Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Cairns and the Daintree (August 07)

Far North Queensland is the closest you'll get to another country without leaving Australia. The first thing you notice are the local endangered species.

Cairns aspires to the full range of urban pretensions, like this art gallery behind the beachfront string of backpacker dens. No original Picasso here, though there's one on Magnetic Island down south.

Once you've sampled the culture, you can get on to the town's strengths...

The Woolshed is the backpacker sink of the backpacker capital of Australia. Incidentally every hostel in Cairns gives out meal vouchers for them. Still, it's a rare independent traveller who turns down a $10 steak with sides.

The Kuranda cablecar is the local novelty trip, taking you up into the hills inland. The view's not great on rainy days, but they have their charms.

Advertised as a 'rainforest village', Kuranda greets you with waves of suffocating Australiana. Fight past the Japanese vendors and hordes of squalling kids though and the town has its share of attractions, with tourist-friendly signage.

Scorpions naturally glow in the dark, you're assured by the 18 year-old guide. The snake collection speaks for itself, with placards detailing the tens of thousands of mice slain with one bite. This place also has Queensland's equivalent of a Memphis shrine.

Kuranda also boasts the world's largest butterfly house. Be sure to wear white.

Most return to Cairns by the 'scenic railway', an overgrown logging track with occasional three-second photo opportunities. Other than the stop at Barron Falls, that is.

Further down the Barron there's white water rafting. The guides are the usual cast of 20-something males from everywhere but Queensland, under orders to tip you out at the last rapid if you haven't yet fallen off. Point your feet downstream and you'll be fine...

Back in town, you slip seamlessly into the floating population of the young and underemployed. Cairns is Australia's gateway for the youthful legions who come to spend a year boozing their way round the country or pretending to learn English.

You can't visit Cairns without hitting the Reef, even if you did that eight months before. Don't pick a choppy day though, or you'll get a 3 hour lesson in hating catamarans (and another on the way back). Once there I chose the one scuba group that the photographer missed, so there's no picture of me feigning cheerfulness 30 feet under water. But each trip has its silver lining.

Port Douglas is a famous haunt of Hollywood bigwigs. The current tourist draws are Hanks and Spielberg, filming the Pacific equivalent of Band of Brothers in the vicinity. With the talk of backpackers getting bit parts, I was tempted to find the recruitment office and enlist as Japanese Soldier #753. One take of me being shot by US Marines wouldn't have thrown out the itinerary.

Nestled in cane country is sleepy Mossman, whose main attraction is 2 hours' walk out of town under the Queensland sun. But since the road only goes to one place, hitchiking is an option even for the single Asian male.

Mossman Gorge is an outlier of the Daintree, which means it hasn't changed much since the Cretaceous. It evokes contemplation, mostly on why you spent money seeing 'rainforest' attractions around Cairns.

Civilisation , defined by a power grid and mobile phone coverage, ends at the Daintree River. Across lies the world's oldest rainforest, with a sprinkling of rugged freeholders, cashed-up tourists and backpkacker proletariat.

Night walks in the Daintree are good fun, with a decent guide. If you're in Cow Bay look up 'Possum', originally from Geelong but gone convincingly native. He does marvels finding the animals, given pouring rain and 30 tourists with flashlights blundering in tow.

If you won't splurge for a hirecar, the resorts rent pushbikes at proportionally extortionate rates. Even in August it's sweaty work, but an icecream pitstop gets you by. That, and the views.

Coopers Creek is the spot for a mangrove cruise, perhaps the only one in the world with a mountain backdrop. The boat leaves every 2 hours, but don't wait by the water's edge...

The only guaranteed croc sightings are at Harvey's Crocodile Farm down the road, but mid-afternoon there's a fair chance of finding one hauled up the bank, sunning itself and ignoring the tourists. If you're really lucky you'll see one swimming - hope for the big male that found its way back after being relocated to the far side of Cape York.

Every resort in the Daintree bills itself as a 'jungle village', but Crocodylus is the closest they get. It's a set of huts in the forest, with the added comforts of a restaurant, swimming pool and $2/minute broadband. After a day out you're grateful for such a bastion of civilisation, since the rainforest can go quickly from holiday entertainment to Rivera's Green Hell.

A must-visit is the Daintree Discovery Centre, which lets you see the forest at every level. Audio-guides and numbered placards bring you up to speed on 40,000 years of rainforest lore. The forest-floor paths are frequented by cassowaries, which sounds charming till you hear about one ripping out a tourist's stomach at Mission Beach last year.

Between the 4-star resorts, this is a very DIY holiday destination.
Jungle surfing is the term coined by an enterprising local for pushing tourists out of trees and charging for the privilege. Like most Queensland adventure sports, it seems to have no age limit.

One of the Daintree's quirks is how the rainforest comes right down to the sea. A stroll down Cape Trib beach reminds you why you came as far as sealed roads go in this country.

The laissez-faire approach to tourist safety is alarming at first. But you soon cease to think about it, beyond pondering whether to buy one of those 'I survived Cape Trib' t-shirts.

Lethal fauna aside, this is the closest Australia gets to tropical paradise: white sand, velvet sunsets, German med students.

The best patches in the Daintree (i.e. those that escaped the logging companies' attentions) are private land. Of the guided walks I'd recommend the trek up Noah Valley, allegedly the oldest bit of forest on the planet.

Besides the billy tea and scotch fingers, our akubra hat-wearing guide carries artefacts on loan from local aboriginal elders, like this granite pestel with thumbprints worn by generations of the Kuku Yalanji. The whole area being Sacred Women's Place, a dress code applies.

A rainforest swim tops it off, for those who don't mind needle-cold water and sharp rocks. Best visit during the dry season, so you can cut yourself without fear of being a walking laboratory the next morning.


Graduations are a family affair...

so don't wait for nephews

now why did I change jobs??

how to look old at 25

Canberra has its charms - for two weeks in September

But people still need convincing

Still, there's bushwalking...

... overpriced ANU colleges ...

... and sleazy O'Connor bars