Archive for the ‘Australia with children’ Category

13 January 2013

A wonderful piece, nicely compliments my post some time back on Princess movies adults can stand.


But seriously, y’all.

The traditional Disney Prince has about as much sparkle and panache as something completely lacking in sparkle and panache. He has  a creative name like “The Prince” “Prince Charming” “Prince Phillip” “Prince Eric” or “Prince Adam” (that’s the actual name of the Beast, apparently), and no personality. Ok, well, the Beast has a personality, but the only thing anyone else does is be obsessively fixated on some girl he met once in the woods.

Has anyone ever thought that maybe the reason that little boys (generally) don’t like playing princess games is because there’s nothing for them to DO? What prince is actually interesting enough that a little boy would want to dress up like him? What prince actually does anything that a little boy (or anyone for that matter) would want to do? Hey, Mom, today I’m going to roleplay as Prince Charming. I will stand…

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Children’s Book Festival 2012

26 March 2012

The Children’s Book Festival is aptly named, being a celebration of children’s books and in the tradition of all good festivals, having so much on offer as to make it impossible to do justice to it all.

When I read out the festival program to my six-year-old and asked her whom she most wanted to see, without hesitation she nominated Sally Rippin, author of the Billie B Brown books.

I was happy about that, being a Sally Rippin fan myself. Given some of the inane, poorly written fiction targeted at young girls, Billie B Brown is a breath of fresh air: well written stories with a feisty heroine at the centre who might well be my daughter’s peer.

Perhaps it was no surprise then to hear Sally Rippin describe how Billie B was inspired by her own childhood as a ‘bossy older sister’. Billie B Brown – The Beautiful Haircut, for example, was based on Sally’s own experience of cutting off her younger sister’s pigtails. The moral of the story, she told her audience was, ‘when you play hairdressers, don’t use real scissors.’

We saw Sally as part of a Meet the Author session in Queen’s Hall at the State Library of Victoria (where I last visited for a very fun photo shoot). Sally talked about how the character of Billie B developed as a combination of her experience and the imagination of illustrator Aki Fukuoka, who has been known to look and dress like Billie. I like that Billie is named in part for Billie Holiday.

Sally read Billie B Brown and the Copycat Kid to her rapt audience, before adjourning to the Readings Signing Tent, at which point I realised what a rock star welcome awaited the children’s authors. I lined up (willingly) for 35 minutes in front of the State Library to get some Billie B books signed, while my daughter and her best friend, accompanied by the latter’s father, had their faces painted and visited the petting zoo around the corner in Little Lonsdale Street. As luck would have it, I reached the top of the queue at the right time for the girls to be free to meet Sally — a highlight of the day.

Meanwhile, the signing queue for Andy Griffiths had grown like Jack’s beanstalk before the author had even left the building. As writer Fran Cusworth tweeted, ‘Anyone who thinks kids aren’t reading hasn’t seen the 5,889,556m queue to get Andy Griffiths’ autograph at kids’ book fest.’

I gave our girls a choice between another author talk and an illustrator’s workshop and they chose the latter, which found us in Anna Pignataro‘s wonderful world of fairies, rabbits and glitter. Again I was impressed with how much respect and patience children’s authors and illustrators show their fans as we crafted up a storm of bunnies, wands and tiaras.

As Anna’s workshop was coming to an end, Bernard Caleo (full disclosure: close personal friend) arrived for a story telling session using his amazing kamishibai story box; and although my six-year-old and her friend were shattered by then, both were intrigued enough to stay for the opening and might’ve stayed for the duration if not for their flagging energy levels.

A word to the organisers for next year: load the morning sessions with stuff for 3-6 year olds, because that’s when they peak. Advertise cool stuff — like Bernard Caleo’s comic strip workshops — expressly for older kids in the afternoon.

I would’ve loved to have seen/met Graeme Base and Alison Lester, two of my favourite Australian author/illustrators. But clearly the 1:1 ratio of adults to children we had this year for the Children’s Book Festival was not enough. Next year I’ll aim for a 2:1 ratio in the adults’ favour and see if I can get to more author events.

Kudos and thanks to The Wheeler Centre and the State Library of Victoria for another excellent event.

