Saturday, May 19, 2012

Australia Day One: Happy Bird Day

Visiting Australia has been a life-long dream for Bryan and me. With our time remaining on this part of the planet limited (more about that later), we decided to make it a reality. We only had time for a short trip, so we decided to head to Darwin, which is relatively near Singapore.

We went to the airport late one Friday night, and confidently queued up to check in for our Jetstar flight. We got to the counter and handed over our passports. The ticketing agent asked distractedly, "Do you have visas?" Bryan and I exchanged a look. "We don't need them," I said, more confidently than I felt. She looked up. "Yes you do," she said, "Every country except New Zealand needs a visa." Bryan and I were dumbfounded. How could we have missed this major detail?! Our flight was leaving in 90 minutes, and here we stood like a couple of idiots. We then had this frustrating exchange:

Me: Well, is there any way we can GET a visa?
Agent: (stare)
Me: Can we get one online?
Agent: Yes.
Me: Well, is there a way we can access the Internet? Can we go in there? (pointing to the free Internet, in sight but beyond security).
Agent: (annoyed, not looking at us) No, you can't go in there. You'll have to figure out how to get Internet access on your own.
(Bryan and I stand there for a second, feeling stupid as our dream vacation slips slowly away from us).
Bryan: (very politely) Well, do you have any suggestions?
Agent: (finally looks up at us) Oh. Yeah. You can go down to the Qantas counter. They issue Australian visas. (scribbles on a sheet of paper) Just go down there and ask for this. But you have to be back before we close the ticketing counter.

Bryan and I looked at the clock. We had 25 minutes. We ran over to the Qantas counter and joined an annoyingly long queue. We were both flabbergasted that this option was available and the ticketing agent had failed to mention it until asked. But we had bigger fish to fry now. We stood in that line, fidgeting and stressing, for the next 20 minutes. Then we got to the counter and told the agent the situation. She rushed through the process and we ran back to the Jetstar counter with about 3 minutes to spare.

It was definitely the rockiest beginning to any of our vacations. I guess we've traveled so much over the past few years that we've gotten kind of careless about the little details. And we're spoiled as Americans: we often get visas on arrival. Of all places, we didn't think Australia would require us to have them beforehand. Oh well. We were just SO grateful that we were still going to make it! A public service announcement for our fellow Americans:

AMERICANS: YOU NEED A VISA TO TRAVEL TO AUSTRALIA! FOR REAL! YOU CAN GET ONE HERE: http://www.eta.immi.gov.au/

So our trip certainly began with a bit of a headache, but it got better after that. We made our flight and even had an empty seat next to us. We read and dozed all the way, and landed safely in Darwin at around 4 in the morning. By 5 AM we'd picked up our rental car from Hertz and we were on our way!

It was still pitch black outside and there wasn't much traffic on the roads. We took the opportunity to drive around and get acquainted with Darwin, while Bryan got reacquainted with driving on the left side of the road. We were hungry, so we were hoping to find a breakfast place open early. The only place we found serving breakfast so early was the SkyCity Casino. Well, why not? We went in and had a buffet breakfast. I was super excited by two things (don't laugh): 1) tater tots!!! Not a common staple in Singapore and 2) VEGEMITE! I love it.

We ate and drank coffee and lounged around until the sky gradually began to lighten. There was a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows next to our table, and as the sun began to rise we realized that we were looking out over the ocean! Seabirds began flying around, squawking loudly.

We'd been up all night, but we were still eager to explore. Now that it was daylight and our stomachs were full, we decided to head for the nearby Darwin Botanical Gardens. As soon as we pulled into the carpark, we were greeted by two funny-looking birds. Our handy guidebook (Watching Wildlife: Australia)easily identified them as orange-footed scrubfowl.
They remind me of smaller, less pretty peacocks!
Sleepy birdwatchers

The gardens were peaceful early in the morning. There weren't many people around, but there was a staggering quantity of birds. Everywhere we looked we saw a type of bird we'd never seen before!!
Magpie-larks were all over the place! They're like magpie wannabes;
they spend a lot of their time hanging around the real magpies.
L: Australian white ibis; R: straw-necked ibis.
The bar-shouldered dove is also known as...are you ready for this?...
the kookawook! Best alias ever.
Little friarbird, also known as a leatherhead, which seems apt.

We pretty quickly realized that the orange-footed scrubfowl really wasn't too special. They were everywhere. Every time we heard a rustling in the leaves, we turned around to discover a pair of orange legs!
They spend a lot of time foraging in the leaf litter

We spent a long time in the gardens. We were pretty worn out from having been up all night, and aimlessly wandering the gardens suited our mental state pretty well. I even had time for tree-climbing!
Up a tree.

As we meandered along a boardwalk on the edge of the park, Bryan put his hand on my arm to stop me. "Look," he whispered intensely. I looked up ahead, and to my complete surprise I saw that there were about 10 huge birds in the brush! They were only about 10 yards away, and each one was almost 2 feet tall, but they were so supremely camouflaged that neither Bryan or I had noticed them until we were almost on top of them!
Bush stone-curlews are mostly nocturnal and are excellent at fading into the background!

Birds definitely dominated the wildlife scene in the gardens, but we did see a few other things, including  a lot of spiders.
Tent-web spider
Wrapping up a delicious snack for later
Orb-weaver spider

We even saw this cute little lizard, who was very preoccupied with trying to disappear under some leaves where he'd be safe from the big scary people.
Cute little Aussie skink.

My favorite thing that we saw all morning was a set of very colorful, elegant birds. They're rainbow bee-eaters, and they're lovely!!
The beautiful rainbow bee-eaters are a relative of the kingfishers!

Another favorite was this seed pod. At first glance, it looked like a tiny rowboat on the water, haha.
Tiny rowboat

After we'd covered the entire garden, we went back  to the carpark. On the way, I swung by the restroom. When I shut the stall door, I almost peed my pants. There was a HUGE grasshopper on top of the door, and a spider in the corner! AH!
Bathroom Grasshopper is watching you.

After my big scare, we headed back to the car and took a nap in the carpark! We were so beat from our all-nighter that we didn't want to start another adventure without a little catnap. It was peaceful there, lying in the warm car and listening to the birds all around us.

After a couple of hours, we got up, drove back into town, and checked into the Holiday Inn near the ocean, mostly because it was one of the first hotels we came across. It had already been a long day at that point, so we lounged around in our room until around dinner-time, when we walked and explored the town a bit, mostly along Mitchell Street. We got some dinner at a tiny place called the Souvlaki Bar. I had good falafel, and as usual Bryan liked my vegetarian dish better than his meaty gyro!!

Walking around Darwin at night was interesting. Unlike in Singapore, there were a few homeless people hanging out on the streets. We had a tense moment when a particularly disheveled guy got up off the sidewalk and started following closely behind us, repeatedly mumbling, "You gotta do what you gotta do," but we hurried along and eventually lost him. We stopped for a few ciders on the patio at a bar called Monsoons. Drinking relatively inexpensive booze in a bar full of young white people sure made us feel right at home!!

We went back to our hotel pretty early that night, still sleep-deprived, and eager to rest up for what we hoped would be an exciting next day!

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