The Great Outdoors

For our four day Easter long weekend, we headed down south to an idyllic campground set in the middle of a vast wilderness, nestled in a valley along the banks of the Wollondilly River.

Wollondilly River Station is a fabulous campground due to its location, the very generous size of the campsites and the fact that campfires are allowed there year-round. To get there, we take the highway 90 minutes south of Sydney to Mittagong, then turn onto a long dirt road that plunges deep into National Park land, twisting and turning its way up and up through tall eucalyptus forest before finally descending steeply in a series of nerve wracking sharp, blind turns, complete with heart stopping sheer drop offs beside the narrow dirt road. Eventually you emerge from the forest and are greeted by a peaceful, green valley nestled between mountains, bisected by the slow moving Wollondilly River.

Wollondilly River Station

Wollondilly River Station

Wollondilly River Station

Wollondilly River Station

To me, there’s nothing like getting away for a few nights in the great outdoors. Spending the day exploring the area’s mountains, caves, canyons and rivers and getting up close and personal with kangaroos, wallabies and goannas (huge lizards) is a real treat.

6 foot long Goanna (Lace Monitor Lizard)

6 foot long Goanna (Lace Monitor Lizard)

A hearty dinner followed by a campfire, toasting marshmallows with the children, then a beer or two, before eventually nodding off in my camp chair late at night warmed by the dying fire with the amazingly clear and bright Milky Way twinkling down on me.

My campfire before it died down.

My campfire before it died down.

After the fire finally dies, I wake in the cold night to hear… nothing, not a sound. How refreshing that is, to hear absolutely nothing. But if I listen, really listen, there are sounds. The faint sound of water running over rocks in the river beside me, an owl hooting far off in the distance, and then, as I approach the tent, soft snoring from one of my children, deep in a well earned slumber. These are the moments that fill my soul.

Waking in the morning to Laughing Kookaburras cackling in the trees overhead, heralding a new day, the occasional fish heard jumping in the river, tempting you to cast a line in, the sun streaming into the tent and my family sleeping peacefully in their sleeping bags beside me is my idea of a perfect way to start a day.

Quietly slipping out of my sleeping bag, I unzip the tent flap, step outside and greet the day ahead. The air is fresh, crisp and clean. As I look about, the morning sun bathes the leaves of the trees and bushes with a golden glow. The river beside our campsite is sparkling and glasslike, reflecting the mountains that rise steeply beside the river. A few Eastern Grey Kangaroos are nibbling on the grass not far away, watchful and cautious of any approach.

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I fire up the Coleman stove, for morning coffee and prepare to make blueberry pancakes, as my dad did many years ago. Camping always brings back my fondest childhood memories of time spent with my mom and dad and my brothers. In times like these, I feel like my dad is with me and I smile and wish it were true.

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Over the course of our 4 days at Wollondilly River Station, we played in the river, swimming or paddling about in our little 2 person inflatable boat. Heather and I climbed up the mountain across the river one afternoon, inspiring Teresa and Brian to tackle it with us the following day. We took a day trip to Wombeyan Caves, a further 40 minutes along the windy dirt road. The caves are breathtakingly beautiful, decorated with a multitude of colourful limestone formations, but this time instead of going on one of the guided cave tours, we opted for a hike in the area and chose the trail to Limestone Gorge.

Our visit to Limestone Gorge turned out to be a lovely outing for the family as well as a great adventure for Heather and myself, even if I did manage to get my foot crushed by a massive boulder along the way.

The obligatory "Sign" photo

The obligatory “Sign” photo

We arrived at Wombeyan caves around midday and ate our lunch in the shade of a tree that drops massive, car denting heavy, pine cones. Note, we were in its shade, but not directly under it. With lunch tucked away, we hit the trail. After hiking up a steep path for a while, we noticed a short side trail and checked it out. Turned out it led to the entrance of one of the tour caves. Exploring further, we followed some stairs that led down through a cool cavern, ending at a locked door. Enjoying the cool air, I hopped over the railing of the stairs and using the light from my camera flash, I explored a bit finding a hole leading to a smaller cavern that had some beautiful stalactites and crystal formations. As the rest of the family had already moved on, I took a few photos and made a mental note to stop again on our way back.

The hike to the gorge was lovely. It was sunny and hot and we were treated to a display of native wildflowers and the occasional colourful bird darting about. On the way to Limestone Gorge, there is a small self guided cave with a few nice formations, leading to a cavern exit perched high on a cliff face, overlooking Limestone Gorge. From here, we can see a few people swimming in the gorge below. Seeing that, I couldn’t wait to get down there.

