Medieval Tourney and the Steve Irwin Australia Zoo

Trip Start Aug 09, 2007
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Trip End Jul 29, 2008


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Flag of Australia  , Queensland,
Thursday, July 3, 2008

We left Cairns and hit the wide open road on a four day road trip to Brisbane (over 1700km) to meet my sister-in-law, Clare, and my nephew-in-waiting safely stored in her bump.

We left the tropical climate of Cairns, began heading south and soon were winding 'Yo Momma' up a long, steep road of switchbacks leading 1000m up into the lush highlands of the Atherton Tablelands.  This region is known as the Tablelands because the fertile land produces fruit, vegetable and grain crops all year round providing Australia’s North Eastern population a constant supply of food.  As far as tourism goes, the Tablelands is well known for the two massive strangler fig trees it supports; the Cathedral and the Curtain Fig Trees, respectively.  Our first stop was to see the Cathedral Fig Tree near Danbulla National Park, about 60km south-west of Cairns.  This fig tree is over 500 years old and known as the Cathedral due to its massive, open and hollow structure.  You can walk right inside the root-framework of the strangler fig tree and be entirely enclosed by the roots reaching to the ground around you.  It was pretty cool.  Our next stop was in the countryside near Yungaburra to see the Curtain Fig Tree, one of the largest trees in all of Queensland and a fascinating tree to see making it the most photographed tree in the world.  Basically a fig seed lands (is pooped) on top of an existing tree branch and it begins to grow as an epiphyte on top of the supporting tree meaning that it is initially a harmless coexisting species.  But as the fig continues to grow, it sends roots down that eventually reach the ground at which point it stops coexisting with the tree it is growing on and starts to kill it.  In this case, the original supporting tree fell over while dying, allowing the strangler fig more area to extend roots to the ground.  The resulting curtain fig tree is 50 meters tall, 39 meters wide and over 800 years old – quite amazing!!

In addition to giant fig trees, the Tablelands is also home to the shy platypus – in fact, the platypus is *only* found in Eastern Australia!! Platypus are interesting animals, not only for the way they look but for how they defy characterization.  They are semi-aquatic egg-laying mammals that are venomous, duck-billed and beaver-tailed.  They are absolutely adorable and we wanted to see one!! We drove the peaceful backcountry roads through the Tablelands to a small lake where we heard we could find the elusive monotreme, but with no luck, we continued on to the town of Atherton.  Atherton had the perfect trick in place - it had a big solid fence built in front of a river where platypus live and then there were spy holes cut into the fence allowing us to view the critters without them seeing us and swimming away.  We were lucky to be able to see one active little swimmer out there – these animals are fast, cute and extremely unusual as appears to be the trend with the wacky animals from Australia!

We continued driving through the highlands until we reached Milla Milla Falls which literally means Plenty of Water in the Aboriginal language.  This is a beautiful veil of water 18m long and was a great place to grab a dip (ie/traveller’s shower) before continuing a bit further and crashing for the night.  As we drove further down the backroads of the highway, however, we couldn’t help but notice the intriguing signs for Paronella Park…what could this mysterious park be?  Though the signs provided no information, we thought to ourselves "It is so well signed, it must be amazing".  With visions of what adventure this hidden park may hold for us – ostrich riding? Waterfall sliding? Ziplining across the tablelands? – we settled into Yo Momma and dozed off

