North Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef

I’m ignoring the fact that we’re ending the last week of our vacation. We’ve been having too good of a time to think about that. Besides, we don’t have to go back to work for about six more days — because of the date-line and the long holiday weekend. The truth is, we were having far too much fun on the beach to really think more than a half-day ahead anyway.

Since the last post about our Aussie adventure, we’ve returned to and left Alice Springs for the sunny Queensland coast. The Alice (as they call it here) was even more enjoyable the second time around. We visited a bunch of aboriginal art galleries and a gem/opal store or two, bought souvenirs of the cheap and expensive varieties, and generally enjoyed the cool weather. (Although it’s never too cold for ice cream, I could see my breath on an early morning run.) We also took in a few of the local attractions: the Reptile Centre, the Desert Park, and the National Road Transport Hall of Fame and museum. That last one was kind of a whim on the way to the airport. They love them some over-the-road drivers in the center of Australia.

We’ve been in Trinity Beach — one of the “Northern Beaches” hamlets of Cairns — for the better part of a week, and I think we’ve been in the Coral Sea just about every day. It’s winter here; we watched the sun rise over Uluṟu and Kata Tjuṯa on the 21st. But the water is still warmer than the Milford High School pool, where we swam all throughout the autumn and winter in the northern hemisphere. In fact, the water temperature is about 25°C (roughly 75°F) which is the warmest water I think I’ve ever swam in. And the air temperature is a few degrees warmer still, so lying about on the beach post-swim is really great, too. It’s heavenly, and I don’t really want to leave*. (We’re renting an apartment just a minute’s walk from the beach, so it almost feels like we live here.)

We’ve done a bit more than lying around on the beach and frolicking in the ocean. One day we drove our tiny rental car northward toward Cape Tribulation. It’s one of the few places in the world where the rainforest, the ocean, and a coral reef all meet in one place. (Captain Cook renamed it that after the Endeavour ran afoul of the reef there. I’m really going to have to read more about his scientific/colonial journeys in the southern seas.) It’s also where we learned that Queensland drivers can be complete jerk-faces; “When the roads get more twisty, there will be fewer police, so we can drive as fast and as rudely as possible.” Someone passed me in a right-turn lane while someone was turning right in it. And it wasn’t like I was going slowly — I live in Massachusetts, after all.

But anyway. There’s one great leveler of drivers: the ferry. After hiking around Mossman Gorge and then crossing the Daintree River (via ferry) we meandered our way up to Cape Tribulation. stopping here and there to stroll on the beaches and walk along boardwalks through the rainforest. On one of these walks, we saw two cassowaries. The cassowary is a large, flightless bird. It’s also endangered and (allegedly) rare. Their rarity is belied by the fact that there are signs all along the Cook Highway and into the Atherton Tablelands warning drivers about hitting them. We kept a wary eye on the road, but saw nothing. But on our first Cape Trib walk we were surprised to see a large bird — taller than us — walk out of the undergrowth and then another juvenile bird follow it. Many a sign had warned us that they were dangerous, so we were cautious around them. It was only later that we learned they have a “dagger-like middle claw” that they will use when threatened.

We survived unscathed and were ready to try our luck the next day on the Great Barrier Reef. I’m sure we’ve all seen the pictures of the Reef. There’s Jacques Cousteau / Steve Zissou diving down into the depths to see vibrantly colored fish, intricate corals, man-sized bivalves, and man-eating sharks. Okay, maybe I’m showing my age. At the very least, we’ve all seen “Finding Nemo” or been to a pet store with tropical fish. Beautiful fish with incredible details that I would surely kill within weeks of bringing them home. But in the wild . . . well, I was just giddy with anticipation of seeing them.** We swam all winter so that we would (1) look good(ish) on the beach and (2) not drown on the Great Barrier Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef was (to put it mildly) one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. While each portion of the reef is relatively small, it’s extremely large in its entirety. And we barely explored the two sections that we visited***. I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so awe-inspiring. I thought that (like the cassowary) the wildlife would be hiding. That we would see the coral jungle but that we would have to search for the fish. But no, there they were, the vibrant parrotfish and the enormous 3-foot long stubby blue fish and (yes) even Nemo, as all clownfish are now called, even by the dive crew. And the coral itself, far from the white, chalky stuff I saw in my grandparent’s Iowa home, was delicate and colorful and amazing. It was, without a doubt, worth the moderately rough seas to get there.

