Monday, 13 June 2011

Port Douglas, or birds of Northern Australia

Over the Easter break we took a little trip up to Port Douglas.  This was very much a rest and relaxation holiday after the mammoth physical exertions of our last two trips.  In the end though it turned into more of a eating, drinking and telephoto lens loving holiday.  Lets just say bird watching is a lot cooler with some binoculars and a telephoto lens.

The view south from the bar area
We were staying at Thala Beach lodge, which was the best place I think I've stayed, particularly in Australia.  The staff were all so incredibly helpful and friendly.  The rooms were great too, you felt completely isolated from everyone else, perched amongst the trees, but then it was only a very short walk to the main reception.  Really good.  Every morning we would have breakfast looking out over the coast and watch the rainbow lorikeets have their morning bath. 

A young stork, bred in captivity
My favourite bird, the tawny frogmouth.  I almost walked right past these.

The first morning we went to the wildlife habitat, just on the outskirts of Port Douglas.  There were serious numbers of birds here, all completely used to humans meaning you can get really close.  I wonder if twitchers think it counts if you spot them in an aviary?
The classic Torres-Straight pigeon

Freaky looking spoonbill trying to groom itself

Mohawked water bird

Eclectic parrot, the lyrebird of the tropics

Snakes, to keep the birds on their toes

It wasn't just in the wildlife habitat where we went crazy with the birds.  Just walking around the lodge grounds in the morning we saw butterflies and birds.  The binoculars really got a work-out.

Slightly ratty looking butterfly

A much smoother looking one

What is this bird? Love the colours              

We also wandered around the grounds at dusk so got to see the wonderful tropical sunsets.  This turned out to be a bit of a longer walk in the dark than we anticipated.  I guess maps handed out by the lodge are not as detailed or scaled as topographic maps.

Aaaah sunsets

We also took a bit of a trip up to the Daintree, mainly to stop off at Mossman gorge on the way back.  That place doesn't change really.  On the way back from the Daintree, we stopped off at a family run zoo, that was a bit of a strange place, you don't come across too many family-run zoos these days, particularly ones which aren't violating numbers of animal cruelty laws.  But this one seemed OK, had a whole bunch more birds, just in case you weren't sick of them.

This parrot was crazy.  Check out it's pupils too.

I love owls.  My favourite type of birds.

The final stop on our tour of tropical wildlife was at the butterfly farm in Kuranda. Kuranda was a weird place with hundreds of bizarre tourist attractions.  There was the butterfly farm, the venomous animals zoo, the skyrail and heaps more. 

The butterfly farm was kind of cool, just to see that many butterflies flying around.  We also got to see their caterpillars.  The big butterflies had some monster caterpillars.  They were all very professional about it too.  The workers would be in a sterilised area and they washed each individual egg before placing it in with the leaves.  I'm not sure who the end buyer of the butterflies is though, whether they are used solely in the zoo, or whether there are other people buying them.  Does it count in your butterfly collection if you collected it from captivity?

This was one of the famous butterflies they had.  Something to do with living only around Cairns

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Final Days In New Zealand

Since we had finished the Kepler quicker than what we thought we might we got to spend some extra time around Te Anau and the Fiordland National Park.  We got to do all the classic outings.

I have to say Te Anau felt like it was a place where old people go to holiday, the average age of the typical tourist was a lot higher than that out on the track.  Te Anau certainly seemed to be a town of two tourists.

The Bond-esque power station
We did get to go to Doubtful Sound, which is the much more remote fiord than the famous Milford, so there were far fewer tourists out there.  We had to catch a ferry across a lake to a hydro-electric power station then take a bus along a dirt road to the coast where we could board another boat to check out the sound.

We did get to tour the underground hydro-electric power station.  That was a rather strange interlude on the tour.  We got loaded into two buses and then drove a couple of kilometres almost straight down before stopping at the end, unloading and being shown this rather strange room lit up by fluorescent lighting.  I think it was the power station owner's way of trying to engage the public, in what had initially been a very contentious power station.

It was a pretty wet day so the scenery wasn't spectacular, actually I'm sure it would have been spectacular, we just couldn't see it.

