Spotto Makes Cover Of Escapees Magazine

This is just so exciting to share! No, this is not a fancy Photoshop job of Spotto on the face of a magazine.  This is 100% legit!

Just as we were leaving to return to Australia, David was notified that his photo submission from last year was selected for the cover of the Escapees Magazine.  And here it is!

The description:

What is Escapees magazine, you ask?  It is the bimonthly publication sent to members of Escapees RV Club, which is a total support network for all RVers.   We joined in December, 2013, and have been so glad that we did.  A little history about the club: In 1978, Joe and Kay Peterson started a support group called Escapees RV Club to answer a growing need for community among early RVers. The club grew from the original 82 member families to over 10,000, and just kept growing. Today, it offers many services for the RVing community.  These include (taken and paraphrased from the Xscapers website):

RV ADVOCACY
A point of pride for Escapees is their RV Advocacy Coalition. The focus is to alert RVers to potential problems, so they may prepare for changes.  This includes changes to laws in the states of domicile popular with RVers: Texas, South Dakota and Florida. The effects of healthcare reform, drivers license and auto registration rules are all examples of areas of focus for the Advocacy team.

ESCAPEES MAIL SERVICE
Escapees Mail Forwarding Service is the largest private mail service in the nation. We use this and it has been just amazing! With a simple email, I can direct when and where I would like my mail sent.  If I have a question about what is in my mailbox, I can call and one of the exceptional staffers will go through it with me.  There is even a mail scanning service if I were so inclined.

DOMICILE OPTIONS
We use our Escapee mail forwarding address as a legal domicile. We have the freedom to choose between a Texas, South Dakota, or Florida mailing address, but Texas works best for us.

JOB BOARD
There is a job board that came about through the formation of Xscapers (more on that below).  It lists open positions, or allows the upload of ones resume to be reviewed by potential employers.

ENDORSED VENDORS
Escapees partners with the best in the field to offer a comprehensive benefits program. If they don’t directly offer a service, a partner may.  This list includes insurance brokers, roadside assistance, and warranty services.

PARTNERSHIP DISCOUNTS
Valuable RV related service and clubs such as Fulltime Familes, Roadside Assistance, Harvests Hosts and many more offer discounts to Escapees.

PARKING DISCOUNTS
Escapees owns 7 RV parks, referred to as Rainbow Parks. In addition to these, there is a vast network of discount parks across the US, Canada, and Mexico. These parks offer a 15% to 50% discount.

ROUTE PLANNING
To help find these parks, the Escapees Travel Guide is a digital catalog of all of the discount parks, as well as commercial members around the country. The guide is also incorporated their web-based mapping tool, helping one to plan travel routes with ease.

C.A.R.E (Continued Assistance for Retired Escapees)
CARE answers the question, “What happens to full-time RVers when they cannot take care of their own or their spouse’s needs following an illness, injury, surgery, or the progression of a long-term health situation?” From broken bones to Alzheimer’s disease, CARE provides professional help while allowing one to live in a caring community of fellow RVers next to Rainbow’s End in Livingston, Texas.  We visited the CARE facility in April 2014, and saw first-hand what a lovely benefit this is.  Having skilled nursing and assistance while still being able to live in one’s RV is surely a comfort.

CONVERGENCES
Convergences are events provided for the Xscapers community. The atmosphere is conducive for those working on the road. Convergences tend to be scheduled around standard business hours, allowing working RVers to more easily balance work and play.

DISCUSSION FORUM
Want to join the RV community but don’t know where to start? Got a problem and need some help? Want to share your love of RVing with others? Join our friendly and active online RVing community on the Escapees Discussion Forum (www.rvnetwork.com).

COMMUNITY
With a wealth of knowledge and a sense of family, Escapees (SKPs) are always willing to help, or share in their experiences. Whether it is through Discussion Forums or informal get-togethers, a “neighbor” is never far away. 

There are also organized travel adventures, called HOP’s. The Head Out Program program includes coordinated tours, cruises, and adventure-filled outings. Examples include decorating a float for the Rose Parade, or helping with a hot air balloon at the Albuquerque Balloon Festival.

For those looking for a community or social engagement, there are like-interest groups called Birds Of a Feather (BOF’s) to join.  We are members of the Boomers and the Boondockers.  With 35 offically-recognized groups, there is one for everyone!

Additionally, there is a new lifestyle group of Escapees called the Xscapers. There are the “working aged” RVers, who enjoy life on the road while working full or part time.  This group can be considered the “younger” crowd, but there is no age division, and all are welcome to be a part of both groups.

CONVERGENCES
Convergences are events provided for the Xscapers community. The atmosphere is conducive for those working on the road. Convergences tend to be scheduled around standard business hours, allowing working RVers to more easily balance work and play.

So that gives you a great deal of information out the Escapees club.  If you are still looking for more, click here.

As for that lovely picture that David (now the published photographer) took. We were outside of Melbourne on the morning of April 12, and awoke to the loveliest rainbows! This picture brings back such great memories, and we are so proud to share our little Spotto with the RV world.  And kudos to David, who really wanted to have an Escapees cover, and accomplished it on his first try!

What a great way to go full circle.  As of Feb 28, 2017 Spotto is now owned by a lovely Greek couple who will be taking trips around Australia over the next couple of years that they have left on their work contracts. I am sure they will have great adventures just like we did.  Spotto will take good care of them.

I am so glad that we could have this visit!

~ Nancy

Beeting It

In October of 2012, David and I were working our first Amazon CamperForce job.  There was a fellow Camper who had just finished working the Sugar Beet Harvest (SBH), and his description of the job – short term, good pay, lovely part of the country – has always stayed with us.  In fact, we submitted applications in 2014 and 2015, but then declined due to other obligations.  This year was our year to check off another RV’er Bucket List Adventure – The Unbeetable Experience!

