Archive for December, 2005

Our previous trip to Tropical North Queensland. Part III

Friday, December 16th, 2005

Maria getting ready to scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef.

Remember how I said Maria wanted more attention? Well, here I go again proving what a nice guy I am by headlining my journal update with a photo of her. And it kind of gives away the surprise of what we did today before I have a chance to build up any suspense.

That’s right, today we visited one of the natural wonders of the world, the largest living thing on the planet, Australia’s famous Great Barrier Reef. Rather than join the crowds on one of the huge catamarans, we chose a fairly small operator. There were about twenty passengers on board when we departed the Cairns marina at 8:30am, but on a busy day the boat could have carried maybe a dozen more. The sky was an endless blanket of blue, and the sun was already scorching even at that early hour. Don’t forget that Queensland doesn’t have daylight saving (don’t even get me started on that!) and so the sun had been up for almost four hours by that time. Our boat wasn’t the fastest, so the reef was a two hour ride away. After about an hour’s sailing, I was surprised to find dark clouds building above us, and even a few fat, lazy drops of rain falling on our boat. But as quickly as the almost-storm started, it disappeared and we were once again in the middle of an uninterrupted world of blue; ocean below and sky above.

The skipper backed off on the throttle, and our craft rumbled to a gentle stop. A strip of translucent pale greenish blue water stretched across the bow of the boat, distinct from the strong azure colour of the deep water around and behind us. This was the reef nicknamed ‘Long Bomby’, the favourite destination for diving and snorkelling, according to our guides. Maria suited up for her dive. I was content to snorkel, in fact even snorkelling was going to be enough of a challenge for me. I’ve always been a little hesitant of the ocean ever since a bluebottle jellyfish wrapped itself around my waist as a kid. I’ve never known pain like that before or since. It was years before I would get back into the water, and even during my twenties, if I was swimming with friends and happened to drift away from them a little, I’d quickly paddle back towards the group. So while this day on the Great Barrier Reef was a day of pleasant recreation for most onboard, for me it would be a test of my nerves.

I was one of the last to enter the water. It wasn’t that I was scared by definition. I just didn’t think I was going to enjoy it. And I was right. I dropped myself into the clear, cool water, plunged my masked face below the surface and immediately began hyperventilating. The ocean at that point was about twenty metres deep, and the visibility was almost twenty metres. That meant I could see straight down for sixty feet, and still couldn’t see the bottom. I was falling into an abyss. A couple of fish swam by, which helped to distract me, and my breathing started to relax. But when I turned my head and was faced with the dangling tentacles of some form of marine stinger, I was back on deck after less than two minutes in the water.

I was a bit disappointed with myself, but I had enjoyed the boat trip, and I was sure that Maria would be having a great time scuba diving somewhere about ten metres below me. The crew members told me that the next spot we would dive that afternoon was much shallower, and was a sandy bottom, so I vowed to give it another try then. After lunch!

Lunch was a buffet of cold chicken pieces, sliced meats and salads, but I know you don’t want to hear about the interesting salads. You’re waiting to hear if I ended up conquering my fear or if I spent the entire afternoon sitting on the deck, receiving confused, pitying glances from the crew. Well, I’m proud to say that when we anchored in our second dive spot, the shallower water and the clearly visible sandy bottom gave me much more confidence. Schools of small fish eyed me as they swam by, I befriended a metre-long Giant Trevalli, a dumb looking, slow moving dark grey ghost of an animal, with a large mouth of threatening looking but presumably (hopefully) harmless teeth. I had to lift my face out of the water every time the big, ugly bastard came too close to me so I wouldn’t see it. I even followed a couple of reef sharks as they roamed the ocean floor. That was the highlight of my day, swimming after two sharks, about a metre and a half in length, just watching them meandering around the outcrops of coral. When the crew called for us to return to the boat, I didn’t want to get out of the water, but all good things must come to an end, and my mask had been filling up with water. That happens apparently if you smile while you’re snorkelling.

Enjoying cruising back to Cairns after snorkelling and diving on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia.

Maria bought a disposable underwater camera before we headed out on our reef trip, and I’ve posted the best shots on the next entry.

