Monday, July 6, 2009

Down Under Times volume VI

(See: Back from the Memory Hole for an explanation of why these are posted now...)

Down Under Times Volume VI
July 2001
All the news that no one really needs to know, but is going to hear anyway!

We're Back!
Another successful 'vacation from our vacation' is now complete. While those are not our words, others have described our various trips around Australia while living here as such. It is not too far from the truth, although many will not believe us when we say that the daily grind is not much different here than at home, it simply takes place in Australia instead of Minnesota.

This time we spent our two-week holiday in the tropics of northern Queensland. Basically, we flew to one of the more northern cities on the east coast of Australia, Port Douglas, and then made our way south along that coast to the southern most point of Queensland, about two hours drive south of the state capital, Brisbane. (Like "Mel-bun", this is pronounced "Briz-bun".) After fifteen days in the sun-drenched tropical north, we flew home to more gray, wet and dull winter days in Melbourne.

Coral, Crocodiles, Cassowaries and Cane in Cairns, Queensland
Whew! Try saying that one three times fast! Without anything like evidence to support the assertion, it seems to us that the list above would roughly approximate, in descending order, the level of importance these things have to the economy of tropical Queensland. (We actually think an additional "C" should be added - for all the carbon produced by burning sugar cane remnants and surplus undergrowth in forests. It was relentless!)

First, however, the name needs clearing up. "Cairns" looks as if it should be pronounced as spelled - something nasally like 'karnes' with an 'a' sound as in 'care' - but this is not so. All Australians that we have come into contact with pronounce it as 'cans', which could easily be confused as the city in the south of France where the film festival is held each year. At least that's what we originally thought a year ago when we heard it pronounced. You can imagine the look on our faces as we envisioned boarding a plane for Queensland only to picture ourselves disembarking in the French Riviera! Wouldn't that have been a neat trick?

Alas, it was not to be, and so Queensland it was.

The First "C"
Obviously, coral refers to the Great Barrier Reef (a good portion of which is located in the Coral Sea) which, contrary to its name, is not just one reef. In fact, this World Heritage-listed area stretches 2900 kilometers along the coast and is made up of about 1500 separate, living reefs, and contains untold thousands of different species of fish and other life. It is truly staggering, and provides yet another example of that feeling of human insignificance that seems to abound here in Australia.

Without question it is the attraction of the Great Barrier Reef that draws thousands, perhaps millions of tourists to the Queensland coast each year. It is one of those seminal things to do when coming to Australia. Not going to the Reef would be like going to Paris and not visiting the Eiffel Tower - it just isn't done if you can help it.

We stayed in the pleasant, if touristy, town of Port Douglas. It reminded us a bit of Key West, Florida, and not just because of its tropical climate. Port Douglas definitely caters to tourists, with a wide selection of wonderful restaurants, lots of resorts and other accommodations, and many souvenir shops. In addition, it seemed as if residents of Port Douglas fit the description of many Key Westers as well - older Australians with higher levels of disposable income and people escaping from someone, somewhere or something, ala Jimmy Buffet. While there we took three day-trips: to the Reef, to the Rainforest, and on the world's longest gondola ride to a village in the verdant, rainforest-covered mountains.

There is only one word to describe the Great Barrier Reef, and that is whatever word you can come up with to describe the most amazing place on earth. We travelled by what could only be called a super-catamaran, which cut through the waves and had us to the Outer Reef in less than two hours. (Contrary to popular belief, the Reef is not just off shore, within swimming distance.) We docked at a floating platform where people ate, scuba dived and went snorkelling. We didn't realize it until we were actually in the water, but the sheer scope of the Reef is beyond imagination. As snorkelers, we are like the proverbial grain of sand on an immense beach. We saw so much, yet at the same time we saw so little.

The highlights include: the four Panetti's pretending to be fish food together with many exotic species hovering just beyond our reach; watching Tommy confidently swim away like a fish to explore this section of the reef; witnessing Sophie and Kate conquer their fear of the open ocean to "take the plunge", so to speak; and simply interacting with this system of life that is so unique, so extraordinary and so unbelievably large. Tommy and Dave watched as scuba divers touched the "lips" of a giant clam and its massive shell closed just enough to be seen 30 feet above, and we were all astonished (and some of us were a little frightened) when the crew began feeding fish right on the entrance platform and thousands of fish swarmed around our feet - including the gigantic Maori wrass, which is the size of a small refrigerator!