Magnetic Island…strangely alluring

1 January 2012

Magnetic Island holidayMagnetic Island, off the coast of Queensland just out from Townsville, has to be one of the most family friendly holiday destinations this country has to offer, at least outside of stinger season.

We went in July 2011 and while the locals thought it was too cold to swim, we had no problem taking the plunge — especially given the gorgeous swimming and snorkelling opportunities on offer.

We stayed at Arcadia on the southeast coast, across the road from toddler friendly Geoffrey Bay and a short walk from the good swimming beach of Alma Bay. Having visited the other settlements on the island, Arcadia is where I would choose to stay again for its proximity to what were, for me, some of the islands main attractions.

Alma Bay is a patrolled beach and there’s a kids playground with shady lawn and amenities that fronts on to the sand.

Magnetic Island holidayLow tide at Geoffrey Bay is perfect for beach-combing, the kids chasing hermit crabs and paddling around in the shallow water. This is an ideal beach for building sandcastles and decorating them with shells, coral and seaweed, all of which are in ample supply.

At the northern end of Geoffrey Bay a dirt road curves around the water to Bremner Point. The road is lined with the volcanic boulders that characterise Magnetic Island’s dramatic landscape, and at sunset rock wallabies come down from the cliffs, balancing on the boulders with the dexterity of circus performers. They gather in the carpark where people feed with specially purchased pellets or certain types of fruit and vegetables (outlined on a sign). However, it’s not necessary to feed the rock wallabies to get close and the photo opportunities are amazing. Look out for joeys in the pouches and keep clear of the boxing males.

Magnetic Island is rich in native wildlife. If the clamour of the curlews doesn’t wake you in the wee hours of the morning, chances are the kookaburras will; there’s a blue-winged variety unique to this region. Just around from where we were staying was a flying fox colony, while a sea eagle welcomed us when our ferry from Townsville pulled into the jetty at Nelly Bay.

Magnetic Island holidayThe flora and fauna on land is rivalled only by that in the sea. Snorkelling off Magnetic Island, it’s easy to remember that you are not far from the Great Barrier Reef. We snorkelled at a few places, but by far the best was Arthur Bay, north of Alma Bay. Accessible only by 4WD down an unsealed track, Arthur Bay has shade, sand, fabulous rock formations, and — at the northern end — splendid coral reefs teeming with tropical fish. If you get the tide times right, you can walk out and snorkelling only centimetres from the coral. We spent several mornings at Arthur Bay, the highlight of which was swimming with a sea turtle in the coral garden.

Tropical Cyclone Yasi, which hit northern Queensland in January 2011, had taken it’s toll on sea turtles in the area — or at least the sea grass meadows they rely on for food. Injured and hungry turtles often end up on the nursery at the ReefHQ Aquarium in Townsville, which we visited on a day trip to the mainland. We timed our visit to catch the daily Predator Dive Show where, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, we got hear the diver chat as he swam with sharks and other animals in a tank full of predators. We got introduced to aquarium long-timers Leo and Leonie, a mating pair of leopard sharks, and sentimental favourite Cuddles the tawny nurse shark, resident since 1996, who spent his days snoozing, harvesting food from under rocks when he could be bothered. We learned that blacktip reef sharks never stop swimming, and the long blade-like nose of a sawfish is called a rostrum. The woman who interviewed the diver in the tank also handed around stuff for us to touch: a small shark jawbone and teeth, egg sacs and a sawfish rostrum. A great show.

Magnetic Island holidayOur visit coincided with the school holiday program at the aquarium. Indigenous project officer Russell Butler, whose background is the Bandjin people of Hinchinbrook, was demonstrating traditional skills, and there was a range of craft activities on offer linked to traditional Aboriginal stories from the region. Our favourite was ‘The two boys and the Dhui Dhui’ best, the story of how the Southern Cross got into the sky. As well as a model Dhui Dhui — shovel-nosed stingray — to cut out and colour, we got a print out of the story and a visual map, complete with legend to help us read the symbols.

The other highlight of our day-trip to Townsville was the Strand Water Park on the foreshore. Not much beats watching kids so excited, they can’t stop jumping for joy.

