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Australia & Singapore: Introduction

29 September to 29 October 2017

By Stephen Burch, England

Introduction & General Singapore Darwin area Cairns area O'Reilly's Lady Elliot Island

This was our longest and most ambitious trip to date, and was a fair while in the making. The idea of visiting this continent was first mooted over ten years ago, but the years passed and we then decided instead on New Zealand as our destination in 2012. However having greatly enjoyed that trip, and found the long haul flights survivable, my wish to also visit the more birdy Australia remained. After a false start in 2016, finally in autumn 2017 we made it!

Over at least the last decade I had been collecting information on good places to visit, which included a few sporadic pieces in Birding World, and even snippets in the Guardian newspaper. Most of these were in Queensland, but I was also keen on visiting Kakadu National Park which was nearest to Darwin. Sydney was also on our list, but for general tourism only not birds! Given the immense distances involved in Australia, three internal flights would be needed to cover all the places we wanted to visit.

The duration of this trip was 4 weeks, which was limited by the maximum amount of time we could both feasibly get off work. Timing was chosen carefully to avoid the hotter months, which sounded increasingly problematic in Australia at present.

This was a non business trip, and we travelled independently on our own, having planned and made all the arrangements ourselves. We were not part of an organised group, although we benefitted from some guiding and went on some good boat trips.

A word of warning about planning and booking a trip of this type - some of the places we stayed in Queensland were small, and can get booked up many months in advance - especially the local guides which tend to be in great demand and limited in number. I'd suggest booking a year in advance to avoid disappointment, as October is a prime time for birding in Queensland especially.

Travel in Australia was straightforward - of course there are no language problems, and car hire & internal flights are as you would expect in a first world country. However photographers especially need to watch their hand baggage weight on internal flights - with all carriers it is limited to 8 kg.

For the long haul flights we were again extravagant and flew Premium Economy. As we wanted to arrive first in Darwin, the best outbound option seemed to be with Singapore Airlines via Singapore, where we stayed for 4 nights. Our (long) return was from Sydney again via Singapore but only for a two hour stop and change of planes (& terminals). Although we were in Premium Economy we were not particularly impressed by the service provided, despite Singapore Airlines being a highly rated airline (Air New Zealand in 2012 was far superior). The flights to/from Singapore were by very smooth A380's but were both well over 13hours. From Singapore to Darwin was a mere 4-5 hours. The return journey featured a very long night indeed, as we departed around 16:30 from Sydney and arrived at about 06:00 at Heathrow, some 20+ hours later!

The long haul flights were all on time. However, I found that journeys of this length, combined with a 10hr time difference took some getting over, especially the return. There is no escaping the fact that Australia is a very long way from the UK, although New Zealand is even further!

The internal flights we took were with Qantas (Darwin to Cairns) and Virgin Australia (Cairns to Brisbane and Brisbane to Sydney). Qantas fares are much higher than Virgin Australia's but both airlines seemed to provide very similar levels of service. On all internal flights we needed to book an additional check-in bag, which was inexpensive if done in advance. The 8kg hand baggage allowance wasn't checked on our first two flights, so on the last we were rather blase and taken aback when, having checked in our main bags, we were asked to put our hand luggage on the scales. This could have been quite problematic but fortunately I managed to put some items into pockets and we were able to take out our laptops, tablets etc. The remaining optics and other gear just scraped through!

Car hire
We needed three separate cars, at Darwin, Cairns and Brisbane airports. At Darwin, all the main companies only give very limited daily mileage allowances, with additional miles charged extra. As we wanted to drive to Kakadu this would have been quite expensive, so I looked for alternatives and found Bargain Car Rentals who offered a substantially higher daily mileage allowance. I was slightly hesitant about booking with them given their website, but in the event we got a good, roomy car from them and their service was very good (efficient pickup from airport to their depot and return the same way at the end).

At Cairns we arrived very late in the evening and had a booking with Europcar. Their representative that night was unpleasant, almost rude and seemed offended that our forced "upgrade" to a 4x4 was not one I liked at all. Fortunately when we returned the next morning, we found a much more pleasant person who was able to happily change it to a saloon model more of my liking.

At Brisbane we used Avis and had no problems at all.

