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Indian Pacific: Cross Country by Train
Lord Howe Island
Geocaching around Sydney
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Humpback Whales in the Kingdom of Tonga
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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Indian Pacific: Cross Country by Train

The Indian Pacific is one of three great train journeys available in Australia. Starting in Sydney on the Pacific Ocean it makes it's way across the country first to Adelaide and then onwards to Perth on the Indian Ocean. The whole trip takes 4 days and 3 nights. Since I opted for the most affordable option, all I had was a day/nighter-seat.

Thus I decided to break the trip up into two parts and stayed a couple of days in Adelaide until the next train came along.

From Sydney we made our way through the Blue Mountains, where we had a brief but nice view of the mountains and the valley.  After that the train meandered through rolling hills which were very lush with green pastures and forests. Besides herds of cows and sheep, I also spotted a fox and a couple of Wallabies.

After a not very relaxing night ;), the landscape had changed dramatically. Now we drove past reddish earth with few bushes and even fewer trees. But the wildlife stayed interesting, besides a goat herd I also saw many Emus, one even with three kids, and a large Gecko.

Getting closer to Adelaide the landscape changed again to pastures, large corn fields and more developments.

Three days later I re-boarded in Adelaide for the next 41 hour stretch to Perth. Since it was already early evening, we didn't see too much of the countryside, but we were able to observe a fierce storm with many lightning strikes, followed by a picturesque sunset.

The next morning the landscape was reddish earth with bushes and trees again.

After a couple of hours we entered the Nullarbor Plains, where trees were completely lacking. Soon after we also entered the longest straight in the world. 477 kilometers without a single curve!

Our first real stop was in Cook, a city in the middle of the Nullarbor Plains. It used to house 200 people with a school, pool and a hospital. Nowadays, it only has 4 town managers and a changing number of drivers who stay overnight. Thus most of the place is deserted and it looks like a ghost town.

The Nullarbor Plains were not as interesting wildlife-wise. Even though there should be large herds of feral camels and rabbits, we only saw a couple of birds.

Towards the evening, once we left the Plains, I did managed to spot a couple of Wallabies again. Late in the evening we made our second stop in Kalgoorlie. A welcome opportunity to stretch our legs before settling down for the night.

When we woke up again, we were only a couple of hours from Perth and we were greeted by large forests and in general more color than we had seen before ;).

I had a great time on this trip and I'm not sure which part of it I liked better. The first leg was greener and more beautiful, but the second leg had what we normally associate with Australia, wide areas of nothing ;).

More pictures can be found in my webalbum.

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Saturday, October 25, 2014

Lord Howe Island

Not only is Lord Howe Island well known for its scuba diving, it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its unspoilt nature.

However, getting there is quite difficult, because there is a limit of 400 tourists on the island at any time. For me it was even more difficult to get there, because on the day of our trip there was a heavy storm, which prevented the pilot from landing on the island, so we had to turn back to the mainland and land in Coff's Harbor.

From there we were put on the next plane to Sydney, where we had to stay overnight and try again the next day. Even though the plane was delayed again a couple of times we eventually did make it to the island.

Unfortunately, the sea was still too rough the next day, so there was no diving going on. I used this day to explore the island, walking from one end to the other and looking for the few Caches which were hidden here.

The third day the sea was still too rough outside the lagoon, so we could only do one dive inside the lagoon. But that was a very promising start, not only did we see lots of fish and Shovelnose Rays, we also encountered juvenile Galapagos Sharks!

From then on I was able to do two dives a day around the island and all of them were fantastic. I was astonished about the beauty of its coral reef with many soft and hard corals, considering it is the world's southernmost barrier coral reef and water temperatures are often quite cold.

Besides the diving, I spent some more time wandering around the island taking in its many wonders. For example its large Muttonbird colony. These birds spend all day at sea and only come back to nest at dusk. They are not the most elegant on land and seeing them land, or sometimes crash, is quite a sight. Some seem so exhausted by their landing that they just sit wherever they got to a stop, even if it is in the middle of the road!

Except the juvenile Sharks and Rays on the first dive, I did not spot other big fish, but that didn't matter because there was so much else to see. On our last day we had a short visit by a Hawksbill Turtle and we spotted a juvenile yellow boxfish.


