Kathleen Biersdorff-Western Australia Outback Total Solar Eclipse - TravelQuest International
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Western Australia Outback Total Solar Eclipse

Kathleen Biersdorff’s Travelogue

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Like some others, we started our Travelquest tour somewhere other than home. We figured that while we were in the neighbourhood of Australia, why not visit New Zealand? We have friends in the Auckland area and chose to base ourselves there for a week. We spent a day at the wineries of Waiheke Island, visited Hobbiton, the glow worm caves of Waitomo, Rotorua and the fabulous Auckland Museum. And as we were about to transfer to Sydney to meet our Travelquest pre-tour group, our travel plans were taken out of our hands as our flight was delayed, then cancelled and rebooked for the following morning. No dinner cruise in Sydney Harbour for us. Frantic texts followed.

We arrived in time for the tour of the Sydney Opera House. We had been in Sydney in 2012 and had done a walking tour, opera house tour, harbour cruise (but day not evening) and bus tour then. Much of the territory covered was the same. However, we previously had not seen the ballet theatre, let alone a rehearsal of the troupe. And our previous visit to the main concert hall was before the renovations that replaced the hanging donuts with bright pink petals. I can’t speak to the acoustical transformation, as we did not attend a concert this time, but it is lovely.

The next day we were off to Cairns (also visited in 2012). Hot and humid. We were sad to hear that they have banished the flying foxes (giant fruit bats) from the centre of town. At least in 2012, I always knew where to find Richard: taking photos of the flying foxes. I enjoyed the performance of the aboriginal players and dancers at the Rainforestation as well as the cassowary sightings. I failed miserably at throwing a boomerang because I could not figure our which axis the “1 o’clock” was supposed to be in.

The next day was spent on the Quicksilver trip to the Agincourt Reef. On our previous trip, we had opted out of snorkelling because the water was so choppy that everyone in the water was constantly clearing water from their snorkel. This time, the water was very smooth. The people giving out the lycra wetsuits were amazing. Who knew that I was a medium! Sticking near the rope I found that the Scissor-tailed Sergeant Majors would nibble the algae on the rope between my hands, if I pulled it down a bit below the surface. There were huge schools of fish from the little blue ones to the big ones right where people entered the water. The variety of coral was also wonderful. I particularly liked the staghorn coral with the electric blue tips. Almost hidden was a giant clam shell.

The next day we were off for Perth and the main tour. Perth is very spread out with an intermingling of modern and colonial-style buildings. Our hotel is in the heart of the central business district. Did the Travelquest people know that this was the hotel to choose when they saw the lobby wall sconces that looked like an eclipse? Our tour of the city took us out to the new Optus stadium. The pedestrian bridge across the Swan River is quite eye-catching, even without the zip-line. I made a beeline to the shore for the waterfowl…because all my trips turn into birding expeditions. There I had a close encounter with a juvenile Darter, an elegant relation of the cormorant.  I took and kept far too many photos of it. Then we went to King’s Park and the Western Australian Botanical Gardens. I could have spent much more time there reading all the informative signage and taking photos. (Because all my trips are also all about the photographs.) I loved all the Banksia and Eucalyptus plants, and the scents of the Boronia. By the time the eucalyptus normally reaches my florist, all the flowers are gone and I only see a few seed pods. Where there are flowering plants, there are also birds including the Australian Magpie, Rainbow Lorikeets, and a Red Wattlebird.

In the afternoon, we boarded our buses and headed north to see the Pinnacles and visit an observatory to view the southern sky. I understand that people like to take pictures of the Pinnacles with the stars above them. However, my preference is to catch them in the “golden hour” before sunset when the sun casts deep shadows and the colours are at their richest. I also have poor night vision and am more likely to trip over a pinnacle in the dark and injure myself. The cataracts also don’t help. So the idea of sunset at the beach (which we could see anywhere) instead was not my preference. I was glad when we raced to the Pinnacles, even though the sun set moments before we arrived. As it happened, by the time it was dark, it was also clouded over and sometimes rainy as well, so if we had not arrived when we did, the Pinnacles visit would have been a sorry, drippy affair. The observatory visit also suffered from intermittent cloud cover.

The next day, we visited the port of Fremantle, stopping on the way in Cottesloe, ostensibly to visit the beach. But about six blocks back from where we stopped was a small park at Napier Street where about 20 Western Corellas cavorted. As a relation of the cockatoo, they share a social nature, squawky voices and engage in silly-looking acrobatics as they hang upside down to get at the seed pods on trees. As a result, they are highly entertaining. The blue eye patch and pink feathers like poorly applied eye shadow give them a clownish appearance. It was time well-spent.

After a stop at the Memorial Hill at Fremantle, we visited the public markets with luscious fruits and other delights. I got some feijoas, which we had discovered in New Zealand. After lunch, we walked through the heart of Fremantle from the shipwreck museum to the roundhouse above the harbour and then through the town to the prison.

For the next three days, the group as split into three so as not to overwhelm any one site. Our group spent the first day at Rottnest Island. It was nice to have a day that was not over-packed. We took the bus tour around the island, had our lunch, met the volunteer who led the “Meet the Quokkas” tour to learn more about them and waded in the water at the beach. And in between, we spent as much time as possible with the quokkas. One of the quokkas had gotten up on the platform surrounding a tree. I was sitting on the edge of the platform. It looked over the edge beside me as if it wanted to get down but thought the leap was too far for it. So I stuck my leg out and it crawled partway down my leg before leaping to the group. Thanks, Allen Hwang, for capturing the moment.