This would be our last night at Calypso. In the morning, Maria and I would be driving further north to the unmissable Cape Tribulation. So in signing off, I’d like to thank everyone at Calypso Backpackers Hostel (especially Amanda) for making our stay so comfortable and problem free.

Just so Maria doesn’t get too jealous and start complaining that I’ve now posted two photos of cute Amanda, I’ve put together a gallery of photos just of her. Just of my sweetheart. Keep an eye open for a post of photos of Maria.

MARIA’S ADDENDUM…

I have finally scuba dived for the first time in my life and hopefully it won’t be the last time. I had to do it on my own, Steve is too much of a girl to do something soooooooooooooo dangerous as to dive. Anyway, my instructor was a very nice fellow so I wasn’t too disappointed. After two hours sailing on a boat full of “guiris” (foreigners in Spanish), we got to a point in the middle of the sea by the Great Barrier Reef, where we jumped off the boat. Jesus!, it is amazing what you can see under the water, a shame the photos don’t show at all what’s like down under. There was even a massive shark around and we all prayed it had had his breakfast in the morning. Well, to tell you the truth, it wasn’t so massive and the poor litttle thing was more afraid of us than we were of it. No wonder, we didn’t look very attractive with the masks compressing our eyes and noses.

We dived for a half an hour roughly, but I promise it is tiring trying to keep up with the instructor. I don’t think any of us wanted really to get lost there, so we definitely made our best. And after that, a lovely lunch, some snorkelling near a white sanded beach and a beautiful long siesta on our way back to Cairns. Though it wasn’t such a lovely siesta for others (maybe Steve?), who forgot to wear suncream before going to sleep. He is now so red I don’t need a light to read what I’m writing.

Our previous trip to Tropical North Queensland. Part II

Thursday, December 15th, 2005

Maria’s jealous that I’m getting all the attention, and that I don’t write enough about her in this journal. So in the name of healthy relations during the rest of our holiday and perhaps beyond I hereby dedicate this page to mi carino, mi dulce, mi amor and I hope you enjoy these photos.

But wait! I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s true that we didn’t do much today. We deliberately scheduled today as a chill out day; some swimming and relaxing back at Calypso, a little exploring in our neat little rental car, and a chance for me to catch up with my way overdue journal updates.

But do we have a story to tell about last night! Do you see the photo of Maria above? That was taken outside one of Cairns’ most highly awarded restaurants- and unarguably the most unique dining experience in town, the Red Ochre Grill. While Maria and I were out window shopping, we stopped to look at the menu and couldn’t help but reserve a table for later that evening. I was surprised to be asked which table we would like, and kind of suspected that we were in for something really special. My only set of good clothes were dragged from the bottom of my daypack, and after much encouragement, Maria ironed them for me while I finished my work on the computer. This was going to be a dinner worth dressing up for.

But I couldn’t have even imagined…

First came the wine list, and although I’m no conossieur, there were a number of wines that I recognized as being highly regarded in the industry. Maria chose a Semillon Sauvignon Blanc which was exactly to her taste, and I went for the safe bet, a nice cold oaky Chardonnay. Ordering the food was easy; Red Ochre Grill does a meal called the “Taste of Australia”, a multi-course feast of all the best that our great southern land has to offer. For starters, we were brought a freshly baked loaf of wholemeal damper (traditional Australian bread), accompanied by a dipping bowl of peanut oil and a small plate of dukka to roll it in. The dukka in this case was a mix of crushed macadamia nuts and Australian herbs and spices.

After that, two large plates were brought to our table. The first was a medley of strips of crocodile, and fat, fat juicy prawns, with a side serve of pickles with lemon aspen sambal. The prawns and crocodile seemed to be dipped in some sort of light-as-air tempura batter and fried, but I’m not sure. Either way, they were mouth watering. I don’t even usually like prawns, but I guarantee you that I ate my share this time. And the strips of crocodile? Divine! On the other plate, was a selection of five different Australian-influenced dishes; tasty little crocodile wontons, a bowl of emu pate, slices of smoked kangaroo with horseradish, morsels of raw swordfish with pickled ginger, and small omelettes rolled with pesto, sundried capsicum and rocket. What a banquet!

