Friday, March 27, 2015
Monday, March 24, 2014
For millenia, Australia was untouched by most of the world, only the native flora, fauna and people existed in perfect harmony. Literally, in thousands of years little had changed on this continent. And everything in Australia is a little different. All the native animals are uniquely Australian. There are no bears as in the rest of the world; no lions, no tigers or cougars. There are plants that can only be found in Australia and vice versa too. There are no kangaroos anyplace else on this earth; no koalas, no wombats and none of the myriad of other creatures. Australia developed separately from all other continents. Australia is unique!
The native people, the aborigines, have occupied and taken care of the land for close to 70,000 years. Only in the last 200 years, has the rest of the world started to move into the land down under. Yes, similar events happened in the Americas, but let's stick with Australia. How or what were my impressions of this sovereign and independent nation? What did I see or how did I feel while spending 3 weeks traipsing from one town to the other? I gave myself some time for reflection to think about that and I am going to write some of my ideas down in this blog even if I prove myself totally wrong in years to come. On the other hand I might only state the obvious.
Australia today is a first class nation; run very efficiently and proud of their differences from other countries. Australia was Influenced in a major way during the British Empire period into "thinking" British. Like driving on the left side of the road, like ruling their land using the British Parlimentory setup, like basing their laws on the British commonwealth rules, like speaking English, etc. Yet, Australia is not British. For sure they have their own say and do their own thing when governing themselves. Australians are regarded highly by their neighbors, mostly the small or large Pacific Island nations. In fact the whole earth thinks of Australia in a benevolent way. Not because Australians are friendly, they are that, but because Australians rule themselves and do so well that people from equally developed continents or countries, like Canada or Europe still immigrate there today. Australia is still a magnet to many people. People can earn a good living in Australia, especially if one has a skill that others do not have or few people have. The minimum wage is $18.50/hour, more than double what you can earn in the U.S. ($7.25) and that is a huge draw for lots of people from all over the world. Australia today is a bit picky about whom they want as a citizen or even whom they let in as a worker. I can not blame them, they have worked hard to have a good life. Before they share this life with others they want to be able to sort out who it will be that benefits from what they now have. That is only natural.
On the other hand, the aboriginal people occupying the land did not have the same choices. The British moved in by force and just took what they considered free land. They established penal colonies to relieve the overcrowded British prisons. The prisoners, having served their sentences, generally remained in Australia and worked as laborers, miners or farmers. Their rough and ready ways still permeate Australian behavior today. Their European thinking, in a very short time, flooded the whole of Australia. So did their diseases. Nobody is proud of this part of Australian history. Land grabbing by foreigners happened on other continents on this globe. That it happened before or that this is just the way it is, eases some people's minds, but does not make the whole of it right. The natives, in their own way, lived a good life, too. Nobody can go back to a previous time and undo things, so let's stick with looking at Australia the way it is today.
I missed the internet in Australia. Oh, sure they have it. But I was not going to pay $7 for one hour of access that one motel wanted to charge. Even in a McDonald's, they charged for access to the web. Yes they have the internet. Free WiFi is rare, and when I did find it it was slooooow and often did not connect. Some hotels used satellite dished for their connections which were useless on clouded days. I feel that wifi could be hugely improved upon in Oz.
Gasoline is available everywhere but it is essential not to run one's tank too low in the outback. The stations are very spread out and there are hardly any stations between towns. Towns are about 80 miles apart.
All the roads were in ok shape, yet the roads are much narrower than the roads I am used to in North America. Most roads are just 2 lane roads. Each side or lane is as wide as a semi trailer truck. I felt really badly for the truckers, there is no wiggle room. Your truck fits onto the asphalt, yes, but just barely with no room on either side of your wheels. Driving like that at 110km/hour (68mph) is not fun. I also found that cresting a hill was an adventure, the climb was so steep I could, many times, not see past the crests.
I liked the speed limit controls. 60km/hour means just that, it does not mean 61 is ok. Get caught and it will cost you dearly. Speed cameras are everywhere. Just do not speed in Australia and do not run a red light. Most traffic lights have cameras build in. The light is yellow and you think you can make it? Flash, you got a ticket. Expensive! All GPS's have the speed limit built in. If you want to know the speed limit look at your GPS, it will show you. It will even give you a soft ding tone if you set it up that way, should you travel over the limit. The electronics across all of Australia to control traffic flow are all in place and they work. If your GPS tells you you will arrive in 27 minutes, you can trust it, barring an accident someplace. The roads are so controlled, that you can trust yor GPS to give you the right ETA. It simply works!
