Monday, December 15, 2008

In Minnesota

After nearly three years(!) in Australia we’ve finally managed to make it home to the US for a visit! Thought you might enjoy a few highlights, many of which will seem quite exotic to those of you in the middle of the Australian summer!

After twenty four hours of traveling, we arrived in Minneapolis and spent the evening with my friend Colleen. Next morning we had breakfast with her and another friend, Amy Limmer, below.


The drive to my hometown of Litchfield was pretty snowy but I haven’t forgotten my Minnesota driving skills!


One of the activities my mom and I had been looking forward to was making potato lefse, a Scandinavian favorite. Here’s the whole assembly line from mixing up the potato and flour and cream mixture to rolling it out into little “tortillas” to cooking it on the griddle.


Jenn wields the spatula!


Enjoying the finished product. Making lefse goes something this: cook one, eat one, cook one, eat one, cook one, save one, repeat.


Quality time with dear friends, Kristi and Jessica.


View of a snowy landscape out back of the house.


Family reunion – my mom (Betty), me, brother (Gary), sister-in-law (Bec), and my sister-in-law’s mother (Diane).


And finally, I thought you might enjoy a photo from the weather channel. Notice the temperature of -15°F (-26°C)! With wind chill, that feels like of -35°F (-37°C)! And that last number – that’s how many minutes you can stay outside before frostbite sets in!


Okay, must get back to eating…my mom is on a tasty mission of fattening us up for the cold!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Aloha!

Since we've been in Australia, we've managed to plan one annual reunion with a sizable chunk of Brian's family each year. The first year they came to us and we traveled to Melbourne and Sydney and spent a week in Queensland on the Great Barrier Reef. The second year, we went to Fiji and cruised around the islands on the Tui Tai eco-cruise. And last week was the third annual McMillin Tropical Holiday to Maui, Hawaii. The cool thing about this year's reunion was that it included ALL the McMillin kids including Brian's brother Keith and family who hadn't been able to join us for the previous trips. Let the adventure begin!

Brian and I arrived in Maui the day before the rest of the family. We lived on Maui when we first met (about seven years ago now!) and so we thought we'd take the opportunity to do an overnight hike that would be out of everyone else's comfort zone. To be honest, I was a bit afraid it might be out of my comfort zone! After three flights and about eleven hours in the air, we hopped off the plane, hired a car, grabbed some food and drove for an hour to the top of the east Maui mountains, to Haleakala National Park. We loaded up our bags and set off on the Sliding Sands trail for our destination, Paliku Cabin some ten miles away. Here I am at the very beginning of our walk. If you look to the dark gray mountains in the distance on the right hand side of the photo, you'll see our destination!


The landscape along the way was nothing short of spectacular. And diverse - we went from red sandy slopes to rocky moonscapes, to black lava fields to lush vegetation.


The photo belows shows us nearing those gray mountains in the distance. See how the vegetation has changed? That's because the cloud cover is much thicker as we near the Kaupo Gap and so there's much more available moisture.


We knew we were pushing ourselves to squeeze this hike into the daylight we had and we ended up doing the last mile or two in the moonlight! Fortunately, it was nearly a full moon which cast a silvery glow on everything and made for a pretty unique experience. We only had to pull out our flashlights for the last half hour or so as it got really dark - and began to drizzle! We were happy to reach our destination, the Paliku cabin, but weren't able to stay in the cabin as they have to be reserved three months in advance. So we did the best we could to scout a tent site in the dark, put up the tent in some serious wind, and then changed into our warm and dry thermals, ate a quick dinner and fell asleep.

In the morning, as we stuck our heads out of the tent, we were greeted with an amazing view! Here's a glimpse of the backdrop to our tent.


After breakfast we were greeted by the resident Nene geese. Only 600 or so of these birds exist in the wild and they are the most endangered waterfowl in North America. So we were more than happy to have them poking around outside our tent...


Donning all the clothes we had (it got close to freezing up there overnight), we packed up our gear (damp after unwittingly putting the tent in a slight depression) and had a nice rainbow pointing the way back to the trail.


