|22 to 27 June 2006
Ayers Rock was an expensive place to visit, mostly because the accommodations and food were very costly, especially in comparison to their quality. Cairns, however, is where we have spent more money than anywhere else. The one activity that ate up most of that money was our dive trip out to the Great Barrier Reef.
I had a window seat on the flight from Ayers Rock to Cairns, which allowed me to the amazing geomorphic (surface geology) colors and patterns of the Australia Outback. I took a lot of photos and will post one or two of them that I sharpened up in Photoshop on this blog.
We basically have the same car here that we had in Ayers Rock (a Toyota Corolla Accent), though this one is an automatic and has a lot more kilometers on it. After I drove off to our hotel I noticed that the gas gauge was down between the full and 3/4 tank marker, so I called the company (Cruisin’ Car Rentals – booked through our motel). I estimate that this is at least 10 liters below full (= AUD$13.39), so hopefully it will not be an issue when I return the car. Bruce Prideaux, a tourism professor at James Cook University in Cairns and Dallen Timothy, a tourism professor at Arizona State University who is here with a group of students, came over to our place at the Cairns Reef Apartments and Motel to talk about things to do in Cairns. We got a large, two bedroom, two bathroom apartment with kitchen and washer and drier for about US$100/night. This was the best accommodations deal of the trip, though Mable did spend one frustrating evening struggling with the washer and drier – could not get the spin cycle to work. She finally got it to work properly the next day.
For dinner our first night, Bruce took us to a seafood buffet at a hotel on the beach road, north of the downtown area. Although there was a line to get in, the food was not that special (though it was filling). In general, excluding ethnic foods, I have not been that impressed with the food that we have had in Australia, other than the Cherry Ripe candy bars (of which I am bringing a bunch back home with me) and the ginger beer (like ginger ale, but better). Even the pasties (potato and meat pies) have been disappointing, having grown up with them in my younger days. Of course, we have generally been eating on the cheap, so that might also explain these impressions.
While we were at the buffet, I finally decided upon one of the many reef dive companies that run boats out to the Great Barrier Reef and called them at about 8pm to make a reservation. Most of the major attractions can be booked 24 hours a day, which I found impressive! I think their must be a central booking agency (or agencies) that many of the attractions work through to do this.
Passions of Paradise
Day two was our Great Barrier Reef experience on board the Passions of Paradise catamaran, which basically took all day (7:30am to 5pm). The waters have been quite choppy these days, due to winds, and we were all feeling a bit queasy on our way out to Paradise Reef, which took about 2 hours. I was with a group of 5 others who were SCUBA certified. We could have dove on our own, but we all choose to follow the guide, instead. Mable and Chynna joined the Introductory Dive group, which basically involved a lecture-type class, a 10 minute trial off the back of the boat (at no charge), and then another 30 minutes (at a cost) if they found the trial acceptable. Chynna was one of the few in that group who had dived before (though only in a pool). Both Chynna and Mable did the full dive, though Mable held tight to her guide’s arm the whole way. Mable and Chynna also snorkeled for about 30 minutes waiting for their turn at the introductory dive. Skylan basically slept for most of the trip, as he is very sensitive to sea sickness – though I thought the choppiness subsided considerably once we were at the reef.
My first 41 minute dive was spectacular! Apparently Dallen’s students were not that impressed with the dive they took last week because a lot of the coral was dead and the reef was not that colorful. They did a dive with a company that had a permanent platform at a reef, which might have given them less flexibility in finding reefs that had not been damaged by sea urchins and impacts related to global warming. There were fish everywhere and huge giant clams lying at the bottom with a deep blue-purple interior color. They were the only thing I touched, which would make them slightly close, though they would reopen immediately. I had bought a 35mm film dive camera and took a lot of pictures. I used the flash quite a bit, forgetting that using a flash in the water can cause glare. So I hope my pictures turn out when I get them processed!
Forty minutes was a bit exhausting, and getting out of the somewhat choppy waters was not easy, so I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do a second dive or not. However, I had recovered from it when they asked, and so I became one of three people (out of our original 6) to do the second certified dive at reef next to the Michaelmas Cay sandbar. On the first dive we just stepped into the water off the back of the boat. For the second dive we took a small motorboat over to the reef, and then all 4 of us tumbled in unison backward off the two sides of the boat. Although I knew of this technique, it was the first time I had done it. I got a little water in my mask and nose, nothing serious, and thought I was OK when the guide (Simon) signaled to us and then told us to go down and to the reef. I tried, but I could not breathe when I put the respirator in my mouth. I tried a couple of time, but I had to come up to catch my breath. I decide that I was not ready to do a second dive and stayed at the top trying to catch my breath. Simon came up and I told him the problem and he said to just lie on my back and then put the respirator in my mouth and he would tow me toward the reef. He said I should be just fine in a couple of minutes. I did what he said, and I think is about a minute I was feeling OK again and was able to dive without any problem. Later he told me that I had had a panic attack. It had happened to him once or twice a long time ago, and I guess it is not entirely uncommon. He said that if I had given up, it would probably have been harder the next time I wanted to dive. I was glad that he knew how to handle that situation!
