Monday, January 11, 2016

Odyssey In Oz: Day 16, 17, and 18: Port Douglas and Cairns

Day 16, 17, and 18: Port Douglas and Cairns

G'day mates! Back in Australia here after a pleasent flight out of Auckland. Three cheers to an empty plane where I was able to stretch out and snooze the whole time! Not three cheers to the heat and humidity. For all of New Zealand, the weather was either pleasently warm or slightly cool. Slou and I wondered where summer really was. 

FOUND IT. Hello heat. Hello humidity. Hello poofy hair. Hello mosquitos. Hello culture without AC. Hello trying to be patient when really you want to choke somebody. 

Listen, I didn't even eat any Tim Tams because they were in a constant melted state, and I couldn't lick my fingers because they were constanly covered in sunscreen and bug spray from multple reapplications throughout the day. This is serious, people. 

It's a good thing Slou went home already or else she would have murdered me. 

I first landed in Gold Coast, which, looks like a gold coast. It's near Brisbane on the central, east coast of Australia and has golden sandy beaches lines with skyscraper resort hotels. From the air it reminded me of Miami. 

I caught my connecting flight and was soon in Cairns! Dela met me at the airport, where we picked up our car and drove to Port Douglas, a small town about an hour north of Cairns. Dela is a friend from college who is currently teaching English in China. She was coming from a week in Cambodia where she had met up with another of our friends. It's a small world when traveling takes you from one friend to the next. 

The drive to Port Douggie was stunning, with a windy, coastal road, wide open beaches, and beautiful water. We stopped along the way because I couldn't handle it, and took a quick beach walk. Don't worry, we didn't see any jellies or crocs! Yet...

After arriving in Port Douglas, we put our stuff down and made our way into town. There is one main strip of shops, cafes, and hotels, so we focused our energies there. We walked to Four-Mile Beach after dinner and finally stuck our feet in! The ocean up here is SO WARM! It felt luke warm--barely even refreshing! The roped off area is the official swimming zone, due to the netting which supposedly keeps out the stingers. Apparently, box jellies are in mating right now and they use the rivers and estuaries close to shore to get busy. Then, they float around the coastal area for a long while before making there way off to the ocean. Box jellies are no joke and can do serious harm, so it's best to stay inside the netted area. 

That night, we were swarmed by a flock of giant bats, who looked for reals like Batman's logo. Crocs, jellies, snakes-- sure! I knew those were out there, but no one had warned me about the bats! I have never seen such large bats, and never in such a large quantity. The bats were easily the size of a common seagull. It was mildly amazing but mostly creepy. 

So let's move on to the good part: Reef Day!!!

All my life I have wanted to see the Great Barrier Reef. It is listed as a World Heritage site, and I have always loved seeing colorful fish and big sea animals. I find the ecosystem fascinating and terrifying at the same time. 

Dela and I decided to splurge and book one of the more expensive tours so we could be on a smaller boat with a smaller group. There are some tours which take hundreds of tourists to a pontoon on the reef where you can spend the whole day diving, snorkling, and seeing the underwater observatory from the basement (basement?) of the pontoon. That would be fine except for the hundreds of tourists part. Blek. 

Our boat was with a company called Wavelength, and there were exactly twenty-one people on board (which included four crew members). 

We were all snorklers, which meant we only went to shallow reefs where we'd really be able to see the good stuff. On the way out to the Outer Reef, one of the crew members, who is also a marine biologist, talked with us about the best way to see the animals, which animals we're likely to see, and why we won't be eaten by a shark. Once we arrived at the reef, we donned our stinger suits (a preventative measure mostly, but also good sun protection), and hopped in! 

And then magic happened. 

