Friday, August 28, 2009

Innocents Abroad An Aussie's Trip report on Chicago

I’m running a bit behind on reports. This trip was Sept/Oct 2006. Travellers me, (female) and 2 of my offspring, (Daughter aged 17 and Son aged 18). A stop over en route to visit people in Kansas.
In short: AWESOME city. We’d LOVE to go back sometime, still so much to see that we didn’t get to.
Stayed at Congress Plaza Hotel. Selected for location and price. Location was indeed very convenient for our interests. It was frustrating that most US hotels don’t have fridges in the rooms. Only place we stayed where we had this facility was Great Bend Kansas.
We read the guide books, but it’s amazing how much was still a surprise, as you will see below. LOL . Most things I booked on the internet myself from home.
DAY 1 – mostly in flight. It’s about 20 hrs of travel to Chicago from Sydney. Flew United, which was fine. Lots of Aussies on the flight wearing flag hats and shirts. Made me think that, like me, many were a bit over-awed at leaving Aus. I’d managed to keep it a bit more discrete though and had opted for a wattle embroidered T-shirt under my jacket. The bronzed gum leaf earings stayed in my handbag for the trip but got much use after arrival – subtle eh! LOL
Probably got fleeced at LA airport, he SAID it was for battered women and had some gruesome photos to show you, he was probably lying but hey, the information the guy gave was worth 20 bucks to me at the time, so I decided to be generous. We LOVED the US, but probably the least positive aspect we struck was that you can’t just take people at face value. If they offer you assistance, even if they look kind of official, no sooner than providing the help they’ll want your money. We quickly stopped accepting help from strangers.
Our agent arranged transfers to our hotel. Expensive but we figured it’s a really long flight and who needs the hassle in a strange city. I slept most of the way and arrived in better shape than when I left, which was a surprise. After arrival we freshened up and walked out to seek some dinner about 9:30 pm. Not much open this end of town - only Subway and Dunkin Donuts, so we just walked towards the river and ended up at Smith and Wollensky downstairs. I’m sure the waitress must have thought we were from another planet. Our first trip to the US and we had no idea what was going on! First we asked about drinks that have never been heard of (lemon, lime and bitters) even when she asked what was in it, there was clearly a language barrier. (What’s fizzy lemonade? What’s Angostura bitters?) then we had an issue with paying by credit card. In Australia, when paying by card, they take your card and bring you the slip (so far so good) and then you sign and they check your signature against that on your card, or check your ID. In the US it’s standard to just bring the card and slip and duck off quick smart and not come back. We kept waiting for the waitress to come back and check my signature. In the end we had to ask, which was clearly considered an odd thing to do. We struggled with this for days and were thinking the service was just bad, but the nice people at Crofton on Wells explained the local custom to us. You guys in the US must have HUGE credit card fraud with processes as loose as that! Anyway, the meal was delicious.
Back to the hotel, and the toilet is causing much consternation. Is it blocked? It’s like a lake! So much water!! Ah, and it forms a whirlpool – (so that’s what that Simpson’s episode was on about!) Son discovers some unfortunate design consequences. Very puzzling, maybe not using this facility appropriately. How’s it done here? I won’t go into details but let me say it took Son quite a while to lose his deep unhappiness with the toilets, even after detailed discussions with daughter’s male (American) friend via phone.
Surprised to find that everything opens at 10 am. (In Australia we’re used to everything opening by 9 am, and in the city many things open earlier so people can stop in on the way to work which generally starts at 8:30 or 9). We took the opportunity for a walk in the park across the road before a leisurely breakfast at the Corner Bakery, which has a nice cosy atmosphere. Food was OK. The yoghurt is a bit too far to the side of fat free.
MASS excitement when we spotted some squirrels in the park. So cute!! We never did get over being embarrassingly thrilled with the local wildlife. Even saw a chipmunk in the garden at the zoo. At first we were wondering what is was, but then realised and it was SO exciting! The beaver at the zoo also was a major hit. Like a swimming wombat! Anyhow, the parklands and public landscaping in Chicago is lovely. Everything beautifully maintained and really clean. Lots of wonderful statuary both modern and traditional. The city planning is also very impressive and the lakefront is beautiful. We LOVED it. Being flat also, meant that we could just take off and walk to most things we wanted to do.
Sears tower next. Wonderful and not to be missed. 360 degree views over an extremely impressive city skyline, and the lake of course. They also have historical information about Chicago on the interior walls which was interesting. Lunch at Giordano’s. A “famous stuffed pizza” which was interesting and tasted OK. I was glad I’d insisted we just get a small one and see if we wanted more. They’re very deep and cheesy, like a bowl of melted mozzarella. The 12 inch (recommended for 1 – 2 people) fed 3 of us no problem at all.
Went and tried the “Chicago mix” at Garretts popcorn. Didn’t like it though. The cheese one was really oily and the caramel tasted burnt. Binned it.
Back for a rest before our internet booked Downtown Deco tour with the Chicago Architecture Foundation. FASCINATING. Local pride in all things architecture completely justified. These tours are a must. Tour finished at a little bar where we had gourmet pizza with a lovely couple from Oregon who were also on the tour.
We bought ourselves a local sim card for our phone, so my daughter could communicate with friends in Kansas. Ah yes… A note for Aussies heading stateside: In the US they call their phone credit “minutes”. My son had so much trouble asking people on the street in Kansas Citywhere to buy phone credit. They just looked at him like he was mad. Noone helped, a friend explained when we met up.
DAY 3: Frank Lloyd Wright on Tuesdays Tour. Again booked online with CAF. Wonderful. A real thrill. The volunteer tour leaders are extremely competent. Oak Park is beautiful. The architecture delightful. More squirrels!!
Afternoon we went and checked out what our transfer driver described as “the bean”. It’s a massive sculpture officially named “Cloud Gate”, by a British artist I think. I wasn’t fussed in advance, but it’s awesome too and worth the walk, and just near the Frank Gehry structure which we just had to check out. Lunch at the Park Grill was delicious.