The Reef was a must see on our list, and we highly recommend that, even if you have never been interested in seeing the Reef, you should do it anyway. It is worth it.

"C" Numbers Two and Three
It is our belief that the second reason people might choose to travel to the nether regions of Queensland would be to see crocodiles in the wild. There are two kinds of crocs here, "salties" and "freshies". Freshies are freshwater crocs, tend to be smaller and eat only fish and small mammals. Salties, on the other hand, are to be feared and will even pursue large mammals (read: humans!). Some of the bigger ones can grow to 12-15 meters (or 40+ feet)!!!! They can also be quite aggressive, and every year newspapers report the loss of several unsuspecting (or quite probably inebriated or irretrievably stupid, or both) tourists who go missing in croc infested waters.

We discovered, much to our surprise, that the estuarine crocodile, contrary to its name, does not live only in river estuaries. One could, with relative ease, avoid them if this were true. Salties have been found 300 kilometers inland, and as far as 1200 kilometers out to sea! This gave us a whole new realm of things to worry about!

Given that it is currently winter here, and crocs are poikilothermic (great word, isn't it?), which means they need the warmth of the sun for survival, they were quite sluggish when we saw them. We took a day tour into the Daintree Rainforest, about an hour's drive north from Port Douglas, which included a boat tour along the Cooper Creek for a bit o' croc spottin'.

The man who operated the boat was a true Queenslander, yeah? (We have been assured that this is how many true Queenslanders speak - they end many sentences, even declarative ones, with a drawled out, question-like "yeah?") He floated us around the river and located five or six sunbathing crocs, lots of bird life and talked about the wide variety of dense mangroves that exist in this part of the world.

It was pretty impressive despite the lackadaisical attitude of the crocs, and we did wind up seeing them "in the wild", which was the goal after all.

As part of the trip into the Daintree Rainforest (the world's oldest rainforest at approximately 110 million years old, and another World Heritage-listed area), we encountered "C" number three, the cassowary. I would bet good money (as opposed to bad money) that unless you are Australian or New Guinean you have never heard of a cassowary. There are three or four species of cassowary, one of which resides in and around the coasts of northern Queensland (the others live in New Guinea).

The cassowary is a distant cousin of the emu, which itself resembles the ostrich. Cassowaries, however, have what appears to be a dome of bone on their heads, over a bright (I mean bright) blue feathered neck and a bright red wattle. It stands about 1.5 meters tall or taller, and with its bony head looks an awful lot like a throwback to prehistoric dinosaur days. Even as a protected species living in a protected reserve of land surrounded by relatively few people, the number of cassowaries continues to decline. Mostly, this is due to loss of habitat by what our guide called "rednecked greenies", or people claiming to be environmentalists who purchase five acre lots and then proceed to clear four of them and live on the remaining one so they can say they live "in the rainforest". Clearly he despised this behavior, so I took to calling him a "Greenie Queenie", or a true environmentalist Queenslander. I'm not sure he thought I was funny.

In addition, there were plenty of other surprises that we encountered there. We were startled to find that the rainforest covered mountains (low as they may be) slope directly to white sand beaches or drop precipitously down to the tropical ocean - this was unexpected, although we can't be sure what, precisely, we did expect. It is quite interesting to find so many natural wonders meeting in such an unlikely place where very few people live. It is a very beautiful, if stark and sometimes hostile, place in the world.

Another astounding "discovery" we came across was that the Daintree is home to something like 22 of the world's 29 surviving species of primitive plants. These ancient plants require a separate male and female to produce offspring, unlike modern flora where one plant contains both male and female structures for reproduction. I wouldn't really know one if it bit me on the nose, but it is fascinating to learn about.

The last truly mystifying natural phenomenon we learned of is Bennett's Tree Kangaroo. We didn't actually see any of these little critters, but they are one of two species of treetop dwelling kangaroo, both of which live in this region. Roo's are pretty amazing as it is without imaging one hopping monkey-like from tree-top to tree-top, dropping who knows what on to unsuspecting tourists down below. Actually, they are quite small, but still - what a thought!

