Monthly Archives: December 2013

Cicada Shells


Icklegen loves cicada shells. She delights in picking them off trees and trying to secure them to her clothing. Or worse still, a cheeky gleam comes into her eyes and she races after me clutching a couple of them in her hands and shrieking with excitement, because she knows her mummy can’t stand the sight of them.5-P10103163-P1010310

And it’s an ongoing activity this season. According to the locals, it is a BIG year for cicadas. I’m no expert, but these large, noisy insects have certainly have been very busy over the last couple of months. Even as I write, I can hear them singing in the trees down by the lake. And on some of our little walks out and about, the sound has been deafening. So it’s no great surprise for me to learn from the Australian Museum website that some cicada species can produce sounds over 120 decibels – close to the pain threshold of the human ear.

And then, there is “cicada rain”, essentially these lovely insects excreting a fine mist of sugary water from the plant sap they consume in vast quantities. An interesting experience as you walk under the trees where they are perched. It’s not just for protection from the sun that Aussies wear hats outdoors in the summer, after all.

Little Christmas Tree

Hmmm, I thought we’d left it a bit late in the day to get a Christmas tree. I can’t remember a year without the real thing: that beautiful pine scent and needles all over the floor are so much a part of the festive season. And I hope they will be for Icklegen too. But I did wonder if there would be any trees left on 21st December. Christmas seems to start SO early every year. Not a problem if you have an artificial tree, which will live forever (really), but a wee bit of an issue if you want a real one to last the distance. Hence why we hadn’t got one earlier.7-IMAG0488

Daddy Ickle was a man with a plan though, and Icklegen and I were more than happy to go along for the ride. Destination: Tumbi Umbi*. Don’t you just love that name? I could quite happily live in a place called Tumbi Umbi, and it’s home to a wonderful little Christmas Tree Farm, too. Well done, Daddy Ickle!6-IMAG04805-IMAG0475

And the excitement didn’t stop there either, because at Tumbi Umbi’s Christmas Tree Farm, you can choose your own Christmas tree and then chop it down. Not such a daunting prospect as the trees are relatively small. Nope, this is not the place to go if you want a giant, ceiling-scraper with room for hundreds of baubles; these are ickle trees, but my, are they beautiful. And I soon got carried away with the process of picking one out. As did Icklegen. Our little girl is something of a tree hugger, although I think she found this variety a little prickly.2-IMG_20131221_0935324-IMG_20131221_093559

Daddy Ickle was swift with the saw and we ended up with a little beauty: gorgeously green and vibrant, with that oh-so-important Christmassy scent. It’s now in pride of place in our living room, twinkling with fairy lights, which Icklegen keeps trying to blow out. And I think we have the beginnings of a lovely family Christmas tradition that will see us go back to Tumbi Umbi next year to do the same again.1-IMAG04851-IMG_46892-IMG_4688

*Tumbi Umbi is an Aboriginal name meaning ‘a place of much water’.

Carols by the Lake

‘Tis the season for carols. Not a weekend in December goes by without the possibility of attending an open-air carol concert. It’s a great Aussie tradition generally comprising performances of Christmas songs old and new, a sausage sizzle, soft-serve cones, Santa’s arrival on a fire truck to distribute lollies (sweets) to the littlies and – if you’re lucky – some fireworks to round off the evening. But all events pale in comparison with the BIG ONE, Carols by Candlelight*, which has been held in Melbourne every year since 1938, and is now televised live on Christmas Eve. In this glitzy festive extravaganza, international stars, home-grown celebs, and kiddies’ favourites take to the stage to entertain the masses.1-P1010295

Icklegen and I are not quite ready for activity on this scale, so we opted to stay local and popped along to Gwandalan to see what Carols by the Lake had to offer. This was definitely not a mass-marketed media event: there were a couple of banners on display and a small entry in the free monthly courier we get delivered, and that was about it. And why not keep it that way? A happy, friendly gathering of people you recognise from the next street, playgroup, the local shops…let me tell you, it was lovely. And what a backdrop too, with the waters of Lake Macquarie glistening in the late afternoon sunshine.3-P1010288