We also visited the cultural centre for info on sports games. Did a bit of shopping. Bought some shoes. Came across the MOST bizarre thing. Loudly announcing itself to the street was a shop within one of the big department stores called “Australian Home Made Ice Cream and Chocolate”. Huhhh?! We just had to check that out. Australian chocolate?! “This cannot be!” we thought, but oh yes, this store was selling chocolate made in Australia. We bought a couple of the hand made chocs which claimed to use Belgian chocolate. Filthy. The fondant was grainy. Totally 3rd class. We wondered whether a letter to the Australian government might assist in having this shop closed down. What an embarrassment! Good people of Chicago, don’t learn the hard way. I should note that, we are starting to get some truly superior chocolatiers here in Aus. Koko Black is a case in point (albeit owned and managed by European chocolatiers) I understand they were at the Spring Fancy Food Show in Chicago in May....
Crofton on Wells for a 4 course dinner. Expensive but great service and very nice food completely different to what we get back home. Modest portion sizes were a welcome change. My son wasn’t too wrapped in his starter. The wait staff noticed and insisted on replacing it. He enjoyed the replacement. Wandered around the area a bit after dinner then a cab back to the hotel.
DAY 4. Late start. Caught the red line to the Magnificent Mile. Shopped all afternoon. Bought jeans at Saks 5th Ave. Fantastic service there from the young woman assisting us. Her prancing off-sider was pretty hopeless though and neglected his client which our lass didn’t let go unaddressed. To my surprise the prices covered a broad range which wasn’t what I expected at all. Bought shoes and Ray Bans in Nordstrom and booked tickets for a ball game via phone while we browsed. Great shoe department! Son thought one of the sales people seriously hot. Just what you need when Mum and Sis are browsing the shoes, a comfy sofa and some entertainment. Son was very enthusiastic about GAP and bought heaps of clothes. This was the great value clothes buying we’d heard about back home. Lucky we brought extra suitcase space. Walked back to the hotel. Red Line back out to Wrigley field. Wished we’d worn more warm clothes. Great atmosphere. Perfect game to catch, the Cubs won after a tight game. We ate a hot dog from the vendors (pretty horrible, but how could we not try it?) and enjoyed seeing all the famous ball game stuff. Tried to figure out why for no easily discernable reason the entire crowd suddenly got up and sang Take me Out to the Ball Game. Someone struck out? They didn’t sing again on strike out later…. Who knows?
DAY 5 – Architecture river cruise. COLD. Very interesting though. Some content overlapped previous tours. I thought it would be a good one to do as a general overview, but the subject specific tours were best as they were more detailed.
Caught the bus to Lincoln Park zoo in the afternoon. Lunch at Cosi nearby which was OK but nothing to write home about. Public transport is easy to use and navigate. Wonderful to visit a zoo with so many things we just don’t have back home. The Aadvarks and armadillo were a massive hit. I was excited beyond description to finally see real live hedgehogs. An excellent facility and free entry. Very impressive. The zoo was also quite disillusioning though, especially for Son. They had some weird animals from China we’d never seen or heard of before called takin. We thought someone at the Star Wars set had a great imagination, but turns out there’s animals just like the ones they used. Well who’d have thought?
Art Institute in the afternoon. I made a be line for the American section, which was great. Some great English cameo glass too. A bit of a maze to navigate though and as we got separated daughter missed American Gothic which she had been keen to see.
Dinner at Bennigans. OK. Great waiter. Very cool. Starting to suffer withdrawals from lack of vegetable matter.
Well mannered tidy beggars on street corners. I must say you let your beggars off lightly. They just stand there politely and discretely holding a cup, having nice chat with a mate or something. Generally looking happy enough. Here in Sydney we make our beggars earn their keep. They must look really really scruffy, have a cardboard sign fashioned out of an old cardboard box with some heart rending hard luck story written on it. Extra marks for trying if they also have an appealing little dog with a sad expression, and some old blankets to sit on. And none of this happy chatting business. We expect them to sit there looking particularly dejected for as long as they expect people to drop coins. We demand value for our money!! (Seriously though, here in Aus even the charities who work with homeless people request the public not to give to beggers. It’s really just a tax free business that pays very well indeed and that undermines attempts to get these people back to a proper working life. The hard luck tales are usually fictitious and there have been many, many investigative stories and articles showing just how much you can earn and just what the beggars actually do with the money – eg feed it into poker machine or buy booze etc).
DAY 6 Separated this morning. Offspring to breakfast. I walked over to Shedd Aquarium. AWESOME. Not to be missed. Very interesting indeed. I finally got to see real life amazon frogs I’ve admired so long. Kids shopped and ended up joining me at the Aquarium after my raving about it, so I went around twice. Strange information and name labels on the Aus lizards though. Komodo dragon was just a baby. This was amusing considering the big build up he got. Water taxi to Navy Pier was an enjoyable perspective on the city. Rode the big ferris wheel $5 for 1 revolution. Bit of a rip I thought. Bought some fabulous cinnamon nuts. Wish we could get them in Aus.. I've been lobbying our local hot nut vendors to this effect. Browsed a bit. Ho hum. Walked back to hotel. Stopped at Fox and Obel and bought some lollies (candy) and some fresh fruit – first outlet for fruit we’ve seen (which turned out to be strangely tasteless). Meat in this store is really expensive.
Tried to cab it to Steppenwolf Theatre to see the Pillowman. A big procession of bike riders had other ideas, and we ended up getting out and walking the last section in light drizzle. The show was excellent. I wonder what the London production was like in the characterisation of the police. We stayed for the discussion after the show. We must have stood out like sore thumbs as the (very very impressive) artistic director leading the discussion was keeping a close eye on us, seeming to want us to say something. Summoned the courage to actually speak when someone made a comment I didn’t agree with. I was totally out of kilter with majority sensibilities I think. Steppenwolf is definitely a highlight of our trip for our final night in town. Dinner at Hooters, which the offspring were pretty happy about. Really craving some healthy food now (none on menu of course). Daughter bought a T shirt. Missed out on Gino’s (which had been recommended) as it was closed.
Juggling our luggage weight. We’re off to Kansas City in the morning, harbouring a not so secret quest to find good quality dairy foods and some fresh fruit and vegetables somewhere…..
Overall, we felt very much at home. Thanks Chicago, we had a really wonderful time!
…ps we did end up finding some steamed vegetables at the Outback Steakhouse, fell on them like our lives depended on it! Outback steakhouse is a laugh in most respects, but god bless them for the veges!!

