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October Update #2 -- Far North Queensland

So here's the next installment of Adventures Down Under...  Grab a coffee and prepare yourself.... it's long!
During our Spring Break (which was in early October... WEIRD!), we went to Far North Queensland, home to gorgeous beaches, stunning mountains, the oldest rainforest on earth, the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef & lots of crocodiles.  Rather than giving you all the details, I'll just highlight what we did.  This way, you can ask questions about things you'd like to know more about AND you'll understand why all of us are EXHAUSTED despite the fact that we get a 2 to 3 week break from school every 10 weeks.  
DAY 1 - 
  • Fly to Cairns, arriving at 1PM
  • Drive directly to Hartley's Crocodile Adventure where we get to watch a man come very close to being eaten by a crocodile. When we saw the sign that declared Hartley's Crocodile Adventure to have "The Best Crocodile Show in Australia," we were a little skeptical.  We shouldn't have been.  The show was AMAZING!  Primarily because the guy running it was a maniac and apparently had a very bad personal relationship with the crocodile in the show.  The combination made for a very exciting show!  Have you ever heard the sound a crocodile makes when snapping his jaws shut?  It's louder than you can imagine!
  • Drive to Port Douglas, where we are staying.  "Reception" was closed, so the guy just left the door to the apartment open for us.  We are definitely not in Acton anymore!
  • Quick dip in the pool.
  • Dinner followed by Cane Toad Races. Yes, cane toad races.
Day 2 - 
  • Snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef - As you'd imagine, there were amazing fish & beautiful coral.
  • Dolphin "Show" - Yep, a pod of dolphins just happened to swing by for a little play time!  Unfortunately we weren't in the water at the time, but it was fun to watch from the pontoon.  
  • Quick dip in the pool.  Really??  The boys hadn't had enough of the water for one day??
  • Back to Port Douglas for dinner at a Mexican Restaurant!!!  Have I mentioned that there is no good Mexican food in Sydney??  We didn't find any in Port Douglas either, but it wasn't bad.  At this point, pretty much anything will do.
  • Walk on Port Douglas' 4 Mile Beach
Day 3 - 
  • Enjoy sunrise on 4 Mile Beach (just a block from our apartment).  OK, truth be told, only Mike went to watch the sunrise.
  • Drive up to the tablelands, which requires driving up a mountain.  There were more motorcycles than cars on this road for a reason... it would be a great place to ride a motorcycle!!
  • Drive through a bush fire.  No, this was not planned!  At first there were small fires in the distance.  Then there were small fires right beside the road.  Finally, there were 10 meter high flames about 30 meters off the road.  Luckily there was no wind and the there were cars coming from the other direction, so we pushed on and were soon out of the fire region.  Though we were never in any real danger, my heart was pounding!  And I realized that this is the reality that all the home owners in rural Australia have to deal with on a daily basis. 
  • Tour Skyway Coffee Plantation - I had no idea that coffee "berries" look like cranberries, or that there are only 2 types of coffee beans in the world.  Our tour guide, who could play the role of Crocodile Dundee without much effort, was amazing!  Well worth the drive through the bush fire!!
  • The Crystal Caves, our next stop, was definitely NOT worth any drive or the $55 we spent to explore the "caves."  We got sucked in by a great brochure and our love of caves.  Well, the "cave" was a storefront.  Out the back of the store, some crazy gem collector decided to build a fake cave out of styrofoam.  We clearly have suckers and/or tourists written all on our foreheads!
  • MINJIN SWING !!!! - Max & Alex were strapped to a rope and then hoisted up 45 meters over the rainforest.  When Alex pulled the cord, they flew through the air Superman style, almost hitting a couple buildings.  After they stopped screaming, they began begging to do it a second time.  Definitely a highlight... for them anyway.  
  • Dinner in Cairns.  Walk along the boardwalk, feeling very thankful that we decided NOT to stay in Cairns!
Day 4 -
  • Watch a little Patriots football !! Very few NFL games are broadcast here.  So when we happened upon a Sunday night game (which is Monday morning in Australia), I was afraid that I wouldn't e able to get the 4 boys out of the apartment.  We miss football!!