The weather was a balmy 25 degrees as we arrived, lured by the enticing smell of sausages and bacon sizzling on the barbie. All a far cry from carol singing when I was a lass, where we would rug up in our winter woollies and walk around in the inky dark, gloved hands stuffed in our pockets, singing our hearts out in the chill night air, and hoping we’d be invited into a warm house for a mince pie and glass of mulled wine.4-P10102916-P1010294

There was a variety of performances, including a local choir from Tuggerah, a small band, and a couple of soloists. But it’s about so much more than the music; these outdoor events provide a wonderful occasion for family and friends to sit down, relax and chat, and perhaps indulge in a sausage sandwich or soft-serve dipped in sprinkles (or Milo – now that’s a new one for me!)1-P1010285

Icklegen had other ideas though; she quickly tired of the picnic rug and set off to explore her new and exciting surroundings. Quite a crowd had gathered by this point, and some of her little friends had arrived too, which made it all the more fun. She charged around, looking at everything and even tried to burst onto the stage (perhaps she’s an artiste in the making unlike her stage-shy mummy!) My favourite part of the evening, though, was of her and another friend dancing with two older girls right at the front, spinning around and around, and loving every minute.

We didn’t manage to stay until Santa’s grand entrance, alas, although Icklegen is none the wiser. It’ll make it doubly special for her next year when our little part of Lake Macquarie rocks again.

*To be fair, Sydney’s ‘Carols in the Domain’ has the larger attendance. At 31 years young, it is a mere whipper snapper alongside its Melbourne rival, but definitely an institution in its own right.

Blackbutt Reserve

Icklegen and I were ‘up north’ on Monday for a medical appointment. Thankfully, it ran to time, and we were left with a whole morning free to explore an area we know very little about. We headed straight for Blackbutt* Reserve, which has been on my hit list of places to visit for a while now. We parked at the Carnley Avenue entrance; there is a fee for using this car park, but at $4.60 for the day when entrance to the 182-hectare reserve is free, I figure this is a small price to pay. Plus, from here, there is quick and easy access to a couple of playgrounds, picnic shelters, and the wildlife.05-P1010197

First stop was…yes, you guessed it…the playground. The smaller one has a couple of swings, a slide and steering wheels to spin around – perfect for little people. The second play space comes complete with spider web, two steep and scary slides, and foot and hand holds for budding rockclimbers. Oh, and a weird and wonderful set of spongy toadstools which Ickle delighted in prodding one at a time.03-P1010189

By now, the temperatures were soaring and it was time to seek shelter in the shade. We greeted a couple of ducks at Black Duck Pond and then followed the signs to the reserve’s wildlife exhibits. This is what we (or rather I) had really come to Blackbutt for. There is a fabulous variety of Australian native animals on display at the reserve. Yes, they are captive, but the enclosures are well-thought out, and spacious for the most part. The emphasis is on education and conservation. You can view the animals at close-quarters and there are information boards on each and every species. Not that I had a chance to read any of the material, but both Icklegen and I got a good look at some of the wonderful creatures that are indigenous to this vast country. And we also had a chance encounter with a wandering peacock that must have found his way to Blackbutt from somewhere in Asia…02-P101018407-P1010202

Icklegen had great fun on our tour around. She stood on the raised steps on her tippy-toes desperately trying to peer into the various enclosures; I did have to lift her so she could see in properly. She picked out a sleeping wombat, two sleepy owls, a frog and some colourful finches, amongst others. She especially enjoyed walking in and out of the nocturnal enclosures through the plastic strip doors…again and again. The set-up is child- and wheelchair-friendly. Boardwalks link the various enclosures and there are safety barriers throughout. You wouldn’t want to take your eyes off an excited toddler though, as some of the drops are vertiginous.09-P101020412-P1010214

