When it comes to warnings about the risks of nature, Queensland certainly pulls out the stops! In our previous blog on Maryborough, on the States’ Central Coast, we mentioned the threat of wild dingoes and err…killer cones on Fraser Island.
Of course there are dangers throughout the country with snakes, spiders, sharks and riptides to name but a few. However, Far North Queensland takes danger to another level. In addition to all of the above you have the proliferation of crocodiles for which FNQ is famous; a multitude of unpleasant Marine Stingers; sea-snakes; toe nipping mud-crabs; the astonishing and terrifying Cassowary; wayward Coconuts of ill intent; the venemous Gympie-Gympie Stinging Tree (we aren’t making this up!); and Bob Katter, an equally poisonous populist politician whose views and values have been carbon-dated back to medieval times. These were the ones we came across, and we imagine there are many, many more we remain happily oblivious to.
Port Douglas and the Daintree Forest
After flying up the coast from Brisbane to Cairns we picked up our umpteenth hire car and drove north towards Port Douglas. Port Douglas is a lovely spot and is very popular with tourists on account of Four Mile Beach, which became our latest running track….
….and a busy town that had a real buzz about it and possibly the most picturesque Chapel in Australia.
More importantly though, Port Douglas is the ideal jumping off point for a trip up into the stunning Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation, up in the north easterly corner of the country. The trip to the Daintree Rainforest feels like journeying back to Jurassic Park.
A wonderful set of walkways and a tower take you through a verdant jungle full of palms and ferns. The view over the forest reveals a sea of shades of green
Thanks to my brother Dirk we had become aware of the remarkable but illusive Cassowary, a prehistoric looking bird with striking features but with a fearsome reputation as one of the most dangerous birds in the world. One recently killed a man in Florida slicing through arteries with its fearsome claws. Full size males can stand 2 metres tall and there are warnings about what to do if you meet one and it becomes aggressive – back away slowly and calmly. Unless mating or chick rearing they are solitary creatures searching the jungle floor for fruit.
As a result it was a real mixture of excitement and fear when we saw one appear close by on one of the forest boardwalks. They are bizarre and look as though they’ve been put together with a random set of left over parts from other animals. Although similar to emus and ostriches they are quite unique and despite the striking plumage your eyes are drawn to those huge dagger like claws. Over the next hour we enjoyed a few sightings and fearless Sam showed remarkable calm to record the cassowaries wandering by. They are likely to be more aggressive if they are male and with chicks. Fortunately we seemed to have a close encounter with a smaller female. A meeting with an intimidating full size male was to follow later in our travels.
The Daintree Rainforest spills down onto the coastline and the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef, with more beautiful stretches of sand and mysterious mangroves at Cape Tribulation. With the heat, humidity and lush jungle landscape it really did feel as though we were back in South East Asia.
Of course no trip to FNQ would be complete without seeing crocodiles. There are croc warning signs galore by beaches and rivers but spotting one randomly is quite rare…unless you’ve done something very silly and they’ve spotted you first! For some reason German’s have been fatally disposed to not heeding warnings and all the signs now include an “Achtung!”
Having ridden our luck with the Cassowaries we decided the best way to see crocs wasn’t to goose step into the sea while singing “Deutschland Uber Alles” but jump on a boat tour on the Daintree River where a trusty and experienced guide would hopefully spot a few for us. Sure enough we soon found a few lazing on the river bank.
They are terrifying. Our guide ran through their extraordinary senses when monitoring prey, the speed they accelerate when attacking (35kmph), and of course the bone-crushing pressure they apply with those astonishing jaws and teeth. It’s little wonder they are top of the food chain.
Another excellent local diversion is Mossman Gorge, with more boardwalks, bridges and jungle walks that take you past the fast flowing river and craggy gorge….
…into the jungle where we stumbled upon another unexpected wildlife sighting: a wild pig snuffling away in the ground.
Apparently there are lots of these pigs in the jungle and some make the treacherous swim across the Daintree River to “Pig Island” but many don’t make the short crossing instead providing the crocs with a rather tasty bacon snack.
