Geez, I think I’m getting worse at this, not better! I figure I really ought to update this and tell you about the trip we took nearly two months ago now! Things have been busy at school, but we are now done with reports and there is a lot of packing up to do, both at school and home. I am finally making myself sit down and tell about the last trip, so settle in!
We packed out bags one last time before the final trip home, this time heading to the tropical northeast coast of Queensland. We flew into Cairns (pronounced “cans”) and checked into the Reef Palms. We had been watching airline prices to Cairns for a while, and they were very expensive, as the Cairns area is a popular vacation spot for many Australians. Melissa, being the smart shopper she is, discovered that it was only a few dollars more per night to book a package deal. So for an extra nine dollars per night (you could hardly get a campsite for that!), we spent our first four nights in a great place with our own private living room, kitchen, as well as a grill and pool that we certainly made use of! We used this as a base camp to explore the many offerings of this tropical land. There aren’t really any beaches to speak of in the area, as the coast is very rocky, and during the summer the ocean is filled with potentially deadly irukandji, bottle, and box jellyfish (plus many other less dangerous ones, collectively known as “marine stingers”). In populated areas they have “stinger nets” which provide a safe area to swim without getting stung, but many people opt for stinger suits, which are thin stretchy suits with long sleeves and legs (and sometimes a hood) to protect themselves. Not exactly the flashiest of swimwear, but I’ll take that over a trip to the hospital!
The morning after we arrived, we picked up our rental car (I hardly ever flip the windshield wipers on anymore when signalling a turn…) and headed north to Mossman Gorge. This is not so much a gorge as a scenic river, but it was great to get out for a hike in shorts and a t-shirt! There was a neat suspension bridge on the trail (called a “swing bridge” here), and it was amazingly dark under the huge trees. This was our first glimpse at the structure of the rainforest. The tall trees grow tall quickly and spread out once they are up to gather as much light as they can. The resulting canopy not only blocks much of the sunlight from reaching the ground, but holds moisture underneath it as well, making it very humid and dark underneath. Occasionally, a large tree will die and fall down, leaving a hole in the canopy. The well-adapted plants take advantage of the newfound sunlight and quickly sprout upwards to fill the hole. Most of the time, though, the forest floor doesn’t get much light, so there isn’t a lot of vegetation between the ground and the canopy. We checked out the coast as well, stopping in at several of the small towns that dot the coast.
The following day, we had booked a snorkelling trip to the Great Barrier Reef. I’m sure you have heard of this, but it is actually not one reef, but a collection of more than 3,000 individual reefs and over 900 islands stretching over 1,000 miles from Brisbane past the northern tip of Australia to Papua New Guinea. Cairns provides a good spot for many people to see the reef, as it is relatively close to shore. This was actually my second trip to see this amazing natural wonder, as I visited the reef when I was in Australia in 1995. A trip that took 3 hours then has now been reduced to half that with modern high-powered catamarans that are able to provide a smoother, faster trip than traditional boats. Now, I mean to take nothing away from the splendor of this place when I make my next statement, but I was not as impressed this time around. I don’t know if it was that we went to a less spectacular part of the reef this time, or the coral and sea life weren’t very healthy (which is certainly the case for many parts of the reef), or just that I’ve done a fair amount of snorkelling since that first trip and it takes a lot more to “wow” me now. It was still a great trip, though, and neat to get a second chance to see one of the world’s greatest natural wonders.
The next day we had booked an interesting but popular combination: the train to Kuranda and the Skyrail back. The Kuranda Scenic Railway was a great way to see some of the rainforest and coastal hills, and it provided some insight into the history of the region and its settlement by Europeans. While in Kuranda, we stopped into the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, where we were hoping to see the unmistakably blue Ulysses butterfly. We weren’t disappointed! There were plenty of them flying around inside the Sanctuary. The neat thing was, once we knew what to look for, we were actually able to spot several of them in the wild later on! After spending a few hours shopping and walking around Kuranda, we hopped on the Skyrail to get home. This is a 4.7 mile long gondola that travels over the top of the rainforest canopy, allowing you to get a look from a very different perspective. We got a car to ourselves, and enjoyed checking out all of the neat plant and animal life from above.
The following morning we said goodbye to our nice soft beds and headed north to Cape Tribulation. You have to cross the Daintree River on a cable ferry, which we had done before but is still fun each time. We drove past the Noah Beach campground where we would be staying that night and headed up to “Cape Trib”. While checking out the beach, a lace monitor (a large lizard) sauntered down the path, climbed a picnic table (promptly falling off the other side), and then headed out to the beach, seemingly unaware of the horde of tourists (ourselves included) following and photographing its every move. We later got to watch another one sprint away from us and race up a tree – fascinating considering it was about six feet long! We stopped in to try out the local homemade ice cream, using whatever fruit was in season. We tried three different flavors – blueberry, mango macadamia, and wattleseed. I liked the mango macadamia the best – the mangoes here are incredible!
