Skiing in Australia

Skiing is not something I naturally associate with Australia.   Despite being here for 15 years, the beach-stereotype is still firmly entrenched.   But in the winter months, Kosciuszko National Park plays host to a vibrant ski season, and thousands of Aussies trek down here to spend time cavorting in the snow.

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We went for a weekend.

Despite it being a five-hour drive away, it is an easy enough trip. We head down after lunch on Friday afternoon and pull into Jindabyne in time for dinner and ski gear pick up.  Our accommodation is a ram-shackled ski lodge styled bed and breakfast, perfectly comfortable rather than luxurious, run by some ex-South Africans.   They are ready to pack up and explore the rest of Australia, and the house is on the market. While they wait for a buyer, they tend to the needs of us snow enthusiasts with hearty breakfasts early in the morning, and a roaring fire late into the evening.

On Saturday, we suit up and pile into the car to head to the snow. The ski-tube is a delightful relief after our New Zealand experience of snow-chains and switchbacks, and we decamp at Bullocks Flat and kit up.   Boots on, skis and poles over shoulders, helmets swinging from a spare finger, we clatter and puff our way to the train.

It’s the part I hate most – the slog. Carrying gear that is heavy and unwieldy (because of course, you aren’t just carrying your own ski’s – no, you’ve swapped your poles for your kids ski’s too), clonking about in boots that are not designed for straight legs, sweating from the effort, but wrapped up because it is freezing on the lifts.

The train takes us up to Blue Cow and we disembark into a winter wonderland. Snow abounds and glistens in the bright sunlight pouring out of a blue sky.  It is a different sort of environment to New Zealand. We are not as high up, and rocks and bushes form part of the scene.   From high above, Arabella spots a grumpy echidnae making its way home, and we glimpse a bright parrot perched incongruously on a wintery branch.

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It takes me a while to remember what I am supposed to do and I am relieved when Matt wants to do repeat runs on Easy Starter. We spend the whole afternoon there, so that, when we return on Sunday, suddenly we are both in the groove and enjoying the green runs Perisher has to offer.  It has taken my whole life, but I have finally gone from enjoying the idea of a skiing holiday, to actually enjoying skiing.  Snowboarding wipe-outs are a distant memory. We are now skiers, and I for one am happier for it.

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On Saturday night we head to a fabulous Mexican restaurant for ribs (yes, that well known Mexican dish). The vibe at Cocina’s is warm and noisy – and the food utterly yum. We drink red wine and toast ourselves silly, and celebrate the opportunity to visit this lovely part of the world with good friends.  How fortunate we indeed are.

Questacon – Canberra Road Trip Part 3

Quite possibly the highlight of any family trip to Canberra is a visit to Questacon.  Questacon is “The National Science and Technology Centre”, or as we like to call it, “the very cool science museum”,  located on the edge of Lake Burley Griffin.

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Designed with kids old and young in mind, this interactive, busy and informative museum kept my kids so enthralled, we had to go back the next day to take it all in.  (It is well worth getting yourself a annual pass, like a Powerhouse Museum membership, to give you the freedom to come and go as you like).

It is a bright and spacious building, cleverly laid out and jam-packed full of hands on experiments, shows and displays. The “vertical drop” got the most attention from my small people, in particular my daughter seemed to love dangling over an abyss and letting go to experience “free falling”.  Watching neon scarves zoot around a wind tunnel maze and shoot out in unexpected places seemed to grab their attention too.  My son was especially entranced with “The Gravitram” and spent ages staring at the pool balls hurtling along their wire tracks.

We all laughed our way through an entertaining explanation on “Collisions” (I wish my science teacher had explained Newton’s Laws of Motion in quite the same way!), got shaken up in the “Earthquake” house and pushed, pulled, threw and jumped our way through a variety of experiences and came out wanting more.

It is busy during school holidays, so grab an annual pass online to by-pass the “Q’s” and get there early.

 

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The Vertical Drop
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The Gravitram

 

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Worlds under the sea

The Australian War Memorial – Canberra Road Trip 2

The Australian War Memorial is perhaps the most iconic of all buildings in Australia.  Culturally too, it represents that which sits at the heart of what it means to be Australian – a sense of egalitarianism, mateship and belonging.  Some of these elements may well be missing in the current political dialogue, but they have long been central to the Australian identity and I was reminded of that during our visit to the war memorial.