Lord Howe Island is definitely a place well worth visiting and I will go back one day, if I happen to be in the region :).
More pictures can be found in my webalbum.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Geocaching around Sydney

Scuba Diving brought me to the Sydney suburb Manly, but once there I discovered that it was also a fantastic place to go Geocaching!

At the North-Western edge of Manly is Manly Dam a nature reserve around the dam which features biking and walking tracks and also a fantastic Power Trail. Unlike other Power Trails I've done in the past, on Zargfinders Power Trail every Cache is hidden in a different way and some of the Camo's speak of a high level of craftsmanship and need very good eyes to spot, while others are of the more amusing sort ;). If you happen to travel to Sydney, you should definitely schedule a day at Manly Dam.


But that is not all there is to find. Zargfinders is also a huge Doctor Who fan and created a series of 8 Doctor Who related Caches which lead you to a bonus Cache. All of them were placed with a lot of thought to the chosen episode and again they were created with a lot of care and love. My personal favorites of this series were Blink and Silence in the Library, which both featured interesting riddles and fantastic Cache-Containers!




But Zargfinders weren't the only Cachers in Sydney. Tyreless Bubbler Dash Where-I-Go featured an interesting challenge and an ingenious final, which I had to visit three times before spotting it :).

In Sydney itself there are also a fair number of Caches hidden and during my three days in the city I managed to find a couple of them. Thankfully not all of them were Nanos. The highlight of Caching in Sydney was Thornton's Scent Bottle.

Thanks to all these wonderful Caches I have now over 100 finds in Australia :).

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Sunday, October 12, 2014

Weedy Sea Dragons in Sydney

Diving in Sydney is nothing for the casual diver, it is coldish (17 - 18 ° Celsius at the moment) and the visibility is often quite limited (5 - 10 meters). On the other hand, there are many interesting creatures to discover.

What brought me to Sydney was the Weedy Sea Dragon, a relative to the Sea Horse. Since I first spotted a Weedy Sea Dragon in Boston aquarium I knew that one day I'll meet them under water.

Our second dive day brought us to Magic Point, which is mainly famous for it's resident population of Grey Nurse Sharks (not related to the Tawny Nurse Sharks I saw in Fiji), but also hosts a couple of Weedy Sea Dragons. While the visibility at the Shark cave was extremely bad (lots of silt in the water), we did get to see a Weedy Sea Dragon close up :).

With that off the list, I could then appreciate the other animals. Such as the frequently encountered Port Jackson Shark (a distant relative of the Horn Shark I saw in California). On one dive we saw about 15 of them lying on the sandy bottom!

Another frequent guest on our dives was the Red Rock Cod, a member of the Scorpion fish family.

During my second dive to Magic Point we got to see the Grey Nurse Sharks a bit better, but not good enough for quality pictures, and we got to see another Weedy Sea Dragon, this time a pregnant male!

On my last diving day, we visited the Royal Shepherd Wreck, which sank in 1890. Most of it was buried in sand, but the propeller, anchor and part of the boiler was still visible. More interesting were the Common Stingarees which stayed close to the Wreck.

The last dive at The Waterfall had a real treasure to offer: Two juvenile Cuttlefish!


In summary I really enjoyed diving in Sydney, despite the cold temperatures and the short dives.

More pictures of these dives can be found in my Sydney webalbum.

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Friday, October 10, 2014

Vanuatu

Even though I spent most of my time in Vanuatu with scuba diving, there were some other notable activities.

Twice I visited the famous blue holes. Those are waterholes fed by natural springs and they appear crystal clear and dark blue in places. In some of them there were ropes installed from which we could swing into the water :).





On the last day on Espiritu Santo, I joined the Millenium Caves Tour. A tour organized by locals which consists of a 2 hour bush walk, a half hour crossing of Millenium Cave, some Bouldering/Canyoning after lunch, followed by floating down river. To end it all we had another bush walk to get back to the starting point.
Every one of those things were cool in itself, not to mention that there were just the two of us with our guides on this trail, and that combined to an unforgettable day! :)

I also had to spend a day in Port Vila, waiting for my connecting flight, and I used that to do a half day tour to the Secret Gardens, a kind of botanical garden with a couple of local animals and very detailed info about the country and the region, and Mele Cascading Waterfalls, a beautiful waterfall which flows over several levels. This one was much more touristy, especially since a cruise ship was in town that day. Nevertheless, it was a nice distraction and worth the entrance fee.

Pictures of these activities can also be found in my web album.

