Monday, 25 June 2012

Berliner Huhnerfrikassee (Chicken fricassee)

Based on a traditional recipe, Huhnerfrikassee (chicken fricassee) has perennially been a favourite meal of mine.

The recipe in the cook book which my mother has used involves what I term "Convenience cooking" - most of the ingredients are tipped from cans, so the preparation time is minimal.

This is the adapted recipe which has become a family favourite:

2 cups of chicken gravy (home made, or powdered base works fine)
About 500g of shredded chicken (a great use for leftovers from a roast chicken dinner)
6 quality frankfurts, sliced into 8mm - 10mm lengths
250g of cubed ham
2 tablespoons of lemon juice
1 can asparagus pieces, drained (the tender, not crispy variety)
1 can champignon mushrooms (whole or pieces), drained
100g-150g jar of capers in vinegar, drained
1 cup of peas (fresh, or frozen)
200ml sour cream

My version is less of a stew and more of a soup!

The method:
Step 1:
Place the gravy, chicken, frankfurters, ham, and lemon juice in a pot. Top up with water until the contents are covered by about 3cm of liquid. Stirring frequently, heat until the mix boils.

Step 2:
Add the asparagus, mushrooms, capers, and peas. Top up with water if necessary. Stirring frequently, heat until the mix returns to the boil.

Step 3:
Take off the heat, stir in the sour cream, serve and enjoy!

As I understand it, tradition requires that it be served with rice or mini-dumplings. I have never done so, and have just enjoyed the meatiness punctuated with the bold spots of flavour provided by the capers.

Dr Oetker's German Cooking Today has a slightly more complicated version of this recipe on p86. His recipe adds a few more vegetables, but it's pretty much the same.

I do find it somewhat amusing that a recipe for a chicken soup contains more pork than chicken, but that's the German way!

Either way, it's a tasty soup with meat, meat, meat and packed with flavour. It takes me well under an hour to prepare, and it's a great winter warmer.

Best of all the kids absolutely love it!

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Contrasting Customer Service - Belconnen Style

Today being Sunday, I decided to go on an outing with X. Through his school he had recently earned a voucher for a free game of ten pin bowling at the local AMF bowling alley in Belconnen.

X's interest was piqued by a coin operated air hockey table in the foyer of the bowling alley. As we'd arrived early for our booked lane, we decided to have a game. I dropped a $2 coin in, and the table fired up. But the machine did not produce a puck. After alerting a staff member and much ado, it transpired that the puck for this machine was lost.

No cash value, Not refundable
Thanks AMF Belconnen!
I was then handed two AMF game tokens by the employee to refund my game - I countered by requesting that I be provided with $2 cash - as I had not used tokens. 

After another five minutes of arguing, it was carefully explained to me that it was their policy to only give tokens as giving cash would put the till balance out. Further, coins couldn't be removed from game machines as again, the machines had a counter, and removing money would result in the books not balancing. Of course, the manager wasn't in, but they'd take my number and the manager will call me.

I left the matter there. Had X not had a voucher for a free game, we would have left and tried somewhere else.

An awesome game resulting in a tie!
How good is that?
Despite this setback, X and I had a game each - he with the "bumpers" up on the lane, and me without. We both played hard, and we both played to win. So of course, we scored an exact tie! 98 points apiece!

X was enthused to pursue playing arcade games, so rather than hang around the bowling alley, we headed up to Tunza Fun in Westfield.

Tunza Fun are located where an IntenCity arcade was previously situated in the Belconnen Westfield Mall. They operate using a pre-paid card system - instead of inserting cash players swipe their payment card to play a game. Their set up utilises a two tiered pricing model with cheaper game play for those who opt-in to receive their newsletter.

X received his new game card, and duly signed up for the newsletter. X began by taking me on in a game of air hockey, and then played a few other games. His grandmother would have been horrified had she known he had also had a go at a couple of shoot 'em up games too!

After burning through the money I had deposited, the machines began rejecting the card. I had been adding up the prices as X went from machine to machine, and he still should have had a dollar left, but his card appeared to be down to 5c! We had been placed on the wrong pricing plan.

Nonplussed, we headed over to their service desk, where we were given an apology, an explanation of what had gone wrong, and the option to play any game in the arcade without charge to make up for the lost credit. The employee explained that it was their policy that every visitor to their business should be having "Tunza Fun" and it was their job to try to make this happen.

X chose to take me on again in another game of air hockey. I must say both of us need some practice, but we did indeed have "Tunza Fun".

A Tunza Fun game card.
Tunza Fun Belconnen has
awesome customer service!
When I reflect on the service provided at each of these venues, there is no good reason for the very wide gap in service levels which we experienced. Tunza Fun is run with staff who behave like professionals, the game machines are modern and well maintained, and the prices are reasonable when compared to other entertainment outlets. On the other hand, AMF Belconnen is tired - they appear to have had little maintenance performed on their bowling lane equipment since being installed some 30 years ago: the bumpers operate very reluctantly, and the scoring was off a few times. Additionally the arcade game machines are shabby and game play is expensive. But this is not a flash in the pan: my occupation requires me to attend each venue from time to time, and my experience today is consistent with my previous visits.

