The Rev. Gary J. Meade is an Episcopal priest currently serving as the rector of Saint Mary's Episcopal Church in Dyersburg, Tennessee. This blog will host photos and reflections from Gary's sabbatical from September through December, 2019. (Dig deeper and you'll find material from his first sabbatical in 2014.)
Over the last three months I’ve taken and shared a great number of photos, most of animals or places or moments. It turns out that along the way I also took (and rarely shared) an embarrassing number of selfies. So here, as I sit in a Sydney airport hotel on my last night in Australia (and apparently with nothing better to do) I thought I would share 28 pictures of ME!
At some point I will attempt to offer some final reflections on my three months’ sabbatical, but I should probably get a little time and distance first. Until then, thank you to everyone who has shared this journey with me and engaged with my photos and shared comments and encouragement.
And one more image from my visit to the Kuranda Koala Gardens, one of the few places where one may hold a koala:
On Friday, my last full day in Brisbane, I took it rather easy. No day-long tours. No long hikes in the blazing heat. I did, however still wake in time to catch the early sun as seen from my hotel window on the 26th floor.
After indulging in a couple of donuts from the nearby Krispy Kreme shop, I headed to the Brisbane City Hall, a large Neo-classical building completed in 1930. It is quite impressive with a tall clock tower that rings out the time every quarter hour. Though guarded by a pair of impressive lions, entry is encouraged and even free. So I did, joining first a quick tower tour in which up to seven guests are taken up the original elevator (still operated manually!) to see the great vistas. I got a great view of my hotel and a nearby church, among other sites. Later I joined a tour of much of the rest of City Hall learning about its extraordinary history. And both of these great tours were free!
Later in the day, after a bit of a nap, I went out in search of (almost) last-minute souvenirs. After all, I probably shouldn’t return empty-handed, should I? At Myers, a department store across the street from my hotel, I found a couple of interesting t-shirts — with New Mexico destinations! Not quite what I would have expected to find in a Aussie store.
Finally, I headed out for a dinner of fish and chips near the Treasury, an old building now used as a casino. Then across the Victoria Bridge and the Playhouse in the Cultural Centre for a very creative, entertaining, and ultimately moving presentation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. As I neared my hotel, which is located on an outdoor mall, a local group of musicians were just wrapping up a free concert. A great end to a beautiful day!
I woke up early on Thursday to join a tour to the Australia Zoo, long associated with Steve Irwin — better known as the “Crocodile Hunter.” This is a large facility with all the expected Australian animals and birds that also has been developing its collection of animals from Asia and Africa as well. Throughout the day I ran into keepers with animals on display along the walkways, ready to pose for photos and answer questions — very delightful!
At noon there’s a show with a variety of Aussie birds and ending with a 10-foot long crocodile and handlers doing pretty much exactly what they tell folks not to do to be safe around these very dangerous animals. It was impressive to see how these ancient reptiles (around for about 240 million years!) can be so placid and then — BAM! — burst into a startling display of astonishing speed.
Late in the day I took a Segway tour. The guide took three of us on a “back of the house” tour that included some of the areas not usually open to the public, allowing us to see even more animals and to learn about the history and mission of this Zoo.
I am not always a fan of zoos, but this one seems to be getting it as right as can be done. For example, the collection of lemurs are housed on an island. As lemurs are afraid of water, they are secure on the island even while these curious critters scamper quite near the guests. It felt like a good approach for the benefit of both animals and people alike. All-in-all it seems the animals’ health never takes a back seat to human curiosity or comfort.
On Wednesday I booked a trip on the Koala & River Cruise, taking me 70 minutes up the Brisbane River to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary where I saw, as you may have already guessed, koalas. Lots and lots of koalas. The Sanctuary also has kangaroos and wombats and reptiles and birds. The roos live in a large area, lounging in the shade of a warm day and waiting for eager visitors to feed them. The Sanctuary also offers a short but entertaining raptor show featuring a barn owl, a falcon, and a kite (a kind of eagle).
By 3:30 I was back in Brisbane, at a jetty near the Cultural Centre. So I headed over to the amazing Gallery of Contemporary Art. Most of this museum is free, but there was one exhibit, opened just within the last week, called “Water” for which there was a modest charge. It was totally worth it. Two rooms in particular are worthy of mention. In one a host of animals from various continents and climates are gathered around a single pool of blue water. Water trips from above every few seconds to alert visitors that the water is live, even if the animals are not. It served to remind me that despite our differences we have a shared responsibility for that which makes all life possible.