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Monday, September 29, 2014

SS President Coolidge

The SS President Coolidge was built in 1931 as a cruise and merchant ship. From 1940 to 1942 it was used by the US military to evacuate citizens and transport troops. In 1942 it was finally converted into a true troopship and equip with guns. On 26 October 1942 it hit two friendly mines when navigating towards Luganville in Espiritu Santo. The captain tried to beach the ship and almost everyone could be safely evacuated. However, because a coral reef was in the way, the ship ended up slipping back into the water shortly afterwards.

Nowadays, it lies on its side in shallow water and offers perfect conditions for divers. This was the main reason why I traveled all the way to Espiritu Santo.

Once in town I hooked up with Allan Power Dive Tours. Allan Power, now retired from diving, is the leading expert on the Coolidge, with over 15'000 dives logged. I was lucky enough that it was reasonably quiet at the time so I got a personal dive guide for most of my dives and thus we were able to explore the wreck to its fullest and slowly extend my experience with deep dives. Even though the wreck starts at 15 meters, the interesting things are normally to be found close to or past 40 meters.


After an intriguing introduction dive where we stayed on the outside and looked at the different guns the Coolidge was equipped with, we ventured on our first penetration dive to visit The Lady. The Lady is a porcelain sculpture that was originally located in the dining room and is now in a more accessible spot for divers.

The next step was a visit to the engine room at 46 meters, where we could still see the gages set for full steam ahead.

Venturing deeper we visited the outside pool at 54 meters, which has an interesting mosaic floor, but which gave me some trouble counting all the different colors used ;).

Since that dive went well, we ventured into the Galley, which is located at 55 meters, where a large number of China bowls were still present, together with three huge cooking pots.

A short visit to Cargo Hold 6 & 7, revealed an immense spare propeller blade and boxes of ammunition, and set a new depth record of 56.9 meters.

Another highlight of the Coolidge are it's night dives, where you venture into Cargo Hold 2 at 30 meters without lights to see a spectacular show displayed by Flashlight Fish. It felt like being in a disco :).

My last dive day brought it all together. We swam on the surface until the end of the ship, where we descended and were greeted by the two resident Hawksbill Turtles. We then entered Cargo Hold 7 and progressed inside the ship past Cargo Hold 6, the Galley, Cargo Hold 3, B- and C-Deck and out through the Chain Locker. Completing a 200 meters inside traversal of the whole wreck with a maximum depth of 58.4 meters. Once we exited the wreck my computer showed 26 minutes deco time after 26 minutes diving, and it took 53 minutes until we were clear to exit the water.

I had a fantastic time diving the Coolidge and would like to thank Allan Power's team for making it such a memorable experience!

Unfortunately, my underwater housing only goes to 40 meters, so I don't have too many pictures of these dives, but the pictures I have can be found in this web album.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Humpback Whales in the Kingdom of Tonga

In the Kingdom of Tonga, one of the few South Pacific countries that was never conolized, we boarded the wonderful liveaboard Nai'a for a ten-day trip to the Humpback Whales in the Ha'apai Group.

We had a fantastic times with many whale sightings both above and below water.

Highlights were when we could spend close to an hour with a mother and her calf. While the mother rested the calf curiously swam up to us and then back to her mother again.

Later we spotted a Heat Run, that is a competition between several males for one female. It lasted over three hours with spectacular displays of tail slapping, pectoral fin slapping and breaching.

To end the perfect trip we had an encounter with four friendly Humpbacks that swam around the boat. We just stayed in the water and waited while they swam by repeatedly. One of them was particularly adventurous and repeatedly showed us his belly, swimming past underneath us on his back.

It was an unbelievable experience, seeing those huge animals navigate effortlessly through the water and even lifting their whole weight of 50 - 80 tons out of the water for spectacular breaches.

In addition to all the whale watching and snorkling we also did a couple of dives. However, diving in Tonga is not as good as other parts in the world, so if we had to choose between diving and whales I always selected the whales (at least after day 3). Nevertheless, we did see some interesting things on the dives. My highlights were Dogtooth Tuna hunting a school of fusiliers and a Corrallimorph Deocrator Crab.


I could go into much more detail what we saw on each day, but Joshua and Amanda, the cruise directors, already did a perfect job of that, so if you are interested what else we saw then I can highly recommend the following blogpost.

All my pictures can be found in this webalbum.

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