"Port Douglas & Environs"
We departed here on July 19 and landed on the 21st; due to our crossing the international date line, the 20th got skipped! As Australia is a very large country for a three week vacation, we decided that Queensland had the highest concentration of places and things we wanted to see (starting with the Great Barrier Reef!), so we flew to Cairns (on the east coast) and drove north to Port Douglas.
We drove back to Cairns in order to trade our rental car for a rental four wheel drive, primarily because our travel agent had assured us we would need it for our stay in Daintree Rainforest. We then drove back north, through Port Douglas (stopping for lunch at our by then-favorite bakery), to Daintree. We stopped on the way at an Information Center that to me had the feel of a Ranger Station. We learned that much of Daintree is privately owned, and that it is [one of?] the oldest rainforest in the world. Our next stop, Heritage Lodge, we found to be composed of several smallish (but quite adequate for the five of us) cabins, with an open-air restaurant nearby.
We drove to Bloomfield Falls, about a two hour drive which demonstrated the need for a four wheel drive after the first (of three) rivers to be crossed. All of the two hour drive was through the rainforest, though we saw very little in the way of wildlife. At the falls we had a picnic on the rocks and climbed around a bit before returning to our lodging. On the drive back we stopped at a little "bat house" that had general information on bats as a local species and about a local organization that rescued young orphaned bats (primarily spectacled flying foxes). There was also a rescued (adult) flying fox there named Suki, who was quite friendly and loved to have her tummy rubbed (if you came within a foot or so of her she would reach out a wing, grab your hand with her long thumb and pull your hand over to her so you would rub her stomach!) Back at Heritage Lodge we learned that we had gotten spots on rht Rum Runner V for scuba diving tommorrow.
After dinner we joined a guided night walk through the rainforest, most of which we spent looking for an arboreal dragon (member of the basilisk family). While searching for these we also encountered some tree frogs and many huge huntsman spiders. Eventually we did find a juvenile dragon asleep on the side of a tree, hanging loosely by the barbed scales on its underside. We also encountered a prehinsile-tailed rat (apparently a rare find), a couple of kangaroos, a bandicoot, and a colony of ants in the process of making a new nest by gluing leaves together.
The divemaster from the Rum Runner picked us (and a few other guests) up early to go diving on the Great Barrier Reeft, which in many places along Daintree comes quite close to the coast. We joined two or three other families on the Rum Runner, some with children--snorkeling was available to whomever did not wish to scuba dive. Those of us who were diving suited up and planned our dive on the 30-40 minute ride out to Undine Cay, so that we were ready to go as soon as we got there. (This was my first "real" dive after being certified--maybe not the best way to start since everything else pales by comparison!) After the morning dive we had lunch on board (the divemaster had been a chef for many years, so lunch was excellent). In the afternoon we moved to another part of Undine Cay for our second dive. (After the second dive I joined the snorkelers for a bit (the rest of my family was too cold!) Snorkeling, of course, often has the best color because colors fade with depth in the water.
After check-out we stopped at the Daintree Information & Tourist Center again where we joined a guided walk (on a wooded walkway--to protect the rainforest) through part of the forest. We learned about the Vicious Hairy Mary--a climbing palm with some seriously vicious stickers! (It seems that in Australia not only are many of the animals dangerous, so are the plants! Thankfully the people more than make up for the flora & fauna in friendliness.) We learned that the rainforest has no leaf litter on the floor because the rain is constantly washing it away, so the topsoil is only about a meter deep--making trees very susceptible to the tropical storms that occasionally strike the coast. (On our cable car ride over the forest we had seen patches of the forest that had been knocked down by heavy storms & winds.) When we stopped to take the ferry back across Daintree River we took a riverboat ride a little ways along the river to see the crocodiles (yes, the signs that say "Caution: Estuarine Crocodiles" are serious; our riverboat guide said he has often gaught tourist ignoring them because they thought the signs were just tourist gimmicks. Not so! None of the Australian wildlife is to be taken lightly! Elsewhere along the coast we encountered signs that pictured jellyfish and said "Caution! Marine stingers present"--the box jellies, or sea wasp, found along the coast in the summer months can cause death within minutes!)
