After the kids left home, a typical New Year’s Eve for Ted and me (if he wasn’t working) included Ted, me, Christmas cookies and candy, and a DVD movie in the family room. This year, we celebrated with lots of new friends–our shipmates and crew.

We started with dinner in one of the nicer restaurants onboard. After that, we went to a movie with 200+ other people–An Affair to Remember, with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr (1957). We’d seen it before, but it’s a classic for a reason.

After the movie, we joined at least 400 shipmates in the Winter Garden, which opens to the pool deck. The party was already underway when we arrived.

The Viking band and entertainment crew provided upbeat, energetic live music, so we danced, we twisted, we sang along with “Sweet Caroline” (“bop, bop, bop, . . . so good, so good, so good”), and we formed all the letters of “YMCA.” You’re never too old to party!

It’s 11:45 p.m. and we’re ready for midnight.

Here comes the countdown.

When the countdown reached zero, the ship’s horn belted out a long, deep blast (we’re at sea with no one around) and the party room was filled with cheering, noisemakers, good wishes, and “Auld Lang Syne.” Happy new year from both of us. It’s a new decade with new adventures on the way.

First, it’s not “Mel’-born” or “Mel’-burn,” it’s “Mel’-bn.” It sounds like you might be saying “Melvin.” BTW, we also figured out that “eye’-deen” means “eighteen.”

It was hot in Melbourne today. Tomorrow’s forecast high is 68 degrees–quite a change. In Melbourne, the weather adage is “We can have four seasons in a day.”

Because of the heat, three outdoor excursions were cancelled by the tour operators, including ours. We expected a nine-hour day beginning with a ride on a vintage narrow-gauge train through the mountains to a winery for lunch and wine tasting. After lunch, we’d continue on the train across the Great Dividing Range and stop at a wildlife sanctuary with 200+ species of native wildlife in a natural bush setting. Instead, we got a refund and had a five-hour tour of “Melbourne by land and by water,” which meant a city bus tour and a river cruise. It was disappointing, but at least we saw something in the area.

We lucked out because most of the morning was cloudy, so the heat wasn’t unbearable. Shortly after lunch, however, the sun burned off the clouds and the temperature skyrocketed. At that point, it was obvious that cancelling the outdoor excursions was a good move. Like the Southwest U.S., Melbourne has a dry heat, but 107 degrees under a burning sun is still mighty hot.

Melbourne, the capital city of Victoria, was built on gold mining and is the wealthiest city in Australia. It has also been called the world’s most livable city. It’s very clean and has great public transportation, a thriving economy, and lots of recreational green space. The Yarra River flows through the city and there’s a “bike track” on both sides along its entire length. In places, it’s such pretty parkland that you could forget you’re biking in the city. Spanning the river is a pedestrian bridge decorated for Christmas.

The building in the picture below is the Memorial of Remembrance. It was built to honor all those from Victoria who served in wars since the Boer War in Africa in 1899.

Two high-rise buildings mark the city’s skyline. The building on the left is not quite finished. It was supposed to be 108 stories tall, making it the tallest building in Australia, but at some point, people who know this kind of thing realized that 108 stories would cast a shadow on the Memorial of Remembrance, so construction stopped at 102 stories. The building is now known as “the 102.”

The building on the right has a red stripe on its side (beginning in the yellow area near the top of the building). This red stripe also pays homage to all the soldiers from Victoria who have fought and died in wars.

To the right of the tall buildings is a narrow white structure. It was a gift to Melbourne from France and is called the little Eiffel Tower.

Our final stop was the city’s Fitzroy Gardens, a 64-acre slice of England in Australia. Within the garden is a building known as Captain Cook’s house. The bricks and building materials were shipped from England in barrels and the house was constructed in Melbourne. Captain Cook never lived in it.

There were a lot of pretty scenes in the park and also a miniature Tudor village and an interesting tree called the Fairy Tree.

As we were walking, riding, and sailing through Melbourne, I saw some oddly interesting things. If you live above Goody’s Burger House and don’t have a yard, put your inflatable Christmas decorations on the balcony.

The Travelodge hotel had a large golden bee on its roof (referring to the city’s wealth from gold) and another crawling up an exterior wall.

The Finders (short i) Street train station–which is huge–has lots of clocks on its front. Since digital time is so popular now, none of these clocks works.

I saw more than one of this style of sculpture around the city. I can’t even guess at the artist’s message.

Back in our stateroom, we looked into the adjoining harbor. The blue and white ship must be very tall, because it looks like it’s resting on land.

After our tour and a late lunch, Ted went somewhere on the ship for coffee and I went to what’s called the living room, to read my book for awhile. There weren’t many people there, it was quiet, and there was some soft music playing. Lovely. And cool.

After dinner, we went to the ship’s theater for a presentation by the Gertrude Opera Company, a small private group from Melbourne. The narrator was very amusing, and told us he’d take us through 400 years of opera in 45 minutes. He did. I found it interesting that opera is the most enduring form of musical entertainment, that it was very popular in the western frontier states in the U.S., and that it is, indeed, the basis of soap opera. He referred to Giuseppe Verdi as “actually, George Green,” and pointed out how many operas have been used in advertising and even in Bugs Bunny cartoons, e.g., “The Marriage of Figaro” and “The Barber of Seville.” Opera can be fun.

We sailed into Sydney in the darkness of the wee hours of the morning two days ago, so I doubt if many people were out on the decks admiring the harbor. However, we left Sydney shortly after 6:00 p.m. last night (sunset around 8:10 p.m.), and the decks were filled with passengers and crew, cameras in hand. Sydney has the largest and deepest natural harbor in the world, and it’s also one of the most beautiful. Because our ship is small, it fits under the Harbour Bridge, so we docked closer to the city and sailed out under the bridge and past the Sydney Opera House. Leaving the city (or entering it) is a scenic trip in itself. I’m not surprised there are so many harbour cruises available from the city docks.

If you look carefully at the pictures below, you can see people standing on the upper levels of the bridge towers and on the bridge girders. They are doing the Bridge Climb. It costs $174 AUD to climb the bridge. If you do it, you get a blue baseball cap that says “Sydney Bridge Climb” in discreet small letters on the back. The topmost part of the bridge is 440 feet above the water. I’m not sure how high you have to climb to get the cap. Did I say that the harbor winds (the harbor is a wind tunnel) were blowing at 50+ mph as we sailed beneath the bridge? Note that the wind is holding the flag straight out. Another thing to mention: no backpacks, purses, cameras, or cell phones are allowed on the Bridge Climb. You can’t even take a picture from the top!

We have some beautiful pictures of the Sydney Opera House from the harbor side and some views of the city skyline. You can see the reflection of the red wildfire sunset on the water.

Yes, we were here too. We were at the stern of the ship, so this area had some protection from the wind. Walking forward into the wind along the side of the ship was a challenge.

It’s easy to see where the edge of the wildfire smoke is.

Ted and I both liked Sydney and we’re glad we’ll be back here in two weeks.

Yesterday, Ted and I had a 9-hour excursion on shore. We traveled almost two hours west of Sydney to the Blue Mountains. The mountains got their name because there are many eucalyptus trees in the forests. The trees produce so much moisture through transpiration that a mist forms over the rainforests. The result looks a lot like the Great Smoky Mountains in the U.S. When the sun hits the mist, it reflects a blue color; thus, the Blue Mountains. We saw shrouded mountains, but not because of the blue mist. Large wildfires are burning west of Sydney and the air was filled with smoke. Sometimes we could even smell the wood burning.

We drove from sea level (Sydney) to about 3,500 feet in elevation and saw beautiful mountain scenery. Our destination point for the morning was Scenic World–a privately-owned operation set in the Blue Mountains. My closest analogy would be licenses for the private tour boats, etc. that take visitors through the Wisconsin Dells, which is not private land.

Scenic World begins with a Scenic Skyway tram taking us to the Scenic World Top Station. My limited creative juices urged me to take a picture of the incoming tram through a knothole.

We had free time to spend at the top of the mountain and enjoyed many pretty views. The most famous is the Three Sisters.

The sisters’ father was a witch doctor of the aboriginal Katoomba tribe. (There were over 200 aboriginal tribes in Australia.) The girls fell in love with three brothers from the Nepean tribe, but tribal law forbade them to marry. The brothers didn’t want to accept this law, so they decided to use force to capture the sisters, causing a major tribal battle. The sisters’ lives were endangered, so a witch doctor turned them to stone to protect them from harm. He intended to reverse the spell when the battle was over, but he was killed. Since only he could reverse the spell, the sisters remain in a magnificent rock formation as a reminder of this battle. There are other versions of the story, but they basically follow the same pattern–sisters turned to stone by witchcraft and destined to remain in stone because the one who cast the spell died before he could reverse it. The Three Sisters are the group of three rock formations in the center of the picture below.

Proof that Ted and I were here.

Here are some of the pretty views from the mountaintop. Remember: that’s not mist; it’s wildfire smoke.

