Memories Made with the Macdonells

We were amazed and touched to think that a family from Glengarry with two small children would want to spend thousands of dollars on flights, and travel thousands of kilometers to the other side of the world, to come see Australia and visit us.

There had been talk of the Macdonell family making the trip to Australia long before we left for this exchange and when it was at last confirmed that tickets had been purchased, we waited anxiously for July 1st and the arrival of Hamish and Tricia and their daughters Sadie and Caitlyn, in the land down under!  They were about to experience the awesomeness that is Australia, and we were about to make some fantastic memories together!

First stop upon arrival, and after 3 hours at the airport organizing the rental car, was Featherdale Wildlife Park!  What better way to welcome our Canadian visitors than with an opportunity to get up close and personal with some of Australia’s iconic furry and feathered friends!  That first evening, which was Canada Day back home, it snowed in Blackheath!  Tricia started to rethink the whole visiting Australia in winter!  They had just left 32 degree weather back home!

The next few days would see us enjoying a tour of the Lucas Cave at one of Australia’s most highly awarded tourist destinations – Jenolan Caves.  And although it is not always easy to remain patient when touring the underground with two 2 year olds – we all managed to enjoy the experience immensely!

Together we explored Katoomba and the Three Sisters, as well as Govetts Leap in our own backyard.  The plan was to give them a good taste of the Blue Mountains before heading up the coast to South West Rocks, where we had a holiday house booked for a week of sun and fun.  The few days in the mountains flew by and before we knew it, we were heading out of Blackheath.

The Hunter Valley, 2 hours north of Sydney and one of Australia’s oldest and best-known wine regions, seemed like the perfect spot to stop for an overnight en route up the coast, and a must-see on Tricia’s list of things to do in the land down under.  The information center in Lovedale in the heart of the Hunter, recommended a couple of wineries given that we only had half a day to spend touring around, and we had 5 children in an otherwise “adult playground”!  We headed for Audrey Wilkinson Vineyard, primarily for the view.  A 360 degree view of the valley was promised, and it did not disappoint.  This 140 year old vineyard is perched in the foothills of the Brokenback Mountain Range and it was breathtaking!  Tricia and I headed inside for a quick taste, and although the wine tasted mighty fine, the service was definitely lacking, so we made our way to the next winery on the list which was McWilliams, Mount Pleasant.

The view may not have been as impressive at McWilliams, but the service and wine were spot on!  Tricia and I enjoyed MANY glasses of wine with our new friend Brian, who by the time we left, had a list of 30 things for us to do while in South West Rocks, as he was a regular vacationer in the Rocks and coincidentally owned a holiday house there!  It was a memorable afternoon….well for Tricia and I anyway!  The boys needed a bar, and fast!

We checked into our three bedroom villa at the Crowne Plaza in the Hunter Valley, and had the boys watered, the kids fed and pj’s on, by the time our babysitter Bev, from the Red Zebra Babysitting Agency, arrived just before 7PM.

It was a magical adult-only night out in the Hunter Valley!  A selling feature for the choice in restaurant was the free shuttle to and from the hotel.  Our personable shuttle driver, Doug, picked us up at the door, and brought us to Blaxlands Inn for dinner.  It would best be described as a small, intimate, country-style restaurant in the Hunter, and we all thoroughly enjoyed our meals, the service, the refreshments, but most of all, the company!  Doug got us all safely home again after some aperitifs at the bar, and we arrived to find all of our darlings fast asleep thanks to Bev!  It was a memorable evening in a very beautiful part of Australia.

We drove away from the Hunter the next morning with the words “so much wine, so little time” ringing in our ears, but never mind, there was a stunning drive up the coast, and a holiday house calling our names!

South West Rocks is on the coast about 6 hours north of Sydney.  The area is blessed with golden beaches and rocky headlands and provides ample opportunity for swimming, surfing, sailing, snorkeling, diving, fishing and boating.  The downtown park at Horseshoe Bay is shaded by towering pine trees, and has a wonderful play structure for the kids!  The holiday house we had booked was going to suit us just fine.  It had 5 bedrooms and a very open concept kitchen, dining and living area on both floors with ample seating, and patio decks on both levels.  It was a good half hour walk from town, but only about a 10 minute walk from the nearest beach access, and within driving distance of some pretty neat day trip attractions.

In South West Rocks we enjoyed spending time with the kangaroos at Little Bay, and admired the view from Smokey Cape Lighthouse, and even though the weather was not super warm, the kids still managed to body surf at most of the beaches in the area.

