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Australia Part 2 – The Beauty of Far North Queensland

The next part of our adventure saw us flying up to Cairns in Far North Queensland alongside our Melburnian friends, hiring cars and driving north to the chic but relaxed town of Port Douglas with its excellent selection of shops, restaurants and top-class microbrewery. Located in the middle of our three-month trip, this was to be the luxurious part of our holiday – we’d hired a stunning apartment to stay in en masse along with several eye-wateringly expensive excursions. Was it worth all the expense? I’m sure if you asked any of us, we’d reply with a resounding yes! This is a very special part of the world, with the grandeur of the Daintree Rainforest (the oldest rainforest in the world) and the Great Barrier Reef UNESCO World Heritage Sites on your doorstep, all easily accessible from Port Douglas. What’s not to like? And, knowing that we had three weeks of extremely cheap (but not so luxurious) travel to come in Indonesia, made me feel slightly less guilty about the cost!

The fruit bats hanging around in the trees in Cairns
Port Douglas Harbour
Feeding the fish at the villa

Although we only had five full days here and there was (again) so much I wanted to see and do, we opted to spend two of our days relaxing by the pool and pottering around the town, exploring its delicious culinary and local beer offerings. For our remaining time, we decided on three major days out: a visit to the Great Barrier Reef; an exploration of the Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation; and a voyage to the hilltop town of Kuranda via an old scenic railway there and a cable car back over the top of the rainforest. All three were exceptional and come high recommended.

  1. The Great Barrier Reef

Right back when we were initially planning where in the world to go on our extended travels, I asked the children what their top selection of things to do/see would be. Both responded without hesitation: “definitely The Great Barrier Reef mummy!” So, despite the expense of a trip to this most prestigious of coral reefs, it was something we couldn’t miss.

I spent a lot of time researching the best options for visiting this 2,300km-long conglomeration of reefs, searching through the Worldschooling and Travelling Australia with Kids Facebook groups along with various blogs, and decided on an excursion with Quicksilver. It was undoubtably the best option but sadly not a cheap one! We booked this early (a few months in advance) so as not to be disappointed and planned it in for the second day of our stay in case the weather was bad and we needed to rescheduled for later on in the week (Quicksilver reschedule free of charge for weather-related changes). As it was, the weather for our selected day seemed relatively calm and so we headed out to board the cruise ship.

On boarding, you’re offered a complimentary hot drink – be warned though, drinking coffee can exacerbate seasickness, as one of our party found out to their cost! They also offer herbal ginger seasickness tablets free of charge – although I’m not convinced of their efficacy. My recommendation would be to purchase some seasickness tablets from the pharmacy before the trip and to take them 20 minutes before the excursion to give them time to kick in. This is what we did before our Albatross Tour in Kaikoura, NZ and despite very choppy weather in a small boat, and a man throwing up continually next to us, none of us felt seasick. This time, as the boat was much bigger and the sea much calmer, I hadn’t bothered giving the children the tablets before the excursion. This was a mistake. Both of them suffered to varying degrees with a feeling of sickness throughout the 90-minute journey out to the Reef. We sat outside with Bean10 so that she could watch the horizon, which was both very peaceful and seemed to alleviate her sickness almost entirely.

Bean8 suffered less with his tummy, so I took him to watch the marine biology presentation on the top deck, which gave us an overview of the types of species we were likely to see on the coral reef.

Once you reach the Outer Barrier Reef and are docked on Quicksilver’s activity platform, there’s a lot to fit into the 3.5 hours you have allocated – lunch (scrumptious and not to be missed!), snorkelling, SCUBA or helmet diving (10+) on the reef, snorkelling tours, an underwater observatory and an opportunity to ride in a semi-submersible for a closer view of the reef . So, it’s worth spending some time during the journey planning what everyone wants to do and the order in which you plan to do it.

The Guided Snorkel

We’d completed a three-month marine biology course before our expedition to the other side of the world, and so we decided to book ourselves onto a tour of the reef with two marine biologists. There were only two other people booked onto this tour, so it felt highly personalised with lots of one-to-one time with the experts. Initially, they helped the children with all of their equipment, making sure their stinger suits fully covered their bodies (thus alleviating my nervousness around the possibility of jellyfish stings) and they had a tight seal on their masks.  Then we jumped into the crystal-clear waters to explore the beauty of this underwater ecosystem.

