Melbourne in winter can be a bit depressing. It’s cold, but not cold enough to snow, it’s wet, but just enough to make it uncomfortable, and the days are short enough that you only see daylight on weekends or out the window. Right now it’s blowing up a gale outside, with winds predicted to exceed 100kmph today.
However we’re extremely fortunate in Australia, while the south of the country languishes in the cold, the far tropical north is warm, sunny and dry. This is why we booked our trip to Port Douglas, one of the best things I’ve done for a long time. On our trip was Hayley and myself, as well as Hayley’s mum Lorraine and sister Charmaine.
Day 1 – Planes and automobiles
The flight up is 4 hrs from Melbourne to Cairns airport direct. Stepping off the plane, you can tell you’re in the tropics straight away, your palms get sticky, and suddenly that merino thermal you’re wearing doesn’t seem like such a great idea anymore. I’m sure the locals get a secret kick out of seeing us south-of-the-border types getting off the plane in coats and jumpers while they’re all shorts and teeshirts.
We picked up our hire car at the airport. From Cairns we had to drive another hour and a half north, past Port Douglas, through Mossman to Whyanbeel in the foothills of the rainforest. Our accommodation was awesome! A private house on 16 acres of rainforest, split into 3 detached pavillions, with a lap pool, full kitchen and 3 bedrooms each with an en-suite. The first thing I noticed about this place, apart from the perfect air temperature and the idyllic setting, was that all the rooms open completely to the outdoors. No need for windows when there’s no wind to keep out!
The surrounding rainforest sits in the foothills below the Atherton Tablelands, a range of granite and sandstone peaks, some as high as 1300m. This area is the oldest and one of the most diverse tropical rainforests in the world. It is the only place where 2 World Heritage areas are situated side by side, the Daintree Forest and the Great Barrier Reef. The diversity of plant and animal life up there is astounding. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the locals while here. On my tick list was the cassowary, the green sea turtle, the beautiful Ulysses butterfly and perhaps a crocodile or two.
On arrival in Whyanbeel we dropped our bags and drove back to Port Douglas to see that the town was like. Not as touristy as I thought it might be. 4 Mile Beach was right there at the east end of town, and there are plenty of places to eat and drink. At one pub they hold cane toad races every Thursday night!
We were hungry, so after walking around a bit and visiting the tourist information centre, we had a great dinner at a restaurant (I had the duck!), then headed back to the house with supplies for the week. Went to sleep that night to a soothing chorus of insects, birds, geckos and frogs.
Day 2 – Mossman Gorge and 4 Mile Beach
We headed out for Mossman Gorge the next morning, to see the granite boulders and walk in the rainforest a bit. It’s an amazing place with crystal clear water and fish swimming about for all to see.
Despite the fact that there were busloads of tourists up there, we had a great time scrambling around barefoot on the granite. This was the closest thing to climbing from the whole trip. Not exactly bouldering, but it was great fun anyhow. Hayley and I could have hopped around on those boulders all day long! I would like to go back there again and see how far I can boulder hop up the gorge.
After this we headed back to Port Douglas for lunch, then to 4 Mile Beach for a splash around in the sea and a lie in the sand. Plenty of people out and about, and who could blame them? The sun was out and the water was 25 degrees! Lovely fine white sand, plenty of shade, and enough wave activity to keep it interesting. I always thought I disliked water, but this was great!
Day 3 – The Daintree
Tuesday morning we decided to head up north a bit further, into the World Heritage regions of the Daintree National Park. Until recently you needed a 4wd to get up there, but they have now paved the roads all the way to Cape Tribulation. Any roads further to Cooktown and beyond are still only accessible part of the year depending on weather, and roads become very rough.
Access to the rainforest is via a short ferry trip across the Daintree River (complete with crocodile warning signs), then drive through the foothills. After a short stop at the Mount Alexandra Lookout, we paid a visit to The Daintree Discovery Centre. It was a great way to see the rainforest, with raised platforms and informational signs through what would otherwise be impenetrable. There’s also a treetop walk and an observation tower which allows you to look down over the forest from a very high vantage point.
We manged to spot a pair of Wompoo fruit doves (their call sounds like a person saying “wollabaLOO”) and the bright blue flash of the magnificent Ulysses swallowtail butterfly. Also from up in the tower I spotted a pair of Cairns Birdwing butterflies, the largest endemic butterfly species in Australia with a wingspan of up to 16cm!
The plant life in the Daintree is exceedingly dense, with vines and aerial roots growing in every available space. The most impressive is the strangler fig, which starts its life as a seed deposited in the branches of a large tree. It then grows roots down to the ground and supports itself by wrapping itself around the host tree. Eventually, after hundreds of years the host tree dies and the fig is left standing. The one pictured is estimated at over 800 years old.
After the Discovery Centre we headed up north to Cape Tribulation and Cape Tribulation Beach. The beach up there is beautiful, and sits at the base of some quite tall tropical mountains.
There we visited various boardwalks through the mangroves and forests, the best of which was the Dubuji Boardwalk, which was filled with palm trees and was quite dark and very lush.
Trees up here have very shallow roots so they buttress themselves against the ground to hold themselves upright. Everything here is alive, and the battle for survival is very evident. Survival of the fittest and most adaptable is the rule here, every square centimetre of ground and sky alike is inhabited by something living.
We were told that if we were lucky we’d spot a cassowary, which is Australia’s heaviest flightless bird, but up til now we had only heard large birds scratching around in the undergrowth, probably just a scrub fowl or a brush turkey. So with the daylight waning we decided it was time to make our way back to the house. On the drive we noticed cars were banked up ahead, and thinking it was probably because of a car accident, just patiently waited til the cars started moving again. Then we saw them.
There were 2 cassowaries, right beside the road! The cars had all stopped to rubberneck these magnificent creatures. About 6ft tall with brilliant blue and red heads, and with a large bony horn protruding from out of their skulls. Sound like something from Star Trek doesn’t it? It was too dark to take a picture of these birds, but a little further down the road, we spotted another one! This one was taking a drink in the causeway and again the cars were banked up to see it. I managed to get a couple of photos but they’re not great as the light was dim. (Please excuse the bad photo!)
Pretty special moment right there! So in one day I had ticked 2 creatures off my list! And both in the wild, not at a wildlife park. The Daintree is amazing! Thanks to a lot of very hard work by a bunch of devoted people, this area is now protected from further development.
On Day 4 we took a catamaran out to Low Isles to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef. More about this and days 5 thru 8 in “Holiday Report – Port Douglas 2009 part 2”, coming soon to a blog near you!