Since the wages are so high the cost of living is high, too. Be aware that Australia for outsiders is an expensive place to visit. A simple dinner of fish and chips with one beer will cost you between $20 to 25 depending on where you are. I liked the no tipping policy. All help in the restaurants make at least minimum wage, so no tipping. Same for taxis and other services. No tipping! Yea!
Australia is clean, well cleaner than lots of other places I have visited. Brisbane was spotless. They can compare themselves to Singapore, I am sure. Melbourne had the most grafitti but it was an art form there. Sydney near the airport (we walked from the car return back to the hotel) needs a cleaning crew badly. The smaller towns like Aberdeen were ok, they work great as a supply station for gas. There is not much else to write about them. We did see a pub in every town, though. I don't think there is a town anyplace in Australia that has no pub. Beer is their favorite drink and they drink a lot.
I said it before, Australians are friendly, even jovial. Cuing up is in their nature, no shoving or pushing. When I was pushed, it was invariably an Asian person, not even an Asian Ozzie. Other visitors from China or Korea or other Asian countries are stand outs when it comes to being loud and noisy and pushy. Japan excepted.
Modern Australia is a mix of people, all trying to fit into this self made, different from the rest of the world, country.
The people who really do stand out to me are the original inhabitants. Their demeanor is foreign to me. I can not read their facial features; they live (still?) in a different world. But then, I did not see too many of them. They seem to hide in the shadows. They still talk about their dream times, they still live a different life it seems. I don't know anything about Australia I guess, since I could not talk to them at all. The many men and women of the original tribes are so different. It is like seeing a deer stand next to a kangaroo, both eat grass, while developmentally they are native to their own areas yet they are so different in many other aspects. Millenia of development can not be eliminated in just 200 years. Cooperation between the cultures, as is starting with land management in the Uluru area, might lead to an even better place to Iive than Australia is today.
Viva la difference!
I call Katoomba the great canyon of Australia. Maybe not as big a place as the American Grand Canyon, it is still a huge canyon. Situated a few hours West of Sydney it is a park that is worth seeing. While the Grand Canyon is mostly rocks, Katoomba is a huge canyon covered with undisturbed jungle. The subtropical highland climate is unique and covers all of the area inside the canyon. Summer temperatures range from 20 to 30 C. Snow can be found in winter but that is rare. Yet the plant life is subtropical. I have heard of some plants that grow within this region but never seen them. A turpentine tree for example. They have huge specimens growing within the park that have trunks, very straight, up to 55 meters (180 feet ) high. An amazing sight. I love trees, especially old trees that took hundreds of years to grow this tall. The biggest turpentine tree (Syncadia glomulifera) still stands in a reserve near Barrington Tops National Park, NSW and has a height of 58 Meters with a trunk circumference of 7.90 Meters (26 feet). The wood of those trees is almost totally resistent to termites and marine invertebrates. It was used as pilings for docks in years back, before the use of steel re-enforced concrete. Some places still use turpentine wood today for heavy flooring or telephone poles. A shame really, it takes them years to grow this tall. Cutting them down with a chain saw takes an hour. Modern life is ruthless!
Carol spotted a lyrebird and took some pictures. Not an easy feat to take a picture of this kind of bird in the wild. Normally those birds are very shy and easily spooked. Lyrebirds can and will imitate any sound they hear. They can bark like a dog, meow like a cat, say a word like a human; or sound like a frog. Anything they can hear they can imitate. The males, during courtship, are show-offs, wiggling their delicately colored tail feathers to attract the ladies. Those birds are not that rare but it is rare to see one since the birds really are shy and unapproachable. Good for Carol to spot one.
Katoomba is a good place for serious hikers. Some trails are for experts only. We met many young, strong, fit people in walking gear spending some quality time on the Jamison Valley jungle tracks. We old folks stuck to the planked tourist board walk, which was tough enough for us. The famous Giant Staircase, 900 hundred steep steps that takes about 2 hours to climb, we left for younger bodies.
Katoomba is a great get away from the urban life of Sydney. The two days and nights we stayed there were rewarding. I very much liked it. Sure it is touristy, we even took the cable car and also the steepest funicular railway in the world (52 degree incline). I even tried to drive along the rim of the cliff but abandoned that part since Carol is a bit freaky of heights. The very narrow road with no shoulder, literally hugs the edge of the cliff. Too close for comfort for Carol.