The second dive was not as colorful as the first one. There was less colorful coral and plant life, a somewhat fewer fish. The most interesting part, to me, were the underwater canyons in the coral that we swam through – not real deep, but fun nonetheless. After our 39 minute dive we went back to the boat to find it empty – everyone had gone to the sandbar to snorkel, swim and lay in the sand. Even Skylan had gone. I got to go, as well, though only for about 15 minutes before everyone loaded up back to the catamaran. The sandbar is protected area and a bird sanctuary, with many hundreds of noisy and smelly birds on it.
The trip back was again choppy. This time I had more food in my stomach, from lunch, and it did not want to stay down. I barely made it through doing our dive log entries and was staying on the outside of the boat in the wind (and cold, as it had clouded over) to try and settle my sea sickness. But that did not work, and I threw up three times into a paper bag. A crew member gave me a glass of water and disposed of the bag for me. I took a nap after that and felt a whole lot better by the time we got back to Cairns.
This was not an inexpensive tourist attraction – it was the single most expensive thing that we did (and will do) this entire trip. There was a set fee of AUD$295/family for the boat trip, lunch, tea/coffee and snorkeling. On top of that was the cost of my two certified dives, of Mable’s and Chynna’s introductory dives, of Mable’s prescription goggle rental, of the camera I bought (AUD$40), of t-shirts that we got for both kids, of a couple sodas and chips that I also bought, and I think that was it – which rang up at AUD$660. That was probably not a lot for some people, but it was for us, though we all (except probably Skylan) thought it was worth it and had no regrets (or “no worries” as they say in over here).
After we got back we made our way to the Night Market in the downtown area, which is a fairly large covered market place selling all sorts of souvenir, arts, clothing and gift items for visitors. We ate at a Chinese and Seafood food court restaurant that allows you to pile up as much food as you can on a plate at a fixed price. Small plates cost less, larger ones more. We bought two large plates for the four of us, one for seafood (AUD$14) and one for Chinese food (AUD$11.80, I think). It was quite good, and filled us up at 1/3 the price of the hotel buffet the night before.
Day three in Cairns saw me going on my own to downtown Internet café for a couple of hours to hook up my laptop and download almost a week’s worth of email and spam (almost 700 message) and a massive Windows XP update patch from Microsoft! I returned back to our apartment for a lunch of ramen noodles and then we went to the Skyrail (tram) through the rainforest. There are two stops in the middle of the tram, and depending on how long you stay at the stops, the entire ride one-way takes about 1.5 hours. It was very well done and the rainforest (a World Heritage Site) was spectacular.
At the end of the tram ride is the mountain town of Kuranda, which is sort of an artist colony, but more of a tourist trap. Apparently it has been a tourist destination for some 100 years. It did have a lot of interesting public art along its sidewalks. We walked around Kuranda, with the other tourists and then caught the last train back to Cairns at 3:30, which is when Kuranda basically shuts down. (We had booked both the tram and the train the night before.) I had a really good seat on the train, canyon window side facing forward, and enjoyed the ride. I am not sure that people with any other seating locations enjoyed the train or not. In generally, it would have been cheaper, and more scenic in some ways, to just have taken the tram round trip.
I called Bruce when we go to the train station so he could drive us back to get our car (we could have paid extra to ride a Skyrail bus). On the way he took us to the spot where Barron River rafters come out of the river that flows through the train and rainforest canyon, and where people like to swim and barbeque. We had a ginger beer, got our car, then went to James Cook University (which I was surprised to learn has only 3000 students on the Cairns campus) to pick up Dallen, and then to Bruce’s house for dinner.
Today in Cairns, I need to go to the Internet Café again. After a late start we all went downtown and walked through Rusty’s Morning Market – which has a lot for vegetables and fruit, and a lot less tourist items for sale. It took me about 1.5 hours to do all that I had to do online, during which time Mable and the kids wandered some of the many shops of downtown. We then went to the Cairns Tropical Zoo, which turned it to be one of the nicest zoo’s we had ever been to. We saw talks on red pandas, koalas and wombats, crocodiles, and a bird show. We fed kangaroos (including a joey sticking it head out of its pouch) and exotic birds, held a young alligator, and petted koalas and wombats. Unfortunately the young wombat was not behaving so he could not be held today. We saw two cute baby koalas that were about 6 and 8 months old. And we saw cassowaries, emus, and dingoes.