Few people say it better than Ion Idriess

I just had to share this wonderul passage about the dry lakes in the outback areas. It is taken from The Silver City by Ion Idriess which is essentially his personal memoirs.

"...these lakes are caused by a great number of creeks that carry water only in the rare heavy rains spilling out from the small rocky Barrier ranges on to the great open plains where their waters form the Box-tree and other swamps, the lagoons and gilgai holes and claypans, also by a number of the inland Queensland rivers such as the Paroo and Bulloo and their numerous tributaries flowing south and south-west to spill across the New South Wales border into the Corner Country and vanish. But during floods they flow much stronger and farther and spill out into numerous dry depressions, forming lakes for longer or shorter duration, according to size and depths. The Darling, too, with its great network of channels and surging anabranches spills out over a vast area of plain country, filling yet other lakes. During an occassional flood year these lakes run into hundreds of lakes, even forming a chain of lakes right across western New South Wales from the Queensland border to the Victorian, linking border to border with a chain of life indeed. As the waters recede into the river channels those depressions remain as shallow lakes. Comes the hot sun, and evaporation. Slowly, then faster, lake after lake begins to dry up, all but the very largest of them. But, where the lake has been, what an entrancing picture! A verdant mass of herbage and clover gay with wildflowers, merry with bird life, a bright green oasis of plenty stretching for miles away. No wonder those sunburnt horny-handed run-hunters were entranced when they first gazed upon such a scene, this sun-scorched land transformed into a paradise.
Such an intriguing, such a deceiving land it can be!
I've never forgotten, though I saw it way back when I was a young fellow, Moncooney Lake on Annandale station. I rode up on top of a big sandhill at sunrise and gazed down on the lake. Where a few weeks ago had been a sheet of water stretching distantly away was now a "lake" of verdant green delicately tinged with rose, then the sheen of gold coating the smooth slopes of the surrounding sandhills as the glorious sunrise brightened from fire into gold. And then the lake was an emerald green, a fitting couch for angels. Now jewelled above the clover shone the pure white and golden lilies, while under the rapidly brightening dawn masses of blues and scarletts of countless flowering plants kissed their petals to the sun. Away out towards the centre a remaining patch of water gleamed like a diamond within its setting in intense green. And from here came faintly the call of waterfowl, amoung huge white flowers that were nesting pelican. Surely no babies of the wild could ever be born in a more beautiful paradise. Studded thickly over all the grass and flowers were many cattle so lazily fat as to be awaiting the growing warmth of the sun before they would deign to dine. At the distant edge of the lake, fair under the rising sun, lazily arose a blue coil of smoke. Then came little figures to sit by the campfire at the call of the cook. Up to their knees in herbage, with the sun's rays reflecting upon them from the sandhill slopes the stockmen's horses shone like blazing chestnuts. A lovely picture under a soft blue sky, and one in which man did not look out of place.
......Alas there is a reverse side to the picture, as throughout life there so often is. To that same station and throughout all the corner country, south-west Queensland, even east of the Darling and all country west of the Darling, right across the north of South Australia, came a terrible drought, as has happended before, has happened since, and will again. The earth became a burning desolation, cattle dying of starvation everywhere over a vast area, while round many a waterhole that still held putrid water thousands of beasts slowly sank to an awful death, too weak to heave themselves from the bog. The only sound over all that stifling desolation the "Kark! Kark! Kark!" of gorged crows, by night the snap of dingoes' fangs tearing into helpless beasts.
Two large mobs of Annandale cattle became marooned in the height of that drought, the only hope of saving them was to shift them to Birdsville, to a waterhole on the Diamantina, over a ninety mile dry stage without a blade of grass. One mob just got through, excepting those that fell out exhausted, of course. The other mob started out for Coongie Lake by the Cooper at Innaminka. The drover had scouted the route a week previously to assure himself that a known waterhole on the way would hold out until the cattle could arrive. The beasts would till themselves with the putrid water remaining there, then plod on again on the last dash. To reach that waterhole meant an eighty mile dry stage with already weakened cattle. When the mob arrived the waterhole was dry; even the mud had caked up into blistering fragments. Evaporation under the stifling heat can be terrific out there.
That mob had to be abandoned. The drovers, with perishing horses under them, barely escaped with their own lives..."

Such a beautifully communicated expression of the extremes of great swathes of the Australian landscape. It gives added appreciation to Dorothea Mackellars poetic hearpouring in My Country.

Of course when I read the passage I get to the column of smoke and alongside the stockmen see the spectre of indigenous people coping with displacement.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Coonabarabran and the Warrumbungles

This trip was planned firstly to fulfil one of my mother’s see before I die type destinations – Warrumbungle National Park. It took place over the October long weekend in 2007 and belatedly moved to this blog.