One bonus was that we got to see a lot of New Zealand fur seals and one lone crested penguin.  He was a pretty cool looking little dude.  I think the rest of his gang had already left land, I think they only come into the sound when they have to moult.
Little crested penguin, chilling by his cave

The following day, the weather cleared and we got to experience the famous Milford Sound in really fantastic weather.  The drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound is really something else.  Highly recommended, as is a trip on the sound.  Basically there's no point coming to this part of New Zealand if you aren't going to tour up the fiord.  What was more amazing was how great the weather was given how truly terrible it was for the proceeding three days.

Clouds still covering the peaks

Clouds streaming off Mitre Peak in the early morning

Dave on the boat with the dramatic scenery of the sound

One of the many waterfalls along the route

The unassuming entrance to the sound

Apparently the cliffs extend straight down under the water

A clear view of Mitre peak

A waterfall at the start of the Routeburn
On the way back to Te Anau we stopped off at the end of the Routeburn track to walk a little ways up and try and get some alpine scenery.

What the kepler would have looked like

A cool duck back in Te Anau

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The Kepler Track : Part II

The ranges peeping through the clouds
When we woke up the next day we saw that the forecast was for showers.  That was unfortunate as we were about to walk the rest of the alpine section before dropping back down into the river valley.  This was a 14 km stretch with about 300m up and 1000m down.  I have to say by the end of the day I was much preferring the ups.

Even though the day was cloudy and the views were obscured this was still a fantastic day.  In fact the mist seemed to make everything more mysterious, and I will refrain from referring to any Misty Mountains here.  Though when I was back in Queenstown I noticed whole sections in bookshops devoted to Lord of the Rings locations.  In fact you could even go on Lord of the Rings tours from Queenstown where they would visit the nearby locations.  There were a few on the Kepler track.

The view from Mt Luxmore
We climbed to the top of Mt Luxmore (1472m) constantly holding out the hope for seeing a Kea (the cheeky alpine parrot with a reputation for destruction) but I think they like cloudy weather even less than humans.

Freaky NZ alpine plants, hiding in the mist
There were a lot of sections were you were really walking on the edge of ridges, with the ground falling away very sharply on both sides.  In high winds this section would be scary stuff.  That night in the hut we had another ranger entertainment talk.  Attendance at this talk was compulsory which was funny, I think the ranger in this hut is more isolated than the other two huts, being 2 days walk in both directions and with not much radio coverage.  So everyone had to gather in the kitchen at about 8pm and listen to this guy crack jokes and tell anecdotes.  I think he was a frustrated entertainer.

He was commiserating with us for the cloudy weather and telling everyone that they should be thankful that it wasn't windy.  Occasionally they get groups of teenagers doing the walk and one of these groups had to do the alpine section on one of these high wind days.  They set out early and the ranger followed them up after about an hour to make sure they were OK.  He found them all huddled in a shelter at the very start of the alpine section, so they still had about 10km of ultra-exposed walking to do.  He got them all roused up and they set off, every now and again though one of the kids would just freak out and curl up in a fetal position on the ground. 
Narrow ridge tops with the mist flowing up the valley on one side

That is one disadvantage with doing these great walks.  You can't wait a day for the weather to clear, you have to keep moving because you've only booked the huts for a night in each spot and the following night if you don't make it to the next hut there's nowhere for you to stay as people are coming up behind you.

Out of the alpine area, back into the forest

This second hut was a bit strange compared to Luxmore hut.  One thing I really disliked with the one hut I stayed in on the Overland Track was the absolute darkness overnight.  So in Luxmore I made sure to chose a bunk right next to the window.  The next night I again nabbed another good bunk.  But whilst I was checking out the different sleeping options I noticed one separate room full of bunks, but the beds were all behind a wall, so even though there were windows in the room there would have been no light.  Plus there was a passage-way of only about half a metre to walk past all the beds and it seemed that some beds were jammed right up against the roof, claustrophobia anyone?  Strange design, but as the hut was full that night, people would have had to sleep in them.  I'm just glad I walked fast enough to not have to suffer that.

