Monday, May 23, 2016

An Eighteenth Birthday and an Excellent Adventure

The day of Max's 18th birthday - Max and I swimming with a whale shark.                        Photo: Leith Holtzman

A few weeks ago, just after lunch on a Friday, Max and I headed off on our excellent adventure to celebrate his eighteenth birthday. Instead of a birthday party or material present, my gift to Max would be some lifetime memories.

The itinerary, somewhat to his frustration, was a complete secret from Max and I, somewhat to my amusement, only revealed it bit by bit as we went along. We drove straight to Tullamarine airport near Melbourne and boarded a plane to the other side of the country.

The first part of our excellent adventure was a weekend in Perth. We caught up with cousins Warwick and Thelma in Dalkeith and our friends, Jen and Iain near the Swan Valley.
Max with Thelma and Warwick

Max with Jenny and Iain

Late on Monday morning we flew off on the next leg of our journey; a two-hour flight to Exmouth, 1,253km north of Perth, where we would spend the next four days.

Situated near the northern end of Ningaloo Reef, Exmouth is a base for people wanting to see one of the world’s largest fringing coral reefs. Teeming with marine life, the underwater world of Ningaloo is famous for its whale sharks and one of the few places in the world you can swim with them.

Monday afternoon we settled into our self-contained accommodation at the Exmouth Escape Resort; did a grocery shop at the local Exmouth IGA supermarket and booked ourselves onto a charter fishing boat for the following day.

Just after 7.30am the next morning Max and I and a dozen or more other people, boarded the Blue Horizon Charters’ 60-foot fishing boat for a day of fishing, or in my case, observing.

There was no shortage of fish but there was also no shortage of sharks... within twenty minutes or less of finding a good fishing spot, the sharks moved in and chomped up the fish before we could land them onto the boat. Exciting to watch but no good if you’re trying to catch your dinner! Unluckily for Max, twice he hooked big spangled emperor fish (that would have been just perfect for Tuesday Night Dinner) and twice a great big lemon shark relieved him of his catch.
The lemon shark, munching on Max's fish!

The next day was Max’s birthday and I had planned our whole Excellent Adventure around it. Months earlier I had booked both of us onto a full day tour with Kings Ningaloo Reef Tours to swim with the mighty whale sharks.

Arriving every year from March until August to feed in the plankton rich waters of Ningaloo, these enormous sharks are the biggest fish in the sea… and fortunately for Max and I, "filter feeders" and harmless to people.

Marine biologists and our instructors for the day, Zoe and Sasha, arrived at our accommodation at 7.15am and drove us out to the Tantabiddi Boat Ramp on the western side of the North West Cape. From here we, along with about eighteen other keen swimmers, were taken out in a tender to the Magellan, our boat for the day.

Max and I were put into Zoe’s group and she was a font of information about the whale sharks and the reef in general.

We were fitted up with a pair of goggles, snorkel and fins and given instructions on whale shark swimming etiquette: a maximum of ten swimmers in the water at any one time (plus Zoe, our spotter/instructor and Leith the photographer/videographer) we weren’t to swim in front of their mouths (in case we were inadvertently swallowed), to keep a minimum of three metres from the side of their bodies and a minimum of four metres away from their tails.

A practice snorkel on the reef ironed out any equipment glitches and gave us our first glimpse of the magical underwater world we would be in for the day. A multitude of different coloured fish of all shapes and sizes swam in and out of the coral around us and Max caught sight of a large turtle cruising past.

Once everyone felt confident with their snorkelling ability, it was back onto the Magellan and we headed out into the deeper water, where the whale sharks would be found. With a spotter plane overhead searching, it wasn’t long before Bill, our skipper received a call on the radio from the pilot, directing him to the closest whale shark.

Our group quickly assembled on the marlin board of the boat and seconds later we were in the water, swimming in a line next to Zoe who directed us to put our faces into the water and look down about five metres to our right.

Out of the dark blue deep water came a sight I will never forget: a huge spotted whale shark about seven or eight metres long, glided silently up towards us.
Max and I, swimming with a whale shark.                                                      Photo: Leith Holtzman

The whale shark set a gentle pace, swimming smoothly and effortlessly through the crystal clear water, seemingly oblivious to us as we swam along beside it. I found it difficult to judge just how close we were in the water and a number of times I felt as though I could have easily touched it, if I had stretched out my hand only slightly.