So, what is the SBH? The American Crystal Sugar Company/Sidney Sugars hires 1,300 people each year, through a temp agency called Express Employment, to help with the sugar beet harvest in Montana, and the Red River Valley of North Dakota and Minnesota.  These migrant workers come in their cars, vans, bus conversions, and RVs. There are also locals who use their vacation time to make extra money.

The actual jobs available for this workforce are described as follows:

Helper and Sample Taker
Collects beet samples and assists Pile Operator in cleaning. Helper will also communicate with drivers to ensure safe and accurate unloading of trucks.
Pile Operator
Maneuvers pile control switches, orchestrates repair work and supervises and assists in the clean up of daily operations.
Skidsteer Operator
Operates skidsteer. Must be able to lift 50 lbs.

Now, to the uninitiated, these job descriptions don’t sound so bad.  Experience will tell us differently.

The shifts are 12 hrs long, generally 8 am – 8 pm, or 8 pm – 8 am.  The harvest work starts on Oct 1, and the worker commitment is for 15 days, or until one is “released”, whichever is first.  In 2015, the harvest in MN/ND  finished in 9 days.

The pay is the big draw.  Starting pay for first year workers is an hourly wage of $12.86 for the first 8 hrs, $19.29 for the next 4 hrs of each workday.  Saturday pay is $19.29/hr for the full day, and Sunday pay is $25.72/hr for the full shift.  If one is dismissed from work early due to weather or other circumstances, they are paid for a minimum of 4 hrs.  Rehires, pile operators and skidster operators make a bit more per hour.  A completion bonus of 5% for first year, and 10% for returners is also paid.  And finally, a full hookup campsite is provided.  The Express Employment ads make these claims:

Fred and Yvonne from AZ
earned over $4600
Kay from NM had an
average wage of $16.42/hr
Butch and Judy from SD
earned over $7100
Paul from SD had an
average wage of $17.88/hr

One can see why people would travel to work the SBH!

Those are the nuts and bolts.  The actual experience is a little bit greater than the parts.

The application process was easy.  While working the Amazon CamperForce booth in Quartzsite, AZ in January 2016, we were once again next to the Express Employment booth.  We turned in our completed applications with the couple there (who, as we understand it, get a $150 referral bonus for each person who completed their work commitment).  Sometime in June, we were called and asked if we were still planning on working.  In August, we were told that we were assigned to a campground in Stephen, MN and would be working in Kennedy, MN, a short drive away.  Our expected arrival date was September 24. This early arrival was because David was expected to be a Pile Operator, and therefore would need to attend training before the actual harvest began.

We drove from Maine to Minnesota, and arrived on the 23rd.  The campground is owned by the city of Stephen, and is actually quite nice. A sign was posted with our name on the site, which happened to be directly next to the wifi router (score!). We have had excellent, unlimited high-speed internet for the entire campaign.

First Impressions
First Impressions
Getting Set Up
Getting Set Up

On Saturday, Sept 24, we drove to the Express HQ in Drayton, ND to complete paperwork and watch an orientation video.  We also had the pleasure of meeting up with two couples that are friends from Amazon tours in Nevada and Texas.

Here is a map to help keep the locations straight.  Yes, we commuted 20 minutes each way to our work site.

We were not needed again until Tuesday, Sept 27, when we received 2 hours of onsite training in Drayton.  This training actually was just a visual, standing around a piler, but there were no trucks and no beets, so we really just got a feel for how cold the wind could be, and how many more layers we were going to have to wear!  We were also issued our spiffy, clean PPE’s (personal protection equipment): a hardhat, a safety vest, and goggles.

David had piler training at Kennedy on Thursday, Sept 29 for 2 hours, and I had onsite training that same day.  For those keeping track, we have now been in MN for 7 days, and “worked” a total of 6 hours.  We were questioning why we had to arrive so early, and how we were going to make our 2 weeks worth of food last, as the local grocery stores did not have much to offer.  But we took advantage of the time to walk around the town, and to batch cook and freeze soups, beans, rice, and muffins in preparation for the 12 hr shifts scheduled to start on Saturday, Oct 1.

There was a mix up on job assignments before we even got to work on our first day. When I awoke on the morning of Oct 1, I noticed a voice mail from the Kennedy site.  Apparently, I had been assigned to the Night schedule, even though no one had contacted me.  I called in and said that I was working days, and we were on our way. When we reported to work at 7 am on Oct 1, I was listed on both the day and night schedule, and David was not listed on the schedule at all.  Everything looked correct when we left training on Thursday, so we have no idea what happened between then and the start of the campaign.

Day 1 ended at 12:45 pm, as the temperature was too warm for the beet harvest. Apparently, the outdoor temperature cannot exceed 68°F , or the beets will be too warm in the pile and rot.  Oct 2, our work day lasted from 8 am to 12:30 pm, again due to heat. This was a bummer for multiple reasons, but primarily because those two days were premium pay days, and thus our opportunity for maximum income was reduced.  But this is farming, and mother nature does not always cooperate. These short work days helped break our bodies in to the process, so it was not all bad.

We were surprised to find that David was not assigned the job of pile operator even though that was the training he received, as there was a returner assigned to that position instead.  In fact, on the first day, David and I were assigned to different pilers. This made life a little more complicated, as the pilers are not close, and one or the other of us would have to walk a good distance to get to the truck for food and water.  This was remedied the second day when we asked the foreman for a switch.  David joined me on piler 3, and that completed our crew of two couples.  David was relief for our pile operator when he needed breaks and for lunch.

Views As We Drove to Work
Views As We Drove to Work

The weather did not cooperate for the SBH for three more days.  We had Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday off completely.  We took time to meet up with friends for lunch at a brewery in Grand Forks, ND and to restock the pantry and fridge.  We have now been in MN 12 days, and worked a total of 16.25 hours.