The next day was spent on the Swan River tasting wine, followed by more wine tasting at the Sandalford Estate Winery. Suann Hosie and I joined forces on the boat to spot and identify as many birds as possible. Our haul included Darters, Pied Cormorants, Australian White Ibis, Straw-necked Ibis, Yellow-billed Spoonbill, Nankeen Night Heron (we think), Intermediate Egret (we think), White-faced Heron, Pacific Black Ducks, Musk Ducks, Australian Wood Ducks, Welcome Swallows, Western Corellas and Galahs.

The next day involved donning wetsuits to swim with wild dolphins in Cockburn Sound near Rockingham. We did not so much swim with the dolphins as get dragged along and see glimpses of dolphins before they tired of us and swam off. Besides the fleeting glimpses, I did see a pair of dolphins doing circles for Jackson’s camera below the back of the boat.

Eclipse Day! The up-side of taking off before sunrise is the possibility of seeing the dawn colours light the bottoms of the cloud from above them. I’ve included my favourite shot here. The viewing site was exceptionally well-organized with plenty of room for the various groups to spread out. I chose a site close to the grassed and treed area opposite the marquee so that I had a chance to see and hear the bird reactions to the nearing of totality. Our location put us away from the crowds near a thin line of Japanese eclipse chasers. As it happened, the Galahs did not flock but a few birds did roost in the trees and there was a small increase in bird noise in the last 10 – 15 minutes before totality. I didn’t expect shadow bands, so was not disappointed. Baily’s beads were not a prominent feature of this eclipse experience either. But the nearly symmetrical streamers and prominences (especially the one at 8 – 9 o’clock) made this eclipse particularly beautiful. As usual, the eclipse as experienced lasted no more than 20 seconds.

And the next day we were off to the red centre and Alice Springs. We spent a delightful evening at the Earth Sanctuary being entertained by Skip. Colleen and I volunteered to make damper (AKA beer bread) for the group. Skip told stories, sang songs, engaged us in singing and howling like dingos or playing the wobble board and beer cap stick.

The next day, we drove to Yulara, the tourist village for Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Along the way, we stopped at Erldunda and visited the Emus and Crested Pigeons, and had lunch at a station with butterflies, Magpie Larks and caged cockatiels. Also there were people who are doing a documentary on the Horned Devil, which could fit in your hand. We stopped for a view of Mt. Conner (AKA Atila) and the salt lake on the opposite side of the road. In the aboriginal gestalt, it forms the third landmark along with Kat Tjuta and Uluru.

Once at Yulara, our schedule became packed with activities. First we visited Kata Tjuta to climb up through the Walpa Gorge. On my previous visit, I had not made it very far because of the rugged terrain. This time, I brought my walking stick from Peru (made in China) and at least made it into the gorge, although not very far, before the walking stick gave up the ghost. One less thing to carry home. Then we were off to the viewing area for sunset over Uluru. The last time we were there, a fire in Australia had added a bit of smoke haze to the sunset and we looked forward to better photos on this trip. I settled myself far up the trail where I had just the right foreground. The added advantage was that I turned around just before the sunset and got a beautiful shot of the Kata Tjutas backlit with a bird in a tree in the foreground. As a result of my distance from the group, the snacks were badly picked over by the time I got back and the staff had to scrounge sparkling wine from another group because ours was all gone. What I suffer for my art!

The next morning, we were up early to see sunrise over Uluru. On our previous trip, the sunrise had been obscures with clouds. So we needed to come back to try again for the perfect sunrise photo of Uluru. We were in luck this time with clear horizons for our photography. Stunning sunrise photo. Check! Back to the hotel for breakfast. Then off for our walk to the Mutitjulu water hole and the Anangu art used to teach boys hunting and other skills and girls gathering and food preparation skills. While some did the Mala walk, we stayed with the bus and our driver Chris pointed out some of the geckos in the area. You could get quite close if you moved slowly.

After lunch in Yulara, Richard opted for a rest while I went to the cultural centre and learned about the figures in dot painting. Then Richard went to the Sounds of Silence evening while I opted for a quiet evening at the hotel. Again, Sounds of Silence was a repeat for us.

The next day we bid farewell to our Travelquest group and took a train from Sydney south to the Jervis Bay area to visit friends. We got to participate in the local ANZAC Day festivities in Huskisson. There is a naval base nearby. There was a parade in which groups marched up one side of the main street and at the end, turned around and marched back the other side of the street, turning off part way down to end up at the park where ceremonies were held. There were speeches and laying of wreaths at the memorial and the release of a set of pigeons. Everyone wore sprigs of fresh rosemary on their lapels. After the wreaths were laid, people were invited to add their rosemary sprigs in honour of friends or family who had served. The next day, we headed back to Sydney and stayed overnight by the airport. The next morning our flight back to Vancouver, Canada was cancelled because the wing was struck by a big bird (I suspect a pelican) and damaged. So, once again, we were kept overnight at the same hotel we had just left and were delayed getting home by a day.