On the tour, they took us outside of the designated roped-off areas and talked us through the corals, fish and other animals we were viewing, thereby giving us a much better insight into the Beans’ first ever experience of a decent coral reef (outside of a book). They offered us interesting insights and stories – for example, when they picked up a mushroom coral to show us, they told us that these creatures secrete a mucus which acts as a type of sunscreen protecting them from the strong UV rays. We also watched amazed as our leader dived down to pick up a tiny bit of seemingly innocuous broken coral and was instantly attacked by a threespot damselfish, which continued to bite him on his face until he dropped the offending piece of coral. The highly territorial snappy fish then moved the coral fragment back to his feeding/nesting ground!

In addition to this fascinating interaction, we were lucky enough to see a green turtle, two enormous boxfish, many anemones and anemonefish, giant clams, an eight-hundred year old boulder coral, sweetlips, unicorn fish (yes there really are fish with little horns sticking to the front of their heads – it’s a wonderful world we live in!), triggerfish, barracuda and a whole host of different types of coral. Bean10 giggled in delight as she watched a parrot fish having a sand poo! Parrotfish bite and scrape off algae from dead corals with their parrot-like beaks, then grind up the calcium carbonate material of the dead corals in their guts before excreting it as sand – think about that when you next run your hands through beautiful white sand beaches on your tropical resort!

The Semi Sub

After the snorkel, we tucked into the tasty spread laid out for us on the boat, before jumping in the queue for a ride on the semi-submersible. This was worth the trip if only for the highly entertaining tour guide. With a strong Chinese accent, and a healthy side order of sarcasm, this woman has seriously missed her vocation in the comedic arena. Impossible to recreate for you readers as it was all about her excellent delivery, she had us in stitches the whole way through as she showed us the varying types of coral with their rather literal and somewhat unimaginative names – brain coral unsurprisingly looks like a brain… and finger coral is easy to spot as it looks like, well, fingers! Etc etc… In addition to this witty tour as we ploughed our way slowly through the water alongside the colourful coral forms, we were also lucky enough to see two more turtles sauntering lazily past the windows.

More Snorkelling…and the Underwater Observatory

Following the workout of our stomach muscles (laughter has got to be the best type of exercise), the Beans and I were keen to jump back in the water to maximise our time in this ethereal environment. MrJ decided instead to take our friend’s littlest Bean to look at the fish in the underwater observatory in a more sedate (and dry) fashion than our splashing around the ocean.

We spent some time with the enormous giant trevally and red bass (seriously some of them were bigger than me!), which were hanging around the entry platform and then swam further off to explore the reef at our leisure and try to identify many of the species we’d been taught in our earlier tour. Bean10 was absolutely beside herself with excitement to spot a thorny ray – rays are her favourite type of animal (at the moment) and she’s spent many an hour researching these fascinating creatures, so to see one in real life was a special moment for her. Although, little was she to know that she was to have a once in a lifetime experience with manta rays only a few weeks later in Indonesia (see this post).

We stayed in the water until the very last moment, when the bell sounded to warn us that the cruise ship was about to depart. And then it was back on the boat for the long trek home and a few more snacks to replenish our energy levels after all that snorkelling (and laughing!). Was it worth the expense? Most definitely, yes! It’s not a trip to miss if you’re planning a visit to this idyllic part of the world.

2. The Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation

The Walking Tour

For our next full day out, we set off north for the Daintree Rainforest, our second UNESCO World Heritage Site, crossing over the crocodile infested Daintree River on the River Ferry en route. Our destination was Cooper Creek where we’d booked to go on the Grand Fan Palm Gallery Tour with the Cooper Creek Wilderness Company. This was to be a two-hour walking tour through the heart of the world’s oldest surviving rainforest with an expert local guide describing its biodiversity and complexity along the route. It was substantially cheaper than the GBR tour and part of our payment would contribute to the protection and conservation of the Daintree.

We arrived at our destination slightly ahead of schedule and so asked to use their toilet. The man pointed the way to an outdoor shack on the edge of the rainforest and I carefully picked my way across their lawn, trying not to tread on the hundreds of baby cane toads at my feet. Once inside, I was presented with an enormous spider sitting right behind the toilet. OK, so it might have been harmless, but given my location, I suspected that was unlikely. Shall we just say that it was one of the speediest toilet experiences of my life, as I perched as far forward as I could on the loo with my head trained to my rear side keeping a very good eye on that colossal beast sitting calmly behind me!

Can you spot the cane toad?

