Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Treasures in your own back yard

I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to live where we do. Apart from the inconvenience of hit-and-miss public transport services, there aren't too many downsides to life on the urban fringe. One of the things I love the most is the abundance of bushland, parks and open spaces that surrounds us.

Recently I realised that there were a number of local parks and conservation areas that I'd never set foot in. One in particular, Quarry Hills Bushland Park, I drive within view of almost every day, and yet I hadn't managed to explore there at all. Well, yesterday I remedied that.

In spite of iffy-looking weather, I headed off to explore. 

Is there rain in those clouds? Yes, no, maybe?
I picked a medium-length route - they range from 1km to 9km - that included the "Eagle lookout". I thought that sounded promising and set off from the car park.

Nice wide, well-maintained tracks to follow

And all signposted as well
Less than a minute into my walk, I heard something crashing through the dry grass on the hillside to my left, and caught a glimpse of two kangaroos bounding along the ridge. Of course by the time I got my camera pointing in the right direction, they'd moved. But I spotted them a bit further along, although one was only visible as a blob in the grass.

A couple of locals, lurking in the long grass
It was a pretty steep climb up to my first viewpoint, the "Soaring Shelter".

There are at least three shelters at strategic points, with views
This spot has an excellent view across to the west. You can see the You Yangs and Mount Macedon, and everything in between.

Love the descriptive signage with landmarks all labelled
There's also a decent view south.

That's the city way over there. It's only 25km or thereabouts; looks further.
From the saddle in between the two main hills, you get a view of nearby suburbia and across to the Dandenongs and Yarra Ranges. 

Close to civilisation, and yet so peaceful up here. 
I read the sign below and thought "fat chance of spotting a kestrel..." Actually, I was more concerned about avoiding snakes, so had my eyes fixed on the ground most of the way.

A bit of wildlife information
Then as I was mucking around getting some pics of the dramatic sky (and a passing Qantas jet)....

The airport's that-a-way
...I spotted this:

Wish I'd brought my telezoom lens
There were actually two giant birds, but I couldn't get both in shot together. I have no idea if they were Nankeen Kestrels, Black-shouldered Kites or Brown Falcons, but they were impressive to watch.

Heading up to the next lookout - this one has cantilevered viewing decks
The next viewing point was a good spot to take a break and just enjoy the scenery.

Nice to see where our rates go...

Looking across Mernda towards the Kinglake Ranges
I could have gone a lot further - the track continues on for several kms to the Granite Hills. Which, one assumes, contain granite. But I turned around and headed back towards the car. Mostly downhill, thankfully.

Pretty wildflowers
The whole area is a volcanic plain and there's evidence of old volcanic activity everywhere:

There are huge areas of exposed basalt all through these hills
It's such a thrill when you want to dig a post hole or plant a tree in your yard and you get down about 200mm and hit a huge chunk of the stuff. Really makes you appreciate nature...

Anyway, it was a really enjoyable walk, and I'll be heading up there again to check out the bits I didn't get to see this time.

For any locals who might be interested in visiting, I'll give you a few tips:

- Access is good - you can drive right into the car park from Gravlier Way and the tracks lead off from there.
- Tracks are wide and well-kept, but the top surface is loose gravel, which can be a bit hazardous on the uphill/downhill sections, so watch your step and wear decent shoes.
- The weather on top of the hills can be quite different to down below. If it's windy, it's likely to be quite chilly. If the sun comes out, you'll be hot. Wear light layers that can be added or removed easily.
- Carry water. You may not want to drink too much though - there are no public toilets.
- Don't forget your camera.

Monday, January 9, 2012

From the "things we wish we'd known" files

We learned many lessons through the experience of building a home, and over the past three years I've been more than happy to give others advice on how to avoid some similar dramas, inconvenience or cost. I wish someone had done me the same favour....

One thing that we wish we'd known before signing our contract is just how cheap and nasty the appliances are that builders include in their packages. We knew we were getting basic models, but we thought they were a decent quality brand. Ha!

