Hello from Cairns. I'm just back from my Great Barrier Reef cruise and have a spare hour before our final group meal/night out on the east coast leg of the trip. The Cairns nightlife seemed very good judging by Wednesday, although that particular night was ruined by the idiot we had in charge of our pub crawl who was intent on humiliating everyone. We visited a few different bars around the centre and thats about the only chance I've had to see the city itself. Our hotel is annoyingly a taxi ride away on the outskirts so I stayed around the hotel last night. There doesn't seem to be an awful lot to Cairns anyway. Its mainly a tourist/backpacker centre for exploring the nearby reef and rainforest. The population here is 150,000 in the winter, though that number plummets in the summer months when many Cairns residents migrate south to escape the heavy rainfall, 40 degree heat and 100% humidity. We are fortunately here just before that period and the temperature has only been 32C with 70% humidity. It still feels hot enough for me.
Yesterday it did rain here for the first time in a couple of weeks. I took a full day trip out to Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation, which was about 2 hours north. We had a drive through the high brow town of Port Douglas on route before our first proper stop at the Mossman Gorge. We had a short rainforest walk here by the half full river, during which I am adament I saw a platypus in the water. The guide rebuted my claims and said that platypus's don't swim up the Mossman Gorge, yet she was unable to explain what else it might have been. They don't have otters or anything like that here. I have since checked on the Internet though and there are numerous other websites backing up my claim that platypus's are infact in the Mossman Gorge, so I shall stick by the fact that I saw one! I was totally unaware before seeing it that they even had them in Australia, but apparently they are present in North Queensland and other areas of the country.
We then drove on to the wide Daintree River, which marks the start of the rainforest proper. The Daintree Rainforest is the oldest in the world - it was present even when all the continents were joined as one. This is one reason why it has the highest concentration of different plant and animal species of anywhere in the world. At the Daintree River we took a small boat out on a one hour crocodile hunting trip. The guide was not all that hopeful that we would see one as at the time of year they tend to sit on their nests in the wooded banks, or stay underwater to keep cool. However, we caught sight of a young adult male by one of the banks and I was able to get a few distant photos of his head before he disappeared. We then saw a young crocodile, which was so small it was hard to see, followed by a very well hidden adult female. I was one of only 4 people out of 28 on the boat who could actually see it as it was so well hidden in the shrubs. The boats don't bother the 80 crocs that reside on that stretch of the river as they see them so often, though we were warned that if we leant out of the boat they may drag us in as they are opportunistic hunters.
After lunch at a rainforest lodge we visited the Cape Tribulation Beach, which would have been much more beautiful in the sunshine. It is where the rainforest literally meets the reef and one of the only spots where two UNESCO world heritage sights adjoin each other. We then had tropical fruit ice creams at one of the few residences in Cape Tribulation. Many of the 300 locals who live there do not even have electricity and the hotels have to use their own generators. Our last stop was at a rainforest boardwalk and canopy tower where we had hoped to see a cassowary bird in the wild. The only things we did see were spiders and for some people lots of mosquito's. I'm very relieved to say that I didn't get bitten once though, which is a return to normal. In the States and Britain I never get bitten even when everyone else does, yet in New Zealand and South America they seemed to like me.
On the drive back we crossed the Daintree River by the famous cable ferry. They cannot build a bridge due to the fact the area is so frequently flooded in the rainy season. Just before this we had pulled up a viewpoint across the spot of the Coral Sea where crocodile hunter Steve Irwin met his end. He is still a very prominent figure in the Australian tourist industry. Its a shame we did not visit his zoo just north of Brisbane, though the one we did visit on the Gold Coast was probably very similar without the large arena.
Today's trip to the reef has been one of the stand out days of my whole trip and by far my most enjoyable day in Australia. We escaped the cloudy coastline on our fast catamaran, which took 1.5 hours to reach the clear skies and waters of the outer Great Barrier Reef. The cruise company had a small floating island set up right next to a very shallow part of the reef. From the boat and island itself it was very hard to see anything, so I immediately donned my hideous looking "stinger suit" and a lifejacket and went snorkelling. Right next to the island there was very little coral, but just a short way out the marine life was booming. There were tropical fishes everywhere and it felt like being in a giant fish tank. The water was perfectly clear and visibility was not a problem as it was so shallow. In some parts it was less than a metre deep and you had to very careful not to hit the coral. The colours were incredible, from bright red to bright blue and yellow. Some of the coral moves in the currents and some looks like it is breathing in and out. I saw a couple of huge giant clams, and some rocks which had what I think were very strange moving plants attached to them resembling a mouth opening and closing. At the end of the generously large snorkel area there was a dramatic drop off which you could swim over. The sea went from about 1m deep to 20m deep and the depths looked very murky. I could imagine to myself a shark appearing suddenly, though I guess the water is too shallow for all but the reef sharks. The largest fish I saw were approaching 2 feet in length. Some of the smaller fish swam in schools, which was pretty cool. They move so fast yet never hit anything.
After an oriental buffet lunch (to cater for all the Japanese tourists on board) I took a trip on the glass-water boat. It was nowhere near as good as snorkelling as the glass neutralised the colour of the coral. I had hoped to get some photos but the reflection was too great. I did however get some photos on my 20 minute semi-submersible ride, though they look a bit murky and in no way do justice to the beauty of the place. The submersible was a boat with a seating section in the hull. It had panoramic windows which gave a pretty good view from about 1.5m underwater. I got my best photos when watching the fish feeding from the underwater deck of the island. The windows here were much clearer and the sunlight really bright. Just before leaving I went for a second snorkle, before we left the reef at 3.30pm after spending around 3.5 hours there. It really was a fantastic thing to see and justifiably is listed as a natural wonder of the world. The latest climate projections however claim that the reef may be gone by 2020, which would be a huge shame. There was certainly a lot of dead coral about. Much of this washes up on certain beaches in Queensland. On the beaches the dead and broken up coral resembles dried dog food, which was the reason why nobody used the beaches in Daydream Island. It is not very comfortable to lie on.
Tomorrow in the late morning I set off with around 12 other people from the current tour on our 2.5 hour Qantas flight to Alice Springs in the Northern Territory (which the Aussies refer to simply as "The Territory"). I've been warned it will be very hot and maybe a tad dusty. We will join up with more new people on Sunday and spend 11 days travelling through the Territory up to Darwin. It is the bit of the tour I've most been looking forward to. Though the beaches and rainforest of the east coast have been nice I've certainly seen enough of them now! Before the Whitsundays nothing about the east coast had really grabbed me, but with the last 6 or so days have been really spectacular and interesting, and I'm glad it has ended on a high. You'll next hear from me in the Outback!