As I emerged wobbly from the shack, I was presented with two very excited children who eagerly showed me yet another immense spider hanging in its web just outside our host’s house (the main living room of which seemed to be completely open to the elements). This was an orb weaver spider and despite its size you’d be hard pressed not appreciate its beauty – from a distance that is… I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with open plan living if spiders that size were suspending their homes from the rafters. They’re a hardy type of individual these Queenslanders!

By this time, our guide (the owner) was ready to start our tour through the rainforest, so with a few warnings from me for the children to keep their hands to themselves and not to touch ANYTHING (running their hands through the bushes on either side of us or propping themselves up against a tree as they usually do was not an option here), we set off. It turned out to be an excellent tour. The owner of the property (the only person to own and live on land within a UNESCO World Heritage Site) was extremely passionate about protecting the rainforest and incredibly knowledgeable, with an intricate familiarity of the thousands of plants and creatures on his land. He pointed out the flora and fauna around us as we trekked through the forest, showing us animals we’d definitely have otherwise missed, such as a striking Boyd’s forest dragon perched against a log, and a lichen spider, beautifully camouflaged against the tree bark. I watched amused as Bean8 quickly pulled in his hands as the man calmly pointed out the difficulty in spotting this venomous species was one of the reasons you shouldn’t casually lean on tree trunks in the rainforest!

Can you spot the lichen spider?

As we walked, our guide regaled us with many stories about the flora and fauna surrounding us. The language he used was extremely complex and varied – here was clearly a very intelligent individual. I was a little concerned as to how much the Beans would be able to absorb given its complexity, but they surprised me by recounting many of his stories back to me in the car on the way home. They clearly hadn’t understood every single word, but no matter, they’d understood and remembered the stories he told, many of which will live with them forever. One such example was the peculiar way in which the cycads had evolved to ensure they were pollinated. The plants heat up and emit a toxic smell to drive pollen-covered insects out of male cones and then use a milder odour to attract the bugs into the female cones, to effect pollination.

He was also keen to explain the interdependency of the species within the rainforest, which included humans (the native Aborigines), expressing concern about their removal from the rainforests in which they used to reside. Here’s one such fascinating example demonstrating their importance within the ecosystem. Tree pythons slither along the forest canopy and attack bird’s nests. When a parent bird sees them approaching, they will make a lot of noise with the intention of attracting a butcher bird. These butcher birds will swoop in, kill and eat the smaller pythons thus protecting the other bird’s eggs. However, if the python is deemed to be too big for the butcher bird to kill, it has another tactic. Flying to the nearest Aborigine, they make a specific call, known to the human, which is basically the butcher bird pleading for help. Historically, the Aborigine would follow the butcher bird, kill the python with his knife and leave some of its remains for the butcher bird to eat. In this way, the python population was kept in check. Sadly, with the removal of the Aborigines from the rainforest, the python population in the rainforest has exploded, threatening many of the bird species in the Daintree.

There’s not time here to recount all the stories/information we gleaned from this learned man, but I could have listened to him all day, and if I was ever back in the area, I would certainly rebook this tour. As we approached the end of our excursion through the forest, we entered a fruit tree paddock near his house, and he picked a few ripe examples from each species for the kids to try, such as some succulent and delicious lychees and mangosteen. A perfect end to a fascinating tour.

Cape Tribulation & Exotic Ice Cream

As we were this far north, it seemed madness not to continue a little further down the road to see the only place in the world where two UNESCO World Heritage Sites meet: at the remote headland of Cape Tribulation, the Daintree Rainforest meets the Great Barrier Reef. There is a nature walkway to a lookout where you can observe this phenomenon, so we wandered down to view for ourselves this spectacular site.

After all this walking, we were seriously in need of some refreshment, so our next stop was the Daintree Ice Cream Company & Tropical Fruit Farm. With almost 30 different species of fruit, many of which I’d never heard of, such as sapodilla (with a caramel flavour) or rollinia (a member of the custard apple family that has a lemon meringue pie flavour!), this place was a little like the fruit version of Dahl’s Chocolate Factory! Each day, they offer a different selection of four ice cream flavours for you to try – whatever is fresh at the time. Our options were super tasty: there was mango, banana, black sapote, which tasted like a delicious chocolate flavour, and wattleseed, with its distinctive coffee flavour. The combination was divine, and I had to stop myself from ordering another portion! After filling our bellies with these luscious sweet treats, we wandered around the fruit farm marvelling at the different shapes and sizes of the exotic fruit from the giant jackfruit to the smelly durian.