What really separates these two business is the attitude in which my son and I have been treated as customers: In each case there was $2 or less at issue. AMF quoted policy to us. Tunza Fun truly put us first - they said nothing was too much trouble, and the staff showed they meant it by delivering.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

First Try at Cooking Feijoada

Today I attempted to cook the national dish of Brazil: Feijoada.

A year or so back, I met a Brazillian family who was touring in Canberra. Amongst other things, they related to me how amazed they were at how much meat Australians eat, and how cheap meat was. It transpired that in Brazil the main staple is black bean stew served on rice.

During the camper holiday where some of our meals consisted of beans instead of meat as the base, I was reminded of the Brazillian staple.

Trawling through a few recipes, I compiled the following ingredients:
1kg black beans600g smoked chorizo sausages, chopped into chunks3 cloves garlic, pressed2 onions, chopped finely1 can of peeled, chopped tomatoesa few rashers of bacon, chopped very finelyboiled rice to serve

I bought Brazillian black beans in Belconnen for $5.90/kg, and after soaking them overnight, I boiled the beans for an hour and a half.

While the beans were boiling, I placed the chorizo chunks, garlic, and onion in a pan and fried them off.

Using a slotted spoon, I then lifted a few spoonfuls of beans from the pot of boiling beans, put them in a blender, and added the canned tomatoes. I whizzed them for about a minute. I added the resulting paste back into the pot of beans, along with the chorizo and onion mix.

The first serve of my interpretation of Bazillian black bean stew.
Leaving the soup to boil for another ten minutes, I then fried the bacon to a medium crisp, and allowed it to drain on paper towels.

I then served the sticky dark purple/brown soup on rice. A, X, and E were a little apprehensive at first, but they ate it!

The colour is certainly different to the lighter coloured foods my family is used to. I must admit that I was a little apprehensive at first that I had done something wrong, as the colour was quite dark and muddy. However online descriptions and photographs of this dish assured me that what I had cooked was not too far from the mark. A blog called Urban Cuisine Tour features this dish (2nd dish from top). Now I must admit that I don't know what collard greens are, or if I should serve Feijoada with some other greenery such as broccolini. This will be something I explore soon.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Telstra: How you wasted two hours of my life.

On our camper van holiday, both children lost their mobile phones. E lost hers near the Rhinoceros enclosure at Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo, so I am expecting a phone call from a Rhino sometime soon. 
Photo by Jonathunder used here under the
GNU Free Documentation License v1.2 which applies to this image.
Considering that Rhinos lack knees - let alone opposable thumbs, I suspect that they shall need help with making the call.

X lost his at Warner Brothers Movie World. Interestingly, guest services have found his phone in the lost property, but state that they cannot post the phone due to Australia Post having rules preventing the posting of batteries. My reading of those rules concerning carriage of dangerous goods is that it is fine to post mobile phones, but that the parcel must have a "Road Transport only" sticker attached, or at least a clear marking to similar effect, in red, near the recipient address. The guest services at Warner Brothers Movie World aren't moved by this and have refused to send the phone.

But I digress. The point is that I now have two children without mobile phones. Naturally I have ordered replacement phones on eBay, and today I approached my local Telstra shop in Gungahlin for replacement SIM cards.

On entering the shop I am greeted by a cheery bloke holding an iPad. He begins to assist by pulling out some blank SIM cards, and logs on to his terminal. Upon seeing that the terminal wanted some information which he would have to make a phone call to obtain, he announced that he couldn't help me any further, gave me the SIM cards and told me to call Telstra.

I dutifully call Telstra while doing my grocery shopping. Due to the accent, I suspect my call was taken in Manilla, Philipines. I am asked for the two service numbers, and the serial numbers on the two SIM cards in my possession. A moment later, I am advised that the SIM replacement is complete. I am amazed. This has been the easiest and most trouble free call to Telstra ever!

With my shopping in the car, I send an SMS to A to let her know I am on my way home.

Send Failed.

Hmm. My phone is showing no reception at all. A moment later my phone displays the message 'SOS calls only'.

My phone has been cut off!

I can't go back to the Telstra shop, as it's right on closing time.


Back at home I borrow A's phone to contact Telstra, who confirm my fears: my iPhone SIM has been "replaced" and a SIM card which is replaced can't be used again. There is no "roll-back" for the transaction carried out by the previous call-centre droid.

This call-centre droid assures me that I can obtain a replacement SIM when the local Telstra shop opens in the morning. I prompt him "That's great, but which Telstra store is open NOW???"