Finally, on Thursday, Oct 6, we have the go ahead to report to work at 11 a.m. for an 8 hour shift. We dress in layers, as it is cold and windy.  And the truck won’t start.  The batteries are dead! It took two trucks (thank you, fellow work camper Walt!) to get us moving.  We recharged on the drive into work, but needed a jump at the end of shift to get us on the road back to the closest Walmart, in Grand Forks (1 hr drive). Two new batteries later, and we were driving home, and in bed by 11 pm.  That was a complication that really could have buried us!

From Friday, Oct 7 through Sunday, Oct 16, we worked every day, 12 hr shifts.  What did our jobs entail? Well, here are the tools of our trade:

Got Shovels?
Got Shovels?

And our workstations? Well, they were the sample taking station:

Sample Collection Funnel
Sample Collection Funnel

The Boom:

Boom Chick A Boom
Boom Chick A Boom

The Truck Area:

View of Ground Crew
View of Ground Crew

And the Piler Tower and End Dumps:

Tower and End Dump
Tower and End Dump
David in the Tower
David in the Tower – Very Bundled Up
Piler Control Panel
Piler Control Panel

Now to explain what the actual job entails.  As this was our first year, the couple that was working with us, returners, set the stage for how our piler would operate. Piler 3 had a crew of 4: the piler operator (Karl), the boom operator (Colleen) , and two additional grounds people (David and I). A truck full of harvested sugar beets would come through the end dump and stop.  There are end dumps on either side of the piler, so David was on one side, I was on the other.  I primarily worked the side with the boom and the sample taker.  We would greet the truck, write the number of our piler on the trucker’s receipt, and take a sample ticket from the trucker if he had one.  The operator would signal for the truck to dump his load, and the conveyors would sift the dirt from the beets, sending the beets up the boom to end up in the growing beet pile.  The dirt, or tare, would be returned to the truck and the truck would drive away. We would help direct the trucks forward, backwards, and then clean around where they ignored us.  And repeat.

Before, during, and after the unloading of the beets, we would use shovels to keep our work area and the area where the beets would be piled, clear of dirt and other organic material.  If it rained (and it did), the area would become more slippery than ice. The dirt is amazing, a black mix of clay that is sticky and globs with amazing thickness.  We had dirt and hydraulic fluid raining down on us all day, and were thankful that we were wearing clothing that could be ruined – because it was!

The sample bags would weigh about 20 – 25 lbs each.  I could barely lift one when we first started, but by the end of the run, I had no problem with them.

The shoveling, standing for hours, and sheer physicality of the job surprised us.  We had been told by many previous “Beeters” that it was the elements that would be most challenging. The wind, the cold, the rain all proved tough, that is for sure.  But we layered up, and had really good boots that got us through that part.  We probably could have done with better gloves, but once I layered some good fleece gloves under my work gloves, I was much more comfortable.

The length of shift was tough, too.  12 hrs outside is a long time, but we got to see the sunrise and the sunset most days.  An incredible bonus was the view of the Northern Lights we had one night on the drive home.  It was too spectacular for a picture, so this sunset will just have to do:

Sunset behind pile 1
Sunset behind pile 1

It was a challenge to keep David fueled.  He burns calories faster than I do (clearly), and I worried about how cold he was.  I will let him talk about the effect of the job on his Parkinson’s, if he is so inclined, in a separate post.  For me, I burned about 3,000 calories a day, and lost 10 pounds.  My fitbit showed around 30,000 steps a day.

When the trucks rolled through at a good pace, the time seemed to go by faster.  When we were down to one truck every 15 – 20 minutes, it was tough to stay warm.  But we tried to keep moving and keep cleaning.

We had an outside-of-work challenge thrown at us while at work on the 12th.  We came home to find that there was no water in the campground.  And when we got up on the 13th, it still wasn’t on, so I called the City to discover that they had turned it off and winterized the pipe, with no intention of turning it back on again.  They did, however, leave it on in the shower house. That’s two stalls for women, two for men, for a full campground of 24 hour workers.  Not ideal.  The people at Express arranged for a water truck to deliver water to our rig, but the communication still lacked, and it was Friday before we had a full tank of water to cook and bathe with.  If we had some notice from the City, we would have filled our tank. Lesson learned.  But the situation did cause some to lose work hours while they relocated to another campground.

The majority of the farms in our location were wrapping up by Friday, the 14th.  Remember, we have a 15 day commitment to receive our bonus.  There were two large farms that were waiting until the last possible minute to harvest, so work extended into the weekend of the 15th and 16th.  We decided that the 16th was our last work day, but could have continued for a couple more days, whether it would be to help process beets or to clean the machines post-harvest.  But we were pretty much out of food and energy, so we fulfilled our commitment, plus one day of premium pay, and should finish with around $2,500 each/$5,000 couple in our pocket.  Eventually.  We are told that the orientation time and the bonus are not paid out until December, but we should see the majority of the pay by October 28.

Here is David’s video summary of our time on Piler 3:

Would we do it again? The jury is still out on that one!

We look forward to hearing what you have to say about this post.  Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

I am so glad that we could have this chat!

