Mother’s Day in Newcastle

“Each day of our lives we make deposits into the memory banks of our children.” ~ C. Swindoll

Our exchange year is all about filling up Leina, Cohen and Elijah’s memory banks, and Mother’s Day weekend in Newcastle proved to be another opportunity to make some momentous deposits, for all of us.

Newcastle is only a 3 hour drive from the Blue Mountains, on the coast north of Sydney.  Historically it is Australia’s second oldest city, and in the last few years it has undergone revitalization and coincidentally in 2011 it was named one of the top 10 cities in the world by Lonely Planet guide book.

We had a true Novocastrian experience in Australia’s seventh largest city, known for its’ abundance of beaches, surf breaks, and world class Ocean baths.  We started our day with a swim and play on Nobby’s Beach, made famous by the MV Pasha Bulker carrier ship that ran aground in massive storms in June of 2007.  The kids really enjoyed running in the waves while watching these massive carriers pulling in to port right by the beach.  Thankfully none of them crashed while we were there!  It is obvious that the port in Newcastle is the economic lifeline for the city, as the ships were constantly manoeuvering through the harbor.  Moving 90 million tonnes of coal every year makes Newcastle the world’s largest exporter of coal.  It truly was awesome to see.

We strolled past the historic Customs House en route to meet Damien and Amber’s sister-in-law and her daughters.  We were treated to a swim in their pool and refreshments on the terrace before heading out for an early evening walk before dinner.  We could feel the burn in the quads during the uphill climb to King Edward Park, and the kids enjoyed a play on the outdoor structures and a run around the ornate rotunda. On the walk back to the downtown we walked the ‘Bather’s Way’ which is the coastal walk that links 3 of Newcastle’s white-sandy beaches.

Dinner that night was at Blue Water Pizza overlooking the harbor.  The kids enjoyed taking turns on the ‘Power Wing’ on the boardwalk and pier while they waited for their wood-fired pizzas to arrive.  The ‘Power Wing’ is a radical new three-wheeled device that looks like a scooter, but is propelled by moving your body from side to side.  It requires a lot of hip action, and Cohen seemed to have the hardest time shaking his hips – go figure – he’s a lot like his father!!  Some of the kids even rushed through their ice cream dessert just to get back on the ‘Power Wing’!  A big hit needless to say!

Sunday morning, Mother’s Day, was very special!  I was treated to a sleep in, and then presented with breakfast in bed, complete with some fabulous homemade gifts, a new mug that says “If Mums Were Flowers, I’d Pick You” (apparently I almost ended up with two of these as both Leina and Cohen chose the same gift at the Blackheath Public School Mother’s Day Stall!), a travel manicure set, some Australian soap, and a cooking magazine!  The most priceless thing of all was when Elijah came into the bedroom he started singing “Happy Birthday”!

My husband may not have loose enough hips for the Power Wing, but he does know how to keep me happy, because he was the one to suggest that the remainder of the morning be spent browsing the shops at the local mall!

Our Mother’s day picnic lunch was planned for the Blackbutt Nature Reserve with Damien’s brother and sister-in-law and nieces.  James had coordinated the entire lunch and had poured both Beth and I glasses of red wine, before he had us feasting on fresh chicken sandwiches with avocado and coleslaw on crusty rolls – Matts’ new favourite sandwich!  After lunch and turns on the Power Wing, we walked around the Blackbutt Reserve, which is a natural bushland park that provides habitats for a number of native Australian wildlife, including the kangaroo, wombat, wallaby, emu, and koala, among other animals and birds.  The park occupies over 182 hectares and is entirely run by volunteers.  There is no charge for the park and was the perfect setting for a Mother’s Day picnic!

Our drive back down the coast and up the mountain to Blackheath was memorable as the kids tried to attract the attention of the passengers in the cars parked beside us at the stop lights!  Cohen had one young woman winking and flirting with him – which in turn had us all in stitches!

Mother’s Day weekend will go down in history as being memorable for various reasons including exploring a new city, spending quality time on the beach, walking along the water, partaking of wine and good food with new friends, but most of all because it was spent surrounded by 4 of my favourite people – all of whom have made me one very proud and lucky MUM!

