A Travellerspoint blog

Australia Day 5

Airlie Beach

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It's Sunday. It's going to be our day for doing nothing after all the action of the last few days. Maybe a swim; maybe a walk. A bit of local exploring.

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Airlie Beach looks a lot better in the daylight than it did last night. Yes, the main street is still being dug up to install more drains. This never-ending trench is surrounded by unsightly temporary fences. The 'improvment work' is due to last another few months. Yes, there is a large temporary festival area on the sea front set aside for entertaining the Schoolies. There are 2,800 in town according to the local paper. But it's another beautiful day. The sun is shining in a clear blue sky and the sea is azure blue... and green, and all the colours in between. And most importantly, few Schoolies are in evidence. These creatures are nocturnal.

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We stroll along the waterfront. Money has been well spent on making this a civilised experience. The paths are paved or boardwalk; flowering shrubs have been planted; there are pieces of sculpture tastefully dotted about; there is an abundance of palm trees and everywhere there is a photo opportunity of the sea and islands. We've come for the Whitsundays and we can see them from here.

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There are a few people on the city (?) beach; there is no one in the sea. This is not surprising given the discouraging messages on public notices about the jellyfish/stingers. First there is the Box Jellyfish. It is not only the most venomous jellyfish in Australia, it is the most poisonous animal in the world. The Box Jellyfish is big and its venom is strong enough to kill many people in one go. Then there's the Irukandji, the second most dangerous jellyfish species in Australian waters. They are tiny - sometimes only one or two centimetres long and transparent, so they're practically invisible. Irukandji stings can cause serious illness and occasional death, we are informed. And, of course, the jellyfish season is October to May.

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We discover another beach beyond the yacht club. this is man-made though you wouldn't guess it. This has a stinger resistant enclosure installed. The lifeguard on duty advises us this is 100% effective against the Box Jellyfish. It doesn't stop the Irukandji, but they trawl for them regularly and there are none in evidence. There are few people on this beach. Where is everybody?

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At the lagoon, that's where. This consists of two irregular-shaped pools linked to each other. The smaller is intended for young children; the larger for the likes of us. There are a few people here but it's certainly not crowded. We swim in the lagoon. As we settle down on the waters' edge, I observe that I was the oldest person in the pool by twenty-five years. No, Monica says, forty-five years. I get back in the water.

Lagoon

Lagoon

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Monica bought some fruit earlier and put it in a bowl on our table outside on the deck. Returning in the darkness from our evening meal she notices an animal has mounted the table, attracted by the fruit. In the half-light it is difficult to make out what ithe creature is. Possibilities include a baby kangaroo, a genetically modified mouse, or a rat. I'm going with the baby kangaroo. This is Australia, after all. The frightened creature returns to its mother and I bring the fruit inside.

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We appear to be getting an intensive introduction to Australian wildlife here, particularly the insect life. In our last B&B, we had gekkos in our room and we were never bothered by insects. Here, we have no gekkos, and Monica's policy of leaving the door open to enjoy cool (?) sea breezes means that we share our space with an interesting array of bugs and beetles. I break a wine glass chasing a giant green grasshopper. Who knew they could grow so big? Grabbing the insects and returning them to the wild is no easy business. Also, Kookaburras roost in the trees opposite our verandah. Unfortunately, the zoom on our camera has broken and our photos of them appear to have been taken from the moon. We are too ashamed to post them. Look them up on Google Images if you want to know what they look like.

Posted by mikemonica 02:16 Comments (1)

Australia Day 4

The Sunlander

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We join the Sunlander at 9:15. This service runs twice weekly between Cairns and Brisbane. It stops regularly on the journey south. We are due to spend the next twelve hours on this train. Before boarding, we put our cases in the luggage car. Like planes, there is a weight restriction per passenger: one case, 20 kilos. Cases are weighed before loading. The old man in front of us appears to have been unaware of this policy and has turned up with two cases. He is told to decant the contents of one case into plastic bags provided which may be carried in the compartment. He looks dismayed. This is our first encounter with the guard, with a striking resemblance to a humourless Herman Goering.

