November 17th, leaving day

Evija writes:
In a while, getting up at 7:30am is wonderful! However, from another point of view – strange. Anders and Rūdolfs most likely are in the airport already… I say goodbye to Emīls after the breakfast (we were both hosted by Inga and Mārtiņš Česlis family) – he will do some sightseeing around Brisbane center and then go to the airport as well. Guna, Gunta, Agnese are trying to get some beach experience, did it work out? – there were heavy downpours, lightnings, thunders in the morning.

Me – Evija, and Ilgonis have the last meeting with Latvians today – in Brisbane Latvia house. I tell very shortly about the activities of the University of Latvia fund, but I definitely want to share the video with the “thank you”s by the stipendiaries. The gathered Latvians are keen to listen to Ilgonis’ Solar Eclipse story, and to view photos and video – this is the first time it is shown in public. The Latvians of Brisbane are warm-hearted, sunny, open and joyful! It looks like the honorary consul Juris Meija has come as well. Also he had some stories about the life here.

In general I defined my feelings about Australians here in Brisbane today – calm, leisurely, harmonic and happy. I think that such are indeed the Latvians all around Australia.

After the nice meeting with Latvians, the host Andris Francis takes and follows me and Ilgonis to Brisbane planetarium – we watch a 3D film – ooh, my head is spinning! Impressive! After that a view from the highest hilltop to Brisbane’s big buildings and then we are ready to go to Inga and Mārtiņš Česlis house where there is a do for Mārtiņdiena (day of Mārtiņš) being organized. Many local Latvians (and not only Latvians) have turned up, we are around 30 people all together. It is interesting that most of the people are in their forties come with their families and a few children – hubbub, alacrity, laughter and conversations non stop!!! Zigrīda Francis’ big pretzel has baked well and was very tasty! The cheese salad made by another Latvian were gone from the table very quickly as well… Looks like I’m in Latvia in my mind already. From our group only me, Ilgonis, Guna, Gunta, Agnese have stayed here for couple of hours – the last 4 will go straight to airport after the party while I’ll be still waiting for the morning…

To get to know Australia at least a little bit – nature, Latvians, dare oneselve’s egoism in different situations in combination of 8 people – that’s fantastic and worth the experience!

Bye, till the next Total solar eclipse!!!

November 12th: The amazing flora and fauna in Cairns

Guna writes:
This is the first day in Cairns. We have spent night in our hosts’ – Andrejs and Zita, garden. After breakfast Andrejs offers us to show the mangrove forest, which is quite unique as one of the few wild mangrove groves in the world that is protected bio reserve. The groves are so out-of-this-world and nothing like even Gunta has ever seen. We take some… ok, many pictures of crabs and weird fish with big eyes able to move outside water – the mudskipper fish. The mangroves are a real jungle and a bit scary. If there was no broad walk to guide us through the grove, one would definitely get lost in there. Andrejs shows us the black-widow-style spider who eats it’s male partners after they have stopped being useful. Despite occasional warm drizzle interchanging with scorching sun filtering through the vividly green canopy we have a great time in this weird place.

Afterwards Andrejs takes us to the city library which is not so boring as it sounds. As we realize this as soon as we get out of our cars. The noise is constant and the source is the main object that we have come to see – the flying foxes or the big fruit bats have besieged the nearby trees around the library. Although it’s daytime and theoretically the bats are supposed to be sleeping, it is a very noisy sleeping. There are thousands of them. It sounds like they argue and chat and love each other at the same time making quite a noise. Now I understand where the legends of vampires and batmen come from, because they really look like batmen silhouetted against Cairn’s cloudy sky.

Interestingly the parking areas under these trees are free of charge not like the surrounding parking places. Still by parking your car under these trees you are is risking getting your car pretty dirty. We also have a quick step in the library to check out Zita’s fabulous picture of the bats – a present to the library.

Afterwards we take a walk down the beach which is lovely but the public pool just beside it looks much more inviting. The latter lets you feel like being in some kind of exotic beach with white sand and clear turquoise water. We observe some more local birds which Andrejs is very familiar with and of which, I believe, Anders understands much more.
The day goes by quickly but on our way home we just have a run in the local botanical gardens where I first see in real life a pond of lotus flowers. No wonder the flower has a fame, it s really beautiful.