"Port Douglas & the Tablelands"
Back at Port Douglas we drove back to Kuranda to shop and see some of the exhibits we had missed the first time. We went to the Nocturnal Zoo, a large single enclosure exhibit of nocturnal forest dwellers. The day/night cycle had been reversed so all the animals--various possums, squirrel gliders, wallabies, some fruit bats and an echidna (very cute)--were very active.
We drove to the Tablelands--about 1.5 hour drive from Port Douglas. We stopped for a picnic at Lake Eachan amoung the brush turkeys (large bald headed birds fighting over our scraps). Next we did a tour of the local waterfalls.
We flew from Cairns to Alice Springs in the Northern Territory in the heart of the Outback. (The time difference between Queensland and the Northern Territory is half an hour!) On the way from the airport to our hotel we stopped at the Frontier Camel Ranch to book a camel ride. Alice Springs is farther south than Port Douglas, so--being in the southern hemisphere--that makes it colder! While waiting for the camel ride to begin, we went to a 2:00 talk on reptiles in the Camel Ranch's private reptile house (Australia has more venemous snakes than non-venenmous, we learned. We also learned how being an ectotherm (cold-blooded) is an advantage in the desert.)
Mount-up on the camels started at about 2:30. The camel saddle straddles the hump, seating one person in front and one behind. The heavier rider (or only rider) sits in back. For the hour rides the camels were tied nose to tail, so we didn't have to steer. The ride leader explained that the saddles are custom made for each camel, and eventually have to be replaced as his camels eventually tend to get a little too fat for them, having a relatively easy life and plenty of food. He also explained that the reputation camels have for bad dispositions cames mainly from the Middle East, where they usually have harder lives, and where they use bulls (he doesn't). His camels certainly were well mannered and laid back. (He also does breakfast rides and dinner rides, and 1 day, 3 day and 6 day safaris at certain times of the year. His pack camels "only" carry 250 kilos each, though capable of up to 1000 kilograms each. A camel like Abdul (my mount) weighs about 600 kg, he explained, and will eat about anything (to get one to stand still, he told us, all you have to do is park it in front of a bush, any bush.) During our ride he occasionally stopped to point out something. He simply told his camel to kneel, and it would stay kneeling until he got back on. During the ride we say ring-neck parrots, Port Lincoln parrots, cockatiels, and budgies (aka, parakeets). We also saw quite a few galahs, in addition to those we saw at hte ranch (galahs are a pink and white very social parrot as common in the Outback as pigeons are here, and considered in places to be pests). The ride ended at the Mecca Date Farm, where we sampled the dates before returning to our hotel. For dinner we went to the Outback Restaurant, where we sampled kangaroo, emu, crocodile, camel, and barramundi (a local fish).
Our first stop was to a hangar we had passed yesterday on the way to our hotel, belonging to the Royal Flying Doctors Services. The Royal Flying Doctors provide medical service (both emergency and clinical) for people out in the bush, including aborigines and tourists. Then we went to their operation center in town. Afterward we drove on a tour of the local Chasms and rock formations, such as Simpsons Gap, Stanley Chasm, and the ochre pits where the aborigines get the ochre for body paint. On the way back to our hotel we saw a couple small flocks of red-tailed black cockatoos.
After church and lunch in Alice Springs, we embarked on the five hour drive south to Ayers Rock. On the way we encountered very few signs of life besides cattle (whose grazing area usually included both sides of the road so that they were free to cross the road) and a few flocks of budgies. We stopped for gas at one of only 2 or 3 gas stations along the route, and arrived at Ayers rock shortly before sunset. We bought our passes on the way in (sold as 5-day passes) to view the sunset. We drove the full loop around the Rock--Ayers Rock is about 2 miles long by 1.5 miles wide (3.6 km by 2 km, I think), and 1100 feet high (335m). Afterward we drove back out to the resort area (outside the the park) to our hotel (Spinifex Lodge).
Sunrise, according to one of our travel brochures, brings out the best color on Ayers Rock, so we departed bright and early (well, early) for the sunrise viewing area. The color was, indeed, a brilliant orange as the sun's rays first touched the tip and slowly slid to the base of the rock, painting even the surrounding bushes with an orangish hue.