Our seats are numbered. We are located in coach H, behind the buffet car. A spikey Queenslander who appears to have modelled himself on a deshevelled version of Crocodile Dundee, makes an appearance. He finds someone sitting in his allocated seat. "No worries, mate. I only booked it six months ago. I'll sit somewhere else". And off he wanders.

Herman the Guard appears, checking tickets in the carriage. Our luggage is booked through to Airlie Beach but our rail ticket takes us to Proserpine only - there's a connecting bus between the two which we're not booked on. That is a problem. I ask about getting the bus. He suggests there is little prospect; there's a party of school kids and they'll have taken all the seats. Moreover, he remembers me and the fact that our cases are destined to get the bus even if we don't. He's not amused: "You'll have to get the cases off the bus". What ever happened to "No worries"? Was he trained by British Rail?

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We are surrounded by school-leavers: "schoolies". It is apparantly a rite of passage for school leavers to head for Airlie Beach and party. It's their equivalent of Magaluf. The group that surrounds us consists mainly of teenage girls. Initially, they are subdued, hungover from some affair the night before - one departs quickly, to be sick in the toilet. She returns cheerfully to inform the others that she didn't make it but vomited on the toilet floor. The others are thrilled. "Oh, that's gross! You'll have to clean it up". As the day progresses, they recover their wits and chatter and sing to each other. "So, I'm like, I'm like, I'm like, that's so cool."Despite their experiences of the night before, the main topic of conversation is how will they get drink in Airley beach. Monica dons earphones in an attempt to shut out the noise. I just take out my hearing aids.

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We stretch our legs at Townsville. When we return to our seats we find a man seated on the floor beside them. First impressions suggest he is drunk but this is not the case. He has a broken foot. He was trapped in the toilet for an hour and he's lost all feeling in his legs. I attempt to help him up but it's no use. His legs won't support him. Eventually, Herman the guard and several other railway staff drag him away on a mini wheelchair. "What I'd really like is a cigarette", our invalid says. He is admonished by the guard for this addiction. Herman's last words are "Listen, mate. When we get you back to your seat, you're not moving again."

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The train is so long it often stops two or three times at stations, depending on the length of the platform. The first stop is always to let the luggage off: this is at the front of the train. Then the train moves on and the passengers disembark. This is how it is at Proserpine. We get off the train to find our luggage waiting. I find the bus driver, a cheerful Aussie in regulation baseball cap and grey handlebar moustache. He has no problem accommodating us despite our lack of a reservation - indeed, we're first on the bus. My faith in Australians is restored.

The driver is being driven mad by an incessant beeping sound warning falsely thet the door isn't closed. He has a dry sense of humour and keeps up a constant refain on the subject all the way to Airlie Beach. Then things get worse. It is his job to drop passengers off at their various hotels. Airlie Beach is extremely hilly, and parking on steep hills reveal that the hand brake is inefficient. The bus moves. "This is not my bus", he apologises."I'm a school bus driver." I'm sitting at the front of the bus, and he persuades me to take his seat whenever he's unloading cases. "If it moves, just put your foot on the brake". I feel I'm returning a favour.

We arrive at our B&B at 10:30. Our landlady welcomes us. She apologises for the noise - music is blasting out over the town. The streets are packed with over-excited teenagers. "It's Schoolie week", she explains. "I won't have them". I can understand why.

Posted by mikemonica 05:15 Comments (1)

Australia Day 3

The Great Barrier Reef

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We drop the car off early, and are driven to the departure pier by one of the girls operating Mini Car Rentals. She and Monica make casual conversation. "Is this a busy time of the year?"Monica asks. "Not really. People usually avoid the period November to May because of the heat and it's the crocodile breeding season. Also, it's when you get most stingers". This is not encouraging news for someone about to go swimming. "How far do crocodiles swim?" Monica asks. "You won't see them on the reef", she is told.

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We leave Cairns on a large speedy catamaran. Our destination is the Norman Reef, 45km from Cairns. There is a huge pontoon moored at the edge of the reef. This hosts a restaurant, showers and changing rooms as well as a submerged viewing observatory - akin to looking a a giant acquarium. Swimmers and scuba divers descend from this platform. Also. there is a semi-submersible submarine that tours the reef from here. There is a 10-15 knot breeze today and the sea is mildly choppy. We are reassured that the the platform is sheltered in the lee of the reef, and the water there will be relatively calm, and so it proves.