Queanbeyan Telstra store is open until 9pm. The silver lining to this news is that I can still have dinner, and I won't have to rush in order to arrive before closing time.

So, after dinner I drive the 30 kilometres, and the nice people in the Queanbeyan Telstra shop issue me with another two SIM cards, correcting the earlier error.

Altogether, correcting the silly error of a call-centre droid has taken 2 hours of my life. 2 hours which I won't get back.

Thanks Telstra! Your Gungahlin shop has demonstrated the heights of customer service, your call centre-droids have demonstrated how well they listen, and how much they take care when making changes which will result in major inconvenience to your customers. I am making a small wager of no money whatsoever that when I receive my bill I will be charged for four replacement SIM cards. When this happens, I will be asking Telstra to not only refund those charges, but also for some petrol money. According to the Tax Office, the correct rate for 60 kilometres is about $44. We shall see.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

The End of a Camper Holiday! - Reflections

Well, the holiday is over. We have re-joined reality.

This holiday is our first proper break since the children were born. We need to do this more often!

This holiday has seen us travel by road for ten and a half days, covering 3812 kilometres.

Each and every meal we ate was prepared in the camper, except for dinner on Sunday night in Tamworth, and McDonald's for lunch on the way home. This was cheaper and healthier than eating out.

Using a motor-home camper was great. I have been camping in tents before and using a camper is pure luxury by comparison. I can get up, take two steps and have a hot shower. I can stand up and not worry about touching wet canvas walls. When we travel, we can pull in to a caravan park, camp ground, or even beside the road, and get straight into bed. Carrying a ready-to-go kitchen is also fabulous: it means that food can be cooked as quickly as if cooking at home, and we don't need to rely on take-away or restaurants.
Carrying the bedrooms with us reduces stress too: we don't need to worry too much about booking ahead - if we are ever 'stuck' it is possible to just pull up on the side of a road somewhere.

Being on holiday doesn't stop the kids fighting amongst themselves. But travelling in our home removes most of the stress: If the kids haven't dressed early enough for the day, we can go to where we need to go and then the kids can get changed when we get there. If they are arguing while we are travelling, there is a choice of five seats with seatbelts in which they can sit, so it means keeping the children together or apart is a trivial matter.

What would I do differently? Not too much - I might plan to do less: we settled in to a pattern of doing an activity in the morning, and then travelling in the evening which meant we would arrive at our destination and then go to sleep straight away. Breaking the travel and activities on separate days would have resulted in a more relaxed holiday - every second day could be a down day, with camp fires, lazy times reading books, going for walks and the like.

According to X, the best bits of the holiday are a tie between the wallaby rescue, and the rides at Warner Brothers Movie World. E's favourite is the wallaby rescue too. A has been able to shed her concerns on how difficult it might be travelling in a camper. She has been impressed with how easy it has been, as well as impressed with how cheaply we have lived.

The choice of Apollo for the motor home rental will certainly need to be reviewed before we rent again. Apollo lack the attention to detail which I expect, and their inefficient procedures in checking vehicles out mean that hours are wasted picking up a vehicle from the yard. Despite completing their pre-registration process before attending the vehicle pick up still took almost two hours. One or two problems might be expected with a rental vehicle, but the accumulation of many problems demonstrates that Apollo really need to revise how they do business. Kea, Britz, Maui and other brands will certainly be given greater consideration for next time. If we do go with Apollo for our next rental, I will certainly be scrutinising the vehicle very, very closely before accepting it.

We achieved an excellent balance spending some nights in caravan parks and some in national parks. A highlight for me was the Gold Coast Holiday Park - Q: what's better than a sausage sizzle? A: A FREE sausage sizzle! These people have a free sausage sizzle every Tuesday. How awesome is that?

What have I learned?
Taking a family holiday is an opportunity to strengthen the relationships in our family, and an opportunity to gain perspective on life.

.....and what's the most important thing about a holiday?

Taking one!

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Day Eleven of a Camper Holiday! - Returning the Vehicle

We were allowed to take the camper over dirt roads only when accessing a camp site. Otherwise we were required to keep the vehicle on sealed roads.

Despite our compliance with these policies, the camper was filthy - the camp sites at the end of dirt roads had been accessed in the rain, and on the Oberon - Goulburn road we had crossed some dirt roadwork sections.

Figuring that a clean vehicle was better than any arguments, I washed the mud and dirt off using a hose and broom - it came off easily enough without using car wash soap.

I also had to empty both the toilet and grey water tanks, and ensure the freshwater tank was full. Topping up the freshwater tank was simple enough, and the few litres of grey water went straight to the front garden. After realising that no public sewage dump points exist in the ACT I utilised the inspection shaft on my sewage system at home to deal with the toilet tank.

After double checking that everything had been cleared from inside the camper, I gave it a last sweep, and all was ready.

X had decided to come with me to drop the camper off, so I booked an extra ticket with Murrays Coaches, and we headed off to Sydney.