The mountain area in which Scenic World is located was once a rich coal mining field. To reach our next destination in Scenic World–the rainforest–we took a modernized version of a mine car called the Scenic Railway (several connected modern mine cars) to the bottom of the mountain. The incline down the mountain was at 52 degrees. Look at the seats in the picture of the original mine car; then look at the people in the front seat of the modern car. The position of the seats in both cars is the same. When we got into the car, we felt like we were reclining (we were!), but going down the hill, we were sitting upright because of the steep drop.

After arriving safely at the bottom of the mountain, we followed the Scenic Walkway through a rainforest. Ted and I have already visited two rainforests in much greater depth than this, so I’m only including an interesting rock formation we saw that reminded both of us of the Old Man of the Mountain in New Hampshire. It might even look a little bit like Abraham Lincoln. (The NH old man lost his nose a number of years ago.)

When it was time to return to our starting point to drive to lunch, we took the Scenic Cableway back to the mountaintop. In case you didn’t notice, there’s a running theme in the park’s name and its forms of transport.

We had a delicious lunch at a hotel in Leura, a small mountain town. While we were eating, we noticed that the smoke outdoors became much denser and even reached a point at which we could see no farther than the hotel patio outside the dining room windows. The waitress told us the firefighters were doing a back burn, trying to stop a nearby wildfire.

Driving east back to Sydney, the smoke density decreased, although Sydney’s skies are brown and the sunsets feature a bright red ball of sun in a hazy sky. We passed the park in which Sydney hosted the 2000 Olympic Games. It was easy to find the park from the highway because it’s marked with a huge athlete that towers over the landscape.

It was an interesting day, but after nine hours, it was good to come “home” to our ship.

The Queensland license plate. Queensland averages 300 days of sunshine annually. That trumps Florida.

Seen outside a shop in Newcastle.

Bird rest stop? Luckily, this wasn’t our dock in Newcastle.

Interesting trees in Newcastle–some young, some more filled out. All the needles grow vertically upward on the upper side of the branches instead of outward all the way around the branches.

Why include the figure of an entire person on the pedestrian sign when it’s the feet that do the walking?

Alvin, our steward, keeps our minifridge stocked with Toblerone bars daily.

As we sailed in the Bass Strait, we saw a school of dolphins at play.

Yesterday was the last day of our first cruise, so a lot of people headed for the airports and other destinations this morning. New passengers who will be visiting southern Australia and New Zealand with us on our next cruise are coming aboard. It’s been a busy day for the ship’s staff.

Ted and I, on the other hand, had no plans, so we took the cruise-provided ferry shuttle from our port to the Circular Quay, where the Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House are located.

When we got off the ferry, it was immediately obvious that the Circular Quay (pronounced “key” in Australia) is a happenin’ place.

The Circular Quay is exactly that–a circular shaped body of water with an open end. At the end of one arm is the Harbour Bridge, spanning the passage between the Circular Quay and other parts of the harbor; at the end of the other arm is the Sydney Opera House. There’s a great view of the Opera House from the bridge side of the Quay. . .

. . . and a great view of the Harbour Bridge from the Opera House side of the Quay. For $174 AUD, you can do a “bridge climb” and walk across the upper framework of the bridge span. If you zoom my bridge picture below, you’ll see bumps at the top of the span. Those are braver people than I.

We wanted to spend our time at the Opera House and were obviously not the only people interested in doing so.

Here’s my trusty scale figure, Ted, standing beside one of the Opera House “sails” so I can take his picture to show the tiles that cover the Opera House roofs.

And here’s a distance shot of Ted in the same place, to give you an idea of the scale of those sails. Look for Ted’s dark shirt at the bottom of the intersecting roofline.

Sydney is a world-renowned New Year’s Eve destination. Workmen were setting up scaffolding for stages, and other things for the big show coming up in a few days. It looked like the performances will be done at the foot of the Opera House stairs and people will sit on the (hard) concrete stairs as an amphitheater to see the show. Fireworks are launched from the Harbour Bridge.

As we were walking down the stairs from the Opera House, I spotted this flower bed (center, yellow) in the Royal Botanic Gardens. I’m not sure why the gardener decided to send this message.

When we felt like we’d seen all we needed to see of the Opera House and the bridge, Ted and I walked around the downtown area and visited some of the shops. Sydney looks like a very nice city and we’re glad we’ll be returning to it on January 12. Our Newcastle friends will pick us up at the airport and we’ll all spend the night and the following day in Sydney before we go to their home in Newcastle.

Before going to our stateroom tonight, Ted and I took a walk around the deck to see Sydney at night. It’s beautiful.

Newcastle, in New South Wales, has some of the most picturesque coastal vistas in Australia. The city was built on the coal export industry and is still a major exporter of coal. Along the shore, locals have built ocean baths–man-made pools that collect sea water during high tide. As we travel south, the weather cools, and we had a beautiful, sunny 80-degree day today with lower humidity and a nice ocean breeze.

Just as advertised, Newcastle has stunningly beautiful coastal scenes. It was hard to select only a few to include here.

At the top of the cliff/hill in the picture below, you can see Fort Scratchley. The fort was built to protect the city from the Russians, but the only shot fired from it was in June 1942, against a Japanese submarine during World War II.

You can see two ocean pools in this photo. These pools fill with ocean water at high tide. It’s low tide in my photo, so the rectangular outlines of the pool borders are visible.

One of the biggest attractions in Newcastle is the Memorial Walk. Engraved on the figures of the wall are 3,859 family names of the 10,947 known Hunter Valley (where Newcastle lies) men and women who enlisted in the Australian armed forces to serve during the Great War–now known as World War I.

The Walk follows the edge of an oceanside cliff, above the city of Newcastle. There are four sets of soldiers’ silhouettes, engraved with names in alphabetical order from one set to the next.

Here’s an overview of Newcastle, as seen from the Memorial Walk.

The first picture below shows the Memorial Walk from the street level. The others were taken on the Walk. You can see some of the soldiers’ silhouettes on the left end of the Walk in the first picture.

Ted and I will be returning to Newcastle at the end of our cruise. That’s where our Australian friends live, and we will be staying with them for a few days before coming home.

Our ship was at sea today, and that was good planning on the part of whoever schedules the cruise dates because I’m sure most businesses were closed for Christmas Day. The staff did everything possible to make the day special for us. In addition to the holiday decorations that have been in place since we came onboard, there were special meals and activities. Everyone was in a very good mood and whenever we met other people, we all exchanged Christmas greetings and smiles with each other.

The best part of the day was the evening entertainment in the theater. First, the entire crew of 464 people wished us a merry Christmas in a slide show presentation that was enjoyed by all. We’ve come to know many of the more visible crew members over the past 14 days, so we laughed and clapped as various crew members appeared in the slide show. There was a wonderful picture of the entire crew lined up on all of the forward decks.

At the end of the slide show, all nonessential crew members came down the aisles and went onstage. As the captain said, he left a few people on the bridge to keep us on course during the show. Our favorite crew member is Alvin, our room steward. Alvin is the best!

The next part of the program featured the Viking band and singers (we’re on the Viking cruise line) and they performed lots of Christmas melodies, showed us some pictures of their families (slide show again) and made us all feel happy. They included a comment about how special it was that all of us who are spending Christmas away from our families can celebrate together. With 464 crew members and around 750 guests, I’d have to say this is the most people Ted and I have ever celebrated Christmas with.

Here’s the Viking band playing until the singers come onstage.

Check out the really short guy. He is the cruise director (in charge of all entertainment onboard) and is 5’3″ tall. He said he’s just tall enough to get on all the rides at Disney World (he’s from Florida), and he saves $20 per shirt by buying his shirts in the boys’ department. His speaking voice is kind of high and nasal, but he’s a trained opera singer and, when he sings, he has an amazing, full voice that rocks the house.

A good time was had by all. Next Christmas, we’re looking forward to being with our family again. We miss you guys, but we’re having a ball.

I forgot to check the Great Barrier Reef off my Down Under checklist, so check #4 for that. Yesterday we went to Mt. Tambourine, so check #5 for that. I’m down to my last item–seeing the Southern Cross in the night sky.

I only included “G’day, mate” as an Australian phrase I wanted to hear, but yesterday I heard “No worries,” and that’s a good Australian phrase too.

What a great trip. We’ve done, seen, or heard all the things I was most looking forward to and had a few bonuses I hadn’t thought of before leaving home–“no worries” and kangaroos. If my life were a holiday movie, it would be It’s a Wonderful Life.

Today our ship docked in Brisbane. Ted and I spent the entire day on a “scenic off-road drive.” This region of Australia is getting lucky; we tourists, not so much. Our guide started this gray, rainy morning by telling us that this region hasn’t had rain for over six years. To put this into perspective, he said there are children growing up who have never seen rain. That’s hard to imagine isn’t it? Because of the rain, our excursion was slightly altered, but still fun.

We drove for over an hour through Brisbane and Australia’s Gold Coast, named for its expensive oceanside real estate. Then it was time to stop at a charming little restaurant for morning tea. We had tea, coffee, and hot chocolate with warm scones, strawberry jam, and clotted (whipped) cream. Christmas decorations abounded.

