Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Tropics in the Chill: The Sunderland Winter Gardens

Over many years I travelled from Australia to the UK to attend conferences at the University of Sunderland, and as a passionate photographer I recorded everywhere I went. There are a great many stories to be told from these journeys and I’m delighted to join Meander to the Max to have the chance to tell them, and to present some of the best of my images.

The first place I’d like to touch down is a very impressive attraction in the city of Sunderland. Sunderland, at the mouth of the River Wear on the northeast coast of Britain, is one of the old industrial cities, a major centre of shipbuilding in the 19th and 20th centuries, an exporter of coal and other products in the time of empire. I’ve heard it called a “cold, grey sort of city” and that’s true enough at the time of year I was visiting (the conference was always in November, within weeks of snow typically arriving) but I always found it a very friendly and welcoming place.

Stairs invite one into the green heights.

The town centre, characterised by the Wearmouth Bridge, features a number of old civic institutions, among them Sunderland Museum (Burdon Rd, Sunderland SR1 1PP, UK), behind which you find Mowbray Park and the University. But attached to the Museum is the Winter Gardens, an amazing glass domed conservatory in which tropical trees and plants thrive all year round in controlled conditions.

The Museum has occupied this site since 1879, and the original Winter Gardens were built at that time. They were badly damaged during the Second World War and subsequently demolished, with a new structure in the 1960s occupying the site. However, the present structure was built after lottery-based funding came available in 2001, and the tropical house has been recreated in a modern incarnation that is truly remarkable, both for its sheer size and the variety of tropical species contained.

You can forget you're inside a building!

The exterior view at the head of the article shows the life-size bronze walrus that dominates the banks of the ornamental pool that is thronged with birdlife, including the seagulls seen here.

I visited on my UK foray of 2011, taking in the Museum and Mowbray Park on the same day, but those are worth separate posts at some point. I recall the most impressive aspect being the sense of separation from the outside world – the chilly, grey north-eastern weather was abruptly denied by the humid warmth of the forest dome, and one could wander the elevated walkways among palm and vine, look down into a fish pond, and generally appreciate a feeling more like Australia than England.

Stainless steel and aluminium form a sterile touch of the outside world among a veritable jungle.

A very nice cafĂ© can be found by the entry way, and I recall spending an easy half hour with hot chocolate, contemplating this bubble of the tropics. Not since prehistoric times have such species flourished in this part of the world, and the Victorian skill at glass construction – epitomised by the ill-fated Crystal Palace – brought the life and atmosphere of tropic climes to decidedly temperate latitudes.

For more information, see:

I look forward to further posts, so I hope you’ll meander with me as I explore England and look back on the sights and experiences of getting there and getting back.

Mike Adamson

Kong could appear from among those leaves!

You're a long way up!

It's a memorable view among the steamy airs.

The actual dome and the grey British sky.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Memories of AK sailing: Aialik Bay, 1987

It's an enormous pleasure to add to -- expand, amplify -- the "Alaska Memories" aspect of this meandering travel blog with a guest post: Anna Walker remembers sailing on SV Ghostrider in the 1980s and 90s, a golden age in so many ways.

Many photos were captured in the days long before digital photography -- oh, for the joys of being able to go back to those times with today's technology! Since that isn't possible, it was my great pleasure to through the "Aialik Bay, 1987" pictures, rescue what I thought were the best, and digitally enhance them to bring the most out of them.

Dave and I were not there on this trip, but I did go out on Ghostrider, and stay aboard several times ... those memories are among my most cherished, and one day I'll get Dave going, have him tell his stories. (He has some astonishing and even hair-raising stories to tell of sailing the Gulf of Alaska in all weathers. I'm sure we can track down some photos to accompany his stories ... the most I can offer is the skill to digitally remaster them!) But for the moment, it's over to Anna for a very beautiful guest post:

Ghostrider in our favorite anchorage in Aialik Bay.   First of all, it's not on the charts.  It's a tiny little teacup, barely an indentation on the charts.  It's protected in all weather events, far enough into the bay that wave action can't impact it.  To reach it you either know about it by local knowledge or you follow the shoreline carefully, dodge a couple large ledges of rocks, requiring you to dogleg around the ledges and you're there.  The cove is only large enough for two boats, requiring you to run a line to shore to tie the stern of Ghostrider to a very large tree or boulder to hold her in place.  You drop your anchor in about 50 feet of water, back down on the anchor to lock it into the sandy bottom, then run a line to shore with a dingy.  The surrounding land is granite boulders but millions of years of erosion has created a sand and gravel bottom for an anchor to bite into.  Once settled into her anchorage Ghostrider rode out several large storms with barely a motion.  We also watched cruise ships sail serenely past, never knowing we were hiding there.

One of the many shorelines leading into Aialik Bay.  The Pacific Ocean pounds into the shore, throwing huge spray and creating thunderous booms.  It's beautiful and deadly all at once.  On a calm day hiking this shoreline reveals rain pools of water in the boulders, warmed by the sun, just needing a towel and some soap for a bath.  Sitting in one of those carved rock pools you can watch the ocean for miles, with no sign of human activity.