While it might not rival ReefHQ Aquarium, the Aquasearch Lab and Aquarium at 6-10 Elena St in Nelly Bay is worth a visit. Set up outside the home of Rick and Nell Braley, the quirky,  compact display includes tanks of colourful corals, anemones, tropical fish — crowd pleasers like clown fish, moon wrasse, damsel fish, blue tang — and a 25+ year old cultured Giant Clam, cultivated as part of Dr Rick’s PhD research.

Magnetic Island holidaySpeaking of culture, don’t miss the weekly Cane Toad races at the Arcadia Pub, held on Wednesdays though rescheduled to Friday during our visit on account of some rugby match. The races are hosted by ‘Island icon’ and colourful racing personality Verne Jack, who is also responsible for the wallaby feeding. Wearing shorts, a T-shirt and one white sock on the night we attended, Verne hoists the toads from a plastic garbage bin one at a time, each wearing a different coloured ribbon, and introduces them: orange is ‘The Flying Ductchman’, green is ‘Irish’, pink is the ‘Pink Pussycat’, etc. Verne auctions them off one at a time to the highest bidders — someone paid $80 for a toad the night we were there — then places them in an octagonal perspex pen at the centre of a large painted circle. When Verne lifts the box away, the cane toads — which look even uglier for wearing ribbons — ‘race’ to the edge of the circle. First one over the line wins…unless it doubles back, in which case the next one wins. The winner gets a cash prize, with profits going to junior lifesaving. Awesome.

Another island event worth mentioning is the open air food market at the RSL Hall, 31 Hayles Ave, Arcadia, with Thai and Indonesian foodstalls, a full bar inside the hall, and a fabulous range of home-cooked cakes and preserves. Open from 5-8pm on Fridays, come early to get a table or bring a picnic rug.


The Coral Sea area around Magnetic Island is an extraordinary, pristine marine environment. To add your voice to the campaign to keep it that way, go to the Protect Our Coral Sea website. It takes less than a minute to make a submission to the Federal Environment Minister, and while you’re there, you can check out the superb photos and videos.

Travelling with kids: a reminder

16 March 2011

Werribee Open Range ZooWe spent the Labour Day public holiday this year at Werribee Open Range Zoo, an experience which funnily enough reminded me of what it was like travelling in South East Asia with Natasha. I was reminded that what excites me is not always the same as what excites her. Furthermore, I need not to let what I think should excite her distract me from what actually does excite her. I might even learn something.

Werribee Open Range ZooA case in point: while I was excited by the hippos (left), Tash was more excited by the Hippo Play Trail and way more excited by the Hippo Water Play (above). In truth the statue versions with their inviting climbs and tricky fountains were considerably more animated than the real thing. Note the fountains come on once the thermostat hits 23 degrees.

Werribee Open Range ZooWhile I think the Scimitar Oryx are exquisite and amazing, especially given they are endangered and ‘conservation dependant’, Tash found the packaging they came in (below) — from the Monarto Zoo in South Australia — way more interesting. And after ten minutes of crawling in and out of packing crates, I had to concede she had a point. The animal packaging playground at the end of the Pula Reserve Trail is inspired.

Werribee Open Range ZooDifferences aside, both Tash and I were very excited to see four-week old zebra foal Shamwari (below) during our Safari bus tour, while Roo enjoyed getting up close and personal with the giraffe herd.

When we asked Tash about her favourite part of the day, she nominated the icy-pole in the Meerkat Bistro. Sometimes Roo and I wonder why we try so hard…

Werribee Open Range ZooBut all three of us were united in our happiness on the way home to visit the Ðòng Quê restaurant for a late lunch of Hanoi style grilled pork with vermicelli noodles, Vietnamese coleslaw with shrimp and pork, and steamed rice paper with grilled pork and rice crackers. Our favourite eatery in Footscray, Ðòng Quê can be found at 102 Hopkins Street.

The day was a salient reminder to recalibrate expectations when travelling with a child, which is timely, given we are heading back to Thailand in less than a month. We’ll be spending the school holidays on what will be a research trip for me, visiting the parts of Thailand where my next book will be set.

Who knows what delights Tash may open my eyes to.

