July saw us submit the visa application and a well-deserved break was needed. Besides winter had been a long few months and the Vitamin D reserves were running out. The body needed some sunshine. Specially my dear Mel who thinks anything below 25C is ‘cold’.
Cairns was the natural number one candidate spot. Not only was the weather we were looking for in full bloom there but we had the luck that my father-in-law has a place to stay. So we found a good flight offer, booked accomodation, rented a car, I designed an itinerary and we started counting the days…
One day, as I was showing the itinerary to Mel, she stopped me and said ‘You do realise it’s a holiday and not a birdwatching trip Pepe!’. I want to believe we stroke a balance between the two. Though lately Mel has been saying that she needs to get a pair of binoculars.
Day one saw us arrive at the airport with very little sleep due to the excitement of our trip. And we are not the lovely people we look like when we hadn’t slept enough. Tempers were short, luck was bad. Jetstar charged us for the baggage because a ‘newie’ clerk behind the counter didn’t know better than our bussiness class rights. That sat it off. And with the time we wasted trying to not pay the 60 dollars for 5 kilos of ‘excess’ there was no time for morning coffee at the lounge. To make things worse, during flight I realised that I had forgotten my camera at home! I had bought an extra card and battery for it. Oh dear, to think that once, in a not-too-distant-past, I was an efficient tour leader who could get up with 3 hours of sleep and a hangover with no problems the next day!
We arrived in paradise and the warmth and humidity were a soft caress on our faces. My pores immediately started choking in the sweet water of the air. We picked our white Hyundai from the airport and off we were to Palm Cove! Ah, the beauty of beach resorts! Everyone seems so chilled. But not us. Our room wasn’t ready until midday so we changed into lighter clothes and went for a recognition walk of Palm Cove.
It was nothing like I had imagined, and that’s a good thing. Palm Cove deserves a medal for being such a clean, cute little place. Maybe more oriented towards the ‘retired’ part of the population, but still a lovely spot. Our first 2 days were dedicated to that healthy and so often forgotten activity: being lazy.
Sunbaking by the shore or by the pool, walking the beach, having a beer at the bar, getting some groceries for our appartment. The second morning I went for an early walk to check the birds in the nearby mangroves around Argentea Park. Turned out to be a very productive morning, with my first Rainbow Bee-eater and Metallic Starlings, as well as Orange-footed Scrubfowl (everywhere!), Pied Imperial-Pigeon and Double-Eyed Fig-Parrot.
I convinced Mel to drive to Cairns Botanic Gardens that afternoon and visit a bit of Cairns. The gardens are a lovely spot to have a stroll. In fact I started realising then that they really like their boardwalds in Queensland. They are everywhere and it’s a great way to see the forest without “walking off the path”. I like this “little things”. So far I can say that Australia had a very effective design and protection of the natural areas. In the gardens I caught sight of new birds like Australian Brush-Turkey (very abundant), Magpie Goose and Radjah Shelduck.
We walked the Cairns Esplanade towards the Lagoon. There was a circus show in the gardens there. Everyone seemed so relaxed and hippie. I guess that’s the outsiders view of a place, the grass is always greener on the other side isn’t it? Didn’t take long for me to imagine myself living in Cairns, of course me being a tourism industry born and bread. Mel did not dislike the idea mainly because it’s a warm place.
On day 3 we drove to Port Douglas to catch a boat that would take us to see the coral reef. I had no idea what I was in for. I couldn’t help to compare it to Lake Titicaca (obviously in a much faster, nicer boat). The coral reef must be the number one attraction for foreign young tourists in Australia. I’m not forgetting Ulluru, but this one is much closer to main cities like Sydney or Brisbane and cheaper too. At the port I saw several boats leaving packed and the best thing is that the coral reef is so vast that there is no need that all boats go to the same place, so it doesn’t feel crowded, which would be the ultimate ruin for this sight, a common conplain at Lake Titicaca.
We did it in a boat named Calypso (like Cousteau’s!) and it was great value for money. We paid AUD200 each and it was an all day tour including guides, snorkel gear, liquids (except alcoholic or sodas) and food. The boat was incredible, with several toilets (even showers), and several sundecks. The weather was beautiful. I had never snorkeled before. OK, maybe once, but choking in the pool is not exactly snorkeling. Yet, with reason, I was concerned. I didn’t want to drown or destroy the slow-growing coral with my split-splat.
Turned out to be easier than I thought and sooner than later I was an underwater ballerina admiring the beauty and colous of what is, deservedly, one of the wonders of the natural world. Fish of all colours and voltages, sizes and shapes swimming just at hand-reach. Schools of huge parrot-fish would pass next to us regarding like they had never seeing a human before. And the complex neon-like forest that is the coral reef is just a mind blowing event for me! I don’t care we didn’t see a Humpback Whale (we did see a dolphin though). I’m lucky I saw the Great Barrier Reef.
Day 4 was MY day, birdwatching time. Time to see in depth the other reason why this area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site: the Tropical Rainforest. We drove very early in the morning to Daintree Village to reach a small birdwatching tour on the Daintree River. Caught sunrise as Mel drove what must be a record time and embarked on a beautiful and quiet two and a half hour tour spotting birds by the river. Caught many waterdragons, a record 6 according to Murray Hunt, owner and guide of Daintree Boatman Nature Tours.
Great-billed Heron, one of the most sough-after local specialities opened the morning. A pair of Papuan Frogmouth perfectly camouflaged with branches, were asleep a couple of meters from us and the boat. Azure Kingfisher, Olive-backed Sunbird and Shining Flycatcher gave more colour to the green forest. The Saltwater Crocodile and the Amethystine Python eluded us. But the trip was worth it.
We continued our drive after some breakfast at Daintree Village. Took the ferry across the river and stopped and every possible boardwalk and vista. We tried Jindalba Walk to see the Southern Cassowary but didn’t find it except in roadsigns and sculptures. The landscape made for all the wildlife we missed though. Jungle next to the ocean, a turquoise-blue ocean. That’s paradise to me.
Cape Tribulation certainly looked like it. Open beach, no people and extreme beauty. No camping is allowed here because crocs have been know to assault on campers before. Every paradise has its guardians I guess.We drove back to Palm Cove so exhausted that we were asleep by 9pm.
The next day was a relaxing day. It was Mel’s birthday and we visited Kuranda, a small village near Cairns. Located between 2 protected areas, and among hills, Kuranda offers walks, markets, museums, a train ride and a telepheric ride over the forest. We enjoyed ourselves visiting the buttefly house, eating ice cream, walking around the market and the forest. At night we had dinner at NuNu, a fusion restaurant in Palm Cove. The food was delicious and based highly on fish.
On our way to the airport I convinced Mel to do one last walk! She did not agree but knew that if we didn’t do it it would be painful. On the swamp next to the airport there is another boardwalk. I would have loved a croc to show up on one of these but it didn’t give. But I was satisfied as I spotted more than 30 new birds or lifers for me.
Guess next time we will go even further North, to the tip of Cape York. That would be quite an adventure. Mel did it when she was a kid with her family. We are thinking on doing it again sometime in a not too distant future.