Self guided cave

Self guided cave

Overlooking Limestone Gorge

Overlooking Limestone Gorge

Looking down at the Gorge. I want to get in there!

Looking down at the Gorge. I want to get in there!

At the bottom of the gorge, we found quite a few people hanging out on the rocks. After testing the water Brian decided that having a swim in water that felt like it belonged in a cooler full of ice wasn’t on his to-do list for the day. Teresa graciously kept Brian company while Heather and I headed off to explore the canyon, and I am so glad we did.

The canyon was beautiful. The rock walls looming up on either side were graced with moss, ferns and air plants. Leaving the crowds behind, we waded through the first section with the cold water nearly up to my chest. The canyon floor alternated between boulders and rocks to scramble over and pools of water to wade through or swim across. My favourite section was one that was totally flooded. Heather and I had to swim about 100 yards through the very cold water to make it to the next section. As we swam, I looked at Heather and said, “Remember this moment.”

Part of our trip through the gorge we shared with two men. One from Germany, the other, his friend, from Mexico. The guy from Mexico had a cast on his hand, shaping his hand into a permanent “thumbs up”. This led to a few queries of “How’s the water?” as he swam with one hand held up. Of course, his answer was a resounding “thumbs up” even though the water nearly took your breath away. Maybe you needed to be there, but, the four of us found this very funny.

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Our international friends turned back at one point, but Heather and I went just a bit further. We were reluctant for this adventure to end. We climbed to the top of a giant boulder and had a snack before we also turned back.

After we rejoined Teresa and Brian, Teresa pointed out a massive spider, the like I have never seen. It was seriously the size of a dinner plate. I took a photo and would’ve put my hand next to it for scale, but I value my body parts. This spider was much bigger than my outstretched hand.

Biggest spider I've ever seen!

Biggest spider I’ve ever seen!

Another wonderful adventure in the books, we headed back along the trail. When we neared the cave we’d found on the way out, I borrowed Teresa’s phone to use as a flashlight and took Heather and Brian to see the cool little cave I’d found.

At one point, I had to drop off a ledge, and pass Brian over to another ledge that led to the cave. It was dark at that point, so I got him to sit down and turned to help Heather across. Just about this time, Heather climbed on to and off of a large boulder near where I was standing. Much to my dismay, the boulder was dislodged from it’s perch on the sloping cave floor and rolled down and over my foot. The fact that I didn’t swear a blue streak in front of Heather and Brian at that point should earn me a few credits when St Peter does the tally at the end of my life. Oh. My. God. I didn’t swear, but I did shout, quite a lot, in fact.

My foot had just been crushed, right on the upper joint of my big toe. Luckily, I was wearing good hiking boots and I was standing on a bit of soft soil. Those two things are what saved me from a trip to the hospital. I had a look at the boulder afterwards, it was big and mostly round and as tall as my knee. I couldn’t move it at all where it stopped next to me. Thank God it didn’t stop ON my foot. After a minute or so, I took the kids into the cave and showed them the beautiful crystal formations and the limestone stalactites. There were a few broken pieces on the floor of the cave, so I let them take a souvenir.

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After we drove back to the campsite, I got ice for my foot. The toe was a dark black and blue on the bottom and side already. I applied a few beers, internally, as I iced it down. By the morning, the black and blue encircled the entire toe, but luckily I could still walk on it okay. It’s now been a few months and aside from some scar tissue on the top and bottom of the toe, it seems to be okay.

The next day, Heather and I hiked up the ravine that leads to the top of the mountain across the river from our campsite.

The ravine hike across the way.

The ravine hike across the way.

The top. A goal we've yet to reach.

The top. A goal we’ve yet to reach.

The hike was enjoyable, following a washed out, dried up waterfall course. At one point, the overhead canopy of trees and vines was so thick that Heather wanted to leave it and go out to where we could see the sun shining up on the ridge to the side of the ravine. We did just that, emerging from the thick vegetation out to a wide open rock slide area. We carefully climbed up the rock slide, Heather in front of me as my boots dislodged stone after stone. We made it up to a goat path that crossed the side of the mountain and headed up a ridge line towards the top. Here’s where I learned a valuable lesson about cactus. I have relatives that are from the desert, my wife included, will surely get a chuckle out this.