Mum has mobility issues and so scenic driving and birdwatching are a good way for her to get around. Timing is early October to see the wildflowers, though that's pretty optimistic given the long running drought. It also became convenient for my learner driver offspring to get some driving hours up so we killed two birds with one stone. Consequently this trip became 5 days of driving and exploring at no more than 80 km per hour! NOTE: if you’re planning to do the speed limit on the highway clearly you’ll save a LOT of time on the times we took to get places, though it should be noted that on the dirt and at night you need to travel at moderate speed anyway. I’ve included the NRMA recommended times and distances here and there FYI.

Day 1. Outskirts of Sydney – Coonabarabran (that’s pronounced coona-bara-brn and shortened to coona by the locals we learned on arrival). Left Mum’s place at 8:25 – Arrived Coona at about 6:30 pm. It wouldn’t be much different from Sydney city. The drivers were given the options on route and chose the longest way through Dubbo. (567 kms 7 hrs 20 mins. FYI The NRMA recommend up through the Hunter Valley as the quickest time from Sydney 445 km 5 hrs 34 mins) We skip driving the Mt Panorama Race circuit as we figure it will be closed ready the Bathurst 1000. Anyway we can day trip Bathurst. (Sydney - Bathurst 202 km 3hrs). We stopped for an hour in Orange at Orange Kebabs for lunch. (Bathurst – Orange 54 kms 30 mins). Best kebab I’ve had. It was great!

The scenery pretty much all along the way was lovely to our eye though we didn’t take any scenic detours. It was wonderful to be out of the city again. We have concluded that Wellington and Dubbo are not seen to best advantage from the highway passing through. (orange - dubbo 151 kms 1 hr 54 mins) Gilgandra, 65 kms north of Dubbo (46 mins) is more my pace. Nice little town and some tempting attractions (closed now in late afternoon), though we press on. The local rodeo is advertised for tomorrow....

As you travel from Gilgandra up towards Coona the scenery gets more and more impressive. Rolling dales and a backdrop of impressive hills and rocky formations against that huge sky so prominent in the inland areas. In the late afternoon light it was simply delightful to drive the open road with windows down enjoying the view as the shadows lengthen. We stopped to photograph road kill at one point. A nice black angus - Daughter's favourite breed of cattle. What can I say, Daughter has some interesting artistic leanings...

On arrival in Coona (from Gilgandra 95 kms 1 hr 5 mins) we checked into the All Travellers Motor Inn which is very conveniently located in the heart of town. We have a family room that provides two rooms both with double bed and a single. $125 per night. Clean and tidy and with everything you need provided.

No vacancy signs were out here and in a number of other motels. I’m glad I booked ahead. Of course it is school holidays in NSW. Coonabarabran is a lovely little town. With all the services you need. We duck down to the local Woolworths supermarket to get some milk for breakfast. It’s Rugby league grand final tonight. The offspring – young adult son and daughter, fetch some quite good Chinese take away from across the road and we watch the game. Our team did not score first – always a bad sign- and the opposition was clearly dominant. I stopped watching before the end and went to sleep. Being born and raised in Manly territory I’m a genuine Manly fan – I watch when we’re winning. Hubby grew up in Souths territory but somehow chose to apply souths style loyalty to supporting Manly – very odd –I felt for him at home watching defeat to the very end. LOL

Day 2: Warrumbungle National Park and westward - Coonamble and Gulargambone
Departed Coona about 9:30ish after visiting the information centre. Gilgandra rodeo has been cancelled due to horse flu. Daughter will be disappointed. It’s a nice drive out to the national Park. Our first feature we pass is a large rock outcrop sitting in a paddock.
We stopped and walked to White Gum Lookout which was very impressive and an easy walk suitable for assisted wheelchairs. I'm not going to show you the view here. We have to leave you some surprises!!

Modest wildflowers are here and there. Temperature very comfortable and there’s few people around. Just enough so each party gets the lookout to themselves for at least a while. Most enjoyable. On to the Park information centre to pay entry fees. We take the easy walk close by and see variegated fairy wrens and quite a lot of kangaroo/wallabies resting in the shade.

Then it’s off to canyon picnic area nearby for a picnic lunch. A few flies around but it’s not too bad. Son driving and instinctively swerved to avoid a massive goanna crossing the road. Well recovered but a bit startling. Son was observing the appropriate speed, it would have been ugly otherwise. Not sorry we saved the goanna, but it did prompt an interesting discussion about tactics in such situations. My dad would NEVER swerve for anything as he knew a family that was all killed when they swerved to avoid a dog. I should point out that a major attraction of this park is the longer walks which Mum cannot do. None -the -ess we enjoyed it very much and at least she got to see what she can of it. There is a recommended scenic drive westward out of the park and on to Tooraweenah, back to Coona in a circle retracing our steps of yesterday in part, but we’re feeling adventurous and want to check out Coonamble and Gulargambone.

As we leave the park and drive across the flats – very flat – looking behind us there are wonderful scenes of the Warrumbungles across the skyline so we stop for photos.

A scattering of tiny blue wildflowers line the roads creating a subtle dusting of pale blue, gently swaying in a light breeze. Pattersons curse combining here and there for beautiful sprays of purple. The country is very dry and you have to admire their tenacity to have managed a flowering in the teeth of the drought.

As we approach Coonamble the remaining scrub among the paddocks changes to clearly arid zone. The paddocks become very dry and crispy brown. The drought clearly has a firm grip here. Excitement when we spot 3 adult emus and a couple of chicks, but we're not quick enough with the camera. Here and there along the way are sculptures of parrots made from corrugated iron. Very effective. We find these seem to be placed randomly around the country side. The roads are all clearly signposted. We stop in Coonamble for an ice cream and fuel. It’s hot and dry, very low humidity, and we’re a bit dusty as we kept the windows down. The roads west out of the national park are dirt, well maintained. Is there anything more refreshing than an icecream or ice cold drink in the heat? From the graffiti in the toilets I get the impression Coonamble might have a few kids at a loose end.