We return home to grab some quick lunch before heading for the local zoo suggested by our hosts. We arrive at the zoo just in time to see the end of the crocodiles feeding show. In one house the local workers are in the process of making the koalas mate but I guess none of the two koala boys was going to get lucky today as the koala girl was screaming something fierce every time any one of them tried their moves on her. Agnese and I battle our inner battles and quickly lose to quite expensive koala holding sessions, but how can one come to Australia and not hold a koala – the incarnation of peace and all the cuddly things one can imagine! Our lovely koala girl Keyla is patient and bears with us the brief photo session.

Afterwards we catch the bird show which reminds me a bit of a circus of trained birds, still impressive and we get to see the really big blue butterflies just flying around in their home habitat.
It’s time to visit and feed some kangaroos and wallabies. This is the first time in Australia that we get actually close to these creatures as in the wild you just get to watch them gracefully hopping away.
The zoo is just about to close so a quick peek at the pelicans and we are off.

On our way home we stop by the Palm Grove beach. The water here near the shore is not the clear blue we would expect, rather it is muddy light brown and the waves just make the water more like Baltic Sea beach. Well, ok… the waves probably are bigger and the water is definitely warmer. Here you are only allowed to swim in the area enclosed by nets, and a lifeguard on duty. Only Ilgonis and Emīls are going for a swim, but I opt for walking down the beach and taking in the wonderful scenery.

Since we started our road trip this is the first evening in a long time that we eat our dinner actually before the sunset. It is wonderful, we are sitting outside in our hosts’ garden and enjoying ourselves for some time before some of us go and meet Mr Aleksandrs Gārša – an honorary consul for Latvia and a lawyer. Anders and Rūdolfs opt for staying at home.
Glass of wine with Mr Gārša and his wife is very cordial. We have some Tasmanian wine and cheese as well as Australian strawberries.
After coffee which comes from highlands just outside of Cairns and a group photo we head back home.

Turns out that during day the rain has got inside our tent, it is wet and really not a good place to sleep in. So Agnese and I take up on hosts’ generous offer to stay in Zita’s studio. And that’s when I find out that this day was supposed to be written about by me. So here I am sitting down on the floor of Zita’s studio and frantically trying to remember another day full of new impressions. Need for sleep is overwhelming so I will let others to take over from here to write about next day and new adventures that, no doubt, await us.

November 10th – on the way to civilisation

Agnese writes:
Yesterday we noticed that both our paper maps show 100km stretch of the route along gravel road (or dirt road as it’s being called here). There were 2 similar options – either to continue all the way to the coast and then go up to Cairns, or turn left in Cloncurry and take a parallel road 400km North. We decided to ask at the hostel. The nightguard was very talkative and told us much about flood and other weather conditions. He said the north road is closed sometimes 12 weeks a year due to flood. He hadn’t heard that it might be closed today, but it had rained a bit recently, and if we get till it and it’s closed, we’ll need to come all the 400km back.

I told him I was surprised about the 2m flood meter marks in many places along the road. I just couldn’t believe that the flood can be that high. He said 2 meters are normal. Apparently once a town north from Mt Isa, near the bay (Burketown?) got flooded by 7m of water – the whole town was evacuated.

We woke up at 5:30 as usual – there’s a long way ahead of us again. Quick breakfast with musli an yogurts and off we are. First to a hill in the middle of the town where we can see a nice scenery and many factories. This is a mining town – mines for silver, zinc, copper and lead can be found here and are the largest in Australia.

The road out of Mt Isa is not that boring anymore – ups and downs, winds and besides that road trains going to the opposite direction quite often. The town of Cloncurry holds the heat record of Australia – 53.1 Celsius degrees in shadow. After Cloncurry the road gets worse. Still a sealed road, but with many patches – quite like in Latvia :D

We spot 3 emu on the roadside – live ones! Lunch in a town of Richmond – for some reason it has been decorated with dinosaur pictures and models. Very boring road till the next town. One can notice we are driving towards more civilized part of this country due to petrol prices which get cheaper. Fueling up in Hughenden.

We arrive at our campsite soon after a beautiful sunset. At the entrance there’s a plate with a warning of crocodiles living in the nearby waters. The river is quite close, but it has very high banks, so the campsite is safe. There are toilets and showers here and a picnic table which we reserve for our dinner. Many other campervans are parked here, but the area is big so nobody disturbs others. The camel steak for the dinner is juicy and nice.

We are back in civilisation now – there’s phone coverage in our campsite! There hasn’t been such luck since long time!

There are also many stars, but a couple of clouds as well, so we don’t find everything we have seen previously.

November 8th -The trip to meteorite craters

Emīls writes:
The morning begun very early – at 5 AM. Because we wanted to go to Henbury meteorite craters and we shouldn’t delay our teammates who stayed at hostel and should be ready at ~10 AM for leaving the city. Two boiled eggs and a yoghurt for breakfast. I had a lazanja from yesterday that I bought at Alice Spring’s supermarket, so I decided to eat it first since it was more delicious than just an ordinary egg with salt.

