee at a cafe, then drove to the ferry terminal and on to the ferry. 40 minutes later we drove off at Sorrento (no not the Italian one) and set off on the long route around the top of the bay and southwards to Philip island, which is accessed via a bridge across the narrow channel between the mainland and the island.

The rain had followed us for most of the day, varying between light drizzle and road-drenching downpours. We stopped at a farm cafe for warming soup and a break from driving and were treated to the sight of a flock of Eurasian Tree Sparrows taking refuge from the heavy rain under a parked vehicle.

Eurasian Tree Sparrows sheltering from the heavy rain
Eurasian Tree Sparrows

We reached Philip Island around 4 pm and headed straight to the accommodation that Stephan had booked for the weekend – they arrived a bit later and we discussed our plans for the next day, Saturday, besides the Penguin Parade for which we had booked tickets the previous week. We decided a visit to the Chocolate Factory would satisfy the kids – the actual ones and the grown-ups who like to be kids sometimes.

Chocolate Factory

Next morning after a slow and lazy start we headed across the island to the Chocolate Factory, not knowing quite what to expect. The entrance tickets set the tone – edible chocolate ones – and we spent a very entertaining hour or more going from one exhibit to the next, some of them interactive and full of fun.

After a good curry lunch we headed back to the house to get ready for the main outing of the day – the Penguin Parade. On the way we passed a small reserve and spotted our first Wallabies – when I stopped to take a photo through the fence, a small head cutely popped out of its pouch!

Penguin Parade

The only thing we knew about the Parade was that it would be outside and we should dress warmly so, kitted out with jackets, scarves and beanies, we drove the few kms or so to the Philip Island Nature Park. By now we had come to know that top tourist attractions in Australia are very popular and the already full parking area confirmed this.

We walked to the main centre, a large building with shops, restaurants, toilets and an auditorium, past an even larger centre under construction, then on down the boardwalk towards the beach area to take up our position on the boarded seating along with numbers of other people hoping for a sighting of the Little Penguins. Our view was limited to a stretch of the beach, a rocky area and a pathway where the penguins would be passing by, we were told.

Penguin Parade boardwalks and seating areas – we were in the seating closest to the camera

It all seemed very organised and unlike any “birding” experience that I could think of, nevertheless I was fascinated by it all and looking forward to seeing these penguins, well named “Little Penguin” as they are the smallest of their species. They are just 35-45cm long and are also known as Fairy Penguin. It is the only resident penguin in Australia.

I was disappointed to hear that photography was not allowed “for the protection of the penguins” – I couldn’t help wondering what the long-term effect may be of up to 2000 people viewing the parade every evening, sitting under lights and crowding the boardwalks as the birds make their way to their roosts. Fortunately one can download photos from an app which is what I did and the photos which I have used here do represent the experience

The Rangers on duty told us what to expect, predicting the time that the first penguins would emerge from the sea after their day of foraging the open seas, in some 45 minutes time. While we waited, a couple of Little Penguins that had been left behind entertained the crowd before the “main show” started at the predicted time, with the first raft of penguins swimming in, scrambling up the rocky area, hesitating, then heading up the network of main and branch pathways in batches of 2 to 20 at a time.

They were beyond cute as they waddled by, bent forward like old folk and rather awkward out of the water, but moving surprisingly quickly. More rafts of penguins swam in, turning into waddles as they moved inland, some up to 3kms to their roosts. All in all several hundred penguins passed our position while we watched fascinated by the spectacle.

We walked back slowly to the main centre along the crowded boardwalk and watched some of the groups of penguins waddling by almost within touching distance, with many already at their chosen spots in the grassy dunes, some apparently courting. All that remained to be done was some shopping and the short drive back to the house.

Quite a special experience despite sharing it with so many others.

Next morning before heading back to Sale, we enjoyed a Mother’s day brunch at a local restaurant in Cowes, then took a walk along the beachfront and pier – a nice way to round off our visit to Philip Island and our week long road trip. I squeezed in some birding while the others enjoyed the seaside atmosphere

Australian Adventure – Victoria : What a Great Road

After our trip from Apollo Bay to the Twelve Apostles the previous day, we were looking forward to seeing more of the “real” Great Ocean Road and, looking at our route for the day, it showed the B100 following the coastline all the way from our starting point of Apollo Bay to Torquay then heading inland to Geelong.

