Far North (Tropical) Queensland Trip
Pictures from our August-September 2005 Far North (Tropical) Queensland Trip
Queensland is one of those places with a magical reputation - fantastic natural environment, great climate, and a bit of a frontier attitude. It's been on our list from the beginning, and like the Top End, has only this year moved to the top of our list since we were both waiting for Lucy to become a stronger swimmer and working around other scheduling constraints. And having finally experienced it, we have to say that it lives up to its reputation. We are also very glad that we made some of our other trips first, to set the stage - and also managed to avoid (by both research and luck) the madhouse which is Cairns - far too much like the worst parts of Florida for our liking. Port Douglas, on the other hand, is much more enjoyable - and Mossman, a sleepy country town, even more to our liking.
When we began thinking about finally making our Queensland trip, we had hard decisions to make. Queensland is a huge state stretching nearly 3000 kilometers from the northern tip at Cape York to the Gold Coast in the south. However, we had no real interest in surfing beaches - or tourist destination beaches of any kind or the popular amusement parks, or exploring cities (even though Brisbane is supposed to be a wonderful place). Similarly, we really didn't feel the need to explore more of the Outback (except perhaps over in the Kimberly in Western Australia someday.) Given all this, what we kept coming back to were the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree as the regions we really wanted to explore. This pretty much limited us to Tropical North (or Far North) Queensland. And since Jetstar has started flying nonstop Adelaide to Cairns, that made our jumping-off point clear. However, the more we learned about Cairns, the less we wanted to stay there. And since this was going to be (most likely) our final major trip of exploration within Oz, we decided to find a special place where we could kick back and relax.
Thus, we left for Queensland on Saturday evening, and ended up in Cairns 3 hours later at about 10 pm. Lots of families with small children on board - perhaps because the flights are direct (and thereby shorter) as well as cheap? Unfortunately, Lucy had a hard descent with lots of ear trouble, and we were beginning to wonder if she had an ear infection. Our luggage arrived safely, our rental car was waiting, and we had little trouble navigating to our one-night-only hotel in downtown Cairns on the Esplanade. We found out where the nearest clinic was (which was actually open seven days a week, 24 hours a day) just in case. However, after we got settled into our room, Lucy seemed to be in better shape, and could describe the pain a little better, so we decided it probably wasn't an infection. By morning she seemed just fine, so after a very average and overpriced breakfast (our only bad meal, and the most expensive of the entire trip!) we were on our way north.
As we drove north out of the madness that is Cairns, things steadily improved. The weather was overcast, but the road wound along the coast much of the way. We passed Port Douglas, and continued on to Mossman and beyond, finding our way through cane fields and into the rain forest and to our destination for the week, Bali Hai (see also here). This is one of three properties developed by a Queensland couple that provide unique getaways - Bali Hai is modeled on Balinese huts (with thatched roofs, carved doors and an open, airy feel), set in a clearing in the rain forest on 28 acres, with commanding views of the mountains, tropical fruit trees planted throughout the property (including coconuts, papayas and pomelos among others), a freshwater creek down below (also here), and a main living area built around a large deck and swimming pool. Clara just wandered around repeating "I love it!" over and over, while Lucy's journal says "we fell in love with the place as soon as we arrived!" Wendy met us at the main house, and gave tropical flowers to the girls (picked, we later learned, from the property itself, which is rich in wildlife of all sorts as well as flowering and fruit-bearing plants to accompany the usual rainforest types.) After she gave us a quick tour, and answered a few questions (including a description of all the fruits in the huge bowl on the kitchen counter), she left us on our own to unload and soak it all in. Over the course of the coming week, we spent a lot more time at Bali Hai rather than exploring about (although the Bali Hai surroundings provide much to explore and discover as we found out.) However, today Sandy wanted to see the Port Douglas Sunday market she had read about, so we hopped back in the car and headed off to Port Douglas.