Cairns saw our seventh and final house / pet sit of our Australian travels, and we went out with a bang looking after a Great Dane called Xena and Rio, a temperamental parrot!
Xena is a gorgeous gentle giant who loved her cuddles and just wanted to laze around in our company. She did enjoy playing in the garden and with a dog that size you need to be quite careful to avoid her flattening you – she isn’t the most graceful dog in the world as this slow-mo of her trying to catch a ball shows
Despite the enormous difference in size, it was Rio who was the most bossy of the two by far. While docile Xena happily dozed away, Rio would squawk loudly demanding food and attention. Much to Sam’s horror I developed quite a rapport with Rio by having extended conversations with my new feathered friend which mostly involved my blasting out a series of high-pitched whistles. Rio seemed to appreciate my efforts.
The main tourist attraction in Cairns is the Skyway, a series of cable car journeys that take you high into the mountains that tower over Cairns to the village of Karunda.
Here there is a strange mix of authentic aboriginal stores and goods, along with a surprising number of Chinese retailers! From Karunda you can either take the cable car back down or jump on an old vintage railway rattler that takes an hour and a half to trundle down the mountain – obviously we went for this option.
It’s quite an amazing feat of engineering, with the track wending its way down the mountain through countless tunnels that were excavated with the help of a lot of explosives, several bridges, and turns so tight that you could see most of the train up ahead.
Okay, try saying Wongaling without bursting into The Wombles song – no, we couldn’t either…for three days we intermittently sang the theme tune to a kids programme as we made this our base in the Mission Beach area – a very easy going backpacker kind of place that enjoys a vast stretch of sand, but it’s only the small netted off area you can safely swim in the sea – a real frustration when you see these super beaches.
Inland from Mission Beach is the small town of Tully in which you can find an enormous gum boot – this is rural FNQ after all – and if you feel so inclined (we didn’t) you can go inside it and climb to the top to view the uninspiring town centre. However, we are doing Tully something of a dis-service. Tully sits under what we in the UK would definitely consider mountains, and seeing tidy residential streets with the mountains for a backdrop looked slightly surreal.
Better still a short drive from town is Alligator’s Nest a freshwater lake with no nasties to contend with and gorgeous clear water that you could drink without getting any salty aftertaste. Unlike the sea however it had a really cool edge to it, the waters having come down from a high altitude. Despite appearing calm, a strong undercurrent soon took you downstream quickly if you didn’t swim against it.
Tully does have a major claim to fame….and it’s not the giant Gum Boot. A week after our visit it was hosting the White Water Rafting World Championships upstream at Tully Gorge.
We drove higher and higher into the gorge stopping regularly to scramble down the riverside to see the roaring River Tully. We doff our caps to the crazy folks who launch themselves downstream carried along by the swirling torrents through the jagged rocks and boulders.
It took about an hour to get to the Gorge and it was interesting to drive through acre upon acre of agricultural land that comprised of huge fields of either sugar cane or banana plants. You cannot overstate how important the agricultural crops are here and how few people there are.
Mission Beach turned out to be Cassowary central with signs everywhere warning of them in the vicinity. We saw a pair at South Mission beside the road. Having got quite close to them up in Daintree we pulled up, got out of the car and took a good look at them.
Unfortunately it was at this point that they also took a good look at us and we saw just how big a male Cassowary is – close to 6ft – muscular and intimidating. We quickly abandoned the “stay calm and back away slowly” advice, instead we both screamed turned on our heels and legged it back to the car locking ourselves in from these angry birds!
So what is it that attracted us to this beautiful small island? Well it’s a great alternative to Townsville which you leave to get to “Maggie Island”. Small enough to drive around in less than an hour it has great beaches and a series of snorkelling spots.
We found Horseshoe Bay and spent a couple of idyllic days on the beach carefully positioning ourselves in the shade of palm trees but not directly beneath the flight path of Coconuts that sway high above unsuspecting sunbathers waiting to commit grievous bodily harm, or worse.