X and I had some good conversations about life and the world on the three hour drive, and it occurred to me that this was still part of our holiday.

As we approached Sydney we drove into substantial rain; confirming that abandoning the coastal leg of our trip was the right decision.

When I arrived at the Apollo Campers yard, I was asked if we had any troubles with the vehicle. I rattled off our troubles:
  • The fridge wasn't cooling
  • The back door didn't lock
  • One of the seat-belted seats in the back would frequently fall apart - it had screws loose, and the velcro securing the seat cushion was missing.
  • The dinette table between the two seat-belted bench seats would randomly detach and fall on to the passengers
  • The plastic cover on the base of the front passenger seat kept detaching
  • There was no plug provided for the kitchen sink
  • The toaster would only accept one slice of toast
  • The shower cubicle leaked a little bit into the main area of the camper
  • The hot water heater was a real bugger - it needed frequent resets
The view of the very heavy traffic in front of the Murrays coach.
I am sure glad I wasn't driving through that mess!

To Apollo's credit I was provided with a refund for a full day's rental without argument.

X and I then enjoyed an hour eating our packed lunch and wandering about Sydney Airport before joining the Murrays coach back to Canberra.

And that was our Camper Holiday!

Monday, 11 June 2012

Day Ten of a Camper Holiday! - Homeward Bound

After dropping the Joey off in Dubbo on day nine, we over-nighted in Blayney. Blayney is a place rooted in both mine and A's family history. My maternal-maternal great grandfather was born here, and Blayney is also just up the road from A's father's childhood town of Carcoar.

The weather in Blayney was less than kind - minus 4 degrees, and the reverse-cycle air conditioner iced up again which meant yet another cold, noisy night.

As this was our last day on the road, we promised the kids McDonald's for lunch - conditional on good behaviour - and went visiting A's two remaining grandparents.

Our kids have been very lucky - luckier than most in that they have been able to meet and have some level of relationship with three of their great grandparents. My Oma has only passed on recently leaving the kids with two great grandparents, both of which are A's grandparents.

These great grandparents have recently moved into nursing homes - one in Bathurst, and the other in Taralga. So our itinerary was set: Bathurst nursing home, Taralga nursing home, Goulburn McDonald's, and then home to unpack and clean the camper.

The visit to Bathurst went well, and Nan was pleased to see us. She was in fine spirits, and the children behaved, remembered their manners and interacted well with her and each other.

During this visit a dark cloud was settling over my thoughts: The Oberon-Goulburn road crosses the Abercrombie River near Black Springs, and this crossing is at the bottom of a very deep gorge.

A very steep-sided deep gorge. With a little wooden bridge at the bottom.

The largest vehicle I had taken over that crossing before now was a Toyota HiAce. When driving out of the gorge, I recall the road being so steep that I was supporting my weight by holding on to the steering wheel. Parts of the road are not only very very steep, but there are strange cambers too.

I was not looking forward to taking 4490 kilograms of motor home through the gorge.

On the drive from Oberon to the top of the descent, I realised I was worrying too much about this gorge. After all I had followed tipper and dog combinations, and once I had even followed a semi-trailer.

This road is steep - we are the same height as the horizon.
Also note the camber of the road
- it's not too clear, but the road is leaning hard to the left.
So I calmed myself down, took a deep breath, set the gearbox to operate only in second gear, and started down the side of the gorge. At this point I was cursing silently over whatever rules forbid vehicles of less than 4.5 tonnes being fitted with exhaust brakes in Australia. I really could have used them.

With the motor home hanging off the gearbox at about 35 kilometres per hour and my view of the steep descent below, my only job was now to steer and periodically apply the brake. There was little else for me to do.

The bridge crossing the Abercrombie River.
Photo by Grahamec
The little wooden bridge crossing the river was looking worse for wear - part of the rails which prevent one from driving off the edge were missing, probably damaged in the recent floods.

The drive up the other side of the gorge was as slow as the descent.

Grandad in Taralga was pleased to see us, and broke into his usual story telling mode. Despite his frailty, this means that he is doing just fine.

After a quick stop at McDonald's we arrived home and began the long process of moving out of the camper and back into our own home.

Day Nine of a Camper Holiday! - The Best Day Ever!

We finished off day eight by heading south to Coonabarabran via Moree. I felt that remaining on the major highways was the simple choice - we had to be back in Canberra by the end of day ten.

View Larger Map

Our sleep was disturbed at 3am by a hammering noise from the reverse cycle air-conditioner. The temperature in the Coonabarabran caravan park had dropped to minus 2 degrees, and the air conditioner had iced over. The result was that we woke up tired and cold.

X's solution to this was that he and I should go outside and kick the soccer ball as we had done a few times before. Kicking a soccer ball certainly does warm the toes.