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The Giant Stairway

The Giant Stairway at Echo Point in the Blue Mountains is aptly named, for it is comprised of 911 hand-hewn cliff steps and 32 steel staircases.  The very steep stairway leads you to the floor of the Jamison Valley directly below the world famous Three Sisters at Katoomba.

Most visitors to Katoomba take advantage of the view from Echo Point and admire the rock formation of the Three Sisters, Meehni, Wimlah and Gunnedoo, but few take the chance to trek down the stairs to admire the view of the Jamison Valley and the Three Sisters from a different perspective.

The Giant Stairway was the brainchild of Ranger James McKay back in the early 1900’s, but it wasn’t until 1932, after much politics, fundraising and effort, that the steps were completed and the official opening celebrated.

The kids nicknamed our journey, “Staircase to the Moon” after Bronwyn Houston’s book by the same title, which they have both enjoyed reading at Blackheath Public.  The hike was slow-going as the staircase was very steep in parts.  The kids were given strict instructions to keep a firm hold on the handrails at all times.  And as is customary on any hike we do with the kids there were numerous snack breaks and lots of photo ops!

We enjoyed the opportunity and the hour long round-trip hike, and although we didn’t quite make it to the very bottom of the stairway (for fear of the whinging on the way back up), we know that we’ll be back to try it again soon!  Perhaps some of our Canadian visitors will be brave enough to join us during the next attempt!

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Discovering Jenolan Caves

“Jenolan Caves – Where Magic Happens”.

450 million years of history greets every visitor as they drive through the Grand Arch that towers 24 meters above. We are fortunate enough to be living only an hour away from the award-winning tourist destination of Jenolan Caves nestled in the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area not far from Oberon and Kanangra-Boyd National Park. It is not hard to see why or how this place has found its way onto the world stage.

Jenolan is truly magical. From the moment you start to make your descent into Australia’s most outstanding cave system, you can already sense that you are entering something surreal. The narrow, winding road would render the most experienced driver white-knuckled, but the view at the bottom of Jenolan, or “high mountain” as the Aboriginals called it, and the entrance through the Grand Arch is absolutely breathtaking! We were in absolute awe of the formation of the caves and almost more in awe of their discovery.

The earliest recorded discovery was by a European, James Whalan, in 1838 even though legend suggests that a bush ranger and ex-convict by the name of James McKeown first discovered the caves when he used them as a hideout. The caves themselves became a tourist destination in the mid 1800’s and in those days, visitors were encouraged to “take a piece” home with them as souvenirs. Thankfully this practice became illegal in 1872, and preservation of this fragile environment became a priority.

We have taken the opportunity to visit Jenolan Caves twice now, once with Matts’ parents to do a guided cave tour, and once with a group of Australian and Canadian exchange teachers to do a bush walk along the river.

The bush walk starts at the Grand Arch and the teal blue river pool, and winds its way alongside the river, over rickety old suspension bridges to an old dam and power station. The river pool is home to a resident platypus and sightings of this shy marsupial are few. As luck would have it, the kids and I got to see it swim into its burrow in the side of the river bank and then we waited patiently for it to swim back out a few minutes later! It was a rare and beautiful opportunity to spot one in the wild.

Out of the 11 show caves that you can tour, we chose the Imperial Cave tour with the Diamond Cave tour extension and we were led by an experienced guide on an unforgettable journey to the underground. The Imperial and Diamond Cave follows the path of an ancient river passage, and we were completely blown away by the wondrous crystal formations and the glass-like river which wowed us at the bottom of the 70 step spiral staircase. The kids were amazed at how the stalagmites seemed to sparkle in flashes of pink and apricot and they loved when the guide would invite them to the front of the pack to be the first to see the magical formations up around the next corner. Even Elijah couldn’t help but exclaim “wow” on numerous occasions!

Equally impressive were the hanging shawls that looked like sheets of semi-transparent glass hanging from the sides of the caves, as well as the “brides veil”, and the “crystal city”. It was an hour and a half tour that was unforgettable.

Jenolan hosts special events 365 days a year, including concerts deep in the caves, as well as legends and ghost tours, adventure caving with headlamps down long-abandoned pathways, underground theatre, weddings, and there have even been Santa sightings at Christmas time – as rare and special as sighting the resident platypus!