Architecturally and spiritually, this is a beautiful place to visit on any trip to Canberra.  We timed it to enjoy “The Last Post” a daily ceremony where wreaths are laid, both the bagpipes and bugle are played and a fallen soldier is remembered, years after his passing.

It was the desire for remembrance that gave life to the idea of the war memorial.  A place to house the spirits of those who died in sacrifice for a country they loved.  A place where they could be honoured and guarded in their home land, and remembered by all who call themselves Australian.   I found the ceremony deeply moving and a powerful reminder of what it means to be Australian, and the responsibility that being part of a community holds.

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There is a quality of stillness about the memorial.  Within the courtyard, a rectangular pool reflects the sky, bright red poppies adorn the high walls lined with the names of those who have died.  An eternal flame flickers with orange tongued flames.  At one point I turned around to find my daughter and her friend standing, eyes shut, with hands in prayer. 

The tomb of the unknown soldier lies in a domed building, the pinnacle of the memorial.  A quiet hollow space where people tread with reverence and awe.  Alongside, an oversized aviator, bronzed for all eternity held the attention of my young and boisterous son.

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Beneath and beyond the memorial, the museum is worth a visit.  It houses countless exhibitions covering all aspects of Australia’s engagement in battle arenas around the world.  From full scale airplanes and interactive exhibits to hand written diaries and sound effects.  From the boer war through to Vietnam, from peacekeeping to Afghanistan, Australia’s involvement is documented and presented for view by children and adults alike.

An afternoon well spent.

 

The Big Marino – Canberra Road Trip Part 1

I took the kids on a road trip to our nation’s capital last week.  We piled into the car with some friends, strapped in, put on an audio book and set off south.  Once out of the higgledy-piggledy traffic and road works of Sydney it is an easy drive.  Under three hours.  The road is long, pretty straight and fairly boring, cutting through the southern farm lands of NSW.  Sheep, horses, cows dot the landscape.  We even saw some kangaroos.  Living, bouncing ones, not just the normal roadkill. 

En route, we stopped in Goulburn to get a look at “The Big Marino” and have a bite to eat.  I can’t say there is anything to recommend Goulburn for more than an hour, but to be fair, we didn’t explore much further than a quick drive through the streets and a hike up the oversized sheep.  The food we had was pretty revolting too.

 

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However, for laughs, I don’t think anything beat it on the trip.  We pulled up in the parking lot behind this monolithic ovine to hear squeals of “what is that?’  Well, how do you explain to four children under 8 they are looking at one oversized sheep’s testicle that the builders of this fine monument had decided was worth including.  Just one, mind you – do sheep normally have only one?  It filled the windscreen, blocked out the sun, cast a shadow over the car.  There was nowhere else to look.  It’s the sheep’s bottom, we tried.  Funny looking bottom, pipes up one of the smarty pants in the back.  Yeah, well, I thought to myself, crying with laughter, work it out for yourself.  Which no doubt, later in the shower, some of them may well do.  

Yes, I have a photo.  No, I am not posting it here. Unless you ask very nicely. 😉

Another hour and we were in Canberra, with it’s wide streets and huge roundabouts.  Canberra is perfectly planned.  Let’s make the perfect city, they thought, and so they did.  Funny thing about perfection though, it lacks soul, spunk, spirit.  Which just goes to show, it is our imperfections that make us interesting.  

 

 

Road Trip Day 4 – Mudgee and the road back to Sydney

Minus One. Yes, that is the temperature it got down to on our first night in Mudgee. When we awoke we found car windows covered with a layer of ice glistening in the morning sun. Clearly spring in this part of the country means icy-cold nights, even though the days turned out to be quite bright and warm. If you are coming up this way, best to pack your winter pyjamas.

Mudgee, to my mind anyway, is not particularly child focused. This is gourmet food and wine country, a place for romantic getaways. None-the-less, as this was a holiday with our kids, we determined to ensure everyone got something out of the day. First stop, cheese. Second stop too, as it happened.

To start we did a flyby visit to High Valley, which was brimming with people and noise and bustle and harried staff. A quick cheese purchase and we moved onwards to Leaning Oak, a far less polished and definitively more ramshackled place. However, with a plethora of goats to look at, it was a much more interesting stop for small people. We were lucky enough to be there at milking time, and Fiona let us through the mud, amongst the boisterous goats and into the milking shed where she very kindly explained the process to our rather wide-eyed kids. It was a great opportunity to also give Matt a visual example of what we mean when we say he can be as stubborn as a goat. Certainly, stubborn goats were on display. The cheese was delicious and very fresh, having been in a goat, apparently, not 48 hours before.

