Australia and Fiji Summer 2011 travel blog

Koala in the wild

On the sand dunes

The sunshine sparkled in the puddles outside of our motel's window when I peaked out this morning—it looked like it may have been the end of the rain. Izabella woke us up a few minutes before the alarm and she was ready to get going. And so was I. I was looking forward to today's excursion to the Port Stephens region—the Dolphin Capital of Australia—and taking a Dolphin & Whale Watch tour out of the Nelson Bay harbor. We were all keeping our finger's crossed that the weather will allow us to go onto the ocean.

The television news, however, showed otherwise: record-breaking rain for the month of July; huge swells tossing about the Sydney ferries like toys in Izzy's bathtub. Nevertheless, we left the Hunter Valley with high hopes, mainly due to the brilliant sunshine and the puffy white clouds.

As we made our way out of the valley, we passed through a small town called Kurri Kurri. Other than it's strange name, there is not much about it, except we saw...kangaroos! Another mob of these cute and strange marsupials gathered in the town's park (next to the playground) and were having breakfast in the warming sun. I was able to flip a quick u-turn and pull into the park's grassy parking lot. Excited, with camera in hand, I jumped out and made my as quickly as I could toward the kangaroos without scaring them.

One of the larger ones looked up to take a look at me on behalf of the others who peacefully continued to graze on the dew-laden grass. He stood tall; I estimated that he was easily as tall as me. They are much larger animals than I anticipated.

I approached quietly, taking photos with practically every step. I came within about 20 feet of the the closest kangaroo when, practically all on cue, they starting bouncing away rapidly into the thicket of the eucalyptus trees along the edge of the town park. I did not manage to capture any good photos, but Steph caught my kangaroo stalking on video!

The drive to Nelson Bay was uneventful, except that our high hopes became rather low as the weather became darker, colder, gloomier, and all around ugly. It started to rain cats and dogs, or rather kangaroos and koala bears. It was unbelievable. At times, I had a hard time seeing the road before me.

A fun little moment was when we drove through the town called Neath that had a large sign place by its welcome sign proudly declaring that the town of Neath received the “Tidiest Tiny Town” Award by the New South Wales Government. Coincidence? I think not!

We meandered our way to the the coast and found our way to the harbor where the whale watching cruise takes off.

It was a ghost town. Barely any cars in the parking lot, no tourists wandering along the boardwalk, and all the boats tied to their docks, sealed, shut, and left to ride out the rain.

Always the optimist, Stephanie said lets see if we are still on for the whale watching. Thus, she and I left Izzy and Peggy safely behind in the car, while we braced ourselves against the rain and wind to make our way to the dock of our cruise.

The rain was cold, the wind was strong, but the dock was eerily still. A lone fisherman was walking back along one of the piers with his yellow raincoat and bucket of fish.

We saw a small shack along the pier with the logo of the tour operator and we rushed into it.

Not to our surprise, the agent behind the desk stated that there will be no tours happening today and tomorrow due to the huge swells along the coast. He gave us a number to call for a refund of our prebooked excursion and suggested some other spots to visit while we were here.

Although we expected this news, we left the shack deflated. We were both very much looking forward to seeing the dolphins and whales off the coast of Port Stephens—especially at this time of year when the whales are close to shore on their annual migration.

We returned to the car, shared the bad news, and looked at our options via the tour book and our trusty GPS.

Oh, a lighthouse! Our GPS showed the Nelson Bay Lighthouse only 4 kilometers from where we were. Well, since we had nothing else planned for today, we made our way up to the lighthouse.

A few minutes later, following signs to the lighthouse (with a picture of a lighthouse on them), we arrived at the Nelson Bay Lighthouse. Another moment of deflation.

Although it technically was a lighthouse—since it did produce a guiding light to seafarers—it was just a tall modern light atop metal scaffolding. The view was incredible, even with the rain, but the lighthouse was a bit of a disappointment. Nowhere to be seen was the typical tall tower, nor the beautiful Fresnel lens.

We debated whether or not to actually count this as a lighthouse, but since it also had the Marine Rescue Station right next door, we decided to.

From our high vantage point, however, we did notice the incredibly large waves that were beating the cliffs and the beach and recognized really quickly why our whale watching cruise was canceled.

We figured that we might explore the area a bit more and drove along the coastline to the town of Shoal Bay where we just caught the latter half of a sailboat tied to a buoy near the shore sinking to the bottom. As I parked along the empty beach, we watched in sorrow as the last bit of of the mast disappeared under the waves. All that we and other onlookers could do was watch and feel sorry for the owner of that boat.

The rain had taken a break, allowing us to take a brief walk on the beach. A variety of red and yellow sponges, twisted green kelp, and pink corral, as well as old beer cans, Styrofoam buoys, and a myriad of clothing items had been washed ashore by the storm. It will take a while to clean this beach up.

We continued on and made our way to Zenith Beach. All of a sudden the rain stopped and blue sky broke through with strong sunshine. The strong wind gusts pushed the dark clouds over and revealed lovely, puffy white clouds that made it seem we never had the storm in the first place. Although the waves were still magnificent in size, the sun and blue sky made them feel less daunting.

Beautiful white sand dunes spread into both directions along Zenith Beach. We spent some time there, enjoying the brief interlude of sunlight and admiring the scenic setting.

We then continued on around the point of land at the tip of the bay to the town of Fingal Bay.