The “real” Great Ocean Road

We left Apollo Bay by mid-morning and made our way very slowly along the B100, stopping frequently at spots with views of the beaches and rocky areas, or anything that looked interesting. The day also lent itself to indulging in some birding as we had the best part of a day to travel not many kms and the coastal habitat, the relaxed pace and fairly quiet road meant there were plenty of opportunities to stop at short notice to check out the surroundings.

Petticoat Creek, Great Ocean Road
Petticoat Creek, Great Ocean Road

One of our first stops had nothing to do with birding – I had pulled in at a roadside parking area where a school bus and trailer was parked. There was a group of young people in wet suits in the waves and we realised that this was a school outing to learn how to surf – how cool is that!

Cool Surfing class, near Apollo Bay

Soon thereafter, the sandy beaches gave way to a wide expanse of flat exposed rocks – I thought this looked like ideal habitat for a certain species and I tried a birding ploy that had worked for me before, although not guaranteed – I casually mentioned to Gerda that this looked perfect for Oystercatchers, in the hope that the birding gods would hear me. Lo and behold, even I was surprised when minutes later I spotted Sooty Oystercatchers (looking uncommonly like our African Black Oystercatchers) at a distance and pulled off the road, turned around and raced back to park at the first safe spot next to the road.

Sooty Oystercatcher

They were working their way across the flat rocks but were too far away for a decent photo, but my luck got even better as I noticed another pair much closer and was able to take some reasonable shots as they continued their busy way. Not far from them was a Pied Cormorant in the process of swallowing a small fish, so the stop was doubly productive.

Sooty Oystercatcher
Little Pied Cormorant

Just a few kms further the beach changed again – this time to a rock and boulder strewn expanse and, when I stopped to have a closer look, we noticed carefully stacked columns of varying sized stones forming cairns at one end of the beach. It seems someone started stacking these columns and others continued, for no particular reason other than creating an interesting feature.

Rock-strewn beach
Stone piles

By 1pm we reached Lorne, having travelled all of 42 km in two and a bit hours! I turned off to have a look at the Lorne Pier and fortuitously found our lunch spot for the day right next to the pier – aptly named Lorne Pier Seafood Restaurant. There was a light drizzle and strong wind whipping up the sea which, combined with a rainbow that suddenly appeared, made for a pleasing scene.

Lorne Pier

We were soon ensconced in the warm restaurant and ordered two different fish dishes – Gerda had Barramundi, I had John Dory, both beautifully fresh and perfectly prepared – we were so glad we had found this place. One of our favourite TV series is Australian Masterchef where Barramundi and John Dory fish feature quite frequently in the dishes prepared by the skilled contestants, so it was quite exciting to be enjoying these tasty fish dishes ourselves in such an appropriate location.

Lorne Pier Seafood Restaurant

In front of the restaurant was a small beach with many seabirds present – mainly Greater Crested (Swift) Terns and the ubiquitous Silver Gulls that I had come across in a few spots.

Crested Terns
Crested Tern
Silver Gull

The immature Silver Gull below shows a few differences from the adult – dark eyes rather than light, remnants of the juvenile brown colouring on the upper wings

Silver Gull (Immature)

After lunch we drove slowly through Lorne and up the hill to Teddy’s Lookout high up on the ridge overlooking the twisty coastal road and headland we had passed earlier.

Teddy’s Lookout, Lorne, Great Ocean Road
View from Teddy’s Lookout, Lorne

Passing through Lorne we found the Grand Pacific Hotel and just had to stop and admire its beautiful architecture.

Grand Pacific Lorne, Great Ocean Road
Grand Pacific

We noticed a number of well looked after older houses in Lorne, such as this one with its elaborate decorative trims

Lorne

Moving on, I upped the pace to avoid getting to our destination in Geelong too late. The coastal road continued in the same twisty fashion and before long we were passing through Anglesea, then Torquay, a larger town, after which the traffic became heavier as we headed to Geelong on the outskirts of Melbourne. Our accommodation for the night was Bindaree, a beautiful old house amongst many others in the area.

Bindaree, Geelong
Bindaree, Geelong

Tomorrow we head to Philip Island, a ferry trip and a few hours drive away.

Australian Adventure – Happy Anniversary!