After sunrise we went back to our hotel for breakfast at the bakery across from our rooms. Around ten we drove back to the park to climb Ayers Rock, stopping first at the Aborigine cultural center. Ayers Rock looks to me like a chunk of Mars that broke off and landed on Earth--it is a deep reddish color and relatively smooth with only the shallowest crater-like markings. There is a designated climbing route that has only a chain on the first part and a dotted line on the second part as a guide. The chain, strung between posts only 1.5 to 2 feet high, starts about 50 feet up and runs the length of the steep part of the rock (which is indeed quite steep in places). At the beginning of the flatter plateau at the top the chain is replaced by a dotted line painted on the rock itself. The plateau, while easier than the steep climb preceeding it, is not exactly flat but composed of undulating ridges and valleys about 5-10 feet deep and 15-20 feet wide. While not terribly difficult to climb these ridges do become a bit wearing after awhile. They seemed to be clustered in threes or fours, and from the first ridge of each cluster we could only see the next three or four, but after that we found four more, then four more, then four more, and on and on! This seemingly interminable series of ridges finally culminated after nearly an hour at a sign post indicated we had reached the top. After resting briefly we returned the way we came, which was a bit rough on the knees. The whole climb took us a little over two hours. Having been warned to stay on the path and take plenty of water, we learned that there had been 60 deaths on Ayers Rock; 5 or 6 because people wandered off the path and the rest from heart attacks in the summer heat, when temperatures can exceed 30C (thankfully August is cooler).
After climbing Ayers Rock we drove to the Olgas, another series of rock formations visible from the top of Ayers, and also within the park. While similar in color, the quality of the rock there was quite different; it looked more like granite in texture, and on close inspection appeared to be conglomerates of smaller rocks. I think there are 30 or so in the group (the Aborigine name is Kata Tjuta, meaning "many heads". The turn-off is labeled by that name, so we missed it at first). Both Ayers Rock and the Olgas are on Aborigine land, which is subsequently leased to the park service. While climbing is (reluctantly) permitted on Ayers Rock (which is considered sacred), climbing is not permitted in the Olgas (because they are also sacred).
Afterward we went back to the cultural center, where I watched an interesting video on traditional aborigine life in that region (I especially found the section on finding food interesting; in the desert of the Outback that is a full time job, and not an easy one!)
We cooked dinner (supplied from the resort grocery store) in the microwave in our room.
Our flight for Sydney departed the Ayers Rock airport (a very small, personable airport) so we had a leisurely morning before going to the airport to wait and write postcards. After a three hour flight, which afforded an excellent view of Ayers Rock, we arrived at Sydney and picked up our rental car from the airport. We spent the first night at the YWCA, which took forever to find (we finally waved down a taxi that was stopped next to us at a stoplight to ask directions; his passenger's directions got us there). After dinner we booked a semi-apartment at the Oxford Koala for the next few nights.
The first order of business after breakfast turned out to be locating our rental car! While we had been told last night by the front desk that it would be okay to park on the street in front until 8 am, it turned out that the sign said until 6 am! Fortunately it had only been towed around the corner! After moving into the Oxford Koala we set out for Walatah Park, advertised as "Cuddle a Koala Park." (It took us almost an hour to get out of the city, and another half an hour to find the park). As it turned out, koala were not the only animals at Walatah Park. At the entrance to the park we got food to feed the kangaroos; on the way to the kangaroo enclosure we encountered a yellow tailed black cockatoo, a walk-through aviary with cockatiels and budgies (and other birds), and a wombat (funny-looking critters! like a cross between a beaver and a teddy bear, with no tail). Even as we approached the kangaroo enclosure we could hear the deep, soft booming noises made by the emus in the same space. The food provided to tourist was essentially puffed wheat, probably of nominal nutritional value. (When a man came in with "real" food all the kangaroos immediately abandoned us and flocked to him.) After leaving the kangaroos we encountered some reptiles, including a bearded dragon, more cockatoos and galahs, rosellas, finches, a tree kangaroo (reddish in color and an adept climber), and several free range peafowl. Eventually we made our way round to the koala enclosure, where we were only allowed to pet the koalas--only on their backs--in limited groups and under supervision. The supervising employee explained that it has recently become illegal in all states except Queensland to pick up koalas (except for designated handlers such as herself who worked with the animals full-time). Apparently koalas do not deal well with the stress of being handled, especially by strangers, and can die from 'koala stress syndrome.' Tourist could have pictures taken with one of the koalas by the park employee, but only without touching the animal. Besides the native animals the park also had a variety of non-Australian animals, including a pair of alpaca, a shaggy relative of the llama.