Prickly pear cactus, loaded with fruit, were scattered around the mountainside. Some of the fruit was purple and appeared to be ripe and sure looked intriguing. Okay, so, I should be smarter than this, but… using my walking stick I knocked a ripe looking fruit off the cactus. I was going to have a taste of whatever was inside. Looking closely, the fruit didn’t have any spines, only some little tufts of fuzz. Not having my knife with me, or any other tools, I used what God gave me. My hands. Hmm. That was easy, those little tufts scrape right off. I’ll just scrape this all away, shall I… with, my, hands! What was I thinking? Was I planning on having a bite? All of a sudden I realized that the “fuzz” on the fruit were little, very fine needles. Those needles were now implanted in the tips of most of my fingers and were starting to hurt, A LOT! ARGHH! Wow, that really hurt! It took me a while but I managed to get the needles out of my skin. I can’t remember ever getting a taste of that fruit either.

One of those moments

One of those moments

The next day, Heather and I convinced Teresa and Brian to join us for the same hike up the ravine. It was slower going with Brian along and we stayed down in the ravine this time. No more cactus adventures for me! Brian found something else in the ravine though. Something unpleasant. Stinging nettles. They live near limestone and when you brush the leaves of them, you skin feels like you got stung by a bee. After Brian got nailed by it, we kept an eye out and it turns out this path, if you can call a dried up waterfall course a path, is littered with stinging nettles. It was all we could do to avoid any further mishaps. Interesting that when Heather and I had gone the same way the day before that we never even noticed they were there.

Stinging nettles

Stinging nettles

Brian on the ravine hike

Brian on the ravine hike

The Easter bunny managed to find our campsite. It even managed to scatter some eggs for Heather and Brian to collect.

Easter. Brian's least favorite holiday. The poor guy doesn't like chocolate!

Easter. Brian’s least favorite holiday. The poor guy doesn’t like chocolate!

Did you look under the bush?

Did you look under the bush?

Four days camping goes much too fast and before we knew it, it was time to pack up and head home.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this tale and aren’t asleep in your chair, like me by the fire with the stars blazing overhead.

Love to all,
Paul

How time flies

My goodness. Has it been so long? So much has happened since my last post. I’m not sure where to begin.

So, I’m sitting here on Friday evening on the 8th of April, enjoying a well earned, cold beer. Ale, actually. James Squire Hop Thief American Pale Ale, made right here in Australia. It’s been a very, very long week. You see, this is the time of year that Teresa is lucky enough to have her company fly to Madison, Wisconsin, USA for a week of training. She’s also lucky enough to have me and my willingness to look after Heather and Brian for a weekend or so on either end of her training. 11 days this time. 11 days of doing the multitude of tasks that Teresa does week in, week out ,on top of my many contributions to taking care of the kids and the house, plus working my normal job. This is also the time of year that I’m reminded of how difficult it must be for single parents who live this way week in and week out. My heart and my admiration goes out to you!

Teresa has been gone now for 9 of the 11 days of her trip. During that time, I’ve acquired new upstairs neighbors who are incredibly noisy and unrepentant about it. Our previous neighbors of the past, what… 6 years, were silent as church mice. I miss them. Now I know how my mom felt when I was a teenager, asking me to turn down the bass on the stereo in my upstairs bedroom. The good news, if you can call it that, is that the building we live in will be demolished in June or July of this year, so we need to leave anyway. The new neighbors will just hasten our departure from here.

Also in that time, Brian and Heather have finished up term one of school. Year three for Heather, and Kindy for Brian. After a pretty rough start of Brian not wanting to go to school, a number of phone calls from the principle about Brian hitting, biting and head butting other kids, it’s turned around and he’s been doing great, in big part due to a reward based system we implemented along with his teacher. Academically, he was doing fantastically well all along, just challenged socially. The final three or 4 weeks of Term 1 breezed by without any more calls from the principle, and nothing but glowing reports about his day from his teacher.

A quick synopsis of what we’ve been up to since my last post, when Brian finished up at preschool…
I began spending way too much time playing the newly released game, Fallout 4 (a big reason for no blog updates, I’m afraid)
My mom (Gram-ma Joyce) came for a 2 month visit, from early December to early Feb
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We had a rainy trip to the Hunter Valley, a lovely (when not raining) wine growing region, north-west of Sydney
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I got out for some long overdue scuba diving with my favorite dive buddy, Teresa
We celebrated New Years Eve in traditional Sydney fashion, with a picnic, cocktails and fireworks
Brian turned 5
Brian started school (Kindy) at the same school with his sister
Heather was placed in an advanced year three class, combined with year 4 students
Heather joined the school band and took up clarinet
I enjoyed an amazing canyoning adventure, courtesy of a Christmas present from my awesome wife
Brian started playing soccer on a team for the Northbridge Football Club, called The Red Torinos
We went camping for 4 days over the Easter long weekend (Good Friday and Easter Monday are public holidays in Australia!)

I’m sure I’ve missed heaps, but those are most of the highpoints. There are stories attached to each of these highlights and I hope to get the chance to share some of them with you soon!