Nancy

Our Route to get here:

Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins

Let’s Bake!
We all do it, buying too many bananas or just not getting to eat them before they go “banana-bread-ready”.
I came home from my second work hardening shift at Amazon (only worked 6 am – 11 am) and was welcomed by 3 such bananas.  I searched online for a banana bread recipe, and then remembers that I ditched the loaf pan.  So, muffins it would be!
I adapted a recipe from The Plant Strong Vegan. I felt the original had too much sugar, and didn’t have chocolate chips or oats, which I consider a must in any sweet treat!
BANANA CHOCOLATE CHIP MUFFINS
Ingredients:
  • 3 very ripe Bananas, mashed
  • 2 cups Flour (can use for gluten-free flour)
  • ½ cup Organic Sugar, or coconut sugar
  • ½ cup Unsweetened non-dairy milk of choice
  • 1 tsp. Vanilla Extract
  • 1 tsp Baking Soda
  • ½ tsp Cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp Salt
  • ¼ Cup vegan Chocolate Chips
  • ¼ Cup Oats of your choice
Instructions:
  1. Preheat your oven to 350° F
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking soda, salt & cinnamon.
  3. In a medium bowl, mash-up your 3 ripe bananas with a fork, and add milk & vanilla.
  4. Fold the wet with the dry and mix well.
  5. Mix in chocolate chips and oats.
  6. Fill muffin cups with approx 1/4 Cup of batter.
  7. Bake for 22-25 minutes or until golden brown and cooked in the middle.
Not totally oil-free eating if you do this, but if you are so inclined:
Top with a dollop of peanut butter and some banana slices
PREP TIME: 5 minutes
COOK TIME: 25 minutes
If you make these, share your feedback in the comments! I’d love to hear how they came out, and if you made any additions/modifications to make them fit for you. (Like using Pumpkin Pie Spice instead of Cinnamon).
~ Nancy

Pumpkin Pie Recipe

It is 42°F outside, and we are taking it easy as we rest up between jobs.  This is exactly when I get the baking bug! David loves pumpkin pie, but I have not made a vegan version yet, and am up to the challenge today.

When we went grocery shopping the other day, we noticed the display of pumpkin pie making supplies – and then read the label on the pumpkin pie filling.  Since we weren’t going to be adding sweetened condensed milk and/or eggs to our diet anytime soon, we decided to just get a couple cans of pumpkin and see what we could do with them.

I searched Happy Herbivore for a pie crust recipe. Found one that is incredibly easy, which is a good thing since I have minimal experience making pie crust.  I was almost going to use the recipe for cornbread and make THAT the pie crust, but changed my mind.

Discovered that I don’t have a pie pan, so a rectangle pan is going to have to do.

I whipped up the crust recipe, then pressed it into the pan.

I was then in search of a no-oil, vegan pumpkin pie filling recipe.  I didn’t find one, so I improvised and married two different recipes together.

Here is what it looks like going into the oven:

Going Into The Oven
Going Into The Oven

And this is what it looked like coming out of the oven:

Baked Pie
Baked Pie

Here are the recipes:

CRUST:

  • 1 1/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour
  • 1 whole banana, cold
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt (I omitted this)

Combine flour and banana (a slightly unripe, still greenish banana is best) in a food processor, pulsing until there are no whole banana pieces left.  Roll out on clean surface, or press into pan.

FILLING:

  • 2 3/4 cups pumpkin puree
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup unsweetened plain milk of your choice (I used soy)
  • 1 Tbsp chia seeds, mixed with 1/3 cup warm water (let sit for 15 minutes)
  • 2 1/2 Tbsp cornstarch
  • 1 3/4 tsp pumpkin pie spice (or sub mix of ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg & cloves)

Combine all ingredients in a blender, and blend until smooth.  Taste to adjust spices, as necessary. Pour filling into crust.  Bake at 350° for 60 minutes.  Out of the oven, let cool for 2 hrs or refrigerate until ready to serve.

David’s opinion: Two pieces are gone, so I think that means he likes it!

Happy Tasting,

Nancy

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins

It’s Fall, the leaves are turning, and I am succumbing to the Pumpkin Spice movement!
Here is a healthy recipe that I found online, and made even healthier by modifying it to be WFPBOF (whole food plant based oil free).  It’s how we roll.  When you make these, please let me know what you think in the comments section.
Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins
Adapted from recipe by Cookie and Kate
Prep time:  15 mins
Cook time:  25 mins
Serves: 12-14 muffins
INGREDIENTS
  • 1/3 cup unsweetened apple sauce
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup or honey
  • 2 chia seed eggs (2 Tablespoons chia seeds in 2/3 cup water. Let sit for 15 min)
  • 1 cup pumpkin purée
  • 1/4 cup milk of choice (I used unsweetened soy)
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, plus more for sprinkling on top
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon allspice or cloves
  • 1 3/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour or regular whole wheat flour
  • 1/3 cup old-fashioned oats, plus more for sprinkling on top
  • 1/4 cup vegan chocolate chips
INSTRUCTIONS
  1. Preheat oven to 325° F.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together the applesauce and maple syrup or honey. Add chia seed gel, and mix well. Mix in the pumpkin purée and milk, followed by the baking soda, vanilla extract, salt, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and allspice or cloves.
  3. Add the flour and oats to the bowl and mix with a large spoon, just until combined. If you’d like to add any additional mix-ins, like nuts, chocolate or dried fruit, fold them in now.
  4. Divide the batter evenly between the muffin cups. The don’t “grow” much while baking, so it is OK to fill towards the top. Sprinkle the tops of the muffins with a small amount of oats, followed by a sprinkle of cinnamon if desired.
  5. Bake muffins for 23 to 26 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into a muffin comes out clean.
  6. Place the muffin tin on a cooling rack. These muffins come out cleanly when they are cooled, but will break up if you try to take them out too soon.
NOTES
MAKE IT GLUTEN FREE: Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free all-purpose blend works well instead of the whole wheat flour.
STORAGE SUGGESTIONS: These muffins keep well in the freezer. Store them in a freezer-safe bag and defrost individual muffins as needed.
CHANGE IT UP: You could really go crazy with add-ins here! Fold in chopped dried cranberries or crystallized ginger.  If you are not nut-adverse, try chopped nuts like pecans or walnuts.  And my friend Barry suggest trying peanut butter chips (but they are pretty hard to find in the vegan variety).
Enjoy! 
~ Nancy

Port Macquarie NSW

From Sydney, we headed towards Brisbane, NSW and the Gold Coast.

