February 9-14, 2013
(Posted mostly by Xavier with bits by Kristin)

Flying into Cairns was memorable for the aerial view of one of the natural wonders of the world: the Great Barrier Reef. “Breathtaking” is all we can say. It’s vast, colorful, and our airplane window pictures do it no justice.

Up to this point the heat and humidity in Australia had been high, but acceptable. We jumped off the plane and into our rental car for our drive up the coast to Port Douglas, which would be the base for our Great Barrier Reef adventures. Just the walk from the exit of the baggage claim area to the inside of our car and we were sweating profusely. Okay! Shorts, short-sleeved shirts (Heck — tank tops, no tops!) hat, sandals, lots of sun block, lots of water, and air-conditioning! The heat of the sun here was like no heat we had yet experienced on the trip. Not so much the humidity, just the burn of the sun on your skin. Later on, one of our tour guides told us that this area is number one in the world for skin cancer. We believe it.

On the drive up to Port Douglas, on one side it was green, super thick rainforest vegetation and on the other side, fantastic ocean views with beautiful secluded beaches, and not a soul on the beaches. We soon found out that it was the rainy season and time for the Box and Irukandji Jellyfish — both extremely deadly. Signs along the beaches posted warnings and also had a bottle of vinegar at the ready, but only as a first course of action for stings — after that it’s on to the hospital.

As if jellyfish weren’t enough, if you were near a river mouth or mangrove there was danger of crocodiles (welcome to Australia, land of the deadly critters!). We decided to stick to pool swimming, unless it was absolutely safe to do it else here.

The next day we took a walk down to the harbor to book our Great Barrier Reef snorkelling trip. We avoided the 400+ person mega boats for scuba and snorkeling and were lucky to book a small 30-person snorkelling-only trip. Lucky, because they were only running tours every other day and had a last-minute 2-person cancellation for the next day. Yea!

After a 30-minute downpour, we walked into town for the Sunday farmer’s market and bought some fresh fruit — papayas, avocados, limes and dragon fruit — and walked back to our hostel. Let us take a moment here and say that dragon fruit is a fantastic looking fruit, just beautiful. But if it were not for the lime juice we squeezed on it, it would have not tasted like anything. The texture was soft like a watermelon, juicy, slight crunch from the tiny seeds, but where’s the bright bursting flavor to match? But man, what an absolutely amazing looking fruit.

As we got closer to our hostel on our way back from the market we looked up and saw some unusal looking birds flying to some trees. They landed on the branches and quickly hung upside down. Huh? On closer inspection we realized that they were bats! Then we started looking around, and all the trees were covered with bats; it looked like a bunch of black garbage bags caught in the trees.

We talked to the front desk lady at our hostel and she said we should come out at around 7pm at night to see them take off. And so we did. How do we describe the scene? Well you know the part in the Wizard of Oz movie where the flying monkeys take off and fill the sky. Multiply that by 10, and instead of flying monkeys it’s bats.

We made a point of watching the spectacle every evening, along with many other tourists who came by and staked out a place in front of our hostel.

Our next excursion was to “Mossman Gorge”, a World Heritage listed rainforest run by the indigenous Kuku Yulanji people. We did the self-guided hike through the rainforest. Once we crossed a suspended bridge we came around a bend in the trail and came eye to eye with a 30 – 36 inch long goanna. Okay, besides it being one of the biggest lizards we had seen; long, fat (at least fatter than your usual lizard), with a wet looking skin (scales), we stood there looking at each other. Neither Kristin nor I moved because we didn’t know if we should, or if the goanna were to move towards us, we were getting the heck out of there as fast as we could. I started to reach for my camera when the goanna slowly moved off the trail and into the underbrush of the rainforest, and I missed the shot. Not really wanting to look for it or even wanting to stay in that part of the trail, we quickly moved on.

We finally came to a clearing by the Mossman river where it was safe to go swimming (no crocodiles). It was a break in the rapids just calm enough to go swimming in. But you still needed to be a strong enough swimmer to not get carried off down the river.

Kristin decided not to go in but I did. The cool river water was refreshing and it was the most pleasant swimming experience I had in Australia. It was much cooler than the ocean, and far cooler than the warm bath waters of the swimming pool back at the hostel.

