As the crow flies, it is just over eight thousand miles from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Sydney, New South Wales, in Australia. Jane and I did not fly as the crow, we instead traveled first from Albuquerque to Denver, and then from Denver to Los Angeles, before boarding our fourteen hour, United Airlines flight to Sydney. And that is how the seven week long journey to our seventh continent began.
This was a momentous journey with more adventures to relay than one Blog can contain. So, I will detail this journey in several separate chapters. But first, here is a short introductory recap of our Australian odyssey. To begin, the trip had been planned for a 2020 departure but was postponed until 2022 due to that persistent coronavirus. After this long delay, the journey finally started on Sunday, September 25th and ended fifty days later on Monday, November 14th. Crossing the International Dateline going over and coming back caused some confusion with dates as did the sixteen hours of time zone change. In summary, this long trip included twelve separate flights on three different airlines, including two fourteen hour Pacific Ocean crossings. We scurried through eleven airport terminals and slept at seventeen different accommodations.
This was truly a monumental journey and can be separated into four distinct sections. Each of these four sections will be a separate chapter of this Blog and will be published sequentially. Upon arrival in Australia, our first undertaking was a two week excursion with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (VENT). This tour was focused on birding and started in Sydney, New South Wales, and ended at Uluru (Ayers Rock) in the Northern Territory. Jane and I were two of ten participants on this tour and I was the only serious photographer. Chapter 1 will describe our adventures on this portion of our trip.
At the end of the VENT tour, we flew from Uluru back to Sydney for a five night stay on our own. Our days in cosmopolitan Sydney are detailed in Chapter 2.
From Sydney we traveled north to Cairns, Queensland, for a two week excursion with Trogon Photo Tours. Jane and I were two of only three guests on this tour that started in Cairns and finished in Brisbane, Queensland. The Trogon tour was to be a photo tour but turned out to be very much a birding tour as well. Details for this portion of our trip are in Chapter 3.
Hobart in Tasmania was our next and final destination. I had arranged a private tour with Luke O’Brian, a local Tasmania photographer, for three days of photography at Cradle Mountain – Lake St. Clair National Park. Chapter 4 details our visit to Tasmania and encounter with the Tasmania Devil.
We met our eight fellow travelers for the Victor Emanuel Nature Tour for lunch on Friday, September 30th, at the Pullman Hotel in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. Our tour was led by Dion Hobcroft, an exceptional birder with over twenty years of experience leading birding groups for VENT. Dion wasted no time. After brief introductions and lunch we were off in the minibus, with Janene Luff behind the wheel, to our first afternoon of birding at Sydney’s Centennial Park.
Next day, we were up at 4:15 AM to be out by 5:00 for an early start of birding at the Royal National Park about an hour’s drive south of Sydney. That morning we hiked along the Lady Carrington Drive trail. The birders, equipped with their binoculars and scopes, and me with my camera, followed Dion eagerly as he spotted and identified Australia’s birds. The morning weather was gloomy with off and on light rain, making for low light photography. After a picnic lunch, we traveled to Burraneer Park where Dion was able to locate a pair of Australia’s largest owls, the Powerful Owl. This pair, perched high in the upper canopy of a large tree, was raising chicks.
That same afternoon, while the rest of us were back birding with Dion at the Royal Park, one of Dion’s associates (Steve) was scouting the Engadine section of the park looking for koalas. Finding a koala in the wild is not easy but Steve had lots of experience and was familiar with the habitat koalas frequented. It did not take long for Steve to return with the news that he spotted a koala. That was the good news. The bad news was that the eucalyptus tree with the koala was located near the bottom of a very steep ravine. Everyone in the group, however, was game for bushwhacking ourselves down the sheer, forested terrain. The reward was seeing a koala in the wild and for me photographing the cuddly little marsupial. To top the event off, while engrossed with the koala, a Rock Warbler, the only endemic bird species of New South Wales, flew into the area.
After three days of birding the Sydney area, on Monday, October 3rd, our small group of adventurers journeyed west to the Blue Mountains for an overnight stay at the Blackheath Motor Inn. From Blackheath, getting started before sunrise, we scouted the Blue Mountain region for birds. Enthusiastically, Dion guided us through Glen Alice, Glen Davis and around Lake Wallis. Even along the busy motorway back from Blackheath to a hotel at Sydney Airport, Dion called out bird sightings that only those in the front seats could see.