Snorkeling was both easier and more difficult than I had expected. Breathing was easy. Diabetes was (for once) easy. Keeping the water out of my face mask (after I got one that fit) was easy. And at our first destination, the waters were shallow. We could see sandy bottoms just beyond the coral pedestals. I probably didn’t need the pool noodles — don’t judge me! — that made staying lazily afloat so easy. But swimming through the current caused by the waves breaking on the leading edge of the reef (where the Pacific Ocean becomes the Coral Sea) was much harder than I had expected. It was difficult staying connected with Lisa on that first go. So the awesome “Hey look at that!” experience we had expected didn’t materialize. But it did on the second dive, when the pedestals were far more pronounced and we pointed out to each other green sea turtles and giant clams and vibrant fish (whose names I still don’t know). Because the tide was going out, the water over the reef was quite a bit lower than before, and we almost beached ourselves when the current moved us over the top of the coral itself. (It’s good to know that those core muscles I developed while swimming hadn’t atrophied too badly over the spring and the three weeks of “laziness” in Australia.)

After the reef, you might think the beach just outside our apartment would be a bit of a let down. But very little on this trip has been disappointing. (Except maybe Darwin.) There’s something so wonderful about frolicking about in the warm salt water and then getting out and lazing about on a beach towel, watching the fellow beach-goers and reading what passes for journalism in this country. (I also started reading my book about the great Australian hoax platypuses.) As I mentioned earlier, the water is warm, as is the sun. The Trinity Beach is very family friendly but garners a good number of people of all ages, and it was never overly crowded or empty during the daylight hours. (Lisa even said that yesterday she saw some topless sunbathers as we were driving back to our place from the zoo, but I think she might just have been teasing me. She claims otherwise, but I, sadly, did not see them.)

Beyond having a nice, quiet beach, Trinity Beach is quite conveniently located. You aren’t located in the steamy heart of Cairns itself, which can be kind of a tourist trap, but you’re close enough — only 15-20 minutes driving — that you can go in to enjoy a good dinner and dessert or to watch “Toy Story 3″ or to engage in people-watching. You’re close to the zoo and to the cooler weather of the Tablelands. And you don’t have to deal with all the crazy drivers going to and from Port Douglas or Kuranda — unless you want to.

But now, we’re almost on our way home and (eventually) back to work. I guess we work so that we can have the chance to take these awesome vacations, but I wish it could last just a little bit longer.

* — I wrote about half this post in Trinity Beach and the other half on the flight from Cairns to Sydney.

** — I don’t have a “life list” or “bucket list” or whatever you want to call it. But I do have a ton of lists of things that I might consider doing or places that I would want to visit, along with a much shorter, very selective list of things that I’ll go out of my way to do. So far this trip, I’ve been able to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, swim in the Pacific Ocean, go to Kakadu, and see Uluṟu.

*** — We had a fast — but uncomfortably long — cruise out to Flynn Reef. The winds were blowing 20-25 knots, with three meter swells once we cleared land. I’ve never been sea-sick (touch wood), but about one third of the people on our boat were following the instructions at the bottom of the brown paper bags the crew was handing out when needed. I could tell that the man who was sweating profusely before we left the pier was going to need one, along with the hipster-looking guy who was green. (I’ve never seen a person that color before.) I was a little surprised that Lisa succumbed to the motion of the ocean, but she was one of the last people. If we hadn’t been going out to the farthest edge of the reef — if the cruise out had been twenty minutes shorter — she would have been ship-shape inside and out. But it didn’t put too much of a damper on our day.

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One Response to North Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef

  1. mary says:

    snorkeling in the reef sounds amazing! i’m glad you had such a great time and that the beauty of the reef lived up to your expectations. did you see a jaguar shark?

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