Minibeasts and Altona

21 January 2011

Minibeasts at Altona LibraryTwo things to rave about today: Andrew Wegener’s Minibeasts show, and the suburb of Altona in Melbourne’s west.

It was thanks to the former that we ended up at the latter. Andrew is a former Melbourne Zoo keeper, author, photographer, community educator and government licensed Commercial Wildlife Demonstrator. His Australian Wildlife Lecturers appears annually at the Altona Library courtesy of the Hobson’s Bay Council. I saw it advertised in the paper, and we headed there today for an amazing ‘hands-on’ learning experience.

Minibeasts at Altona LibraryAndrew brings live snakes, lizards, stick insects, a tortoise and tree frogs, all of which can be handled — under careful supervision — by kids and adults alike. In fact, the adults outnumbered the kids most of the time we were at the library. As you handle the animals, Andrew passes on interesting information about them. I learned that frogs breath and absorb water through their skin, for example, and that some lizards — like the blue-tongue — have live births while others lay eggs. Also very few tortoises can turn themselves over if they are knocked on to their backs/shells, the long-necked tortoise in Andrew’s care being an exception.

There are live spiders in containers and other beasties in tanks, all clearly labelled and accompanied by fact sheets. Here I learned that white-tailed spider bites, while painful, are not life-threatening. Phew!

Minibeasts at Altona LibraryThere are other minibeasts preserved in formaldehyde or behind glass, including a baby shark and a small blue-ringed octopus. The library has an impressive display of stuffed animals and shells, while I think others belonged to Andrew. It was a treat to see the delighted look on my nine-month-old nephew’s face when his hand made contact with possum fur.

Tash was a little disappointed there was no redback handling, also that she wasn’t allowed to kiss the green tree frog and turn him into a prince. But the photos show how much we all enjoyed the experience.

Minibeasts at Altona LibraryAs well as being learned and informative, Andrew is entertaining and patient. He set up photos for us, producing a great record of a wonderful experience. He doesn’t do parties — too much like babysitting — and he warns against dodgy snake wranglers posing as kids entertainers. But he’s available for school incursions and excursions covering a range of wildlife issues, including beach walks and rockpool rambles. Highly recommended.

Kudos to the Hobson’s Bay Council for providing such a wonderful, free school holiday event, and to the Altona Library for being so hospitable. It was great to see a group of older persons and carers enjoying the same experience as the four-, five-, fifteen- and forty-something-year-olds in our party.

Minibeasts at Altona LibraryAltona Library is located a convenient two blocks from Altona Station on the corner of Sargood and Queen Streets. Another block south on Sargood Street is the RJ Logan Reserve, a shady park with a kids playground, which overlooks Altona Beach. Alongside the park on Pier Street is the Altona Pines Takeaway, which sells seriously good fish and chips. The nearby Pier Cafe next door has good coffee. In terms of urban planning, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Our band of four little kids, one teen and two hot mamas enjoyed fish and chips at a table in the shade right by the playground with a view of the beach. The air was filled with dragon flies and the Morton Bay Fig Tree begged the kids to come back again when they were big enough to climb it.

We’ll be back.

Full set of pics here.

Princess movies adults can stand

7 January 2011

As the holidays continue and Melbourne’s weather fluctuates as usual, I am stock-piling DVDs to get us through the holiday season. My focus is kids films adults can bear to watch, which meet my daughter’s key criterion.

When my brother, a lecturer in cinema studies, visited us from the UK last year, Tash sidled up to him and asked, ‘Uncle Julian, what’s your favourite kids movie?’

‘Funny you should ask,’ he said. ‘I was just thinking about that the other day. It’s a film called Bugsy Malone.’

The 1976 Alan Parker film starring Jodie Foster and Scott Baio features kiddie gangsters armed with guns that fire cream pies. But Tash wasn’t satisfied.

‘Uncle Julian,’ she tried again, ‘what’s your favourite princess movie?’

To my surprise, he had one: The Princess Bride.

And so to the following princess movies adults can stand.