‘Timbertown’ in nearby Wauchope was hosting their annual Steam Festival, so one of our daytrips included time spent wandering the footpaths of this heritage theme park, similar to Upper Canada Village back home.  It is set up as an entire village complete with stores, and a school, working farm with bullocks, sawmill, bakery, and it tries hard to demonstrate the way of life of Australian pioneers.  The kids had a blast riding the mini train, and going on a Clydesdale wagon ride, but the highlight had to have been the ride around the park on the big ole’ steam train!

Just inland from South West Rocks is very lush countryside and the famous ‘Waterfall Way’.  We left the sand on the coast and meandered through the Bellinger Valley and into the deep and impressive Gondwana rainforest.  The scenery changed from rolling farmland to switchback ridges, to plunging rainforested valleys.  We spent some time at the Dorrigo Rainforest Center in Dorrigo National Park, and walked the ‘Skywalk Boardwalk’ to get an amazing view of the rainforest from above.  Our walk down into the rainforest had the kids swinging from massive vines just like Tarzan and Jane!  Our lunch stop that day was in Belligren which is a quaint town full of charm.  We were excited to return to the holiday house after this daytrip, because this was the day that my sister Erin and brother-in-law John were arriving from Canada!  They had just flown in and were making their way up the coast to meet us at the holiday house that very afternoon!

Our next three days all together were highlighted with trips to Port Macquarie for a whale watching trip, and a visit to the Koala Hospital.  But I will save those details for the next blog post.

Our last couple of nights in South West Rocks with Hamish and Tricia were spent consuming delicious meals, including fresh fish that Hamish and John had caught on an early morning deep sea fishing trip, and playing cards, catching up, laughing until our cheeks hurt, and celebrating 3 birthdays – Matt’s on the 6th, Elijah’s on the 13th, and Tricia’s on the 14th!  Hamish and Tricia headed off further north of South West Rocks for an opportunity to get to warmer weather and to explore the Great Barrier Reef.  After they returned from their adventure up the coast, Matt and I and the kids met up with them in Sydney and we all had one last day and night with them before they flew home to Canada.

We spent the day traveling by ferry over to Manly on one of the rockiest/waviest boat rides that we had ever been on!  We spent some time on the beach, and then wandered the markets and streets of the downtown before we left the boys at the “Oldest Pub in Sydney”, and then we all caught dinner and drinks at the Australian Hotel in the Rocks.

So, here was this family about to make the long journey back home to Canada, with a suitcase full of souvenirs and heads and hearts full of memories!  We were so thankful and appreciated the effort, time, money, and planning that went into making the trip to the land down under possible and we are grateful for the time spent together and the memories made.  Good friends, like a fine Australian wine, are delightful and just get better with age!

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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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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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The Arrival of Grandparents!

Our first visitors to our new home in Australia were about to arrive! The spare bedroom was ready and waiting, and 3 very spirited grandchildren were bursting with excitement! Matt’s parents, Blair and Jean were set to arrive into Sydney at 8:30AM on April 4th. They were arriving just in time for the Easter weekend and the first term two-week break.

Elijah and I made the two hour trek to the airport in Sydney, with an Aussie flag ready to be waved frantically at our guests! Elijah had been talking non-stop about “Ganpa and Gamma” and “aipane” for the weeks leading up to their arrival. The whole journey to Kingsford-Smith Airport was consumed with talk about two of his favourite people on earth!  Little did I know his reaction upon actually seeing them would be one of pure disbelief and skepticism!

The flight was on time and their journey was comfortable as they had been upgraded to business class!  There were big hugs, and they were thankfully greeted with warm Australian weather, as well as a disbelieving and muted grandson!  It wasn’t until after lunch in Springwood, en route to Blackheath that Elijah finally came out of his shell and held his “Ganpa’s” hand as they walked the streets of this quaint village!

After a quick catnap and more cuddles at home, we all walked up to the school to collect the other two excited grandchildren.

While waiting patiently in the school courtyard for the final bell to ring, Blair and Jean were able to meet some of the other Blackheath parents and new friends.  As soon as the bell rang, Leina came running into her grandparents arms and what a special reunion it was!  Blair went around to the Kindergarten courtyard to greet a very ecstatic grandson – Cohen held on tight to Grandpa long after the hug was initiated!  And then it was Grandma’s turn for a Cohen bear hug, and she too was not left disappointed!