It was meant to be an idyllic day for a wedding anniversary, one that we would remember for the rest of our days – we had arrived in Apollo Bay the previous afternoon and were about to have our first taste of the Great Ocean Road that stretches for a couple of hundred kms west of Melbourne and is said to be one of Australia’s finest scenic routes with a fascinating history. It would take us to the famed Twelve Apostles where we anticipated pulling off the road at a convenient spot to view this natural spectacle. 

We were also counting on there being a selection of delightful restaurants along the way, where we could choose to celebrate our significant day in style with a memorable lunch and, on the way back, we looked forward to spoiling ourselves with a late afternoon tea and perhaps a sweet treat at a pleasant café.

We awoke full of anticipation for the day ahead – the overcast weather with squalls of rain was not ideal but did not put us off from our plans. Soon we were heading westwards out of Apollo Bay on the B100 – the Great Ocean Road – except there was no ocean to be seen as the road threaded its way through mostly forested countryside.

In fact, this was the way it stayed for the entire day other than a deviation to check out Cape Otway Lighthouse and on the final approach to the 12 Apostles. It crossed my mind that calling this stretch the “Great Forest Road” would make a lot more sense.

Before long the turnoff to Cape Otway lighthouse loomed which seemed worth a visit and we drove along a narrow road lined with tall trees and fields for 12 km to the entrance.

The entrance to Cape Otway Lightstation

Our first sight of the sea since leaving Apollo Bay

My only bird sighting of note from the cliffs was a lifer –

Australasian Gannet (Photo : The complete guide to Australian Birds – George Adams)

A short walk in light drizzle took us to the unimposing restaurant – the limited choice of basic dishes and the canteen-like feel was not quite what we had in mind, but we weren’t sure where the next opportunity would be and being quite peckish we ordered 2 beef pies and coffees at the counter.

The restaurant at Cape Otway

The pies came on paper plates and we had to fetch our cutlery at a communal table in the next room, after which we tucked into our anniversary lunch seated on a bench at the front window – well at least we had a view of the lighthouse.

View from the restaurant

Pie lunch

As it turned out the pie was delicious and filling, but left us hoping that our afternoon tea would be a bit more stylish and appropriate to the occasion.

I took advantage of a break in the rain to walk to the historic lighthouse and climb the narrow spiral stairway and a final steep ladder to the top where an outside platform, buffeted by strong wind which threatened to unbalance me, afforded spectacular views up and down the rugged coastline.

Cape Otway Lightstation

Cape Otway Lightstation

Not as bad as the warning sign made out

View from the top

I descended carefully and returned to the restaurant to collect Gerda and we were soon back at the car and on our way to the main road – next stop Twelve Apostles, which we expected to be fairly quiet – after all it was a low season weekday and poor weather to boot. After negotiating more twisty, forest-lined roads for the next hour and a half, we emerged closer to the coast and soon passed the first small parking area for those wanting to view the Twelve Apostles, noticed it seemed full and hoped there would be others along the road. As it turned out there was just one more parking area and as we turned off we found it to be vast and packed with cars, buses and crowds of people jostling for the toilets and spots to take cellphone selfies.

We sat dumbstruck in the car for a minute or two, seriously contemplating leaving without seeing the famous sight – fortunately good reason prevailed and we joined the throngs on the 10 minute walk to the viewing platform, where I threaded my way between more selfie-taking tourists crowding the deck and walkway until I found a gap where I could take in the unique beauty of this natural feature, frame and take a few photos.

Twelve Apostles

Twelve Apostles

We were in need of some refreshment but my crowd phobia had kicked in and the busy canteen was not particularly inviting, so we left, relieved to get away from so much frenzied tourist-ing.

Before long our thoughts turned to the hoped for tea venue – full of hope we popped into Princetown just off the B100, only to find it was the classic one-horse town whose only horse had apparently bolted – the only café was closed.

I was also watching the car’s info panel which was showing a depleted petrol tank with less kms left than we still had to travel – no reason to stress as there was bound to be a convenient petrol station – except I could not remember seeing one on the way there. After a half an hour of tense driving we entered the town of Laver’s Hill and were relieved to see a petrol pump outside a wooden shack with its door hanging open and keys dangling in the lock – but our relief was short-lived as there was not a soul to be seen anywhere nearby. Had we entered some sort of a ghost town?

