A LAND DOWN UNDER

CAIRNS | AUSTRALIA

AUGUST 2014

ARMED WITH YEARS OF KNOWLEDGE I’D GAINED FROM GROWING UP ON HOME AND AWAY I WAS READY TO TACKLE THE RED CONTINENT OF AUSTRALIA. BUT WITHOUT THE REASSURING, FATHERLY PRESENCE OF ALF STEWART BESIDE ME I KNEW THINGS WOULD BE A LITTLE DIFFERENT THAN I IMAGINED.

My Jetstar flight landed in Cairns in Australia’s tropical north coast in the early hours of the morning. I’d been picked up by a random van and dropped off at my hostel a short walk from downtown. No one was up yet, so I decided to take a short stroll until Australia’s alarm clocks went off. Cairns is a cool little city, it reminded me of a frontier wild west town, constructed as it is mostly with low slung wooden buildings sometimes with long boardwalks. The down town area is quite compact, there were plenty of options for food and drink, and I knew instantly I was gonna like it here.

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“I just seen a hammerhead. But he looks fat. No worries”

My first objective was to book a tour out to the Great Barrier Reef, I also wanted to visit the Daintree rainforests further along the coast. Both were easily organised through the hostel so I was quickly freed up to explore. Despite having a huge interest in the sea and marine life I’d never snorkeled before. In fact it had been a while since I swam anywhere. Luckily Cairns has an excellent (because it’s free) outdoor pool right by the beach (swimming on the beach is prohibited because of dangerous tides) After I’d stuffed my crap in my locker I took to the water, initially like a rock, but eventually like a duck. I hadn’t regained my Aquaman-lite skills but I was confident that barring the current sweeping me out into the open ocean, or the appearance of man eating sharks, I was gonna be just fine. I decided my prep for the trip wouldn’t include watching Open Water. I’d made that mistake already.

The next day our boat departed Cairns harbour and chugged towards the reef. Australia’s Barrier Reef is the largest in the world and stretches for over 2,300 kilometers from Queensland to the southern coast of Papua New Guinea. It’s the largest single structure made by living creatures on the planet, and when viewed from space it spells out “The Great Wall can suck it”. Initially we got some bad news. Because of engine trouble we would only be visiting two of the coral islands on the itinerary instead of the stated three. On the bright side though this actually meant more time in the water so maybe it was for the best.

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10,000 leagues under the sea it doesn’t look like planet Earth anymore

We arrived at our first point on the reef and quickly suited up. All the snorkeling equipment is provided for you. Due to the water temp being surprisingly chilly out here you could also rent a suit for an extra $10. For those unsure of themselves in the water this is a good idea. Not only does it keep you warm it also adds buoyancy. Actually it’s virtually impossible to drown in the thing. I enjoyed taking breaks by literally sitting in the water while the suit kept me floating comfortably on top.It was also fun to laugh at the chinese tourists floundering around in life jackets. Hey, they laughed at me enough in China. This was just payback.

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Earth largest tropical aquarium

Not trusting the water proof casing I bought for my monster Nikon coolpix camera I opted to rent an underwater camera too. It’s one of the best decisions I ever made. It literally is a whole new world under the waves. The shoals of fish that dart past you, completely unafraid, the amazing textures and colours of the coral, and the bizarre structures that these organisms can create all stunned and enraptured. Sometimes I forgot to breathe, not because of the snorkeling equipment strapped to my face like a facehugger from Aliens, but because of the beauty unraveling below me. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before, not in real life anyway. I’d always harboured a desire to learn how to scuba dive and explore the under water world, now I had my foot in the door. I had to exit back through the door a few times because my camera lens kept fogging up, but usually I was the last back on the boat. We would be out in the water for about two hours at a time and it felt more like twenty minutes. I didn’t want it to end. In the crystal clear water it almost felt like flying. One minute you would be gliding mere feet over a stunning reef, fish swirling and darting all around you, then the reef would disappear and drop off into a dark chasm into the ocean below. It was thrilling to imagine just how deep the ocean floor was below you, or what could be lurking down there. As you continue to float another reef would rise up to meet you like a kaleidoscopic grand canyon. Truly a marine spectacle without equal.