We press on to Gulargambone via sealed road. Gulargambone is quite a nice modest authentic little town and the centre of the flock of corrugated parrots that we interpret as Galahs. In the park they still have a rocket for the kids to play on. They used to have one of these in Mittagong when my kids were small and they LOVED it, but it too fell foul of the risk assessments apparently. Get your kids out here to Gulargambone so they too can experience a proper piece of play equipment!!

In town a number of the birds are depicted as sitting rather than flying. Nice touch. Not quite so dry around here, but clearly parched in any case. Continuing to follow the signs we turn back east towards Tooraweenah a little way south of Gulargambone. Back onto the dirt. This is a lovely, quite wide, country road, tree lined on both sides. Apostle birds and White winged choughs in abundance all the way. We're taking our time and stop a couple of times for a spot of bird watching. Amazing how much nicer these side roads are to the main drag. Quite extraordinary.
You really must get off the main through routes. We’ve found this applies everywhere we’ve traveled. Along the way we make the acquaintance of some of the stock.

We have a choice to head back to Coona southward, retracing yesterday evening’s route, or head north and back through the national park. We choose the latter as we recall the beautiful scenery we stopped to look back at.

Along the way the late afternoon sun is making a display on the rocks of the park. Spectacular. We stop to take a photo. I climb an embankment by the side of the road for a better shot and not thinking, brush against the electric fence. Now that’s a heart starter I can tell you!

We stop for a late afternoon tea back in the national park, our scraps being eyed off by a local currawong (bird).

We pack up and head home as the sun sets and darkness encroaches. We’re mindful that this is the danger period for kangaroos on the road and are driving carefully. I have never seen so many roos in all my life – possibly not even if I added all the past ones up! We reckon a very conservative estimate would be at least 150. Whole paddocks in the park or just out of it full of macropods. They were everywhere, but fortunately not too close to the road. Awesome.

Back at Coona just after dark. The local café in Coona we were going to sus out we couldn’t find and we couldn’t be bothered going elsewhere. So we dined on picnic leftovers.

Tomorrow we head to Baradine

Day 3: Bird Routes of Baradine
Based in Coonabarabran, today we’re off to drive the Bird Routes of Baradine and the Pilliga. An early start is needed, though we’re a bit later than optimal in consideration for the offspring, ie about 7:30 after stopping at the bakery for a breakfast for those in need. – the pies were good, lamingtons (consumed later) were excellent. On the outskirts of Baradine we come across some beautiful cattle in the long paddock (along the road feeding on the verge) and need to travel very slow which is welcome. We never fail to enjoy this immensely when it happens. As we’ve travelled we notice that every beast we see is of beautiful quality and condition. I guess it makes sense in drought you only persevere with the very best of your stock and care for it well. Mainly Herefords, a few Angus. Lovely.

We drive bird route 4. The roads are very clearly signposted. Quite OK for our higher than average wheel base 2 wheel drive. The bird route brochures are comprehensive and clear and of a quality that they last the distance during the day. Well done Baradine!!

We see a number of interesting birds and along Carmel lane – flocks of cockatiels, also red winged parrots, blue bonnet parrots and of course red rumped parrots. A couple of groups of grey crowned babblers too. I spot a dam in behind the scrub. We venture in to check it out. The weather is quite warm. There’s quite a few birds coming in to drink so we pull out our chairs and make ourselves comfortable for an hour or so. A few flies, but it’s not too bad. We’re kicking ourselves we forgot to pack the insect repellent, but no drama really. The good ol’ aussie wave suffices. Anyway I reckon it’s a good plan to minimise the amount of pesticide you plaster your body with, if that stuff can kill flies (read the spray packs carefully) I’m sure it can’t do humans too much good in the long term. Anyway, we see some awesome birds at this dam. Various honeyeaters, striped, spiny cheeked, brown headed, white plumed, white eared; little and noisy friar birds; spotted bowerbirds; olive backed orioles; a spotted pardalote; double barred finches; an Australian ringneck (race barnardi) and drum roll please… a turquoise parrot (endangered) large as life on his own. SPECTACULAR!! Caged specimens are a poor comparison to wild turqs that’s for sure! Wings and on the head the brightest brightest blue, chest brightest brightest yellow, shimmering in the sun with a metallic lustre. Yooh hooo!!
We checked out a number of dams during the day, but this one stood out. I cannot believe I didn't take a photo. It didn't hurt that there were a couple of old branches leading to the water where the birds clearly felt most comfortable. Eventually we take pity on the offspring, who are being very patient indeed, though I believe composing a couple of lines of poetry -something about being stuck on a dirt track with the olds! LOL They have music and company so they were happy enough they assured us later.

Up along Belah road we cross a patch of numerous birdsong so pull over once again. Son and daughter both becoming most proficient birding chauffers. Mum takes off along the road in chase of a pigeon or something. I stick close to the car, eventually pulling out my chair once again. Birds are curious it seems and come to check me out. Masses of white winged trillers around, a horsefield’s bronze cuckoo and it made my day when a speckled warbler came close to provide a serenade, closely followed by a male gilbert’s whistler who came over to see what the heck I’m playing at. By now I’m nearly in fits wondering where the heck mum is with such quality at the car and take off after her. She can really travel when she's after a bird that's for sure. Nothing like strong motivation when you have trouble walking! Needless to say by the time she got back the birds had had their view and nicked off. Mum missing great stuff became the pattern of the trip really. By now it’s lunch time, so we head into Baradine for fuel and lunch at one of the two pubs. Baradine has a great sculpture of a glossy black cockatoo (endangered) at it’s welcome sign. Classy.