More Ice Cream and a Secluded Croc-Free Creek

There’s a second exotic fruit ice cream parlour on the tourist trail just a little further down the road, and given the success of the first place, we were keen to try a different flavour as a comparison, so we headed to Floraville Ice Cream café. Each selecting a different flavour from the many options available, we tucked into our second ice cream of the afternoon. These were also tasty but if you had time for just one, I’d definitely opt for the Daintree Ice Cream Company.

It’s hot and very humid in the Daintree and we’d overheated with all our exertions throughout the day. The lady at the Floraville Ice Cream company recommended a secluded creek a few minutes up the road. We were nervous about crocodiles given all the horror stories we’d heard, but she assured us we were too far from the sea here for salties to be a problem and it was a regularly used swimming spot for locals in the know. So, we drove up there to discover the most idyllic of locations.

It was stunningly beautiful with the backdrop of the rainforest against the ice-cold blue river winding its way through the trees. Fortunately, we bumped into another dad and his son swimming in the creek and checked again with him about the likelihood of crocs. Assuring us of its safety, MrJ and the kids jumped in the river revelling in the joy of being washed along with the current down some mini rapids. I laid in the refreshing water and watched the enchanting butterflies and birds flitting alongside whilst the children were ecstatic to find a rope swing used for catapulting yourself off from the side into the creek. All these expensive trips and a simple (and free) rope swing was to be one of the highlights! To be honest, we could have stayed there all day, but it was getting late by this time and we needed to head home to the villa.

On our return, rather coincidentally our friends had discovered a similarly sized orb weaver spider to the one we’d seen in the Daintree, hanging in a web just outside our own abode right above the car port! Thankfully our accommodation had walls enclosing each of the rooms (a novel idea!), so I managed to get some sleep that night knowing that I wouldn’t accidentally wander through its web!

3. Kuranda, a Scenic Railway and a Cable Car over the Rainforest

MrJ loves a good railway (non-commuting ones anyway!), so I knew he’d be keen to take the scenic railway which winds its way from the town of Cairns at sea level to the quaint little town of Kuranda, in the hills, 328m above sea level and surrounded by rainforest. It’s a fun trip even for the journey itself as it passes by magnificent waterfalls and the spectacular Barron Gorge. There’s also an interesting commentary as you wind your way up the mountainside explaining about the history of the railway construction, combined with a short stop at Freshwater to admire the stunning views.

Kuranda itself has a lot to offer and I would happily have spent a long time perusing the beautiful local art products for sale in the Heritage Markets, but the Beans were hungry and so we made our way to Frogs café for an excellent lunch surrounded by the most interesting of lunch companions: large lizards! Bean10 sadly dropped a slice of her pizza by mistake and within seconds about five of them had dashed over and demolished the lot! It was certainly a unique lunch experience.

Bean8 led the direction of our afternoon as he’d developed a new fascination with birds since being in Australia – perhaps because they have some of the most colourful and impressive species in the world – and so was keen to check out Kuranda Birdworld. Here, he thoroughly enjoyed himself feeding the brilliant array of brightly coloured and adorned birds from the cheeky rainbow lorikeets to the galahs, cockatoos and parrots, and chatting away to them as they happily perched on his shoulder nibbling at his food offerings.

Then it was on to the Butterfly Sanctuary where, by chance, our timing coincided with the start of a free tour and a chance to learn more about their lifecycle, some interesting facts about caterpillar camouflage and much more. The sanctuary is home to over 1,500 species of butterfly including the local species of green and yellow Cairns birdwing and the electric blue Ulysses butterflies.

There is so much more to do in Kuranda from jungle walks to Rainforestation, a nature park with a koala sanctuary; “army duck truck” tours on land and water; and an Aborigine experience. We were tired by this point though and the heat was relentless, so we decided to head back to the villa. The journey home, in our own cable car over the top of the rainforest, was just as impressive as the way up to Kuranda, again with commentary and a chance to view the interconnectedness of the rainforest, that we’d learned so much about on our Daintree tour, from a bird’s eye perspective.

Sadly, that heralded the end of our trip to Port Douglas, as the next day we set off for a long drive down to Townsville en route to the Whitsunday Islands. Again, I didn’t feel we had long enough in this stunning location – I’d happily have stayed for a few more weeks (although I’m not sure my bank balance would cope!) and vow to return one day to further explore the sheer beauty this place has to offer.  

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