The fish were EVERYWHERE! Big fish, little fish, blue fish, red fish, yellow fish, striped fish, dotted fish. If you can imagine it, it was there! This first reef was full of beautiful corals, anemone, and best of all--a sea turtle! That's right! Apparently this reef is a hotspot for turtles, and sure enough, one swam right by! He was so chill, too. Just moseying along, not caring at all that we were all oogling at him. And he looked perfect--like, just what he looks like in postcard photographs. He was maybe two feet in diameter with his lil limbs paddling himself through the water. Gosh, the feels! I waved at him, and I'm convinced he waved back. 

Additionally, I was shocked at how colorful the corals were! I had been warned that all the corals would be bland and gray because of how the sun hits them under the water (it's only the special lighting used for filming or from a camera flash that shows the bright colors), but this wasn't true at all! Sure, the colors were muted on a lot of corals, but there was lots of blues, purples, and greens. Every spectrum of green to yellow was in sight, which made the pops of blue and purple even more spectacular!

After about an hour of bliss, we hopped on board again and ate some fruit and cake as we made our way to the next reef. This time, two of the marine biologists gave tours, showing us corals and sea cucumbers, even bringing some up from the bottom for us to touch or hold. They told us all about the animals (coral is an animal!) and were very careful to teach us why it was okay for us to touch the particular ones they had brought up from the ocean floor and why we should not go touching the rest of the corals on our own. Not like I would have wanted to anyway. I'm all for preserving the reef and such, but a lot of those corals have defensive stings! #NoThankYou

We floated around some more, even finding Nemo living in a green anemone! The coolest part, however, was seeing the giant clams! I'm talking, four feet long and as big as a love seat! Paul, one of the biologist, dove down to point out it's "mouth" and "butt" areas, and as he got close, the clam shut! That's when you remember that as fake as everything looks, this is a living ecosystem! Everything is alive and prospering, and we are only glimpsing a fraction of it's daily life! 

The clams continued to shut and then gradually reopen depending on how they sensed light and shadows. I'm sure the USB of pictures taken from the day will have examples, so I'll reupload this post once I've had a chance to see them. We didn't take our own camera, but the crew took pics all day for us to buy at the end. Because tourism. 

Back on board the boat, we ate lunch while another biologist spoke about corals, the reef's overall health, and various steps being taken to preserve the reef. It's really fascinating, and I encourage you to google info on it for yourself if you want to know more. Basically, I'm just glad I got to see it now, because we may lose the majority of the reef in the next thirty years. Boop.

After lunch, we arrived at Opal Reef, the grandaddy of all reefs. Numerous TV specials are filmed here, and the next broadcasting of the Blue Planets: Oceans special will include footage from this very reef. Once your head is in the water, you can see why! The reef flourished with life! Not only were the corals bright and vastly varied in shapes, but the number of fish was outrageous! Two schools of fish hovered near by and must have included over one hunred fish each. Even a school of tiny fish kept following us around and had to have a thousand fish! 

The trick to seeing the most fish was to hover over a spot, let the fish decide you weren't a threat, and then watch them emerge from hiding. Doing this, I saw more fish than I could have possibly imagined! I could never follow one fish with my eye for more than about three seconds before being distracted by another one!

Thanks to one of the crew members, we should have pictures of all this! He even took a pic of me and Dela at one point, so hopefully there will be evidence of us there. I have to admit, Dela and I were supposed to stick together, and although I popped my head up a few times to see if she was still around, I basically forgot about her (and everyone elses's) existence! #NoOffenseCantGetOffended

Once my face was in the water, nothing mattered above. Seeing the fish, the turtle, the corals--that was all I could comprehend. The vastness and nearness of the reef was overwhelming, and I'm struck now on how very obsurd and unlikely it is that we discovered it in the first place. 

I ended the hour by hovering over one spot for about ten minutes. There were two clams nearby, their iridescent colors flashing. But mostly I just watched Mr. Nemo, Mrs. Nemo, and three Baby Nemos pop in and out of their purple anemone home. Disney was amazingly accurate in their characters, as I saw nearly every fish from the movie. 