We fill up and are a bit nonplussed by the ancient petrol bowser not sure if it's self serve or not, but a nice young woman emerges and helps us out. Apparently we're not the first to have issues with backwards compatability on the fuel front.

As we like the look of the corrugated iron décor in Tattersals pub we stop there and ask at the bar if there’s any chance we could get a spot of lunch. The menu board is dragged out and the cook summoned to crank up the kitchen and we each order. Burgers, steak sandwich, and the ubiquitous seafood platter (which was the tastiest choice). We are directed out to the beer garden out the back, which is quite warm, armed with our lemon lime and bitters and ginger beer. Man they hit the spot! With all the air conditioning in the city you really forget just how good an ice cold drink is on a hot day.

We cool our heels in the beer garden for a while admiring the fence which seems to be offcuts from the timber industry. Very characterful. In the fullness of time our food arrives. Very generous servings and accompaniments of salads and chips. A tray of condiments is brought to us also and we get stuck in. Not bad value only $37 for the 4 of us (excluding drinks). Some friendly conversation from the bar maid as she passes by from time to time.

We decide to drive towards Narrabri this afternoon then head back to spend sunset at salt cave dam. – Bird route 7. Maybe even see the glossy black cockatoos come in for their evening tipple if we’re very lucky. The road to Narrabri is dirt and is a bit rockier and more challenging than the earlier route. We conclude we don’t have time to go further and turn back to the bird route to go to the dam. Along the way we see various woodswallows (white browed and masked) and a robin, which identification was confirmed by spying a glorious male red capped robin just ahead of where we’ve pulled over. Amazing how such a brightly coloured bird blends in to the vegetation. All you could really see with the naked eye was a flash of white.

The shadows lengthen so we push on to the dam. We walk with some keen birders from Katoomba who are camping here, from the Salt Cave picnic area/camping ground in about a km through the pillaga forest to the dam and get into position. The area was burnt not long ago. There are lots and lots of lovely wildflowers all around among areas of bare sand.

At the dam there are hundreds of woodswallows congregating for their drink and preparing to roost. They land in a tree from time to time then suddenly take off in mass with a huge rustle of wings and melodic chatter.

A few honeyeaters coming in regularly to drink also, then a couple of bronzewing pigeons. The offspring are getting a bit bothered by mozzies and as we’ve banished them back to were we don’t care if they’re a bit noisy, they retreat back to the car. I put on my long pants and long sleeved shirt which I'd brought in the back pack (ha ha sucked in mozzies!!)

Excitement when not long after kids depart nine emus arrive and take turns to drink in small groups, kneeling low on the sand and bending in repeatedly to take their fill. One is tardy and finally notices the others are gone and runs off after them.

or if you prefer the action version:

We notice cars travelling along the road which is apparently very close indeed. The party is broken up by a bike and a couple of 4WDs who decide to set up their campsite on the sand right next to the dam. Grrr. Ah well, maybe it’s best we head off while there’s still some light. This time we drive around to collect mum and save her the walk.

As we travel west back to Baradine the sky is that gorgeous rich velvet blue verging paler, with beautiful shades of orange and red at the horizon. The black silhouettes of the burnt and regenerating trees form a spectacular picture. We stop and set up the camera and tripod for some long exposure shots before continuing on.

Completely dark before we reach Baradine. We stop in a safe position to gaze at the night sky. The milky way is clearly visible. Lovely. A few birds calling, maybe owls? (I’m hopeless with bird calls on the whole). We see virtually no roos along the way. What a contrast to the national park!! We arrive home rather tired and dine on supplies. Clearly you could easily spend many days exploring the Birds routes of Baradine and the Pilliga!! Next time, we'll have to stay in Baradine itself.

Tomorrow it's Narrabri and Mt Kaputar National Park. - Those driving hours are adding up, Son is very happy about that!

Day 4: Pilliga Pottery, Narrabri and Mount Kaputar
[NB Sorry, but this day I will have to reconstruct. This post is based on trip reports I did on Trip Advisor and part 3 they have deleted. This loss has led to my transferring my record of the trip here to my blog - so far I've only had time to put the photos in.]

About 2 oclock we're enjoying this beautiful view In Mt Kaputar National Park working our way up the mountain, along dirt roads with precipitous drops and no guard rail. We're not looking forward to the drive back down that road.

From the top of Mt Kaputar there are spectacular 360 degree views all around. Quite breezy as you would expect. We take our time and investigate some steering problems with the car. I like how the photo has captured the effect of the beams of light streaming down filtered by the cloud. There are not too many spots around with such amazing views on every side.

There are lookouts galore around Mt Kaputar. It's a spectacular place for a scenic drive if you can stomach the road up here. The view of this volcanic plug which I believe is called the Governor, was awesome. There is a walk that goes across to the Governor which would be awesome, but beyond our capabilities on this trip.

Heading down the mountain is not as hair raising as we expected taken slowly. There are some pretty pink pea shaped wildflowers bordering the edge of the road.
Finally we arrive down on the flats where we look back up to the Governor. Mt Kaputar National Park is good value. Well worth the visit.

Day 5 – Homeward bound Coonabarabran – Sydney via Binnaway, Coolah, Coolah Tops National Park, Dunedoo, Mudgee, Gulgong, Rylstone, Glen Davis, Lithgow.

Depart about 8:30 am.

Off to Coolah via Binnaway. Binnaway is a sweet little place, but we don’t stop. Coolah is really lovely. Really lovely. We notice it was voted community of the year this year. We spot the local bakery – John’s Hot Bake, modest presentation. We sample a sausage roll. Outstanding. The other products look good too, so we’re back in for more and pay compliments to the quality. One of the other shop staff tells daughter that the lady behind the counter is right chuffed at the compliment. We try the custard tart. Excellent pastry as was the sausage roll. Truly first class, but I prefer baked egg custard filling so that’s a point deducted from this judge. Others enjoyed it though and it’s definitely a very superior example of it’s type. Well worth stopping.