Our journey inland was to avoid the coastal rain, and before our diversion A had been looking forward to walking on the beach at Byron Bay. So we headed off to go on the Fans Horizon walk in the Warrumbungle National Park, followed by a double-back to the observatories at Siding Springs.

But what we had planned was not going to happen....

A few minutes away from the track head A swerved the camper around a dead wallaby, and then pulled over: we had both seen the much smaller wallaby standing next to the dead one.

This little joey has a cut nose -
most likely caused when she crawled out of her mothers pouch.
I ran back and picked up the tiny creature which was still covered in some of her mothers blood. I wrapped her in my blue Census jumper and held her close to my chest where she quickly calmed down. When I had picked her up she was shivering and making noises like a sick dog.

There was clearly nothing to be done for the mother - her bright red blood was on the road, and in several places very white pieces of splintered bone were sticking through her skin.

X taking seriously his job of keeping the joey
warm, in the dark, yet able  to breathe.
A few minutes later the four of us marched in to the Warrumbungle visitor's centre where the ranger advised us that the usual WIRES wildlife person in the area was in Sydney, and that we would need to deal with WIRES in either Gunnedah or Dubbo. I was a little surprised that the ranger seemed uncaring about the plight of an injured animal in the National Park (isn't this what rangers are meant to do?) so I was tempted to place the little Wallaby on the floor of the visitors centre and leave.

We resolved to follow through with what we committed to when we picked the joey up. Either option of Dubbo or Gunnedah meant the cancellation of our bush walking and observatory visit. Dubbo was in the direction we needed to travel, and so we contacted WIRES Dubbo and agreed on a meeting point in town.

E was very happy to hold the joey wallaby.
X was awarded the job of nursing the wallaby against his chest while we headed to Dubbo. Needless to say, E was quite put out, but I feel X's more mature outlook and his ability to not take a look at the joey every few minutes made him the right choice.

For two hours the joey rested, and eventually slept against X's chest, wrapped in my jumper.

E was given a turn holding the little one, and she handed the joey over to the WIRES lady in Dubbo.

Being the jubilee, we named the joey "Lizzie the second". We learned that this creature was a Swamp Wallaby, and that swamp wallabies are the only true wallaby - other wallabies being more closely related to kangaroos. The WIRES lady also told us that a Swamp Wallaby of this age would not normally every leave her mothers pouch, and would have most likely been eaten by a fox, if she didn't first perish in the cold weather.

So, in just a few days we have gone from learning about being a wildlife warrior to actually applying the conservation message and saving this injured animal. While Swamp Wallabies are not themselves an endangered species, this little joey was directly endangered and our actions made a difference to her.

X (at left) skates Dubbo skate park.
Note the full pipe in the background and to the right.
The children hadn't had any opportunity to ride their Razor scooters during this holiday trip, so when I pulled into Dubbo's Victoria Park skate park, X exclaimed "THIS IS THE BEST DAY EVER!"

Dubbo appears to have the scoop on the rest of Australia: their skate park doesn't feature a half-pipe, but features Australia's first FULL pipe. I can only wonder if anybody has managed to do the full loop yet, and wonder how many broken bones can be attributed to those trying.

At dinner time when we reminded the kids that this dinner would be the last in the camper van, the howls of protest from both children reassured me that this holiday experience was worthwhile and a hopefully a memorable one for both children.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Day Eight of a Camper Holiday! - Sapphires

Having left the coast behind we woke up on the property of 7 Oaks Fossicking - the previous afternoon of driving being highly uneventful. 7 Oaks is in the locality of Sapphire, North East of Inverell.

View Larger Map

E helping me mix buckets of mud
Our hosts Peter and Nicole run a mixed business: Nicole took us to our campsite by the river, and the next morning Peter provided a hands on lesson on how to prospect. When not providing fossicking lessons Peter cuts, splits, sells and delivers firewood, as well as teaching welding at the local TAFE.

The campsite is well appointed - Bob, the caretaker lives in the campground, and is friendly and happy to help, and the campground is supplied with a camp kitchen, drinking water, hot shower, and long-drop toilet.

Fossicking is a fairly simple process:

  • It begins with taking a few shovel-fulls of dirt from a mound Peter has provided. That dirt is then put in a bucket, and covered with water to soak in to the clay.
  • The mud mixture is then tipped through two sieves (one coarse, the other fine) which are stacked together.
  • The two sieves are then placed in a drum of water and agitated to wash the clay away.
  • The contents of the coarse sieve are then quickly inspected to locate any huge sapphires before being discarded.
  • The fine sieve is then re-rinsed, and agitated in an up-and-down motion to bring the heavier sapphires and zircon to the bottom and centre of the sieve.
  • The sieve is then quickly inverted on a Hessian bag which allows for sapphires to be quickly located in the sunlight.
X was an absolute champion at spotting sapphires!
The demonstration from Peter consisted of clear instructions on how to correctly use the supplied equipment, and I particularly appreciated that he took the time to explain at each step not only what he was doing, but why he was doing it.