Our next stop was a national park rainforest. It’s a popular destination, judging by the number of individual visitors. This rainforest was more interesting than the one we visited on Whitsunday Island. Walking with our guide gave us a huge advantage over visiting the park on our own. He was not only knowledgeable, but had sharp eyes and detected things the average visitor probably wouldn’t even know about.

Here’s a picture of our guide fearlessly entering the darkness of the dense rainforest.

Fortunately, we followed the original trail of pioneers deep into the rainforest; otherwise, it would have been hard to find our way back.

The pile of leaves behind the trees in this picture is a wild turkey nest. The male turkey builds the nest and tries to make it nice enough that a female will share it with him. If she does, she lays one of the 15-20 eggs she lays during the mating season. The male tends the egg and the chick for six months. After that, there are no bonds; the chick is on its own. Tough love in the wild, I guess. Meanwhile, the female goes around to other nests, and lays one egg in each, although sometimes she re-visits a nest and lays another single egg. She’s a loose woman who likes variety. Maybe she goes back to the guys who had the nicest nests for her. Once we knew what to look for, it was easy to spot turkey nests. We even saw a male turkey, but he didn’t hang around in our camera fields for more than a few moments.

Here’s a picture of a well-camouflaged lizard we spotted as we walked down the pioneer trail. Just like the Whitsunday Island rainforest, it was downhill on the way in, uphill on the way back. Thanks to being farther south on a cloudy day, it was also cooler. Only three water bottles needed today.

One of the most interesting animals the guide pointed out was a kind of spider that digs a hole in the dirt, makes a cover for the hole, and waits in the hole until it feels the vibration of prey walking near the opening. At that moment, the spider makes a wickedly quick grab and pulls the prey inside for dinner. Again, once you know that the faint circle on the ground is possibly a spider hole door, you can spot them. The guide used a knife to open the hole because the spider has a dangerous, although not lethal, bite.

We learned some interesting things about the rainforest trees as well. Rainforest trees grow very tall, but their roots are quite shallow. To support themselves, the roots grow in a radius as large as the tree’s canopy. Some trees grow very strong roots for support.

Eucalyptus trees are so hard that if you strike them with a rock, it sounds like you’re hitting another rock. Rangers had cut and removed part of a eucalyptus trunk that had fallen across the path. Because the wood is so hard, every cut wears down the saw blade so much that a new blade is needed for each cut.

Termites like eucalyptus trees, but can’t get through the hard wood to the softer core. To reach the center, termites look for a little hole or a crack in the tree’s surface that allows them access to the softer wood. It might take nearly 200 years, but the termites devour the entire inside of the tree, eventually killing it. The tree in this picture has been hollowed out by termites, but it’s still healthy. There was a bee’s nest high in the tree. If we put our heads in the open hole, we could hear the buzzing of the bees a hundred or more feet above us. Locals have dubbed this tree the “little boy” tree.

Our trail destination was a “plummeting waterfall” with an opportunity to swim in “crystalline waters of a stream in the company of wallabies or kangaroos.” That was apparently an old description of the waterfall. After six dry years, the waterfall has nearly dried up and the waters of the pool are murky. We were advised not to swim in them.

Our journey to and from lunch was the “off-road” part of this day trip. The gravel road provided us with a literally jaw-jarring ride. On the way to the back country restaurant, our guide stopped the van repeatedly to show us wildlife. He spotted a pretty face wallaby with a joey in her pouch. This is also called a whiptail wallaby because of the distance it can cover with a whip of its tail.

There were eastern gray kangaroos everywhere. These really count as seeing kangaroos because they weren’t caged; they were wild. Many years ago, I read that kangaroos are a suburban nuisance because of their numbers. This was farmland, so maybe it’s equivalent to having rabbits or deer on your land.

The baglike objects in these trees are flying foxes. We call them bats in the U.S.

We had lunch at a back country campground. They offer true back country camping for which campers must bring everything with them, including their own water. After the camping experience, showers, toilets, and food are available at the main office site. We stayed for lunch that included barbecued beef, chicken, or fish, but we didn’t camp.

After lunch, we were treated to a boomerang lesson followed by a chance to try our boomerang-throwing skills. There are left- and right-handed versions of boomerangs, and both were available. The first picture shows the instructor; the second lets you see the thrower and the boomerang in the air (upper right quandrant); the third shows Ted. I think his boomerang went higher than my camera field because we can’t see it, but he’s obviously watching it fly.

After the boomerang fun, we headed back on the jaw-jarring road and had a chance to stop at the top of Mt. Tambourine, the highest point in the area. There was supposed to be a “sweeping panorama” with a view of a distant mountain range. Due to the clouds and rain, we couldn’t see that far, but the view is still pretty good. We also crossed a pretty stream. Not surprisingly, it used to be filled to the top of the rock banks.

We had dinner on the ship with a special treat for Christmas Eve: baked Alaska.

Dinner included an unexpected spectacular light show, as nearly steady, brilliant lightning flashed outside the dining room windows. The wind was fierce and the rain was heavy. At least while we were on our day trip, we had only gray skies and a single light shower.

At 10:30 p.m., there was an inter-denominational Christmas service onboard. Ted and I and about 350 other people attended it. It was very nice and, for the first time this holiday season, I feel like it’s really Christmas.

Merry Christmas, and may there be peace on earth and goodwill to all mankind.

Tonight, there was a special event onboard our ship. The shadowed violinists at the bottom of the screen are providing live music for the event.

Never trust a skinny chef, so we’re safe. The assistant chefs were thinner. They’re probably still growing as they work their way up the chef ladder.

After the 15-minute photo op, there were plates and napkins for all. If you think, “Hey, that fruit isn’t chocolate!” notice that beside the fruit on one side of the table is a heavily-flowing milk chocolate fountain, and on the other side, there is a white chocolate fountain for dipping the fruit. You might also want to notice that there are chocolate crinkle cookies on display. I got my recipe from Betty Crocker. Did the chef read the same cookbook?

I have nothing more to say because the chocolate speaks for itself in the pictures below.

Tonight, Ted and I had a dinner reservation at another upscale restaurant on board. It’s called “The Chef’s Table” and offers one five-course menu with paired wines for several nights, then another menu for several nights, and so on. There are no choices to be made after you arrive, but you can view the menus in advance to select when you want to eat in this restaurant.

The current menu is focused on the spice trade, so every dish featured a specific spice–saffron, cinnamon, etc. The server describes each dish and its special features (spices tonight) as it is presented. Plan on a minimum two-hour meal, which is relaxing. Who cares? We’re at sea on the way to our next destination, so we’re in no hurry.

Every dish is artfully presented and servings are very small compared to other restaurants. After five courses, however, even the small servings are more than enough. The main course tonight was beef tenderloin featuring paprika, curry, coriander, and cinnamon. I never would have thought of using cinnamon with meat, but it added a very nice taste to the meat and the sauce. The meat was the most tender Ted and I have ever had. We wondered if it was Kobi beef, but forgot to ask.

The final course was called Apple Délice Façon Tarte Tatin–an apple tart. Again, the presentation was artful, but I had to hold back my smile until the server finished his spiel and left our table. All I could think of was “bunny ears.” Did anyone dare to mention that to the chef?

Capt. James Cook stumbled on the Whitsunday Islands 49 days after Easter (Whitsunday). The islands are in the Coral Sea “amid” the Great Barrier Reef (as our tour information described them). The waters around the 74 islands in the archipelago are an almost impossible blue color. Our tour guide said people often think pictures of this area are photo-shopped, but they’re not–the beautiful color is natural.

We docked in Airlie Harbor, a city and a harbor that didn’t exist until about 25 years ago. The Whitsunday Islands have become such a tourist destination that the city and the harbor were developed for the rapidly-growing tourist industry. The islands are an extremely popular wedding destination, with the cost of a wedding averaging $47,000. Ted and I are already married, so we opted for a “Tropical Paradise Rain Forest Walk” instead.

We’ve been in rainforests in Washington and in Hawai’i, but each one is a little different. We were bused to Conway National Park, home of the largest lowland tropical rain forest in Queensland. We followed a very knowledgeable guide down a trail for over two hours. It was literally down a trail for the first half; it was up the trail for the walk back to our bus. The heat and humidity required five bottles of water for Ted and me.

It’s interesting to compare how bright, fresh, and alert our tour groups always are as we embark on our day, and how limp and sweaty we look at the end of the day in this hot, humid climate. Here’s our happy little (16 people) rainforest group starting out fresh and eager for a new adventure.

The rainforest is dense. It’s nearly impossible to imagine fighting one’s way through the thick foliage. Thank goodness someone with a bulldozer made a path for us.

The indigenous people’s diet consisted of mostly bland or bitter foods. As our guide told us, they learned what to eat and what was poisonous by trial and error over hundreds (thousands?) of years. The guide’s example: If you’re unsure, feed it to the youngest child or the least favorite family member. If they don’t look so good the next day, cover them with stones and don’t eat that again. If they look ok, it’s safe to eat. The indigenous people’s knowledge of survival in the rainforest is very deep.

