Australia Part 3 – The Northern Tropics

March 19, 2008 at 8:59 pm | Posted in Australia | Leave a comment

Australia Part 3 – The Northern Tropics

We returned from other-worldy Fraser Island to picturesque Hervey Bay, the launching spot for Fraser Island, and felt the need to stay put for a while and we found a motel that was like a little home along the esplanade of the town with the beach right across the street. This little apartment had lovely decor and a dvd player with free rentals! We think the kids watched 4 movies in 24 hours! Having dvd players in the motel rooms was a novelty for us. We were ecstatic! We watched movies, caught up on schoolwork, watched the bats make their nightly foray towards the giant fig trees and indulged in some much missed Mexican food. Plus, they had wireless internet and a pool! This was beyond expectations! Who needs reservations? We felt like trying to slow down a bit and enjoy a home for a few days. Just like home, the boys would dump their entire cache of Lego on the floor and play for hours. School books would be strewn around, our world map would be hung on the wall, our clothesline would be precariously fastened to a kitchen cabinet and a doorknob and we would cook in our own kitchen. Most places we stayed were categorized as “self-catering” which meant that they had a full kitchen, table, chairs and cooking utensils. Australia had all of the foods that we were used to, just fewer options. It felt embarrassing to see that Australia would offer 15 different cereals where the US offers 40 or 50! It seemed completely unnecessary. Furthermore, ALL of Australia’s cereals were healthy and made from whole grain as were some of their yummy cookies. The boys had their favorite 2 or 3 cereals and we were able to get instant oatmeal – Oliver’s favorite. Things we missed as far as choices were concerned were a better variety of granola bars and snack foods. Australia specializes in potato chips. If you wanted Cheetos or Corn Chips, they didn’t exist. There was usually one brand of popcorn and one brand of pretzels offered in one shape. But the potato chips were practically a “meal-in-a-bag”. Some of the offered flavors were “Chicken, Lime, Chorizo”, “Proscuitto, Parmesean”, “Steak, BBQ, Onion”, “Sausage, Rosemary, Pepper”. They brought potato chips to new heights. We missed bagels, fig newtons, and miniature carrots (we looked like cartoon figures chomping on larger than life big carrots in the car!) Our car was usually stocked with nuts, trail mix, bread, peanut butter, jelly, parmalat milk, plastic utensils, plates, paper towels, crackers and leftover candy that was begged for regularly.

After Hervey Bay we headed north as the boys learned the words to songs on our Ipod such as “Peace Train” by Cat Stevens, “Wasting Away Again in Margaritaville” by Jimmy Buffet and “Crocodile Rock” by Elton John. We headed to Bundaberg near a sanctuary called Mon Repos which is a popular nesting ground for sea turtles. We were disappointed to have missed them in South Africa so perhaps this would be our second chance. We made a booking and headed over to the sanctuary at dusk as the turtles do not beach until nightfall. We were lucky to be here during the egg-laying season. After everyone arrives they get assigned to a specific group according to when their reservations were made. Later in the evening rangers scan the beaches and when they see a turtle come ashore they call the first group to come observe. If only one turtle comes in then only one group goes. One group per turtle. After a few hours of patient waiting, we were finally called and in the darkness we got to watch a turtle the size of the hood of our car lay over 100 eggs into a hole she dug with her uncoordinated flippers. No lights and no cameras were allowed but the boys sat right up front watching each egg drop into its nest. Then we watched her diligently bury them and attempt to make the beach look unaffected and then she made her way back to the sea never seeing the fruit of her labor. Because we were the last group, we were lucky to watch another turtle who came in beside ours and this time we watched her face rather than her backside as she decided to face the opposite way. These were loggerhead turtles and we learned all about the different sea turtles and why they are endangered and how nature urges these creatures to come back to the same beach they were hatched on 30 years ago and lay eggs for the first time. We also learned that the gender of each hatchling is determined by the temperature of the sand the eggs are laid in. Warmer sand produces females and cooler sand produces males. It was all very amazing especially learning that only 1 out of 1000 hatchlings will successfully return to nest.

