We arrived to a Tropical North Queensland late summer, having left a southern Appalachian late spring. There was little difference between the two climates, even though our destination was the tropics of the Coral Sea, 16 degrees below the equator.
The real contrasts were the trees (various figs, paperbark trees, and over 700 varieties of eucalyptus), the Aussie accents and learning new expressions for familiar objects and activities. Examples include “brekkie” for breakfast, “tomato sauce” for ketchup, “serviette” for napkin (“nappie”, goes on a baby’s behind), “troppo” for tropic, “esky” for cooler (we deciphered this in a welcome note from the owner of our digs), “servo” for gas station (look for the signs!), and “ta” for thank you. The checkout lady at the grocery store confused us for a second when she referred to the “chook” we bought (chicken.)
And the ubiquitous “No worries–Cheers!” from simply everyone, including the staff working security screening at the airports. What a breezy culture.
We were amused and often baffled by the road signs, the town names, and the Aussie money! Large, thin, colorful bills much like Caribbean dollars started at $5, and the weight and bulk of the many coins we ended up toting was, well, weighty. Coins ranged from .20 to .50, $1, $2. If you search Google Images you can fill in the blanks.
But of course it was the unique wildlife of this oldest of the ancient landmasses on the planet that held us in thrall– or rattled our cage, as in the case of our nightly nemesis the Orange-Footed Scrub Fowl, a chicken-sized Megapode (BigFoot for Latin lovers) sounding very much like a screaming child, a crowing rooster or clucking hen, and a drunk gargling a full bottle of Listerine. Loud. At night. Mostly.
Actually we became fond of these birds as they scratched around under trees in parks, throughout neighborhoods, parking areas in the rain forest, pullouts along the coast, and almost anywhere you’d expect a scrub fowl to be scrubbing around.
Our lovely digs in Port Douglas were situated a couple blocks off the beach and each dawn the scrub fowl vocals were augmented by all manner of tropical birdsong, and punctuated by frequent fly-overs of flocks of cockatoos, lorikeets and many of the more than 630 species of birds reportedly making Tropical Northern Queensland their home. I managed to record a minute or so of the morning chorus, which you can view and listen to on my YouTube playlist
Critters and Hazards
Enthusiastic tourists, we welcomed the chance to check the boxes on our most desired critter encounters. Hug a Koala- check. Pat a ‘roo and feed a Wallaby– check. Walk with an emu– check. Photograph a platypus and a cassowary in the wild – check. Snorkel amazingly brilliant and healthy Great Barrier Reef areas and spot A) huge Maori Wrasse, B) Giant Humphead Parrot Fish, C) Reef Shark. And a special treat: get photographed diving just above a venerable, large Green Turtle as it rested on the top of the reef– big fat check mark!
We were successful in avoiding the Most-Deadly-On-The-Planet things that Could-Kill-You-Swiftly or make you very “crook” (sick.) No spiders or snakes bit. No Box Jellies (“stingers”) stung, no salt water crocs attacked, no sharks circled our snorkel spots, no venomous octopus or cone shell lurked with deadly intent, and we didn’t trod on a toad, a scorpion fish, a bull ant or a giant centipede. Heck I had to look up half of these to even know what the dangers could be!
However I’m sure we did court mishap, whether we were hiking down trails in the rain forest, slipping along sandy paths to a deserted beach, or stumbling over razor-sharp volcanic rock approaches to out-of-the-way waterfalls.
Likely the most hazard-prone activity we undertook was driving the Great Dividing Range of coastal mountains via steep, winding switchbacks through the rain forest at night, and flying down endless straightaways through the savannas and grasslands where signs warned “Unfenced road-beware of stock and wildlife”, complete with cow and kangaroo silhouettes violently meeting the front of cars. Then add getting through numerous traffic circles (“roundabouts”) in the city of Cairns, especially when driving on the wrong side of the road and sitting on the wrong side of the car (“Drive Left- Look Right!”)
I did have to dodge a big ‘roo road kill on the way back from the Atherton Tablelands, threading the little rental car between a massive stiff hind leg sticking out into my path, a chunk of unspeakable on my right, and a huge transport rig bearing down in the oncoming lane. Other than that, the roads everywhere we went (and we went a lot of places) were refreshingly devoid of road kill, which we attributed to so little traffic in an area of Queensland that is mostly national parklands (rain forest) and only lightly settled.