We carried on down the main street and at the end of the small town we pulled in at a café with an old-fashioned, somewhat rusty petrol pump in front of its door. Gerda was convinced it was a museum piece placed there for show but the young lady inside assured us it was working, so after finding out how to operate it (no such thing as a petrol attendant in Australia) I quickly filled up the tank and we could relax again.

The same charming young lady sold us a fresh- looking slice of apple pie each to go with our take away teas, which we enjoyed at a rough wooden table next to the petrol pump and a large garbage bin. Despite the surroundings, the apple pie was so good we went back for seconds!

Lavers Hill

The rest of the trip back to Apollo Bay went smoothly and we arrived after dark – the day had been eventful but one thing we knew – we would not be forgetting it soon!

Australian Adventure – Victoria : Apollo Bay

Continuing our road trip through Victoria, we had spent the night in  Sassafras in the Mount Dandenong area outside Melbourne and the following morning, after continental breakfast in our room, we set off to Apollo Bay, a distance of about 250 kms from our overnight stop. Ordinarily, this distance would be a comfortable half-day drive for us, but in this instance it meant finding our way through Melbourne’s inner city suburbs, then taking the M1 highway around the south of the city and further eastwards.  I had to avoid the more direct tolled highways which required an electronic tag or special account, neither of which were available to us

Our route

Closer to our destination we turned off the highway and found ourselves on narrow country roads with pleasing scenery, whereafter the road became seriously twisty as it wound its way through forested hills, so much so that the constant turning had me feeling somewhat light-headed. Thankfully, we eventually crested the last hill and saw the sea far below and we were soon enjoying the last stretch of the trip along rugged coastline up to Apollo Bay. 250 kms has never felt so long!

I stopped at the first opportunity to stretch and take in the coastal views, which included the first of many surfers we were to see on the Great Ocean Road and a pair of Maned Ducks at a small pond in the sand

Surf’s up – near Apollo Bay

Maned (Wood) Duck – female

Maned (Wood) Duck – male

After checking in to our comfortable accommodation at the Stay Inn, we followed the advice of the B&B owner and enjoyed a memorable dinner that evening of freshly grilled salmon, chips and coleslaw at the Fishermen’s Co-op at the small harbour. Seating was at a “rough and ready” table outside in less than comfortable weather but the superb food made us forget everything else.

We got chatting to the guys at the next table – just  another example of how friendly we found the majority of Aussies to be – one was from Melbourne, the other his cousin visiting from Israel and they demolished 3 platters of seafood between them while our jaws dropped at the sight of whole crayfish being so casually eaten.

Next morning we awoke to cold, overcast weather which brought squalls of rain at regular intervals. We took our time enjoying the continental breakfast provided in the room, hoping the weather would improve. Our room overlooked the front garden which provided a lively source of entertainment as numerous birds visited  the bird-friendly plants.

Room with a garden view – Stay Inn, Apollo Bay

New Holland Honeyeaters, which I had come across in Sale, were true to their name and reveled in the nectar-producing plants while Eurasian Tree Sparrows searched the grass and pathways for seed.

New Holland Honeyeater, Apollo Bay

Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Apollo Bay

I was fascinated by the cutely named Willie Wagtail which popped up briefly, a perky bird elegantly coloured black and white and with a  broad tail that he wagged vigorously, but from side to side rather than the up and down of other wagtails.

Willie Wagtail

After breakfast, with the rain letting up, we drove through the village – I soon spotted a sign pointing the way to “Scenic Route” and headed along the indicated road into attractive countryside with green fields, plenty of picturesque cattle and the odd river – all adding up to a totally idyllic scene –  whoever had decided to call it a scenic route knew what they were about (in fact that’s something we noticed frequently – Aussies do seem to know what they’re doing)

Scenic drive, Apollo Bay

Scenic drive, Apollo Bay

Scenic drive, Apollo Bay

Apart from the many Cattle Egrets amongst the cattle, there were Maned Ducks at the river and a lifer in the form of a Grey Shrikethrush sat briefly on the fence – too briefly for a kodak moment. There was also a Little Pied Cormorant perched on a tree stump in the river

Eastern Cattle Egret, Apollo Bay

Little Pied Cormorant, Apollo Bay

It happened to be our wedding anniversary and the rest of the day was taken up with a drive to the famous Twelve Apostles, which did not turn out quite as we had imagined – but that’s another story……..