We had made reservations at the Cape Tribulation Exotic Fruit Farm for a tasting session and farm tour for that evening. This is a self-sustaining farm that organically grows exotic fruits from all around the world. We tasted and learned how to prepare breadfruit, custard apple, Davidson plum, durian, rose apple, and soursop. They were all definitely different, but some I wouldn’t care to taste again! After the tasting we toured the farm. We saw some of the other fruit that wasn’t in season yet, like the jakfruit. This is the world’s largest fruit, sometimes producing fruits weighing over 40 pounds! We also learned a neat trick for getting your vitamins – licking ants. The common green ant secretes ascorbic acid from its abdomen – pure vitamin C! While it was an interesting thing to try (very sour!), it made me ponder who was the first one to think to try it…
We camped at Noah Beach National Park that night and got up early to hike to the Mt. Sorrow lookout. It was a bit cloudy, but it made for a neat effect as the breeze blew the mist through the trees. Early on in the hike, we got a glimpse of a cassowary and her two chicks. These third-largest birds in the world (following the ostrich and emu) can be quite aggressive, so we were glad that they had seen us before we saw them so we didn’t startle them. This was a great hike – very steep and rugged. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to see at the top because of the trees, Oh well!
We took off heading south, as we had a long way to go in the next week and a half. We stopped for a swim in a freshwater creek, and saw some Ulysses butterflies flittering around. When we returned to our clothes, we spooked a goanna that was checking them out, and he almost took off with my shorts! We stopped for dinner in Cairns, then camped just south of Innisfail. This is where Cyclone Larry had made landfall in April, devastating the big crop in the region – bananas. As a result of the cyclone, the price of bananas went from $2-3 per kilogram (2.2 pounds) to upwards of $15 per kilo! Needless to say, we haven’t eaten a whole lot of bananas this year. Prices are coming down now as the crop recovers. When we got up in the morning, the cyclone’s wrath was still evident in the trees, many of which were snapped off twenty feet up or uprooted whole.
We packed up camp and drove to Mission Beach, where we caught a water taxi to Dunk Island. The water taxi was cool because you had to walk out to it from the beach – no frills here! Dunk Island is a small island with a nice resort on it. We hiked around a bit, then walked to a nice beach for a swim. We discovered a huge amount of people here, and soon learned that they were filming a new Australian TV series called Sea Patrol. We chatted with the National Park ranger who was in charge of overseeing the filming to ensure that the ecology of the area was protected. It was interesting to learn about all of the policies that are in place to ensure that filming that occurs in national parks and World Heritage areas does not harm the very plants and animals that make these areas so special.
After catching the water taxi back to the mainland, we drove south some more and camped near Paluma Falls National Park. It’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but I thought showering with some cute little green tree frogs was pretty cool! We got up early the next day and hiked up to see Jourama Falls. It heats up quickly in this part of the country, so we decided to squeeze in a quick dip before we caught the ferry to Magnetic Island. We rented bikes on the island and spent the day learning a bit about its history as a World War II base. We then caught the ferry back to Townsville and headed south again. This area is a huge sugar cane growing area, and they were burning some of the fields in preparation for harvesting as we drove through. All of the smoke made for a spectacular sunset! However, the campsite we stopped at was less than fantastic – I’d have to say it was the dodgiest place we had ever camped at. We slept a lot better than we thought we would with all the noise and took off early the next day.
We got to Airlie Beach (which, ironically, doesn’t have a natural beach) at midmorning and investigated the sailing options. Airlie Beach is a takeoff point for the famous Whitsunday Islands. This network of islands ranges from uninhabited to full on world-class resorts. The sailing around the islands is, as we found out, absolutely incredible. The choices were numerous – everything from historic schooners to racing catamarans is available for any number of nights’ accommodation. We booked a 3-day/2-night sail aboard the Whitsunday Passage, a 39-foot sailing yacht that departed the following morning. We got a campsite for the night and spent the day in Airlie beach doing laundry, getting supplies, and hiking Mt. Rooper. From the top we got a view of what we would be sailing the next day, but the cool part was watching an Azure Kingfisher eat a lizard in a tree. He beat it against the branch about 100 times before swallowing it whole!