The picture below shows a “honey pot”–a beehive. It’s the pointy thing hanging from the tree. Because their diet was bland or bitter, finding a bee’s nest was like Christmas Day for the indigenous tribes. It was sweet and a wonderful treat.

The first photo below shows the density of a ficus tree in the rainforest. Ficus is a popular fake tree in a pot that people in the U.S. use for decorative purposes. (The ones from my office are now in our basement.) You can’t see through this rainforest ficus. The second photo shows more of the ficus trunk and its top. It kind of looks like the fake ficus trunks, only much bigger.

Another interesting tree we saw is called a strangling tree. It begins growing from seeds in bird poop dropped at the top of a tree. The seeds germinate and grow vines downward. When the vines reach the ground, they take root. Eventually, the strangler tree literally strangles the host tree and kills it. This one is quite large. If you look carefully, you can see daylight through the lower part of the trunk just above the person’s head. The second picture shows one of our group members who climbed inside the strangler tree’s vines and walked through them.

We learned that vines are an important part of the rainforest because they bind the trees together to help hold them upright. Sometimes, trees will grow crooked in search of light above the canopy. In this picture, there’s a vine on the left of the tree trunk and two smaller ones angling across the right side of the photo.

Our guide picked some leaves from a tree and gave one to each of us. When you split the leaves, they smell like fresh lemon. Mm-mm good.

After our rainforest walk, we drove to Cedar Creek Falls, described as Whitsunday Islands’ best-kept secret. How it can still be a secret, I’m not sure, since it’s a popular place for cliff-jumping. There is supposed to be a “majestic” waterfall and a pool under the waterfall for swimming, water (not weather) permitting. This is the dry season, so there is no waterfall. Look carefully in the upper center of the picture to find some people in swimsuits on a high rock ledge. This is the point from which people jump into the pool below. Then look at the high water mark at the bottom of the rock face. This is one of the reasons they did not jump.

We ate lunch at the nonexistent waterfall. It tasted as good as it looks. After sweating a lot while we walked, the moisture in the fruits and veggies was welcome and tasty. There was even a sparking wine beverage for those who wanted some.

We enjoyed some sightseeing on our way back to the ship, including a lot of sugar cane fields. Not only is Australia one of the world’s leading sugar exporters, but Queensland leads the rest of Australia in sugar production. This is a sugar cane field.

We had just enough time to stop at a high point for an overview of Airlie.

On a cruise we took with a different company, they nickel-and-dimed us for everything except meals. On a ship with 2,000 passengers, bottled water had to be purchased, and there was only one spigot on the entire ship (in a secluded out-of-the-way location) to fill water bottles at no cost.

Viking, the line we’re sailing on now, does the opposite: yes, they charge more up front, but they’re very generous onboard with many amenities. One example is bottled water. They provide as much bottled water as we want in our rooms and we may take as much as we want when we leave for an excursion. In addition, they have more water at our destination points, on the tour buses, and on the tenders. When we boarded our tender today, hot and thirsty from our rain forest walk (on which we drank five bottles of water), we were presented with more water at the dock and were greeted by this water on the tender. Overall, I bet it’s cheaper to provide water than to pay for medical care for dehydration or heat exhaustion. Thank you, Viking.

Today, Ted and I visited the Billabong Sanctuary in Townsville, Queensland. It’s a tropical bushland setting and our group had a private tour with one of the rangers. I wasn’t sure what a billabong is and mistakenly thought it was an Australian animal. I now know that it’s an oxbow in a river, which describes the sanctuary’s location. A billabong lake is one that fills the oxbow. That’s not the case here.

It’s probably a good thing I didn’t put kangaroos on my Down Under checklist, because I learned today that they don’t like to go out in the heat (and Queensland is hot), so they are seldom seen except in the early morning and evening. We saw some who were moving around as we walked through the sanctuary.

Our first stop with the ranger was the crocodile pond. The ranger provided a lot of interesting facts about crocodiles including the fact that, in Australia, if there’s warm water, there are probably crocs. There’s another adage that warns “If you’re going to camp by a stream, don’t stay two nights. The crocs will watch you the first night and attack you the second night.” Note: This is not true for southern Australia, where it’s too cold for crocodiles.

Male crocodiles can grow to 16 feet long; females only grow to 4-6 feet long. The crocodile in the photo below is about 14 feet long at a hefty 1,500 pounds. Males are usually placed with three females in the hope they will like one of them. If there is only one female and the male doesn’t like her, he will kill her. Not necessarily eat her, but kill her. Crocodiles have not changed in 30 million years. The ranger said this indicates that they have evolved to perfection and can do everything they need to do with precision and efficiency. In the photo below, the ranger is feeding the crocodile raw chicken.

The ranger also showed us a much smaller crocodile. People were allowed to hold it, but Ted and I passed, even though its jaws are clamped shut. We’re not big fans of reptiles.

We walked by some dingos on our way to the koala stop with the ranger. This dingo is white, but some were brown or gray.

Not surprisingly, the koalas are very appealing. The ranger told us they will be extinct in the wild within 30 years. Koalas eat only the tips of eucalyptus leaves because that’s where the nutrients and the water are. They become stressed very easily, which is one of the reasons they sleep up to 22 hours / day. I don’t remember the details, but there is something in koalas’ DNA that makes them very ill and usually kills them when they become stressed. To protect the koalas, they are only available for pictures, etc. for very limited and strictly enforced times so they won’t become stressed.

There are five koalas in this picture, but it’s hard to find them. The ranger is revealing one that was hiding behind a leafy branch.

Ted had his picture taken with a koala. Its fur is very soft, like a teddy bear.

The ranger placed a cockatoo on his shoulder while he talked about the birds. He said this one will say “hello” and we should respond to it, but the bird was silent (nervous?) while we were with it.

Next: the strange wombat. Wombats live in burrows they dig with their front legs. They are extremely well-equipped to allow the back ends of their bodies to remove dirt behind them as they dig. Near their back end (hip area) is a very hard plate made out of one-inch thick cartilage. The ranger knocked on it repeatedly and the wombat didn’t even react. The ranger said the wombat was aware he was being struck, but didn’t care. When wombats are in their burrows, they use this hard part of their bodies to fill / close the opening. Attacking predators can’t hurt them while they sleep because of this cartilage plate.

Until the ranger picked it up, this lazy wombat just laid on the bench without moving (like in the bottom picture) and it surprised me to see how much bigger it was with its legs extended. Ted said the fur was very bristly and the plate was definitely hard.

On to the snakes. Eew. Australia is home to more venomous snakes than any other country in the world. This snake is a variety of python, but not lethal. It has a black head and, when it hides, it allows its head to show because that makes it look like it’s a different variety of poisonous snake. That subterfuge keeps predators away. Neither Ted nor I volunteered to touch the snake. Again, eew. And that was the end of our time at the Billabong Sanctuary.

Today, Ted and I had a bus tour of Townsville and then went on to a wildlife sanctuary. Townsville has a very dominant rock structure called Castle Hill that rises above the city. Castle Hill is only 26 feet short of being a mountain. I didn’t realize there’s a “you must be this tall to be a mountain” rule.

Thorn Birds lovers, these are ghost gum trees. They are gum trees like we have in Missouri, but with very white bark. They really stand out in the woods, similar to white paper birch trees in the U.S.

Someone painted a Santa stick figure on one face of Castle Rock. (Left of center, near the top.)

We saw some interesting things on our way through the city. Someone who loves garden gnomes lives here.

We passed a local radio station with this mural painted on the side of the building. It’s eye-catching for sure.

The finale of our city tour was a view of the city and its harbor from the top of Castle Rock.

For our visit to the Great Barrier Reef, our ship docked at Cairns, Australia. There were some Australians from Adelaide in line with us to leave the ship, so I asked them how to pronounce the city’s name. Well, it varies. The people in Adelaide are “free” (an Australian historical distinction) and they say something like “Can”; the rest of Australia pronounces it more like “Cane.” Either way, there’s no “s” sound, and they inject a very soft “r” into the word. It’s hard to duplicate if you’re not Australian.

The Great Barrier Reef, one of the seven natural wonders of the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, stretches 1,400 miles and is the largest continuous coral reef system on Earth. It can even be seen from space, and is home to about 1,500 varieties of fish, 360 kinds of colorful hard corals, and one-third of the world’s soft corals.

We’re in Queensland, which the license plates denote as “The Sunshine State” and where they average over 300 days of sunshine annually. Locals told us it hasn’t rained here for six months and it’s currently the dry season, but it rained all day today. There were some breaks in the showers, but no sunshine. It didn’t spoil our day, but the coral would have been more spectacular with sunlight shining on the water.

We took a catamaran out to the reef where we docked with a pontoon.

There were a dozen things to do on and from the pontoon, but even with a full day for this excursion (including 1.75 hours each way on the catamaran from the ship and back), there wasn’t time to try everything. Lunch was being set out when we arrived, so Ted and I walked around, checked things out, and decided to start with lunch while we were still dry, then go on to other things.