The next day we celebrated with a visit to the Bundaberg Rum distillery. We were all interested especially after having driven by thousands of acres of sugar cane. It seemed that was all that was grown on the east coast. The boys were interested in seeing how this pirate grog was made and we were excited for the tastings at the end. Bundaberg Rum is very popular and a proud sponsor of many Australian sporting events – everyone drinks or sells Bundaberg. We all felt like having some refreshing rum drinks as the tropical latitude was becoming quite apparent. It was very strange to travel north and have it become warmer and warmer.

We arrived in Agnes Water with hopes of going out to the pristine island of Lady Musgrave, one of the southernmost islands of the Great Barrier Reef. We waited a few days but the wind and rain didn’t let up enough to allow for successful snorkeling. With the price tag associated with snorkeling the Reef, we wanted good weather. So we opted to move north and hope to get out to the Reef from up there.

On our way north, we stopped in an Aboriginal Cultural Center and got some hands-on lessons for throwing boomerangs. That was a blast! We arrived in Airlie Beach which is the launching site for excursions out to the fantastic Whitsunday Islands. The islands are famous for snorkeling, diving and sailing and are the most accessible islands comprising the Great Barrier Reef. The weather looked promising for the next few days (as much as it could be predicted in these unstable skies). We booked two different excursions and on the first day, although there was heavy cloud cover on the land, the skies on the sea were blue. Dolphins chased alongside the boat and the captain let the boys take turns “driving” the boat to a secluded cove. We tried to memorize the fish names on laminated identification charts before diving in to watch oversized Wrasse fish with giant lips dominate the water while clown fish and giant clams and an octopus completed the underwater scenery. Dad even took an introductory diving class and we watched him explore the ocean bottom while we hovered above him. We learned that Wrasse (as do other fish) can change from female to male should the males become scarce. We had donned our stinger suits because of vicious jellyfish that can hospitalize you yet are invisible to see. Nothing is free. It seems that most of our adventures involved looking over our shoulder for some potential danger. We suppose it wouldn’t be an adventure otherwise. On the way back, we enjoyed the seascape as the brilliant green Whitsundays floated atop the royal blue water and the white sea foam splashed the boys legs as they dangled them over the bow of each hull of the fast catamaran. After a day of rest and basking in the pool at our apartment and watching hundreds of cockatoos gather at dusk in their favorite tree, we headed back out to sea for another view of the underwater world. We slipped into our stinger suits. Peter and Oliver went first and Laura and Henry followed. The stinger suits came up to our necks as 95% coverage seemed sufficient, unless you are Henry. Two large typical jellyfish swam on either side of us with, what we thought, plenty of clearance. Their tentacles must have trailed farther than expected because Henry blasted out of the water grabbing his neck. “I’ve been stung!” he shrieked. He was familiar with the situation from his mother’s experience in South Africa. However, he was not prepared for the stinging that ensued over the next 45 minutes. This was not the type of sting that hospitalizes you but seeing the labyrinth of red lashings surrounding his neck like a turtleneck was startling as each serpentine strand swelled into long welts. Peter and Oliver were unaware as we were lifted into the dingy that we hailed to come to our aid. We sat near the back of the front of the boat so as not to alarm the other passengers swimming off the back as Henry’s wails were disconcerting. We tried to apply ice packs but Henry refused as he sweat from the sheer energy of crying. The welts looked gruesome on such a small person but we were reassured that it would only last a relatively short time. After what seemed like eternity, Henry began to settle down, especially when cookies were offered as snacks. Another little girl bought him a bag of potato chips to cheer him up and he got to drive this significantly bigger boat for a while. Later, he was fascinated to look in the mirror at his war wounds and became quite proud of himself after all of the reminders from the crew and passengers of what a brave snorkeler he was.