The next morning we got to sleep a bit later than usual, as we didn’t have to be at the marina until 9:00 am. We only brought a small backpack each, as all of the food and bedding was supplied. We found the boat and met our skipper Tony and his first mate, Sally. There were five other people on the trip with us – Marilyn, Ian, and their daughter Vicki, and Christopher and Christiane. We motored out of the harbor and across the bay to Dumbbell Island, where we donned our stinger suits and jumped in for a snorkel. We then motored over to Whitsunday Island to visit Whitehaven Beach and Hill Inlet. This place is amazing – it actually looks just like (even better, actually) the postcards! From the lookout, you could see tons of stingrays swimming right next to the beach, so we were excited about seeing them more closely. And that we did! We walked over the ridge and down to this amazing pure white sand beach. We saw snails in the shallows, and a bit further out were several stingrays. We stood still and let them come to within about twenty feet of us before shuffling our feet to let them know we were there. We went back to the boat and had dinner, and Melissa and I went with Tony in the dinghy to see if we could catch anything. We didn’t, but we got to see a HUGE sea turtle. As we slept that night, we could hear them coming up around the boat for breaths of air. Over the next two days, we learned where to look to catch glimpses of them before they dove back down. It was so soothing to fall asleep to the sounds of the breeze and the rocking of the boat. We had had an amazing day, but we knew that the weather was supposed to turn a bit sour over the next couple days.
We woke to less of a breeze and more of a wind, and the boat was rocking quite a bit. It certainly made getting dressed very interesting! I didn’t mind, but others on the boat needed to go outside so they could keep their breakfast down. There was less sun today but plenty of wind, so the prospect of actually sailing was pretty much guaranteed. We hoisted the sails and headed for Maureen’s Cove near Butterfly Bay on Hook Island for another snorkel. Melissa and I were the only ones to go snorkeling, and it was incredible. The color and variety of coral was amazing! We got a bit cold, though, as there was no sun to warm us up. We then motored into Nara inlet for a short hike to see some Aboriginal caves and swat at the most gigantic flies I’ve ever seen. We slept a lot better the second night – I think we were getting our sea legs, as well as getting used to the tiny but cozy sleeping space. It was a bit windier overnight, though, and despite tying our towels to the boat, we lost one of them overboard during the night. Apparently this happens with some frequency, and we found out that in popular mooring spots scuba divers are sent down every now and then to collect the towels, which can smother the coral and kill it. Now we felt even worse – not only did we lose one of Pam’s towels, but it was now in a beautiful place killing the coral! Well, we couldn’t so much except make sure that we didn’t let anything else get away from us for the rest of the trip.
In the morning, we had brekkie, then headed to Caves Cove for a snorkel. It was a little rainy, but what were we going to do – get wet? The coral wasn’t quite as good here, but the fish made up for it! A few people dropped in some fishing lines and Vicki caught a little fish she nicknamed “Nemo”, which she promptly had for lunch. It took several people (and about a half hour) to reel in the other major catch, a batfish. These large fish put up a good fight, but we chose to let it go once we got it to the boat. We were sad to have to head back to the mainland, but it was getting a bit late and we needed to get back. We put up a bit more sail and really hauled back to port.
After we got unloaded and said our goodbyes to the crew and other passengers, we drove south to Sarina, planning to stay in a hostel or hotel, but everything seemed booked up. We stopped in at a hotel and pub in town and they went far out of their way to find a room for us in town. The room wasn’t much to write home about, but it was good to sleep in a real bed, and we really appreciated all they went through to find us a place to stay. We got up early the next day and hit the road, as we had a lot of ground to cover in the next few days. We stopped in Rockhampton for a walk in the botanic gardens and got a great close-up look at a pair of kookaburras, then continued to the town of Bundaberg. This town is famous for two things – sugar and rum. I have developed a taste for both over the last few months, so a visit to the Bundy distillery was a must. Unfortunately, we were too late to catch the last tour and the first one the next day was too late for our tight schedule, so we had to settle for a trip to the gift shop for a couple t-shirts. We popped into the Bundaberg Ginger Beer brewery as well, and were amazed at the variety of sodas they produce. We also visited the Mon Repos conservation park, where many sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. These turtles are endangered, and the park was created to educate people about these animals and what is necessary to protect them. In nesting season, limited access is allowed for tourists to view the turtles as they dig their nests and lay their eggs, and again when the hatchlings dig their way out and head for the open ocean. We camped in a great spot right on the ocean in town and fell asleep to the sound of the waves on the rocks.
In the morning we continued our trip south, stopping in Noosa Heads. We got in a great hike at Noosa National Park, then camped at Maloolabah. Queensland gets more populated the further south you travel, and this was really starting to be noticeable. For instance, our campground here was right in town and had a security gate to keep things private. We walked around town that night and treated ourselves (Starbucks for Melissa, ice cream for me) and enjoyed the warm evening. In the morning we packed up camp for the last time, and drove to Brisbane. We returned our rental car and jumped on a train into the city. We wandered around Anzac Square and then headed to the Brisbane Museum. After checking out the museum, we jumped on the water taxi that runs up and down the river. It is a great, really inexpensive way to see the city, and we timed it right, as we were able to see the city’s transformation from day to night. The purple flowers of the jacaranda trees were amazing to see, and it was a perfect end to a great trip. We knew we had to fly back to Adelaide early the next morning, and that this would be our last trip until we headed home. It was a little sad to think about, but we were tired and happy that we had been privileged enough to see this beautiful part of the world!