It has been over 170 years since the first person walked through the Grand Arch at Jenolan Caves. I can only imagine the sense of awe that person must have experienced. The magic of the oldest cave system in the world is still leaving its mark on visitors. It truly is timeless and unforgettable.

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Road Trip with Grandma and Grandpa

Road maps – check.  Time-out vehicle – check.  Electronic games – check.  More snacks than a well-stocked Beckers – check.  Sense of adventure – naturally.

We were setting off on a 10 day, 3000 kilometre excursion south of the Blue Mountains through Australia’s varied and breathtaking countryside.  We would be traveling to the capital Canberra, and the famous Snowy Mountains, out to the beautiful coastal town of Merimbula, onto Cape Liptrap, to the cosmopolitan city of Melbourne, the sleepy southern town of Euroa and the hospitable town of Cootamundra before making our way back to the Blue Mountains.

And apart from getting a horrible case of pink eye and discovering Leina had head lice on our last day, the road trip proved to be incredible!

Once we had established that you cannot rent a van from Sydney, Nova Scotia airport and expect to drive it in Australia, we were well on our way in convoy!

The first two days of the excursion were short, manageable road trip days.  We were easing gracefully into the trip with a nice leisurely 4 hour drive down the Hume highway to Canberra.  Canberra was a teaching exchange possibility for us, and after having spent one day on this road trip touring around the city, complete with a drive down ANZAC Parade, and a visit to the impressive War Memorial, both Matt and I felt reassured that we had made the right decision choosing Blackheath and the Blue Mountains over the conservative capital.  It was a nice place to visit but we wouldn’t want to live there.

We left the capital city and made our way through the charming town of Cooma, in the Snowy Mountains.  A note here about Australian coffee, if I may.  Each cup is brewed individually, and if you have the patience to wait while these quaint little coffee shops brew yours, you will never be disappointed!  Cooma was a great spot to stop for our morning coffee and play in the town centre playground (another awesome feature of small town Australia is the attention they pay to having a community park in the centre of town with public toilets and large play structures for the kids).  It was here that the kids were treated to new footwear courtesy of Grandma and Grandpa!  Leina’s new boots had Grandpa commenting that “now you just need a horse”!

From Cooma we drove through the clouds in the Snowy Mountains, past spectacular scenery – rolling hills and roving belted Galloway and Hereford cattle and large flocks of sheep.  We stopped for our picnic lunch in the town of Bega, the cheese capital of Australia, after driving through one of Australia’s famous mid-day breathalyser tests!  Thankfully we were sober that morning!

A stunning part of the south coast of Australia was a mere 100 kilometres beyond Bega.  The town of Merimbula, on the Sapphire Coast, greeted us with warmth and radiance!  It is not hard to imagine the reason behind it’s designation as a “holiday resort” town, with a total of 5 beaches within its grasp and many other activities and options for young and old alike.  We found one of the beaches and spent time running in and out of the waves and building sandcastles, while Grandma and Grandpa strolled downtown to find us a suitable dinner venue.  Restaurant of choice was a quaint Mexican establishment that had a play structure right outside in the courtyard for the kids to play on while we waited for our meals to arrive!

Leaving the pace and sights of Merimbula in the morning, although difficult, meant we were only one more drive away from Cape Liptrap, the most southern tip of privately owned land in Australia, and holiday home of Blair and Jean’s good friends, Evan and Judy Walker.  Our longest drive of the road trip, took us through Lakes Entrance and Sale, lovely seaside towns, and we arrived at the Cape in time for pre-dinner drinks and very warm greetings!

Cape Liptrap is one of those places that can only be experienced to be believed.  Describing the home as an architectural marvel, and the surroundings as bush land with impressive views across to Wilsons Promontory and if you’re lucky, Tasmania on a clear day, doesn’t even begin to do it an ounce of justice.  The home and the hosts are truly warm and hospitable.  Evan and Blair (Matt’s dad), attended university together in Toronto, and have remained dear friends ever since.  It was an emotional and special reunion between families, as Evan is now stricken with Parkinson’s and Judy has become the brave primary caregiver.  We spent the weekend enjoying each other’s company, as well as good food, lively conversation, and some of the best beach shell searching yet!