I love the way the wooden shelters and structures blend in so beautifully with the surrounding bushland; although there is a busy main road nearby, you feel cocooned from the hustle and bustle of Newcastle surburbia. We only encountered a handful of other visitors during our visit to the wildlife enclosures, and even the playgrounds were fairly quiet. I am not so sure the experience would be the same at the weekend or during school holidays. 11-P1010208

Do take a picnic if you plan to stay at the reserve for a while. The Information Cottage sells a few drinks, but there wasn’t a sandwich in sight. So we hopped in the car to check out what Blackbutt Village had to offer for an impromptu lunch stop. An inspired idea, as it turned out. We ended up in the Euro Pâtisserie – take a look at their cakes and your tastebuds will go into overdrive. We tucked into quiche, salad and freshly-made sandwiches in the busy, blissfully air-conditioned café. Service was professional, if lacking a friendly touch, but I would definitely go back for a quality lunch or snack…and perhaps a cake or two, why not? We might *accidently* forget to pack a picnic on our next trip to Blackbutt, me thinks.13-P1010221

* FYI: A Blackbutt is a tree, known in scientific speak as Eucalyptus pilularis. It gets its name from the bark at its base, which is often black and charred from bushfires.

Catherine Hill Bay

Icklegen and I have been waiting for a window of opportunity to hit the beach, but what with her hectic social schedule and the topsy-turvy weather of late, we never seemed to get around to it. So, on Sunday morning, when the cloud cleared and the sun started to beat down, I seized the moment and ran around the house frantically packing morning snacks, swimmers, nappies, bucket and spade, and all the other paraphenalia that makes up our seaside excursions. And off we set…into the cloud, which had reappeared out of nowhere, I swear it.07-P1010077

The forecast wasn’t too bad for the morning, so we carried on, and soon arrived at our chosen destination: Catherine Hill Bay. This beautiful spot boasts a 2-km-long sandy beach with an iconic old coal-loading jetty at its southern end (great for photos!) There is a small local community, whose residents mainly live in the 100 or so ex-miners weatherboard cottages that line the access road on both sides. It’s a little slice of history in our neck of the woods, relatively untouched by time. That though is all set to change with a 556-lot residential development already underway, and another large building project on the horizon.03-P101006304-P1010068

We parked in the dedicated area just before the Surf Lifesaving Club. Access to the beach from there is fairly flat and direct (and free, too). Less distance to stagger with a wriggly toddler under one arm and all the beach stuff dangling off the other. Icklegen only has to smell the sea to get fired up with enthusiasm and today was no exception. I had no sooner dropped the bags on the sand, than she took off at high speed towards the water.

We had a wonderful time: dipping our toes in the ocean, building sandcastles so they could be stamped on immediately afterwards, beachcombing for goodies, and running up and down the sand. But the weather was not on our side; the sun had all but disappeared within 10 minutes of our arrival, taking with it some much-needed warmth, and then it started to drizzle, just a touch at first, and then quite heavily, so we beat a hasty retreat. Well, as hasty as we could with all the clutter we had taken with us.09-P101008610-P101009211-P1010093

And we went to the pub, “The Catho”, just up the hill. This rambling, slightly ramshackle affair can get quite busy at peak times on a nice day, when you are presented with one of those awful your-food-is-ready-come-and-get-it-buzzers; at 10.30 am on a grey, drizzly Sunday, however, there was only a handful of customers. We settled in the “dining” area overlooking the bushland that burnt so terribly during the recent fires in our area. Icklegen tucked into her first ever chocolate milkshake (just a half, but that was more than enough) and I had a flat white (not the best in the world admittedly, but it hit the spot). I did eye up the big brekkies the elderly couple behind us had ordered, so that’s something to bear in mind next time we’re that way and ravenously hungry.14-P101010712-P1010103