Port Douglas is a more relaxed, better planned (or at least better laid out - whether by plan or accident) and smaller version of Cairns. While Sundays are very busy days with the local outdoor market, it was still enjoyable to wander about. And the market really was a showcase for local artisans - we bought a few handmade crafts and some freshly-made mango jam, then headed to the "Soul and Pepper" restaurant, adjacent to the market where we had an excellent seafood lunch. The girls amused themselves by noticing that the tree we were sitting under appeared to be the source of the beads [red seeds] in the necklace Sandy was wearing (which she had just purchased at the market!) Afterwards, we visited the local Coles grocery store for the rest of our shopping, and were soon on our way back to Bali Hai, where we finished unpacking. The girls checked out the hammocks on the deck, as well as the great "yard" (see also here). Later, Tim and the girls took off to explore the lower clearings, orchard and creek. The setting, while wildly different in most ways, reminded us of some of our favorite trips to Montana, staying in a cabin on the West Fork of the Bitterroot River. However, the girls couldn't wait any longer, and had to dive into the pool where they were to spend much of their vacation. Afterwards, the girls took advantage of the great views from the outdoor shower, while Sandy and Tim relaxed to the sounds of Tony Bennett and k. d. lang singing "What a wonderful world" - and it certainly was!
After the first of many excellent dinners, we made final decisions on who was sleeping where, and got the girls organized for the night. We decided the girls should sleep in the same hut, under the same mozzie net, but in separate "king twin" beds, and with the glass doors closed (which prevented the more inquisitive wildlife from visiting in the night - although since the back of each hut was open upwards, anything with wings could visit anyway - hence the mozzie nets over the bed! However, before the girls went to bed, we had the first, somewhat expected visitor - a bandicoot we had been warned about who likes to pop in to the kitchen to see what's on the menu! The girls thought he was great, but Sandy and Tim escorted him back outside - and had to shoo him away a couple additional times that night, and on subsequent nights as well. The night also brought out the frogs and toads - we thought at least some of them might be cane toads (like this one here), but weren't really sure - and for some reason, whether from something she has read or seen or heard, Clara had a pathological dread of them, and nothing we could say would shake her on this. So, she insisted on extreme caution and using a flashlight at all times when moving around at night, and made sure her cabin door was shut tight at all times! Of course, this could have been accentuated by finding a toad (or frog) in the toilet as well... The night also brought lots of noises from the thatched straw roof - which we soon figured out were geckos - their chirping and calling was to be a constant accompaniment throughout our stay. And once we heard a "splat" - which turned out to be a gecko losing its grip, and falling onto the floor - but scurrying off apparently unharmed. Eventually, we wandered off to our master suite and quickly fell asleep.
We had a pleasant night - only interrupted once when we heard some animal or bird let lose a series of cries down near the creek which sounded to us (waking from a sound sleep) like the girls - so we raced over to see them in their cabin, and found them peacefully asleep and ignoring all the outside sounds as usual. For breakfast, the girls tried out the mango jam and loved it, while Tim stayed with his usual cereal and strawberries (one of the ways we've been spoiled in Oz is the ready abundance of strawberries throughout the year.) After a bit of lounging about (including a little drawing for the girls), enjoying extra cups of coffee and admiring the scenery, we headed north into the Daintree.
The rain continued off and on as we made our way north. We passed through more cane fields, with some forest breaks. When we arrived at the Daintree River, we had to stop and wait a couple minutes for the cable ferry - it only carries about 20 cars at a time, and the crossing takes just 4 minutes. We'd intentionally NOT arrived at peak time, so the wait wasn't long - just long enough for a little exploration and a few pictures. Immediately after the crossing, we started getting into denser rain forest. However, one of the things which surprised us (but shouldn't have, if we had recalled the map properly, as well as all we had read about the ongoing conflict between the developers and preservationists in the region) was just how much land is NOT in the national part - we wove in and out of farmlands (sugar cane and the famous Daintree Tea plantations), vacation houses and caravan parks, etc. Quite frankly, we were appalled at the amount of development there was in the area. We knew that recently the local council had bulldozed a road through the heart of the Daintree along the coast, over protests from most environmental groups and many citizens - and wondered at the policies which failed to protect one of the world's great treasures - acknowledged as such by its World Heritage status. This brought back memories of walking through the Styx Valley in Tassie three years ago - and wondering which of those areas of giant eucalypts are still standing, and which have been clearcut by the woodchippers.