The glass bottom boat ride over the reef was one of our priorities, so we got in line for that. The line was long the entire time we were there, so it’s just as well we did that first.

We had a bit of luck during our ride because the rain stopped. The group just before us went out during a shower and said that the raindrops on the water’s surface made it very difficult to see the coral below. The colors would have been much prettier with the sun shining on the shallow water, but we saw some interesting coral formations.

Still in viewing mode, our next stop was the underwater observatory where we could see schools of tiny fish swimming by and get a close-up look at some coral. Coral is a living animal, so it sways and moves in the water. The coral in the second picture below was especially pretty as it fluttered underwater. The black and white striped fish is a (surprise!) zebra fish.

After that, a marine biologist gave a scheduled talk on some of the other marine life on the reef. The large, slug-shaped animal he’s holding is one variety of a sea cucumber.

Below is a different variety of sea cucumber. Its top and bottom sides look very different. We were allowed to touch it, and the star-shaped things on its back are very soft and a little mushy feeling. When you lift a sea cucumber out of the water, it releases sea water out of its bottom. (Third picture.) Tiny cleaner fish live in the sea cucumber’s bottom. I’ve heard of cleaner fish being used for pedicures–put your feet in the water and feel the tickles as the fish clean them. I haven’t tried that yet.

This is (obviously) a sea star. It looks black, but it’s really navy blue. We were allowed to touch it as well, and it feels like something firm (not hard) with a leather-like “sleeve” over it. Its legs moved slightly as it was being held, curling over a little bit on the ends.

The masseuse’s time was almost up and there were only two people in line, so that’s where we went next. Those who’d already had a massage repeatedly said how wonderful it felt and convinced us we should do this. The masseuse wore a toolbelt-like sack with some odd massage tools in it. One looked like a slingshot minus the sling and one looked like a chisel. Surprisingly, the chisel felt really good when he tapped it over tight muscles. It felt like the knots were being broken into tiny little pieces that dissolved.

We brought swimsuits along so we could snorkel, but the few people who did said that, due to the rain and the lack of sunlight, views of the coral were much better from the glass-bottomed boat. Stinger suits (black, tight-fitting head-to-toe garments similar to wet/dry suits) were issued to snorkelers to protect them from jellyfish bites. Even with the stinger suits, snorkelers said the water was very cool. Because of those comments, and because it was nearly time to leave, we passed on the snorkeling and took our dry swimsuits back to our stateroom. Maybe we’ll have another chance to snorkel at another beach on a sunny day. Here are a few snorkelers in action. And, of course, the next shower in the distance.

When we got back to the ship, we showered and changed into the required “casual elegant” clothing for dinner. In honor of Ted’s first summertime birthday today, we had advance reservations for dinner tonight at one of the two high-end restaurants onboard. At the maître d’s desk, Ted was greeted with a “Happy birthday, Mr. Schroeder” (pronounced “Schroder” of course) even though we didn’t tell anyone it was his birthday. I guess that’s included with our personal information for the cruise.

After we finished our main course, we were again surprised with a special dessert for Ted–a delicious chocolate mousse birthday cake topped with blueberries, his favorite fruit. It was far too much for the two of us, but they sent the remaining cake to our room, complete with plates, forks, napkins, and a knife. The leftover cake actually beat us to our room, where we also found a bottle of champagne chilling in the mini-fridge and two champagne flutes on the desktop. Happy birthday, Ted. It’s a destination birthday I’ll have trouble matching when it’s my turn.

On my Down Under checklist, I’m checking off #3 of 6.

After spending ten days where temperatures have averaged 90 degrees with matching humidity, I’m having trouble getting into the Christmas spirit. Last night’s onboard performer asked people to raise their hands if they were married more than 20, 30, 40, 50 years, etc. The winner had 62 years with the same spouse. The lady next to me marveled at that and I mentioned to her that my aunt and uncle (Ruth and Ken) have been married 63 years and will have 64 years in September. As I said that to her, I was thinking of September as just a month or two away, when actually, it’s nine months away.

If I’m that locked into a July mindset, I can check off experiencing summer in December. Check!

Today (Wednesday), Ted and I spent the afternoon on Thursday Island at the northern tip of Queensland. It is the northernmost village in Australia and serves as the administrative and main population center of the Torres Strait Islands. The island is small–1.4 square miles in area with a population of less than 3,000 people, surrounded by beautiful turquoise water. It averages 300 days of sunshine annually. There is one hospital, one post office, one school, etc., but five churches and (naturally) six pubs.

The origin of the name “Thursday Island” is uncertain. Wednesday Island was named by William Bligh (yes, the Captain Bligh of mutiny fame), who might also have named Thursday Island. In the late 19th century, the names of Wednesday and Thursday Islands were swapped so the islands would be in weekday order. Wednesday and Tuesday islands are uninhabited; Friday Island has minor development. The whereabouts of Saturday, Sunday, and Monday islands remain unknown.

A sad fact about Thursday Island is that there’s water, water everywhere, but not a beach to swim. It’s dangerous to swim at the beach because of sharks, crocodiles, and a large, dangerous jellyfish-like creature called a marine stinger, which has tentacles that are 9 m long. Need I mention that the marine stinger (like the sharks and crocs) packs a wicked bite? On the positive side, Shoeless Jeff would fit right in here. Many current Thursday Island residents still live by a no-footwear policy out of respect for the spirits believed to live on the island.

Here’s a picture of Thursday Island. It’s in the center, with a “tail” to the right and windmills and a cell tower on high ground in the middle.

Before cultured pearls became common, Thursday Island had a thriving pearl-fishing industry. Divers came from Japan, Malaysia, and India to harvest the precious stone of the gold-lipped oyster. Pearl diving at that time was a very dangerous profession because it was done by free-diving without helmets or oxygen. As a result, many divers died. Along the beach walk, called the “Parade,” there is a sculpture honoring the pearl-diving industry on Thursday Island.

We spent some time walking around the downtown area of the island admiring the scenery, and we visited the island’s cultural museum where we learned about local culture and history. I found it interesting that, in the past, sailors on luggers (small sailing ships) would flatten the mainmast in heavy seas. This allowed the lugger to remain relatively steady in the water, gently rising and falling with the waves. It was said that a good sailor could keep the lugger steady enough to cook a pot of rice until it was finished while the ship sailed through the rough waters. On less steady ships, the rice sometimes had to be eaten before it finished cooking.

Our next destination was the Green Hill Fort. The fort was built in the 1890s because of concerns about a Russian invasion. It was shut down 30 years later and then reactivated during World War II as a wireless station. Walking to the fort took us up a very steep hill all the way–no breaks. We zigzagged our way upward for about three-quarters of a mile in the 90-degree heat, then down again (much easier) and finished two bottles of water in that mile and a half, plus two more during the rest of our time on the island. Luckily, there was a nice ocean breeze to dry our sweat as we walked. We didn’t “drip” until we stopped walking. Here’s a picture of a cannon at the fort aimed over the Torres Strait.

It was easy to find beautiful scenery on the island.

We also saw some interesting sights not included in the travel brochures. One was a discarded cigarette box. There’s nothing like putting the health risks of smoking cigarettes right in your face with straight talk and a picture of blackened lungs. The warning is more eye-catching than the brand name at the bottom of the box front.

Ted and I also named a new species of animal: the motionless flat frog. There were few sidewalks and little traffic, so we walked on the roadsides and saw a lot of those frogs in the traffic lanes. The little critters must abound on the island. (The dark edges are shadows, not indentations in the road surface. The motionless flat frog is lying on the road.)

After about an hour-and-a-half of walking in the hot sun, we took a break and sat in a shady park to cool down a little bit. A man from our ship offered to take our picture.

Because of shallow water, our ship had to anchor quite a distance from Thursday Island. In fact, it was out of sight of the island. It was about a 30-minute ride each way by tender from the ship to the island and back. The tenders hold 260+ people and also serve as lifeboats. Their downfall is that they are very hot inside. (Better hot than dead in an emergency, right?) For our shuttle ride back and forth, the crew left the two side doors open for air, but we didn’t really have any air circulation until the pilot got creative and stuck a water bottle in a top escape hatch to prop it open. Clever!

Tonight our captain will take us south through the Coral Sea along the eastern coast of Australia. Our next stop: Cairns, Australia with an excursion to the Great Barrier Reef. Meanwhile, a day at sea tomorrow and more onboard fun and relaxation.

I’m checking things off my checklist.

Tonight’s performer, a native of Australia, spoke to several audience members and said to one of them, “G’day, mate!” Naturally, this is pronounced “G’dye, myte” in Australian.

We are sailing across the Arafura Sea from Darwin to Thursday Island, tomorrow’s port of call. We started this morning with coffee and hot chocolate in the winter garden. It’s not very wintry with the air conditioning running, but it’s very light and airy, and it’s a beautiful place to sip a morning beverage and relax.

Last night, we attended a performance in the ship’s theater. The performer assured us he would keep an eye on the clock because he knows we have to eat every 15 minutes at sea. It’s not really that bad, and Ted and I are doing a good job of portion control (keeping in mind that a cruise ship carries enough food to feed a small country) but still, we’re getting pretty ant-sy without more regular exercise.