The town Katoomba is not that large. Total inhabitants about 8000 people. I could see that it must have been a great town in its heyday, some buildings were mansions, now converted into businesses like restaurants or guesthouses. We bunked at the local youth hostel, a clean, large place. A former hotel now converted for the use of the frugal. However the flair of the Grand Hotel still permeates from the layout and the decor. Still, even the youth hostel cost $80 per night with the member discount. That is sleep only, no frills, we made our own bed.
Well, this was the last town we visited in Australia. The rest was driving back to Sydney and repacking for the flight back to Toronto. We stored a large portion of our luggage at a hotel near the airport before we took off to tour Australia. Most of the articles we used on the cruise were in storage at the hotel. We travelled light while in the land of Oz. A good size backpack is all I used for the 3 weeks plus. Carol had a similar arrangment, she used a small roll around pack and a small knapsack. Traveling in Australia is easy but the distances are large. It would have been a chore if we had driven a car for the whole 3 weeks. I am glad we flew from place to place and used public transportation. But I am also glad we did rent this car for the last 9 days of our trip. Both gave me a broader picture of what Oz is about.
Oh, by the way, the male lyrebirds showing off for the females? It works! They do get the females, in fact if they did not show off, no female would look at them... Think about that !!!!!
Sunday, March 23, 2014
We also wanted to surprise Azure and Roel, motorcycle world travelers we know and hosted, who are working in a vineyard here. Both of them are winemakers and both know tons of stuff about wines. I call them wine experts. For years those two have made wine for the high end drinkers, for the people that know and appreciate the quality in their wines. But being adventure motorcycle riders for the last five years is, at the moment, more important to them then settling down someplace to make wines. Roel, a young Dutchman, has been on the road on his Honda African Twin (750cc) visiting places few have travelled such as Iran and East Timor. Roel met the American Azure, who rides her own Honda, a few years back. Ever since they met they have been inseparable. Our visit was a surprise, we did not tell them of our arrival. Carol planned it well, we received direction to their hideout from the winery itself, who did not spill the beans about our arrival. The surprise was perfect. We saw them Sunday afternoon, right after they took some time off for lunch. The great hello was a treat for them and us.
The winemaking facility Azure and Roel attend is a million dollar setup. The creation of wine by these two is an art that takes years of learning, attention to many small details and a good head for numbers and chemistry. As travelers, Roel and Azure find their wine making knowledge a true asset. In years to come they want to add to their skills in countries such as Argentina, Chile, South Africa and others. I am sure you can see that all this learning will benefit them in the long run. People will always drink wine. And good wines, the art of making good wines, will always be in demand. You might drink some of their creations sometime.
After we spent some time catching up on each other's news, after a great but not too expensive dinner out, they decided to give us a winery tour of other places the next day. Carol took this opportunity to send a few selected bottles of wine to her nephew, whom we visited while in Melbourne. Since I drove and had to pay attention to the roads I don't have too many pictures. But this area is perfect for growing wine. Warm, sunny, great soil and just the right combination of rain makes for a yearly, fantastic yield of grapes. While we visited Tyrrell, the oldest winery in the area, there are another 148 places that grow wines, too. Like always, if one place does a good business, others want to cash in on the bonanza and businesses will shoot up like mushrooms. Tyrrell started the wine making in the Hunter Valley region and after decades still produce outstanding quality wines, mainly for the domestic Australian market. A bottle at the winery will cost you between $20 to $75 dollars.
Yes they do make commercial wines for export to places like Europe, especially England, and lately to China but that is more in response to competition with the other wineries in the area, who almost exclusively sell to the mass market. Tyrrell, for Australia alone, is a quality oriented business creating exquisite wines for the palates of the true connoisseurs.
The day flew by in this good company. Roel took us on a private and extensive tour of Tyrrell's. Carol and Azure had some great wine tasting experiences. Azure spent time explaining where the grapes of each wine were grown, the flavors in each wine and how long each one should be aged for maximum quality. Carol enjoyed having this expertise and help in selecting some wines but she passed on the $86 Hunter Shiraz.