However, there is still a lot of magnificence left in the Daintree, and we only scraped the surface. We drove straight to Cape Tribulation (so named by Captain Cook), where we took a wander on the beach, and admired the mangroves. It's easy to see why the shore is so impenetrable in many places, given the extent of the interlocking mangrove roots. On the way back south, we stopped to take the Marrdje Botanical Walk at Noah Beach. This is an easy walk through the rainforest, along Oliver and Noah Creeks, to the mangroves and a lagoon, and back again. Lots of interesting things to be seen - mangroves with buttress roots curling all over the ground (and little knees sticking up everywhere), many epiphytes (plants that live in or on other plants - see here and here), palms of all descriptions (see here, here and here), ancient cycads, strangler figs, vines (see here, here and here) and various fruits and flowers - plus birds and animals. The highlight probably came when Sandy and Lucy were standing and looking up into a tree, watching a parrot cut off and drop fruit to the ground - when they turned around, they nearly jumped out of their skin - a five foot tall Cassowary was standing right beside them! We knew the Daintree was one of the last preserves of the Cassowary, and that there might only be 1500 of them left throughout all of Northern Queensland - so we didn't really expect to see one - and here one came to see us! Pretty exciting for all - except the Cassowary, which slowly wandered away, unhurried and unbothered - probably rightly, as it was most likely more dangerous to us than we were to it.
From Noah Beach, we worked our way back down to the ferry and then on towards Mossman. We stopped briefly at Scomazzon’s Tropical Fruit Farm to get some tropical fruit (in particular one of the Black Sapotes which we've been wanting to try since Fran told us about them at Mt. Bundy Station on our Top End trip - see here and here) along with some freshly toasted corn and taro chips. As we approached our turnoff up into the hills to Bali Hai, we noticed all the steam and activity around the sugar mill in Mossman. We drove in, and found they give tours earlier in the day - so we decided to come back the next day - after all, this region is the center of Australia's sugar producing country - and it's all based on sugar cane, rather than the sugar beets the US largely relies on now. On our way out of the mill grounds, we had to wait for a cane train to pass - in season (June to November) the cane trains run 24 hours a day, 5 days a week, bringing in the freshly-cut cane from the fields on a network on narrow gauge rail lines. Then it was back to Bali Hai, where we had an excellent meal, followed by Black Sapote (mixed with cream and sugar) for dessert. As the evening wore on, we enjoyed the bird sounds (and bird sightings - see here and here for some forest kingfishers who cruised around the place) - including a number of different kookaburras - and of course another couple of visits by our persistent bandicoot.
Tuesday morning we had - wait for it - another relaxing morning, before heading into Mossman for a sugar mill tour. Mossman is a sleepy little town just our speed. It serves as the entry to the Mossman Gorge section of the Daintree National Park, but is primarily a service town focused around the sugar mill. The north end of town has a beautiful old church set amongst some very large raintrees, which serve as the location for the Saturday morning market each week. We headed to the mill, where we bought tickets for the tour and explored the small museum, which documents the history of sugar cane production in the area, from the days when the large New Guinea sugar cane was harvested by hand, through the introduction of mechanical harvesting and the smaller varieties of cane, to the current times. We explored the grounds a bit as well, discovering some interestingly large seed pods (each pod contained several seeds, each of which was in turn as big as Lucy's hand - it seems that everything is bigger in Queensland - except the gauge of the train tracks!) as well as a recently-shed snake skin in the beams over the porch of the old station.