One of the highlights for the kids was a special treat before bed one night – a ride in the paddock to search for nocturnal wombats!  Evan and Judy’s daughter Becca took us on an adventure that is carved forever into our memory banks – quite a sight watching these fat, cuddly creatures bound out of the way when the headlights spot them!  Elijah thought it was the best!  During our weekend together, Judy kept Cohen busy by giving him a basin with soapy water so that he could clean a kangaroo bone found on a bush walk, and she had both Leina and Cohen parenting caterpillars in homemade boxes with fresh eucalyptus leaves.

Another Cape Liptrap highlight was taking turns bottle-feeding the baby kitten that Evan and Judy’s son Chris and his wife Sam brought to Cape Liptrap from their home near Ballarat.  Leina was enamoured by this tiny, squealing, bundle of fur and enjoyed every opportunity to give it a cuddle!

We had such a wonderful time with the Walker family and found it difficult to say good-bye to them.  Our weekend together was so rich and rewarding in so many ways, and their hospitality will never be forgotten.

From Cape Liptrap, we traveled just over two hours to the city of Melbourne.  We checked into our spectacular 3 bedroom fully furnished apartment in Southbank and immediately immersed ourselves in this amazing, culturally eclectic metropolis!  We met up with Stuart and his girlfriend Jodi for dinner down on the river our first night in the city.  Stuart is the son of really good friends of Blair and Jeans, originally from Ottawa, and may be seeking permanent residency in Australia now that he’s fallen for an Aussie!  An awesome choice in restaurant on the Yarra River, given that we have children, and an awesome time was had catching up.

Our time in Melbourne was spent exploring by foot, the Botanical Gardens, Federation Square and Flinders Street Station, as well as a walk and tour of the Shrine of Remembrance, another of Australia’s impressive monuments to the men and women who have served during times of war.  Melbourne, although a very large city, is surprisingly easy to get around.  It is walkable, yet public transit is user-friendly, and the city is architecturally stunning and full of green space, parks, and gardens.  Melbourne is also home to 17 professional well-supported sporting teams!  Can you tell it is my new favourite city!?!

While staying in Melbourne for 4 nights, we experienced dinner on Little Bourke in Chinatown, visited the glass-laden beach at St. Kilda, dined on Acland Street in trendy St. Kilda, shopped and bought an Aussie designer label dress as well as great gifts at the Queen Victoria Market, admired the penguins at the Aquarium, and Matt and I even went on a date to the movies (housed in one of the biggest casinos we have ever seen)!  Melbourne far exceeded our expectations as one remarkable city!

A side trip on our way out of Melbourne, was to the town of Healesville to visit the highly recommended Healesville Animal Sanctuary which really impressed us.  It was here that Leina and Cohen said good-bye to their caterpillars, and we enjoyed a walking tour of this oasis full of native Australian animals, including every kind of snake and bird, as well as dingos, wombats, Tasmanian devils, kangaroos, platypus, echidna, bilby, wallaby, and even a koala bear named Hamish!  Elijah learned the hard way that if you don’t hang on tight to your sandwich, the Australian White Ibis will steal it right out of your little hand!

The drive away from Healesville and through the Yarra Valley was absolutely stunning.  Such beautiful countryside – rolling hills with vineyards perched on estates.  Wine country that would be worth stopping for a visit, as I’m sure I heard the grapes on the vines beckoning me to stop and sample, if only this was an “adult-only” road trip!

Our motel stops on the way home were in Euroa and Cootamundra and it was at the motel in Cootamundra, the morning we were set to drive home, that we discovered Leina had head lice!  She rode home with a strong-smelling leave-in lice treatment – we were thankful this was our last day!  We were able to enjoy a lunch and walk in downtown Bathurst before getting home at a reasonable hour.

It was an incredible road trip with beautiful scenery through Australia’s diverse countryside – lush rainforests, rolling hills, and rugged coastline.  We had 10 days of sunshine that allowed us to return with some great photos, and priceless memories.  It was a privilege that we don’t dare take for granted and a road trip that was extra special because the memories and moments were shared with Leina and Cohen and Elijah’s Grandma and Grandpa Williams.

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Touring Around Town with Grandpa and Grandma!

They came.  They sewed.  They played.  They cooked.  They babysat.  They chopped.  They walked.  They gardened.  They read.  A lot!