I limited myself, I was the driver. We reminisced over a coffee about riding our motorcycles in Mexico, the next part of the world Roel and Azure want to visit starting in May of this year. We shared some insights with them and gave them good tips for their visit to this fantastic country. In time, in years to come, someplace on this globe, we will run into them again. You can follow their blog here. Azure and Roel might take our advice and go to Alaska first then back down to Mexico. May in Mexico can be very hot on a bike, don't you think? How about taking your time, visit Alaska until August, then mosey down and start to visit MX in late September? Check out their blog, see what they will do!
While there are a lot of opals, black opals are only found here and we just had to take a look at this place. And what a treat it turned out to be. Imagine an old fashioned gold rush town of the 1890s. Claims need to be staked, shacks are put up to live in, the motors of old cars serve as mechanical pulleys or hoists for mining, all helter-skelter or so it seems. It is not a free for all, there are rules. The rules within the city limits of Lightning Ridge are your typical city rules, down to the trash collection and building codes. The opal mines are not within city limits, they are right next to the city and these areas have their own rules, the outback rules of Australia. Survive if you can.
The population is very European, Eastern European especially. The diggers are here to find the big one, the one stone that will ease all their money problems. But there are also a myriad of true characters. Their lore abounds, particularly among the miners themselves. Story telling is an art here. Tales of the big finds, of the lucky few are spread all around. We visited a copy of a castle build by a miner in his off time over a 40 year time frame and using no machinery. We saw the shack of a wrongly accused murderer who became an artist and astronomer, then blew himself to pieces by accident while lighting his propane stove. Oh the stories are great. Baloney? Malarkey? The gift of the gab? Blarney? All of those!
Yet there is a serious side to it all. This rather small town in the beginning of the Australian outback supplies the world with rare gems. This small town keeps jewelers busy, customers happy and most women wanting. There is a true science to it all. There are no shortcuts, one has to dig for those very small treasures. And the digging is not easy and luck still plays a huge part in all of it.
Any immigrant to Australia can buy an official claim. A claim is 50x50 meters. A yearly rent of $ 350 must be paid to the government. Plus one has to deposit a $ 750 bond to make sure the mine will be refilled with rocks if you want to abandon the claim. You forfeit the bond money if you do not refill before you leave. Also, if you do not pay the annual rental fee, you forfeit your bond money and your claim will be given to somebody else. Ok, suppose you receive a piece of land that measures 50 by 50 meters (160 x 160 feet). Where exactly will you dig for your opals? How deep must you dig before you hit the opal layer? Are you sure there are opals under your claim? How will you know, if you find the opals under your claim, if "your" opals are the valuable ones? How will you recognize them? The list goes on and on. Off course there were and there are the lucky people, the lucky finds. Most miners, however, are working hard and are making a living. If you like this kind of work, then this is a great life. You are your own boss, you drive yourself. Some even drove themselves to insanity. It takes a special person to be a treasure hunter like this.
The town of Lightning Ridge is a small Australian town on the edge of the Eastern outback. A bit modern due to the tourists that keep this town breathing. The town council tries hard to find 'other' venues to make this town needed or essential, such as putting in an Olympic sized pool with the latest design in diving platforms, and some athletes even practice there along with good coaches.
Yet what do you do in a town so far away from civilization? Opal mining is the main reason this town exists. The area around the town proper looks like human moles dug holes in the ground. The rocks not needed are piled right next to the mine entrances and they look like mole hills. The living conditions within the 'mole hills' seem primitive. Some of the shacks look dilapidated and haphazard. There is no running water or electricity. The whole area looks like hoarders found each other and like it there. The people are not dangerous or deranged, just so focused on the big find, they do not let the frills interfere with their pursuit of happiness. Cars are just for transportation, so car body repairs are not color matched. They are not plated. Brakes? A car drives without brakes on this totally flat landscape. Even window glass seems a luxury. Well, I think you get the idea. Mufflers ? Insurance ? as long as the car drives it is good enough. But, don't take this contraption into the town proper, I saw the police stop a man and talk to him. The town is a regular town, but around the town is the outback, there are different rules in the outback.
Some miners have moved to other areas a bit away from Lighting Ridge and even found opals there. Sure there are more opals if one follows the lay of the land and the underground crevices and layers that contain opals. But, and again but, those opals found away from Lighting Ridge are not the black opals. The black opal has a naturally adhering black back which enhances the color. The other opals found have a different composition, a different look.
Black opals are only found in this very small spot, the town we visited called Lighting Ridge, Australia.