I always like to have some maps of the areas we visit, so in advance I purchased ones for the Darwin, Cairns and Brisbane areas, as well as for Sydney. However these were quite small scale and not a lot of use for detailed route or site finding. As with most previous recent trips, we relied heavily on a SatNav - using lat, long (GPS) coordinates I had stored in advance.  These were often supplemented by Google Map printouts of key areas. We also made use of Google maps on a phone for navigation - using the offline areas that can now be readily downloaded in advance to avoid roaming charges. These were often easier to search than the TomTom map and could be useful for finding places to eat when needed as well, for example.

Birding information
I also tend to buy plenty of site guides, but end up finding some of limited value. For Singapore, the "A Naturalist's Guide to the Birds of Singapore" by Yong Ding Li was a very handy little book, giving adequate photos to allow ID of the limited range of species we found there, as well as a useful site guide.

The "Birds of Australia" second edition by Richard Thomas was less useful, although I copied sections of it, and took these with us. The aged "Where to find Birds Australia" was worse and hardly any use and certainly not worth the purchase price. For the Darwin area, I got hold of a small booklet called "Top End Birdwatching" by Mike Reed which was of some value. However for this area, Mike Jarvis' excellent website was much better (and free!)- especially for sites around Darwin itself, Kakadu and the journey to it.

For birding ID in Australia we used "The Slater Guide to Australian Birds" which I can recommend - reasonably compact, with adequate illustrations and clear distribution maps. Being totally unable to memorise all the key features of the hundreds of possible new species, once again my tactic was to try to secure any sort of photo of an unknown species, which then allowed ID at leisure afterwards, by close reference to the book. This worked pretty well, and I don't think we missed many new species due to lack of ID. Of course, the days when we had human guides were much easier (and usually much more productive than on our own).

For this trip, I didn't make much use of trip reports on the web, as I couldn't easily find many of great value. 

The weather was very variable on this trip with maximum daytime temperatures that varied by about 25° C! Singapore was quite hot (low 30°s C), humid and wet - with frequent rain particularly in the afternoons and evenings. Darwin and Kakudu were dry and hot up to 39°C, although early mornings were cooler and more pleasant. In the Cairns area it was initially dry and warm (up to c. 30°C) but the weather broke on our last day there and we left in quite heavy rain. At Brisbane, it was still raining, and continued to do so for most of the 3 days we were at O'Reilly's which is up in the hills of the Lamington NP to the south. Here it was distinctly cool, down to a wet and unwelcoming 12° - 13° C!

This spell of poor weather coincided with much worse conditions elsewhere in Queensland, which resulted in considerable flooding and some travel disruption. After O'Reilly's we drove north past Brisbane to Hervey Bay where we met someone at the airport who had been stranded in some remote location for a depressing 6 days waiting for the floods to clear! Fortunately we experienced nothing like that and all our pre-booked travel arrangements worked smoothly. The weather on Lady Elliot Island, at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, and our final birding destination, was warm and sunny at times, but there was also some heavy rain, especially at night.

Sydney, our final stop, was again reasonably warm but even here we had a little rain from time to time.

All the pics shown in this report were taken with a Canon EOS 7D Mk II with a EF100-400f5.6 II lens. This very flexible zoom lens worked really well on this trip, and I didn't miss the 500mmf4 (which would have been far too bulky and heavy to take, given the restrictions on hand luggage on the internal flights). At various times, the ability of the 100-400 to (a) focus down to 1m, (b) zoom out to 100mm and (c) work well with the x1.4 TC (but with only the central focussing square active) were all very useful features, as was the 4 stop IS in the low light conditions we experienced in places, especially in the forest at O'Reilly's when the weather was poor.

All pics were taken in RAW format, and I use NeatImage for noise suppression, with PhotoShop Elements 9.0 for subsequent processing. For further details see the equipment and image processing pages elsewhere on this website.

Here is a summary of our itinerary, with the number of nights spent in each location:

Singapore 4
Darwin 2
Kakadu 3
Cairns 1
Cassowary House 2
Kingfisher Park Birdwatchers Lodge 2
Daintree 1
Cairns 2
O'Reilly's 3
Hervey Bay 1
Lady Elliot Island 3
Noosa 1
Sydney 3


All pictures copyright Stephen Burch

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