Our intention was to route through Canberra, the capital of Australia, but we decided to save that for our return trip, since it was more “inland” and we wanted to go along the coastal route as much as possible.

We got a pretty late start out of the caravan park, so our first day was a relatively short one. With the help of our WikiCamps app , The Rock Roadhouse was chosen as our free, overnight stop.  We were the first of the van dwellers to arrive for the night, but were soon joined by many.  Upon arrival, most chose a respectable distance between vans, and all was good in the world until about 11 pm when a rental van of three girls from Germany decided to park between us and our neighbor, and proceeded to open and close their doors and speak at full volume for at least the next hour.  Even in RV living, or camping, we have all had THAT neighbor once in a while.

Vans At Rock Roadhouse

Yes, that is a gas station/restaurant that has been made to look like Uluru. Hence the name “The Rock” Roadhouse.

After a quick breakfast, we headed to the Seal Rocks lighthouse to see what we could see.

Seal Rocks Lighthouse
Seal Rocks Lighthouse

On the walk up the very steep path, we took a break to let others pass:

It's just not a hike without a reptile in our path
It’s just not a hike without a reptile in our path

The views were stunning:

From the Lighthouse
From the Lighthouse

20160503_115701

Back on the road and heading up the coast, we came upon a lovely beachfront town by the name of Port Macquarie.  It had numerous free camping opportunities, as well as a reasonably-priced caravan park.  There were surfing beaches and hiking trails listed as points of interest, so that it became our first real stop for the state of New South Wales.

Here is what Town Beach looked like upon our arrival:

Town Beach at Sunset
Town Beach at Sunset

The first night, which was really supposed to be the only night, was spent in a parking lot along – you guessed it – by the river, next to a hotel.  It was quiet, and had public restrooms just a quick 3 minute walk away.  There were two or three other backpacker vans, and we were treated to an evening show of flying foxes heading out for a hunt.  There seemed to be thousands of them, and David tried to get a picture with his camera on the night vision setting:

Flying Foxes - Nightvision
Flying Foxes – Night vision

Here is what they look like during the day –

Flying Fox Port Macquarie
Flying Fox Port Macquarie

That is a picture I pulled from the internet, as I did not seek them out during the day. Suffice it to say that they are very large, and there is a plentiful colony that lives in a nature reserve in Port Macquarie.  The night show was impressive.

The weather in Port Macquarie is magnificent! One would not suspect it is late Fall, with the water so lovely and inviting, and the days around 80-85 degrees F.

We expected this to be an overnight stop, but the beach and town were just so lovely, that we spent the next 6 days lounging around, hiking, getting caught up on library wifi, and generally feeling like we were really on vacation, or “holiday” as they call it here.

The town is really cute and has a little something for everyone – major chain grocery stores and a mall, a lovely library with free internet, a modern art center that doubles as a visitor center, boutique shops and day spas, as well as numerous ice cream and coffee shops.  The jewel in the crown was the magnificent beaches and walking trails. All of this was within walking distance of our overnight parking places.

One could see why this is the home of the Australian Ironman competition, which unknown to us, was completed the day before our arrival.  The competitors cleared out by our day 3, and we felt as if we had the town and beaches to ourselves.  The township of Port Macquarie was established in 1821, with many buildings from that time still intact.

As Port Macquarie became our home for 6 nights, between the great caravan park and the urban camping friendly parking lots, we averaged $7.60 AUD/night.  Of course, that does not factor in our daily shared $5 AUD soy decaf flat whites.  Yes, David has not only stopped giving me grief about drinking coffee, but I am sharing my drinks with him.  It is a change in attitude I can live with!

Some of the highlights of our time here:

  • The Town Beach and an ocean that I actually went wading into, multiple times. (I don’t swim, and rarely go into bodies of water, so this was really meaningful to me. I even got knocked down by a wave, but got back up and still played some more:
Port Macquarie View
Port Macquarie View
  • The Koala Hospital and the Hello Koalas Sculpture Trail were both sources of entertainment. The Koala Hospital allowed us an up-close look at the care and rehabilitation of sick and injured koalas.  It is the only facility of its kind in the world, and is run by donation and volunteers.  The Sculpture Trail comprised of 50 unique koala sculptures placed in various places around town and the outlying area.  These sculptures were created to celebrate the largest coastal koala population on the east coast of Australia.  While I did not go about seeking these out, I took a snap of each one that I encountered along my way:
Koala Trail
Koala Trail
  • The Coastal Walk from Town Beach to Lighthouse Beach was a doozy through beaches for all kinds from surfing to fishing to dog-friendly to naked, with a rainforest canopy and a goanna sighting at a birthday party! The reward for hiking 10 kilometers across beaches and through rainforest paths: steps to the lighthouse!
Tacking Point Lighthouse
Tacking Point Lighthouse

On our final morning in “Port”, we shared Town Beach with our mothers, as we called them to wish them a Happy Mother’s Day.  One last look:

Mother’s Day beach photo
Mother’s Day beach photo

It’s been two weeks since we have seen Hannah, and I am ready to invade her space again.  We probably won’t take more than 3 days to get back to Melbourne; at least that is my hope.

It’s always a G’day Down Under,

Nancy

Sydney

We arrived in Sydney on a Sunday afternoon, and expected traffic to be less hectic.  Along that same thought, we headed to famous Bondi Beach. After paying $7/hr for parking, we walked around, took some pictures, and wondered what all the fuss was about.  I guess we are a little jaded, or maybe because the beach wasn’t filled with sunbathers and merry makers, but we just didn’t see the draw.  It felt excessively touristy, but we did find the pool at the edge of the beach a neat touch:

Lap ool at the beach
Lap pool at the beach

It took us over an hour to get out of the city and into our caravan park. It was so nice to be parked in a lovely site at Lane Cove River Tourist Park. The park staff was very helpful at check-in, the amenities blocks were clean and plentiful, and we were given a nice site with lots of room. The park was quiet, while also providing free internet access in the game/TV room.  For $37 a night, it was a bargain for the location alone.  Everything else was icing on the cake.