The tour was quite interesting - first we saw a short video, then the tour guide walked us through the processes used by the mill - she wanted to make sure we understood it thoroughly before we went into the mill, since the mill itself is so loud we would have to wear earplugs (and hardhats) and hence would not be able to hear her there. Essentially, the mill operates around the clock 5 days a week now - it used to run 7 days during the June-Nov season, but since the cane fields in Mareeba pulled out (and started sending their cane to the Mareeba mill), production in Mossman has dropped from around 850,000 tons a year to around 500,000. With a nearly 7 to 1 ratio in good years (of cane to resultant raw sugar), the mill still produces a lot of product. When it first started up in the late 1800s, the ratio for the first crop was about 10 to 1 - so there have been some efficiency increases over the years. There are approximately 29 sugar mills in Australia, with most located in Queensland; Mossman is the northernmost mill.
With mechanically harvested cane, a smaller diameter cane is grown, which is chopped up into 10-12 inch long chunks and dumped directly into what they call "caintainers" by the harvesters (in the old days, the cane was kept as long stalks, and stacked onto cars or wagons). The caintainers are then transported by road or rail directly into the plant, where automated machinery dumps each carload onto a moving conveyer, which then transports the cane through the process of crushing, extracting the cane syrup, purifying and eventually producing raw cane sugar crystals. On the way, two important by-products are produced. One is called Bagasse, and is essentially all the husk material left over after the sugar is extracted; this is piled in the yard, allowed to dry, and then used to power the mill. In fact, the mill usually produces surplus electricity, returning some to the local grid when it is active. The other product is called mill mud, and is a sludge-like substance which is left after the purifying process - it consists of dirt, organic material (including the ground-up remains of the odd slow bandicoot or snake) - and in general, makes an excellent fertilizer - which is what it is used for - it goes back onto the cane fields, reducing the need for additives (note the dark color of the freshly tilled, fertilized and recently-planted cane field here).
It was fascinating to see the mill in action, and the girls enjoyed sampling the raw cane (as well as the various intermediate products including cane syrup and raw sugar). The mill was originally built over a hundred years ago, and some of the original parts are still in action. In fact, both the "feel" of the mill equipment and some of the smells reminded Tim of some of the older whisky distilleries he visited in Scotland, which also have some very old components still providing good service. It was very dark, noisy and full of motion - Lucy loved it! The machinery in motion and steam billowing all around made Tim think it would be a great set for a "Terminator" style movie!
It's an unfortunate fact that the sugar industry in Oz is seems to be perpetually in financial trouble, as with many agricultural industries around the world. It's not hard to understand why, when you consider that the average price for a ton of cane is about $20 (possibly as much as $25 if it has a very high sugar content - since the sugar content is directly related to the amount of sunlight, the farmers are scheduled in round robin fashion so that the yield of sugar they see averages out.) There are about 130 farmers producing the 500,000 tons this year - that's about 4000 tons per farmer, or about $AU 80,000 dollars for a year's work - not much to live on considering the expense of planting, fertilizing, harvesting and transporting the crop.
After our mill tour, we stopped in Mossman for lunch at Mojo's, then headed back to Bali Hai for another relaxing afternoon. We swam, explored the area around the cabins and the creek, took pictures, read, and generally just relaxed and enjoyed ourselves. Clara really began to get the hang of diving, and so all she wanted to do for the rest of the trip (or so it seemed!) was get into the pool and practice diving! Tim made a quick trip into Port Douglas to the fish market, and came home with some fresh barramundi, which proved to be a great hit for dinner. The rest of the day was spent just lounging around (Tim did stop to take a few pictures on the way home, particularly of a cane harvester at work - notice in the picture how the chopped cane falls into the "caintainer" while the upper, leafy parts of the stalks are blown out the top where they fall on the ground to act as much for next year's crop. Tim also noted a large number of kites circling the harvester, waiting to snatch the bandicoots, rats and snakes which flee the harvester.)
