Thursday – Sunday, November 10 – 13, 2011: Cairns, Australia (Part 1)
Arriving into Cairns early in the evening, we were amazed at how quickly we had crisscrossed the country as the weather had changed from a dry, hot, desert climate at Uluru, to a thick, humid, and sauna like rain forest climate of Northern Queensland. Securing our rental car at the airport and just walking out to the parking lot drenched us in sweat, so we knew we had arrived at the tropical intersection of the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef.
Less than an hour up the coast from Cairns, we arrived at our accommodation for our stay, the Mountain View Lodge in Oak Beach. The owners were extremely kind and we settled into our beautiful studio king ensuite unit, to prepare a late dinner and then drift off to sleep.
The next morning, we had some breakfast and then were headed out in the car for a road trip to a number of nearby sights in the area. As we headed north, we passed Port Douglas, the port from our Australia cruise, and continued onward towards Mossman Gorge. Located in the southern portion of the Daintree National Park, the Gorge is a beautiful area of land filled with rushing streams, huge boulders, and boardwalk hikes through the tropical rain forest of the region. We spent over an hour here walking along the raised pathways, admiring the rushing waters of the river nearby, and crossing a steel suspension bridge.
As we continued north on our road trip, we got to ride on a vehicle ferry across the Daintree River. It is the only way to get from the southern Port Douglas/Mossman region to the north up to Cape Tribulation. It can carry up to 40 vehicles and runs about every 10 minutes, so there is never much of a wait to get on. Apparently, discussions about building a bridge had taken place, but ultimately had been struck down because of the concern that having a bridge would increase the number of visitors and potentially impact the fragile rainforest even more than humans already were. A fun experience, nonetheless, and once we had reached the northern side of the river, we were back on the narrow, winding road towards our final destination, Cape Tribulation.
Along the way, just as we were passing through Cow Bay, we pulled off the road to spend some time at the Daintree Discovery Centre, a wonderful park setting in the rainforest where you can experience every level of the rainforest, from the floor to above the canopy and everything in between. This is accomplished with a combination of boardwalk pathways, suspended canopy bridges, platforms, and tall towers that visitors can climb. Once at the top, the views are extrordinary and throughout the visit, we learned about plants, animals, and the amazing ecosystems of rainforests.
The Daintree Rainforest is the oldest in the world at over 130 million years of age. This sits in stark contrast to the Amazon, which is only 7 million years old. We had originally intended on spending only about an hour here, but the place was so interesting with countless things to see and a great audio guide tour included in our admission, we spent over two hours here.
Another 30 minutes or so of driving and we had reached the end of the road (for rental cars and most 2WD vehicles) at Cape Tribulation, a secluded and beautiful stretch of tropical beach. This place is unique as it is the only place in the world where two UNESCO World Heritage sites for the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef lie side by side. We enjoyed walking along the beach and climbing up to an overlook that provided some beautiful views of the beach, the surrounding rain forest, and the turquoise waters of the sea.
By the time we had left, it was already 4pm and we knew that it was time to begin the drive back home. On our way back, we made a quick stop at the Daintree Ice Cream Company. Something of an institution in this area, the owners made ice cream out of local tropical fruits and seeds and each day is a different and unique set of four flavors. From one day to the next, one never knows what will be served and the only way to order is to get a large cup with one scoop of each flavor. No substitutions, no reductions, no changes. Today’s offering was Soursop, which we had the pleasure of trying for the first time in Tahiti, Raspberry, Mango, and Wattleseed, which we can only describe as being very close to coffee ice cream.
We arrived home just as the sun was setting and we enjoyed a nice dinner in our tropical bungalow. Following dinner, we relaxed a bit and headed off to sleep.
The next morning, we had a bit of overcast skies, but nothing would deter us from taking the short drive up to Port Douglas and meeting up with the Calypso, our catamaran for our day trip of snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef. The ship was quite large, very comfortable, and the staff were extremely attentive to the safety and enjoyment of everyone on board. Today’s tour of Reef would take us to three different sites and include snacks, a tropical buffet lunch, and all of our gear. As we left Port Douglas and started the 90 minute sail to our first site, the clouds fell away, the sun came out, and we enjoyed the leisurely ride towards the Great Barrier Reef.
As we approached our first snorkel site, we were requested for a safety briefing and the staff went over all of the key points of how to ensure that we would enjoy our time out in the water. Once that was complete, we had to get our suits. Full length body suits designed to protect snorkelers and divers from stingers which are found in the waters during the summer months cover you from the top of your head to your toes and include mittens on your hands. Thankfully, the suits are black in color (we had seen a number of these suits in fluorescent orange, pink, and green at other tour companies), and provided UPF 50 protection from the sun, so no one seemed to mind.
On this particular day, the catamaran we were on had both snorkelers and a smaller number of divers, so upon arrival at our first site, the divers hopped into the water, and a few minutes later, we were exploring countless numbers of coral, fish, and underwater life at the Reef. We were given over an hour here and we were able to get a good 100 meters or more from the ship as they had staff and a dingy in the water to ensure comfort and safety.
Snorkelling is an intensely quiet and calm experience. Most of the noise of the world disappears the moment your head drops below the water and as you swim around, the peacefulness surrounds you and lets you see and appreciate everything as it unfolds. In one moment, we watch a clownfish floating in tandem with the underwater plants in the current, while in another, we watch huge clams open and shut their massives jaws to feed on nearby food. Fish of too many colors and types to possibly count swim by with little care in the world that you are there and the coral is like a three dimensional puzzle of color as it extends side to side and upwards through hundreds of years of incremental growth.
Back on board, the Calypso staff served coffee, tea, and snacks as we made our way towards our second site. Once we arrived here, we were able to spend another hour plus out in the water. At this site, one of the guides offered a “guided tour” of the reef and spent about 30 minutes pointing out a number of fish and sea creatures in the area. Once complete, we were all free to continue snorkelling on our own. We, again, were granted a wide range of latitude to drift a considerable distance from the ship as the sea conditions were very good and there was staff nearby in the water to assist if needed.
Upon completion at the second site, we were offered a tropical buffet lunch with a variety of salads, tandoori chicken, cold cuts, fresh fruit, and bread to crush the growing appetites that swimming and snorkeling in the ocean can create. Everything was fresh, tasty, and hit the spot and before we knew it, we had arrived at our third and final snorkel site.
With another 90 minutes here, we had logged over 4 hours of snorkel time for the day and hundreds of underwater pictures. Once back on the boat, the staff gathered up all of the gear and everyone enjoyed the sun and a relaxing ride back into Port Douglas. It was a wonderful day out at the Great Barrier Reef and we would certainly recommend our tour operator for a future trip.
We made the short 20 minute ride back to our place, again, prepared a fanstastic meal for dinner and settled off to sleep. Tomorrow, we head back towards Cairns for a triple experience day at Tjapukai, riding the Skyrail, and taking the Kuranda Scenic Railway.