At this point I’ll refer you to the “Finding Nemo” blog entry for a complete description of our Great Barrier Reef adventure.

Our next and last full day in Port Douglas was spent up in the Cape Tribulation area of the Daintree National forest. We crossed into the area via a small river ferry tethered on each side by a steel cable, and with warning signs on each bank telling us to beware of crocodiles in the area. We stayed in the car.

Once across we proceeded to the Discovery Center, decided against paying for a guided rainforest boardwalk tourist tour and opted for a self-guided rainforest boardwalk at Jindalba boardwalk. Our hope this day was to see if we could spot a cassowary in the wild. If you have no idea what a cassowary is, it’s a large flightless bird, like an ostrich or emu, which stands 4 1/2 – 6 feet tall.

It has striking coloration with a prehistoric-looking bone structure on its head. Sighting one is extremely rare, and we were warned if we do spot one, to take care not to approach. They have been known to inflict serious or even fatal injuries on people. Our hopes were high but our chances were slight to nil. Despite perfecting our cassowary calls (ok, we made them up), we finished the Jindalba hike with no sighting.

We drove on, stopping along the way to stretch our legs and investigate other areas. We settled on the next hike which was the Marrdja boardwalk. As we started this hike we caught up with a group of four young women who had hired an official local native guide. As we came up upon them we saw them all taking pictures of what Kristin and I thought were the trees. Wrong. Right above our heads, and lucky for us there was no one tall in the group, was a extremely large spider (bigger than my hand) hanging in the center of its web.

I know Kristin and I would have just walked right underneath it, had it not been pointed out by the guide. We kind of strayed behind the group not wanting to intrude on their guided tour (since we didn’t pay for it) but close enough to take advantage of what he was pointing out. And he pointed out plenty, including a Boyd’s Dragon — a lizard we had hoped to spot at Mossman Gorge.

It was amazing what he could spot in the rainforest, and he made us wonder what we had missed on the other boardwalk hike. We never would have seen this spider either.

We wandered along on our own and got somewhat separated from the group as we fell behind taking pictures, when all of a sudden the guide started waving at us excitedly. Motioning us to catch up quickly and to be quiet, we caught up. There in front of the group stood a cassowary, about 10 yards away.

Now since we were on a elevated, fully hand railed, boardwalk we were somewhat safe, if the cassowary were to turn on us. But this cassowary was not as big as we thought it might be, but then again it was standing in the muddy mangrove. The coloration around the head was fantastic.

It stayed for a bit foraging in the mud and then quietly moved deeper into the rainforest. We came out of the rainforest boardwalk ecstatic. We saw it, we took pictures, we accomplish our mission. Nothing else mattered that day. We were fullfilled.

It wasn’t until later in the day when we told several people of our sighting that we found out just how rare it was to see one of these creatures. Most of the people had never seen a cassowary in the wild in all the years they had lived in Port Douglas. How had we been so lucky? Did the native guide send out some kind of ancient call for the cassowary? We would like to imagine that he did.

With fond memories of our snorkeling expedition and our cassowary sighting, we headed back down to Cairns for our final night in Australia. We still feel silly saying “Cans”, but we did it anyway — even though Xavier insists on calling it “Canes”. We got into Cairns in the afternoon, and didn’t have much time to explore. We did end up at the waterfront, where they had a really well done linear park. The park was in a former wharf area and they had reused the timbers (beautiful old hardwood) from old warehouses to build shelters, benches, tables, and even a cool jungle gym playground complex for the kids with slides, bridges, mazes, etc. My landscape architect friends would be in heaven!

The park also featured some beautiful aboriginal art pieces, including one which shared some stories that had been passed down through generations — including a story about the mighty cassowary!

Kristin desperately wanted for me to see a kangaroo or wallaby in the wild but it would not be so. I saw a few in captivity in one of the many native animal sanctuaries that are there, and one that was lying down resting (hit by a car) by the side of the road. We didn’t see any crocodiles in the wild either, but that’s definitely okay. The animals we did see, and particlarly the amazing Great Barrier Reef, filled us with wonder. We left Australia impressed with our experiences of the small corner of this vast continent. In our short time there, we met several people who had been traveling in Australia for months and up to a year. They all said it was too big to see in the time they had. We agreed, but we had to move on.

Save the cassowaries!

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