Next day we were off on a Qantas flight to Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory. Situated at Australia’s “top end”, Darwin’s climate is similar to that of other tropical countries near the equator, hot, humid and sweaty. Even a short foray into the field for birding resulted in clothing sticking to wet skin. We were an intrepid bunch, however, and followed Dion eagerly to find that new bird. The Adina Hotel was our home for a couple of nights as we sojourned the Darwin area looking for more new bird species. Howard Creek, Knuckey Lagoon, Buffalo Creek, and Lee’s Point were all visited as Dion continued his tireless search.
Cooinda Lodge in Kakadu National Park was our next destination. The nearly four hour drive to Kakadu started after some early morning birding around Darwin. It was a long haul getting to Kakadu National Park with lots of “road train” trucks on the two-lane highway. A much needed break was lunch at the Orroboree Park Tavern with its huge crocodile statue in front. There was much birding to be done in Kakadu National Park but I was attracted to the pristine aboriginal rock art found in the park. While the rest of the group was searching for illusive feathered creatures, I concentrated on finding and photographing this very unique x-ray style of rock art.
From the Cooinda Lodge at Kakadu we ventured to Knotts Crossing Resort in Katherine, Northwest Territory, birding along the way, of course. The indigenous purple backed fairy wren was on everyone’s want list and Dion knew where to find it. So, next day we were on the road at 4:45 AM for the two hour drive to the Victoria River crossing at Gregory. Finding this diminutive bird was not easy. For well over an hour, we trudged back and forth through dense flood plain vegetation. Only Dion’s persistence kept us going and resulted in finally locating this illusive little bird. I was not fortunate enough to photograph the bird, however. The next day was another long one on the road as we traversed back to Darwin to catch an afternoon Qantas flight to the remote town of Alice Springs.
Alice Springs is a small community in the "red desert" of the Northern Territory. The Mercure Hotel was our home for the night. Temperatures continued hot in the desert but humidity became more tolerable. The terrain changed noticeable to a desert environment with vegetation more open and geologic features more prominent. The ubiquitous large termite mounds continued to be a dominant feature of the landscape as we birded the Alice Springs area. We searched for birds in the Simpson Gap, Ormiston Gorge and Glen Ellen Gorge areas. Then it was off again in the minibus for the 270 mile drive to Uluru, the massive sandstone monolith formerly known as Ayer’s Rock. On the way, lunch was consumed eagerly at the Erldunda Roadhouse, at Stuarts Well, an establishment typical of those along the Stuart Highway.
The first Europeans explorers arrived at Uluru in the late 1800’s but tourism to this amazing geologic feature did not get started until the 1950’s when less than 3,000 intrepid travelers braved the 12 hour primitive travel from Alice Springs. An entire tourist village was planned and constructed in the 1980’s and today, with completion of massive upgrades to the village, more than 350,000 visitors arrive to experience this sacred UNESCO World Heritage Site.
By mid-afternoon, we arrived at the Desert Gardens Hotel where we all enjoyed an afternoon break after a long, bumpy ride through the “Red Center” of the Northern Territory. That evening, Dion treated us to a champagne sundowner at the Uluru sunset viewpoint. It was a perfect setting for our last night together. But, next morning, Dion had us up early again for sunrise at Kata Tjuta, “many heads” in the aboriginal language, a group of large domed sedimentary rock formations about 16 miles to the west of Uluru. The Victor Emanuel Nature Tour ended at Uluru and after lunch the resolute birders headed to the airport for their flight back to Sydney.
Jane and I, on the other hand, stayed behind as we had booked two extra nights at the Desert Gardens Hotel. Although we had thoroughly enjoyed the company of our birding friends, it felt really good to be on our own again after fourteen days of communal touring. After bidding adieu to our fellow travelers, we prepared for a sunset helicopter flight over Kata Tjuta and Uluru. We followed that up with a Uluru sunrise tour to complete our trifecta of sunrise, sunset and from the air views of the Uluru monolith. I had also booked a night sky tour to photograph the Milky Way over Uluru, but unfortunately, the desert experienced one of its rare cloudy nights and that outing was cancelled.
On Sunday, October 16th, twenty days after leaving home, we enjoyed a much needed sleep-in and leisurely breakfast, after which we shuttled to the Uluru Airport for our flight back to Sydney. Our days in Sydney are described in the following Chapter 2 of the Blog.
NOTE: Bird photographs can be found on the Home Page - Bird Gallery - Birds of Australia Sub-Gallery
Other trip photographs can be found on the Home Page - Australia Gallery