I quickly found that posture is important when sloshing around a few kilograms of rocks and mud in a drum of water.

Persistence and patience are also very important. We found gems every few sieve loads of rocks, and X and E have keen eyes for spotting sparkly stones.

One of our sapphires.
A was initially not interested but she became curious, and I think the fossicking bug may have bitten her - she had some trouble leaving the circular piles of small washed stones which I was producing.

We found a few small sapphires as well as some other interesting rocks.

For me, this is the best part of our holiday to date. A very simple activity in which the whole family participated, relatively cheap at $20pp for fossicking (compared to the hundreds for dreamworld or a zoo), and it's punctuated by shared moments of joy and amazement when we find little blue stones.

We really enjoyed ourselves - I never thought I'd have such a rewarding time playing with mud!

I shall definitely be back!

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Day Seven of a Camper Holiday! - Border Ranges National Park

The Camper parked at Sheepstation Creek camp ground.
Waking up and listening to the rain on the camper roof was disappointing. Our original plan was to return to Canberra via the Pacific Highway stopping around Byron Bay, Wauchope, and Newcastle.

Yet the rain was not so bad: the day was warm, and we were in beautiful rainforest surroundings.

The path crossed the creek many times.
X and A had got up early and gone for a walk, leaving me and E to sleep in. When I emerged, X had returned and so declared himself my tour guide. We walked the 2 kilometre track to the Brushbox Falls lookout.

Green everywhere. Green leaves, green moss. Gorgeous!
The track took us across a large, shallow gully, and it was interesting to note the variations in the forest - initially the forest had sparsely spaced trees with a grassy undergrowth, and as we crossed the bottom of the gully, the trees formed a dense canopy, making a muddy path in the cold air.

A strangler fig.
The path crossed the creek several times, and then went up a muddy slope.

With my limited knowledge of rainforest habitats I was able to point out a few features to X, such as strangler figs living their parasitic life on another tree, and luxuriant layers of moss growing on fallen timber.

The lookout consisted of a wooden platform built in the side of the hill.

X's favourite waterfall photo.
The falls were lovely, and I took the opportunity to try and experiment with camera shutter speeds to achieve different effects - slower speeds resulting in a silkier appearance of the water, and greater depth of field.

We wandered back to the camp ground, and sheltered from the rain in the communal camp kitchen where we checked the weather reports. Wet weather all along the New South Wales coast meant that we needed to move further inland to stay dry.

Staying in Sheepstation Creek would be lovely, but it was simply too wet to go on longer hikes with the kids.

After some research and deliberation, we decided to break camp and fossick for Sapphires.

A Wren checks in on us at the camp kitchen.

Day Six of a Camper Holiday! - Heading Down to Border Ranges National Park

After a day at Warner Brothers Movie World A was a little frayed around the edges, so we decided to head for a National Park to camp for the night. I chose Sheepstation Creek campground in the Border Ranges National Park.

View Larger Map

The drive to the Border Ranges become hair-raising when between Oxenford and Canungra the fuel warning light lit up. The vehicle manual indicated that once the warning light was lit I had only 7 litres of fuel left. I knew there were two petrol stations in Canungra, which was only 20 kilometres away. But I was worried when I considered that the vehicle was averaging 14 litres per hundred kilometres and we had a very big mountain to climb and then descend on the other side.

As it was, we made it to Canungra and fuelled up. We calculated that we had less than one and a half litres remaining in the fuel tank. I was very relieved, not just because of the inconvenience we would have faced in getting fuel, but as this vehicle has a Diesel engine, we would have had a bugger of a time bleeding the fuel lines and priming the fuel pump.

Once we passed through Mount Chinghee National Park we drove in some amazingly hilly country - going up some hills the vehicle would downshift to second gear and we would crawl along, and when we crested the hills I couldn't see the road until we were descending proper.

Photo from The Land.
This naughty bloke took
his horse interstate without
organising tick treatment.
I imagine that there are
similar photos on a DPI
computer somewhere of
me driving a motor-home.
We crossed the New South Wales - Queensland border at Richmond Gap where I was intrigued to find a pair of speed cameras very near each other and facing in opposite directions. Despite travelling very slowly, we had both the front and back of the vehicle photographed. Signs advised that these were surveillance cameras installed by New South Wales Department of Primary Industries. It seems that these cameras are a very big deal on the Eastern end of the NSW-QLD border. Late 2011 some bloke had towed a horse across the border after obscuring his number plates and triggered a major search effort. All of this effort is to quarantine New South Wales against cattle ticks which infest the coastal areas of Queensland.

My studies in law immediately bring to mind constitutional issues here. I immediately ask myself 'Is the New South Wales response reasonable and proportionate to the threat against which they are protecting?' If so, then we are not dealing with a protectionist matter, and the actions of New South Wales in running this system are reasonable and are not in breach of The Constitution which prohibits restrictions on interstate trade.