We headed into Sydney on the train the next morning.  Thank you, Alex and Sarah (previous owners of Spotto) for the Opal card with credit on it! We will pass these on to Hannah to use up the balance when we leave. The trip took about 30 minutes, and it was a relief not having to deal with traffic, parking, etc.

A free walking tour of Sydney started at 9:00 a.m., so we joined it.  Our tour guide, Lydia, grew up in Sydney, and had historical tales and secret passages to share with us.  The tour was 3 hours in length, but we left it halfway through, as we were near the Harbor at that point, and wanted to go at a quicker pace than the tour.  But we would recommend it to future Sydney visitors, as it is a great way to learn about the city.

Here are some of the places we visited:

Birdsongs
The Forgotten Songs art piece

Forgotten Songs was an alley art installation. “Forgotten Songs commemorates the songs of fifty birds once heard in central Sydney, before they were gradually forced out by European settlement. The calls, which filter down from the canopy of birdcages suspended above Angel Place, change as day shifts to night; the daytime birds’ songs disappearing with the sun, and those of the nocturnal birds, which inhabited the area, sounding into the evening.” If there weren’t so many people talking as we walked through, we would have really enjoyed it.  And we tried to find this on our way back to the train station, but could not locate it.

Seal of Australia
Coat of Arms of Australia

A little tidbit about the Coat of Arms of Australia: the two animals, the kangaroo and the emu, apparently cannot walk backwards.  Well, that is what our tour guide told us!

Of course, we visited the Sydney Opera House.  One can’t miss it coming over the bridge on the train, and it was a major part of our visit.

Opera House Selfie
Opera House Selfie
View from afar
View from afar

One can’t really see the size when viewing it from across the water.

Getting Closer
Getting Closer

But once upon it,

An Entrance Door
An Entrance Door

It is clear that it is many pieces.

Here is an up-close view of the outer shell of tiles whose reflection makes the buildings shine:

Tiles
Tiles

It was a beautiful day and we walked all over the downtown and harbor area.  On our way back to the train, we spotted these fellows enjoying a game of chess:

Park Game
Park Game

Now that we have experienced Sydney, we are pretty much finished with going into downtown areas for awhile.  The highlights of the day were the meandering walks through the botanical gardens and the trek around the harbor and around the opera house.  The lowlights were definitely the search for vegan food (we ended up with veggie sushi) and the packed malls.

We are now off to the Gold Coast, in search of some sun and white sand beaches.

It’s always a G’day Down Under,

Nancy

Unexpected Sites on the Road to Sydney

We decided that while Hannah recovers from her torn plantar fascia injury, we will transform from parents to explorers in a van, and really make the most of our time in Australia.  We set our sights on Sydney, a mere 1,000 kilometers to the northeast.

One our first day out, we came upon a town by the name of “Stratford on the Avon”.  Since David (and the other Keane’s, including his father Harold) grew up in Stratford, Connecticut, we decided that this was a must-see.  We were not disappointed.

This Stratford has an art walk, complete with an audio guide, an MP3 player, and a speaker, all available for pickup at the local theater.

Here is the Globe, the first stop on the art tour:

Stratfords Of The World
Stratfords Of The World

And the marker for Connecticut:

Bonus Points if you can name this helicopter maker

Here are some of the art pieces along the 1 hour walk:

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It was great to spontaneously take part in the tour of the town, and we were invited back for the weekend Shakespeare Birthday celebration that is apparently the highlight of the year.  We weren’t sure how far down the road we would be, but kept it as an option.

That night, we had a truly beautiful free camp site thanks to the town of Metung at the Chinaman’s Creek park.  Here is the view that awaited us in the morning:

Metung
Metung

Our next destination was Raymond Island to go on the Koala Walk.  A short ferry trip:

Ferry across the inlet
Ferry across the inlet

And we were on Raymond Island, following the Koala Walk.  Koalas were introduced to this island in 1953 when Australians were concerned that the population was dwindling. The koalas that live on this island are very used to people, and are not spooked by the many walkers and photographers that come over on the ferry to take the short 1.5 km walk. As you can see here, David was able to get very close to his subjects:

David Keane, Wildlife Photographer
David Keane, Wildlife Photographer

Here are some of the special koalas we spotted on our hike around the island

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In addition to the koalas, we spotted many birds

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And about the birds on the main photo: these are the Tawny Frogmouth.  What we first thought was just the top of an old tree, came to light upon closer inspection.  They were very well camouflaged! We thought they were maybe owls, but a little research and we discovered their true identity.

A first time sighting for us
A first time sighting for us

On the ferry back to the mainland, we spotted many jellyfish, and had fun trying to get a good shot. Not the most cooperative photo subjects!

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So Jelly
So Jelly

Our next two days were pretty much just travel and find a pretty place to stop for the night.

First, along the famous Snowy River:

No Sign of The Man From Snowy River
No Sign of The Man From Snowy River

And then in the town of Genoa, where the town provides a superb free campground:

The Chicken Whisperer
The Chicken Whisperer

We stopped in the little town of Tathra, NSW were we came across the cutest coffee shop/bakery  called “The Wharf Locavore” and treated ourselves to a cup of tea before we tackled a little hike.

Just look at how cute this place is:

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And the tea:

Fresh Lemon Verbena
Fresh Lemon Verbena

Yes, I could have stayed there all afternoon with those views and the tempting pastries.  But, we are just hours away from our Sydney-area destination, and we must move on.