The mix on the trek was a lot different from Tasmania, which was almost exclusively Australians.  Here it seemed that the vast majority were Europeans with a few Americans and some Kiwis thrown in, but no other Australians.  In Tasmania it also felt that people were much more self-sufficient, and though they may have bought their boots and camping equipment the week before starting, they did at least have camping stuff.  Some of the Europeans though carried kitchen saucepans with them, and glass bottles of pasta sauce.  One group were eating the dehydrated meals and yet they had also brought about 3 bottles of wine with them.  Unfortunately they had forgotten their corkscrew.  The Kiwis suggestion was that they probably didn't need a corkscrew as most wine has twist tops nowadays.  But that particular group was French and I don't think they had ever drunk out of twist top wine bottles in their life.  It seemed a bit incongruous to be so concerned with weight that you eat dehydrated meals, and yet you're happy to carry out 3 glass bottles with you.  But perhaps they ate the dehydrated food so they could drink the wine, it's all about priorities really.

The final day was a bit of a forced march.  We had decided to finish the walk in 3 days rather than take the usual 4, as that way we would have an extra day to explore around Te Anau.  It did mean we had to rush though if we wanted to walk the 22.2km and catch the 2pm shuttle.  So there are a lot fewer photos from this section of the walk.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

The Kepler Track

The first day was 13.8km with almost 800m of elevation gain, but it still felt easier than the days in Tasmania.  I think it had something to do with the lighter packs, cooler weather and incredibly smooth surface, no falling in mud puddles here.
Takahe at the Wildlife Centre in Te Anau

There are 10 great walks in New Zealand, the Kepler Track being one of them, and there is a world of difference between these walks and anything in Australia.  For one thing we felt like we were in the height of luxury as we stayed in huts every night.  But these were so well organised, when you arrived at the hut you would pick your bunk, with individual mattress already laid out for you, get changed, go to the toilet, which was flushing and inside the hut!!!  There were even washrooms with running water (no showers but I think some of the more popular routes may have had them).

The abrupt treeline

Then it was into the kitchen/dining room where there would be heating on and gas stoves provided, before the hut ranger would emerge to tell stories.  It felt a bit like being on a cruise ship, where there is entertainment provided every night.  It was at this first hut which we learnt about the Takahe and the Murchison Ranges.  These are the mountains on the other side of the fiord from Luxmore Hut you can see them in the below photo.

Murchison Mountains opposite Luxmore Hut
This is one of the last places on mainland New Zealand where there are still Takahe.  I think there are something like 200 remaining in the wild, and for quite some time they were thought to be extinct.  Until they were rediscovered in these mountains.  Now nobody except researchers and department of conservation workers are even allowed in those mountains to try and protect the birds.

The reason why everyone thought these birds were extinct are the stoats.  I think these were introduced to New Zealand to keep the (introduced) rabbits in check.  As is always the way with these stories the stoats decided that rabbits are a bit tricky to catch but large flightless birds are really easy. 

Overcast on the second day
The first day's walk was slightly overcast with a little bit of rain, but it cleared up once we got out of the trees, so we got a bit of a view over the ranges.  The alpine plants are really different here in NZ than the ones in Australia, you kind of think that all alpine plants would be roughly the same, and I guess they are if you include short and stumpy in the description, but other than that they had some really freaky plants out there.

Another thing which was different was how abrupt the treeline was, you literally stepped out of the forest into the grasslands of the alpine.  In Australia the trees just get smaller and smaller and then there always seems to be a wide swathe of dead trees that have grown higher than they could survive.

The second day was the main alpine section and it was a little cloudy that day.

Monday, 28 March 2011

My new favourite application

So I should probably be talking more about my New Zealand trip which was already a while ago, but instead I wanted to talk about the awesome-ness of Lightroom 3, a photo-editing application from Adobe.  We got off to a rocky start, Lightroom and I, when I discovered that I couldn't directly import my raw files from my camera, nor could I import raw files which were saved in iPhoto.

I still have to work out how to get around these flaws.

But since then I've been having a fun with it, I started off with just the standards, adjusting the white balance and exposure.  Then I discovered the vibrance and saturation levers and the highlighting.  I'm now going through a bit of an adjustment tool and vignetting phase.  Who knows what I'll discover next.

Just to give you some idea of the difference Lightroom makes, above is one of my favourite Lightroom edited photos so far, I think it feels like you're looking through a window at another world.  But below that one is what that shot looked like straight off the camera (so not even any white balance adjustments).  I'm not sure if it is such a big difference, and the shot is probably not that fantastic to start off with, but I think it looks a little better. 

Or the two below:

As you can see I have recently discovered vignetting (that's the black border around the photo, I literally only heard this word for the first time a few weeks ago).