Have to set the scene.  Early morning dawn, around 5 a.m.  Sun has been up for hours (it is AK summer after all) but the fog is thick, almost no visibility in our little teacup anchorage in Aialik Bay.  Water is still, perfect mirror reflections.  Sitting on the cabin roof, coffee in hand, camera at my side.  Perfect time for an otter to float by, or a whale.
Through the fog you can hear the calls of eagles and other birds, the occasional slap of wings against the water and even though you can't see them you know that eagles are fishing nearby.
The sun begins to burn through the fog, a white orb appearing in the silver white clouds.  The water begins to appear, the fog lifting showing the green reflecting sea.

Sliding out of the fog a bald eagle appears, wings almost touching the water as it glides, looking for a fish just barely under the surface.  It reaches for its prey, talons extended and misses.  With a single beat of silent wings it rises from the water, disappearing into the fog.  In a few moment it appears again, ready for another attempt.

Memories of AK sailing.

Ghostrider carries about 100 gallons of freshwater and on a long voyage it's necessary to supplement it with water from a stream.  The trick is to find water that 1), is easy to get to, 2) is not contaminated with either salt or by animals and 3) easy to haul back.  Water is heavy, so you have to take that into account in your search.  If you find a good source but you can't carry full jugs back to the dingy you've wasted your time.  The water retrieved is used for bathing, not cooking or drinking, just in case there is some type of contamination.  Fetching enough water for showers for everyone on board can take several hours.  And sometimes it's quite the adventure.  Launch the dingy, go to shore, find a stream outlet, then  take your container for water.  Sometimes it's a waterfall, and you can actually row up to the pool the waterfall makes, sink your containers, fill them, and come back.  Other times you hike up a stream bed to a small pond.  If nothing else it makes you appreciate running water and a tap that you just turn.

Jen, amazing what memories come back.  In all the years we roamed Aialik Bay we only shared that anchorage with 3 other boats.  Nobody believed it was there until we showed them photos and our chart with all the notes on it on where and how to get there.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Playford Lake -- turtle spotting and birding at Belair NP

Playford Lake, at Belair NP, South Australia

Good water levels in Playford Lake in the springtime

Watch out for turtles and abundant waterbirds ... Playford Lake is a refuge for both.
There's no prettier place than Belair National Park's Playford Lake, on a sunny day in spring. The whole park is a refuge for wildlife, and the lake throngs with waterfowl of every kind ... and fresh water turtles, which bask in the sun on the surface.

There are scores of them in residence -- but these ancient reptiles are amazingly camera shy, and you have to be quick!

Freshwater turtles seem to thrive in Playford Lake... 

The turtles don't seem to have any natural predator, and food is plentiful, so long as water levels are high...

Water levels can get worryingly low in Belair NP in the summer,  but spring is the perfect time, if you're a turtle.

The walk around the lake is only about a kilometer. The truth is, you could hike it in a hurry in a matter of minutes! But who's in such a hurry? And besides, there's a photo-op every twenty meters down the path. We must have walked it fifty times, and the only time we did it quickly was on a winter's day when rain threatened.

If you like birds, there's usually countless opportunities to photograph about twenty different species, both in and out of the water. Lorikeets, galahs, sulphur crested cockatoos, little corellas, several kinds of honey eaters, swallows, superb fairy wrens, thornbills, golden whistlers ... and of course the waterbirds, such as --

The darter


The Australian Little Raven, with its brilliant blue eyes. Not a crow!

The purple swamp hen. European coots and dusky moorhens are also common. 

White faced heron
The best time to walk Playford Lake -- the "Duck Walk," as it's called -- is probably September or October, while water levels are high, birds are nesting, golden wattle and wildflowers are everywhere, and it's not (yet) too hot. The lake area is always nice, but on a sunny day it can be very picturesque indeed.

It's also close enough to Belair NP's main gates that you can park outside and walk in -- which can be handy on busy weekend days and public holidays, when Belair can get astonishingly busy. (We went there one Easter Monday, and couldn't find a car park!)

Lucky shot! You couldn't plan this: a skimming dragonfly.

Golden wattle ... uh, "Ker-choo!" Yes, bring the tissues, in season!

Camouflage! Sitting ducks ... several species live around the lake.

Lower: Pacific black duck. Upper: could be a Hardhead, but if so, it's probably not pure-bred. Mallards abound on the lake, and they interbreed with ... everything. You get lots of hybrids that're similar to pure-bred species, but ... not quite.

The Duck Walk: a kilometer around Playford Lake, which is just off-camera to the right. Belair NP.
Playford Lake is one tiny part of Belair NP, and we know the whole park intimately. We'll come back to this region several times in these pages: koala spotting, orchid hunting, hanging out with kangaroos, shaking hands with very old oak trees, birding, picnicking ...! Here's the official map, which you can pick up free at the kiosk on entry, or download:

Yes, we've hiked virtually everything, including some extremely challenging trails. Some of these hikes can look easy, but two hours later, you know they're not! Playford Lake is a great place to start.
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