One thing you have to love about Maui - rainbows everywhere! This one was for our eyes only.


The trail back followed the opposite edge of the crater and once again the landscape awed us with its diversity. Here the track leads to cinder cones in an array of reds and browns and oranges.


The walk back was tiring as it was, but to get out of the crater we had to hike up for three miles (a 1400 foot elevation change)! This photo looks out at the lava flows below and shows the switchbacks we'd just traversed!


We both agreed this was one of the more difficult hikes we'd done, though well worth it. Reaching the end of the track, we gleefully planted ourselves at the hiker's pick-up point to await a lift to the top of the mountain where our rental car was parked at the visitor center. And we waited. And then we waited some more. Not that there weren't cars going by. Oh no, there were plenty of cars, but do you think any would stop for a couple of tired and thirsty hikers? Hitchhiking is common practice on Maui but nobody told the tourists on their up to see the summit of Haleakala! It took an hour and a half to get a lift from a nice couple from Michigan and by then we were hard pressed to get to the airport on time to meet the family arriving at 6pm! So much for a shower and a nice meal. We drove to the airport and arrived ten minutes before Heather and Keith and families arrived! Carl and Jan came in shortly after and we all went to IHOP for a late dinner before driving to the other side of the island to our accommodation in Kahana. We rented a three bedroom condo on the beach as our home away from home and Aunt Leah stayed in her studio timeshare down the road.

The first full day with the family was spent lounging around and catching up and talking about what to do with the week. For us, it was great to be back in Maui, not only because we have such nice memories there, but because we got to show the family around to our favorite spots. Below, a green sea turtle spotted while snorkeling at Slaughterhouse Beach.


Next day, we went to Iao Valley and got this great photo of the whole clan.


Sweeping views of the west Maui mountains:


Off the beaten track....


After our trek to the Iao Valley, we visited the Maui Ocean Center where we got to see all sorts of sea creatures up close and personal (and usually behind glass). Here's a great photo of a sea turtle surfacing for air.


After the aquarium visit, we went to a luau in Lahaina, The Feast at Lele. Both the food and the dancing were terrific and we stuffed ourselves with dishes from around the Pacific (and plenty of pina coladas)! Below, Brian and I at the luau.


Next day we visited the Maui Tropical Plantation for a look at growing everything from guava to macadamia nuts to coffee. And the next day the family took a snorkel cruise to Molokini and Turtle Town.
The week flew by as I expected it would, but what a lovely time. Not only is it always good to see family, but this time was extra special as it involved meeting two new family members - our nephews Gavin (15 months) and Cael (five months)! And for once, saying goodbye was not as difficult as we'll be seeing everyone again soon when we FINALLY visit the US!

PS. I did well to restrict this blog post to just fifteen photos! There are lots more amazing photos at my Picasa site which I highly recommend visiting. See http://picasaweb.google.com.au/JenniferMcMillin/Hawaii08# for the Hawaii album.

PSS. We got a new camera recently and it can go underwater so there are some really cool videos (both above and below the water) to be seen at my YouTube site which I highly recommend visiting :) See http://au.youtube.com/profile?user=jennifermcmillin&view=videos for my videos, the first five of which are from Maui and include a sea turtle, a manta ray, a hammerhead shark, jellyfish, a luau dancer and my super cute niece snorkeling.
Aloha!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Red Centre

Not one, but two holidays in the month of October! Yippee! As you may have read in the post below, we spent a week and a half in New Zealand earlier this month attending a conference and seeing the sights. Brian's last contract ended the day before we left for New Zealand and we weren't sure what was next for him. The day we returned home from New Zealand, he was offered another contract (for six months). The new job was set to start in a week and a half and Brian, not wanting to idle away his days sitting around the house, said 'hey, let's go somewhere.' Not a lot of arm twisting needed there! We debated for a day or so about whether to go to Adelaide, Darwin, Alice Springs or Perth - all cities we haven't been to yet. After a brief survey of friends and colleagues, we settled on Alice Springs. This would take us into the center of Australia to see it's iconic sites and allow us do some bushwalking in the desert. After only three days back at work after NZ, we were on a plane to Alice Springs!