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A parrot fish right? I don’t have the chart with me

Back on the boat people were swapping stories about the various fish they had seen while pointing excitedly to the ID chart pinned up on the wall. Everyone seemed intent on finding Nemo, the famous orange and while clown fish that Pixar seem intent on making extinct. Some had gotten lucky, others like me, were content that they’d come across sea turtles. Oh yeah, I raced a sea turtle and had my ass handed to me by something that doesn’t even have feet. It’s their world down here and you play by different rules.

It would be roughly two hours sailing until we would return to Cairns. After the on-board barbecue the staff’s very own Ricky Gervais entertained us with guitar and semi-racist insults. This guy should host the Golden Globes. If only I hadn’t stuff planned for my remaining days in Cairns I’d be back out there like a shot.

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Jungle clad slopes in Daintree National Park

The sun baked down on a new day down under and I had a packed schedule. On the hostel booked tour I joined a group who were driving from Cairns to Daintree via a wildlife sanctuary and onwards to Cape Tribulation.

Our first stop was the wildlife sanctuary, and it was awesome. Instead of a zoo like layout it consisted of various habitats you walked through, spotting the native animals and birds along the way. Of course it had koala bears,kangaroos and wallabies but what really excited me was seeing the cassowaries. The cassowary is a huge  flightless bird. It consists of a black body with a brightly painted face – like a clown at a funeral. They are infamous for their bad temper and are capable of disemboweling a man with their raptor-like claws. The live in the jungles of northern Australia and Papua New Guinea, but right here they lived behind a chain link fence. Thankfully my bowel was on the other side. As much as I love Jurassic Park I didn’t want to be in a live re-enactment of it.

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Skippy had no time to stand and talk. Old Man Williams was trapped down the well. Again. He should really put a lid on that thing.

Another few hours and we entered the world’s oldest forest. The Daintree rainforest and wet tropics region from Australia to Papua New Guinea and Borneo has remained surprisingly unchanged for millions of years. Here plants from the Jurassic and even older – from the super continent Gondwanaland- still thrive. Huge tree ferns and bizarre fan-like plants immerse you in a primordial world. It’s no wonder that this part of Australia is saturated with stories of -as yet- undiscovered prehistoric beasts. Stories of monsters like the hideous bunyip and the T-Rex like burrunjor are passed down in folktales from generation to generation. Here, in the impenetrable parts of the jungle there truly might be something nasty hiding in the woods.

We conducted a nature walk, learning about the ancient plants and ecosystems (no T-Rex though) before pilling back in the bus.

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The coral beaches of Cape Tribulation

North west of Cairns lies an area of coast that pissed explorer James Cook off so much he named it Cape Tribulation. “Tribulation” was probably as x-rated as language got in those days. He struck a reef and almost scuppered one of his ships. But of course it was the Cape’s fault. They say a bad craftsman always blames his tools.

Cape Trib (as the kids say) is part of the Daintree rainforest and is commonly described as “where the rainforest meets the reef”. And it’s certainly true. We stopped for lunch here and after a short walk through some jungle arrived on the stony coral beach. Not far from here is Batt Reef where the crocodile hunter Steve Irwin was fatally hit by a stingray barb. It was a sobering reminder that Australia’s nature can be as deadly as it is beautiful if you aren’t careful.