The Princess Bride

The Princess Bride (1987, PG), directed by Rob Reiner of Spinal Tap fame and based on a novel by William Goldman, opens with a grandfather (Peter Falk) reading a book to his sick grandson (Fred Savage). The boy is unenthusiastic, but gives the grandfather the benefit of the doubt on learning the story has “fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…” And it delivers on every front.

While Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright in her debut role) could be more helpful when under attack, she looks gorgeous and sustains the drama while all those around her — Cary Elwes as Westley/the Dread Pirate Robins, Chris Sarandon as the evil Prince Umperdinck, Billy Chrystal as Miracle Max — ham it up. The other note of pathos comes from the underrated Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya, hell bent on avenging the death of his father by the sword of the six-fingered man (Spinal Tap’s Christopher Guest as Count Rugen).

A film with appeal for girls and boys, from toddlers to teens, though the younger ones might need their hands held during the scarier scenes. Those Rodents of Unusual Size sure scare the hell out of me.


Enchanted (2007, PG) begins as a classic Disney animation. Lovely Giselle (Amy Adams), surrounded by her friends the forest creatures, pines for a prince and “true love’s kiss”. Enter the perfect candidate, Prince Edward (James Marsden), distracted from his troll hunting by Giselle’s lovely singing. They fall in love but before they can go through with the wedding, Giselle falls foul of Edward’s evil step-mother Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon, having loads of fun), who sends her to “a place where there are no happy ever afters”.

Giselle emerges in modern-day New York and the film segues into live-action. Neither her arrival, nor the subsequent arrivals of Edward, his valet Nathaniel (Timothy Spall) and Pip the chipmunk seem to phase the locals, though a bus driver does get irate when Edward stabs her bus and announces, “The steel beast is dead, peasants. I’ve set you all free!”

Meanwhile, Giselle is rescued by and falls for divorce lawyer Robert Philip (Patrick Dempsey), who scoffs at her romanticism but falls for her, too — to the delight of his daughter Morgan (Rachel Covey) and displeasure of his girlfriend Nancy (Idina Menzel).

Enchanted works because it is not cynical, celebrating the same fairytale qualities that it parodies. In one hilarious scene, Giselle summons friendly creatures to help her clean up the apartment where Robert and Morgan live, just as Cinderella summoned the rabbits, fauns and bluebirds to help her tidy the home of the seven dwarves. But because it’s New York City, Giselle gets pigeons, rats and cockroaches to do the job as she sings her “Happy Working Song.”

With its cross-cultural blunders, jokes and big musical numbers, Enchanted is great fun, and with the exception of one “spiteful, vindictive, very large” dragon, not too scary.

Ella Enchanted

Based on the novel by Gail Carson Levine, Ella Enchanted (2004, PG) is another live action film that subverts typical fairytale plots and devices while remaining faithful to the qualities of the genre. Ella (the lively and lovely Anne Hathaway) is given the ‘gift’ of obedience by an irresponsible Fairy Godmother, Lucinda (Vivica A Fox), which requires her to do whatever she’s told, regardless of the personal consequences. A throwaway line like ‘you wait here’ fixes her to the spot, even if that’s in the path of a speeding coach. Ella struggles to keep her curse a secret from her awful stepmother (Joanna Lumley) and stepsisters, knowing they would use it to exploit her.

Meanwhile, the kingdom of Lamia is under the rule of the evil Sir Edgar, played in a nice twist by The Princess Bride‘s romantic hero Cary Elwes, who is plotting to keep the crown from his naive nephew, handsome prince Charmont (Hugh Dancy). When Char turns up at a public event, Ella and a friend’s protest against ‘ogrecide’ draws his attention. Ella ends up taking him to see what Edgar has done to the kingdom, driving out the ogres, enslaving the giants and forcing the elves to work as entertainers. They befriend an array of creatures, including Slannen the Elf (Aidan McArdle), who hates singing, dancing and ‘tomfoolery’ and wants to be a lawyer. Slannen ends up being wooed by the giantess Brumhilda (Heidi Klum).

All the while Ella is trying to find Lucinda in order to ask her to take back her gift. But Sir Edgar with the help of the evil stepsisters has discovered Ella’s secret and so that he can retain the crown, lines Ella up to assassinate Prince Char.