Back in 2001, we renovated our old place and installed a new kitchen. We were on a strict budget so there was no chance of prestige brands. But we ended up with appliances that had plenty of useful functions, looked good and performed really well. 

At around the same time, our neighbours installed a new kitchen too. They had a bigger budget than us and I was envious of their stone benchtops and their Blanco appliances. The dishwasher and oven were so fancy and as far as I'm aware, they've not had a single problem with them.

So when we found that we were getting Blanco appliances as part of our building deal, we thought it was Christmas. Not so.

The dishwasher was so basic that we couldn't fit wine glasses and dinner plates in it at the same time. It didn't really have any functions other than um... wash the dishes. No delay start, no half load, nothing. And it was noisy. Watching TV in the family room while the dishwasher was running meant turning the volume WAY up. Worst of all, the design of the front panel was so bad that it couldn't withstand normal use - after three months of opening and closing, the handle broke off. Impressive.... We had that fixed under warranty, but it soon broke again. *sigh*

We thought the 900mm dual fuel upright cooker was pretty good to begin with. But we soon found that the oven didn't heat evenly. You should not have to turn food in a fan-forced oven to ensure it doesn't burn on one side. And the control knobs are cheap and nasty - the silver finish wore off one within weeks of installation.

The appliances were installed on the 10th December 2008. On Christmas Eve just gone, the dishwasher died. It just gave up the ghost in the middle of a cycle. Great... We took advantage of the Boxing Day sales to replace it with a much better one - and this one is so quiet that for the first few days, I kept checking that it was actually running.

Then the other night while cooking a roast, the oven lost power. All other power and lights were still working, and a quick check at the meter box revealed that its circuit breaker had been tripped. Uh-oh. We reset the switch and power was restored. Only...the oven temperature was dropping rapidly and we realised that the bottom element had blown.

Needless to say, we're unimpressed. We could have the oven fixed, but frankly, it's not that good and we have no confidence that something else won't go wrong in the near future. So it looks like I'm going appliance shopping again.

So my advice to anyone building? Do some online research on appliances before you accept whatever the builder is offering. Go out to a retailer and actually look at the ones in your package deal - open and close them, see what the quality is like. And if they're not up to scratch, DON'T accept them.

A lot of builders won't swap their appliances, but you can buy your own, get the builder to install them for you and leave theirs in the boxes. Then sell them and get some cash towards your (undoubtedly more expensive) purchases.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Shame on me!

I have a shameful admission: I've been on holidays for two weeks now and have not done a single one of the projects I've had lined up for months.

My eBay coffee table is still sitting in the alfresco room waiting to be stripped, sanded and refinished before being installed in its new home in the lounge.

Meanwhile, it's a handy addition to our outdoor room.

The daybed is sadly in need of that seat pad I've been going to make. The "temporary" cushions I threw on it back in September are still there.

Hmm. Not quite the look I wanted.

Our outdoor furniture languishes in the sun, in desperate need of a couple of coats of oil.

Thank goodness for quality timber; it doesn't look too shabby.

The garden screens all want a coat of oil or sealer (not bad after almost two years...).

A little discolouration appearing.

Nothing some Ultradeck can't fix

"That" pot cupboard is still in the garage, waiting for a do-over of the paint job that didn't work out the way I envisaged.

I know it's under there somewhere.

The laundry and my walk in robe are both so embarrassingly untidy that I'm not even going to show you a photo. No, I haven't yet trekked down to IKEA for some storage solutions...

And it's now the 8th day of the New Year and our Christmas tree hasn't even been packed away. I'm avoiding that job because there is zero fun in it.

If I leave it up much longer, it'll be Christmas 2012!

On the other hand, I have watched a ton of DVDs, read a couple of books, had my hair done, watched a good chunk of the mega-exciting Australia vs India 3rd test match, slept, shopped, been to the theatre and generally relaxed.

So I guess my holidays haven't been a complete waste of time then. :)