Below, some of the highlights. We bought a new camera the day before we left (its so cool - waterproof and all) and we took hundreds of photos, hence the reason it's taken me a week to get this post published!

We left Canberra early in the morning and got to Alice Springs late morning. We hired a car at the airport and drove west for five hours to our first destination, Uluru (also known as Ayer's Rock). Funny how you can leave Canberra in the morning and be at Uluru for the sunset! This photo is from about an hour before sunset.


The photo below was taken at sunset. Notice how the color has changed? It was pretty cool to watch the colors and shadows change as the sun went down.


We camped that evening and the next morning got up for the sunrise over Uluru and then walked the nine kilometers around the base of Uluru. The rock has all sorts of interesting features, both natural and cultural. Below, aboriginal rock art.


Uluru was pretty spectacular, even after seeing a million images of it. A giant monolith rising out of the desert is pretty impressive. Our biggest complaint about Uluru was that there weren't enough signs telling the visitor about its significance to the Aboriginal people. It is a very sacred site, but the signs around the base just tell you that a particular site is sacred so they can't tell you any more and please don't touch it or take photos. That got a little annoying after a while when you are really hoping to understand something about the native people and the significance of this land to them.

Our next destination was Kata-Tjuta, or the Olgas. Made it there for a great sunset as well.


The following day we did a terrific hike called the Valley of the Winds around Kata-Tjuta. This walk was awesome as you walked within its ancient valleys and really felt like part of the place.

Our next destination was Watarrka National Park. The Perentie Lizard below was spotted on the side of the road on our way there. It was huge! I'm getting conflicting information on whether this lizard is the second largest lizard in the world (according to the locals) or the fourth largest lizard in the world (according to Wikipedia). Either way, at over a meter long, we were pretty excited to have spotted it.


Kings Canyon was our main destination in Watarrka NP and there we walked around the rim of the canyon. Every morning we walked about 7-9 kilometers before the heat of the day. It got up to about 97F at the hottest time (and this is in the mid-season moving from the cool season to the hot season). We'd spend the middle of the day either lounging at our campsite in the shade or driving to our next destination in the comfort of our air conditioned car :) The view from the rim of Kings Canyon below.


Below, weathered sandstone domes as far as the eye can see!


Below, a stop at a lovely little spot with a water hole, known as the Garden of Eden. There was a surprising amount of water around, though as Brian pointed out, 25 kilometers between water holes only seems close when you have motorized transport. The Aborigines survived in this land for millenia!


Our next major walk was at a place called Ormiston Gorge. The photo below was from the high point of walk, overlooking Ormiston Pound. Apparently its known as a pound because early settlers used the mountains as a natural enclosure for cattle.


Our next stop was at Glen Helen Gorge, a nice stop with a small "resort" ie. a few rooms, campsites and a restaurant with really nice food. The water was freezing cold and the water hole itself was surrounded by wetlands and awesome rock formations.


Our last day and a half was spent back in the town of Alice Springs where we had a lovely evening with an ANU friend, Hannah, who now lives in Alice. We spent an entire day at the Alice Springs Desert Park, an attraction that guided you through three desert habitats: desert rivers, sand country and the woodland habitat. Each had lots of examples of native flora and fauna and we saw a terrific bird of prey show and heard a ranger talk about Aboriginal desert survival skills. Below, a Cane Grass Dragon.


A red kangaroo looking unamused at Brian's photography...


And a Princess Parrot in one of the many aviaries.


