Tuesday, 13 March 2012

North Queensland, always avoiding Cairns

I have had a relatively productive day today - uploaded 2 albums of photos to facebook, been swimming in the sea, eaten two good meals, made a decent start on an application for international placement with Freshfields next summer and I am thinking about going to the cinema tonight. Yup, that's what classes as a productive day nowadays. I can see why people start travelling and never make it back home (don't worry, Mum, that isn't me - I miss the whole family too much). Anyway, since I am on a roll, I felt like another blog entry might be another good thing to chalk off the to do list.(At this point in reading it should be clear that it clearly wasn't that much of a productive day as a month later and I still haven't finished this post.)

The day I got back to Sydney from Fiji, I spent an uneventful day hanging around the international airport before heading down to domestic to fly out to Cairns with Hannah that evening. I don't know what it is about the southern hemisphere but nearly every plane journey I've taken has been improved ten-fold by stunning sunsets. The whole sky looked like one of the rocket ice lollies I used to have as a kid - not just the usual red, orange, pink but a whole rainbow of colours - right down from red through to a violet night sky below the horizon. That's about the only kick I get out of plane journeys now (unless there are films) and I am thankful I can sleep through them, however fitfully; it passes the time.

We arrived in Cairns after 10pm but the air was still wet with heat. It was a somewhat sticky night with the air conditioning broken in our hostel room.

Our first day in Cairns we spent trying to figure what we were going to do in Queensland. There was no plan beyond the flight there: we had no transport back to Sydney and no idea when we would get back other than a deadline of New Year's Eve. It was deadly hot. Simply walking was a chore, hindered further by my gammy Fijian wounded foot, and we seemed the only ones stupid enough to be outside. Before heading to a tour operator we did honestly try to explore the city. But beyond the obstacle of the heat, Cairns is also quite simply not a nice place. That's probably too harsh. What I mean is that it's a new city with cheap shops, backpacker bars and streets of hostels - not exactly a cultural/spiritual/political hub. So unless you wanted to spend your time meeting other English backpackers getting blind drunk on goon and heading to Gilligan's, I felt there wasn't much else to do except organise trips elsewhere. After a delicious lunch of pacific fusion food, that's exactly what we did.

Plus the snow themed Christmas decorations were freaking me out.

The first trip was out to the Atherton Tablelands - essentially heading to the middle of tropical rainforest. We took the 'On the Wallaby' tour, something I had seen advertised months ago in Byron Bay and had wanted to do since. From the very outset of meeting our jovial bus driver, Bart, I knew this was going to be  a quality trip. We drove west into the densest green I think I have ever seen, through fields of sugar cane and surrounded by thick forest on the surprising hills. Off the Bruce Highway we took the Gillies Highway. At 19km in length, I have no idea why it's been dubbed a highway, but its famed for its winding path up the hills. According to our driver, it has a total of 237 bends. According to Wikipedia, that number is 263. Either way, I was car sick.

Our foray into this Queensland wilderness included seeing two ridiculous mammoth fig trees:

This one is the Cath -e- dral fig tree. 
Their trunks are actually roots - a seed (normally in bird poo) lands in the branches of a healthy tree and extends roots down to the ground for nutrients. This process is repeated until the original host tree is strangled and dies while the fig tree's intricate root system can support itself.

Nature's jungle gym

 This is the Curtain fig tree. It's made the same way except for when the original host tree died, it fell on to its neighbour and the fig tree roots went on to strangle its new support. This process will continue so that the curtain will only get longer.

Bart led us on a jaunt through some more rainforest to tell us about the dragon-lizards and other life amongst it all. He confirmed all of my year 9 geography lessons too by pointing out buttress roots and lianas vines - it's always pretty cool to see in real life what you've only ever read about. Wait-a-while vine was a new one on me though, probably because its one of the sliest plants in the jungle. It creeps out onto paths and hangs down dangerously for stupid humans to get caught on its strong barbs. It also goes by the name 'lawyer vine'. 

Possibly the highlight of the tour, after swimming in cold crater lakes, we headed to Millaa Millaa falls where the Herbal Essences adverts were filmed. Bart had perfected the art of capturing the iconic hair flick:

That evening we went platypus spotting and actually successfully saw one after a fair wait. Smaller than I expected but probably even more weird than I thought. What kind of mammal has a bill and lays eggs? Less exciting than the platypus sighting was the excruciatingly long game of pool we played with our new friends to pass the time that evening.

The following day was one of action. Just like a Die Hard film. The morning involved mountain biking - a lot more fun than I expected but for my face going the colour of my bright pink board shorts - and a little stroll to see more waterfalls before a well earned dip back in one of the crater lakes. The afternoon brought rain but in the end that didn't matter as canoeing turned to capsizing in the middle of a lake as Hannah did her best Titanic impression at the front of our canoe. We didn't see any tree kangaroos but did catch a glimpse of a weird long tailed possum, a fair sized spider and many little dead fish (that led to a morbid game of using paddles to toss them at one another). After hot showers - I didn't understand why this was a selling point on their brochure until we had fallen in the lake in the rain - we made our way back to Cairns for the next exciting segment of our Queensland adventures.

Finding Nemo

I figure if you are gonna spend a bomb on learning to dive, you might as well be in the World Heritage Great Barrier Reef, home to all sorts of Nemos, non-man-eating sharks and ridiculously deadly tiny cone snails. We took this opportunity pretty seriously (well, Hannah did and I'm easily persuaded) so opted for the PADI Open Water Course comprising of two days in the pool and classroom before 3 days living on board Ocean Quest, a rather grandly named boat situated on Norman Reef.