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After about an hour's cruising, we make a scheduled stop at Green Island, a 6,000 year old coral cay and the only one on the Barrier Reef to host a tropical rainforest. It's possible to go snorkling here but the coral and fishlife is not as rich as further out on the reef. Many of the passengers disembark at this point. There's a five star hotel on the island. I'm not sure how long the local coral will survive all this activity.

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We reach our destination about 12:30 and opt to go snorkelling immediately. Monica's not the most confident of swimmers but she's determined to do it. We get kitted out in skin-tight black lycra suits as protection against stingers. Monica says mine flatters me. Then there are life jackets for the elderly, and finally, the mask and snorkel. We climb down the ladder onto a submerged metal platform with a bench. It is here that you put on the fins and launch yourself into the deep. I go in first and wait for Monica. "Hold my hand" she says, launching herself off the platform. She uses me as a bouyancy aid. I go under. There is a photographer waiting for us underwater. He is accompanied by a large placid groper, a Maori Wrasse, which he attempts to include in his shots. This monstrous beast is like a tame dog. It follows him everywhere, and tolerates being petted by the swimmers. Every so often he feeds it - the secret of the fish's loyalty.

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The colourful display of coral and fish is astonishing. The more so as the fish appear to be totally oblivious to our presence. You can swim quite close to them without disturbing them. Photographs don't do justice to the spectacle. Monica returns before I do, and witnesses a huge middle-aged woman wearing a flowing dress and short raincoat pick up a snorkel and fins and without a word, make her way down the steps to the sea. The attendants watch her, fascinated. Is she going to swim fully clothed? She is and she does. No worries.

After lunch we take a trip on the semi-submersible. In some ways this is an equivalent experience to the snorkelling but here you can take photographs with a normal camera and you don't get wet. There are about forty of us on the trip.The others are mostly Japanese schoolgirls who avoid the water and the sun. We sit at the front of the boat and as we move though the water we are accompanied by a Giant Travelly. This beast uses the boat as camouflage: other fish see the boat and disregard it. Then, periodically, our predator friend swoops down on some unsuspecting prey before returning to his station. It is somewhat disconcerting to have this large travelling companion peering into the boat as it swims alongside. You don't know who's exploiting whom.

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On the way back to Cairns, just like a Japanese schoolgirl, I relax in the air coditioned lounge while Monica sits up on deck enjoying the sea breezes under a clear blue sky. She attracts the attention of a creepy Morman grandfather from Perth who appears to be chatting her up when I eventually make an appearance. I can't leave her alone for a minute.

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Upon our return we take a walk along the promenade. This time we are reminded of Miami Beach - only without the beach and the Art Deco hotels. There are people jogging, skate-boarding and muscle building. There are places for children to play, and barbeque sections. To compensate for its lack of a beach, Cairns has built a large shallow pool on the water front. It is tastefully done and popular with children. Nearby there is a crowd of people engaged in Zumba dancing in the park. Monica discourages me from taking part. Instead, we eat an indian meal in a restaurant near the waterfront. Curried kangaroo and crocodile are options. We give these a miss for now. We have a long journey ahead of us tomorrow, and who knows what effect these might have on delicate constitutions such as ours.

Posted by mikemonica 01:07 Comments (4)

Australia Day 2

Daintree

We drive out of Cairns, heading north on the Captain Cook Highway. We are going to visit the Daintree National Park. The park has rainforest tracks, and various ecological entertainments like 'bird and croc spotting', jungle river cruises, insect museums as well as 'Heritage spas' and 'Yoga retreats'. There are also beaches 'where the rainforest meets the sea'. It is possible to stay here in lodges and B&Bs. Given that the whole of the Australian rainforest has protected status and is a World Heritage site, it's difficult to understand why Daintree is designated as a National Park, and the rest isn't. If anything, it is more developed than anywhere else. Anyway, that's where we're going.