Dela and I took one last jump into the ocean before we were all done for the day. Major props to the tourist for missing the photo op! #DontQuitYourDayJob

We headed home, about two hours of driving time to get back to the marina. Dela and I sat on the bow for a majority of the time, and I again reflected on what had happened in my life to bring me to this place. Everyone knows I love boating, but to be lying on a boat in the warm sun after seeing the Great Barrier Reef? Graditude is not a strong enough noun. 

We had dinner in town before ending the evening at the hostel. 

The next morning, we awoke early to hit up the local market before heading out to Mossmann Gorge, a cute little river swimming hole with lovely signs warning you about the possible presence of crocadiles. Thanks, no thanks. We did risk our lives, though, and stuck our feet in, relishing in the cold water. That is how intense the heat and humidity still was. We risked it ALL!

Back in the car, we drove north through the Daintree Rainforest, stopping along the way to do boardwalks and such. The only word I can use to describe the walks (and the drive) is green. Green trees, green bushes, green leaves. So much green. 

We stopped at Cape Tribulation for lunch. The cape is notable as the meeting place of two listed World Heritage sites--"Where Rainforest Meets Reef" as they say. The cape offers another idyllic beach and spectacular water. We checked for crocs before sitting down to lunch and enjoyed the crystal clear, flat water. 

We then hiked up to the lookout and marveled at the landscape. 

On the way home, we stopped for a river cruise to see real crocs in the wild! Luckily, Scarface, king of the river, was having a snooze under some tree branches so we got to see him. Look for the dark, bumpy log set way back under the leaves. 

Do you see it? 

Right there. 

That's his snout on land and his back melting into the water. Our guide said he's about 15 meters long. Yikes!!

We also saw Dusty's head poking out of the water a little farther down the river. Since she's a female, she's only about 3.5 meters. Isn't that nice? 

Back at the hostel, we packed and enjoyed a few minutes of air conditioning before falling asleep. 

Okay, one last adventurous day in Port Douglas! And this one is all about koalas!

As you leave Port Douglas, you drive by the Wildlife Habitat, which is basically a wildlife refuge much like Featherdale in Sydney (gosh, that feels like ages ago!). However, since the laws are different up here in Queensland, they let you HOLD the koalas!! Obviously, we paid the big bucks for the photo and got to become besties with Kodi the Koala. Dela took a fantastic video which she'll probably post soon! Kodi was so soft, cuddly, and squishy. 

Ahh, best moment ever! We walked the rest of the refuge, feeding kangaroos, seeing more crocs, taking selfies with kangaroos, and seeing the beloved Cassowary. 

We even saw a Kanga with a Roo in her pouch!

Once in Cairns, we spent about an hour circling the town in search of our hostel (because there was no cell data or maps!). It was like the olden days--you know, like a hot second ago before smartphones. We eventually found it and saw that the reception was closed (womp womp), so we headed back into town center for some lunch, wandering, and eventually a dip in the lagoon while the sun set behind us. The lagoon is a free swimming pool set right along the coast for everyone to enjoy! Because it's stinger season and because the bay empties when the tide goes out, swimming in the ocean is not an option. 

One highlight, however, was when we grabbed gelato at NitroLab, an ice cream parlor/science lab that uses liquid nitrogen in a Kitchn Aid to freeze blast your ice cream! They had all sorts of crazy flavors; I opted for Nutella, as one does, and it came with a syringe of extra nutella sauce! Yum! Definitely the most geeky ice cream I've eaten. 

Overall, I'm really glad we stayed in Port Douglas for most of the weekend. It was quieter, less crowded, and easier to get around. I can see the appeal of Cairns for a bustling, energetic vacation, but Port Douglas fit the bill for connecting more with nature. I'm also glad we opted for the smaller group for the reef. Seeing all the large boats return to Cairns in the evening full of families also made me grateful that there were no children on board our tour boat. Dela and I were the youngest and it made the whole trip completly pleasent!  

But for now, it's time to say goodbye to the ocean and hello to the Outback. Here's to hoping for a dry heat!

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