Carol and I left after two nights in town. I could not do the physical labor those miners do. Even with the use of some modern equipment. The digging today is still done by hand. Opals are too precious to be dug up with the use of heavy machinery. The actual yielding layer of nodes can be as shallow as 4 feet below ground to 40 feet or beyond. There are no rules, there are no signs. Ground penetrating radar will not work. The opals are not magnetic. There is no other way gto find them but to dig. Opals are pure silica.
What a weird town !
Saturday, March 15, 2014
I am a dreamer, I do believe that most people are nice. I can talk and adjust to about anybody I meet. Yet sometimes I get this feeling that, no matter how I adjust, the other party will not, will never, will always be "not with the program". I don't know if it is their education level, their upbringing, their outlook on life, their personal space or behavior, we just don't click. Well, Walgett was full of people like that. Not unique to Australia, I have had this feeling in every continent I have been on. What I normally do is lay low and get out of town as quickly as I can. Walgett was one of those towns.
We stopped in Walgett for the night, just 100 km short of Lighning Ridge, because it was near dusk. Driving near or in the dark is a no-no for me. Not only do I not know the roads, the lay of the land, the peculiarities of each country, I also saw evidence of road kill, I mean a lot of road kill, on the side odd the road. The smell, too, of the bloated, decomposing carcasses permeated my nose most of the day. Most victims of the collisions with vehicles were kangaroos. Literally, Carol and I saw hundreds strewn on the road and at the side of the road. It does break my heart to see all the mangled bodies of the Roos while driving. Most of these collisions are at dusk or at night. So any town that has a motel is welcome, even a town like Walgett.
The speed limit is strictly enforced in Australia, even with speed cameras in rural areas. 100 km/hour (60mph) is the norm, yes they allow 110 sometimes, but only in wide open spaces with no traffic. I saw the police pull cars over in spots where you would never expect police to be. There just is no speeding in Australia. The speed limit is strictly adhered to. The fines are huge and expensive. The police have the power in certain instances to take your car away and for very young drivers that do not want to listen, their car can be confiscated and crushed. Yes, crushed. If you have a car loan, too bad. Your car was just crushed.
How can one avoid the collisions between Roos and vehicles? Deer whistles do not help here. Nobody knows, nobody has a good answer. Prohibiting night driving is not practical in today's age. The big trucks, most are long, double trailer semis, have protective bars installed to prevent damage to the grill and hood of their cabs from the Roos. It is a conundrum.
Oh, RSL stands for Returned from Service League. It is the Australian version of a club for soldiers or personal returning from the military. These clubs in Australia sometimes have bars, restaurants and/or casinos attached to them. They are reasonably priced and the food is similar to home cooked meals. Not a bargain, but good food, cheap beer and I just like the idea of supporting the members by spending my money there.
We left Walgett early, everybody was still asleep when we drove out of town. When I told people in Lightning Ridge that we spent the night in Walgett they looked at me in a strange way. One young fellow said: "you would never get me to go to Walgett, those people are strange". My sentiments indeed.
Friday, March 14, 2014
We found a hotel for the first night of having a car and with a little hassle and backtracking, did find an ok place on the service road next to the highway leading out of Brisbane. Rated 3 stars it was not a posh place. Clean but simple. The receptionist was also the cook, bartender and waiter. No restaurant near by, but the motel cooks for you. They advertise this as having a restaurant. They also have a bar. This seems to be standard in Australia.
Each room has an electric hot water maker, tea bags, some cookies and the spoons, milk, sugar, knife, fork etc. for two. Within the room is a small counter that is set up like a kitchen. Very small, but just enough to eat a meal in the room. We stayed in other motels later on that have a restaurant on the premises, but as near Brisbane, the receptionist is also the cook and waiter most of the time. One pays to sleep. Food and anything else are extra charges. The regular going rate for a room is around $ 130 per night. We did find others later that were less, but we never found less than let's say $90/night. Eating out in Australia is expensive, a portion of food is always, it seems, around $20. Drinks, like lemonade or soda are $4. A salad $ 8 to 10. It adds up. Different from the U.S., no tipping in Australia.
After breakfast the next morning we were off to find the Koala Sanctuary. First stop was an electronic store were we bought a simple GPS. With the help of modern tech and with Carol's excellent map reading skills, we nailed the location on the first try. I really love a GPS. A job well done, Carol.
The roads seem different, narrower, and lots of traffic circles ( roundabouts). The signage to the Sanctuary was well placed however. Traffic in the morning hours is like anyplace in the world, heavy to frantic.