The first stop after the grande reunion and introductions to their teachers, was the bakery on the way home for a classic grandparent treat – chocolate infused croissant and a hot chocolate!  Check out the happy grin!

The kids were so eager to show Grandpa and Grandma the route home from school, which was made much more interesting by the sugar rush!

It wasn’t long after the school pick up and bakery treats that Matt got home from work and was warmly and lovingly greeted by his parents.  And this was the start of what was going to be fantastic quality bonding time with such special visitors!

Scenes from Sydney

The New South Wales Department of Education and Training invited exchange teachers to Sydney Friday, February 17th for a one-day workshop, so we booked a hotel room and decided to stay the weekend and explore the city!  Everyone was pumped!

Our day started off with a bang, as the alarm clock did not go off as planned!  I awoke with a start at 5:55PM – our train to Sydney was leaving at 6:30AM!  That meant a mad rush to get everyone dressed, teeth brushed and out the door by 6:20AM to drive to the train station in Blackheath.  Luckily the bags and breakfast had been packed the night before!

The quick start was rewarded with a slow, leisurely train trip into the downtown.  We enjoyed our breakfast and the view from the upper level of the train.  Train travel in Australia is so civilized!  Trains depart regularly, even from the top of the Blue Mountains!  And for less than $8.00 we can travel to downtown Sydney in roughly 2 hours.

Once downtown, we found the location of the workshop and left Matt with his fellow exchange participants, and the kids and I hooked up with Wilma and Robyn (former Australian exchange participants) for a guided walking tour of the city.  We started at the Customs House and walked “on top” of Sydney!  They have a full-scale model of the city under glass on the floor, so you can literally walk on top of the city!

Our tour continued into the famous Rocks area near the harbour, and after a quick stop at a souvenir shop, we were at the base of the steps to climb up and walk along the Harbour Bridge.  The day was perfect for walking, and we were amazed at the awesome views from the bridge.  Cohen loved the water taxis and boats below!  We walked the full length of the bridge and back again with only minor whinging and lots of snacks.  We meandered back through the Rocks and then had lunch at Circular Quay.

Following lunch, we walked over to the Opera House in the harbour and then enjoyed a leisurely afternoon in the Botanical Gardens in downtown Sydney, where we saw flying foxes (massive bats), eels in the ponds, a photo art exhibit on Lake Eyre, a succulent garden, climbed a few trees, and had an ice cream before heading back to meet Matt at 3:30.

Matt enjoyed meeting fellow exchange participants and the opportunity to talk about the rewards and challenges of teaching in another country.  It’s always refreshing to know that you are not alone and that your experiences can be similar to others.

We stayed the weekend at a great little hotel in Surry Hills, a block away from Oxford Street where there is some great shopping and eateries, and great scenery!  The hotel had 1 bedroom and a pool – always a pre-requisite with kids!

On Saturday the kids were awake at 5:30!  Go figure!  They’re never up this early at home, but alas, it made for an early departure from the hotel room and meant we could pack more into the very hot and sunny day!

First stop – Circular Quay to catch the ferry to the world-famous Taronga Zoo!  We could have spent the whole day on the ferry and the boys would have been happy – what a highlight that was!  We got to the wharf at the base of the zoo and the next highlight was the cable car that takes you to the top of the zoo!  The zoo is on the side of a hill in Sydney opposite the Opera House which means the animals have the best views in all of Sydney.  And the zoo is designed such that you take the “Sky Safari” to the top and then make your way down the hill to the base of the zoo and the wharf.

What a fantastic zoo!  This was my second visit and it was much more spectacular going with kids!  The highlights were the snakes, baby elephants, the tigers, the ½ hour seal show, and the Tasmanian devils!  We spent 4 ½ hours meandering through the zoo and the displays and had a picnic lunch right in the middle of the zoo and by the time we got to the bottom, everyone was exhausted!

But not too exhausted to take the ferry back and the bus down to Bondi Beach!  The kids were amazed at the waves and spent close to 2 hours running in and out of the waves!  Both Leina and Cohen got mouths full of salty water and Elijah spent most of the time running away from the water creeping up onto the beach.  And Matt and I just enjoyed the eye candy!


We had a Thai dinner down on Campbell Parade before heading back on the bus to our hotel.  And after a quick dip in the hotel pool to rinse off the last of the salt and sand, we all crashed as soon as our heads hit the pillow!

Sunday morning we checked out of the hotel and walked down to Darling Harbour for some play time in Tumbalong Park (a very large outdoor playground), and a walk through China Town, and Paddy’s Markets.  We were meeting at Merril’s place for lunch in the Glebe, so we caught the bus up to that area of town just before noon.