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The route to Daintree takes us winding along the coast, on one side rugged mountains and lush vegitation, and on the other miles of beautiful, secluded coastline with golden sands and crystal clear waters. This is famous as one of the great scenic drives of Australia, and rightly so.. We stop at a lookout point high up on a cliff top. A small group of tourists is watching a young guy offering people hang-gliding sessions. I ask Monica if she's tempted. She's not. A small Asian boy volunteers (or is volunteered by his parents). He is stapped into the device and together with his instructor runs off the edge of the cliff and takes flight. They soar above us in the thermals, and Monica captures their images as they pass. We don't wait to see them land but drive on towards Daintree.

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The route into the National Park is interrupted by the wide Daintree river. The only means across is by car ferry. This flat-bottomed vessel is connected to the banks by two large cables. We join a queue of cars and campervans and are fortunate to squeeze in, the last vehicle in one pass. The beauties of driving a Metz. We follow the winding road through the forest to Thornton Beach Kiosk, advertised as "absolute beachfront dining in the heart of the Daintree coast". This is a small cafe built on the beach, but almost invisible due to its surrounding of trees and foliage. Most people eat outside on metal tables and chairs. Inside, MTV videos are showing on a large TV screen on one of the shack's walls. Monica comments on this.

Warning Sign

Warning Sign

After lunch we decide to go for a stroll along Thornton beach, and maybe have a swim. A warning sign suggests that entering the sea might be a bad idea. If the stingers (jelly fish) don't get you, the crocodiles will. According to the locals, saltwater crocs are bigger and more ferocious than their freshwater kin. On our walk we spot what looks like a submerged log in the shallow water. It is actually a submerged log but we give it a wide berth anyway.

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Our next stop is the Marrdja Boardwalk, a 1.2 km circular path through the mangrove forest. The path is informatively signposted and we learn more than we'll ever need to know about the mangrove ecosystem. The boardwalk is mounted on metal piles four or five feet above the swampy forest floor. Down below us we see small multi-coloured crabs skitter about among the mangrove roots. There is little other sign of animal life. There may be a reason for this. All along the road there are speed bumps and signs designed to offer some protection to the cassowarys. These are large birds essential to the health of the rain forest, and they are an endangered species - not least because they are being killed crossing roads. Monica believes they are already extinct. We never see one.

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On the return leg we stop at the Daintree Icecream Company: essentially a large open-sided corrugated iron barn with an icecream kiosk. My fears of a factory in the rainforest are dispelled. The shed is surrounded by beautiful gardens of flowering trees and bushes. Monica adds to her photographic collection.

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After we leave Daintree, we make a brief stop at the Mossaman Gorge. Entry to the gorge is guarded by a modern vistor centre. Cars must be parked here and visitors have to use the minibus service provided to get to the sights. Ours is a whistle-stop tour. It is 5:00 pm when we disembark, and the last bus back is 5:30. The boardwalk along the river provides a number of viewing platforms and entry to swimming holes. The river is quite tame today, but the huge boulders along its bed give testomony to its power when flooded.

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Our penultimate stop is Port Douglas, an upmarket holiday resort situated between the river and the ocean. The drive up the peninsula to the town centre passes numerous grand resort hotels straddling the beautiful Four Mile beach (which we can't see from the road). The town itself is reminicent of Key West - a balmy climate and a main street of shops, bars and restaurants connecting two pieces of water. After a stroll along the beach in the twilight, we eat at a Thai place opposite the marina, somewhere we found earlier when exploring the town. We return to the car, parked in the main street. Entertaining the diners outside one bar, a pair of musicians is performing U2 covers with electric guitars and didgeridoo. All that remains is to drive the 47 miles back to Cairns, along the winding scenic route, in the dark.

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Posted by mikemonica 00:39 Comments (0)

Australia Day 1

The Eclipse

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In truth, this isn't day 1. Yesterday was, when we arrived in Sydney from Christchurch; and then transferred to a plane for Brisbane; and then caught another to Cairns. We left Dunedin at 10.00 in the morning and arrived in Cairns at 21:30 - Queensland time. The whole day was spent in airports and on planes. On every plane Qantas advised us: "You are the reason we fly". We're wracked with guilt. As punishment from the gods for such environmental excess, the taxi from Cairns airport to our B&B cost more than some of the short-haul flights: it also took as long. Our Pakistani driver had some difficulty finding the place. I can't blame him. It was dark, with few streetlights and we're staying in the suburb (sic) of Redlynch, some 14km from downtown Cairns, separated by several mountain ranges. "Why are you staying so far out?" he asked desperately at one stage, when it seemed like we'd never find the house. The answer is simple. There were few other options when I started looking some months ago. Everywhere was booked up. There are an extra sixty thousand people in Cairns this week and they have have come to see the the total eclipse of the sun. This is due at 06:38.