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A souvenir for Captain Cook

We climbed through some nice jungle covered mountains which occasionally opened up to reveal the stunning aquamarine waters of the Queensland coastline. On the way back to Cairns we stopped off by a river to take a trip through the mangroves crocodile spotting. We spotted crocs alright, it was disappointing that our guide didn’t jump in and wrestle them Crocodile Dundee style. I was under the impression all aussies did that. TV wouldn’t lie to me? In fact, he didn’t do anything but explain to us just how dangerous crocs were in Australia. What a killjoy. I enjoyed the boat trip through the Louisiana swamps more. The guide there baited the alligators with marshmallow to make them jump out of the water. I guess the reasoning here is that if you tried something similar the croc would capsize the boat and possibly eat everyone on board. But you don’t know that until you try.

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Saltwater crocs are big killers in the swamps. No marshmallow for them. #sugarfreecrocs

My time in Cairns was drawing to a close. That night was movie and barbecue night in the hostel. I’d eaten a kangaroo burger previously (tastes like beef) but was interested in trying croc. Unsurprisingly it was similar to gator I’d had in New Orleans, a delicious white meat not unlike chicken. The C in KFC could have a whole new meaning here in Oz. They were showing The Way, a film where Emilio Estevez dies on a hike and Martin Sheen has his bag stolen by a gypsy. I laughed and cried in equal measure.

My next plan was to travel south into the “red centre” of Australia’s Northern Territory. From Alice Springs I’d be joining The Rock tour. Three days of outback camping while we visited the sites of King’s Canyon, Kata Tjuta and of course Uluru. Only one problem: while snorkeling on the reef I got severe sunburn on my lower legs. They had swollen up like elephant feet and had gotten to the point it was almost impossible to fit them into my shoes. I read online that cider vinegar was good to alleviate “sun poisoning”. Basically when burned the tissue swells and traps the heat, the vinegar draws the heat to the surface allowing the swelling to subside. Who needs medical professionals when you have WiFi and a lack of common sense?  That night and most of the next day I spent bathing my feet in the stuff and ending up smelling like a fish and chip shop. All that was left was to wrap my feet in newspaper and they would have made a tasty treat for all ages.

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them? The Daintree Jungle.

To add insult to injury I’d decided in my wisdom to take the greyhound from Cairns down to Alice Springs, a journey that would take me two nights solid on the bus. From midnight on night one I’d head to Townsville, then switch buses to Mount Isa before changing in Tennant Creek and arriving in Springs on the third day.

And so, stinking like a cheap restaurant, I waddled my way to the bus stop where I met some folk from the UK who were joining the same trip I was. At least I wouldn’t be alone in my misery. The bus driver was a real hoot. Dressed like a boy scout with his shorts and knee high socks, he minced his way down the aisle like a flamboyant teapot explaining every single component of the vehicle like it was the space shuttle. We all exchanged “is this guy for real” glances. An hour later after our “briefing” we were finally on our way to exploring outer space the outback.

Thankfully the buses were never more than half full. As a result I was able to keep my tree trunk feet elevated by lying on the seats and placing my feet up against the window. I think stowing away in the cargo hold of a plane would have been more comfortable, and I was worried my feet were gonna punch through the glass like two fleshy pink hammers. Two nights of no sleep and endless flat red vistas later we rolled into Alice Springs. After booking into the tour and hostel we took a well deserved nap. I took another vinegar bath and, after opening the windows, settled into one of the deepest sleeps I’ve ever had. I had a strange dream where my legs were being eaten by football hooligans.  When I woke up a miracle had occurred. My feet had almost reached normal size! The vinegar had worked! Now there was a possibility I’d actually survive the next three days of trekking and camping. I wasn’t gonna be joining Burke and Wills in the giant cattle shed in the sky just yet.

That night we toasted to our expedition in a galvanised sheet-metal bar ripped straight outta Crocodile Dundee. As the swirling fans cast fleeting shadows over our perspiring glasses of beer I felt like I’d finally arrived in Australia. I looked down at my phone and read a message I’d just received from a friend of mine back home. “Be careful. I’ve heard Alice Springs is the lesbian capital of Australia” she said.

What’s that got to do with me?

Next time: I draw on a window, kangaroo tail is the worst meat ever, and we wait for people to die.

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