Wednesday morning, we decided to head out to the reef. We had looked at the various options, and one had popped out at us from the pages of Lonely Planet (and Tim checked it out a bit more on his trip to Port Douglas) - this was the Shao Lin - a Chinese Junk built in Hong Kong around 1965 by an American couple (he was an ex-Navy guy). They spent 20 years sailing (going around the world twice in the process) and then he had a heart attack and died on the east coast of Australia. She lived on the boat for a while, then sold it to an Aussie, who used it for reef tours for about 15 years, before it was sold again, and not used for much. Rick and Alex bought it about 6 years ago, and have been running tours to the reef ever since. We thought this boat and crew would have a lot more character than one of the big 150 or even 400 passenger catamarans run by companies such as Quicksilver. We also decided on a trip to the Low Isles, where the snorkeling is based off a beach (the Low Isles are a couple of very small islands surrounded by fringing reef), rather than off a boat or platform in relatively deep water, since none of the girls had really snorkeled before (other than Clara a little bit at the beach).
Aside: The Great Barrier Reef is one of those places that is so heavily promoted, we were certain it was over-hyped and would prove a let-down. However - the reality was exactly the opposite - we were stunned by the beauty and diversity of even the small section of regularly-visited reef which we got to explore for a few hours. This proved to be perhaps the area of Oz that we would most like to come back to and explore in depth. While we love Tasmania, and greatly enjoyed other parts of Australia - the reef is so special and different from our experience, that we would like nothing better than returning and renting a catamaran - for a few weeks or months - and cruising the reef, snorkeling and diving whenever the mood struck. No other place in Oz has really struck us in this way before.
Another nice aspect of the Shao Lin cruise is that it departs the Port Douglas marina at midday, rather than early- to mid-morning - which means that by the time it gets to the reef, the other boats are packing up and getting ready to head back - so instead of sharing a section of reef with 200 people, it's only the 15-20 people on the Shao Lin. Thus we had another opportunity for a leisurely morning, before heading into Port Douglas to get an underwater camera and hopefully a prescription mask for Lucy. We found the former, but not the latter - Lucy's head is just too small for all the standard masks on hand. So we continued on to the dock where we found the Shao-Lin. Our first surprise was the box of shoes at the door - "Just drop your shoes in there - you won't need them" said Rick, our captain for the day. After some morning tea and a safety briefing, we got under way. Rick left the dock under power, then as we cleared the row of boats, the sails went up, and we were motor-sailing towards the Low Isles. Most of the passengers (20 all told) went out on the foredeck to enjoy the journey. During the trip our, Sharmaine, one of the two crew members assisting Rick, fitted everyone with fins, while Tim and Lucy received prescription masks since wearing glasses and a mask together is sure to result in leaks. (They were also a bit dubious about Tim's beard allowing the mask to seal, and suggested a large helping of some grease, which Tim declined; in the end, he had a little bit of leakage, but not enough to detract from the wonderful experience.)
After about an hour, we could see the Low Isles (so-named by Captain Cook when he was in the area, exploring and getting caught on the reef) in the distance - but also something else - several humpies (humpback whales) spouting and jumping in the distance! Rick immediately altered course and we headed for the whales. We watched them for 20-30 minutes, then headed in to the Low Isles, where the other tour boats (there are 4 boats allowed to visit the Low Isles with passengers - the other three were already there, but were starting their packing-up activities.) A large mackerel was in residence at our tie-up point, undisturbed at our presence. We had lunch on board, Lucy put on her stinger suit (they didn't have small enough wetsuits, but we thought she needed a little extra warmth, and the stinger suit, designed to protect against box jellyfish, was the best we could do) then went ashore in the glass bottom boat, getting our first glimpse of the corals, fish and giant clams. Then, on the beach, everyone sat down in the shallow water, got their gear on, received a briefing on snorkeling as needed from Sharmaine, then headed out.