Here are few recent pics from our camping trip to whet your appetite, that is, if anyone bothers to visit this ghost town of a blog.

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One door closes, and a journey begins

Brian recently “graduated” from Max and Millys, his daycare/pre-school, where he’s been going since he was a year old. This is the same daycare that Heather went to, as well.

We attended his graduation ceremony and the following week we went to his Christmas party.

Brian at his pre-school graduation

Brian at his pre-school graduation

On Brian’s very last day, at the Christmas party they had in the afternoon, it really hit me right in the feels. I’ve been going there every weekday morning for the past eight years, myself. Many happy moments were had at Max and Millys. For most of that time, I’d spend 30 or 40 minutes at drop off, hanging out and doing things with the kids. Singing Wiggles songs with Heather and her classmates as “The Fifth Wiggle” when she was a year old, spending time drawing with Heather as her art skills blossomed, learning to juggle and practicing while I entertained Heather and Brian and their friends. Teaching Brian to throw and catch with him and his friends or just running around playing with childish abandon or searching the outdoor area for cool bugs. I even took a turn as Santa one year for their Christmas party, donning the suit and beard and giving out the presents to all the kids.

Funny thing on that, both Heather and Brian came right up to “Santa” when I first entered the room and sat down. All the other children were seated nicely, but they came up to me with no hesitation and started to talking to “Santa”. I was wearing some spectacles I’d picked up at the Chemist to help disguise me. They had no idea it was me, thankfully. :)

Another fond memory for me is taking the bus every morning with Brian and all the highlights between the bus stop and Max and Millys.

The last day, on our final bus trip, I took photos of the major highlights of the trip. These trip highlights had originated as a way to get Brian to go to daycare, back when he didn’t really want to go. Let’s go say hi to the kitty, cool, now lets go say hi to Big Chef and Little Chef, say by to Big and Little Chef, lets go to the Flight Centre and see if they are open yet, let’s go see if Gary is there, or let’s get your haircut, lets see if the motorcycle is parked over there today (that was right across the street from daycare). It was a circuitous route and took a bit of time, but my schedule worked out well with all of it and I figured it was all good time spent together.

On the bus with Brian, on the way to pre-school

On the bus with Brian, on the way to pre-school


The kitty we see, sometimes, behind the Rag and Famish pub

The kitty we see, sometimes, behind the Rag and Famish pub


Big chef

Big chef


Little Chef

Little Chef


Big Chef, a year or so ago

Big Chef, a year or so ago


Little Chef, a year or so ago

Little Chef, a year or so ago


One last haircut from Tricia

One last haircut from Tricia

A haircut from Tricia when Brian was younger

A haircut from Tricia when Brian was younger


Part of the journey to daycare used to be stopping by Flight Centre where the ladies loved Brian. Sadly, they closed a year ago.

Part of the journey to daycare used to be stopping by Flight Centre where the ladies loved Brian. Sadly, they closed a year ago.


Another older journey to daycare. The ladies knew Brian loved "Ginormous Ships" so they gave him one. :)

Another older journey to daycare. The ladies knew Brian loved “Ginormous Ships” so they gave him one. :)


Gary, the really nice man at the key/shoe repair shop

Gary, the really nice man at the key/shoe repair shop


The motorcycle that was sometimes parked in the alley across from Brian's daycare. Nearly there!

The motorcycle that was sometimes parked in the alley across from Brian’s daycare. Nearly there!

His teachers will miss him a lot and Brian already misses them, too. Thankfully, I’ve connected with them on Facebook, so we’ll be able to keep in touch. :)

Brian and Jae. Jae is really lovely and Brian will miss her and her wonderful loving cuddles very much.

Brian and Jae. Jae is really lovely and Brian will miss her and her wonderful loving cuddles very much.

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Brian and his teacher, Jenn. She's been amazing and will stay in Brian's memory forever.

Brian and his teacher, Jenn. She’s been amazing and will stay in Brian’s memory forever.

We also hope to stay in touch with some of his friends that he has grown close to over the past few years.

Brian and Lilly

Brian and Lilly


Brian with Rhys (who graduated last year and was visiting) and his best friend, Josh

Brian with Rhys (who graduated last year and was visiting) and his best friend, Josh

I have to say that it hit me hard as we were leaving. I’m pretty sure somebody must’ve been cutting some onions (if you know what I mean) as I said goodbye. ;) We may have to stop by and visit sometime soon. :)

Brian will be starting Kindy in February at the same school his sister, Heather, attends.

Here he is modeling his new school uniform.