  • Aboriginal Introduction to the Rainforest - An Aboriginal gentleman took us for a hike through the Daintree Rainforest, teaching us about the way his ancestors used the forest... the nut that is so full of oil that the women would take a tiny bite to "keep them regular" and then use the rest as fuel for the fire, the barely detectable markers in the forest that reminded the Aboriginals of the paths to follow during their migration, the way they created and used body paints, the part of the river that belonged only to the women of the tribe that was called "the birthing suite" for obvious reasons.  At the end of the walk & talk, he told us that what he shared with us was just the beginning of all the things you need to know to live in the rainforest.  In fact, what he told us is what a 3 year old would be expected to know, yet we had a hard time grasping it all.  It was a magical and fascinating hour & a half.
  • Drive to Cape Tribulation - Why worth mentioning?  First was the 5 minute car ferry across the Daintree River.  Not sure why they can't just build a bridge.  Next came the narrow road up the mountain that was often edged by a sheer cliff and no guard rail.  But the best part of the drive was the 1-way bridge that was made of wood.  That alone wouldn't be a problem except that the wood had clearly rotted over time, creating holes in the bridge.  Fix them?  Sure... just put an appropriately sized piece of 2x4 in the hole and you're good to go.  No joke!
  • Go Canopy Surfing - All of us did a zipline through the rainforest.  Can you guess who was the most nervous about this??  Bet you can't!
  • Visit the Daintree Discovery Center - An elevated walk through the rainforest and a climb to the top of the canopy.
  • Stop at just a couple of the amazingly beautiful and yet completely empty beaches between Cape Tribulation and Port Douglas.
  • Tried to convince everyone to hike Mosman Gorge on our way back to Port Douglas but they refused.  I guess I can only push so hard :)
Day 5 
  • Ride Skyrail - This roundtrip gondola ride through the rainforest took almost 2.5 hours.  Amazing views.  Perfect activity for a very tired family of 5.
  • Take ferry to Fitzroy Island -  We spent our last 2 minutes on this island that is National Park located on the inner part of the Great Barrier Reef.
  • Feed the tropical fish from the island's jetty - The twice daily feedings pretty much defined our days while we were on Fitzroy Island.  
  • Swim with a massive school of fish - Remember the ones from Finding Nemo that stick together, making them look bigger than they are, to scare off predators?  There were literally 10's of thousands of these fish in the shallow area at the beach.  The boys would swim into the school and suddenly find themselves with a perfect ring of fish surrounding them.
Day 6 - 
  • Hike to Secret Garden - It's such a secret that we never actually found a garden.  We did, however, find a baby python snake.
  • Feed the fish
  • Hike to "Nudey Beach" which we were assured was NOT a nude beach.  Someone forgot to tell one very topless woman.  The boys didn't mind.
  • Snorkel & then snorkel some more - Among the amazing fish right there were a school of young barracuda, beautifully colored parrot fish, rabbit fish that changed color when they were happy (having been fed), a couple lion fish, lots of clown fish & angel fish, and squid that came out at night.  At one point, there was a shark but I'm not sure what kind.  Not the vicious kind, though I'm told we could have swam with them had we taken the snorkel tour that goes to the other side of the island... No thanks!  Pretty remarkable!  Equally amazing was the coral at the island.  It was much closer to the surface here, so it had much more vibrant colors.  Also, that made snorkeling more exciting since there were times when we could only use our arms to get over the coral.  Moving our legs/flippers would have resulted in lots of coral cuts.
  • Swim at the pool.
  • You get the picture...  A lot of water play & relaxing.
Day 7 - 
  • Final swim & snorkel
  • Ferry to Cairns
  • Fly to Sydney
After reading that, is it any wonder that the boys declared this the best vacation EVER?  I must say that one of the boys did say "other than Disney."  Nothing can touch our great trips to Orlando with the Davis clan :)
Hope you all had a great Halloween, and didn't get too bummed out by the power outage!  Here in Australia, we learned our lesson last year... Don't try to do what you do at home; do something different... so we're going on a ghost tour of an old quarantine station with several friends.  Hope it isn't too scary.