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The alarm radio wakes us at 06:20, and we step onto our verandah which faces east, and wait for developments. Kim, our host has provided us with 'eclipse shades', special solar viewing glasses made of cardboard and darkened plastic lenses. It is not a good look, wearing them, you can see nothing, until you point them at the sun. Then they work like magic. Our biggest concern is that clouds will spoil the show and initially this looks likely. However, just on cue the clouds part and we are able follow the progress of the moon across the sun until the eclipse is total - of course there is still some light from its corona. Darkness falls. Instantly animals and birds cease their the chirping and tweeting and silence falls. They are confused by this withdrawal of light. We are similarly awestruck. Then the moon moves on.

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Tradition dictates we start our travels with a rail journey so we make our way to Freshwater Station to join the Karunda Scenic railway. The line is an amazing feat of engineering. It is like a tropical Alpine railway and runs from Cairns up to the village of Karunda high up in the mountains, deep into the rainforest. As we ride the train a recorded voice narrates the story of its making. The railway was built in the eighteen-eighties by the Irish and Italian immigrants. It was a condition of employment that they brought their own tools. Men seeking to be hired were sent to Red Lynch, the Irish foreman, with the instruction: "Go to Red Lynch". Many assumed Red Lynch was a location rather than a person. Consequently, in the Australian way, the area was later named after him. We are advised by our recorded guide that over thirty men lost their lives through accidents while others died of desease and snake bites. "Snake bites?" Monica looks at me accusingly. There had been no mention of poisonous snakes - all the talk was of spiders. "They're all gone", I say. "Global warming". We pass though tunnels cross bridges, admire waterfalls, and marvel at the whole spectacle. The journey takes just over one hour.

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Once at Karunda we explore a number of boardwalk paths through the rain forest. On one occasion, we leave the path to take some photos closer to the river. This involves tramping through a thick carpet of elephant grass. Anything could be lurking here. The story of the railway workmen and the snakes is still fresh in my mind. Monica is unconcerned.

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Karunda was originally the home of the Djabuguy people and they still live here and make a living selling artifacts and performing cultural dances - tag line: "We've been practising for 6000 years". The engines are decorated with examples of Djabuguy 'dream' art. The town consists of three or four short streets catering to the tourist's desire to buy something he or she doesn't need. Everywhere there are shops selling tee shirts, didgeridoos, kangaroo skins or stuffed wallabies. Monica fingers stripy dresses; I try on bush hats. We leave before we are totally corrupted and catch the Skyrail back home. This is an eight kilometer cableway connecting Karunda with a site some twenty minutes from Cairns. Gondolas run continuously.There are two stops for exploring and photo ops. The cable cars run over the rainforest canopy. Another feat of engineering - how did they get the materials into the forest without roads. the huge pylons look too heavy to have been transported by helicopter.

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When we return to Cairns on the courtesy bus, we pick up a hired car from Mini Car Rentals. I sign a succession of legal looking documents and part with a significant sum of money for the privilege of driving a red Hyundai Metz in Queensland. I'm introduced to the scratches already on the vehicle. Add to them and I must sacrifice a kidney. We drive home advertising Mini Car Rentals on front and rear widows. No one's going to mistake us for locals.

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The evening finds us in the Red Beret, a vast barn of a pub recommended by our host, The food is fine, though the ambiance is somewhat 'full on'. There are no external walls, and all the internal walls are covered with giant screens showing national sporting events (cricket, and netball). Apparently, on Wednesday nights, kids eat free. This appears to be well known in the area. I leave a tip which confuses the waitress. I better look at the guidebook again: the section on local customs.

Posted by mikemonica 17:12 Comments (1)

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