Also of interest at the border is a sign advising motorists that the road was built and is maintained by the Kyogle branch of the Lions Club, and a money box is attached, inviting donations. We stopped and A emptied her pockets of coins into the box. This is the first time I have driven on a toll road which operates on an honesty system - not only in terms of whether you pay, but how much you contribute too.

The Campsite was a few kilometres further and we arrived in the dark. After encountering my second honesty box for the day into which I paid my camping fees, we found a suitable site and set up camp.

Day Six of a Camper Holiday! - Warner Brothers Movie World

After travelling south and staying at the conveniently located Gold Coast Holiday Park, we spent the day at Movie World.

From the carpark of Warner Bothers Movie World, Oxenford
Visible from left to right are: The Green Lantern roller-coaster,
the Batman Batwing, and the Superman Escape roller-coaster.
View Larger Map

While my impression of Australia Zoo is one of a place built on passion but running on a commercial agenda, I still suffered culture shock at Warner Brothers Movie World.

I can't describe Movie World as being anything other than a massive assault on the senses. With noisy bone shuddering rides and frequent shows featuring loud music, it was just what the kids were looking for. A took the opportunity to leave the kids with me, while she rode several roller coasters limited to people taller than our kids.

The Wild West Falls log ride was an opportunity for the whole family to go on a ride together, which began serenely, and ended with E continually screaming in my ear on the ride down to the splash pool.

We all enjoyed movie world for the amusement park that it is. We will probably even go back, yet some parts of the day left a sour note.

I still feel affronted by the presence of time-share salespeople at Movie World. They targeted my family and I, giving us a few competition scratch cards in what I suspect was a faux competition. When we didn't scratch up a prize we were presented with another free entry, and guess what? We scratched up first prize of a holiday to Thailand (plus a $99 booking fee). But to claim it required that we pay a $40 booking deposit for a 90 minute seminar the next morning. The $40 fee would then be refunded when we turned up. But we didn't book and we didn't pay. To me at least the whole thing felt like the Australian equivalent of a Nigerian 419 scam. These people didn't know us, continually fed us scratch cards until we won a prize, and then wanted money from us and required us to sit through a 90 minute seminar in order to claim that prize. I feel that Village Roadshow (who run Movie World) have sullied their reputation by providing these people with a kiosk.

You will note that this posting is lacking in photographs from inside Movie World. This is for two reasons:

  1. I didn't take a camera as it was at risk of getting wet, broken or stolen.
  2. I refrained from using my iPhone in taking photos due to the signs plastered throughout the park advising that camera use was banned due to copyright laws. I can't think of which section of the Copyright Act 1968 could possibly apply to prevent people taking photos of curios in a shop, or taking photos of people on a ride.

One of the few areas where photographs were encouraged.
Hollywood Stunt Driver show.
Yet we were invited to take photographs during the Hollywood Stunt Driver show, but were reminded that all photos were to be personal souvenirs only. So I now share with you one of my souvenir photos taken on my mobile phone during the Hollywood Stunt Driver show.

I particularly enjoyed the show - there was a story which was played out in front of us, and the participants were demonstrating real skill: supposedly we were here to film a movie sequence depicting an Italian jewellery store robbery which result in some high speed chases. A new bumbling crew member causes all sorts of strife, but there's a happy ending of course: after all we are at 'Hollywood on the Gold Coast'

Days Five of a Camper Holiday! - Crikey! Australia Zoo

Visiting Australia Zoo was interesting. While Australia Zoo is famous for its crocodiles the zoo has an extensive collection of other animals including Asian Elephants, Tigers, Koalas, various birds of prey, and dozens of Kangaroos.

Someone gets paid to paint the toenails
of kangaroos. Seriously.
I feel that Australia Zoo has become a victim of its own success - a certain commercial glitz exists and it exudes from the 1500 seat eatery, the massive 5000 seat 'crocoseum' show area, and brand Bindi: Bindi the jungle girl, Bindi the wildlife warrior, Bindi stars in free willy, Bindi presents her new 'Boot camp' TV series, Bindi towels, Bindi drink bottles, Bindi books, just Bindi Bindi Bindi Bindi. It feels like a stage production rather than a zoo. Every possible merchandising angle is exploited - there are gift shops scattered throughout the zoo. I imagine had Steve Irwin not achieved international TV success his zoo would feel much more like Mogo Zoo near Batemans Bay: a quiet and simple layout with modest buildings and animal enclosures.

Wandering around Australia Zoo, I was amazed to see their kangaroos receiving a pedicure. The kangaroos were having their toenails painted. With nail polish. When I asked the woman who was applying the nail polish about what she was doing, she explained that painting the toenails of the kangaroos each week was better and less invasive than using an ear tag for identification. She detailed how each kangaroo had its own nail polish colour and this was required so accurate records could be kept regarding health, feeding and other observations.