On a recommendation we visited the Pieter van Gent Vineyard, which was, as promised, gorgeous. We entered through an oversized wooden door and went down a long corridor between huge barrels of wine to get to the tasting area which was warm, welcoming and staffed with very knowledgeable, friendly people. We tasted everything on offer and bought a few examples to bring home. But the real joy of this place was not the rustic wooden beams or antique choir stalls, the rich smell of wine being fermented nor the size of each serving. Rather, it was the provision of a large blackboard and chalk, which kept my two entertained for at least 20 minutes. Simple, but wonderfully clever.

Onwards we traipsed across this fertile countryside to visit the town of Gulgong, an old gold mining town that was once home to Henry Lawson and which spent 30 years on the ten dollar bill. The colonial architecture has been deliberately preserved, and the wide streets, low buildings and corrugated iron roofs made us feel like we were walking onto a movie set. The kids did the swaggie symbol trail, which entertained them a lot more than the trip through the Henry Lawson Centre did (even though they got to ring his old school bell). Go figure.

That evening, after a rather abortive attempt to make damper (we ran out of time), we headed into the hills to the Mudgee Observatory. The Mudgee Observatory is an shining example of how passion creates things. As we bumped and jolted along a dirt track, our headlights bouncing off the trees that surrounded us, I did wonder where on earth we were going and whether anyone would ever find us again. John met us and several other families as promised, and we followed his red torch up the hill. I had thoughts of us sitting around on a barren rock while someone pointed at the sky, which was brilliantly clear and full moon bright. Imagine my surprise then as we crested the low rise to find several domes, telescopes and a massive shed dedicated to all things space. It was wonderful. John, an ex-NRMA mechanic, showed us so many things and was brimming over with knowledge about the sky scape. For the first time in my life I saw scorpio. We looked at both Antares (the 16th brightest star in our sky) and Sirius through telescopes. Mars was present in full red glory. Because the moon was so bright, it made star gazing harder than normal, but we got to view the moon close up which was quite an amazing experience. I love looking at the stars. There is something quite humbling to realise how minuscule we are in the scheme of things. It gives a bit of much needed perspective, and I think we could all do from stopping and sitting for a while, faces to the skies.

Road Trip Day 3 – Wellington Caves and the road to Mudgee

Day 3 and time to press on towards Mudgee. We backtracked 50kms or so to visit Wellington Caves, which I had heard some good things about. When we arrived though, I was a bit more sceptical. It had a definite whiff of the glowworm about it. The glowworm is a short hand Mike and I use for a place where the sell or expectation far outweighs the actual experience. It comes from a visit a few years back to a glowworm cave on the Gold Coast. Needless to say waiting an hour for a trip through a dark cave that smelt of things recently dead to see a small trail of little sparkles was not the highlight of our holiday. However, it did give us a fun way to reference our experiences now.

The town of Wellington is past its hay-day and so is the fossil trail, which could have been quite interesting with some more information and a bit of effort. You have to buy tickets for a guided tour into the caves and the “box office”, for want of a better word, doubles as a small cafe where the smell of fried chips hangs thick in the air. It’s very clear no ex-marketing bigwig has tree-changed to this part of the world and joined the local “save our city” council. I was having serious second thoughts about the whole thing, but as we had travelled a good way to come and see it, we stuck it out. And thank goodness we did. We chose Cathedral Cave (there are three tours to choose from, each running at different times), because it was the next available. And we had a really great time. Not a glowworm in sight!

Our guide, Katrina, was fantastic. She was knowledgeable, interested and entertaining. She peppered her talk with loads of anecdotes and personal reflections in a conversational manner. Despite having to negotiate 42 meters worth of stairs (don’t know how many, didn’t count) and duck both headache rock and guillotine rock, we all had a great time. The stalactites and stalagmites were quite stunning – nature at her gorgeous best, but the history of the cave most interested me. The Cathedral is named for a formation the resembles an organ. It is in fact one of the largest stalagmites in the world. In times gone by they used to hold church services down there, with the minister preaching from half way up, behind an formation that looks remarkably like a pulpit. Early photos called it “The Alter”. They even used to do baptisms in one of the rock pools. Of course, this damaged the cave remarkably, but it is still fascinating. There is, apparently, an old leather bound bible on the pulpit, from about 100 years ago, slowly getting covered with crystal formations. Every year they do a christmas carol service down there and have acoustic concerts. The sound is quite amazing, apparently.

