From Sydney, Amy and I flew to Cairns (pronounced cans). Word of advice while traveling within Australia… JetStar is an inexpensive no frills airline (similar to Southwest Airlines in the States) but don’t expect it to run on time or get on with free luggage. Apparently you need to pre-book your luggage when you book your flight while traveling within Australia to avoid excessive baggage fees (and you’ll have to stay within the strict weight limit as well). One domestic travel aspect that works in a light traveler’s favor is that there are no liquid restrictions on domestic flights, but aerosols need to have a cap, otherwise they will get tossed (R.I.P. foaming sunless tanner).
After an incident at security (may or may not have had anything to do with Amy being scanned for explosives…twice) and a flight delay due to an airport fire in Cairns, we arrived at the much awaited Great Barrier Reef! Well, to the Cairns airport at least. We flew into Cairns and took a shuttle from the airport to Port Douglas (about 1.5 hours north), where all the boat departures and most area tours are based. Port Douglas is a cute beach town with no traffic lights and a main strip of restaurants and bars that entertain both locals and tourists at night. The area was not filled with the white sandy beaches I was expecting to relax on. The ocean water was a murky home to crocodiles and jellyfish. To experience the aqua blue waters you would expect to see, you have to travel about 2 hours by boat out to the Great Barrier Reef. The sights above and below water are more than words (or pictures) can eloquently express.
Scuba Diving in the Great Barrier Reef
After a lifelong dream of experiencing the land under the sea (did the Little Mermaid soundtrack play in your head too?), I finally got to scuba dive for the first time! Not certified? Don’t fret, you can dive through an introductory open water course. I felt a little more prepared since Joe and I went through an intro pool dive five years ago when he was in the rehab hospital in Denver. The pool intro definitely prepared me for what to expect in the open ocean. However, most in our group had never strapped on scuba gear before. On the ride out to the reef, a scuba instructor carefully explained the breathing technique, hand signals, and ear equalizing to the group.
I highly recommend taking the Poseidon Reef Snorkeling and Dive tour. I went on three introductory dives on my first time out! My first time down I was purely concentrated on three things: breathing in, breathing out, and not losing the scuba instructor. I’m not sure why I thought if I took my eyes off of him I might get lost in the great ocean. The next two times down I was really able to take it all in. Sitting on the ocean floor, getting kissed on the goggles by a big orange fish, and touching a purple clam the size of our bulldog, Gouda (oh, how I miss those girls), was surreal. Next up, scuba certification!
I didn’t get any pictures of my dives, but just imagine the beauty under here:
The Daintree Rainforest
Just about 40 minutes north of Port Douglas you can explore the Daintree Rainforest, the oldest rainforest in the world where the tropical plants grow straight out to the Australian shore. The Daintree is home to some pretty impressive species of plants and animals, including some crazy venomous snakes, cantaloupe-sized spiders, and killer birds.
As our tour guide described how almost everything that lived in the forest could cause possible human death, Amy and I kept guard out for lurking spider webs and thorny plant vines swinging overhead. What we didn’t expect was to encounter a rare and endangered prehistoric flightless bird called a Cassowary. As we strayed from our tour group to listen in on interesting forest facts other tour guides were sharing with their groups, a gigantic animal resembling a turkey, but with a blue head and dinosaur feet jumped out in front of us on the trail! “A cassowary!” I shouted. I only knew about this bird because about 15 minutes prior, our guide pointed out a Cassowary Plum, a seed that grows in the rainforest only after being digested and excreted by the Cassowary bird. The seed is toxic to any other animal that eats it, but the Cassowary bird and the Cassowary Plum have this interesting symbiotic relationship going that allows both of them to benefit off each other. The bird came and went, and our group missed it, walking ahead of us eager to get back in the car. A different tour guide, panicked by the surprise appearance of the bird, warned his group to stay away from the bird since they have been known to attack by jumping on people until they puncture the person’s jugular with their deathly claws if they feel threatened. We got to see it (and get a good picture)!
The Daintree is filled with Jurassic-age species of plants, gravity defying vines, and other interesting mosses and fungi:
The rain started to come down as we explored, but only a few drops of water hit our heads since the dense, multi-layered canopy was acting as a natural umbrella from the rain.
While lunch was on the barbie, Amy and I ventured out in a canoe down the river by ourselves. I’d like to say that we braved grand rapids (although we were the only two in the group who made it out of the small wading lagoon into the river), wrestled crocs, and fished for our lunch, but the ride was pretty uneventful… well, except for that large Eastern Water Dragon that plopped in the water in front of our canoe. Before heading out for our official river boat tour, I picked up a rainforest rock for my nephew, Tyler, who is fascinated by geology.
To wrap up our time in the Daintree Rainforest, we headed on a river boat and set out to see the mangroves and some Aussie crocs! We spotted 5 – 2 males and 3 females! Since it is the beginning of winter here, the crocs are pretty sedentary. They come in from the ocean and practically hibernate on the mudbanks. The mangrove-lined river displayed an intricate web of mangrove roots, home to spawning fish before they head out to sea. We were on the river at low tide, so we were able to really appreciate the shallow rooted trees.
We ended the forest tour with a stop by the famous Floravilla Ice Cream Factory, a biodynamic, organic and very tasty ice cream treasure in Daintree. It was a great way to rattle our taste buds and cool off with flavors like black sapote, pumpkin cinnamon, rhubarb, goji berry, avocado, and chili chocolate.
And then it was time to say goodbye… to beautiful Queensland and my friend. My first Aussie exploration would not have been as memorable without a partner in crime. Amy, thanks for being our first visitor and for being the best crazy repeller, dessert eating, spider killing, dolphin stealing travel buddy I could have asked for!
Look out on top of Mount Alexandra in the Daintree Rainforest