In The Bush
Once out of the city of Cairns (“Cahns”, as in beer, pop. approx. 500k), mid-day traffic began to wane and roadside businesses dwindled to nothing. We drove north along the coastal Captain Cook Highway, which climbed up and over numerous steep mountain pitches and wound along under a lovely tropical treed canopy. Any place out of the cities and in the country is apparently “the bush”, so we happily tooled along, however jet-lagged from days of travel and a 15 hour-ahead-of-our-bodies time change.
On our way from Cairns to Port Douglas, our HQ for our 11 night Oz Getaway, the view from Rex Lookout was stunning, and the Coral Sea bathing lovely beaches and crashing against rocks helped keep us alert.
Along the coast, “the bush” is basically rain forest, and during the week, the further north we drove on various adventures, the fewer settlements we encountered. Just a few miles north of bucolic Port Douglas (pop. 3,200), if you get off the Cook Highway and onto the only other “road” noted on most maps, (forget GPS and mobile service, you are in the bush!), you actually run out of road. The pavement dribbles away to rough “track” that wanders off to the northwest, following the wild, beautiful and croc-infested Daintree River.
Staying on the Cook Highway was wise, and led us just 15 miles north of Port Douglas to Mossman Gorge, a stunning natural beauty in the World Heritage listed Daintree National Park, set within a steep-sided valley on the Mossman River. Along the way, we passed through a coastal plain featuring rampantly healthy sugar cane fields viewed against majestic, jagged mountains heavily green with rain forest cover.
Even though we had a couple of days of windy and rainy conditions, the low clouds and thick mists crowning the tops of the highest peaks made for spectacular scenes, some of which I managed to capture in-camera. Be sure to visit my photos link for pix, and Lynn’s YouTube Playlist – Oz for brief videos!
Adventures in the Rain Forest
We spent more time in the rain forest than on the beach or in PD, or even snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). This was intentional. I chose PD as our base because it was wonderfully convenient to the Daintree National Park and the nearby Atherton Tablelands, all of which were readily reached by the Cook Highway.
If you Google “Daintree National Park” or even “tropical northern Queensland” and check out Google Maps, you’ll see how the Cook Highway describes a large oval from Cairns up to Mossman and then west and south, in the rain shadow of the Great Dividing Range, to the amazing beauty and stunning vistas of the Atherton Tablelands. This area of I-dunno-how-many-square-miles embraces beaches, rugged and undeveloped coastal areas, ancient rain forest and dry grasslands and savannas, each environment home to unique and strangely unfamiliar fauna and flora.
We learned that these rain forests are among the oldest on the planet, which makes sense if you study your geography, plate tectonics, and history– or watch a lot of nature or travel programming!
Bush Trek to Cooktown
Toward the end our stay, we were off to drive north along the Cook Highway, across the Daintree River via car ferry, and onto the now narrow two-lane, twisty and switch-backed Cape Tribulation Road. Through the wilds of the coastal rain forest to points further on, we drove for over an hour until we ran out of pavement in a tiny beach side village tucked into the rain forest.
Here, in Cape Tribulation, we arrived in the late afternoon under threatening skies at the Rainforest Hideaway, an aptly-named BnB. With only 4 small structures, this place was just the ticket to spend an off-the-grid night in the rain forest. Limited electricity provided by a generator, composting toilets, and a micro-cabin awaited us, as did the experience of taking an outdoor shower in the rain forest. No photo of the facilities here, you’ll have to hit Our Oz photos link for that one!
We’d both developed a Nasty Head Cold our 3rd day in PD, so here we were a week later, coughing and blowing our noses most of the night. The sounds of heavy rain soaking the surrounding greenery did little to soothe, as I found myself struggling to avoid getting tangled up in the mosquito netting while fishing around in the dark for that dang Kleenex box.
After a rough night, we were up at the crack of dim rain forest light, to a visit by a Cassowary! One of several that make this corner of the rain forest home, this 2-year old male was enjoying a breakfast of fruit just off the raised deck of the open-sided reception area. What a treat, to watch this ancient and other-worldly appearing bird as it slouched along in its unique and somewhat sinister way with its head nodding with every step, and its back parallel to the ground. (Robin stands next to a huge adult replica in the photos collection.)
My attempts to get a decent photo of this guy in such dim light failed miserably and too, I was wary of holding the camera within reach of a bird with a reputation of being aggressive and nasty-tempered.
I’m simply fascinated with this strange life-form and was delighted to see one so close up! We’d spotted one the afternoon before, when we first arrived at Cape Trib and strolled through a park-like area on our way to a beach path. But here we were near enough to touch this large, curious bird, whose head bobbed up over the edge of the platform from various places as he walked around the veranda, peeking inside to see if more fruit was in the offing!