 

 

 

Australian Adventure – Victoria : Mount Dandenong

We had made no specific plans beforehand to travel while visiting Stephan and Liesl and the grandkids in Sale, Victoria but decided to “play it by ear” once we had a better idea of the area, this being our first visit to Australia. That said, we were keen to see more of Victoria State during our stay and to give the family a “mid-term” break from having us around  for the full 5½ weeks (not that there was any hint of this from their side, but we knew from our own experience with our parents).

After much discussion and studying of maps and info on the attractions, we decided on a 7 day road trip that would take us to Mount Dandenong area outside Melbourne, then to Apollo Bay and the Great Ocean Road, returning to Geelong near Melbourne and on to Philip Island where we would meet up with the family for the weekend.

It did not take long to book a rental car and the various B&B’s that fitted our budget and looked as if they would meet our expectations. Come Monday 6 May 2019, I collected the rental car and we set off, heading out on the Princess Highway towards Melbourne.

The map below shows the route we followed :

Sassafras-17

Gerda and I love a road trip almost more than any other form of travel – not sure why, though – perhaps because it lets you feel part of the countryside as you move along and you have the freedom of stopping on a whim, whenever and wherever you please. So we were both in a state of mild excitement, but also a touch of anxiety at the prospect of driving unknown roads – thank goodness I had activated my old I-phone with a prepaid Australian sim and enough data to work the navigation app for the full duration of our trip!

And what a pleasure driving on roads where other vehicles, large and small, are doing pretty much the same speed and in a predictable fashion! I did not see a single guy in a sleek sedan slicing through the traffic to show how amazingly superior he is (oops, my prejudices are showing again)

Towns in this part of Victoria are surprisingly close together, something I did not foresee, and we passed through several and bypassed others on our way to Melbourne – it’s worth mentioning some of the names just because they are so curious – Rosedale (OK that one’s ordinary) a pretty little town, Traralgon (try saying that quickly), Moe, Warragul and my favourite – Nar Nar Goon, followed closely by Narre Warren.

At the latter town we left the highway and the rolling landscape soon changed to hills that became higher and the roads steeper and narrower. Passing through Belgrave we soon found ourselves on the Mount Dandenong Tourist Road, a steep, winding road that had me slowing down even more as we passed through tall forests on both sides that almost touched high overhead and formed a majestic tunnel, lined with enormous ferns at ground level.

Sassafras-18
The winding road to Sassafras and beyond

Sassafras
Ferns are massive

Dandenong Ranges
Dandenong Ranges National Park

We found the tiny village of Sassafras, our chosen overnight destination, after some agonising about whether it actually existed and even stopping to ask directions in a particularly weak moment. Relieved at eventually finding it, we enjoyed a late lunch at Miss Marples Tea Room in a proper “Ye Olde Englishe” cottage in the main road, accompanied by a room full of other tourists (sans selfie sticks thank goodness)

Miss Marples tearoom, Sassafras
Miss Marples tearoom, Sassafras

After lunch we strolled around the village, popping into a few of the interesting shops – we were on the lookout for something to enjoy that evening in-room rather than go out to dinner and peered into the only shop that looked promising – a deli kind of place. The owner saw us and beckoned us closer and proceeded to feed us samples of just about every delicacy in the shop while keeping up a chatter and assuring us we were just the best people to have visited his shop – what a salesman! Needless to say we left with a bag full of salmon paté, Wensleydale cheese, crisps, a superb fig and quince jam and a punnet of organic strawberries, all of which became a yummy supper later on.

sassafras-19.jpg
It did not take long to walk the whole village

Sassafras
Sassafras main road

Morgan, Sassafras
This Morgan V8 looked perfectly in place in Sassafras and the owner was kind enough to stop when I indicated I would like to photograph it

Our accommodation – Belle le Vie, just outside the village – turned out to be exotically furnished, very comfortable and well appointed, set in lush gardens. A Laughing Kookaburra made its presence known with a solid demonstration of why it got that name – a cackling sound like no other.

Belle le vie, Sassafras
Belle le vie, Sassafras

Belle le vie, Sassafras
Belle le vie, Sassafras

Laughing Kookaburra, Sassafras
Laughing Kookaburra, Sassafras

There was just time for a walk before dusk, so I walked back up the road leading to the B&B and found an ANZAC memorial on the edge of more forest with even more massive trees towering above, making me feel quite insignificant.