It’s always a G’day Down Under,

Nancy

Hiking The Red Center (Centre)

Visitors come to the center of Australia – called the “Red Center” (or, for you Brits and Aussies the “Red Centre”) to view and hike through some of the most wondrous land masses in the world:  Australia’s most recognizable landmark, Uluru is also known as Ayers Rock;  next to Uluru is Kata Tjuta, also known as the Olgas;  and a few hours down the road is the stunning Watarrka, or Kings Canyon.

We were originally just going to hike around Uluru and Kata Tjuta, but then decided to add Kings Canyon to the mix since we are here, and it is, too! We were very glad that we did.

With the temperatures getting up there to around 100 degrees F, we knew we needed to get an early start, as the trails are closed if the temperature is 36 degrees C (96 degrees F).

Trailhead
Trailhead

Sunscreen, hats, water, bug juice, snacks – check.  Let’s do this!

Kings Canyon is part of Watarrka National Park, with walls about 350 feet high. With three hikes to choose from, we started with the longest, a 6 km trail that goes from the base to the top of the canyon, with a dip down into the Garden of Eden, and finishing through a sandstone landscape that made us feel like we were walking on Mars.

Reading some of the placards on the trail, we learned that this canyon is an aboriginal sacred site in places, so we were encouraged to stay on the trails.  After visiting the Alice Springs Reptile Center (https://rvgetfit.com/2016/05/05/alice-springs) you can rest assured that we were not going off trail! We found it interesting that the first European expedition to explore the canyon was in 1872 – which, once again, reminded us of how “new” Australia is to us non-aborigines.

The hike starts with Heart Attack Hill – and there were plenty of people looking up the winding steps wondering if they shouldn’t just wait for their tour partners in the bus.  This was steep, and not for the faint of heart!

Heart Attack Hill
Heart Attack Hill

The colors of the rocks were just amazing.

The Textures
The Textures
The Colors
The Colors

And we felt that we were pretty much the only people out there

Where is everybody?
Where is everybody?

The route would take us up to the top of the canyon on the left side, around the rim, down into the canyon to the watering hole and oasis called the Garden of Eden, then back up to the rim for the right side view, before returning to the parking lot.

The canyon walls started to come into view

Canyon Walls
Canyon Walls

and we could see hikers on the other side

Hello On The Other Side
Hello On The Other Side

There were some steep ledges, with warning signs:

Falling Hazard?
Falling Hazard?

And it might have been the heat, but we were cracking up when we saw this one:

Viewing Area for Falling People?
Viewing Area for Falling People?

Some other highlights:

the textures were amazing

Dead Sea Ripples
Dead Sea Ripples

the stairs and the Garden of Eden

The Stairs to the Garden of Eden
The Stairs to the Garden of Eden

And, on the other side of the canyon, as we walked along the…

Rock Domes
Rock Domes

We were met by another goanna, as seen in the photo at the top of this post.  Yup, two days after being bitten, David must have been sending off some serious goanna pheromone, because we had not seen much wildlife on the hike, and then this 6 foot long specimen saunters on by.  Here is another view:

David's Buddy
David’s Buddy

We finished up the main trail, and noted that the path going the opposite direction was closed due to the temperature.

The hike proved to be quite the challenge, with the heat and the flies! Oh, the flies.  They were so pestering that we stopped at a visitors center to buy fly nets to put over our hats for the hike around Uluru and the Olgas the next day.

We consulted our free camping app, and found a nice place to shower for $3 AUD, and then went on to camp at the Sandy Way Rest Area for the night.

The next day, we were up early again and on to see Uluru and the Olgas.  As we drove in, you could see it in the distance:

Uluru In The Distance
Uluru In The Distance

Uluru, or Ayers Rock, is a sacred part of aboriginal creation mythology, and is considered one of Australia’s most recognizable natural icons.  A large sandstone “island mountain”, it is an isolated remnant of the slowly eroding mountain range, and is thought to be roughly 800-850 million years old.  Seriously.

We got to the big rock, and suited up! It was already hot outside, and the flies were relentless, but we were ready this time:

Shoo Fly
Shoo Fly

It should be noted that we intended to walk AROUND the rock, not to climb it.  The aborigines have asked that visitors not climb their sacred rock, and we saw no reason to go against this wish.  Some believe that if they are going to spend the $25 AUD entrance fee for the park, they are entitled to do whatever they want.  Yes, it is a struggle for the park.  There is a huge sign next to the carpark explaining the history and the position against climbing.  And still:

Climbers
Climbers

The base walk is 10 km, or 6 miles, and we really enjoyed it.  Once again, we went counterclockwise, and saw only a handful of people during the 2.5-3 hrs we took to explore.

So glad we had our nets, as they kept the annoying flies off of our faces; the rest of our bodies, not so much.  David felt compelled to take this shot:

The Flies Are NOT Roasted in Deer Isle ME
The Flies Are NOT Roasted in Deer Isle ME

There were some caves

Wave Cave
Wave Cave

Some really cool erosion marks

Color contrasts
Honeycomb

Some shade structures if one wanted to take a break

Shady Rest
Shady Rest

The texture of the land was so interesting, and the colors changed as the sunlight shifted

Hardy Plants
Hardy Plants
Texture
Reminds me of scales

We finished the Uluru base hike, and then drove the 53 km/32 miles to Kata Tjuta.  There, we took the Valley of the Winds hike, which was another 7.4 km.  Most people probably don’t do both hikes in the same day, but it is late Summer/early Fall, so we have the daylight to do this.

Kata Tjuta, or the Olgas, is a collection of monoliths.  The hike was much more strenuous than the base walk of Uluru.

Here is some of the scenery we enjoyed:

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According to my fitbit, this was a 37,775 step day for me! I don’t plan on surpassing that anytime soon, but you never know where this Australian adventure will take us.

