From A Land Down Under #2: Cape Tribulation and back to Cairns
In which we learn what "wildlife" really is...
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Monday 2nd June
* After two largely sleepless nights on a plane, we've committed ourselves to a 6.30am start on the first day of our holiday proper. I get the distinct impression it's not exactly going to be a restful fortnight.
* Guess The Mystery Sound competitions: evidently the international language of commercial radio stations.
* Our route out of Cairns and north towards Cape Tribulation sweeps past the Skyrail, dense swathes of swaying sugar cane, a field full of wild wallabies and a crocodile farm before taking us to the very edge, the precipitous road snaking precariously along the cliffs with bush on the left and sea on the right. As journeys go, it's rather more breathtaking than my usual morning commute to Didcot. We stop at a roadside cafe, with a barroom of the sort you could imagine a character from Nick Cave's Murder Ballads striding into and unburdening himself of some lead.
* Why just catch the ferry across the Daintree River when you can take the opportunity of a short cruise and see saltwater crocodiles, herons and kingfishers in their natural habitat? From his favourite spot on the bank, local alpha male croc Scarface acknowledges our presence but is more interested in sunbathing than in the pasty white European meat floating by. A good thing, too: in between defending his turf from encroachment by neighbour Fat Albert, the four-metre-long bruiser has been known to help himself to cows in the past.
* "Go on, give it a lick", says our tour guide when we stop again for a circular boardwalk through the rainforest - the "it" in question being an ant's arse. Hang on, have we unwittingly stumbled into a new spin-off series 'I'm Not A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!'? But sure enough, as promised it does taste sharply of lime and result in a pleasant numbness of the tongue. Still won't get me trying witchetty grubs, though.
* If the two-foot-long goanna wearily basking in the car park could talk, he'd be saying: "Oh great, not the tourist paparazzi again. Can't a cold-blooded reptile recharge his batteries in peace these days?".
* It's little wonder that Crocodylus was named the best YHA hostel in the whole of Queensland last year. Our room might have an overhead fan and an ensuite shower room and bathroom, but it's also relatively primitive in its part wood and part canvas construction, and open the door onto the balcony and you're surrounded by rainforest. In the heat of the early afternoon, the air is still and so thick with the noises of innumerable unidentifiable birds, insects, frogs and lizards that it feels like you've been dropped into the opening section of Wham's 'Club Tropicana'.
* After a longer-than-anticipated walk around the rainforest during which we stumble across, er, evidence of cassowaries but come face-to-face with nothing larger than jungle chickens rooting around in the leaves and a breathless, swearing fellow hostel resident running in the opposite direction, we head for the beach. Cow Bay is spectacular - a sheltered cove in the mountains, its golden sands fringed by rainforest. We paddle around in the sea watching crabs hurriedly burying themselves beneath our feet and mudskippers darting between the roots of the mangrove trees, being sure to give the mouth of the creek that empties itself here a wide berth for fear of meeting a pal of Scarface's. When night falls with a disarming speed we're not used to, we set off back down the road to the hostel before being offered a lift by a kindly jumper-wearing local who tells us how he doesn't like this cold weather...
* A hearty meal, a few glasses of wine and half an hour on the steam-powered internet later, we're ready for bed but decide to write something in the visitors' book on the way. The last comment, by someone called Brian, reads: "Bungee, white water rafting - nothing compared to being chased by a 6ft bird through the jungle". That would explain the breathless, sweary guy, then... He could have added: "a 6ft bird that can run at 32mph, jump up to 5ft, swim and disembowel you with a single kick to the stomach with its sharp middle claw". Swans being able to break your arm? Pah! Even Australian BIRDS are more downright badass than ours.
Tuesday 3rd June
* We don't have to wait too long for our own first sighting of a cassowary - 7am, to be precise, when a pair lackadaisically wander out into the road in front of our minibus (hence the doctored road sign warning drivers of the speed bumps). To be honest, as they trot away down the track they don't look like something once classified as the world's most dangerous bird in the 'Guinness Book Of Records'.
* According to the crew of the Rum Runner, the weather hasn't been this good for months, so we (Jen and I, an assortment of other couples, an American professor and a group of nearly 30 Michigan students) can consider ourselves lucky. We've left another gorgeous beach behind, it's hard to decide whether the sky or the sea is a richer or purer shade of blue, we're snorkelling in amongst the most beautiful and unspoilt part of the Great Barrier Reef and all its inhabitants in water warm enough to render wearing a wetsuit redundant. Yep, lucky just about covers it.
* After a buffet lunch back on board and a quick change of site, it's back into the water - and this time, having mastered the not-particularly-difficult art of snorkelling, I'm determined not to swallow so much sea. Quite apart from the stunning variety of coral, there are "critters" everywhere - sea cucumbers as fat as marrows; rays gliding gracefully across the sandy floor; clams like oversized Cornish pasties; parrot fish who can be heard as well as seen biting off and chewing bits of the reef; an inquisitive turtle who, having initially taken flight, turns round and swims towards us for a closer look. But no sharks, thankfully.
* By the time we have to say goodbye to the reef and return back to the mainland the sea level's fallen so much that everywhere the "bommies" are sticking out of the water. The sun, moving gradually lower in the sky, is still hot on our shoulders.
* As a committed night owl, I'm rather miffed to be suffering from post-9pm narcolepsy for the third night in a row. At least today it might be explicable, attributable both to the day's exertions and to a touch of sunstroke. Walking back to our resting place for the night - this time a shared dorm at Ferntree Rainforest Lodge on Cape Tribulation proper - we feel the occasional raindrops that have tempted the toads out into the open. No matter that I'm on the top level of an extremely precarious bunk - once in position as far from the edge as possible, I'm dead to the world...
Wednesday 4th June
* ... until nearly 10am, when we awake to a humid morning and a view of nothing but the foot of the mountains disappearing into the mist.
* Another beautiful beach - this time Myall Beach - but it's spitting with rain. Surely I'm not in danger of coming down with beach fatigue already?
* On duty to greet visitors to The Bat House today, aside from a couple of volunteers, is Pushkin, a flying fox unable to fly due to an injured wing. No offence mate, but are you sure your choice of girlfriend - Seraphina - wasn't solely to satisfy your superiority complex, given that she's had to have one of her wings amputated? No such woes for the startlingly blue Ulysses butterflies and sulphur-crested cockatoos we encounter while ambling around the circular woodland trail behind the House.
* The journey back to Cairns takes in stops at Alexandra Lookout (where the view of the mountains and the mouth of the Daintree spilling out into the sea has its considerable thunder stolen by a passing preying mantis), Mossman Gorge (where fish hang in the sparklingly clear water between our dangling feet) and well-to-do tourist-and-second-home honeypot Port Douglas. Our driver for this return leg is a genuine Sheila with a motormouth who, when she realises no one really wants to talk, proceeds to regale the girl in the front seat with tales about tree-hugging raves in New South Wales and a succession of increasingly lewd jokes. Resisting the urge to ask whether the fact that she's from Gympie makes her a Gymp, we keep our heads down and console ourselves with the fact that the bottle of white bought in Port Douglas makes the journey back to Travellers Oasis pass quicker.
* No wonder Aussies drink so much - you have to when all your beer is pisswater and comes in thimbles (well, schooners). My Barefoot Radler is OK for washing down another Cairns pizza, but it does have the stigma of essentially being lager dash in a bottle. Still, at least it's better than Carlton Draught - advertising slogan: "Made from beer" - which is just crap.
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Next time: sea, sand, stars, sand, obnoxious Brits, sand, spewy wine, sand, eccentric Austrians and sand.