Sassafras
The road to Belle le Vie

Sassafras
Autumn colours

Sassafras
So many enormous trees

Sassafras
Sassafras

Bird life was scarce the whole day, but I was thrilled at being able to get up-close photos of the Crimson Rosellas after seeing another tourist pointing his cellphone at a tree in the middle of Sassafras village and finding a pair of them showing off their vivid colours.

Crimson Rosella, Sassafras
Crimson Rosella, Sassafras

Crimson Rosella, Sassafras
Crimson Rosella, Sassafras

Next morning we made a brief detour before heading towards our next destination, to have a peek at a flower farm that Gerda had read about somewhere – it was worth the trouble!

Flower nursery, Sassafras
Flower farm, Sassafras

A promising start to our road trip indeed!

 

 

 

Australian Adventure – Cruising down the River

I mentioned the Sale canal in an earlier post and that it links the Port of Sale, now a small boat harbour, to the Thomson River and beyond to the Gippsland Lakes. The Port, the canal and the Swing Bridge were all part of the solution to the challenge of transporting resources out of and bringing supplies in to the area during the late 1800’s when gold was discovered in the area and fine cheese was being made and exported to Europe

There is a twice daily cruise of around two hours by boat down the canal and the Thomson River to the Old Swing Bridge and back and we had waited for some warmer, less windy weather to join the afternoon cruise. The last day of April, a Tuesday, turned out to be such a day and we reported at the dock at 1.45pm where we met Alan, the Captain and owner of the Rubeena, paid the requisite amount and stepped on board the historical boat.

A guard of honour was waiting for us and the navy band struck up as we boarded ………….. actually I made that bit up but that was what it felt like, despite the boat being quite small.

The Rubeena was built in Sydney and was originally licensed on 4 April 1912 (that’s just 11 days before the Titanic sank) and spent most of her working life on the Gippsland Lakes. She has been carefully restored and takes up to 40 passengers, but on our trip there were just 6 others apart from Gerda and myself so we had plenty of room to move about.

Rubeena at its berth in the Port of Sale

The Rubeena

The electric motor is a bonus as it makes the cruise a quiet, gentle experience, especially when the weather is as perfect as it was, with a mild breeze hardly stirring the smooth surface of the river as we set off.

Setting off down the canal

Alan was an excellent captain and guide, giving a running commentary on the features we passed and the significance of the canal, particularly how it served the Sale area during the pioneer years. The canal was dug by horse and scoop and was completed by 1890

Captain and owner Alan in full flow

We were fascinated by the “canoe” trees – old gum trees with visible indentations where the original inhabitants of the area had harvested timber for canoe-building without destroying the tree. According to Alan, some of these trees were  350 to 400 years old and still standing on the banks of the river.

A typical “Canoe Tree”

The canal/river is lined with majestic old trees

At certain spots he also pointed out the sections of the original river course that were diverted and “straightened” to make it more shipping-friendly

Our turnaround point was reached after just more than an hour of gentle puttering – the Old Swing Bridge, which we were able to study in detail as we passed slowly beneath it, then turned around and retraced our route back.

Swing bridge

The mechanics that make it work

Swing Bridge – one half showing with the other half hidden behind vegetation

The bridge is a remarkable example of 19th century engineering with its intricate mechanics which swing it open 180 degrees to allow taller vessels to pass by on either side. It is the oldest intact, operational bridge of its kind in Australia.

I had mentioned my interest in birding to Alan and he kindly made a point of identifying the birds that we spotted along the river, most of which I had already got to know, but happily there were two new birds to add to my growing Australia list –

  • Nankeen Night-heron – as the name suggests, these birds are mostly nocturnal but Alan knew where they roosted during the day and pointed them out high up in a tree, warily watching us from behind a veil of feathers, much like a mysterious eastern dancer may do

Nankeen Night-heron

  • Azure Kingfisher – I spotted it first some way upriver whereupon it flew past the boat, landing briefly right next to us before flying further – unfortunately too quick for me to photograph it

(The photo is taken from The Complete Guide to Australian Birds by George Adams)

Other birds that we encountered along the way were –

  • Australasian Darter

  • Great Cormorant

  • Eurasian Coot

  • Australian Swamphen

  • Australian White Ibis

  • Dusky Moorhen

  • Pacific Black Duck – see the featured image at the top of the post

Two hours had passed and we were sorry it had ended – a really pleasant way to spend a sunny afternoon

 

 

Australian Adventure – Going walkabout on Sale Common

We had been in Sale, Victoria for about 10 days and we were getting into the swing of suburban life in this charming Australian town. Sale presents a number of opportunities for pleasant walks, with two lakes and a nature conservation area nearby, and the weather at this time of year is often ideal – not too hot, sometimes chilly, but not so that it puts you off getting out an about.