We were intent on hitting the highway the next morning to continue on the main route south but when we reached the fork that forced us to choose between Paronella Park and the highway, we chose the Park.  Down the potholed dirt road we travelled, lured onwards by the promise of it being just around the corner (similar to the Wawa signs on Highway 17), we continued to this elusive park, somehow overlooked in our travel guides.  Finally, finally we saw the park stretched out before us…some sedans, a gift shop, a fence???...where are the ostriches, the ziplines and the open air to explore?  We approached the gift shop leaving the one and only obnoxious vehicle (ours) behind in the otherwise tame parking lot – not a great sign.  We met the exuberant owner of the park whose passion for his park was truly admirable, but it had to be since he was charging $30 each to get in!!! Not one to miss a deal to haggle, we talked him down to free entry and – if we were not thoroughly impressed – a full refund on leaving (sigh…me extraño America Latina!).  He had showed us some brochures boasting pictures of what was behind the tall fence – castles, waterfalls, caves where many a movie had been filmed – and he told us tales of who once ruled this elusive land – a Spanish eccentric comparable to the Great Gatsby by the sounds of it.  The owner told us this was the #1 tourist attraction in all of Australia – that’s right – this park trumped the Great Barrier Reef, Sydney Harbour, Uluru, the Great Ocean Road, petting Koalas and Kangaroos – none of that could compare to what lay behind these walls.  I admired his confidence and I felt secure in my haggling, so we paid the man and joined the next tour, led by his son.

We began the tour by exiting the gift shop which brought us to the inner circle of the fence.  The grounds were quite beautiful I must say; anciently aristocratic with old stone houses crumbling and being overtaken by weeds set among some towering trees and next to a waterfall.  The original owner of these lands, Jose Paronella, arrived from Spain in 1913 searching for a better life.  An eccentric, he developed his property to be a sort of public playground for his neighbours.  He built a tennis court, a movie theatre and ballroom to entertain his guests (for a fee), all in a traditional Spanish motif.  He created a hydroelectric dam from the waterfall on his property to power his movies and the rest of his property.  That was about all there was to say about the park, but the tour just kept going and going without capturing our imaginations any further.  We did find ourselves in a bat cave at one point which was interesting.  In the end, we retrieved half our money (a fair compromise I thought) and were off.  I understand that this is now highly rated by Lonely Planet, perhaps the tour experience has changed? 

We returned to the highway and headed south.  As we drove, the sky before us darkened and darkened until we found ourselves on the edge of a large bushfire.  Strange as that was, traffic was still routed directly through the fiery area which I suppose shows how common this is in parts of Australia.  It burned on either side of us for as far as we could see and we felt sad thinking of the koalas that would be displaced from something like this…

Along this stretch between Cairns and Brisbane, we knew of two big things to do.  The first was the Whitsunday Islands – several continental islands off the eastern coast begging to be sailed, snorkeled and explored.  The second was Fraser Island – a World Heritage site and known as the largest sand island in the world at 120km wide and 24km long.  Fraser Island is known for its varied landscape, despite only being rooted in sand!! It boasts deep freshwater lakes, tropical rainforest (what remains after clearcutters anyways) and dangerous dingoes!! We initially thought we could see both but as our time and budget both shrunk away, we thought we’d just try for Fraser Island. 

After a refreshing night’s sleep off the main highways on a small country road, we arrived in the tiny coastal town of Rainbow Beach which has a beautiful stretch of beach to its credit as well as being a good jumping off point for Fraser Island Tours.  We hit the beach immediately and were blown away by its beauty.  Rainbow Beach stretched for mile after beautiful mile with colourful sandcliffs extending the full length.  We had a beautiful sunny day here and then set out to explore our options to see Fraser Island.  The first thing we found was that we’d have to wait around for several days before we could get out on any type of tour (the ‘tours’ are typically self-guided – a group of 8 to 12 people sign up for a tour, are assigned to a 4WD van and hit Fraser as a group to explore the island however they want!).  The second thing we realized was that this was a damn exy tour, even if you wanted to just go for a day or two which would definitely rush the experience.  A bit disheartened, we figured that with my family living in Australia, we would definitely be back and we would set out to do it as a group then. 

After driving around in search of a place to park Yo Momma for the night, but with no luck, we decided to sleep at the Visitor’s Centre.  We saw some other vans parked there, some enjoying a bbq out the back, so we figured it would be no problem and, anyways, it seemed the most appropriate place for us!  We were sound asleep when suddenly we heard a loud knocking on the side of the van – I awoke shaking and completely terrified, apparently not over the freaky encounter from Cairns.  It turned out to be a cop instead of a drunken asshole, which was great, but we had to leave, which was crappy.  We drove around and around looking for a place before finally finding one.  We were pretty ready at this point to be done with Yo Momma.