The local IGA is interesting, sells all sorts of things and combines the local newsagent, liquor store, Darrel Lea and variety goods. I love that in small country towns, apparently original store keepers in original style hanging in there. The local butcher specialises in contract kills. The meat looks good value. We wish we were carrying a car fridge or staying locally for a bbq. There’s clearly been some good recent rain in the area. Puddles in the back street gutters etc. Crops that look like something might get harvested. Yellow canola blossom in the fields, if a tad patchy.

We head for Coolah Tops National Park. The drive out there is gorgeous. Very very nice. As you climb up to the park there are extensive views across pastureland. At the top you cross paddocks on ridges and drive through unfenced paddocks stocked with beautiful cattle, and a few sheep or goats. Working up in these fields would clearly be a hardship LOL. Glorious. We head for the facilities in the park.

The National Park itself is not all that scenic for driving actually. A few what look like wallaroos here and there was a highlight. A nice picnic area and some walks that look worthwhile if we had more time, but for scenic driving it’s a bit of a washout really other than the delightful drive up.

We drive the length of the park, giving son a taste for rally driving. He’s loving it. The road down towards Cassilis is closed so we return to the start. Daughter taking a turn to get some experience of this kind of road with guidance on hand. Son back at the wheel he misjudges a rock that is more prominent from this direction and we get a flat tyre. A bit of a delay while we change the tyre – more good learner experience – and we’re back on the road with some entertaining footage on the camera. Top marks for team spirit to Grandma who offered to undo the wheel nuts for us as they looked reasonably easy. Offer appreciated, but I’m sure we can manage!! Good thing we’re on our way home and no more challenging dirt from here on in. The scenery as we head south and eastward is consistently beautiful. We make a brief detour to Dunedoo. I thought it had a giant dunny somewhere. We saw no sign of it however. A pretty average town we thought. Can’t remember if it had a chinese restaurant LOL I don’t think so… heading on from Dunedoo towards Mudgee we travel through fields of young crops.

A slight backtrack and next stop Mudgee. A standing joke throughout the trip has been how much I don’t like Mudgee. So many multi national and national chain stores. Great for the locals I suppose. Well it’s a vast amount better than Pokolbin, but even so. Though it’s not long since I was last here, on arriving in town I find that I have been grossly unreasonable. Mudgee is a well presented prosperous town. Quite nice actually. Not a lot of Chinese restaurants on casual glance, though we saw at least one, but then Mudgee does have a range of other gourmet cuisine options as is appropriate for a wine district. Mudgee you have my humblest apologies. LOL

Next stop Gulgong and we do a few turns around the town just to give a bit of a feel for it, as some in the car have not visited before. Gulgong just cannot be beaten for ambience I reckon. We’ve visited the Henry Lawson centre (small) and the local historical museum (huge and excellent and much more time consuming than you expect, it includes wonderful recordings of stories of settlement experiences told by elderly pioneer residents). We’ve day tripped it from the Capertee Valley in the past, but I’m determined to come and stay in Gulgong and get to know it better. There seems some enticing restaurants to try. Wonderful. Gulgong has narrow streets with original buildings from the colonial days. A streetscape so authentic it was used on Australian $10 notes with Henry Lawson before they updated to plastic currency. A NSW treasure. The afternoon is rapidly progressing and we’re off to Rylstone. We could go a faster more direct route to Sydney, but Rylstone and the Capertee Valley is one of our favourite places and we can’t resist, especially as son has not seen it before. Rylstone is a very small (no Chinese restaurant at all!) two pub little town. Clean and tidy. Good food. In the Capertee Valley. What more does one need? We consider staying in Rylstone to eat, but we press on trying to catch the valley in the late afternoon light when it is at it’s very best. The country between Rylstone and Glen Davis is spectacular. The closer you get to Glen Davis the better it gets. Dirt roads again, but we know they are reliably good. We are in time to catch the magnificent spectacle of the sun lighting the escarpment all around. The formation of Pantoneys Crown is strong in silhouette as the light fades. We all agree this is the most spectacular scenery we’ve seen in this whole trip. The best kept secret in NSW.... actually, forget I said that, maybe we should keep it secret....

We stop in Lithgow for dinner at Guang Zhou Garden Chinese restaurant. We see 4 chinese restaurants on the main strip, no Lithgow’s quite big clearly. The food is VERY cheap and quite good quality. We order a lot as well as drinks and take home 2 containers of leftovers, but still only $62 for the 4 of us. It’s pretty late when we get home. Not far off 11:00 pm. Coolah Tops cost us several hours and we probably should have skipped that, but an enjoyable day just the same. We had thought that with the drought the countryside might be a bit desolate overall. But as much of the land has been destocked, there is still vegetation cover almost everywhere and scenic quality remains.

Inland NSW has a lot to offer for a holiday and as we've mostly just gone driving we've not even scratched the surface of the towns we've visited this trip. We'll be back!

Mid North Coast NSW

Crowdy Bay National Park in winter. It was full of banksia and other native flowers and alive with honeyeaters. The roads were well maintained but unsealed ie dirt. After quite a time we arrived at a camp ground were kangaroos grazed on the grassy areas and again, abundant birdlife created a wonderfully cheerful chattering in the surrounding bush. A short walk down to the beach for this shot looking to the north. It was a very beautiful park. Idyllic.

In the interest of those thinking of coming up to camp, here's a not very good shot of the campground, complete with roos grazing. The flowering trees are paperbarks (melaleucas).