Funny thing is that after finishing our platter of mixed native Australian fauna, I had forgotten that the main course was yet to come. Out came a large plate piled with slabs of grilled kangaroo sirloin, a stack of emu fillets accompanied by slices of proscuitto and a riberry glaze, a generously proportioned sweet potato fritter and some whole steamed bok choy. This was really the Red Ochre’s crowning glory. Kangaroo meat is delicious if prepared and cooked properly, but the wafer thin slices that had made up part of the first course were a little too well done for my liking, and lacked the wild flavour that separates kangaroo fom beef. But these inch thick strips of roo were perfect. Medium rare, tender but not bloody. Tastier than any beef you would ever eat, and with less cholesterol and more vitamins. The smaller emu steaks had a strong, gamey flavour and an unusually appealing saltiness, but we both agreed that the kangaroo was the better of the two meats.

We certainly weren’t in any way hungry by the time we had battled our way through Australia’s national emblem, yet we both eagerly awaited dessert. Sweet, rich wattleseed pavlova served with a scoop of refreshing berry (or plum apparently) sorbet, macadamia toast and a giant strawberry filled with fresh whipped cream. What a perfect end to a perfect dining experience! Out of ten, I give Red Ochre Grill’s ‘Taste Of Australia’ … eleven and a half!

MARIA’S ADDENDUM…The restaurant where we had dinner last night, The Red Ochre Grill, specialises in traditional Australian food. So if anybody out there wants to experience the taste of real Australian food and have had enough BBQs to last a life time, this is the place to go.By ordering the Taste of Australia platter you will make sure you savour a bit of everything Australia has to offer, from crocodile to kangaroo, from emu to swordfish. Also the sauces that accompany each dish are made with fruits and berries found in the bush. It is worth mentioning the extensive Australian wine list, ranging from the modest white wines to the most expensive reds, without forgetting sparkling and dessert wines.The chef makes sure everything you are being serve is very well presented, attractive to the eye of the customer. He chooses not only the right flavours but also the right colours to ensure that eating at The Red Ochre is an experience difficult to forget.

Our previous trip to Tropical North Queensland. Part I

Wednesday, December 14th, 2005

…. Cairns!

That’s right folks, yesterday just a couple of hours after dropping our trusty little rental car back to Ace Car Rentals, we were jetting our way to tropical north Queensland, my favourite place in the world. We arrived at dinner time (that’s 7:00 pm here in Australia, which the Spanish amongst you will find hilarious!) and phoned Calypso backpackers hostel to take advantage of their free airport pickup service. My call was received by the very friendly (and as I soon discovered, extremely cute!) Amanda, who said she would jump in the van straight away, and be there in ten minutes.

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Amanda (did I mention she was very cute?) got us back to Calypso just in time for the $8 buffet dinner. Every night of the week, their in-house chef prepares a themed feast, and last night’s was curry, our favourite. Actually, since we’ve been on holidays, every food is our favourite!

There was a good crowd in the entertainment area, taking advantage of the great value food, and slurping down some icy cold beers at Calypso’s own Zanzibar. Maria and I quenched our thirst with a couple of refreshing Tooheys during the after dinner Happy Hour, and then called it an early night.

Enjoying our holidays in Cairns in Calypso, one of the many Backpackers Hostels in Cairns. .

We got up early this morning and hit the pool before it got too hot. For those of you not familiar with Cairns and tropical North Queensland, the weather is always hot here. Even in winter, daytime temperatures usually reach well into the mid twenties, and in summer the mid to high thirties but with a tropical humidity that makes it feel like you’re standing next to a bonfire in a sauna. Swimming pools are almost unuseable during summer unless they’re at least partly shaded… because they will be too hot!

<Zanzibar, at Calypso Backpackers Hostel, in Cairns

We grabbed a quick bite to eat before we left the hostel. Zanzibar was quiet at that early hour, a different place to the party scene we had seen the night before. Just around the corner on Sheridan Street awaited a little white Daihatsu Sirion with our name on it…

Cruising Car Rental, in Cairns, were great to us.

Cairns Cruising Car Rental is impossible to miss. Just a couple of doors away from the giant statue of Captain Cook (one of Cairns’ most identifiable landmarks), it’s a bright yellow and blue building with a yellow car on the roof… and the car is wearing sunglasses! The boys at Cruising Car Rental got the paperwork out of the way in record time, and I was back at Calypso fetching Maria before you could say “Hasta la vista baby!”