We returned our rental car, having decided it was not worth the trouble, and took a bus back to our rooms.
Today's agenda included a trip to Toronga Zoo, which involved a trip across the harbor on a ferry. The zoo is built on a hill, so we started at the top and worked our way down. The Toronga Zoo has quite a wide variety of animals, both native and foreign. I had the opportunity to get a good look at (and listen to) a laughing kookaburra, one of the better known birds of the Australian bush. Looking like a large kingfisher (it is in the same family), the laughing kookaburra's "laugh" is well-known outside of Australia but sounds like a monkey or some other jungle animal. We had a snack in front of the elephant house while watching some kids feed the gulls, pigeons and ibis scavenging the picnic area. At 1:30 we went to a talk at the seal enclosure, aided by "Bill", a fur seal, seemingly without cue--Bill balanced a ball on his nose to demonstrate how seals use their whiskers. Toward the bottom of the hill were several large flights with various Australia cockatoos and parrots.
We decided to visit the Botanical Gardens today, which start a short walk from our hotel and extend down to the harbor. After touring the various plants and gardens within we continued walking along the harbour to the renowned Sidney Opera House. During the tour we learned that there are actually two major parts, the larger concert hall (seats about 2000) and the smaller opera hall (seats about 1600). Downstairs inside there is a playhouse and a smaller theatre, with plans to put in a "theatre in the round" setup somewhere. At the time it was built, we learned, it was on the cutting edge of acoustical technology. On the same complex is a smaller version of the two which is actually a restaurant. Joining the tour entitled us to a discount on C-section tickets, so we bought tickets for the Saturday night performance of "The Dream of Geranteus," a choral work performed in the concert hall. (Our tour guide also told us that Australia has the highest per capita production of opera singers in the world.) Afterwards we walked to Darling Harbor, where we had dinner at the mall food court.
Today we went to the Sydney Aquarium, which, though not as impressive as the Van Couver aquarium, is still quite large. I especially enjoyed the amphibious displays, such as the one with hermit crabs and mud skippers--it was interesting watching the mudskippers (yes, a fish) crawling around on the sand. Adjoining the side of the aquarium were three wooden "peninsulas," one of which was floating (the aquarium in on the harbor) I think the display included the harbor water for the fur seals and harbor seal. We watched them eat, and I couldn't help but reflect that the sounds they made were very similar to those made by the camels we had ridden worlds away in Alice Springs! The other two "peninsulas" had underwater viewing areas for sharks and stingrays--I loved watching the stingrays coasting silently overhead.
We ate a picnic lunch outside on a park bench overlooking the harbor. We noticed some marching bands nearby in the park, so we investigated and learned that they were part of "Australia-Asia Day." We came back at three to watch the bands perform, ending with "Ode to Joy" and the "1812 Overture."
We walked to Planet Hollywood for an early dinner before going to the pre-performance talk on the "Dream of Geranteus." Performed by a symphony orchestra, organ, an excellent chorus and soprano, tenor and bass soloist it was the perfect finale to our visit to Australia.
As usual I spent the last few available moments repacking (ie, while everyone else ate breakfast). I noticed one of the Malaysian bands from yesterday was also staying in our hotel as we departed the hotel for the airport. Of course, we did a little bit of last-minute shopping at the airport before boarding for the 13 hour flight to Los Angeles, then home to North Carolina.
Today, our first full day in Australia, started early--more due to jetlag than intention--with a trip to town (Port Douglas) for food. We found a nice little bakery for breakfast and ate at the tables outside.