There isn't much to say about our time on land for the start of the course; it rained fairly constantly and I was glad to be inside for once. Although I probably would rather not have been in a classroom watching dated films on how to dive and filling out booklets that reminded me of my Brownie Badgebook. I suppose the most exciting thing about those 2 days was making friends with Sarah and John, a couple in our group, who had met while both on exchange studying in New Zealand. What with Hannah and I being a de facto couple, the dynamic worked well: Hannah and Sarah (another Brit) turned into small enthusiastic children playing together while John (Canadian, for a change) and I rolled our eyes.

The three days on the boat were, unsurprisingly, somewhat more exciting. After a slightly choppy journey (John and I, the grown ups, took seasickness tablets while the children laughed at us. Hannah then spent most of her time at the back of the boat hoping not to vomit), we arrived to float on top of Norman Reef. Still on the day trip boat at this point, we went for a snorkel (I don't think I have ever swallowed so much sea water - not quite as easy as in the bay of Mana Island, Fiji) before having lunch and then our first open water dive. There are obvious differences between the sea and a pool - visibility is obviously not so clear, the water is salty and there's sand on the bottom. But far more exciting and distracting are the fish and coral. Suddenly taking your mask off and putting it back on again to blow the water out by breathing through your nose is far less exciting. Our first time down is pretty much just a photo shoot with the boat photographer trying to bleed more money out of us. And Hannah, I notice down there, is literally bleeding - first dive and she manages to gash her knee quite impressively on some coral. It was a pretty good first dive - we saw a huge Maori fish, so called thanks to their markings, and our first clown fish in their anemone home as well a bunch of others I didn't know the names of yet but were pretty nonetheless.

Not as pretty as me though:

It was quite exciting to transfer onto the overnight boat; Hannah and I had our own room (exciting in itself when you've been in hostel dorm rooms for a month) with a typical nautical theme and, since meals were included, ate like backpacker queens 3 times a day. The diving was pretty good too. We got to enjoy 11 in total, a few to finish off our certification and the rest fun dives. A few things stand out as highlights:

  • Seeing and stroking a real live sea turtle:

  • One of the dive instructors giving us a tour around a lion fish hide-out.
  • Being (almost) head-butted by a reef shark - they don't eat humans as they are mostly scavengers I think (Great Whites aren't found anywhere near this far north) - as they thrashed about trying to get the meat being thrown by the boat crew closer and closer to our heads. We weren't allowed to do a night dive at this point as we hadn't got our certification so instead we lay on the back of the boat and just stuck our snorkel & masked heads in.
  • Finding and successfully photographing a tiny electric blue Christmas tree worm before it pulled itself back into its hole away from the scary goggly-eyed divers:

  • Genuine giant clams that close when you get near.
  • Taking Santa hats down with us to get in the Christmas spirit and them floating off our heads and up to the surface. And then rescuing the hats.

  • Being able to name a lot of the fish and coral around me thanks to my trusty nerdy underwater fish cards - it's a lot more satisfying to think, 'Oooh, a Moorish Idol!' instead of 'It's Gill from Finding Nemo!'
Beyond those particular highlights there were many more - being on the Great Barrier Reef meant we were pretty spoiled in terms of the marine life we could experience. And apart from the stunning living sights, it was also simply awesome to be able to breathe underwater.

Cape Tribulation

Sadly returning to dry land we headed back to Nomads hostel, our air conditioned, impersonal and mostly empty home in Cairns. But it wasn't for long as we headed out of the city again the next morning for a two day trip north to Cape Tribulation. The morning was spent with a fair bit of bus time but also including a short crocodile spotting cruise along the Daintree River. Unfortunately, there were no crocodiles to spot. We did learn about the strange phenomenon of brackish water (for the uninitiated, as I was before then, that means sea water mixed with fresh water) crocodiles that will actually swim out to sea in order to get in to another river. So along with it being 'stinger season' (huge numbers of jellyfish inhabit the sea very close to beaches in the summer so you can't go swimming except in pools or inland lakes), you are also warned of crocodiles in the ocean. I suppose at least you don't have to worry about man-eating sharks and crocodiles in the same waters.

As a result of  aforementioned danger water, Cape Trib was sort of a tease of a place to go to: the heat and humidity was ridiculously high while we were hanging out on a deserted, stunningly beautiful beach but we couldn't go in the sea

See what a hard life it was for us?

Following up some quality lazy beach time with some cocktails, we wrote postcards, chilled out in the pool and generally did nothing much before a hilarious dinner of packet pasta eaten out of a saucepan and tupperware. At 9.30pm, in bed by this time reading, writing or just listening to the sounds of the (very noisy) night-time life of the rainforest, we were asked by our odd German dorm friend Connie if we could turn the lights out even though she had been happily asleep for about 2 hours with them on. For every fantastic friend you make travelling, there is at least a few oddballs too - this one made eye contact for several seconds too long in silence or looked at me while Hannah was speaking and vice versa. And slept for about 16 hours.

On the way back to Cairns we stopped at a wildlife park to witness the Jurassic element to Australia's outrageous animal collection. The cassowary, in a bath:

Also got to hang out with my favourites, baby emus - the awkward and somewhat less majestic or impressive cousin of the cassowary. I fed them grass and they pecked my hand but I still have this heartfelt connection with these creatures. In some small way, I think I can relate to them.

And with that graceful note, I think I'll end this entry there - other than to say we got back to Cairns, experienced one night at Gilligan's (it was everything I expected and worse) and got up the next morning to watch the newest Twilight (I could lie and say we went to the cinema for the air conditioning but I won't deny it - we both cried our eyes out) before flying back to Sydney and Vicar Street, the closest thing I had to a home in the southern hemisphere for about 8 months. Until finding this place, that is, in Kingsford, where I am finally finishing this entry.

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