We were only another 250km to Brisbane so we enjoyed another day at the beach, packed up and hit the road hoping for smooth sailing into town.  I guess we had been retired too long though since we forgot all about the concepts of a ‘workday’ and ‘rush-hour’ and we found ourselves smack dab in the middle of traffic with no idea on where we were heading so we followed the signs through the gigantic hills of downtown Brisbane (well, they felt that way at the time anyways – my driving was good but not that good!).  To make matters worse, the sun had gone down around 6pm so we were managing this in the dark.  By the time we pulled up to Clare’s place just outside of Brissy, we were happy to know that we had a regular bed and a regular car available for us.  Yo Momma was good to us but we were ready to move on.  I was also happy to have started driving from quiet Cairns as opposed to downtown Brisbane – I’m not sure I would’ve had the balls to fake my driving ability out of that parking lot. 

Brisbane

Brisbane is the capital of Queensland state with over 3 million people living in and around this city.  It is named after the Brisbane river which extends through the heart of downtown Brissy and whose carefully-monitored dam supplies the drinking water for the area.  Brisbane is known to many as Bris-Vegas poking fun at its quieter nature, but it’s been ranked as one of the best cities in the world to live in (16th by the Economist in 2009) and has been on the world stage hosting World Expo in ’88.  Brisbane is also great due to its location; the Sunshine Coast to the North, the Gold Coast to the South and the Australia Zoo and the XXXX (‘4X’) Brewery in the Centre.  We were set to make our own fun!  Plus, staying with my sister-in-law afforded us the opportunity to see how the locals of Queensland lived, and we observed a lot of differences between us and them!

First, Brisbane has been living in drought conditions from 2001 to 2008 and we arrived near the worst of it with dam levels being very low, requiring high levels of water conservation.  Practically, this means that we shower with a bucket next to us and then use that water for the lawn.  Similarly, the washing machine water is diverted into buckets which are also used outside.  No car washing is allowed (and it is generally viewed as the absolute worst waste of water possible), either is personal pool filling or lawn watering.  I really felt that, as Canadians, we could be doing more without necessarily going without – it was more about the attention the Australians gave to their water usage than it was about depriving themselves.  The result is that the residents of Brisbane tend to use about 140L/day per person while Canadians residential use averages around 300L/day (2001 OECD report).  We also noticed that their homes are non-insulated due to their temperate climate (though, as softened travelers we did find the winter nights very cold!!)

One really nice thing we noted was that they have outdoor pools available all year round (not sure how this fits with the drought though…).  Clare and I enjoyed swimming laps and I felt I could really get used to such a mild climate that allows you to keep up your favourite summer activities all year round. 

Nik, Clare and I took off early the next day heading to famous Byron Bay, about 160km south of Brissy, renowned for its surfing, sun-worshiping and also for its proximity to Nimbin, an off-beat hippie town filled with lots of drugs.   On our way down, we veered out for a detour to Springbrook National Park, a beautiful area of rugged cliffs, lush trees and views from 900m.  It is located on an ancient and now inactive volcano and it was quite a long and beautiful drive in along narrow, windy, rugged dirt roads and up steep switchbacks to a number of beautiful trailheads.  Unfortunately, this area is also known for its rain and frequent misty ‘white-outs’ which we were caught in meaning our hike left us drenched and our only view was of a big white cloud rather than the intended view.  But, it was fun nonetheless and let us stretch our legs before arriving in Byron’s Bay. 