The satisfying twist on the typical fairytale in Ella Enchanted is that while your typical fairytale princess is dependent and submissive, Ella’s recognises these qualities as a curse. She must rely on her resourcefulness and strength of character if she is to bring about a happy ending.


Stardust (2007, PG) opens with a young man breaching the wall between an English village and the magical kingdom of Stormhold, where he meets a princess held captive by a witch. They have a brief romance and a year later their son Tristan turns up in a basket on his doorstep. Fast forward 18 years and Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox) follows unknowingly in his father’s foosteps over the wall, hoping to retrieve a fallen star to impress his obnoxious girlfriend Victoria (Sienna Miller).

The star turns out to be a beautiful young woman, Yvaine (Claire Danes), who is outraged by Tristan’s plans to make a gift of her to Victoria. “But of course!” she scoffs. “Nothing says “romance” like the gift of a kidnapped injured woman!”

Also hot on the heels of the star is the evil witch Lamia — played with delight by Michelle Pfeiffer — who wants to cut out the star’s heart to restore hers and her sisters’ youth and beauty.

Meanwhile, the succession of Stormhold is in dispute as the dying king’s seven sons keep killing each other off in order to win the throne. The last two standing, Primus (Jason Flemyng) and Septimus (the fabulous Mark Strong), are hunting the king’s ruby necklace, watched over by the ghosts of the brothers they have assassinated before them.

There’s also a subplot involving a shipload of thunder hunting pirates, with a cross-dressing captain played by Robert de Niro, whose performance alone is worth watching the film for.

All the narrative threads come together, but the complexity of the plot meant Tash had a lot of questions the first time we watched it. And there are some scary bits: a witch is beheaded, another run through with a lance, and then there’s all those dead princes. But it’s a wonderful, magical epic with great performances, gorgeous production values and a happy ending.


The last of the princess movies adults can stand is perhaps an obvious choice since the Shrek movies can appear to have been made with adults rather than, or at least as much as kids in mind.

But I’m including the first Shrek (2001, PG) here because it’s a great antidote to those other Disney princess movies. ‘True love’s kiss’ doesn’t transform the ogre Princess Fiona (voiced by Cameron Diaz) into the pretty Princess Fiona, but demonstrates that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that Fiona is gorgeous, regardless of how she looks.

That true love takes many forms is demonstrated not only by the relationship between cantankerous ogre Shrek (Mike Myers) and the feisty Fiona, but by the fiery (pun intended) romance between the hilarious Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and the giant girl dragon that guards Fiona in her tower.

There are also lots of fart jokes, puns, riffs on well-known fairytales and singalong opportunities for the whole family to enjoy.

But if despite these recommendations, your own little princess reaches for the animated Disney options, try steering her towards The Princess and the Frog (2009, G) or Mulan (1998, G) — to my mind, the most bearable of the bunch.

The Enchanted Party

20 December 2010

The Enchanted Party.

No prizes for guessing where we’ll be in the second week of January 2011…

Learning to ‘boggan

9 August 2010

Lake Mountain 5A couple of months ago, Tash started hounding us to take her to the snow. I blame the Disney princesses for putting such notions into her head (the Disney princesses have a lot to answer for in my opinion). It certainly wasn’t my idea. I’m the type who likes to holiday somewhere warmer than home, which explains why I’ve never visited New Zealand. The idea of snow play left me, well, cold.

I conferred with the parents of one of Tash’s closest friends, who it turns out was also lobbying hard for a snow trip. Perhaps they hatched the idea at the kindergarten they both attend. Whatever the case, we decided collectively to take the kids to the snow.

Lake Mountain 22Next we had to figure out where, when, and for how long. Friends recommended staying at an alpine resort so warm baths and a change of clothes were close at hand for the kids. But the costs were prohibitive. An alternative was to stay in a nearby town and make trips to and from the snowfields. But the most affordable options required hours of driving. And what if the kids liked the idea of snow better than the reality? There was a strong possibility they’d be into it for half an hour, then complain they were cold and wet and wanted to go home.