Unlike our trips to Europe, our excursion destinations have been miles away from the harbors (except Darwin), so we’ve been bused from the ship to our destinations. In Europe, the ports were near the city centers and we easily walked anywhere from 5-15 miles per day (record: 18 miles in Paris last July). The ship has a large, beautiful fitness center equipped with everything you’d get with a membership in the U.S., so Ted and I have started walking on the treadmills to get some cardio exercise. It’s really not a hardship, even though today’s view was all water and sky.

Our dinner choice tonight was Southern fried chicken at the Pool Grill. The grill is behind the wall of lights, and the tables for eating are in front of that and on the adjoining end of the pool deck. We dined under the stars.

After dinner, Ted and I walked back to downtown Darwin (ten minutes) to view the Christmas light display in a city park. These towers of light are actually made out of plastic water bottles. The colors of each tower do the fade-and-change thing, so they look different every one or two minutes.

The park displays are similar to displays in the U.S.

This is how to decorate a palm tree. Not a problem in our yard.

As we left the park, this sign gave us an Australian warm fuzzy.

Even our ship looks Christmas-like when the lights are on at night.

When we returned to our stateroom, we saw that the people two rooms down from us brought holiday decorations with them for this cruise.

My emails keep offering me sales on cold weather clothes and last-minute holiday deals, but it just doesn’t “feel” like we should be shopping for Christmas and winter. Kari wrote that she made cutout cookies, and it doesn’t seem like the season for Christmas cookies. (It made me hungry for a cutout cookie, though.) It’s definitely an unusual experience to be away from home during the holiday season and especially to be where it’s so warm and sunny in December. Still, good times abound and the fun goes on.

Darwin is in the provincial capital of Australia’s sparsely populated Northern Territory and is named for Charles Darwin, who spent a great deal of time in the area. Darwin (north coast of Australia) is a long way from Adelaide (south coast of Australia) and there’s not much in between so, back in the day, communication and travel between north and south were difficult. At one point, there were a number of people trying to find a north-south route across the continent, similar to Lewis and Clark looking for a route to the northwest U.S.

Ted and I had a number of activities to choose from as ways to spend our time in Darwin, and we chose to visit the Northern Territory Museum and Art Gallery (NTMAG). It was definitely the right choice. It is one of the best museums we’ve ever visited–and we like museums, so we visit a lot of them. We spent several hours at the museum and could easily have spent another two hours there, but it was closing.

The first exhibit we viewed was called “Between the Moon and the Stars.” I learned some things about the moon that I didn’t know before. First, within our galaxy, Earth’s moon is the largest in relation to the size of the planet it orbits; second, Earth’s moon is one of the largest in the entire Solar System; and third, the moon is moving away from the Earth at the rate of 3.8 cm/year. (I might have known that before, but I’d forgotten it.) Because the moon used to be closer, Earth used to have much higher/lower tides, which affected the development of plants and animals in the tidal areas. My favorite piece of art in this exhibit is called “Solar Eclipse.”

The next exhibit we went to was titled “Therese Ritchie: Burning Hearts.” According to the sign at the entrance to the exhibit, Ritchie “is widely known for her irreverent humour and biting commentary that shines a spotlight on the foibles and backflips of prominent politicians and leaders.”

One of Ritchie’s platforms is the lack of access to health care in remote areas of Australia. People living in remote regions have a much lower life expectancy than the general population because (1) they are poor, which means (2) they don’t have cars, so (3) they can’t access health care services, even if they have health insurance. For example, kidney dialysis requires several hours of time three days a week, and the nearest health center providing dialysis is often 4-5 hours away (one way) in remote areas. Without a car, those people cannot have dialysis, so they die. One of Ritchie’s pieces of art shows four politicians opposed to expanding health care services sitting in a hospital during dialysis with the caption: “Get well soon.” Many of her other recent works address the harm fracking does to the earth. Ritchie titled one of them “Why I stuck a fracker up my clacker.” Here are two other pieces of her work. Australians in the museum recognized all the politicians in the first photo below.

We headed for the exhibit about Cyclone Nancy that flattened Darwin in 1974, but checked the time and discovered we had 20 minutes left before the museum closed. As a result, we had to skim the displays and hurry through that exhibit. We walked down to the beach and took some photos before going back to our ship. We saw an Australian ibis and a beach not unlike some in the Pacific Northwest as well as an afternoon thundershower in the distance.

Today we’re having a day at sea while we cross the Timor Sea from Komodo to Darwin, Australia. It’s very relaxing and gave us some time to wander around the ship. It’s all decorated for Christmas. I appreciate the cruise company’s thought, but it’s just weird to be under a blazing sun with temperatures near 90 degrees while looking at Christmas trees and decorations, and garlands decorated with twinkle lights.

The library bookshelves are trimmed with garland and twinkle lights.

Reindeer at rest near a snack bar.

I think this tree is made of large, flat pieces of driftwood.

Even the pool is decorated with garlands and lights. It’s really weird to see people in swimsuits surrounded by Christmas garlands.

The coup d’état is the grand stairway into the lobby. (The dark thing at the bottom of the stairs is a grand piano, in case it’s hard to identify on a small screen.) Behind it is an arrangement of gingerbread houses.

Here’s a picture of the gingerbread houses in the lobby (left) and at the entrance to one of the restaurants (right).

Underneath the stairway to the lobby is a mosaic that reminds me of a salad bar.

On our way around the top deck, I was trying to determine where to stand to take a picture without facing the sun. Ted and I quickly realized it didn’t matter much–the sun is almost directly overhead. We checked our shadows, and they’re pretty short. This was at about 1:30 p.m. Playing “step on your shadow” requires a short step.

Our ship leaves a “path” beyond the infinity pool on the deck below.

There’s not much on the horizon. It looks like North Dakota, only blue.

Back in our room, we discovered that the refreshing beverages in our mini-fridge look different in Asia.

We thought it was best that we eat the Toblerone bars in the mini-fridge before they spoil. The good times just keep on coming!

The entire island of Komodo, Indonesia is a national park, and the main attraction of the park is its wildlife. The ground in the park is very dry and dusty, and the vegetation cannot be described as “verdant.” The island receives an average of four inches of rain per year. Given all this, how can it be so humid?

The picture below is a typical view in the park.

The solitary tree in the photo below (a type of palm) grows only once, meaning that it sprouts, matures, produces fruit, and dies. Its life cycle is about 35 years. This tree is in the fruit stage.

One kind of tree has thorns along one edge of its branches.

In this picture, you can see the stone-bordered path that we were required to stay on.

Komodo is an island, so there are beaches. One of today’s excursions was a visit to the pink coral beach, but Ted and I chose to go to the national park.

We saw a variety of the park’s famous wildlife. Beginning with the least dangerous and working up to the most dangerous, we saw a large beehive (the dark splotch on the tree trunk). The bees provide honey for the animals.

Look carefully in the shade of the trees just to the right of center in this picture and you’ll see a Timor deer lying on the sand. Komodo is in the Timor Sea.

The park rangers call this path the “animal highway.” It is a main route to the largest watering hole in the park. The dark object in the middle of the highway (left photo) is a sitting wild boar facing us. We stayed quiet, the boar got “boar-ed” (insert groan here), and you can see it walking away from us in the right photo.

The biggest wildlife attraction in the park is the Komodo dragon, which exists only on four Indonesian Islands, including Komodo. The dragons are a combination of snake and crocodile and are very dangerous. They can grow to 8-10 feet long and weigh up to 200 pounds. One of the large ones in the photos below is about 35 years old.

Komodo dragons can take down animals as large as a water buffalo and can move very quickly for short distances. Their teeth have the ability to re-grow if they are broken from hunting or eating. The saliva of the Komodo dragon contains fourteen kinds of poisonous bacteria, and they kill by attacking with their teeth, injecting their prey with saliva. It can take as long as two weeks for the bacteria to take down a large animal.

Because the dragons are so dangerous, a tour guide wasn’t enough; two experienced park rangers were with us to keep us safe from the wildlife. When the rangers spotted some dragons (they camouflage themselves very well and look like logs), one ranger took a stick and drew a circle around them about twenty feet from where they lay in the dirt. We were warned not to cross that line because the dragons have a keen sense of smell and would attack us if they felt threatened.

There are five dragons in this picture. They are arranged in a triangle (not deliberately, but for my descriptive purpose). Three are piled on each other (like puppies?) at the upper left of the triangle, one is on the left of the large center tree trunk, and one is at the front corner of the triangle. The long brown splotch to the right of the tree trunk is a tree root. From a distance, you can’t be sure: tree root or Komodo dragon?

There are also five dragons in this picture: two piled together in the front, one behind them beside the tree, and two more snuggled together off to the right.

Naturally, as we left the park, the path took us through the market, aka gift shop. The vendors are very aggressive as they try to sell their wares. I thought we were safe after getting through this tent, but the path zigzagged back twice more and we had to go through two more markets.