We didn’t brave swimming outside of the beach nets despite assurances that the Stinger season was over, and when I went out to sea on a Paddle Board I have to confess that even the remotest chance of jelly fish saw me “engage my core” and maintain perfect balance for an hour’s paddle around the bay – funny what you can achieve with the right motivation!
Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays
The longest stay on this drive was at Airlie Beach which we would use as a base for our travels into the Whitsundays and the Great Barrier Reef. After two sun-filled days on Maggie, we hit really poor weather. On our first day at Airlie it rained so much and constantly that it became an “admin day” – a very necessary evil when travelling long term. Emails were dealt with, future accommodation researched and booked, blogs written and published. I even sorted out my consultancy accounts and tax – that’s how much it rained! These are the unglamorous but wholly necessary days that travellers rarely mention but are incredibly important to a successful trip.
With a slight improvement in the weather the next day we explored the coastline at Hydeaway Bay and Dingo Beach, both quiet and picturesque spots where we had next to no one for company.
On our last trip to Oz, a few years ago, during the horrible return crossing from Rottnest Island to Freo, my nephew John recommended ginger for sea-sickness. We have religiously followed this advice ever since and it’s worked (thanks JC!). So with tummies full of ginger bear sweets we coped admirably with the choppy journey to Whitehaven in the Whitsundays. The crossing was quite rough in parts which saw waves crashing overboard and soaking us.
Here you find the archetypal white sands and turquoise sea of the reef. It looks too good to be true, and despite the tourist Insta-frenzy there is more than enough space to explore and escape the posing hordes.
We combined this trip with beach time and snorkelling where we got to see the coral of the Great Barrier Reef for the first time. Normally we get really excited by the incredibly colourful fish when we snorkel, but here it was the coral itself that was mesmerising, looking like it was breathing as it moved in the sea currents. Sadly no pic of this as the Go-Pro was lost several weeks ago (see Adelaide blog for that disaster!). So here is another of Whitehaven Beaches.
The next day we boarded the ferry to Hamilton Island, another small isle that acts as a hub for trips to the outer areas of the Reef. Here transport is by golf buggy only and we spent the day traversing the island admiring its wonderful views..
..glorious bird life…
…and finding more reasons not to go into the water:
Airlie Beach Park Run
Our running continues apace… a very pedestrian pace but I’ve taken the bold step of joining a Running Club… I say “Running Club” it’s more of a non-running club: The Derek Zoolander Centre For Kids Who Can’t Run Good. With no restrictions on entry other than a love for all things Zoolander and a complete inability to run, this is the Club for me. Club tradition has it that on seeing a photographer at a parkrun event members should try to “pop a z” at the camera, creating a Z with your hands in homage to our idol. Sounds easy? When you don’t run good having the wherewithal to create alphabet hands shapes is really quite difficult as evidenced by my shocking effort below.
This wasn’t the only mishap of our run as Sam managed to get lost, run up a hill totally unnecessarily and wasted even more energy abusing a parkrun volunteer for not guiding her in the right direction. I regret to say there is no photographic evidence of this incident. It was, however, a lovely setting for a run adjacent to one of the local marina’s.
Our last few days in Australia saw us travelling back up the coast to Cairns, but we did manage a stopover at Alva Beach, a very far flung spot with a huge wind blown sandy bay and spit that had a wild, untamed feel to it. It was such an unexpected find and end to our FNQ road trip, another example of the seemingly endless wonders this country has tucked away if you are lucky enough to stumble on them.
We loved our time in FNQ – it has so much to offer beyond the obvious attraction of the Great Barrier Reef. We plan to return as we want to see more of the Reef. It’s not a place we could live though. To have those gorgeous beaches teasing you, calling you to come in and try the water when you know you can’t – it’s impossible. Just take a look at this sign on the dangers of Marine Stingers: “victim may stop breathing and rapidly lose consciousness” …..”a dreadful feeling of anxiety and ill health”. Thanks, but no thanks!
Next Up: Our Australia Round Up