We are almost there at the craters. This time road is much better than before – no mud, no floods. Ilgonis is at the wheel. Just when I got out of the car I noticed we have a flat tire. Very flat. It could have been because of the gravel road which had quite big rocks on it. So the only thing we could do is change our tire with the one we had under our car. It was smaller and not fully pumped but it was the only way to get back to Alice Springs. After Ilgonis and Rūdolfs did that, we went to explore meteorite craters. They didn’t give me the impression that I was hoping for, but still it was interesting to see a place where a big rock from the space was fallen many thousand years ago. At the bottom of the craters there were trees and bushes, and water as well. Probably there are animals that come here to drink water. Just then we saw two kangaroos who were jumping away from us. I suppose we disturbed them. Later on the gravel road we saw two more kangaroos. So it’s more than in the whole trip together till now.

When we returned to Alice Springs, we went straight to the auto service. There we found out that the tire needs to be entirely replaced because the hole in it is too big. Additional expenses – 160 AUD.

Later that day we went in Tennant Creek’s direction. We decided not to go to Devils Marbles because of the approaching storm. We saw dark clouds, and in a moment it started to rain. Of course, there was also a fire in the desert as it should be traditionally – because we are looking for a place to camp. But we didn’t get alarmed, we just cooked supper – delicious pasta with bolognese sauce – and went to sleep. No stars tonight – it’s cloudy. Strange, but most of the nights we have spent in the middle of Australia’s desert were cloudy. There were only two nights till now when we were able to learn how to find southern constellations. Yet the Moon is approaching the Sun. 6 days till the total eclipse.

November 6th – From Uluru through storm and rainbows to Alice Springs

Agnese writes:
The sunrise is expected at 5:50, but we are many kilometers from Uluru, so we need to get up early to be on time. The stars are still visible at 4:30am and Venus is shining above the fires near horizon. Those are smaller than last night. No breakfast yet – we will eat it later near Uluru after the sunrise.

The closer we come to the national park, the more clouds there are above. We are a bit late, but we don’t miss anything – there’s a long band of clouds stretching over sky with one side right in that place where the Sun should be. When we are heading to the viewing platforms, crowds of disappointed people are already leaving.

We don’t have any rush. The guided walk which we’re going to join starts at 8am, so almost 2 hours time. Toilets are good and after refreshing ourselves we start to prepare breakfast. Emīls is the man today – he’s preparing scrambled eggs. Tasty! By this time the Sun has appeared and gradually starts shining on Uluru as well. Beautiful!
We also need to make some sandwiches for the lunch, so I give a cutting board with a piece of salami to Anders so he can cut it in slices at some moment. Guna finds him few minutes later with a cup of coffee in one hand, cutting board and sausage in the other, peacefully contemplating at the colour changes on Uluru.

At 8am we meet our guide for Mala walk – he is a ranger in this national park and knows lots of facts about Aborigenal people. The 2 hour walk flies by very fast. It maybe seemed like 30 minutes – so interesting were his stories. The Aborigenal peoples’ ways of gathering food are incredible. They got honey by cutting of the belly of honey ant and they knew how to find the places where to dig for these ants. They use the tiny (less than 1mm in diameter) seeds of grass to make flour, they grind them with stones. The bowls where to put all the gathered food are oval and brought on the heads. They are supported by a ring of grass and human hair that is put between the bowl and the head. Sometimes babies are carried in them as well.

We also got a surprising information about burning the desert – apparently Aborigens have created a system on artificial burning over thousands of years. Around 50ties in last century the government had taken the land from them and didn’t listen to them, and no artificial burning was happening. In 70ties a huge fire burned around 80% of the desert and Australia lost 3 creature species. A bit later the land was given back to Aborigens and now it is managed together with Aborigen elders.
In the rain season Uluru gets some showers and then the water is flowing down as many waterfalls. Even though it rained yesterday, that was only half-a-milimeter. Before that they hadn’t had any rain since March.

Last sights of the pale orange Uluru and we leave for Alice Springs. On our way – Henbury meteorite craters. Those are accessible by a 15km gravel road. Our cars are not supposed to go on unsealed roads and I don’t want to risk with both cars, so one car will be going twice. Not far from the turn to the craters a heavy rain starts. By the time we arrive to the junction, the rain has diminished, but not stopped. The road doesn’t look very bad, so we decide to try. The surface is slippery but bearable, however, just for first 4km. It looks really bad after, so we decide to turn back. In case we really want to, we can come back in 2 days while the conditioner and electricity for the other car is being fixed.