It was hot in Komodo. Eighty-eight degrees and 300% humidity (or so it seemed). We were in the shade throughout the park, but in our 45-minute walk through the park, Ted and I drank four bottles of water and didn’t have to pee. We were fortunate. One man collapsed from the heat and was carried out on a stretcher and immediately transported back to our ship. Two other people in our group left the park in wheelchairs because of heat exhaustion. I believe there were seven or eight groups of people who chose to participate in this excursion, and I assume people in other groups had some heat issues as well.

Waiting for the tender was worse. With only our umbrellas to provide shade, we stood in line on a concrete pier for about 30 minutes before we could board the tender to return to our ship. Some people farther ahead in the line waited nearly an hour as the blazing sun was reflected off the concrete and water. Everyone we’ve spoken with about this excursion enjoyed it, but everyone admits they’ve never been so hot and have never sweated so much in their lives. My suggestion: group us by tender-loads on shore in the shade of the trees. When the tender arrives, send us out onto the fiery pier a group at a time.

The day ended beautifully on our stateroom balcony. Ted thought the sunset was so pretty, he took a picture. Then it got better, so he took another one. We both think it’s the most beautiful sunset we’ve ever seen.

Today’s first thunderstorm hit as we returned from our excursion to Mataram. We had a break for a few hours and then the storms started up again. We’ve sailed past some of them, but they are continuing south of us.

We met two very nice couples at dinner and talked for over two hours with each other until the restaurant closed for the evening. After that, Ted and I sat on our balcony for awhile, watching the lightning and listening to the distant thunder. I took a few pictures of the lightning.

The storms are making the sea a little rough and our ship is rocking slowly back and forth. I’m hoping it will rock me into a good night’s sleep–just like a baby in a moving car.

Today we explored Lombok’s (Indonesia) capital city, Mataram and the surrounding countryside. We visited a temple, a pearl shop, a market, and a museum. As usual, it was hot and humid, but still interesting and fun.

Unlike Bali, which is predominantly Hindu, Lombok is mostly Muslim. Our guide said there are so many Muslims that there is a mosque nearly every 100 feet. That was a bit of hyberbole, but not much–there were always 2-4 mosques within sight as we drove from place to place. We drove by the largest mosque in Lombok, but didn’t stop, so it was hard to get a good photo of it.

The temple we visited is an important temple complex on the island because it is a place where four religions worship and pray together on special occasions–Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. In the center of the complex is a fountain containing fish that are believed to appear only when a person’s wish is going to be granted. Several of our group members threw coins into the fountain and made wishes, and a fish leaped out of the water after one of the wishes. The temple, built in 1714, hosted a major festival yesterday, so many of the festive decorations were still visible as the clean-up crews worked to pick up litter from the festival.

Black and white cultured pearls are grown in a number of places around the world, but only Lombok grows gold cultured pearls.

At the market, we were welcomed with a stick fight dance performance. While men beat on drums, two boys try to hit each other as hard as they can with rattan sticks. A referee (the third boy in the courtyard) determines who scores points. The boys have shields to protect themselves, but when their opponents find an opening around the shield, the fighters can be injured and bleeding. This dance is done only on special holidays. After the performance, we entered the market, which was arranged in a quadrangle and was very colorful.

Our guide told us not to pay the asking price for anything in the market. I didn’t plan to buy anything, but I saw a pretty little basket that Ted and I thought would be a nice souvenir of Indonesia. I told Ted I wouldn’t pay more than $5 for it and we agreed it would probably be $4.95 at Target in the U.S. The seller wanted $20 USD, so I just said no. He asked how much I wanted to pay and I told him not more than $5. He came down to $10, then $7, but I just turned away to leave. I was probably supposed to meet him in the middle on price, but I really didn’t think the basket was worth more than $5 and I could live without it. As I was leaving, he called out that he would accept $5. Then his boss (I assume) came over and asked if he could help. I asked if he’d take a credit card or USD and he said he’d take USD for the $20. So I had to do the same negotiating thing with him. He asked the vendor if it was true that the vendor had agreed to sell it for $5, the vendor affirmed his decision, Ted handed over a $5 bill, and we left with the basket.

At the museum, we were welcomed with a variety of traditional Lombok cakes that were delicious. It was a nice place to visit, because it was cooler inside. We saw many interesting things from Lombok’s history–fabrics, musical instruments, weapons, farming tools, household items, etc. Like the First Ladies’ dresses in the Smithsonian, my favorite display was the formal wear of past royalty in the country.

The most unusual exhibit I saw was these horses.

They look like children’s toys, but reading the description on the sign presented a very different story. There is a little bench/step on each side of each horse. Young boys would sit on these horses with their feet on the steps, holding on to the horses while the boys were held in place by men during their circumcision. The horses were described as “comforting” to the boys. Yikes!

In the city, we saw lots of scooters (just like in Bali) and a different kind of taxi, pulled by a horse. Our guide joked that these taxis have a one-horsepower engine with enough power for a half day. (The taxi drivers have two horses, and use each for a half day.)

Lumber strong enough for building is scarce in Lombok, but bamboo is plentiful and very strong. We saw a lot of building construction that was framed with bamboo, and a number of lumber vendors with cut lengths of bamboo instead of pine 2x4s like in the U.S. Lombok is planting forests of harder wood, but it will take many years to grow enough wood to use it for housing. Meanwhile, much housing is framed with bamboo and sided with corrugated metal. Concrete is another popular construction material.

Housing in Lombok is nearly always enclosed by a wall with a split gate. Compared to U.S. houses, the homes are small (10 m x 10 m is considered roomy) and often shelter multiple families.

The city sidewalks are very decorative, and not only in a few areas–they were decorated with a variety of patterns everywhere we saw a sidewalk. The black and white curb indicates good (white) and evil (black), and the pattern reminds people that everything in life must always be in balance.

We saw pretty scenery wherever we went, but this is equatorial country and it’s literally a jungle, so it was hard to take landscape scenes without trees in my way.

As we neared the ship on our return, the skies darkened. The wind became fierce (Ted thinks a least 50 mph), and it started raining just as our bus parked at the dock. Ted and I had travel umbrellas in our bags and debated if we should use them or run for it. Since the wind would most likely either (1) turn our umbrellas inside out, or (2) blow the rain sideways against us, we opted to run for it. We just cleared the ship’s doorway when a cloudburst-type downpour started and thunder boomed. (We were on a metal gangplank oceanside. Not good with lightning.) The people behind us got drenched. Those still on returning buses were told to stay onboard while the ship’s crew members brought them umbrellas and plastic raincoats. At lunch after everyone dried off, we all agreed the morning ended with an adventure. Here’s what the rain looked like from our stateroom when we got inside.

Our guides in Bali and Lombok both told us that life is good here. Crime is minimal (someone might steal your chicken); road rage doesn’t exist (horns are used to indicate a desire to pass or to take the right-of-way and drivers yield with a smile and a wave to each other); kindness to others and caring for family and community members are deeply ingrained in the culture; and people of all religions get along well with each other and often have communal worship services. Not everything is perfect, of course, but the United States could become a kinder, gentler nation (cf George H. W. Bush) by practicing these values.

Tomorrow: the Indonesian Island of Komodo.

Batik artistry is a fabric dying tradition in Bali. Today we visited a small batik production in Tohpati Village. (I saw three artists.) Batik can be done in several ways: (1) drawing freehand; (2) stamping; or (3) adding and removing layers of wax to allow specific areas of the fabric to accept the dye. The lady in the photo below measures the distance from her previously stamped designs to determine where to place her next stamp.

There were many beautiful pieces of batik work available for sale.

Our next stop was the 17th century Taman Ayun Temple in Mengwi, Bali. Everyone in shorts (most of us–it’s hot and humid) had to put on a sari to enter the temple grounds. We entered the outer courtyard first and saw this representation of a cockfight. Cockfights are popular fund-raisers and the roosters are eventually used as food, so nothing is wasted. The cockfights are sometimes held in auditoriums that seat 3,000 people. At the equivalent of $3 per person per ticket, that’s a pretty decent fund-raiser.

We then moved on to the inner courtyard, where religious rites take place. I wish I could remember more of what our guide told us about the Hindu religious practices. The buildings were interesting. The thatched roofs are made of palm fibers and last about 25 years.

Balinese Hindus eat rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. A GMO variety of rice that ripens in only three months is making it possible for Bali to become self-sufficient in growing enough rice to feed its population. Because rice is so important, the people give thanks to the rice goddess, represented by this sculpture at the temple.

We had traditional Balinese foods for lunch. The only thing that was familiar to me was the Sprite I drank, but the six or seven things I sampled on my plate were all delicious.

Then it was time to go to the 16th century Tanah Lot temple, also called the Sunset Temple. As we approached the temple, we walked through a colorful shopping district and then entered the temple grounds through a split gate. All Hindu temples and many houses have split gates at the entrance. The right side indicates good and the left side represents evil. Together, they bring balance to life.