It was pouring rain when we drove to the zoo, but let up just as we arrived. We have been wearing shorts the whole time, and though we have our light coats in the car, we never really need them. We also have yet to use our umbrellas here, though we have felt raindrops. I noticed this evening as I was writing this that it was pouring rain outside again. [On leaving Cairns, the car rental guy who drove me to the airport told me that this is very unusual weather. Historically, the winter months from April to October were very dry, with little wind, calm seas, and few clouds. The last few years have been different. Another sign of global warming, perhaps?]
On the way back we stopped at the Stockland Mall, a large shopping mall. Everything was closed or closing, except the Woolworths and the IGA grocery stores. We peaked in the closing Big W (“We Sell for Less”), which is clearly owned by Walmart (“We Sell for Less”). And we bought a hot roasted chicken and some salad for dinner at Woolworths.
Bruce got us a Kia minivan from his university for the four of us, Bruce, and his son, Jeremy to drive up to the Daintree National Park area on Monday (26 June). We left his office at James Cook University at about 8:45am and did not get back until about 7:00pm. It was a long day, though I guess there was really no way to do it any shorter.
Daintree Village is not that far from Cairns, and the Cape Tribulation (the end of the paved road) is not that much further. However, the roads get more narrow and windy the further north one goes. The road hugs the coast on a couple of windy sections between Cairns and Daintree Village, but then widens across large areas of sugar cane fields. Most of the cane plants were flowering and some fields were just beginning to be harvested. Narrow gauge rail lines (looks like toy trains) follow and cross the main road, and carry good sized train containers stuffed with cane. We passed one cane processing plant that was spewing thick white smoke from its short smoke stack.
We had lunch at Daintree Village, where I had a baramundi burger. Baramundi is one of the two most popular fish that is somewhat distinct to the Cairns area. The other is the Coral Trout (I think), which is extremely expensive (AUD$30/pound in Australia, US$100/pound in Japan). The baramundi burger was good, though I am not quite sure why it is considered special. I guess it is a very large fish (1 to 2 meters long). We spent quite a bit of time here, as there were several orders before us and the cooking took quite a while. Chynna ordered the T-bone steak (her favorite) plate, which included some fruits that we had never seen before. In particular there was the not very sweet sapote fruit, which came in the two type: “mamey sapote” (http://wv.essortment.com/sapotemamey_rhcj.htm) which was red and kind if like a papaya but more coarse and dense, and the “black sapote” (http://www.thefruitpages.com/chocolatefruit.shtml), which is also known as the “chocolate pudding fruit” – a very apt description for this unusually textured fruit. [I found the links above while searching how to spell “sapote”.]
Daintree village is located on the Daintree River. The river has never had a bridge over it, which basically kept sugar cane from crossing the river (because trains and cane trucks could not easily cross the river). The landscape is pretty much dense tropical rainforest here, giving a glimpse of what the entire Cairns region probably looked like when Europeans first arrived. Although there are still some large areas of private land north of the river, much of it is a designated national park. When Bruce first drove through this area, it was mostly dirt road, even to get to Daintree Village, and mostly more adventure-seeking backpacker tourists visited the area. Now it is on the major tourist route and tour group itineraries, many of the latter riding in large 4-wheel-drive “monster” busses, though Bruce says they seldom actually leave the paved roads.
At the end of the road at Cape Tribulation, Bruce took us took us on a boardwalk path through a coastal swamp forest. It was a beautiful hike through some mangroves, but also many other “jungle” plants, including some large trees that were slowly being strangled by other plants growing on them, and many palms and other fan-like trees that made much of the pathway quite dark (ad difficult to take pictures without a flash). At the end of the trail was a broad white sand beach. It looked like low tide, with many older corral outcrops on the edge of the water and sand. And of course the rainforest set the backdrop at the top of the sand.
At the end of the road was PK’s – which included a campground and small store. There was also a Save the Daintree stand, which displayed the Aboriginal flag (black and red. with a yellow circle). We had earlier seen a sign calling for the protection of freehold property rights, which probably represents the opposite political viewpoint (those of private developers). According to Bruce, government authorities have placed considerable restrictions on private land development here, and many conservancy groups have been trying to buy up the private land to return it to a more natural state.
We spent some time walking on the Cape Tribulations beach, then bought some ginger beers and snacks for the road and headed back to Cairns.