A second, huge room, was covered with a variety of river stones on a slope with a stream of water meandering through. Visitors are encouraged to climb on the exhibit and even rearrange rocks as they see fit. And all this under the bright light of fluorescent fixtures standing in stark counterpoint: nature below and artifice above. What a weird way to experience nature: in the air-conditioned comfort of a clearly artificial space. I found it quite provocative.
And then I found a snowman carefully preserved and displayed in a freezer. It begs the question: how are we sharing and preserving nature?
And, being a gallery of contemporary art, there was lots more to see, including the work known as “White Wash.” Black vinyl letters are covered with ashtrays. But look closer: each of the ashtrays draws on aboriginal themes and images, all used in the service of white culture. In a land very aware of the impact of European colonization on the original peoples of Australia, this installation requires thought and care. It is, one may say, enough to get a brain to think!
Monday morning I was on the Queensland Rail The Spirit of Queensland for an overnight journey south from Cairns to Brisbane. This gave me hours to watch the passing landscape (even spotting a kangaroo!), enjoy the sunset, enjoy the sunrise, and even enjoy a decent night’s rest and a refreshing morning shower.
I spent Tuesday wandering through parts of Brisbane, including a quick pass through the Botanic Garden and a wander through the Southbank Parklands. Here they they have a long arbor covered (mostly) in wonderful purple blossoms. Families and more gathered at a series of swimming spots that offered sandy beaches and a view of the skyline.
As there was no line I went up on the Wheel of Brisbane for great views in an air-conditioned gondola (this was very important as the temperature today rose to 90 F / 32 C!). After that a quick visit to the Queensland Museum where I met Mutt, a dinosaur discovered in Australia in 1962.
After that I had a very nearly private (and free!) guided tour of the Queensland Art Gallery and its collection of art classic and contemporary; European in flavor and clearly Aboriginal in origin.
Sunday, December 8, my last full day in Cairns. I booked a full-day trip to the outer Reef for a bit of snorkeling. The water was clear, calm, warm, and perfect. Every time I thought I had seen all there was to see, I’d spot more fish, different fish, bigger fish, smaller fish. Amazing!
My volunteering at Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre complete, I found myself with a couple of free days in Cairns. So on Saturday I took a day trip to Kuranda, a village in the nearby rainforest. My first stop, however, was at Tjakupai Aboriginal Cultural Park for a series of demonstrations.
I learned about local foods and their preparation, the dirigidoo, and weapons (primarily boomerangs and spears). The morning also offered a dance demonstration that included a dance during which we saw how aboriginal people made fire without a match. And as I chose to sit in the front row, I even found myself joining the cast for a dance. I am SO glad there’s no video evidence! Finally, I learned how to throw a spear (not well) and a boomerang. On my second attempt the boomerang actually came back to me. In fact it came so close to bashing me on the head that the instructor was quite alarmed.
Then I boarded the Skyrail, a cable journey above the canopy of the rainforest that brought me to Kuranda. There I stopped at the Koala Gardens to visit some of the great Australian wildlife I’ve grown to love.
Next door is Birdworld Kuranda, a small exhibit but one packed with a variety of very colorful birds, including the Cassowary, a large flightless bird I had not yet seen. After all that, I boarded the Kuranda Scenic Railway for the return to Cairns. The rail line was originally built in the 19th century but now only passengers enjoy the lovely views while riding in century-old carriages.
What’s it like to be a volunteer with Oceans 2 Earth at the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre? Well, let me show you in photos and words. Come along!
By 7:15 I would be on my way to the meeting point. Because I opted to stay at a local hotel (rather than the hostel used by many — but certainly not all — of the volunteers) my daily walk took me past the amazing Lagoon, a large pool along the Esplanade and adjacent to Trinity Bay. Later in the day, this will be filled with families and fun. Now don’t let the shady walk fool you; it’s already quite warm at 7:15, in the low 80s F (or about 27 C). So, I was always sure to take a water bottle for the day.
After meeting with our team leader for the day and the other volunteers, we would head to the Fitzroy Flyer for our daily commute, a ride of about 45 minutes. This gave us all time for conversation, laughter, reading, card games, or even napping. By 9 am we arrived at the beautiful tropical Fitzroy Island, ready for a short walk to the Centre.
Before we even got to the turtles we were greeted on my last two mornings by this gorgeous spider, only just a little smaller than my hand, who had spun a web above our entrance to the Centre.