Just after arriving in Sale I joined the family for a short walk through Sale Common Nature Conservation Reserve, which was just enough to whet my appetite for a longer birding-orientated walk on my own. One cold and windy weekday afternoon, with the family otherwise occupied with work, school and household activities, I chose to do so and drove the couple of kms to the parking area where I began my walk.

Somehow I had managed to leave my binos at home but fortunately had my new Sony “bridge” camera with me and decided to rely on my eyesight with backup from the telephoto camera lens to help ID the distant birds. The camera was a pre-trip purchase to avoid having to carry my heavy Nikon DSLR with its equally heavy lens halfway round the world – the Sony is about a third of the weight and a remarkably good substitute, so I have had no regrets so far, although the bank balance took a knock in the process as it is one of the more expensive bridge cameras.

Sale Common was proclaimed in 1863 and was used for farming for 101 years before being declared a nature conservation reserve. It consists of freshwater marshes, red gum woodland and introduced grasslands. The wetland is listed as a RAMSAR site and has a network of tracks and boardwalks leading through the varying habitat which provide a wonderful environment for birds and small animals.

I proceeded along the trail, stopping briefly to chat to a similar-aged gent eating his sandwich at a picnic table with his old-fashioned black bicycle leaning against a nearby tree – he pointed the way and wished me good spotting as I carried on. The trail proper started as a track through Eucalypt forest with the tall, sturdy trees forming a high tunnel overhead, the foliage attractively coloured in autumnal shades.

Start of the trail

So far I had found the forests to be devoid of obvious bird life other than the Laughing Kookaburras which favour this environment and make themselves heard with their loud cackling calls, but they do make for a very attractive walking environment.

Signage advised that the boardwalk over the wetlands was closed for repairs and in any case the wetlands were dry after the recent drought in the area, so I stuck to the sandy track. Soon I reached the first visible stretch of the river, called the Flooding Creek at this point, and checked the waters for water birds but saw none. However movement at the water’s edge caught my eye and I approached carefully to see what they might be.

A few photos later of the tiny birds with long tails held erect clinched their ID as Superb Fairywrens, a nice lifer and a lovely spot to find them.

Superb Fairywren (non-breeding male) – in breeding plumage they are brightly coloured

The trail continued along the river with raised boardwalks where it crossed a part of the wetland.

Sale Common

Rounding a bend, the river was once again visible ahead and several larger birds in the shallows made me approach cautiously, using the trees as a partial screen where possible. The slender, graceful form of a Great Egret on the near side was a familiar sight, looking identical to the SA version of this large all-white egret. The Australian bird book I use has it as Eastern Great Egret and some taxonomists consider it to be a subspecies but there were no features that I could pick up to differentiate it from the Southern African bird.

Eastern Great Egret, Sale Common

On the far side of the river four Yellow-billed Spoonbills were sweeping the shallow water from side to side with their spatulate bills – the smallest creature – fish, crustacean or insect – touching the inside of the broad tip triggers it to close instantly.

Yellow-billed Spoonbill, Sale Common

I watched them for a while then, looking up, a couple of soaring raptors caught my eye and I guessed they could be Whistling Kites, having seen one over the wetlands a few days earlier. Fortunately I spotted one that had landed high up in a tree, making it a far easier photo ID target than trying to shoot against the bright, grey sky and was able to confirm my initial ID of Whistling Kite.

Whistling Kite, Sale Common

The river held plenty of Ducks including Chestnut Teals in large numbers and some Pacific Black Ducks.

Chestnut Teal, Sale Common – males in front, female just visible in the rear. On the left is a White-faced Heron

Chestnut Teals, Sale Common

Maned Ducks (aka Australian Wood Duck, depending on which book you use) were almost as numerous but on the grassy banks. I have yet to see this latter duck actually in the water so they obviously don’t seem to understand the adage “takes to the water like a duck” for some reason.