It was also fun using a driftwood stick to draw an American flag in the sand on Cape Tribulation on the Fourth of July. The Cape is where Captain James Cook, skipper of the H.M.S. Endeavour, crashed his boat on the reef while exploring the Australian continent and the South Seas back in the 18th century. It is a gorgeous stretch of white sandy beach, and was very quiet and serene on that day. Together with a shore lunch at a remote site in the forest along a crystal clear river, a rather pleasant way to spend part of Independence Day.

Last, But Not Least…
"C" number four stands for sugar cane, the largest crop in northern Queensland. 80% of the cane from this region is exported, and the large container ships that haul it could be seen chugging along inside the limits of the reef just offshore. More than one of them has taken out parts of the reef in the past, which will no doubt continue, even with advanced levels and layers of legal protection.

As we left the northern regions of Queensland for the central coast and the Whitsunday Islands, we saw sugar cane growing along the highway like sweet corn in August in central Minnesota. In fact, the drive south reminded me a lot of driving through cornfield after cornfield, complete with lots of road-kill, too. The only difference was that this road-kill happened to be roo's! It felt a bit like Wisconsin or Minnesota just before deer season - they were everywhere! I counted close to 100 as we sped along down the highway - it was a surreal trip, let me tell you.

The Whitsunday Islands
We then spent four nights in an exotic locale called the Whitsunday Islands. This region consists of 74 mostly uninhabited islands; many in pristine condition and with their own coral reefs just off shore.

Highlights include sailing for about 1 1/2 hours on an 80-foot long sailboat, out to a place called Blue Pearl Bay. Our trip included more snorkelling, Dave's first-ever scuba dive (outside of a swimming pool, anyway), and sightings of whales breaching and dolphins swimming along side the boat. Another fantastic experience.

This is a place where travel books get all those exotic looking pictures, filled with blue seas, palm-lined beaches (never mind they are mostly coral and very hard on tender bare feet!), and stunning tropical scenery everywhere you look. The Whitsunday's are a place that we highly recommend, if ever you make it Down Under!

The Gold Coast and the "World" Tours
The last leg of our journey took us just south of Brisbane, to an area known as the Gold Coast. Imagine, if you will, a place like Wisconsin Dells on steroids (sorry to any of you who aren't familiar with this locale), only with lots of 20- and 30-story hotels, and more than half the signage in Japanese. That should give you an adequate picture of Surfer's Paradise, the town we visited on the Gold Coast. The weather held out for us, and we had more beautiful sunny days like the first part of the trip. It was also here that we met up with our Minnesota friends the Carberry's and Kay Bazler and his daughter Analisa.

The first "world" we visited was Warner Brother's MovieWorld, which Tom and Sophie just loved. It was just the right size for small legs, and we were able to see just about everything in the park in one full day, without wearing us all out too much. A good time was had by all.
We went to visit Seaworld and hoped to swim with dolphins there, but after waiting in a long line that had started a full four hours before the opening of the park, we missed the spot for that special event by one person. We'll just have to find a way to swim with dolphins some other way!

As a consolation, however, we did find a wildlife park south of the Gold Coast called Currumbin where we all were able to hold a koala who cooperated and posed for a lovely photo. Of course, there were many other interesting things we saw there, but that was a highlight.

The Gold Coast also has a Wet and Wild Water World, but we felt it was more important to drive a few hours north of Brisbane to visit the Australia Zoo. For the uninitiated, the Australia Zoo is home to the (in)famous 'Crocodile Hunter', Steve Irwin. Despite the fact that Aussies generally look down a reptilian nose at him, Americans (us included) absolutely love him! We were very excited to visit his zoo, and although we didn't actually meet him or his wife Terry, we did enjoy their wildlife park, which is undergoing some serious renovations and additions at the moment. This was probably the best maintained wildlife park we have visited in Australia so far - proof that not all of what comes from television is bad… We had a ball!

Another One Bites the Dust…
Well, the second of our two-week holidays is over. The sad realization now is that as we return to school this week, we are already at the half-way point in this adventure. There are twenty weeks of school remaining, and then "Presto!", it'll be December and we'll be on our way home. Where has the proverbial time gone?

So much more to do, so little time left! Aaahhh!

The Antipodean Panettis

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