Brian is ready to follow Heather to school

Brian is ready to follow Heather to school


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Good luck Brian. God willing, I’ll be right there to help you and guide you along your journey.

Proud Parents

Heather earned an award for Public Speaking for when she was chosen to give the debate speech she’d written in a competition between classes. She was also given an award for Creative Thinking, for being generally clever, I think. : ) Go Heather!

Heather with two awards she earned this year at school

Heather with two awards she earned this year at school

Heather also did very well on the standardized ICAS exams that are given across Australia to the year 2 students who elect to take them. She took exams in English, Science and Maths. She earned “Distinction” level (90 to 95 percentile) in Science and Math and “Credit” in English, missing Distinction by one incorrect answer.

In Heather’s school, when students do something well, either in academics or by demonstrating the values of the School Code (respect, personal best and responsibility) they receive a “Code Card”. After they receive 10 Code Cards, they can trade that for a printed award that is worth 10 points. When they have 5 of the ten point awards, they trade that for a Certificate of Achievement that is worth 50 points. When they have 200 points in Certificates of Acheivement, they can earn a School Pennant for Achievement.

Heather earning a school pennant

Heather earning a school pennant

She’s done so well this year, we are so very proud of her.

Annual Halloween Party – 2015

November came around and we once again hosting an over the top amazing (in Australian standards) American-Style Halloween Party! It’s always lots of work, and with all the overtime I’ve been doing, this was a massive effort. The Halloween party is something that I’m typically responsible for organizing and getting setup and running it, as well. I think this year we had 23 or so children and their parent(s) here.

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We had some new additions this year in the form of some cut out, take your picture with zombies and ghost sort of things.

Brian the Witch!

Brian the Witch!

Heather Zombie!

Heather Zombie!

As we try* to each year, we had bobbing for apples, a major crowd pleaser. * We forgot one year!

Here I am demonstrating proper diving for apples technique!

Here I am demonstrating proper diving for apples technique!

Tah dah!

Tah dah!

Heather gets one without using the stem!

Heather gets one without using the stem!

Isabella gets one without using the stem!

Isabella gets one without using the stem!

As always, we included a pumpkin carving demonstration and some of the Aussies brought along a pumpkin to transform into a true Halloween Jack-O-Lantern!

Yummy Pumpkin Guts!

Yummy Pumpkin Guts!

There were games for the kids and grown ups alike

Getting spun 3 times for Pin the Eye on the Monster

Getting spun 3 times for Pin the Eye on the Monster

Pin the eye on the monster

Pin the eye on the monster

Getting into the spirit(s) :)

Getting into the spirit(s) :)

We brought back the massive hit from last year, turning Heather and Brian’s room into a Spooky Haunted House! I really like this one a lot as once it’s setup, it runs itself and the kids love it.

The entrance the Haunted House

The entrance the Haunted House

Here are some of the characters who helped us enjoy our Halloween party

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This year, for the first time we’ve been hosting the party, we were able to have it on Halloween itself. That allowed us to take whoever wished. out with us to go trick or treating. For those outside of Oz, you have to understand that in Australia, Halloween has not been a tradition like it is in the US, far from it, in fact. In Australia, most houses do not participate and many Australians look upon Halloween like Scrooge looked at Christmas before the spirits made him see the light. It does seem to be catching on more and more here each year.

Halloween Party – Sydney, Australia 2015 from Paul Rooney on Vimeo.

Our annual American-Style Halloween party! A quick tour of the setup just before the guests arrived.

Near our house there are a few streets that most of the houses do a bit of decorations, some quite good, really (again, for here), and hand out lollies (candy) to all the visiting goblins and ghouls. In a stark contrast to the US, you’ll find that many people who do give out sweets, leave a bowl of them out the front of their house while they take their own kids out trick or treating. And the thing I love, is, the children take one each from the bowl. I watch this, bemused, and a little ashamed as I think that this unattended bowl of candy sitting in front that house, if it was back in the US, would be cleaned out by the first group to visit. Am I wrong?

I wonder. Do kids even go out anymore for trick or treating back in the US these days? With all the madness and violence, and the accompanying paranoia, do they all have to go to Halloween parties instead?

When I was a kid, once we were, I don’t know… ten or so, we would head out with a group of slightly older kids (no parents) and go door to door for miles gathering massive amounts of candy. Here in Australia, it’s still very light on Halloween night as it’s in our spring time. Back in US, it was pitch black night for trick or treating and we still went off with no supervision. Sure, back then you heard vague tales of razor blades in apples, but I never actually heard of anybody that happened to. Besides, if it wasn’t on a stick, coated with caramel, I wasn’t going to take it! :)