We took a little bushwalk on one of the islands and while we hiked our guide wondered if anyone had ever eaten ants. When no one raised their hand she asked if anyone would want to try one. Oliver and Henry were the first to put their hands up. She foraged for some particular ants with a lemony pouch on their lower body. She snipped off the pouch and fed one to each boy. They decided the first taste was not exciting enough and asked for a second. Thereafter, they were foraging around the trees gleaning their own snacks much to their mother’s chagrin (she was secretly glowing with pride in her brave boys). Next, we pulled into Whitehaven beach – a gem in the world of beaches. The sand is the purest in the world and tons of it were harvested to build the lens of a NASA telescope. It was as soft as silk and so bright it seemed it would glow in the dark. To walk the beach we would need to wade through the water from the boat. Henry was the first person to put his stinger suit on and jump in! Helicopters landed on the famous beach and we all frolicked on the sand before reluctantly returning to our boat. It was a glorious day to be out on the water.

We continued north to the towns of Townsend and Cairns. Both are nice towns with fabulous “lagoons” built at the waterfront. Because of the poisonous jellyfish in the water, towns need pools. The pools are so nicely incorporated into the landscape that they call them lagoons as if they were part of the natural landscape. The fabulous and often warm pools have helped improve the boys confidence in the water to include diving, cannonballs, underwater obstacle courses, somersaults and swimming long distances in deep water. The esplanades in both towns are so well laid out and each have a waterpark and playground. The one in Townsend includes water spraying out from guns, poles, mushrooms, sprinklers and a giant bucket that gets poured regularly on those below. Even Dad joined in the fun. On the way to Cairns we stopped to explore Wallman Falls – the tallest falls in Australia. Strangely (or not so strangely with our experience), we were the only ones there. We thought we could swim under them so we climbed down, down, down the face of a cliff on a zig-zag path through rainforest and timber and vines as brush turkeys flurried away at our approach. We got to the bottom only to see that there was no easy and safe access to the pools below. So, we took pictures and started our nearly vertical ascent back to the top. It was definitely a test of perseverance and our reward, besides personal gratification, was a package of melting Tim Tams – Australia’s favorite chocolate covered cookie.

We could not get enough of the tropical landscape and wanted to wander further and further until we could reach the tip of northeast Australia but, as it was, we had traveled 1800 miles – roughly equivalent to the distance from Maine to Florida and we still had to get back the same distance. So, due to time and dirt roads and a profusion of man-eating crocodiles living in the northern reaches, we only went as far as the lovely and UNESCO-protected Daintree Rainforest, home of the elusive and endangered Cassowary. The Cassowary is a flightless bird smaller than an ostrich with a remarkable bony mass protruding from the top of its head. It is like no other bird we have seen or read about. We saw one in sanctuary but its home is in Daintree. Unfortunately the harvesting of timber threatens the Cassowary’s life and, thankfully, most of the rainforest is now protected. Few people have seen the shy bird despite its size. We were always on the lookout from the road. We took sidetrips into green, green Mosman Gorge for a good look at the rainforest landscape and for a swim among the boulders where iridescent blue Ulysses butterflies eluded Mom’s camera and then we drove further towards Cape Tribulation to a recommended ice creamery where they dished out flavors-of-the-day. We enjoyed passionfruit, coconut, and black sapote (a fruit that resembles chocolate!) all made on the premises. We were far from our motel in Cairns when we headed back from Daintree. The sun began to set and all was quiet on the roads. As we turned down a sideroad to explore one more beach, a Cassowary emerged from the bush and crossed the road right in front of our car!!! We nearly jumped out of our seats and as Dad jammed on the brakes and Mom fumbled with the camera, we caught a glimpse on film before it blended back into the bush. To this day, Henry claims that this is his favorite unexpected encounter with wildlife.

After contemplating wind speeds, visibility, wave action, sunshine, jellyfish and the boys’ enthusiasm, we decided to give the Reef one more visit and booked a trip out the next morning (since Henry missed out on the last one). This trip took us out to the outer reef to a permanent pontoon to which a glass bottom boat and a semi-submersible were docked for activities besides snorkeling. We saw some more of what the Reef had to offer and although we never really hit the proverbial sweetspot of the Reef with oodles of fish and fluorescent colors and patterns, we feel that it was time well-spent on one of the precious natural wonders of the world and one that is in danger of becoming extinct due to the very imminent dangers of global warming.

It was time to start heading south again to return to Sydney.

(click photo for slideshow)

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