Because our travel agent is a worse procrastinator than myself (and I do all my packing the night before--it helps me sleep on the plane!), our first order of business in Port Douglas was the Tourist Information Center. Here we got our first introduction to the friendliness characteristic of Aussies, and planned our stay in Port Douglas. (We also found ourselves a less expensive hotel with more space--apartment style with a kitchin and living room.)
In the afternoon we went to a Rainforest Habitat exhibit that had, aviary style, a variety of Australian wildlife. In the gift shop/reception area where we paid our entrance fee (and bought food to feed to the kangaroos) we met a Galah, a pink and white parrot quite characteristic of the Outback, and about as common there as pigeons! This one seemed to prefer the gift shop to the Outback, though. In the exhibit itself, any of the birds were quite friendly (some a little too friendly!), especially if they thought we had food! At the entrance to aviary part were several picnic tables and a snackbar--it was like eating outside in the rainforest, only inside! (Complete with tropical birds scavenging the tables for scraps!) Wooden walkways led through the aviary, over the pond and by the feeders. Outside the aviaries were several large fenced areas with kangaroos, pelicans and a couple of emus. Visitors could buy bags of a pelleted food (sold in the gift shop) to feed to the kangaroos, most of whom were only too willing to be fed and scratched behind the ears.
Today we were picked up early (jet lag made this alot easier!) from our hotel for an all-day horseback ride in the Outback (which, we learned, refers to anything not on the coast). We rode Australian Stock saddle, which seemed to me to be a cross between a hunt saddle and a dressage saddle, except that it also has braces for your leg (above and below the thigh) to make staying in the saddle easier as you are ducking trees and brush (we didn't actually do a whole lot of that, thankfully). These did make posting a bit uncomfortable, and I noticed that "Stretch", the ride leader, rode on an American Stock saddle ("western"). The horses were not neck reined, so Stretch gave a brief lesson in "steering" before we started out. Since Stretch claimed that riding in a line is anti-social we were able to wander about a bit and explore. After riding all morning without seeing a single sign of civilization, we came to a lonely rode around noon with a few buildings--one of them a pub where we stopped for lunch (Aussie meat pies). After lunch we did see a helicopter rounding up some cattle (Brahmans) but that was the only other sign of civilization we encountered. What I most enjoyed about the ride was seeing the changes in the terrain--some areas had short scrubby trees just barely enough to be considered forested, other areas were densely wooded with huge paperbark trees (so called because the bark peels off in sheets that look like, and have been used as, paper). In the tops of these we heard, and occasionally glimpsed, flocks of rainbow lorikeets--noisy little critters but well named! In the more scrubby areas we heard, without seeing, the screams of black cockatoos. Here and there a kangaroo eyed us briefly before bouncing off into the brush. Toward the end of the ride, in a forest of towering paperbarks, we dipped down into a broad gully-like area into a swarm of thousands upon thousands of little black butterflies! I had the feeling of being in a fairy tale as delicate black wings fluttered by the hundreds out of every shaken bush or tree limb! That was the highlight of the ride for all of us.
The next day a tour bus collected us from our hotel for a day-long tour starting with a brief stop at an opal store (this also included morning tea) which had a recreated open-cut opal mine where we learned more about the mining process. (Australia, of course, is famous for its opals). We rode on from there to the Tjapukai Dance Theater (the Tjapukai are one of the coastal aborigine tribes). This included parts of a recreated village where we learned about the didgeridoo, traditional medicine, and could try our hands at throwing spears and boomerangs (it's harder than it looks!). Two performances were included with the visit; one inside in the traditional language (with translation) and using special lighting effects to tell the Tjapukai mythology. The other, outside, centered around the traditional dances. Next our tour took us up the mountainside via cable car (built by helicopter so no roads had to be cut through the rainforest). This afforded the best view of the rainforest we encountered; both the arial view and the ground level view from the changeover stations. At the top of the mountain was a town called Kuranda where we shopped, visited a butterfly sanctuary, and had lunch before descending via railway which afforded a beautiful view of the gorge.
We took it easy today and walked along the beach, trying to stretch out some of our saddle-soreness!