If you’re as fascinated as I am, and enjoy National Geographic stories and photos, check out this link for a brief tale of Cassowaries and their homeland, the wet tropics of Northern Queensland. Cassowary NatGeo
All too soon it was time to say goodbye to Big Bird, as our guide Mike D’Arcy arrived to escort us on his 11-hour guided 4X4 tour of the rain forest, unspoiled coastal beaches, a small Aborigine village, and eventually Cooktown.
The Cooktown Wiki entry describes this scenic little town as “… at the mouth of the Endeavour River, on Cape York Peninsula in Far North Queensland where James Cook beached his ship, the Endeavour, for repairs in 1770.”
Cooktown was lovely, offering a quiet town, a tasty repast of fish n’ chips (fries to us), and lovely scenes of the river debouching into the Coral Sea from atop Grassy Hill.
After visiting the amazing James Cook Museum, located in a stately 19th century former Catholic convent school, we retraced our steps along the dusty, potholed, rough Bloomfield Track, stopping to spot waterfowl at a lovely estuary setting where I found the paperbark trees a photo op.
We passed back by the trail leading off to Bloomfield Falls, where that morning we’d rested after a bit of a trek to try spotting the resident croc that lurked in the inviting creek below the falls. But, no croc sighting, so we pressed on, the 4X4 splashing gamely once again through the wet-foot crossing and arriving at the beach at Cape Tribulation.
We’d visited here early in the morning (seemed simply HOURS ago!) when the tide was in. Now, at low tide, the sea was practically at the horizon and the expanse of exposed beach seemed to go on forever.
The light at early dusk was simply magic: shades of mauve, cyan and a powdery purple played on the undersides of rain clouds on the southeastern horizon. I was drawn to a few stray red mangrove trees whose exposed roots tantalized my photographer-brain, and suddenly the entire scene was bathed in an ethereal silver light.
Some distance down the beach, Mike and the four gals were exclaiming over crabs in the sand but I was transfixed, as I splashed through large puddles left by the receding tide and found the shot I knew was waiting for me– I just had to capture it before that light slipped away!
That shot alone was worth the aching back, the red cold-sore nose, a full bladder and a dozen other annoyances of a day spent banging about in a cramped 4X4. I was ready for a beer, dinner and bed! But first– a little two-hour drive back down the coastal road in the pitch dark, through the rain forest, over switchbacks, to the Daintree Ferry– and home in Port Douglas.
Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef
This was truly the genesis of our trip. Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef had been a dream of mine since I first experienced the underwater realm as a SCUBA diver way back in the early 1970s. It took awhile, but 40-odd years later, there I was, Robin beside me, finning over this vibrant, fishy, brilliantly colored reef system. I truly had more than salt water in my eyes as I blinked behind my mask at the breathtaking scenes that presented themselves, no matter which way I turned my head.
Our third day in PD had us boarding the vessel Wavelength for the run out to the GBR off Port Douglas. Here the reef system came close to the coast– not as close as further north perhaps, but close enough to get there after a 90-minute run in a 60-foot, twin-diesel, monohull craft.
I’d chosen Wavelength Marine Charters because, unlike the other charters in the area which carried 90 to 200 people aboard (egads!), Wavelength offered small group, low-impact reef experiences, and “… employs qualified marine biologists as crew in order to offer a high level of interpretation of the Great Barrier Reef.” True enough, and the first mooring ball we tied up to in the lee of Opal Reef brought us face to face with a large Green Turtle as it rested quietly on the top of the reef some 30 feet below.
Luckily one of the marine biologists had her camera, and captured a shot as I dived down to get a better look at this gorgeous and serene turtle, which was about the size of a dining-room table. The water clarity here wasn’t as clear as subsequent stops, where we saw all manner of Coral Sea life, including giant clams, clownfish snuggling down in massive and colorful anemones, and more staggeringly healthy and massive hard and soft corals than I have ever seen on any Caribbean reef.
Many species of fish here are quite differently colored than in the Caribbean, and indeed uncounted species are simply not found in the Caribbean. I found my internal database somewhat lacking when it came to accurate fish-identification, but frankly the selection was simply overwhelming. Triggerfish, parrotfish, butterfly fish, sea basses, various cods, wrasses, the odd-looking unicorn fish, and the beautifully-striped and red-lipped Sweetlips flipped, darted, hovered and cruised until I felt I was swimming through a kaleidoscope of fishes. And I guess I was.
I desperately wanted to spot a specimen of the famed Maori (AKA “Humphead”) Wrasse, and at our second dive spot, two cruised by about 25 feet of depth, just inside the visibility veil. Wow, those fish were BIG and impressive, as the pic illustrates!