October Update #1 -- alternate title...Mike's a slaker.

It's been way too long since we've updated the world (which I'm sure is hold it's breath waiting).  So I figured I'd pick up Mike's slack and let people know what we've been up to.  Besides there has been so much going on it'll take two updates to share.  
Whale Watching - The migration pattern of the humpback whale takes them right by Sydney.  Last November, boatloads (literally... they were on the ferry) of people commuting to work were greeted by a mom and pup (?) who turned into the Sydney Harbour for a brief rest before continuing the journey south.  In June, we saw 3 whales from the Palm Beach lighthouse.  At first, I actually thought 1 was a small ship that was sinking, until it came back up :)  Wanting to see more of these huge, majestic creatures, I booked us on a whale watching cruise for the Aussie Father's Day (early Sept).  We spent 2 hours looking for whales, 30 minutes following 2 around, and 1.5 hours cruising back to Sydney... Not great.  
So imagine my surprise when I park my car at Shelley Beach in Manly and one of my friends calls me over to watch a young pup, just off shore, playing in the water.  He was having the time of his life!  For at least 15 minutes, we stood there in silence, watching this whale wave & splash at us with his tail.  Have you ever been around a baby the first time they discover that they have hands or feet?  It was like this whale had just discovered that he had a tail and that he could do these wonderful things with it.  Too bad I didn't have my camera with me.  I'm sure I won't need photos to remember that moment.
Roar & Snore - Taronga Zoo is a world class zoo that is right here in Mosman, about 5km (that's 3 miles for you Americans) from our house.  They have a sister Zoo about 5.5 hours from here.  For a small fortune, you can pay to sleep overnight in a tent at either zoo.  The first weekend in October, we chose to do just that at the Western Plains Zoo.  As part of the "Roar & Snore" program, we got a beer on arrival (of course... this is Australia after all!) and lots of up close animal encounters.  We went on a night time safari walk with flashlights in hand to view rhinos, hippos, camels & others up close.  We even got to feed carrots to the giraffes!!  Have you ever seen a giraffe's tongue?  They are VERY long!  And all of us got a good licking.  Apparently carrots are the giraffe's chocolate!
During the night, if the hard ground and/or snoring from a neighboring tent hadn't kept us awake, the rustling from native wild animals certainly would have.  There were echidnas (sort of a cross between porcupines & anteaters) and possums and who knows what else scurrying around the campground.  In the morning we got up close and personal with a variety of reptiles & native animals, then went on an early morning walk to view more animals as they were rising for the day, being fed, etc.  
The most memorable encounter (besides being licked by a giraffe) was watching the Siamang apes "show."  They are incredibly strong and swing around on these rope structures much the way that Spiderman flies in all the movies, almost jumping from one rope to the next!  With that kind of exercise, there is no fat on those bodies!  So much so that if they were to go into the water surrounding the islands, they would drown because they would sink to the bottom.  Having said that, they still get very threatened when groups of zoo goers gather on the mainland.  The girl will start sounding off, alerting her guy to trouble. He'll join the song, escalating it.  As it escalates, the girl's calls start to remind me of a particular diner scene in "When Harry Met Sally."  As her calls get closer together, they run from one position on the island to another, both stopping at the exact same second.  But the best part is that the boy strikes a pose!  Every time it is the exact same pose!  Left arm up in the air; right hand pointing toward the ground.  And this goes on and on and on until the people leave or they give up.  Amazing!
During the 5.5 hour ride home, I announced that I so enjoyed the Roar & Snore program at the Western Plains Zoo that I want to do the one here in Sydney.  Mike told me I should let him get a couple good nights sleep before I mention it again.
Fairy Penguins - Did you realize that penguins live in Australia?  As far north as Sydney?  They do.  There are a couple colonies of Fairy penguins, also known as Little Blues, around Sydney Harbour.  Based on our visit to Phillips Island, near Melbourne, I knew that penguins rarely are out during the day.  You are most likely to see them before sunrise or at sunset when they can more safely get in and out of the water.  So imagine my surprise when my Tuesday walking group finds two fairy penguins, hanging out on the rocks, as we cruise by on the walking path!  Seriously!  Wild penguins a few feet away from me!  Amazing.
Believe it or not, I'm going to end here.  I'll save our trip to Northern Queensland (including the Great Barrier Reef) for my next update.  We've been having lots of great adventures.  Wish you could be here to share them with us!