Our work here is all about the turtles. There were six here when I started, but by my last day every one of the eight working tanks had turtles: Greens, Hawksbills, and a Flatback. Each had been rescued and brought here in the hope that the expert care offered would help each to recover and, if possible, be released back into the ocean waters of the Great Barrier Reef. This can be a slow process, requiring diligence, dedication, and patience. And there are never any guarantees of success.
The volunteers, after training, were quick to engage in the daily tasks we performed to support the work of the Centre. These include cleaning the filter bags for each of the tanks, a job that requires a hose, a post, and lots of water. It’s wet work indeed! Then the bags which had been cleaned the day before (and which were left soaking in a bleach solution) were rinsed and installed for another 24 hours. The tanks also require daily cleaning using a net and a simple siphon to remove the turtles’ excretions.
Food also has to be prepared and offered. Frozen squid is the primary item on the menu with fish for one or two of the turtles. Before squid can be fed to the turtles it must first be defrosted and the fibrous backbone removed. This is a manual process that became oddly satisfying, though my hands smelled of fish the rest of the day, no matter how thoroughly I washed!
Some of the turtles may be fed by simply scattering the squid (or fish) in the tanks. Most, however, are fed by hand. Or rather by tong as we volunteers are rather fond of our fingers! This is not as easy as it looks. One day I was feeding Angie, one of the original turtles here, and just as I would start to drop the squid into her open mouth she would sometimes move her head, meaning the morsel would drop to the bottom. She’d quickly find and suck it up, usually accompanied by a slap of her fin on the water guaranteed to splash me with a salty yet cooling spray. I do believe that Angie was, in her turtle way, having a bit of a laugh at me. Each of the turtles here has a distinct personality, and Angie certainly leads the way.
The work is not very difficult and even though we wouldn’t arrive until about 9:15, we were often done by 11:45 — or even earlier. This would give us volunteers some time to relax and share in one of the many blessings of volunteering: the opportunity to meet great people from around the world, making new friends and creating lasting memories.
After our various tasks were complete (and there were often other jobs that required our attention), the rest of the day was ours. We could catch the 12:15 ferry back to the city of Cairns or, if we preferred, we were welcome to enjoy the afternoon on this beautiful island. Our options included scenic hikes, a visit to Nudey Beach (“Nudey” in name only; this is very much a family friendly island!), a ride in a glass-bottomed boat, a swim, a snorkel, a scuba dive, or even just find a quiet place to sit and enjoy this lovely corner of paradise.
As a volunteer, I found this to be a unique and rewarding experience. First, of course, is the opportunity to work with these amazing animals. Just yesterday I was feeding Myrtle, a turtle had been released last Sunday but within a day suffered being hit by a boat or jet ski, injuring her head and neck. She is in distress, and the leaders at the Centre are doing all they can to restore her to health once again. And I was privileged to a part of that amazing team. Wow!
And, as I noted above, I certainly enjoyed become friends with a special group of people from such a variety of countries and backgrounds.
Finally, this volunteer experience was immeasurably enriched by the inspirational and charismatic leaders with whom I worked, especially Jennie Gilbert, the Centre’s energetic and extraordinarily dedicated and gifted director. I have met truly one of the world’s great advocates. I also must mention Cassie Smith, the gracious and giving research director at the Centre and leader of Oceans 2 Earth. Thank you both for an amazing fortnight!
Many of the lovely trees near where I’m staying in Cairns are home to flying foxes — or bats as most of us call them. These cute critters hang out (quite literally!) all day then start waking just as the sun is setting. Then off they go to hunt for the evening. While it’s undeniably cool to see so many bats flying at dusk, photographing them does result in somewhat grainy images.
Some of the locals like having the bats here. Those with cars parked underneath, however, have a rather different opinion. These guys are quite messy!
Of course, bats aren’t the only things that fly. So here are some photos of the some of the birds I saw while waiting for the bats to do their thing.
On Monday afternoon I headed over to the Cairns Botanic Garden (and the nearby Mount Whitfield Conservation Park). I got to see some cool plants and flowers, as well as this rather odd looking bird known as an Australian Bush-turkey. I would have stayed longer but a hike in the Conservation Park was very draining — not to mention disappointing. After hiking up and up and up in temperatures in the high 80s I finally reached a lookout. Okay, so I reached a platform with a view of trees. And between the trees I could see…(wait for it) the airport! Not exactly the view I was expecting after a long, sweaty, tiring climb.