And speaking of huge, the giant clams we swam over on various dives on the two different days we went out with Wavelength, were, well– giant! The non-aggressive (joke) mollusks we saw sported psychedelically-patterned mantles in colors ranging from electric green and disco purple, to intensely orange, flaming pink, and so forth. But the amazing thing, aside from their sheer SIZE, was the plethora of neon-colored dots (eyes?) throughout the mantle. Looking at photos is one thing, but floating just a couple of feet above one of these massive mollusks and viewing the details of its shape and coloration in clear water with the sun providing a handy spot-light– well, that was sheer magic.
Our second trip out to the GBR on Wavelength was truly special. When we arrived at the first dive location, one of the crew waved us to the stern of the boat and, pointing at the inflatable dingy floating beside the swim platform, asked with a grin if we wanted to be dropped off up current of the anchored boat to enjoy a private drift dive back down to the boat. Of course we said Yes!
Turns out we had apparently impressed the crew during our previous trip aboard, with our years of snorkeling experience, our calm demeanor in the water, packing all our own gear, and tipping the crew after that first, amazing excursion. So, while the newbie tourist snorkelers splashed and squealed around the reef near the boat, we got a scenic, serene drift dive along the gently curving reef structure, moving at our own pace and observing the critters going about their business, oblivious to our quiet hovering above.
That was truly a treat, and we expressed our appreciation with another generous tip to the thoughtful professionals of Wavelength Charters. And a smashing review on their web site, Facebook page and on TripAdvisor, too.
Savannas and the Tablelands
Our photos really tell the story of the two trips we took to the Atherton Tablelands. Highlights include driving through the misty mountains and crossing the Great Dividing Range to the dry savannas beyond, where the roos and other indigenous critters live on the grasslands that are dotted with thousands of termite mounds of all size and coloration.
Visiting the region of deep, crystal-clear crater lakes surrounded by nothing but rain forest was a series of eye-opening surprises, as were the many waterfalls, the little towns looking all the world like movie lots of hundred-year old Australian bergs (another joke but a truism I guess.).
The giant “curtain fig tree” was simply breathtaking, you really should view the brief video snippet I caught of this 600 year-old behemoth.
Checking out the funny and unexpected signs on roadways, buildings, businesses and in public toilets, seeing a platypus swim 30 feet away — these were moments I’m very glad to have caught on video and in-camera, as I walked around in a head-cold induced fog, trying my best to fully LIVE every moment, in-between bouts of coughing and drowning in sinus gunk.
Homeward bound, we awoke one morning in Honolulu knowing we needed to get to the Pearl Harbor Visitor’s Center to see what we could before our flight from Honolulu to Atlanta took off that afternoon.
By now we were virtual zombies, quite numb from dealing with the time difference between Brisbane and Hawaii, the addled confusion of crossing the International Date Line, and dealing with the dregs of a severe head-cold. But hey, we were STILL on vacation, so we two middle-aged gals dragged our jet-lagged and horribly sleep-deprived-after-23 hours-of non-stop-travel selves out into the rental car and next thing you know (or as best I can recall), we were on the deck of the USS Missouri, standing just about where the table was placed for the signing of the document that officially ended WWII.
This was a real treat for this history buff, and even as foggy as my brain was, I still felt an intense mix of emotions for what happened– the conflict, the loss of millions of lives, the horrors. I won’t wax lengthy on this one but suffice it to say, I was moved. I’ve spent a lifetime studying history, and my particular interest in WWII really came home to me in many moments I was fortunate to experience here.
So, what’s my personal Big Takeaway from this trip? Beyond the amazement that we could even GO, the keen appreciation for the fact that we could weather it (you gotta be tough to travel these days) even sick as dogs for most of it; the gratitude for being blessed with the ability to marshal our financial and planning resources to make something as complex as this come together and, not least, the support of family and friends who provided the peace of mind knowing our home and critters were cared-for in our absence: my takeaway is this…
… Don’t Go on such a lengthy trip and spend ONLY 12 nights total in-country! Spend more time so you can truly breathe it, embrace it, and LIVE every moment as if it is your last.
This trip challenged me in many ways; the planning alone turned out to be extraordinarily detailed even for OCD me. The budgeting, saving and tracking of spending was a chore but very smart and necessary. Communicating with people hours and days removed, even via relatively “easy” internet comms was often difficult and frustrating. Figuring out travel timetables, airline schedules and plane seats, accommodations in several cities, towns, and on different continents proved daunting. Taking advantage of currency exchange rates, finding ways to reduce the costs of foreign transaction fees and international mobile phone coverage, uncovering “cheap” sources of transfer to and from en-route hotels, sifting through the best and inexpensive places to stay, to eat or buy food en-route definitely paid off in spades. And, covering our butts in the event of major issues was time-consuming and necessary, but proved gratifying and added room for flexibility and serendipity to embrace experiences I never could have anticipated.