It was truly a sight to behold.
Me, swimming with a whale shark.                                                            Photo: Leith Holtzman

After what felt like a good swim, maybe ten or fifteen minutes (I had no idea of the time), we swam back to the Magellan and the second group had their swim with the whale shark. We kept swapping like this for the duration of our whale shark swimming experience. All up, we were lucky enough to swim with three different whale sharks and a total of about six or seven swims.
Max and I, in the water with the whale shark.                                                    Photo: Leith Holtzman

The second whale shark we swam with was a young male, about five metres long. He set quite a pace and we were all feeling pretty puffed by the time we got back to the boat. Our last deep water swim for the day was with an enormous whale shark, over nine metres long at Zoe’s estimation. I felt completely overawed by this huge, gentle shark as it dived down and disappeared into the dark blue water below us.
Max and I, after our whale shark swimming experience.

Back on the boat we motored out of the deep water and back through a break in the reef to the calm waters of the lagoon where we enjoyed our lunch of cold meats and delicious salads and then afterwards, snorkelling amongst the corals and brightly coloured fish.

As we made our way home, the sharp eyes of one of the crew spotted an ornate eagle ray; a large spotted and striped ray with a very long, 12-foot tail, classed as rare and endangered. Cameraman, Leith quickly got into the water to capture the ray on film. He said afterwards, it was like winning the underwater photo lottery and there had been less than a dozen sightings of the ornate eagle ray in Australian waters.
Ornate Eagle Ray                                                            Photo: Leith Holtzman

Before we arrived back at the Tantabiddi Boat Ramp, the crew from Kings has one final surprise – a beautiful dark, rich chocolate birthday cake for Max – a yummy end to a memorable day.
Our tour group on the Magellan                                                           Photo: Leith Holtzman

The next day Max and I hired snorkel gear from the Exmouth Visitors Centre and drove out to Turquoise Bay in the Cape Range National Park. We spent a couple of hours enjoying the “drift snorkel”.
Max at Turquoise Bay, Cape Range National Park

Starting at one end of the beach, we swam out into a current that allowed us to drift over the coral and get out at the other end of the beach. I felt as though we were on the magical film set of Finding Nemo. There were so many different types of colourful fish swimming around the coral…  I was relieved we didn’t see any sharks.

On the drive back through the national park we came across a large dingo chasing down a small kangaroo. The kangaroo didn’t stand a chance and the dingo killed it within seconds, right in front of our car; no doubt a welcome meal for the dingo.

The third and final part of our Excellent Adventure was a trip out to Hyden for a short weekend with our friends Astrid, Andy and their son, Max M.

Hyden is a small rural town, 323km east, south-east of Perth in Western Australia’s “Wheatbelt”. Two years ago, Max had flown west and stayed with Astrid and Andy for two weeks work experience in their family run business, The Ag Shop.

Andy met us at the airport on Friday afternoon, along with Astrid, who had just flown in from the eastern states. It was a happy surprise for Max, who had no idea we were going to Hyden for the final leg of our Excellent Adventure. On the way back to Hyden we collected Max M from his boarding school at Narrogin.

Hyden is famous for it’s geological feature the granite inselberg, Hyden Rock and in particular, the northern side, known as Wave Rock. Shaped like a tall, breaking ocean wave, it is around 14m high and 110m long. After a tour of The Ag Shop on Saturday morning, Astrid, the two Maxs and I drove out to see Wave Rock.
The two Maxs at Wave Rock, Western Australia
Max, Max M, Andy and Astrid

Sunday was our final day of Excellent Adventuring: back in the car to Perth, onto a plane to Melbourne and then back into the Barrmobile to Barham – all up, a total of 3,350km for the day. Home before midnight, safe and sound and with memories to last a lifetime. Happy Birthday Max!
Max and I at Wave Rock, near Hyden Western Australia

Annie Barr

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Parenting, P Plates and the Next Step

Max with his ute when he gained his "L" plates... independence just one short year away.

A disturbing event occurred in my life last year… back in August 2015, my eldest son, Max, graduated from learner driver on "L" plates to probationary driver on "P" plates. Unbeknown to me, those little plastic square plates with a bright, red “P” stamped on them would change our family dynamics and herald a new chapter in my parenting life.

With a weekend job bringing in a handy income and an old Ford ute bought from his uncle, suddenly Max was independent. No longer did he have to rely on me to get him where he wanted to go.

I found the change unsettling.

After years of single parenting, I was used to calling the shots, making the decisions and making things happen in general. Overnight I had to adapt to relaxing my control, trust Max to make good decisions and hope like hell my way of parenting had laid a solid foundation for Max to step out into the adult world.

Just as I was adapting to having an independent teenager in the house, Max upped the ante in December by announcing his intention to leave school before finishing Year 12, got himself a job three hours away and promptly left home.

It’s a cliché, I know, but it really does seem like only yesterday I was teaching Max to ride his pushbike without training wheels or holding his hand to cross the street.