Maned Duck, Sale Common – female on left, male on right

I had walked a good distance along the track and decided to turn around, with the light starting to fade, as it does from around 4.30 pm in the autumn in these parts. As I did I came across Little Black Cormorants and a Great Cormorant on dry tree stumps in the river.

Little Black and Great Cormorants, Sale Common

Something moved in the middle of the river and as I focused my camera on the ripples a fish leaped out and I instinctively pressed the shutter button, capturing it in mid leap – a really lucky shot! I’m not a fish expert but took this to be a trout

I did not see anything new on the way back but at the bridge I stopped to view the Masked Lapwings at the water’s edge, accompanied by more Maned Ducks.

Sale Common

Just before reaching the car park a flock of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos descended on the trees, very noisily, probably getting ready to roost for the evening. South Africans of a certain era will remember the NBS adverts which featured this unmistakable bird – seeing it in numbers in the wild is a somewhat bizarre birding experience!

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo

Here and there a plaque provided more info on the history of the area

Sale Common

Sale Common

Water trough, Sale Common

All in all a thoroughly entertaining and interesting afternoon spent in a safe environment

 

Australian Adventure – Going Walkabout in Sale Town Centre

I love walking and have always found that it is by far the best way to explore a new town or city – you may not get to see everything they tell you about in the guide books but it lets you get closer to the soul of a place, discovering little gems as you go, watching people going about their business, seeing all the many ordinary things that make a town what it is.

So when Gerda and Liesl went shopping one afternoon. I took the opportunity to tag along, but only as far as the main shopping street where I left them and started my random walk.

The main shopping street is called Raymond Street and is lined with a variety of “small town” shops along both sides with the road reduced to a minimum size to allow maximum pedestrian space and room for parking and landscaping.

Sale map

I started by walking up to an intersection where a tall brick clock tower stands – there I found a second-hand book store to browse in and came away half an hour later with a very readable novel for $8 (R80). From there I meandered around the block past the shopping centre and came upon my first surprise – an old Railway Signal Box building, looking spick-and-span but rather forlorn and out of place across the road from the shopping centre parking area.

Clock Tower, Sale

Old Signal Box, Sale, Victoria

I later found it was erected in 1888 on the site of the original Railway Station, which was demolished in 1983 to make way for the shopping centre. The Signal Box, railway gates and 2 signals were left as a reminder.

Old Signal Box, Sale, Victoria

Wandering further, I passed the Catholic School with its neat brick buildings and came to the busy main road through Sale, which I crossed. On the other side, signage pointing to “Port of Sale” piqued my curiosity – carrying the name “Port” implies being located at the sea or at least on a major waterway, neither of which apply to Sale, so what was this about?

I had read about the Sale Canal but hadn’t absorbed the details – later I read up more on the subject and found that the pioneers of the area, seeing the advantage of access to the Gippsland Lakes, cut the 2,5 km long canal which links the town to the Thomson River and beyond to the Gippsland Lakes, establishing Sale as a busy port for steamers plying the 400 square kms of the lakes system.

Port of Sale, Victoria

Port of Sale, Victoria

Port of Sale, Victoria

Now it’s a dock for pleasure boats and the precinct has been developed into an attractive spot for picnics and leisure activities. I wasn’t planning to bird so had left my binos at home, but sight of some waterbirds on the water had me using my backup plan – the telephoto lens on my camera which brought them digitally closer for ID purposes – Australasian Grebe as it turned out.

Australian Grebe, Sale, Victoria

Eurasian Coot, Sale, Victoria

Next, I was drawn to the new-looking Port of Sale civic centre, got several pamphlets from the Visitor Centre and did a quick tour of the Art Gallery, before heading back towards the town centre.

Civic Centre, Sale

Art Gallery, Sale

On the way I passed a few older buildings – the Court House, Victory Hall and some charming houses that have been beautifully maintained with their Victorian style architecture.

Court House, Sale

Court House, Sale

Victoria Hall, Sale

Old House, now offices

Old house, Sale

Seeing Sale’s Cinema took me back to Saturday mornings at the Scala cinema in Cape Town back in the ….. oops almost gave my age away. Anyway, it was quite a long time ago.

Cinema, Sale, Victoria

By now it was close to 2 hours since I had left the girls and I met them for coffee at the Centre Bakery, housed in a tiny old church in Cunningham Street, concluding a lovely walk through this most civilised town