Yes, it's a cutesy-wutesy joey koala -
eating from it's mother's butt.
At the koala enclosure many people were listening, enthralled by the keeper talk. Enthral turned to disgust when the keeper explained that baby koalas are first weaned off milk and on to pap: specialised poo from the mother which is easier to digest than fresh leaves, and this weaning process also helps the joey to inherit suitable stomach flora appropriate for the digestion of fresh eucalyptus leaves.

But it is just nature - this is what works for koalas.

The croc demonstration in the Crocoseum began with a showing of various snakes and included a demonstration of how to apply first aid for snake bites. After a showing of the birds at the zoo, we finally got to see one crocodile put through his paces. We were shown how far crocodiles can lunge: when they are in water, they can lunge a good body length, yet once on land they are rather slow. We were told that this ability to lunge is all thanks to crocodiles having a very powerful tail.

I respect what Australia Zoo does. They have a strong and consistent conservation message, and the passion of the now departed Steve Irwin cuts clearly through the blatant commercialism and milking of tourists wallets. I was was worried that my Australia Zoo experience might have been a visit to a shrine to Steve, I was instead very impressed at the balance which has been achieved between keeping his conservation message alive, and getting on with business.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Self congratulation post #2 - CPAP power supply.

A uses a CPAP machine (Constant Positive Air Pressure machine) when she sleeps. This type of machine helps people treat sleep apnoea. Use of any kind of medical equipment generally ties the user to a power outlet.

A's machine is one of the very popular Philips Respironics System One machines. The unit is supplied with a 12 Volt transformer which attaches to a 240 Volt outlet.

Previous camping trips have worked with the use of a long extension cable reaching in to our tent. While successful, this approach is inconvenient and has severely restricted our choice.

Respironics do have a battery pack for the System One, for which CPAP Australia charge their discount price of $520. But they advise to not use the humidifier heater unit, and state that the battery life will vary depending on the pressure being delivered by your specific machine. To me at least, I don't see the point in spending that much money on a battery pack to then not be able to use the device it is meant to be powering. A tells me that using the CPAP without the humidifier/heater results in her nose bleeding.

The battery pack isn't the only thing which is bloody expensive. The power cable to attach the CPAP machine to a standard 12V cigarette-lighter outlet is $60. You got that right: $60 smackeroos!

Combined, that's a serious amount of money for a very unsatisfactory solution. I can imagine that a large number of people feel tethered to a power point, and less able to enjoy an active life.

This situation was hard to believe: there is no commercially available solution for the users of CPAP machines to go camping without compromising on their CPAP therapy.

The Waeco battery pack with charger cable and the
Respironics CPAP with my home made 12V supply cable.
So, after a few simple tests using my trusty multimeter, I determined that the machine draws 2.2 Amps, and uses 12 Volts. After some searching, I found the perfect equipment: Waeco, who make car fridges have a battery pack to use when you are not using your car, thus converting your car fridge into a camping fridge. They call this the Waeco CoolPower RAPS 36, and I bought one from a local Queanbeyan firm Caravans Plus for $301.50. I also soldered together a plug and a cigarette lighter plug pre-fitted to a curly cable which I bought from from Jaycar and Autopro respectively. I could have saved myself a soldering job and just bought the cable pre-made. The pre-made cable is a mere $4.95 from Jaycar. I figured that at 2.2 Amps, the RAPS 36 (being rated at 36 Amp Hours) could supply the CPAP for a theoretical 16.3 hours: 36/2.2 = 16.3636. 

These off the shelf components totalled $306.45, which compared very favourably to the "official" solution which would have cost $580.
In fairness to the Respironics people, I don't know if their equipment is specifically approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (the Australian equivalent of USAs Food and Drug Administration). The Respironics battery pack is promoted as being permitted for use on airlines, but as far as I can tell, so is the absorbent glass mat technology used in the Waeco battery pack. The official Respironics cable also comes with shielding - but shielding from what I don't know. I did note that the image depicts a ferrite bead filter fitted at either end of the cable. I can't see why this is important, but should the need become apparent, I shall be spending another $3.95 to fit some.

The only substantive differences between the two battery packs are weight: the Respironics weighs in at 2 kilograms and the Waeco is a whopping 13.6 kilograms, and the other difference is capacity: the Respironics is about 8 Amp hours and won't last the night with the humidifier in use while the Waeco has more than four times the capacity at 36 Amp hours.

Before leaving for the camping holiday, A tested the unit overnight and it performed flawlessly taking the Waeco unit to half of its charged capacity. In theory this means that this solution could be used for two nights running without the need to charge the battery, but we haven't tested that. The battery pack comes with a car charging cable which charges the unit as you drive, and two terminals at the top may be used to attach an ordinary car battery charger for charging from the grid. The battery pack also has a socket enabling it to be joined to a second identical unit, and I am confident that such a setup could supply power for at least three nights.