After much research we settled on the modest objective of a day trip to Lake Mountain near Marysville. Of all of Victoria’s snowfields, Lake Mountain is closest to Melbourne at 120 km northeast of the CBD or a little over two hours’ drive for us. We figured August was a good bet in terms of snowfall, though there’s a snowmaking machine to get it through the lean seasons.

Lake Mountain 13The area was badly damaged by the February 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. Given the cold, it should have been impossible to imagine the hillsides on fire. But whiteness of the snow served to intensify the charred and blackened bush. Eighteen months on, the impact of the devastation still takes my breath away.

Marysville was where we chose to stop and hire snow gear. There are at least three hire places on the main road and it’s worth shopping around for deals. We got a ‘Snowman Package’ at Marysville Ski Centre, which provided walking boots, waterproof overpants and a toboggan for $21 per person (adults & children); another place had the same deal for kids at $16. I’d found Tash a perfect parka for $6 and overpants for $3 at Savers in Brunswick, but we forked out for mittens ($12 to buy) and boots ($10 to hire) for her — and thank goodness we did. Entry to the mountain itself is $35 per car (weekend rate, $25 weekdays), best paid by cash using the correct change.

Lake Mountain 21It was sheer luck that the weather was perfect, the sky clear and blue, the mountainsides soft with freshly fallen snow. It also meant Lake Mountain was crowded, the upper carpark already full by the time we arrived at 11 am. A shuttle-bus was ferrying people to the resort, but on the suggestion of a park volunteer, we headed through the gate near the entrance to the lower carpark, turned right and walked a short distance to a small toboggan run.

This turned out to be a good move. The gentle slope was perfect for our four-and-a-half-year-olds and it was possible to walk into the bush only metres from the toboggan run and feel as if we had the place to ourselves. There were a few other families around but not enough to make it feel crowded.

Lake Mountain 26Tash’s friend got cold feet (literally) after an hour, but Tash loved it. To begin with, Andrew and I took turns on the toboggan with her, but after a couple of hours and a few practice sessions on a smaller slope, she was tobogganing on her own. She could get enough of the ‘boggan’. She also made a snow angel, helped build a snowman, had a snowball fight — all the things she’d planned for weeks. The photos capture her pure joy at the experience.

A day at the snow is not cheap. Happily in our case, it was well worth it.

The Lake Mountain Alpine Resort website provides detailed information including daily snow reports and maps. Click here for tourist information on Marysville.

Meeting Mali at Melbourne Zoo

7 June 2010

Baby Mail is so cute 2Last month Tash and I finally got to meet Mali, Melbourne Zoo‘s newest addition to the herd that calls the Trail of the Elephants home. In fact, according to the Melbourne Zoo website, she is the first elephant born in the zoo’s 147-year history.

The ‘celebelephant’ (celebrity elephant) did not disappoint. She is hairy and cute and playful — full of personality according to the commentary kept up by the keepers.

Apparently elephants are allo-parents, that is, the whole tribe looks after the babies–like the ‘sparents’ (spare parents) Mia Freedman writes about. In this picture, Mali is running around with her grandmother, which was apt, seeing as how that’s what Tash was doing a lot of that same week: my mother was visiting from NSW and came to the zoo with us.

We didn’t have to queue for long at all to see Mali. She is currently on show from 11 am-3 pm.

We’ve been taking Tash to the Melbourne Zoo since she was a toddler and just decided to renew our Friends of the Zoo membership for another year. It pays for itself within a few visits, and given we are only two train stations away, we can afford to go on the spur of the moment, even for a short visit.

Tash and the tortoisesMelbourne Zoo is the country’s oldest. I have a strong memory of visiting as a child, seeing the same giant tortoises, who are now in their seventies. One of the old-style enclosures has been preserved for the record, and I remember, too, watching the desperate pacing of the big cats in those concrete pens. I know zoos are artificial, imperfect and don’t come close to the thrill of seeing wild creatures in their natural element. But each visit renews my sense of awe at the brilliant diversity of life on this planet and impels to do more to contribute to the conservation of that diversity.

We are loving the new marine precinct with its seal viewing ‘cinemas’ and tanks of the less showy but equally gorgeous weedy sea dragons. So what if the kids like playing on the pirate ship more than watching the wildlife: I still get to watch the seals.