Through the eyes of the three kids, Grandma and Grandpa’s visit was all about the parks and picnics and the card games and story times.  For Matt and I, their visit was about adult company on those walks and at meal times, and even a couple of date nights!  It was about quality time with two special visitors.  It was great welcoming Matts’ parents to our exchange home.

Blair and Jean spent over two weeks in the Blue Mountains broken up by a 10 day road trip together south of the mountains to the state of Victoria.  During their time in the Blue Mountains we hosted some of our new friends over lunch in the sunshine on our back deck and at everyone’s recommendation, we visited the Mount Tomah Botanical Gardens for a picnic lunch and walk.  Mount Tomah is this fantastic garden less than an hours drive from Blackheath.  It is a cool climate garden with wonderful walking trails, and plenty of grass for picnics.  We toured through the gardens and admired the variety of trees and plants that seem to thrive 1000 metres above sea level in the mountain air.  We especially liked the different pines, and my new favorite – the Wollemi Pine.

Easter Sunday, the kids were delighted to learn that the Easter Bilby had made an appearance!  He even left Easter eggs outside on the deck!  Jeannie and I sported lovely hand-made Easter bonnets at church Sunday morning, made by the church ladies, and we hosted Amber’s family for Easter dinner that evening, complete with Pavlova for dessert!

Another highlight was a daytrip to Sydney.  We rode the train to Parramatta, and because Blair and Jean are of a certain age, they got to travel for $2.50 for the entire day!  From Parramatta, we walked to the Parramatta Wharf and caught the River Cat ferry down to the Sydney harbour.  What a beautiful way to travel to the heart of the city.  Parramatta River winds its way past smaller harbours and shoreline executive homes.  And since the sun was shining, the trip down the river and under the Harbour Bridge was just perfect!

We spent the day walking around the Opera House and picnicked in Sydney’s Botanical Gardens before taking another ferry over to Manly.  The kids had a blast splashing in the waves and playing in the sand for the afternoon while the adults visited!  After ice cream on The Corso, we ventured back on the ferry and headed for Circular Quay to pick up the rental car.  The group split in two – the men and Leina took the rental car, and Jeannie, and I and the boys took the train back to Blackheath.

Blair and Jean got to experience some of our favourite lookouts and hikes, including the local Fairfax Heritage Track, as well as Wentworth Falls.  Cohen lead us to the Wentworth Falls Lake, a spot he had been to with his class, for some playtime on the pirate ship structure, and we enjoyed a picnic by the lake.

A highlight for Matt and I was a gift from Blair and Jean, a double date to Sydney to the Playhouse.  Our friend Kim looked after the kids for the afternoon and evening, and we ventured down on the train, enjoyed shopping in The Rocks market, and pre-show drinks and a visit with Preston and Sandra Manning.  The show we were treated to was a tribute show to the late Johnny Cash – ‘The Man in Black’ – performed by Australian singer and songwriter, Tex Perkins.  The Playhouse is a small, intimate theatre in the lower level of the Opera House.  Tex does a stellar Johnny Cash impersonation, and wove the story of Johnny Cash between songs.  After the show we enjoyed oysters and dinner right on the harbour.  The train ride back up to Blackheath meant that no one had to worry about staying awake!  It was a grande date and a real treat to be out without lugging a diaper bag, stroller, or snacks through downtown Sydney!

A couple of days before they were leaving for home, on ANZAC Day, we explored the Jenolan Caves, which is about an hour away from Blackheath.  This adventure is deserving of its’ own post, so stay tuned!

Also deserving of its’ own post is the entire road trip we did together to Melbourne and area, so stay tuned for that as well!

It was incredibly difficult to say good-bye to Blair and Jean when they left on April 27th.  There were flood warnings in Blackheath from all of the tears!  They brought a little piece of home, and knowing we wouldn’t see them for another 8 and a half months, made their departure all the more difficult.  They were wonderful guests – relaxed and easy-going company – who spoiled their grandchildren with games, and story time, and treats and cuddles.  We are so grateful that they made the trip to visit us and we will all cherish the memories forever.  Even Elijah, who appeared to be handling the morning of their departure best, reacted as their car drove away down the road by pointing and crying out “Ganpa and Gamma, Ijah wanna go too”!

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