The middle of the middle of nowhere... Uluru

Right smack in the middle of Australia’s immense red center is a giant rock called Uluru that is sacred to the local aboriginal people (the Anangu).  This spectacular formation has also been called Ayers Rock by the European’s who discovered it a couple hundred years ago, but the Anangu have been there for thousands and thousands of years, so I think they have the naming rights.  Uluru and its cousin, the rock formation Kata Tjuta, are the most immense geological formations I’ve ever seen.  They are not on the list of seven natural wonders of the world (the great barrier reef is and that’s next month :-).  But, listed as a natural wonder or not, there is no arguing that Australia’s red center is an incredible, awesome, breathtaking place that is like nowhere else on earth.   

I’ve heard Australia’s red center compared to the face of Mars; the comparison is definitely apt.  It is desolate, rugged, and above all else it’s red.  The sand is a coarse red sand that formed as the result of millions of years of erosion. It’s beautiful, incredible, desolate and isolated.   

Uluru itself is the largest monolith in the world.  It’s hard to describe how large it really is, but I’ll try.  When driving into the park Uluru is so immense it nearly fills the windshield of the car… and then a road sign that announces that you are still 15km away.  The walk around Uluru (which the boys did without complaint), is all of 12km.  There is a small resort near the rock that has a couple hundred hotel rooms, a gas station a couple restaurants and a small grocery store, the next nearest grocery store, however, is about a five hour drive away in Alice Springs. This place is remote.     

As is the custom for visitors we witnessed Uluru at sunset; it’s quite remarkable as the colors shift through a spectrum of reds in the fading light.  We took in Uluru at sunrise from a camel caravan quietly plodding through the red sands.  We stood in the foot-prints of ancient people and watched the stars come out – and there were millions of them.  There were more stars visible in that one night sky than I’ve seen in a thousand other locations around the world combined. Uluru’s location is so far from other civilization that the only light pollution is from the stars and moon themselves.   

As a family it was quite humbling to read and hear the stories of the Anangu people who have been in Australia’s vast red center for thousands and thousands of years, and in reality have had only about a generation of contact with the western world.  And while the western world has not been particularly gracious to them, they are wonderful generous hosts. Uluru, the vastness of the location, and the generosity and beauty of the aboriginal owners are a truly humbling experience indeed.   

So what’s the summary?  It’s in the last sentence of each of the paragraphs above... Australia’s red center is an incredible, awesome, breathtaking place that is like nowhere else on earth.  It’s beautiful, incredible, desolate and isolated.  This place is remote.   Uluru’s location is so far from other civilization that the only light pollution is from the stars and moon themselves.  Uluru, the vastness of the location, and the generosity and beauty of the aboriginal owners are a truly humbling experience indeed.   

We’re all very glad we visited Uluru.  We were only there for two days, but we felt we’d seen something important, different and truly unique.  We have definitely visited the middle, of the middle of nowhere.

If you'd like to see some pictures from our visit to Australia's Red Center, click here.  

Jake in Braces

Who would have predicted that the youngest of the EwingFive kids would get braces before his brothers... not me... but here is the photographic proof of young Jake in his new tooth hardware.  According to the orthodontist, Jake was the best 7 year old patient he ever had!

Jake's first fish!!!

This picture was just to awesome not to post it right away!
I'm sure with time, as with all legends, the size of the fish will grow, but this is definite photographic proof that Jake is a fisherman! 
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