Byron’s Bay was a cool little town and we enjoyed checking it out and feasting on some delicious falafel before walking out to the most easterly point of the Australian Mainland.  This was a pretty beautiful walk through Byron’s Bay, along the coast and then up through the lush forest leading to the lighthouse on the cape, built in 1901.  The views from here were beautiful and we enjoyed taking it all in before returning via Main Beach, a 10km stretch of beach leading from the cape back to the town.  You might think that Clare being 8 months prego might have been falling behind after this 20km+ excursion but, in fact, it was us who were slipping behind.  We enjoyed the views, the sea and the beauty of the beach immensely but Nik was keen to see what green pastures lied beyond in Nimbin.  Crushing his dreams, Clare vetoed that decision.  Instead, we enjoyed another beautiful beach day.  It was too cool to lay out and the waves were flat, but it was peaceful, beautiful and quiet.  We packed up and returned to Brissy. 

Over the next couple of days, Nik and I explored Brisbane, did some swimming and perfected the vegemite sandwich (they key is butter and a thiiiiiiin layer of vegemite).  Downtown Brisbane was very nice and their transit is good - it plopped us right downtown in the Central Business District which sits along the Brisbane River.  Along the shore of the river is a really large and beautiful Botanical Garden as well as a downtown beach – it was pretty nice!  We also hit up the XXXX Brewery which was great, thanks to their generosity of samples.  Clare later brought us up to Mt. Coot-tha which is a mini-mountain within the city.  It is quite beautiful with a lush garden and planetarium and it offers a beautiful lookout over the city and out to the ocean as well! 

While exploring downtown one day, we were stoked to have been approached for some random job – selling knives or something – and we were offered $16/hr to do so!! We did some serious consideration of this deal before realizing we couldn’t do so legally but later, when we excitedly told Clare about how rich we could be, she told us that in Australia that was crap money.  There are very few, apparently, who work for minimum wage (around $15/hr!) and even low paying jobs tend to be well over $20/hr affording just about everyone enough to live off, what a concept!!

Ready for some fun, we headed to Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo the next day.  This was a ways out but well worth the trip and this was definitely one of our highlights.  This zoo was all about conservation, education and protection of animals and offered an interactive experience with almost every animal we saw there!  We got there pretty early and had to wait for a bit for it to open.  When it did, we bolted for the kangaroo and koala areas first but our enthusiasm didn’t initially provide us with the courage to make the most of this first encounter.  This zoo is wide open – you are able to walk through wide open parks where koalas and kangaroos are feeding and roaming.  We didn’t know at first, but you can actually walk up to these animals and pet and feed them – but – not all kangaroos are made equal.  Our first encounter was in an open park where it was just Nik, myself and about 15 red kangaroos (the ones that are always shown to be boxing).  They are huge – up to 3m tall – really tough looking and we were walking through their space with no one else around.  We were kind of freaked so we scooted through there in search of the smaller (2m) grey kangaroos.  We came across them in another park setting and this time we saw a few other people around petting them and feeding them!  It was a weird thing to approach such a foreign animal to pet them up, but the ‘roos seemed receptive to it so we dove in and played for hours with these fuzzy, friendly little guys.  Nik was even able to big spoon one of them!!  It was a very cool encounter that we will not soon forget!!  We continued on to some of the more typical zoo areas – elephants, tigers etc – and we were fortunate enough to be able to feed some of the giant elephants (so slobbery!!!). 

The absolute highlight of my day was getting the chance to hold one of the koalas!! Yes, I had to wait in line and pay a bit but the experience was magical – this little soft fuzzy bundle is handed over to me like a baby and he clung on to the front of me with his sharp nails and, as I looked down to admire the little guy who was snuggled into me, he looked up with his big koala eyes and soft black nose.  We had a moment.  A short one anyways before he went off to share the same moment with the girl behind me.  Either way, I loved it!!  We later saw the croc show, now given by Steve Irwin’s wife, which was pretty cool.  They also had a half-time type show where Bindy (his daughter) and her band sung about whales and such – it was definitely geared for kids but we were entertained by her backstreet-boy-like male dancers who were about 22 and dancing back-up for  7 year old, very interesting!! And they’re probably making a killing doing it!!  We finally saw a Tasmanian Devil as well before being chased by another Cassowary – I don’t care that there was a fence in between us, it was still scary!!  With another pet of the little kangaroos and a second chance to brave the Big Red’s (we chickened out), we left the zoo totally blown away but how fun it was!!