We had a very important meeting with a girl called Julie, the Communications Manager of Skyrail,one of Cairns’ most popular tourist attractions. I lived in Cairns once upon a time; just for a few months. That’s a bit of a long story that I won’t get into here, but all the time I was in Cairns, I was fascinated with the Skyrail. It was one of those things that I ‘just never got around to doing’. Well, now I had an excuse. Now I had a ‘guiri’-foreigner- (that’s what I get called in Spain!) to show around.

Talking to Julie, Skyrails Communications Manager.

Skyrail is a 7.5 kilometre long cableway, stretching from the coastal fringe of the rainforest all the way to the mountain town of Kuranda, above Barron Gorge National Park, which is part of the Wet Tropics Worlkd Heritage Area. Along the way, your gondola glides silently just metres above the rainforest canopy, and in places where there are natural breaks in the vegetation, you’re so close that it feels like you’re amongst the treetops. I have to bite my tongue to stop from referring to Skyrail as a ‘ride’. It’s so much fun that it feels like a ride, but in fact it’s far more, and Skyrail prefer to call it a rainforest experience. A large part of the Skyrail is to educate people about the rainforest, and make them interesting in protecting it. Julie rode with Maria and I, and filled us in on all the interesting facts and figures about Skyrail’s construction and history.I remember that the original plan to build Skyrail was met with fierce opposition. This area is after all, a prized and unique piece of rainforest, and conservationists were concerned that the construction of a ‘ride’ would cause a lot of damage to the fragile ecosystem. But the construction of the cableway was done largely without disturbing the forest flora or fauna. The numerous towers -the tallest one over forty metres high- were placed in existing clearings, and the materials for the towers were lowered in by helicopter. Workers hiked in each day on foot. As Julie pointed out, the last thing Skyrail wants is to have a filthy great road running through the forest! In fact, besides the ‘Best Major Tourist Attraction’ award at the Australian Tourism Awards, Skyrail has been presented with a number of environmental awards, including the British Airways ‘Tourism for Tomorrow’ ecotourism award, and the EIBTM for MOst Environmentally conscious Visitor Attraction.

As we swept inland, the vegetation below became thick and lush. Massive tree ferns, surely weighing hundreds of kilos, could be seen in the upper limbs of towering rainforest trees. The dense green was punctuated every so often by the bright red shout of a flame tree, an unusual species in that it has chlorophyll in it’s branches, so doesn’t require green leaves for photosynthesis, just a sudden screaming blast of red disappearing back into the greenery as our gondola passed by.

Along the way we stopped at Barron Falls station, with stunning views over the falls, and at Red Peak Station, where a park ranger gave us an educational tour of the rainforest, via a specially constructed boardwalk. I have to be honest, I never found biology very interesting in school (except for the snicker value of the unit on human reproduction) and I’ve always been more interested in the aesthetic beauty of the surrounding nature as opposed the the scientific facts and details pertaining to it. But Ranger Billy’s tour was really something. In the photo above, Billy is demonstrating how the roaming barbed vines of this rainforest palm led to the palm earning the nickname of ‘wait-a-while’. (Because if you run into it, you have little option but to wait a while!) He also showed us small red berries, growing on a prickly bush. These berries, if ingested, will cause complete but temporary blindness. A matter of hours later, the victim will regain their sight with no side effects. I asked him if we could play a trick on Maria by slipping a few of the berries into an ice cream or something, but he was worried about losing his job, and said he’d rather not be part of such a prank. Another plant, Billy told us, produced a fruit which although perfectly edible, could cause complete, irreversible blindness if the hairy skin of the fruit was to come in contact with your eye. He pointed to a plant (the name of which I’m sure I forgot within seconds) that was traditionally used by Aborigines for fishing. If the leaves of this plant are crushed up and dipped into a small pond or a slow flowing steam, any fish unfortunate enough to be in that body of water will be stunned, and float to the surface. Billy was quick to point out that once the Aborigines had collected as many fish as they needed, they would remove the leaves from the water and the fish would slowly come back to life and swim away, probably losing any recollection of the whole experience in about as many seconds as it took me to forget the name of that particular plant.

