Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Perils of Queensland

Queensland - Australia

Our little visitors (Mac and Maddie) have now headed back to Canada. Dean and I both had a great vacation showing them some of what Australia has to offer. I think it's safe to say they enjoyed themselves as it truly was a trip of a lifetime.

We spent a  few days touring Sydney then Dean and the kids headed to Alice Springs on a 3 day outback adventure complete with Uluru, Kings Canyon, The Olga's, a camel ride and camping under the stars in a good ol' Australian Swag (heavy sleeping bag) -   Dean will elaborate on their outback experience in another post, but here we talk about Queensland.

Our trip would take us from Cairns to Cooktown and in this journey we would see the oldest living rainforest,  platypus swimming in the wild, crocodiles basking on the shores of the Daintier river, a glimpse of aboriginal life and scuba dive the largest reef in the world.

I admit that I was a bit nervous to travel north to 'crazy Queensland' as there are enough things in Sydney alone that can seriously hurt you, I could only imagine what we would encounter up there. “There are more things that will kill you up here than anywhere else in Australia, and that’s saying a lot, believe me.” – Bill Bryson, Down under -

It was mid-day when we arrived in Cairns, pronounced with a lazy 'r' to sound more like “Caayns”. The weather was warm and sunny, finally we found tropical Australia!  Cairns is a great starting point for travellers and backpackers looking to head north into the jungly bits of Queensland otherwise known as the Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation or further up the road to Cooktown where ye' all mighty Captain Cook touched ground to fix his ship "The Endeavour".  If jungle isn't your thing then Port Douglas will surely please with nice white beaches, plenty of restaurants and an excellent place to catch a boat out for snorkeling or diving the Great Barrier Reef.

We spent the day at Kuranda National park where we had our first glimpse of Australia's wet tropical rainforest. One of the oldest remaining rainforest in the world that inhabits creatures and plants millions of years old.

Kuranda National Park
At Kuranda a 45min cable car took us up over the tree tops of the forest to the top of the mountain stopping twice at rainforest stations for us to get out and explore the massive forest from below. We spent a few hours in the village of Kuranda where we had lunch and explored the small market, then we caught the Kuranda Scenic Railway back to Cairns.

Queensland Adventure - Day Two
We picked up our rental car and set out on our Queensland road trip. We headed South West towards the tablelands to a small town called Yungaburra. Why? To explore the waterfall circuit and see our first Platypus! Actually there were two of them frolicking in the murky river. Amazingly strange creatures. It's almost hard to believe they really exist.  In fact these animals are so different from any other on the planet that when the first English explorer returned to England with a Platypus specimen scientists thought it was a joke.  This animal has fur and produces milk like a mammal yet has a bill and webbed feet like a bird and lays eggs and produces venom like a reptile.  Odd, very odd.

      We spent the night at a backpacker hostile called 'On The Wallaby' and in the morning continued North towards Port Douglas for lunch and an afternoon hike through Mossman Gorge. We safely made it to our glamping (fancy camping) rainforest tent in Daintree Rainforest by late afternoon.

Australia was once completely blanketed with tropical rainforest before a great environmental phenomena took place and only the strongest flora and fauna survived.  Today 900 000 hectares is all that remains and within it some of the oldest living creatures and plants that exist NOWHERE else in the WORLD!! 

Understandably strict protective measures are in place and in 1988 it was deemed a UNESCO site and steps for preservation were enforced. "The site contains many unique features such as over 390 rare plant species, which includes 74 species that are threatened.. The endangered Southern Cassowary and rare Spotted-tailed Quoll are some of the many threatened species". - Wikipedia-

Cassowary Crossing Sign
Arriving in "The Daintree" feels like entering a living biology text book with moving pictures and touch (but certainly don't taste) specimens. In all our time there we didn't have the fortune of seeing a Cassowary (a large emu-like bird) that single handedly sustains the Daintree's eco-stystem with it's unique eating habits. The Cassowary eats certain fruits but does not fully digest the seeds/pits. These seeds cannot grow new plants without the semi-digested process that the Cassowary provides.