In the below photo I've discovered the saturation and vibrance effects.  The cropping doesn't hurt either.

So what do you think, lightroom or no lightroom?  Or can you not tell the difference?

And I apologise if anyone accidentally found themselves here due to the very common blog title.  These are only very amateur shots which have been amateurly retouched.  For one thing I think the adjustment tool is meant to be used to touch up very small areas, for example the whites of your eye.  I instead use it on whole swathes of my shots. 

I think the next thing to investigate are layers.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Te Anau - Fiordland National Park

Lake Te Anau
I went on a week long holiday to Queenstown, Te Anau and the Fiordland National Park, on the South-West coast of the South Island of New Zealand.  By the end of the week I certainly felt like I had seen that part of New Zealand.

Kiwi sand flies are nasty
The Kiwis are fantastic too, so incredibly friendly, it sunk in the moment I landed at Queenstown international airport and went through customs.  They asked what I was going to get up to, had a chat about where I was off to and then told me to enjoy my stay.  Such a massive difference to the greeting tourists get at Sydney airport, where everyone is herded into loooong lines that snake through each other, before reaching an official who will yell at you if your English is not up to scratch.  So straight off the bat you are thinking, in New Zealand, this is going to be a good holiday.

Limestone cliffs on the Kepler Track

From Queenstown we drove to Te Anau, which is about a 2 hour drive.  New Zealand roads are a little different from Australian roads, the main difference is that there seem to be no overtaking lanes, at least on this highway anyway.  And all the bridges seem to be one-laners.  It seems to work for them though, I guess there are a lot fewer people here.  I do wonder what will happen if there is ever a population explosion around here though.

The main reason for visiting this part of the country was to walk the Kepler Track, it's a 60km walk which we did over 3 days.  As you can tell we had hardened up a lot after the Overland Track, which was about 60km in 5.5 days.  The walking was definitely hillier and obviously longer each day, but it actually felt a lot easier.  I think the outstanding quality of the track had something to do with that.

Murchison Range, home of the Takahe
Before heading out we spent a day in Te Anau, it's a tiny town on the edge of Lake Te Anau, the Kepler Track basically starts and ends in this town so it was a good base for us.  It is also the closest town to the Milford Sound, which is probably the most famous tourist attraction around these parts.

Finally above the treeline, Luxmore Hut is close by
We had an evening to kill before starting the walk, so we went on probably the only tourist attraction in the town, a boat ride over the lake to glow-worm caves.  I don't think they did a great job of selling this tour, it did come across to some people as being incredibly lame.  But I highly recommend it.  The first photo is taken on the boat ride to the caves, it was over-cast, it's nearly always overcast around here.

Dave in front of Lake Te Anau and the Murchison Range
The caves were amazing, quite different from the Australian ones I've been too, which feel very old, which the stalactites and stalagmites.  This cave was only 12,000 years old or so, so no cave decorations (as they call them), but there was the constant sound of rushing water as you follow the underground river further into the earth.  Eventually all lights are off and you climb into a boat which drifts upstream of a waterfall in the pitch black, there the whole ceiling is covered in little green dots, the glow-worms trying to attract dinner.

Luxmore Hut
The only thing which was a little strange about the tour is that the tour operator was obviously torn between maximising profit and yet still attracting visitors.  They had a massive boat (60 people) to take you up to the cave, but then only groups of 12 could go in at a time.  Which meant the rest of you had to wait in a little shelter whilst they show you glow-worm videos and crack jokes.  But that aside the actual cave part was pretty spectacular.

It was waiting in the shelter where I had my first experience with New Zealand sand flies.  Now we have sand flies in Australia so when I was told they hung around the cave I wasn't too concerned, a little bit of itching which soon disappears is the worst I've ever had it.

I don't know what these sand flies are feeding on here but they were bad.  They were the only thing which gave me any pain throughout the walk, and only because everytime they bit me it would cause massive swelling and pain for about 3 days, and that's with anti-histamines.  The second photo is about an hour after one had bit me on the little finger.  The last three fingers on that hand continued to swell along with half my palm until it was almost unusable.  I quickly learnt to cover up and go overboard on the insect repellent.  The one bite I got on my face really didn't look attractive.

Luxmore Hut in the gathering clouds
The next day we started the walk.