Merril is the woman who I was a nanny for 15 years ago.  She has moved from her sprawling home in Woollarha and now lives in another beautiful area of Sydney.  We were welcomed into her stunning home for a scrumptious lunch of homemade salads, and bread and cheese and fruit platters.  Merril’s oldest daughter Miranda came with her daughter Asha, and Miranda’s friend Liz.  Merril had also invited her convivial neighbors Matt and Nicky and their two children.  The wine and conversation flowed all afternoon and if it wasn’t for our 5:18 train back to Blackheath, we would have stayed all evening!

Sunday is ‘Family Funday’ in Sydney and surrounds, which means that for $2.50 per person an entire family can enjoy a fun day out with unlimited travel on Sydney’s buses, trains and ferries!  It was a “Family Fun Weekend” for us, and the kids are already asking “when can we go back?!”

Hill End

“Hill End unravels the myths surrounding the gold rushes in order to reveal the hidden histories of the Wiradjuri people….of the multicultural gold boom community and of the subsistence community that endured for generations after the boom had passed”.

We strolled back in time in what was once the booming mining community of Hill End, NSW.  Most of the friends we have made in Australia so far were wonderfully shocked to hear we were heading to the town of Hill End for a “picnic”!  “Why Hill End?” they queried!

The NSW Exchange Teachers League, made up of Australian teachers who have been on teaching exchanges all over the world, organizes events throughout the year for exchange teachers and their families who are visiting Australia.  A couple from Mudgee, both teachers, were the ones responsible for the invitation to this historic and remote location for a picnic gathering.  And what a warm and welcoming afternoon it was!

We were fortunate to meet 4 Australian families who live in the area who have been to Canada on exchange before.  Two teachers had been to Calgary (one family had just returned at the beginning of this year), one to Oakville, and the coordinators of this local group who had been on exchange to Ottawa.  And we also got to meet 2 other teachers who are here from Canada on exchange in Dubbo, NSW, about 3 hours from Blackheath.

We regrettably missed morning tea with the group, as the ride up to Hill End through Ilford and Sofala took longer than we anticipated, and it required frequent stops due to carsickness, and bathroom breaks!  What should have taken 2 hours, took closer to 3!  It didn’t help that the roads up to Hill End are windy and narrow and in some parts gravel and sheer cliff!  It was an “interesting” drive to say the least.  Matt described the air as “blue” when the car doors finally opened in Hill End;  you could have cut the tension with one of the picnic butter knives!  But we made it and we were glad to be there.

As soon as we arrived in Hill End it was immediately evident that the town was historic.  Those of you from Glengarry and area will understand when I say that Hill End reminded us of a gold mining version of Upper Canada Village in a sense.  The town has historic significance as one of the largest inland towns in NSW due to its’ rich gold discoveries of the 1870’s.  We were amazed to find some of the old historic buildings still standing, some of which have been restored and adapted for other uses.  The remainder of the town is dotted with historic plates describing the building that once stood in that location, with a photo accompanying the description.

The town is still thriving today, though barely.  In the 1870’s the population of Hill End was 8000, and the town boasted 2 newspapers, 5 banks, and 8 churches.  When the gold gave out, the decline was dramatic.  In 1945 the population was 700, and today there are maybe 200 people who call Hill End home.  At the main crossroads, there is a general store, where the front verandah was occupied by a group of “good ‘ole boys” drinking a pint at noon, with the country tunes blaring from the old ute stereo!

Across from the general store is ‘The Royal Hotel’, the sole survivor of the towns 52 pubs!  Someone had rode up on their horse and was taking advantage of a sunny Saturday afternoon, and it was here that we also imbibed an Australian cold one, before having our picnic.  No kids allowed in the pub, so we had to drink our pints out behind the hotel!

We thoroughly enjoyed meeting this wonderful group of people who had tales to tell from their Canadian adventures, and suggestions to make as far as travelling around Australia.  The lunch was absolutely delicious – homemade salads, and roast chicken and rolls, and lovely squares for dessert.  And the kids enjoyed kicking the soccer ball around with some other little kids while the adults visited.

It was a treat to get out of the mountains and into the gentle rolling hills and to experience a town that we probably wouldn’t have taken the time to visit otherwise.  Hill End’s houses and buildings are full of stories and we felt privileged to have experienced this extraordinary town and to have met some great people.