Then again, maybe it was our fortune not to encounter one of these birds. Evolved from a Velociraptor a Cassowary can be quite dangerous. Bill Bryson describes this bird well when he explains it as a “flightless, man-sized bird that lives in the rainforest, with a razor claw on each foot with which it can slice you open in a deft and appallingly expansive manner”.

Scar Face
The only way to get to Daintree and Cape Tribulation is to cross the crocodile infested Daintree River by ferry.  We pulled up at the river side ferry dock and from the safety of our car I glared at the river waiting for a crocodile to come leaping out of the waters with an open jaw.  Needless to say this did not happen and I didn't see any sign of a croc in the river.

However, later that week we took a crocodile boat tour down the river and sure enough there they were basking on the muddy banks of the river.  We saw several crocodiles to confirm the danger, from large 12ft long male Scarface who could eat a horse to small one year old newbie only a foot long who preferred small fish and mice.  These dudes are another sign of the Jurassic days gone by. Crocodiles are so efficient in their design that they have barely evolved over millions of years. Smart, quick and predator-less these things are amazing and scary.

Australians have a funny sense of humor when it comes to the scale of danger that exists in their country.  One night on our way back from our diving adventure we spotted a large snake curled up at the car ferry dock.   Dean wanted a closer look to make sure it was a snake and not a curled up piece of wood so he got out of the car.
“What are you doing? Get back in the Car!! Don’t go close to it!!  I yelled. Clearly a bit of a snake phobia here.
“Yup, it’s a snake!” he confirmed.
I snapped a few picts from the window and once on the ferry showed it to the attendant.  “Do you know what kind of snake this is?”
“Oh that’s a night tiger, got lots of those around my place.. my wife got bit by one the other day.”
“Are they poisionous?”
“ Uh, well.... Ya. But only if they get you with their back fangs.”  He says with a full hearty laugh.

He left us with a word of advice,  “If you catch a snake and don’t know if it’s poisonous.. always point it at someone else.” Then the big bellowy laugh again.

Stretching more than 2000 km along the Queensland coastline and covering 35 million hectares, the Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest coral reef. More than 1500 species of fish, 4000 species of molluscs, 400 species of sponge and 300 species of hard corals live here.

It was a long rocky boat ride out to the reef. Both Maddie and I had queazy tummies and green faces for the entire ride. The dive master briefed us on the way, but with the roar of the boat motor and his strong Aussie accent, I understood very little of the safety brief. Good start to the day :)  I hoped my luck would soon change and I wouldn't become one of those fatality stories (ie. the couple forgotten on the reef while diving).

As we approached the reef we geared up and anchored at Agincourt Reef. One by one we jumped off the boat into the water like a bunch of ice cubes being plopped into a cocktail. It was a HUGE dive group, 18 of us in total but it was comforting to see they checked our name off a list as each person jumped in then took role call again before the boat set sail for home.

There it was the GBR in all it's glory, it definitely was one of the biggest reefs I've ever seen but I must admit I was a bit disappointed with the quality of the reef.  I have seen healthier aquatic ecosystems and it was a bit sad.  I would hazard to guess that Agincourt is the "every mans" reef where they take all tour groups and do their damage thus preserving the other reefs for more experienced divers who won't kick and poke them to death.

We saw a few nemos, various coral and lots of other tropical fish swimming around. I thought I saw a manta ray which was really exciting but it turned out to be a big rock. I didn't see any sharks on this dive, which honestly I was fine with for the time being. From below I watched the snorkelers flopping and splashing around at the surface and for the first time understood why sharks would want to pray on them.

Mac and Dean did a second dive on another part of Agincourt reef where they saw a reef shark, sea turtle and some other cool things.

The water was quite chilly and choppy so by the third stop we all had enough and just did a quick snorkel which was a bit unnerving after seeing the sharks view from below.. but fruitful in the end 'cause we saw a sea turtle so close I could have touched it!  And of course more nemos.

A long barfy ride back to shore and we were safe on solid land with some great memories.  An awesome day on the reef, we'll definitely be back (with sea sickness pills next time).

The Queensland adventure continues with a 4WD to Cooktown but this is where I'll close off for now.  I hope this post has enlightened you on more of what Australia has to offer.  It was definitely an educational and eye opening trip for me.

Cheers for now,