It does pay to study your geography! Through the months of studying maps, Google Earth, Trip Advisor, and a host of websites patiently bookmarked and frequently revisited, I learned much about the areas where I wanted to go, stay, visit, drive to, fly to and so forth.
Long before catching our initial taxi ride to the MARTA station in Atlanta to head to the airport, I had been mapping, estimating drive times and conditions, studying ocean tides and winds, boat schedules, train timetables, and weather forecasts. By the time we hit the ground in Honolulu, Brisbane, Cairns, and our pied a terre in Port Douglas, the places we were to visit and the routes we would take to get there were as familiar to me as they could be from such a distance.
A brutal head-cold took hold of us almost as soon as we boarded the Hawaiian Airlines flight from Honolulu to Brisbane. “Aloha” and “mahalo” were the watchwords, but the soothing, mellow Hawaiian tunes piped through the ‘plane were drowned out by the unrelenting sneezing and coughing of Aussies. I donned my hoodie, plugged in ear plugs, strapped on my silk eye mask and surgical face mask and, like Robin across the aisle, huddled in my “extra comfort” seat, doing my best to prepare for 9 hours or so of flight forward in time. Or– was that backwards?
That flight made the previous 8 hour leg from Atlanta to Honolulu seem a lark, in spite of the fact that I had given up my “extra comfort” seat on that flight due to a simply huge man sitting next to me who basically laid ON me. The flight attendants were vastly sympathetic, and moved me to a wonderful emergency row seat with extra, extra legroom right next to the amidships galley. A note from the attendant helped me get a full refund for the extra seat purchase and went a long way toward dealing with my Mad over being literally squeezed out of my seat.
By the time we landed in Brisbane we were too addled by the time shift to do much more than clear customs and catch a quick shuttle to our nearby no-frills hotel, where we grabbed a bite to eat, slept a few hours and hustled back to the airport to catch the 2 hour flight up the coast to Cairns.
Mid-day in Cairns found us in our rental car, with me coping with sitting on the “wrong side” of the car and driving through city traffic on the “wrong” side of the road.
Right away we were met with a series of fast-moving traffic circles (“roundabouts”), which will test the mettle of the most sanguine traveler who is extremely jet-lagged. Once again, I found myself switching on wipers instead of signaling a turn (“Oops, you’d think I would remember that!”) However, the car was low-mileage, very fuel-efficient (at $5/gal for gas equivalent, that was critical!) and by the time I was met with hairy, winding, steep, twisting mountain roads a week later I was down-shifting the automatic gearshift left-handed and steering one-handed with aplomb. Thank goodness we humans are as adaptable as we are!
Drunks and Cultural Differences
Our digs in PD were awesome–except for the neighbors who partied until after 2am–loudly. Then there were the drunks from the nearby pub that closed at 1am, walking up and down the street outside screaming, hollering, and kicking over garbage bins- nightly.
Set those disturbances aside and Port Douglas was simply a wonderful little place to call “home”, especially as it was so laid-back, friendly, and convenient to all the places we wanted to visit.
Cultural Differences: Everybody went about with head-covers on- the ozone layer is thin over much of Australia and residents and visitors alike are very careful to cover up from the sun. I saw very few exposed bodies out on the beach, for instance– most people wore long-sleeves of lightweight material.
Aussies deserve their reputation for being very friendly and approachable, if not garrulous. Drunks aside.
Aussies love their beer. They love their ‘roos and koalas and cassowaries and the GBR and the other things that attract tourists. I think they even love tourists, although we took a LOT of ribbing for being “yanks”.
The medical system is awesome, based on my experience with a physician in PD, who told me I was going to survive my cold and then went on to disclaim (not too heavily) about the mess the U.S. healthcare system is in. Interesting chat.
The road signs are amusing and often confusing– approach a roundabout and try to figure out any sign describing the traffic pattern, while driving at 45 MPH or so. Not.
The stars are right overhead, brilliant, fascinating. Every night, anywhere in tropical north Queensland. What magic there is in the clear night skies. I am saddened that in our suburban existence on the east coast of the U.S.,we have that experience pretty much removed from our daily experience.
I love Oz. I wanna go back.
UPDATE: Check out my New Zealand trip of 2019 post, with pix and YouTube links.