Wow! Even from the first moments in 12 inches of water, it was fantastic - in the shallow water were huge schools of circling silver baitfish - Clara enjoyed just sitting in the middle of a school and twirling with them! Then we approached the first coral - what variety and colors (the pictures we managed with the single use camera don't begin to capture the beauty) - and fish everywhere, large, small and all the colors of the rainbow - including some we called rainbow fish, since they seemed to HAVE all the colors of the rainbow on them. Giant clams big enough to hold Lucy inside them, and mobile - other giant clams embedded in coral, and with the most amazing array of colored "eyes" around the edges of the openings - purple, blue, green, pink, etc. And perhaps the coolest of all - many large, brightly-patterned sea turtles, which seemed indifferent to the snorkelers, close enough to touch. All four of us did ok with the snorkeling, although Lucy, with her slightly-too-large mask, had more problems with water coming in - and Clara's snorkel broke (but Sharmaine traded with her, so she could keep going). However, Lucy got cold after maybe 45 minutes so she and Sandy went back onto the beach to lie in the sun. Meanwhile, Clara and Tim kept going round and round, having a great time. We had originally intended to explore the beach as well, but ran out of time (although here's one picture Tim managed of some of the birds hanging around.) All too soon, it was time to pack up and head back out to the Shao Lin, with one more cruise in the glass-bottomed boat on the way. Then Rick put about and we sailed back towards land, admiring the setting sun. As we cruised back into the marina, Clara had to ring the ship's bell each time we passed one of the restaurants along the waterway - they in turn rang back and/or waved.
Once back on land, we recovered our shoes and made our way to Soul and Pepper for another excellent seafood meal. Then home again to Bali Hai for showers and bed.
Thursday brought more rain - but we never really noticed much, as it was never heavy during our stay, and we had so much room to lounge and play under cover. We decided to go ahead and make our trip up to the Atherton Tablelands, as much of what we wanted to do there was under cover anyway. The Tablelands are the land west of the coastal strip, and a few hundred metres higher in elevation; while the road up into the Tablelands is twisty and hilly, once you get up there, it is relatively flat. We headed south through Mossman, and then turned southwest and up into the Tablelands by a very twisty route. Once in the Tablelands, we started seeing some familiar landscape from our Top End trip - it was substantially dryer and more sparsely vegetated than the coastal rainforest strip - and termite mounds once again abounded, although shorter and rounder than the cathedral mounds of the top end. We passed through Mt. Molloy, and then into Mareeba, where we stopped at the Coffee Works plantation. We managed to catch the last half of a tour of the coffee roasters, and enjoyed seeing their roaster in action, and learning about how they prepare the coffee beans. Afterwards, we sampled all the coffees they had on offer - and unfortunately, as has been our consistent experience, none of the Australian coffees stand up to comparison with other coffee growing regions - our favorite coffee was the one non-Australian coffee on offer - called their International blend, which was largely from Papua New Guinea. We did enjoy their coffee liqueur as well as their chocolate-coated coffee beans (we bought a couple bags of the latter), then headed further south.
Just south of Mareeba, we detoured a few kilometers to visit the Mt. Uncle Distillery. This is primarily a banana plantation and macadamia nut / avocado orchard which also produces some liqueurs using both their own bananas and other things such as mulberries, coffee beans, etc. There really wasn't much to it - a window through which you view the banana packing operations (when they are active) and a few clippings on the wall - plus a tasting bar where you can pay $5 for tiny samples of three of their liqueurs. We had hoped for a bit more information and perhaps a tour - but they really weren't set up for that, so we sampled the liqueurs (which were ok if you like that sort of thing) and hit the road again.
We continued to keep our eyes open for a tropical fruit stand or orchard/plantation where we might sample various fruits - we had actually done a bit of research on this ahead of time, but then left all the relevant info at home! Lonely Planet wasn't a help, and we couldn't find any tourist information elsewhere. So we stopped at a couple places we noticed along the way that looked like possibilities, including the Big Peanut (where we got some hot roasted peanuts) but to no avail as far as fruit tasting goes. Our next "successful" stop was at Tolga Woodworks in the small town of Tolga just north of Atherton. They certainly had some interesting and beautiful woodworks - from tiny tops to furniture to wooden wall decorations - we were sorely tempted by many things (and Tim was especially tempted by their blocks of raw wood and exotic raw lumber - unfortunately we had no good way to get it home) but resisted, and continued on into Atherton.