The surroundings get more interesting as we are approaching Alice Springs. Some hills, some winds on the road. At one point rain gets very strong and hale follows soon after. A bit scary, so we reduce the speed, but no issues. Once we are through the hale and the heavy rain, a very bright rainbow appears on the right side. The purple colour is well visible. After a while the 2nd rainbow appears above it with reversed colours. The rainbows follow as the road winds through the hills, at some moments we can see the start of the main one – right in front of our car. Beautiful! We also stop to take some pictures.

I have told the hostel that we’ll arrive around 8pm when the reception is closed already, so they are surprised when I call and announce our arrival at around 6pm. The hostel – Alice’s secret – is better than I expected. We have booked 5 and 3 people dorms, but get 6 person one instead of 5. Very nice – more space and air. Guna, Gunta and Evija will be sleeping in the 3 bed one, the rest in the other.

Shower after the 3 nights in tents are very welcomed. We decide to go to the town after. Guys have put clothes in washing machine. While we are waiting for the laundry to be finished, heavy rain starts. No, in such rain we will eat dinner in the hostel. Couscous with sausages for dinner and then time to sleep – at least for those who don’t try to get the stories in the online blog. The speed of internet upload is so slow that I cannot upload anything between the connection resets. (Next morning is much better.) The rain stops only after midnight when almost everyone is sound asleep.

November 5th – to Uluru

Guna writes:
The alarm goes of at 5.30am, but since we had a very restless night and it’s still quite dark, I continue sleeping wondering how are our friends doing in the tent as the wind is still howling, as the storm has seemingly moved on. Luckily the rain has stopped and lightning can be seen only far away near horizon. After half an hour consciousness kicks in and I get up, wake up Gunta and Evija and after a while also Agnese and the others.

At first we decide to make fried eggs but as we all get to assess the situation outside, we opt against any cooking as the wind is so strong that it would classify as storm in Latvia. So the breakfast turn out to be exclusive yoghurt, musli, banana and rock melon. Still the food is flying straight into Emils’ mouth when facing the wind.

Despite the late start we manage to leave our campsite at 8am and a little bit later cross the SA/NA border where the time zone is +9.30 so we have even saved an extra hour.
We decided against going to Kings canyon so that at least one day could be spent in a more leisurely manner. And we were right :)
Finally the day has come when we manage to see real, close-up emus… in a petrol station, in captive…. still some baby emus and grown-ups. Very beautiful and majestic birds though I don’t quite get it, why they are kept there.

We turn to Uluru and after some 240km, false sightings and spotting of the Ayer’s rock… twice… we arrive at the national park, which belongs to the Anangu people. By the way one of the false Uluru mountains is supposed to be the most photographed mountain in Australia after Uluru. Exactly for the same reason. Unfortunately we were not exception and got excited as soon as we saw it. The real Uluru hides behind the national park border. The entrance fee is for whole 3 days which might justify its price – 25$.
First stop in the national park is Mt Olgas [Kata Tjuta] where despite the heat we manage to eat some lunch at the same time as getting 360 degrees view on the mountains.
It’s hot, some 39 degrees in the sun. So it’s cooler than the day before.

We hope the heat would stop as a walk into the Olgas would be quite hot. But we get lucky because the nearby and never ceasing storm is getting nearer and the day becomes pleasantly cloudy.
The mountains and gorge is of course spectacular and enormous (approx 500m high). However probably the best experience is on our leaving when finally a kangaroo (probably the big red one) crosses our way. We’re lucky and everybody is only happily surprised.

The weather worsens and clouds are impenetrable with occasional rain droplets when we arrive at Uluru. We have abandoned any hopes to see Uluru in sunset and settle for information center and drive around the rock. However the weather surprises us again and presents us with almost wonderful sunset which we watch reflected against the Ayer’s red rock.
We are ready to leave the national park and planning to return tomorrow and witness also the sunrise.

Our camp site again is located some place on the way back in the middle of no where but as we approach the place the sky on the horizon is weirdly sunset colors but the direction is wrong. There is again another fire, a much bigger from the looks of it and directly towards the place we need to camp.

We decide to stay on a side of the road but and watch out for the fire. The site is much nicer than the last one with some water proved.
Beef steak with pasta and salads is arranged as very satisfying dinner and at 10 pm we’re ready to go to sleep in order to get up early and see the sunrise over Uluru.