We stopped at Barry Park and made our way down the short path to the outlook facing the ocean. There we joined others, mostly locals, that came to see the power and grandeur of an angry sea. The waves were huge! All of us dwarfed in comparison to the might of these swells ravaging the coastline. I have never seen waves this big—and this close—in my life (and Stephanie and I have seen some big waves).

Once again, we reassured ourselves why the excursion was canceled. Even though I was incredibly bummed out that we could not go on the whale watch, once I saw these waves, I made peace with the cancellation. As we headed back to the car, the Kookaburra birds were laughing at our foolishness for being out in this weather.

Unfortunately, dark clouds were beginning to move in on us again and we returned to the car just before the clouds split open again.

Struggling to find something else for us to do today, Stephanie found in one of the tourist brochures a blurb about a small park in Lemon Tree Passage that harbors wild koalas along its pathways.

With the help of our GPS, we managed to find it and decided to search for wild koalas.

With Izzy in the backpack carrier, cameras and binoculars dangling around our necks, we headed unto the Tilligerry Creek Koala Walk.

The park's trail took us onto a boardwalk following the shore line among mangroves. We had to remind ourselves to watch our step and not fall into the ocean since all of us had our necks craned trying to spot a koala.

We hiked for about a kilometer when the rain started to really come down. Having not yet seen a koala we did not let it deter us.

The boardwalk led off into a park with more eucalyptus trees. It became difficult looking up for our face was blasted with large raindrops. Yet we continued.

“There's one!” Stephanie exclaimed in excitement. Peggy and I (with Izabella in backpack) rushed over following her pointed finger trying to find the koala.

There it was—a basketball-sized ball of gray fur wedged in between two branches. With the help of the binoculars we could see its face pressed into its body, hoping to keep warm in the icy rain. We could not believe that we have seen a koala in the wild.

Having exhausted all the possible angles of viewing the koala bear, we resolved that there may be more and trekked on.

Not even five minutes had passed when Stephanie shouted, “Look! There's another one!”

This time we could discern its face and even see it looking at us from its perch high atop the tree. It gave us a look as if we were bothering him and then turned his back onto us.

We now figured that we had to see at least one more. Despite the rain and the swampy trail, we searched further. Unfortunately, the rain was not letting up and our socks were getting wet through our shoes. Although Izabella was well-protected in her carrier, we began to worry if she was getting cold. Therefore, we opted to head back.

Our koala spotter passed no time before she saw another one. Once again, excitedly we peered among the eucalyptus tree's branches and spotted the little guy huddled up high. A few rays of sunshine streamed through the clouds, enabling us to see the water glistening on his seemingly soft fur.

Satisfied that we had seen three wild koalas, and having taken a ton of photos, we returned to the car and set our GPS to lead us to our accommodations for tonight in Anna Bay.

Other than stopping for avocados at a roadside stand, it was a quick, non-stop drive to the Birubi Beach Holiday Park in Anna Bay.

After checking us in, Stephanie led us to bungalow 5 near the entry of the park. We opened the door to the cabin and were impressed with the simplicity of the cabin: cute little bunks, a tiny refrigerator and microwave, a small television. But, just as quickly, we were let down by the lack of bathroom and shower facilities—meaning we'd had to walk to the public facilities offered in the park through the rain and the cold.

After a bit of fussing, we figured we could suck it up for one night.

We took all of our luggage into the cabin and were ready to head out to dinner. However, Stephanie had trouble locking the door. So did Peggy. So did I.

Great. What do we do? Leave it unlocked with all our stuff in there? Lug everything back into the car?

Peggy walked over to the lady in reception to let them know that our key did not work. The lady immediately called a maintenance man who rolled in shortly thereafter in his golf cart. He looked at the key and kindly said that we are standing in a standard cabin, while our key opens en suite cabin 5 next door.

Oops! Sheepishly we thanked him and lugged our things over to en suite cabin 5 next to standard cabin 5.

Much better! Large bedrooms, kitchen, refrigerator, television, and, most importantly, shower and a toilet.

Satisfied and able to lock the door, we drove back to close-by Nelson Bay and found the Wharf Seafood Restaurant—known for its fresh fish—for dinner.

We arrived at the end of the lunch service so the waitress checked if they were still cooking in the kitchen. Thankfully they were and we made ourselves comfortable at a table overlooking the harbor. The rain came and went and we were able to see some areas across the bay.

We began with oysters. They were offered natural, Kilpatrick, and Morney. The waitress suggested to try all three ways, so we did. Since Peggy does not like oysters, Stephanie and I shared a half dozen.

The oysters were okay, but not great natural. However, in the Kilpatrick style (with its chunks of bacon), they were very good. I did not like the cream-cheese like Morney filling on the oysters, however.

Peggy had a T-Bone steak. Stephanie had the Blue-Eyed Cod that was served with scallops and pineapple-cut squid. I ordered the red snapper. All the seafood was caught that day and delivered to the docks below our vantage point and one could definitely tell. My snapper arrived whole. I enjoyed dissecting the large fish, popping out its eyes, and savoring every bit of it. The waitress was very impressed with how meticulously I consumed the fish. I couldn't help it, it was really delectable! Izabella loved the fish as well and inhaled every bit placed before her. With the meal, Stephanie and I had a pint, or a “schooner,” of Old Toohey Beer.

The sun was setting as we headed back to our cabin. Although we tried to reach a lookout to watch the sunset, by the time we got to it, the sun had set. It began to rain as we pulled into the Holiday Park.

Outside the lightning flashed and the thunder rolled, as we watched the television news about the worst rainstorm in 50 years.

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