In Atherton, we first stopped at the Visitor's Centre, primarily to ask about places we could sample tropical fruits - but they knew of no such places at all! So we headed across the street to a Gyros/Kebab place we had noticed, where we had excellent Gyros. Then back out of town to the Atherton Chinatown - or rather, what little is left of it. Many Chinese emigrated to the area in the late 1800s, following the gold rush. After the gold ran out, many stayed, getting into farming and timbering, and living in the Atherton Chinatown (where the temple was built in 1903). However, after World War I, government policies essentially gave the land occupied and farmed by the Chinese to returning service people - by 1920, the Atherton Chinatown was almost deserted. Some Chinese returned to China or moved to other parts of Oz; however, some descendants of those original settlers still remain in the Atherton region. Unfortunately, most of the Chinese buildings have long since disappeared; only the temple (the last timber and iron temple in Australia) was saved when the National Trust of Queensland took it over in 1979. Since then, some archeological digs have taken place on the site of the former Chinatown, and some of the temple artifacts have been retrieved and restored to the temple. The old Atherton post office building is now used as a museum / visitor centre for the Chinatown. We toured the museum, reading the stories of some of the early settlers, and the great hardship they endured (many walking tremendous distances across Australia to get to the region), and in some cases, listening to recorded reminiscences by descendants of these first immigrants, who told of the stories their parents had passed down to them. We also went on a guided tour of the temple (see also here for the altar), which has been partially restored to date. Among the interesting design features are a high threshold (so the bad spirits, which cling to the ground, won't be able to enter), and a wall immediately inside the door (since bad spirits can't turn corners, this will keep out any that made it over the threshold.)
From Chinatown, we drove back into town - and after a couple times driving back and forth through the town, we finally found our way onto the road to Yungaburra, where we wanted to see the Curtain Fig Tree. This tree is actually three trees of different species which developed in an amazing way over time. Originally, a pair of trees grew to fairly good size; a strangler fig took over one of the trees, growing to completely envelop it; then the original tree died, and fell over - however, it's fall was arrested by the second tree - leaving it leaning at perhaps a 50 degree slant. The strangler fig then put out roots all along it's length, resulting in a curtain-like structure - hence the name. It is an extraordinary sight, and, not surprisingly, reputed to be one of the most-visited trees in the world. From Yungaburra, we continued northeast around Lake Eacham, and decided to visit the Cathedral Fig tree - another, quite different example of the work of the strangler fig. We had seen a variety of strangler figs in the Daintree and elsewhere, but none of this size. In this case, the original tree is still standing, even though it is laden with a strangler fig far bulkier than the original tree (and it's upper branches are covered with fairly large epiphytes.) You can actually walk "inside" the tree/fig combination, hence the term cathedral - and the web or roots / branches / trunks is more of a cage than a wall, perhaps like cathedral windows. The girls liked this tree a lot better than the Curtain Fig (primarily because they could walk inside it) - and also were quite taken with the relatively tame Australian Bush Turkeys that were scratching around the beginning of the trail to the Cathedral Fig. We also finally saw a Cow Egret in action.
From the Cathedral Fig, it was all downhill - back down off the Tablelands to Gordonvale, back through Cairns (where we managed to spend far too much time trying to follow a "shortcut" around the city!) and then into Port Douglas, where we went to the Mango Jam restaurant for a dinner of pizza and then home to Bali Hai (where we saw our one and only snake of the trip, crossing the long driveway up to the cabins) and bed.