Tash always wants to see the zebras, while her cousin Vinnie–under the influence of The Lion King–is currently enamoured by the wild dogs that share the lion enclosure.

We all love the reptile house, which like the marine precinct is great to visit regardless of the weather. My personal favourite exhibit is the bright blue poison frog–though on our most recent visit, we were all captivated by the black-headed pythons that were literally climbing the walls.

Zoo May 8But Tash’s very favourite thing at Melbourne Zoo is the orangutan nest. Every time we visit the complex that houses the quiet orangutans and their noisy neighbours, the siamangs, Tash heads straight for the nest, makes a little bed out of the fabric leaves and curls up for a rest. And being under cover, this exhibit can also be visited at this time of year, too.

As an aside, I read recently that a new study, conducted at Melbourne Zoo, suggests orangutans like looking at us as much as we like looking at them. It certainly seems that way in the photo on the right, taken on a visit to the zoo last May. (Tash chose her outfit on that occasion specially to visit the leopards).

And I’ve just read on the Melbourne Zoo website that the new Sumatran tiger clubs have made their public debut. Looks like we’ll be heading back soon…

Phillip Island

1 April 2010

Phillip Island 20Roo and I visited Phillip Island during our first winter together nearly 20 years ago. We returned when Tash was 18 months old, braving the cold to see penguins and koalas, neither of which impressed Tash nearly as much as the magpies. And the rocks.

Last weekend we went back, this time with another family as an experiment to see whether holidays really are easier when you travel with other people who have kids the same age as your own. The verdict? — Absolutely!

The other family were our friends Diana and Alessandro, nearly-four-year-old Silvia and one-year-old Nadia. Di and Ale have relocated to East Timor and the weekend was a chance to catch up with them and allow Tash and Silvia to catch up, too. The girls got along brilliantly, and Di and I concurred that four parents to three kids is about the perfect ratio.

Phillip Island 29Tash and Silvia spent a lot of time at Elizabeth Cove — famous for being one of Victoria’s few north-facing beaches — near where we stayed at Ventnor. They paddled in calm shallows, explored rock-pools, collected and buried shells, built and decorated sandcastles, climbed hills, played fairies, rolled about in the sand and even paused to talk and stare out to sea. For me it was magic simply watching them interact with each other and the landscape.

It was one of the most relaxing weekends I’ve had in a long time and we didn’t do much, despite the island’s many attractions. Di had a hankering to visit the koala reserve, having fond memories of the place as a seven-year-old. I was less enthusiastic as the entrance fees are expensive and Tash had been underwhelmed during our previous visit. But we went along for the ride. To the credit of the folks at the Koala Conservation Centre, they sold us all-female foursome a family ticket, which at $25.75 was the cheapest option.

Phillip Island 16Interestingly, koalas are not native to Phillip Island but were introduced in the late 1800s. The population thrived until the 1980s when loss of habitat, feral animals, traffic and Chlamydophila disease started to take their toll. The association of Phillip Island with koalas was so strong by then that a local ‘Koala Working Group recommended the establishment of a reserve that provided koalas with a protected habitat and visitors with viewing opportunities. Thus the David Forrest Koala Reserve was born.

Things didn’t get off to a great start for us at the reserve when a tour of the first of the boardwalk area yielded only two sleeping koalas — little more than furry bottoms nestled in the eucalyptus.

Phillip Island 14We moved on to the Woodland Walk, where koalas seemed few and far between. The girls were getting restless and Di was keeping a running total — ‘That’s $12.50 per koala so far’ — when all of a sudden we spotted more, one after the other. When I say we, it was really Di who was the Koala Whisperer. She came upon several in the bush that were low enough to the ground for the girls to get a good look; some were awake and one of them actually moved. Tash and I also ventured into a second boardwalk area where a few more koalas were easily visible.

Staff at the centre commented that spotting the koalas is half the fun, and I guess that’s true if your kids aren’t too fractious and you don’t mind knocking about in the undergrowth — nor paying around $3 per koala for the privilege.

Otherwise, you might be better off walking down to the beach Ventnor at sunset or sunrise, where you might see a wallaby, and are almost sure to see rabbits and mutton birds, for free.