So, an experience worth doing if you are heading out that way.

But onward to Mudgee! We traipsed across country, passing through rolling fields bursting with new life until, finally, we spotted our first vineyard, an indication that we were travelling in the right direction (which is good, because by this time we were off the Testra grid!).

Mudgee really is gorgeous, with its wide streets and colonial architecture. All the buildings are low rise, and the endless sky seems to flatten everything further. The day was warm and the sky clear, and the sun bleached the colour out of things, so all in all, you felt a bit like you were in an old postcard. Most appealingly, to me anyway, was the abundance of coffee shops and funky looking eateries. I wanted a good coffee badly. We had a nice lunch at The Dancing Goat and had no problem arranging an allergy-friendly meal for the kids. The owner is an ex-Sydney-sider who set up the cafe about 5 months ago.

It got me thinking about why people move to the country. I couldn’t imagine it. Maybe it is the skill set we have (definitively city orientated) or just the fact that I need to be near the sea, but I don’t find anything remotely appealing about the idea of a move to the country. I couldn’t even entertain the idea of moving to St Ives, so I am definitely an “inner” suburbs girl – but I am not sure why. I think, perhaps, it is because cities represent, to me, anyway, opportunity, potential. In the country, it seems to me, your options are much more limited and I find that scary. I might not engage in everything that is available to me in Sydney, but I could if I chose to.

But enough of that! We got to visit a couple of wineries and bought some fabulous basil infused olive oil from Blacklea Vineyard. And then we rolled on into our campsite, day done.

Road Trip Day 2 – Dubbo Zoo

Our first night in the campervan passed pretty uneventfully. Neither child fell out of the top bunk, despite my grave concerns, although one of them knocked a torch to the floor at about 3am and gave us a serious imitation of a heart attack.

I tried to make an early start of it, wanting to make the most of our time at the zoo, but the second thing I learned about road tripping is that there is no hurry up. Despite rousing the troops at 7am, by the time we had all had breakfast and got dressed, washed up and packed up the camper van, it was 9am before we were ready to go. I kept telling myself to relax. We were on holiday after all.

The Zoo in Dubbo is part of Taronga Zoo and is a quite amazing feat of, well, zooism. There are no cages between the people and the animals, rather the zoo uses ditches and moats to keep the contained. While its not the wild, the animals are given a lot of space to roam around in and are clearly looked after incredibly well.

More importantly, they work hard to educate everyday people about the diversity of wildlife on our planet and to give them an opportunity to see animals they might never see in the wild. All of the profits go towards conservation efforts and they work across the world – from Rhinos in Africa to Tigers in Sumatra – to conserve wildlife, deter poaching and raise awareness about the destruction of habitat that is leading towards the extinction of these animals. To this end, may I encourage you all to petition the government to make law the labelling of “palm oil” and to avoid buying products which have palm oil in them.

We decided, somewhat optimistically, considering Mike and I haven’t cycled anywhere for at least a year, to bike the 6km around the zoo. We hired two tandem bikes, so there we were, with a kid behind each of us, puffing our way from exhibit to exhibit. Spring babies were apparent in many of the enclosures, the cutest being tiny little meerkats. I loved seeing the black rhino. More than anything this reminded me of South Africa and our visits, as children, to game parks in Natal, where rhino were a main attraction. Rhinos always remind me of my Dad, who I think had a bit of rhino in him!

A highlight was viewing the tiger feeding and listening to the talk about tigers. I am not a big fan of your regular house cat (thinking about them and my nose is already starting to itch), but I love the big cats. The tiger in particular is so beautiful and predatory. They have intelligence in their eyes and a sense of power in their every move.

They say you need two days to go around the zoo, but we feel like we pretty much covered everything we wanted to see in one. There is of course a lot more to do in Dubbo than just the zoo – but we never got there. Rule 3 about road tripping, make time to chill. So, after we peddled like mad around the zoo, we rolled our little house on wheels back to the campsite and the kids went for a swim and a play on the jumping pillow. They got to go to the playground and back by themselves, so I think they were feeling very responsible, independent and grown up. (And this in turn was a highlight of their holiday. Go figure.)

That night, the storm that had been brooding all day hit and it poured and poured with rain, pitter patter whoosh whoosh on our tin roof. Rather rhythmic and sleep inducing. Thank goodness we were in a campervan and not a tent!