This journey took place during a period when Mel was still domiciled in China for work. Shuttling home, he yearned to see something different from the life he was experiencing in the middle Kingdom. So it was an impulsive decision to make the journey to Queensland. And it coincided at a time when the Australian currency was in the doldrums, much to our delight that parity could do to enhance our purchasing power.
We had flown into Cairns with no plans except a wish to see the Great Barrier Reef. So there was no itinerary or plans made. So what did we do?
Now back in those days, Cairns was really a small town. From our hotel, it was a 10 minute walk to the center – filled with many tour operators offering diving lessons, tours etc. The entire atmosphere was one of laid back revelry. We had seafood meals of lobsters and what Australian called “bugs” – really different species of lobsters… Now prices were the same as in Singapore since the currencies were in parity, hence we indulged. Really.
Interviewing to be farmers?
No. Back at that time the concept of obtaining visa for seasonal farm work in Australia was not popular yet. Sure there were backpackers but not in the numbers we’ve since seen. So this was a journey to a ‘farm’. Woolshed’s the name and it was a show house. One where folks can the real locals and things like how wool is collected from the vast flocks of sheep in this country.
Sheep shearing was no stranger to us. Suan had seen it in Brisbane in 1996 and we had seen it in New Zealand in 1995. The difference is that this “farm” has kangaroos and Koalas as well.
So we paid for the opportunity to cuddle one. Just like some would do the same with baby tigers in Thailand…we suppose. And so we posed while we carried one very uncomfortable creature. The Koala was clawing all over… and the damage was done – there were holes in Mel’s shirt and deep red marks where cloth did not cover. So if you ever try to cuddle one, be aware of its claws.
We spent most of the day here; feeding the kangaroos, posing with Koalas etc… and it was not all fruitless touristic activities. One thing learnt here was the fact there are 2 major species of Kangaroos – Grey and Red coated ones. And they are said to live on different sides of the continent.
Enjoyed nature’s fauna and flora
While the coastal waters get all the attention, that is not all that Cairns or indeed Queensland has to offer. There are very lush forests here too. This part of Australia is sub-tropical and one can really be surprised that it has a lot of rainforests too.
Kuranda is one such area. Barron gorge national park is located in the northern part of Queensland, just “above” Cairns. Upon arrival we first took the Skyrail that led us over spectacular waterfalls of the gorge. The cableway is 7.5km long and was a relatively new attraction when we visited (opened 1995). The Barron river barrels over the gorge from the Atherton tablelands 265m down and is the cause of the incredible scene of mist and hiss. Yeah you have to be there to hear it roar.
Of course one cannot pass up another round of visiting animal enclosures – and naturally we spent a lot of time at the Koala enclosure, again. Here in the national park. The living forests are a living museum protecting special plants and animals, including the flight-less and endangered Cassowary, the primitive Musky Rat-Kangaroo.
Of particular interest in these forests and wetlands for us were the salt water crocodiles – called “Salties” (read our story about crocodiles in Singapore). They grow to immense length (20 feet we are told) and are proficient hunters. At the time of our visit, we were told these crocodiles inhabit mostly the northern coasts of Australia, but in recent years they seemed to have moved well beyond to estuarine habitats even far to south western part of Australia. And they are powerful too! Using its tail, it can leap up from the water to a great height!
Instead of getting back where we came (cableway), we took the scenic railway train back to Cairns.
These tracks were laid in the 1880s but they have stopped to be use for commuter trains. Instead this scenic train runs to bring tourists between Kuranda and Cairns. It snaked its way through the rain forests of the Macalister range at which one point, we stopped – to see Barron falls. And as the train ends up in Cairns itself, made it easy to get back to the hotel. A good way to spend the day enjoying what nature has to offer in this northerly part of Queensland.
Jumped into the reef, a great barrier!
Of course what we really came for was the reef. The one that’s great!
And the only way to enjoy it was to get wet. And under water. We joined the Sun Lovers’ cruise – that took us out to Arlington reef. Of course you’d know that this is but one of the many that makes up the Great Barrier reef. After two hour’s sail out of Cairns, we reached the pontoon from which we were anchored and be our base for the rest of the day.
Recall this was at a time before digital photography was vogue. Well at least underwater ones. So it was these ‘vintage’ sturdy underwater cameras we took with us as we hit the waters. The waves were rough and sea choppy and many photos did not turned out!
This was our first time snorkeling and it was quite a good attempt in our opinion. And back in the day, we jumped in without life vests or wet suits. These days with box jelly fish risk, one would be wiser to be better prepared before diving into the ocean here.
Besides getting into the water (which we did very regularly), we spent time resting in between the day on the pontoon which came with an underwater viewing gallery. So you can actually see the corals and reef, without getting wet. But what fun would that be?
On another day, we took a boat from Cairns to Green island, where we spent the bulk of the day. Green island is closer to the mainland, thus the corals here are not as spectacular as at the outer reef we experienced just the day before. But nevertheless it is close by and easily accessed. All options to be considered!
Hot air ballooned
This journey was also where we experienced an aerial tour for the first time.
We were awoken at 4am in the morning for an hour’s drive to the Atherton tablelands. We were going ballooning! All of us were assigned a “basket” which carried 10 people, that accommodates just enough room to move about slightly. And it takes quite some time to get the balloon ready because the hot air has to be “fed” into the balloon… Quite a feat and it was nearly an hour before we were ready and on our way.
At first, we were apprehensive, because the background showed huge rain clouds looming at a distant over the plateau. But as the day continued it began to clear up a little revealing to us a panorama of the great plains in Queensland. We are now over the Atherton tablelands!
Our Ballooning took us all the way up to 3600 feet. The plateau beneath us are themselves ~1200 feet above sea level. It is good to know that the pilot of the Balloon can only control its height, and it is really skills that is required to utilize the winds and steer it in the right direction. Sometimes we wonder how he’d know where we would land…
And we were not the only ones. There are many other Balloons up in the sky too! Coming back down to earth, we were first requested to help collapse the balloon and load it back on the truck that had been shadowing us all the time. Then we were treated to a Champagne breakfast. What a way to end our journey to Cairns. For that was the last activity, before we headed home on a giant aluminum can flying at supersonic speed. Quite a bit faster than the balloon.
So two firsts for us here: snorkeling and ballooning. All activities that we will indulge in the years ahead. If there was one more thing we missed, it would be to take the helicopter trip over the reefs. And someday we will.
The journey took place in March 1999