The big question we had for each other after the hike was, “How do you pronounce ‘Uluru’?”

It’s always a G’day Down Under,

Nancy

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Alice Springs

 

Some of you may not be aware that David’s undergrad degree is a Bachelor of Arts in Geography, from Keene State University in Keene, New Hampshire.  Yes, he did attend a college, and live in a town, with the same name (different spelling) as his own.  But that isn’t the point. The point is, that he has retained more of his undergrad knowledge from 1977 than anyone I know.  Especially for someone who did not go on to work in that field.

A little nugget that he carried around in his brain is that Alice Springs, in the geographic center of Australia, should be visited, if for no other reason, then for it’s geographic-centerness.  Totally sounds like a reason to drive 2,300 kms/1,500 miles to check it out in person, right?

And so, we did.  On the fourth day of the Trip To Alice Springs, we actually arrived! And what a sight to behold! It has lived up to the hype, I tell you!

Kit (our oldest child, who is almost finished with his doctorate in Biology. Yes, we are so proud!) told us that Alice Springs has a Reptile Center (link: www.reptilecentre.com.au), so naturally we MUST visit!  After a 4 day road trip, I know YOU would go straight to the see the snakes, frogs, and reptiles of the Red Center.

Alice Springs Reptile Center
Alice Springs Reptile Center

The Reptile Center displays over 100 reptiles of 60 different species. Open daily from 9:30 am – 5 pm, with demonstrations conducted at 11 am, 1 pm, and 3:30 pm, we arrived just in time for the 1 pm session led by a young lady named Grace, who presented several of the Center’s inhabitants.

First off was Ruby the Goanna; she roams the center freely, and is very used to people, we are told. Next, we had a bearded dragon, and blue tongued skink, then a python.  The last half of the presentation was an instruction on the proper actions to take if one is bit by a snake while in the Australian bush. This was complete with a demonstration on how to wrap one’s limb in a bandage to constrict blood flow and thus to slow the advancement of venom in one’s system.  It was all presented well and reminded us that we were now in the wilds of Australia, home to a ridiculous number of poisonous reptiles. It also made me pretty nervous about the next few days, when we intend to do some considerable hiking. On the positive side, the first aid instruction will be fresh in our minds.

Now that show and tell was over, we were given the opportunity to hold some of the reptiles.  The skink was passed around the room, as was the bearded dragon.

I decided to be brave, especially since I was such a wimp all those years that our late son Kevin had reptiles (A monitor lizard, numerous bearded dragons, frogs, swifts – you get the idea).

Here I am holding the bearded dragon:

Me and the Dragon
Me and the Dragon

Please don’t ask why I have two pairs of glasses – they are for my pair of eyes, of course!

And here is David:

David and the Dragon
David and the Dragon

I decided to really go for it, so I stood in line to hold the celebrity of the bunch.  David was on standby with the camera, because if I was going to do this, I wanted a picture to commemorate the event.  I finally get to the front, handed my prize, turn around for the shot – and there stands David, with a skink in his hands instead of his camera ready! I had to wait for him to hand off that little guy, and was losing my nerve pretty fast.  So, here you have it:

The Python Is More Comfortable Than I Am
The Python Is More Comfortable Than I Am

So many chins…

That was enough hands-on time for us, so we started about the rest of the center to see the displays.  Ruby the Goanna walked up to David, and started using her tongue to smell his foot. We don’t know why she was doing this, but it was interesting to see this huge reptile and it’s super long tongue.  The next thing we knew, she bit him! Yup, we were surprised and concerned. David quickly moved away, and Ruby turned to me. I took this picture of her at my feet so you can get an idea of her size:

Ruby After The Bite
Ruby After The Bite

David started bleeding from the bite pretty badly, so we sought out Grace the Presenter for some first aid.  After she immediately put Ruby away, she explained that the goanna’s bite actually contains a chemical that inhibits the blood from coagulating. This is why David was bleeding so much.  David cleaned the wound and put some bandages on it, and we went through the exhibits.  It startled him more than it hurt.

This is what it looked like the next day:

The Day After
The Day After

My favorite reptile in the center was the Thorny Devil.  I chose this as the “Feature Photo” for this post. Just look at this beautiful creature!

We spent a couple of hours in the Reptile Center, and David took loads of pictures to share with Kit when we see him in Tulsa later this year.

After a trip to the grocery store, we drove to the Caravan Park that we had intended to stay in, and just drove right on by.  This place had people loitering around the entrance, and was really dirty and run down.  We just did not feel comfortable staying there.

Souvenir shopping was next on our agenda – I really wanted a shirt that said “Alice Springs” to go along with my collection (which includes 44 North Coffee and El El Frijoles in Maine, University of Tulsa and San Diego State University, and of course, Amazon).  But, this being Easter weekend, the majority of shops were closed.

We stayed the night at the Temple Bar Caravan Park about 10 km outside of town.  I needed to do some laundry, but their washer was rusty, so I chose to wait until the next day and go back into town.  There were many permanent residents in this park, mostly in small cube houses that looked more like tool sheds than homes. For $22 AUD, we had a grassy, unpowered site with water.  Oh, and the view! See for yourself – here are our neighbors:

Our Little Slice of Heaven
Our Little Slice of Heaven

The next day, back into town we drove to do laundry before heading to our next destination. While we weren’t too sure what to expect from this remote location, I would say that we were surprised by the poverty and general unsafe feel of the place.  It may have been because all of the stores were closed, so we couldn’t see hustle and bustle of the town; it felt like a ghost town. The landscape and red rock was lovely, but we were definitely ready to head out quickly, and we did.

As David’s foot started to heal, we headed to some serious hiking among some of the most beautiful and unique landscape we have ever seen. That will be our next story.

It’s always a G’day Down Under,

Nancy