Here's the view across the breakwater to the north in Port Macquarie. When this photo was taken we were staying at the HV Boutique Motel which is just across the road from this view. Many of the apartment blocks have views across the ocean or up the coast.

Back in 2005 when visiting Port Macquarie, we decided to take a few days to wander up the coast a bit. .. but before we got away, Dad introduced us to Innes View Road. I don't know why it took so long for us to find Innes View Road. It's up past Comboyne, which is itself a lovely district of dairy farms cleared from the Big Scrub.

Dad was so disappointed that he didn't get to show it to us on a clear day, but I love wet cloudy weather and I thought it was totally exhilarating with the clouds rising up the edge of the mountains past green fields of friesian cattle. We've gone for a run up to Innes View Rd fairly regularly since. Last year we struck a brighter day as you can see in the next picture. Notice that the road runs along the very ridge top with steep drop away on either side overlooking a mix of farmland and apparent wilderness. Breathtaking.
There is a farm along the way that straddles the road in this magnificent spot. We pulled over to say hello to a lovely elderly lady as she was feeding her poddy calves. She'd moved to the farm as a new bride just after WWII. Wow!

I've been reading The Silver City by Ion Idriess. Turns out that this book is his memoir and he spent some years of his early childhood in Lismore. He describes the process that must have been typical through the rainforest areas along the north coast with timber getters and homesteaders clearing blocks and burning to establish the farms out of the big scrub. Though it was written in 1956, there is a clear tone of regret at the environmental destruction across this country in the wake of white settlement. Gives one pause for thought because things have only got worse since then in terms of habitat loss.

Up past Comboyne there is a tiny patch of remnant rainforest in Boorganna Nature Reserve. There are some wonderfully situated picnic tables with stunning views, situated as it is at the crest of a hill.

Within the reserve a track winds down a rather steep hill to a lookout over a waterfall.. This is all I had time for as Mum was waiting for me, but the track goes steeply down past this lookout to fern valley to the base of Rawson falls. Here and there among the forest are the stumps of trees clearly showing the scars where the boards for the loggers to climb have been wedged in the living body of the tree. A sad sight to contemplate.

Quite a way inland from Port, is Ellenborough Falls. On the way back to Sydney we decided to make a day of it and take mum up there for a look. She's very fond of waterfalls!

At the end of this walk there is a lookout directly opposite the falls that provides a much clearer view. We were last at Ellenborough Falls over a decade ago and the viewing arrangements were quite different. I recall my eldest daughter and I walked down to the base of the falls. The lizards were completely unfraide of us. We turned back when signs warned of stinging nettles. I had no idea what stinging nettles looked like and we weren't wearing covered shoes so I thought it prudent to turn back. The path was indetectable from the scrub. We doggedly followed the people ahead of us but it was quite scary. The relief when we made it back to the waiting family was immense. It must be terrifying to be lost in the bush for real.

We were aiming to see some new country we'd not previously explored and that was too far for a day trip so we pressed on determinedly north. stopping at an occasional deserted beach. The NSW coast is just an endless string of sandy beaches broken up a little by headlands here and there.
I couldn't resist having a look at Mount Yarrahapinni. This is located within Yarriabini National Park. Yarrahapinni was the name of the property owned by Esther's parents in the iconic Australian story "Seven Little Australians" by Ethel Turner.
On the way in to the National Park we stop for a look at the beach at Grassy Head

We turn in and we are not disappointed to have made this diversion. Beautiful hoop pine and flooded gum. The road is unsealed and we crossed a couple of shallow creeks reveling in the shade and damp.

After a time we turn into the Pines Picnic Area. The flooded gums shine in the light like beacons. I don't think I've ever seen such a beautiful picnic area. There is a sculpture in the picnic ground erected by the local indigenous people. As I recall there is some information about the symbolism of the sculpture, but ah the hazards of not blogging promptly! I can't remember now!

The flooded gums provide an architectural contrast to the hoop pines whose branches form a lacy canopy sheltering staghorn ferns high on the trunks.

From the picnic area we continue to climb the mountain. There are lookouts situated along the way with views east south and eventually all directions. I think it's South West Rocks across on the crescent headland in the distance in this shot. From the top of the mountain they say that on a clear day you can see all the way to North Brother at Laurieton, south of Port Macquarie.
The top of the mountain is a bit of a let down as it is the location of a communications installation, so we don't hang around. Anyway we had places to be.
We take a scenic backroad to Bellingen. It's a shady forest drive along dirt roads and we find it more interesting and enjoyable than sticking to the highways.

Next day we head off to explore the Waterfall Way.

Griffiths Mountain top lookout. On a clear day they say you can see all the way to the ocean. Not clear today but I don't care a bit. I LOVE this sort of weather with clouds and mist across the countryside.

Dangar Falls out of Dorrigo

Dorrigo National Park, along the walk to Crystal Falls. It's a misty rainy day with light showers passing through throughout the day

Looking out from behind crystal falls.

There is a beautiful picnic area in Dorrigo National Park, complete with Brush Turkeys!

Some beautiful fungi colonising a fallen log in Dorrigo NP

Looking out at approaching rain from the treetop boardwalk just out from the information centre and cafe in Dorrigo National Park. As we view we hear the rain approach as the large drops hit the foliage of the forest, and make a run for it back under shelter.

Upper falls

Looking out over the national park.

Upper and Lower falls veiled by a light drizzling rain

Wollomombi Falls

Eucalypts and grassy understorey

Looking out over the wildnerness. This was the sort of terrain the aboriginal people were driven to having to survive in when the surrounding land was taken over and cleared for farms. Note you can see the farms coming right up to the edge of the gorge.

Fantastic trees at Hungry Head Beach around the carpark. Wet from the rain they are absolutely glowing

Close up the bark is a nobbly delight.