Skyrail Station, in Kuranda.

And before long we were in Kuranda, a pretty little mountain village that just happens to be surrounded by World Heritage listed rainforest. I was sad to have to leave the Skyrail. Kuranda is quaint and its location is unbeatable, with some of the planet’s most beautiful nature all around it. But don’t let this lead you to believe that Kuranda is a place to spend a lot of time. If you’ve heard the saying “Life’s a journey, not a destination”, well, that saying was begun in Kuranda. Getting to Kuranda was an unforgettable experience, something that will go down in the highlights of my years of travel. But once we were there, we were ready to leave. The main street is home to two or three pubs, a few overpriced cafes and restaurants, and about fifty times as many souvenir stalls and didgeridoo shops as the town’s traditional charm and character could reasonably withstand. Okay, there’s Birdworld, the Noctarium, and the Butterfly Sanctuary, and if any of those attractions sound like your cup of tea, then knock yourself out!

One of the more interesting things we found in Kuranda was the Flying Fox Rescue Centre, down a side lane at the end of the main street. This is where orphaned or injured flying foxes are brought to be rehabilitated. The kindly lady at the centre was good enough to bring out a flying fox (I think its name was Ralph) for us to meet. Although many (most?) Australian despise the flying fox, mostly because of the costly damage it does to fruit crops, we were told of the importance of the flying fox in the ecosystem. It is responsible for the germination of many of the trees and assorted plants that are found in the rainforest. Without the flying fox eating seeded fruits and pooping the berries out all over the place, hundreds of rainforest species would potentially be threatened with extinction… and so would the other species- flora and fauna- that rely on those. And so on. I made a small donation to the cause, but having grown up in an area where my family and my friends’ families all relied on fruit growing for their survival, I found it difficult to find any real warmth for the flying fox.

The train station at Kuranda, where we took the Kuranda Scenic Railway.

But after washing down a couple of meat pies with a few cold schooners of Carlton Draught at the local pub like two proud Aussies, Maria and I were Cairns bound again. Besides driving, there are two ways to travel between Kuranda and Cairns; the Skyrail and the Kuranda Scenic Railway. Each one provides a different view of the surrounding nature so we, like many tourists, decided to give both of them a try; up by Skyrail and home by train. Well, I wouldn’t say the train wasn’t enjoyable, and Kuranda Railway Station itself was beautiful, but after the breathtaking sensation of floating through the treetops on Skyrail, it was something of an anticlimax. Pleasant but not really thrilling, I’d say. If you’re going to do both, I’d suggest leaving Skyrail for your homeward journey, and ending your day on a high!

A view of the Kuranda Scenic Railway, in Tropical North Queensland.

Just for your interest, here’s a few almost unbelievable facts (I swear I didn’t make them up!) about the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area:Although covering only two percent of Australia’s land mass, these rainforests are home to:

65% of Australia’s fern species
50% of Australia’s bird species
60% of Australia’s butterfly species
37% of Australia’s freshwater fish species
36% of Australia’s mammal species
0% of Australia’s yobbo species
0% of Australia’s MacDonalds outlets

If you’re interested to learn more about these rich, unique areas, visit www.tropeco.com

MARIA’S ADDENDUM…Guys, all of you should go to Cairns. It is a beautiful town, but what really impressed me about it was the lagoon that has been built near the ocean. One of the sides is sandy and resembles a white sandy beach. On the opposite side some covered wooden decks have been built, so anyone can choose what suits them better. I don’t know how the council manages to keep the water so clean but it is spotless. And the whole lagoon is surrounded by grass where barbecues have been placed for anyone to use. It is an amazing place and I spent my whole time in Cairns looking forward to having a swim there. Because many of you may not know, but in most of the beaches in the area swimming is not permitted as there are stingers. And if they bite you it hurts like hell, so Steve says. Unbelievable how you go to one of these beautiful sandy beaches full of green palm trees in a hot day and you cannot swim. We really felt like crying.Somehow we managed to find a beach where a net had been installed and it was “safe” to swim, no stingers there. I find all these things funny, in Spain we don’t get stingers in the beaches that I know of, we never get snakes in our back yards, we never run into kangaroos when driving, etc. What a country!!!