I don't like zoos. Yet this is a different place. Yes, set up like a zoo in a way, it takes in hurt animals, or youngsters that were abandoned or their parents were killed. It is a rescue place and specializes in koalas. Yet it also has some native species that are unique to Australia only. Wallabies, wombats, kangaroos, platypus (what's the plural of platypus?), emus, a cassowary, laughing kookaburras, dingoes, a Tasmanian devil, etc. Animals and birds I have heard about, yet how do you get to see them all while in Australia? This Sanctuary seemed the best place to do it all at once. Not only that but when possible we could get close enough to feed them. The 'Roos we met were so tame, feeding them was no problem. Being this close to a cassowary and looking it in the eyes, I don't know, this bird seems stupid to me. Oh, we had a good time at this place. I even fed a raptor, an owl. We saw a demonstration of work on an Australian sheep farm. I am just sorry I did not understand this guy, the 'Shepherd' too well. I am still struggling with the accent.
After having strolled around the Koala Sanctuary for about 4 hours it was time to move on. We decided to go deeper inland, climb up to the tabletop, see some of the outback while we have the car. Remember Lightning Ridge, the opal town? Well we found it on the map and it kind of fits what we were looking for, so off to NSW (New South Wales) we went. We drove until about dusk, then stopped at the town of Toowoomba for a well deserved rest. Again, a clean motel that would cook dinner for you. We had the choice of about a dozen motels, all right next to each other on the highway, not the American chain hotels, but mom and pop places. Still with so many choices the prices were as I quoted above. One of the nearby motels had a restaurant and we took advantage of that and ate there. It was strange that they had to ask the owner if it would be ok if 'non guests' ate in the motel restaurant. Normally the meal would just be added to the room price but since we were not guests, this bookkeeping would not work. We still charged the meal to a Visa card, but not to a room. We had to give them a name for their computer so they could make sense of it all. I guess visiting a restaurant from the motel next door is not done? I don't really know and don't really care, we had dinner. It was a good day, we slept like babies after our experiences. An observation, even though this area had about a dozen motels, there were no independent restaurants near by. Strange!
Now, at age 66, having constantly driven on the right side of the road, I feel like I am again learning how to drive. The stick shift gives me no problems, even though I do it left handed, it feels ok. As a child, before school started I was left handed so some remnants may still be in my brain. I do not have trouble thinking left, but the spacial distribution of the car, the way the car is placed inside the lane creates problems. I have to, very consciously, remind myself all the time to 'hug' the center line. Carol, as a passenger, is very helpful when I am too far left. I don't know why I drive way too far on the left but in Brisbane, in real city traffic, I clipped somebody's rear view mirror with my outside mirror. Nothing happened to my mirror, it folded inward and had some scuff marks. Carol used some elbow grease to scrub those marks off. The other car however had a dangling drivers mirror. The driver of that car was good about it. He made some phone calls to see how much it would be to fix his mirror and after handing him $500 dollars we shook hands and each went our way. There is no better way to learn to not drive too far left than when one has to pay this kind of tuition. Nobody was hurt, so all is well.
Driving on the left is an experience. The directional signal needs to be activated with your right hand. Stop a minute and think about this. When you make a left, use your right hand to set the blinkers. Early in the morning, when you start driving out of the parking lot, think LEFT side. You become instantly wide awake if you veer to the right. In a way it is fun to relearn the rules of the road. Traffic from the right has the right of way. When entering a road look to the right. Even the rear view mirror is now on your left. Oh, it is fun to drive on the left. It sure gives me a whole new perspective. 6 more days to learn how to drive on the left, then we fly back to Toronto and I will be driving on the right side of the road. A crazy world !
Cairns is a tropical, jungle town and we are here in the rainy season. We had plans for our time in town, we even booked a snorkeling tour via a travel agent, but that was a costly mistake. Not only did we have rain, we also had a cyclone warning and the small ships going out to the outer reef did not want to take a chance. Our snorkeling tour and the colorful reef, our main purpose for visiting Cairns did not take place. So, what do you do instead?