Next month Max turns eighteen and to celebrate this milestone, the two of us are heading off on an excellent adventure for a week or so. Realistically, I see it as the last opportunity I have to kidnap him and spend time together, just the two of us, before he disappears completely into that exciting, parent-free world that is young adulthood.

Instead of shouting him a party or giving him a material present, my gift to Max will be some lifetime memories that (hopefully) won’t give him a hangover or be discarded at the bottom of his wardrobe.

Annie Barr

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

My Personal Weight Loss Experiment

An example of my new style of eating: low carbohydrate, healthy fat.

Four years ago, in February 2012, I completed a 27-day juice fast. I felt fantastic and documented my little experiment here. I maintained my weight easily enough for the next year or so but then as I entered my mid 40s the weight started to creep up again.

My weight gain started innocently enough. Following the successful completion of my first ever Great Victorian Bike Ride in late 2013, an epic cycling journey of more than 610km, I decided to reward myself with a “calorie amnesty”.

I ate and drank my way through the festive season that summer with gay abandon; avocado on several of pieces of toast every morning for breakfast, a big bowl of last night’s risotto for lunch, working days often concluded with a packet of kettle chips, a selection of dips accompanied with half a packet or more of water crackers and a generous glass of wine or three down on the riverbank before a substantial serving of dinner. In hindsight this was not one of my finest ideas.

By the end of that summer, I’d gained 5kg and my appetite had increased considerably, to the point where I always felt hungry. Initially, I had optimistically thought the weight gain may have been muscle. You know, from all that bike riding.

It was the arrival of winter 2014 and my winter wardrobe that dispelled any illusions the extra weight might have been muscle. Muscle does not bulge over the top of your jeans like… like the top of a banana muffin!

Admitting to myself that I needed to trim down and actually doing anything about it were two different things but I did try.

I decreased my alcoholic drinks and increased my exercise… and swapped kettle chips for dark chocolate, all the while allowing myself generous servings of pasta, rice and wholegrain bread because I was a cyclist riding anywhere between 100 and 200km per week and I needed carbohydrates, right? I gained yet more weight in 2015.

Last month, despite the fact I had added swimming three times a week to my exercise regime, I topped my scales at 72kg - proving to myself you cannot out exercise a bad diet or even a good diet that is far too generous in portion sizes. I had begun to feel quite self-conscious about how I looked… and how my clothes no longer fitted me. I decided to get serious about losing the weight.

First of all I wanted to do some research into weight loss diets to try and figure out what would work best? Unfortunately, weight loss diets are renown for their long-term failure rate.

It’s all very well replacing meals with “diet shakes” and smoothies or dramatically cutting out whole food groups for short-term weight loss but if you go back to your previous eating pattern once you’ve reached your target weight, the excess weight comes straight back on, plus a bit more.

I was confident my general diet was pretty healthy and I certainly wasn't slack in the exercise department but I always felt hungry and ate far too much; far more than my body really needed.

A good mindset, I felt would be essential for losing the excess weight and I allowed myself nearly the whole of January to just think about a healthy eating plan. To help keep myself accountable, I also told my family and many of my friends and clients that I would be beginning my personal experiment into weight loss on Sunday 31st January.

The more I read, the more convinced I became that the amount of carbohydrates and refined sugars in my diet were the principal cause of my hunger and weight gain.

My personal weight loss experiment began with a 5-day juice fast; every morning I juiced a variety of fruits and vegetables to drink throughout the day. For the next five days I continued on with the juice but added an avocado and/or boiled egg, a small portion of meat and vegetables and some dairy in the form of cheese or plain yogurt. By this stage I’d read a considerable amount of information on low-carb/healthy fat diets (LCHF) and the similarly principled Paleo diet and I was encouraged by what I’d learnt.

I gave up alcohol, tea and almost all coffee and refined sugar for the month of February.

As the weight started to come off, my appetite decreased and my energy levels started to increase. The less carbohydrates and refined sugar I ate, the less hungry I felt.

Within four short weeks, I have lost 4kg and amazingly, my symptoms from primary lymphoedema (excessive swelling in my lower legs, ankles and feet), have all but disappeared. Some long-term aches and pains that I had put down to aging have noticeably reduced and my skin looks clearer.

I’m still fine tuning my general diet and will write an update in a couple of months time to let you know how I’m going and what I’ve learnt but without doubt the biggest difference for me has been from dramatically reducing the amounts of carbohydrates and refined sugars I consume. I no longer feel hungry all the time, I feel clear-headed and my energy levels have increased. I’m happy with that!

There's nothing like some before and after photos when it comes to weight loss:
Not a recent photo but how my feet, ankles and lower legs typically look by the end of the day

What my feet, ankles and lower legs looked like the other night (21.2.2016)!