Friday, we went into Mossman to pick up our pictures from the reef (since we didn't have an underwater case for our other cameras, we had bought a cheap underwater film camera) - none of them came out particularly well, but they at least provide a few memories. Then into Port Douglas to get postcards and a few souvenirs (and a few pictures of reef and fish in their small aquariums to compsenate a bit for our lack of "real" reef pictures - see here and here)- plus some more barra from the fish shop for dinner - as well as Moreton Bay Bugs, Tiger Prawns, Smoked Crocodile and Smoked Mackerel for lunch. We got home, and put out our seafood plus some tropical fruit, and enjoyed what seemed to be a wonderfully decadent, relaxing afternoon in paradise. (Clara and Lucy were both disgusted by the idea of smoked crocodile - but in the end, Clara actually ate more of that than anything else!) We continued to luxuriate in swimming and wandering about the property, admiring the large, brightly-coloured butterflies - the electric blue Ulysses, the bright green and black Cairns Birdwing, the Red Lacewing, etc. - plus all the tropical flowers, fruits (from common things such as these lemons to the unfamiliar and huge pomelo/pummelo aka "Citrus maxima" - which it certainly is - they are related / similar to grapefruit, and huge - up to a foot across and 20 lbs in weight!), birds and even the giant (3-4 inches long) grasshoppers. Other interesting odds and ends included the blue quondongs (about an inch in diameter), massive patches of Bird of Paradise flowers (see also here, here, here and here) and Bracket Fungus. And after another excellent barramundi dinner, another visitor - this one a white-tailed rat which managed to get through the crack between the door and the jam, before heading to the kitchen. We chased it around with a flashlight a bit, finally convincing it to leave (we assume it was the same rat that had visited once while we were gone or sleeping and which had gotten into bags of rice and tortilla chips we had left on a low shelf in the pantry.)
Saturday morning, we cooked a full brekkie, then headed to Mossman Gorge, only about 15 minutes away. Mossman Gorge is part of the Daintree National Park, which has a number of sections scattered about the north of Queensland. The Mossman Gorge is centred around (not surprisingly) the Mossman River, a clear, fast-running mountain river with several small tributaries. The river is lined with rocks and boulders, and populated with relatively fearless jungle perch. We pulled into a rather full parking lot (including some tour groups), regretting having dawdled over breakfast once again. However, the crowds weren't bad as long as we stayed away from the tour groups, and we enjoyed crawling over the boulders (see also here), and checking out the path-side vegetation and creatures (including more of the Aussie Bush Turkeys the girls had grown quite fond of, as well as Ulysses Butterflies and brightly-colored dragonflies). A highpoint was the suspension bridge, which started bouncing at the softest step. After exploring a bit, we headed back to Mossman, where we found the Saturday Market winding down (see here - note the fabulous raintrees which are a defining aspect of Mossman along with the sugar mill); we stopped for a quick look, and a listen to a singer who reminded us of Gene Mitchell, singing and playing along to a variety of 1970s hits. Then it was back to Scomazzon's Tropical Fruit Farm one last time, to put together our own tropical fruit tasting - we asked them to help us pick out ripe specimens of various things, including Soursop, custard apple and two types of star fruit (what we were used to calling star fruit is actually Averrhoa carambola, normally called Carambola by the locals; the Queenslanders refer to a different fruit, Chrysophyllum cainito, as star fruit. Here is a good website about tropical fruits.) (One interesting fact about Carambola is that it has NEVER been found in the wild – it was domesticated / cultivated in prehistoric times, and those are the only varieties known.) The fruit made an enjoyable "last snack", and then it was time to pack (after a last swim and exploration of creek and the orchard and flower beds for Tim and the girls) - and off to bed one last time under the mosquito netting. Shortly after the girls went to bed, Tim noticed something flying into the main room out of the corner of his eye - his first thought was that it was a bird - but then he turned and noticed the wing motion seemed odd - so he started thinking "bat" - shades of the Snowies! However, a closer look revealed an amazing thing - this was actually a Hercules Moth (the moth in the picture is not dead, just resting - it took off shortly afterward) - the largest moth in the world, growing up to 10 inches across! What a unique way to end our trip!
Sunday morning, we had a quick breakfast, finished packing and loading, and said good-bye to Bali Hai and Wendy, who drove up just as we were about to head out. We told her we had a wonderful time at Bali Hai - and would love to come back as well as enthusiastically recommend it to anyone else. Then we headed back through Mossman the last time, and into Port Douglas for a few last post cards, back onto the sea coast highway (some blue sky this time, so we could see the color of the water), to the Cairns Airport and home again.
Pictures from our August-September 2005 Far North (Tropical) Queensland Trip
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