There you have it, an amazing week in a nutshell. These are only the best of the best photos. If you'd like to see more, I highly recommend you watch the slideshow of photos on my Red Centre web album.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Aotearoa

Brian and I just returned from nine days in New Zealand. Aotearoa, by the way, means Land of the Long White Cloud and is the indigenous Māori name for New Zealand. The ACTS (Australasian Campuses Towards Sustainability) Conference was held in Christchurch and this was my third year attending this conference, so I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to go again AND get a holiday in New Zealand at the same time! The trip was delightful – the conference was terrific and the south island of NZ is every bit as amazing as I’d heard. A few photos from the trip (though not the best quality; our camera is still acting up).

The view from the gondola outside of Christchurch overlooking the Banks Peninsula.


The Avon. Christchurch is all around a very British-inspired city.


I convinced Brian to take me punting on the Avon.


We took the TranzAlpine Train out of Christchurch on the east coast across Arthur's Pass to Greymouth on the west coast.


Some of the stunning mountain views from the train.


More spectacular views from the train.


Taking it all in.


An art display in Christchurch that tickled our fancy - a tribute to the once popular petrol fueled car :)


Several afternoons were spent exploring the Botanic Gardens.


Tulips and architecture - a great combination.


The architecture was one of the things we really liked about Christchurch. It gave the city a lot of character; much older than Canberra. The Kiwis were all very friendly (the people, not the birds or the fruit) and for the first time in years, we had proper Mexican food! Not sure how it ended up in Christchurch but we had two dinners at a respectably authentic Mexican restaurant. Yay! So much we didn't get to see - I can definitely envision another trip to NZ!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?

What are you wearing right now? Is it knitted or woven? Is it made from natural or synthetic fibers? Where were the fibers grown? How was the fabric processed? Not something you think about when you slip a sweater over your head in the morning is it?

I like to knit (btw I also like to crochet - I try not to be exclusive about my crafting). My current project is a sweater and I'm pretty excited about it because it's my first garment with shape - to date I've only knitted baby blankets and scarves. I'll post photos of the sweater later. The point of this story is to relate Brian's adventures in wool processing. I think the adventure started when I spent about $120 on 450 grams of wool for my sweater; Brian then decided that it would be both fun and cost effective to get involved in my fiber arts :) And of course, wool is a staple Australian commodity; there are sheep everywhere.

So here we go - the story of wool in nine "easy" steps/photos:

I'll give you one guess as to where Brian went to buy a sack of raw wool...


If you guessed eBay, you clearly know Brian well :) The wool arrived in a feed sack with the top sewn up and our address scribbled on the side. Here's a close up view of the fibers.


The first step was to wash the wool and get some of the dirt and lanolin out. We washed it in hot and soapy water being careful not agitate the wool as this is what causes felting, not the hot water itself. I had some moments of panic at the thought of what this might to do the washing machine but Google assured us that it was okay. And it was, after a hot and soapy rinse to clean out the basin once the wool was removed.


Then we laid the wool out on towels on the floor and let it dry. Then we sorted through all of it to get out the bits of plant matter. Below, you'll see two piles of wool (this isn't even all of it), the pile in the back has been sorted so it's fluffier.


A close-up of the fluffy and clean wool.


Brian carding the wool by hand with his new hand carders.


Once the wool has been carded, you roll it into little sausages called rolags to make it easier to spin.


Brian using a drop spindle to spin a single ply yarn.


Next, two single ply yarns are spun together to create a double ply yarn as seen below. You can use single ply yarns for weaving, but knitting is better with double ply yarn.


Neat, eh? Three kilos of raw wool, the hand carders and the drop spindle cost about $100 (could have been as low as 50$ if we made our own drop spindle and bought used carders) so the process was indeed cost effective, though we haven't factored in time. As skill increases, it will get easier and faster so hard to say on the time commitment. That's not why we do it anyway.

Lessons learned? Many websites say to wash the wool first but having spoken to people who've done this, it seems that spinning it first is perhaps better because when the lanolin is still in the wool it slides along nicer. Drop spinning is the low tech spinning option but a spinning wheel would be MUCH faster and allow you to focus more on the thickness and consistency of the yarn. We're hoping to take a class at the local spinners and weavers club.

Hooray, an authentic Australian adventure! Now if we just learn to wrangle and shear the sheep...