We left on a high having had such a fun day and knowing that our friend Ryan was coming the next day to meet us in Brissy.  On the agenda, a Medieval Festival we found advertised in a wee corner of the paper – En Guard!!  This festival, by far, is one of the most unique things that we have ever experienced.  Nik and Ryan were completely stoked for this and I tentatively agreed knowing that, at worst, I’d get away with a few good laughs.  We got up early and drove a ways out of town into the countryside until we reached the grounds in Caboolture Shire.  We couldn’t help but notice that we stood out – we were some of the few people there NOT dressed in Medieval garb…we didn’t realize how seriously many took this annual festival!! We entered the main grounds and were surrounded by tents with blacksmiths, weaponries, leather and clothing sales, food stalls with cauldron-type pots boiling, a crowd of people walking about in long gowns and stockings speaking in olde English, and before us was a grandstand with men outside calling us in for a Medieval Melee.  At this point, I was still giggling at the novelty of it all but as we entered and took our seat and began to take it all in – wooooooow – this was a whole other world!! Spectators were calling out and heckling in and Olde English manner, they had throne-type seats, meat on sticks and then – in front of us on the field – were two groups of armoured men standing across from each other and, as cannons fired in the background, they fiercely began attacking each other (for fun!!!) with mallots and swords and – after each beating – this would be repeated to chants, bellows and screams from the crowd and the fighters!!  While Nik & Ryan’s enjoyment increased, I began to feel distinctly out of place and a bit freaked out by the seriousness of it all!! After several rounds, we left the main event and strolled towards some of the events in the back area of the field. 

We walked past the human chess game, beyond the fencers to the inviting building ahead of us.  As we entered, we came upon a performance of sorts where women, children, a plastic baby, men and a large Grim Reaper with scythe were chanting and moving about the room.  They moved across a stage and down into the audience where – of course – Ryan hooded himself and joined into the growing circle of weirdness.  A small band of musicians played while this random dance continued and, just as I feared we might have lost Ryan for the afternoon, the spell was broken, the music stopped and we exited…a bit confused…

We continued on, walking deeper into the crowd until ahead of us we saw a commotion and sort of formal setting.  As we approached, I noticed a King of sorts recognizable by his mushroom-like hat (think Mario Brothers) and his throne and his apparent control over his audience.  He was, in fact, introducing the next set of men who would be fighting for his approval.  The men began to prepare for the fight by removing most of their clothing, leaving only their leather shorts.  They then began oiling their bodies, excessively, until they were drenched and then – apparently – ready to begin.  The men stood before the King and, once the formalities subsided, lunged together to wrestle with each man trying to secure a slippery grip on the other, sliding and falling together to the ground amid cheers and the approving look of the King.  I can only speak for myself, but I found this Turkish Oil Wrestling rather disturbing to watch and I began to back away slowly before finding my way to the greyhound dog tent (of course there’s one there!).  Ryan & Nik eventually found me and together, we walked towards the last event – the most spectacular of all – the joust. 

Nothing that occurred at this festival was done half-assed.  This was a full-on joust complete with full-body-armour, huge horses and wooden lances.  This was actually quite incredible to watch with the costuming of the horses, the formality of the event and the skill required.  I think I also liked that there was no chanting, fake Kings or violent random attacks on others.  This was truly a day to remember and when we walked out of the Abbey Medieval Festival, we all felt a certain respect for those who will wait patiently for another year to pass before throwing themselves full on into this magical experience once again. 

Ryan was off soon the next day and we were soon gone ourselves.  We had a very unique experience around Brisbane; relaxing, authentic, bizarre and exciting all at the same time!! We were sad to say good bye to Clare but we were ready to head back to Sydney to take in so much of what we had missed our first time through.  
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