The towers of the Tanah Lot temple are made of black lava and are dramatically built on a narrow rocky promontory that juts into the Indian Ocean. The tide was low while we were there. At high tide, the temple is surrounded by water. It is the most photographed site in Bali. Just beyond the temple is a cove with a striking rock formation.

Now, Ted and I have seen the Indian Ocean. Cool! Not only that, but we also saw a tiny gecko. Life is fun.

Our tour bus dropped us off at the ship and our cruise begins tomorrow. Internet on the ship will be spotty at sea or slow, so I might not be able to keep up with daily entries of Ted’s and my adventures. Our stateroom has a balcony and a bathroom with a heated floor (we don’t need that in this heat and humidity!), but it’s smaller than a Best Western hotel room. After living onboard for 30 days, our house is going to seem huge!

One of our choices of activities today was a tour of the city of Denpasar, Bali (where we’re staying) from 8:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. After 40 hours of travel from leaving our house to arriving at our hotel yesterday, Ted and I voted “no” for an early morning start and a ten-hour tour. We chose to get some sleep and to spend our day relaxing. It was awesome!

First, we had brunch in an open-air restaurant. I’ve never seen so many brunch choices–a huge room with ten large stations of different types of food. Everything we chose to eat was delicious.

Our brunch was included with our room, but we checked out some of the other restaurants. Take a look at these prices. “IDR” is “Indonesian rupiah,” the local currency. One thousand rupiahs equal approximately seven cents. It’s easy to be a millionaire in Bali.

After brunch, we took a walk to check out the area. We were told that we are safe within the resort section of the city (there are six resorts in a row where we’re staying), but it is not safe to go beyond the resorts. We didn’t. I think we walked about four miles and were repeatedly offered taxi rides or scooter rides. We always replied, “No, thank you. We’re just walking.” The puzzled looks we got made us think walking was an unfamiliar idea.

All that walking in an equatorial country made us hot, so we went to the pool. There is a lagoon that wends its way around the resort, and it’s possible to swim anywhere in the lagoon. That’s Ted in the chair on the left. My chair is on the right. The water was probably around 88 degrees, so we were surprised when we got out and the breeze made us feel quite cool. Since it was a hot day, we were glad to be cool. No problem.

Next on our lazy day agenda was a walk around the resort to check it out. The landscaping is so lush, it looks as thick as a jungle in some places. One wing of hotel rooms is set on the lagoon. Just climb down the pool ladder from your terrace and you’re in the lagoon and ready to swim like the guy doing laps in the photo below.

The last stop on our tour was the open air hotel lobby. When guests arrive and enter the hotel, the man in the first photo below strikes the gong. Then you go up the stairs behind him and the two girls in beautiful dresses greet you. On your way to the check-in desk, you hear the music a young man plays on a xylophone-like instrument made of bamboo sticks. Orchids are everywhere in the resort. I wouldn’t be surprised if they grow wild here.

Our tour featured Christmas decorations too and I was surprised to see that they are just like those in the U.S. There’s a jar of pine cones on the check-in desk and a big (artificial) Christmas pine tree with presents beneath it in the lobby. I’d be shocked to find out pine trees grow in Bali. (Yeah, right beside the palm trees.) There are also numerous Santa figures. The one in the picture below is set against a backdrop of orchids–yes, Santa in his cold-weather suit with hot-weather flowers behind him. Contradictory, right? I assumed tropical places would have more location-specific ways to decorate for the holiday. I’ll be sure to let you know how they decorate in Brisbane, Australia, where we’ll be for Christmas.

After all this activity, we needed a snack, so we went to a deli and had a piece of dessert.

Every Tuesday evening, there is a short fire dance performance at the resort. It’s Tuesday today, so we went.

Then it was time for dinner. We had a buffet that cost over one million rupias. Apparently, we are millionaires in Bali.

We ended our day walking back to our room under a full Bali moon.

I said there are six things I’m looking forward to on this trip.

#1: We crossed the equator yesterday and today I filled the bathroom sink with water and watched it swirl counterclockwise as it went down the drain.

Check! Five to go.

It takes a long time to go nearly halfway (10 time zones) around the globe. Our three flights were uneventful (always good news) with only a minor delay taking off at Hong Kong. We had an eight-hour layover at LAX, so there was plenty of time to walk around the airport, read, get something to eat, etc. This was a pretty piece of digital art at LAX. It spanned several stories of airport floors and was always in downward motion (water falling slowly in a variety of patterns). Very eye-catching and mesmerizing.

We left LAX at midnight and made a toast to upcoming good times. Ted had champagne; I had o.j. The main cabin passengers were in the boarding process. Business class is really nice.

The guy across the aisle from me got comfy before he even took his seat. He pulled off his shirt and shoes and settled in for the duration. The guy across from me when we went to Europe stripped down to his boxer shorts at bedtime, so this was pretty tame.

The girl behind this guy might have been the same one who sat across from me on our flight to Europe too. She stowed her luggage, got out the bedding, and buried herself with only a little of the top hair on her head showing. (It would have been too weird to take a picture of her while she was asleep.) She apparently slept the entire 15+ hours from LAX to HKG because she didn’t re-surface until we landed. Ted and I slept about 7.5 hours. It was a long flight. After arriving at HKG, we went to our gate to depart for Bali. It turned out that 190 of the passengers on that flight were heading for the same cruise as we are.

It was an interesting drive from the airport to our hotel in Denpasar, Bali. The architecture is heavily Asian/Hindu-influenced. There’s a huge bridge network across a large body of water that even includes cloverleaf intersections as it takes you across the water. Since I’m traveling with a meteorologist, we had to note that, since it was late afternoon, thunderstorms were developing.

The first thing we noticed when we landed was that the air was warm (85 degrees) and humid. We were each given a lei as we entered the airport, and Viking (our cruise company) had staff ready to walk us through the airport in small groups, speed us through customs, load our baggage to be delivered to the hotel, give us our hotel room assignments and keys, and put us on our shuttle bus. The air-conditioned shuttle to the hotel was appreciated by all of us, and the most frequently heard comment among our fellow travelers from the U.S. was “I just want a shower, some clean clothes, and some sleep!” Our (air conditioned) hotel is lovely.

The room has a feature that is romantic (in a way), but weird (in more ways). There’s a large window above the double jet-spa bathtub that overlooks the bedroom and provides a view of the outdoors. On the other hand, the window is directly in line with the toilet, the tub/shower, and the exterior window, providing a clear view from outside the bathroom of everything that happens inside the bathroom. We closed the blinds on that window.

This morning, we enjoyed the view from our balcony. We heard unfamiliar bird songs and saw lots of miniature squirrels playing in the trees.

*For those who have not seen “South Pacific,” Bali Ha’i is a mystical island, visible on the horizon, but unreachable. Romantic. Bali, on the other hand, is a real island and we’re on it. Also romantic.

Lots of people traveled last weekend for the Thanksgiving holiday and don’t need to go anywhere this weekend. That made checking in for our flight(s) to Bali easy. We were first in line at the international check-in counter, first in line for the TSA security check, and first in line at the runway for takeoff. Even more amazing, there was no line at Starbuck’s, so Ted had a cup of coffee and I had some hot chocolate while we waited to board our flight.

This is a rarely seen view of how Starbucks looks without a line. You can actually see the interior of the restaurant.
There were no planes on the concourse beside ours, so I guess there weren’t a lot of flights on the schedule either.

We’re off to a good start. That’s a good omen for lots of fun coming up.

The more we travel, the better and quicker Ted and I can pack. Not only that, but our luggage keeps getting lighter. As measured by our luggage scale, our suitcases have dropped from 47 pounds to 42 pounds to 39 pounds on our last three overseas trips. Personally, I’d like to get down to 35 pounds. We’re getting better at not packing “just in case” items, and that helps a lot. This time, we both have empty spaces inside our suitcases. That might mean objects may shift during flight.

Our flight schedule says that, with no delays, we will spend 35 hours going from airport to airport–not including the time on each end to arrive at the airport early, and to go through customs, pick up our baggage, and check in at our hotel when we land. We flew business class to Europe in June and I actually slept seven hours on the plane. Compare that to the hour-and-a-half I slept on our previous overseas flight. We’re flying business class again and will have 16 hours in the air between Los Angeles and Hong Kong, so I’m hoping to arrive well rested.

I wonder how hard it will be to adjust to jet lag after crossing the international dateline. That mysterious geographic marker makes our schedule look like we will arrive in Bali two days after leaving home, but will be home two hours after leaving Sydney. Weird!

Things I’m looking forward to on this trip include: (1) crossing the equator and watching water go down the drain the other way; (2) seeing the Southern Cross in the night sky; (3) summer in December; (4) seeing the Great Barrier Reef; (5) taking an off-road trip to Mt. Tamborine near Brisbane; and (6) hearing someone say “G’day, mate.” We have lots of activities planned, so it will be interesting at the end of our trip to see what our favorite memories are.

Question: If we go “Down Under” from the U.S. to Australia and New Zealand, do those folks travel “Up Over” when they visit the U.S.? I’ll ponder that for a moment or two, but for now, g’day mates.