Carol had the great idea to visit the much closer to shore reef instead. We found a small catamaran that took us out. The ocean was in turmoil, choppy waves greeted us when we came out of the, more or less, quiet harbor. In the boat's bar was a basket with ginger pills for sea sickness pills so both of us, Carol and I, took two pills each. It was a ride for sailors not for landlubbers. Up and down the waves we rode until after about one hour we reached the reef close to Green Island. It was a small atoll island. Getting off the small boat was a challenge as we had to jump off but we both managed. The wind was strong. My Tilley hat would not stay on my head, so I packed it away in my knap sack. Our first outing on this island reef was a glass bottom boat. We went, but there were hardly any fish to see. The reef bottom was gray and had large dead coral pockets among the mostly algae eating species that were left over. The only coral that did flourish the spaghetti coral and the fish we saw were some zebra fish and a larger species (bat fish) that were not good eating because they ate all the trash in the water (turtle droppings) and were very bony. Our little put-put glass bottom boat had a tough time holding its position over the fish. The ocean pushed us back constantly. The reef was very small and while our guide said it was a healthy reef, it was not colorful, but rather drab looking. This reef was just too close to shore and the run offs from the land brought too much pollution to have the very exotic corals and fish living on it that we were looking for. The glass bottom view was disappointing.
Next we thought we would take, and we paid for it, a semi submarine trip. Windows all around to sit smack in the middle of this living, natural aquarium. Well, the sea was so rough by then, that the tour company cancelled our booked trip. We got our money back for this part of the outing. So what to do? To be on this small reef island without a tour was not fun, there was no place to hide. The wind whipped us, there were no shelters. Not ours, but another boat was due to go back soon. We opted to abandon our tour and made haste to go back on this boat to the harbor. While this boat was a bit bigger than our first boat, it still was small enough to be tossed about, too. We should not have made this trip, while we did not get sea sick, it was a waste of money. The results were not what we hoped to see and what was advertised.
The following day, even though the tour we had previously booked to the outer reef was not cancelled and we could have gone an this tour, we did not go. We came to Cairs to visit the Great Barrier Reef, yet only saw the dull, small reef off the coast. Yes, the weather, the cyclone, was a factor, but after the disappointing first trip that turned out to be a dud, we gave up on the whole reef tour.
Instead we took a train ride on that day. We took the famous Kuranda Scenic Railway trip. It took a total of 17 years to build this railroad line of only 56 km. It is not a long track really, it takes just 45 minutes to ride up the mountain. But in the late 19th century, when this railroad was built, it was an engineering feat. All labor at that time was done by hand. The tunnels were dug out by hand with picks and shovels. Workers had to supply their own tools. Landslides and treacherous cliffs made building the tracks almost impossible. This was before fancy survivor equipment, jack hammers, heck, even before bulldozers.
The tracks, from Cairs to Kuranda, were put in to harvest the original lumber out of the local jungles, then haul it to the ships anchored in Cairns. Pictures show the size of the trees that were harvested. Huge! All of the old growth lumber was cut down. It was worth the effort to install the railroad since the money made on the sale of lumber, even though it was harvested without regard to ecological side effects, was tremendous. The jungle has grown back since the railroad was built, yet the trees look skinny and the area still suffers from the raping of Mother Nature. Today, the town of Kuranda, is a tourist town, nice to look at, quaint even, especially the old train station. Yet the town opens and closes with the arrival of the tourists on the train. Once the last train leaves, the town rolls up the sidewalks and goes to sleep. Kuranda, the lumber town, the end of the train town, lives off her old glory days. The scenery of the ride up the mountain, the sheer beauty of the landscape, the waterfalls, the greater region around the train tracks, the jungle and all the living things within have now been turned into a national park. One of many parks Australia set up to preserve the environment. Yes, it is touristy, a good place to visit, should you ever come here.
For the way down the mountains, the way back to Cairns, we did not take the train but a skyrail. A very long cable car that glides over the jungle below with a few stops to get off and look around. I was amazed by how many visitors this whole setup attracted. Each cable car held up to six people and were spaced about one minute apart on the stations. Seldom was a gondola empty even though the operators did not load the cars to maximum, but tried to keep groups and families together. I enjoyed this sky rail, too. The stops were informative. A park ranger gave tours, explaining some of the native wild life, but also pointed out some not so nice plants that grow right on the side of the path. Like I had learned previously in the jungle, if you do not know the plant, do not touch or even lean against it. Some give you some very nasty reminders, should you ever forget. Poison ivy is mild in comparison to what you can find in the jungle.
We came to Cairns with the intension of visiting the Great Barrier Reef. Maybe the next time we are in Australia we will take a reef tour to the outer reef. I liked Cairns yet we came in the wrong season.