It seems so surreal to be writing a travel blog when much of the world is on lockdown. We have just received word that all facilities in Sun City are now closed for a month, including even the tennis courts. Now the Coronavirus problem is getting personal, mutters Frances.
I don’t wish to ignore the suffering of those who have been infected and the likely millions more that will be, but we are in a relatively remote area of a country that is a few weeks behind in reacting to the virus. Except for the effect on tourism, the troubles of the world seem far removed from here. We are in Cairns, in the far northeast corner of Australia.
It’s quiet here. The majority of the tourists are Asian but the number of tourists is a small fraction of the normal flow of visitors, who we understand are mostly Chinese. No cruise ships have stopped in Cairns in several weeks.The large majority of restaurants have few patrons, even on a Saturday night. (A couple of Indian restaurants we passed were the exception. We can’t explain this.) Good for us, I suppose, but I think of the millions and millions of men and women world wide who can’t make a living during this crisis. But let’s put aside these thoughts for the moment and continue with more positive comments. After all, it’s beautiful here in Cairns.
This is a laid-back tropical resort town of 160,000 souls, almost 2/3rds the population of Northern Queensland. The city is steadily growing as a place for tourists and retirees. Our view when we first landed was that the area looked and felt like one of the more mountainous Caribbean islands.
As in Cairns, we lodged ourselves in a complex that is a mix of residences and rentable apartments. Once again we have a large, multi-room apartment with a kitchen (which we don’t use), a washer and dryer (which we, er, Frances uses), and two and a half baths. There are also two TVs, but we have yet to turn on a TV in all the time we have been in Australia. There is a toilet in the laundry room, which is as strange as it sounds. There is no housekeeping service here but that is more than made up for by the affordable price and spacious accommodation.
Our first night we dragged the McKenna’s to a seafood restaurant. They looked away while we ate our oysters and mussels. Brian and Karen’s preferences are for Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and South Asian cuisine. Frances and I, as you all know, are true omnivores. Our only aversion is to (most) fast food restaurants. So many great foods, so growing my waistline.
Top left: View from our apartment. Top right: This is a single tree! Bottom left: We have watched the bats, or “flying foxes”, leave town for their night feeding then return at sunrise. (We had to be up early for our boat ride.) Bottom right: The harbor, or more properly in Australia, the harbour. There were scores of tour boats. I don’t believe most of them went to sea this day.
For our first full day in Cairns we opted for a sailboat cruise to Green Island and that area’s sampling of the Great Barrier Reef. (The McKenna’s chose to explore the city.) If we had a true bucket list, for me the Great Barrier Reef would be on it. We got our wish. Our ship was a schooner, with the rear mast taller. The captain was an English-born Australian, the divemaster American, and the third crewman a young woman raised in Cooktown, a city even further north and more remote in Queensland. There were 19 guests, but only a few Germans on board chose to SCUBA dive. The rest of us settled for snorkeling. After snorkeling, we were greeted with a wonderful on-board lunch. (All effective tourist venues know to keep their clientele sedated with continuous flows of food and beverages.) After lunch we were transported to Green Island on the ship’s Zodiac and dropped off on the beach. Half of the island is a Chinese-owned, operated and frequented complex. We visited that half only to seek out (successfully) our daily dosage of gelato/ice cream. The remainder of the island is a national park, with a well-built walkway leading through an island rainforest to the far side.
Top left: Our ship. This schooner was one of the few single-hull ships providing tours, which is why we chose it. Top right: The bottom half of our captain. Yes, he is steering the ship with his feet. Bottom left: Frances in her jellyfish suit, which we all wore. There were no jellyfish, but the suits saved the use of a lot of sunscreen. Much to my pleasant surprise, I was provided with a prescription mask for my snorkeling. Bottom right: Not having an underwater camera, we could get no pictures of the coral and fish we saw while snorkeling. According to the crew, the area’s coral is coming back.
I tried to find pictures on the internet of the fluorescent blue coral and delicate pink coral we saw. I couldn’t find anything close to what we viewed. The blue coral’s fluorescence was at the tips. The pink coral was small and well-shaped. We also saw green coral and flat coral, both new to me.
Top left: The lunch was excellent. Despite having a fair number of younger passengers on board, we hardly dented the feast. The shame? All the uneaten food (except the shrimp; explanation deferred) must be thrown away. It can’t even be given away for liability reasons. Remainder of pictures: We’re in the Green Island National Park.
Top: More on Green Island. That’s a humpback whale skull on the right. The island also hosts a crocodile “zoo” (which we skipped) that is nicknamed “croc jail”, as aggressive crocodiles, even man eaters, are sent here rather than be killed. Bottom left: The one unwasted food was the shrimp. These are thrown to the fish, where most (all?) are fought over and eaten by four-foot long tuna-like fish whose name I did not catch. Fortunately, while swimming amongst them, we were not mistaken for shrimp, for some reason.
The return trip to Cairns was a wonderful. For the trip out the ship motored, with one notional sail set. For most of the way back, we were under sail only. The breeze was good. It’s a joyful way to travel through the water.
It’s only fair I show the top half of our captain.
At dinner, we traded tales of the day’s adventures with the McKenna’s in a small restaurant in which we were the only customers for much of the evening. Small restaurant but huge portions. Each couple shared a salad. (Recall that we had been eating all day.) We probably all could have shared one salad. But the salads were delicious. Ours was a lamb tenderloin salad with avocado, feta cheese, kalamata olives and a half dozen other ingredients. Happy sigh here.
To Kuranda and Back
For our second full day in Northern Queensland, we made a round trip to the village of Kuranda, high in the hills, 15 or so miles northwest of Cairns. What was most interesting was our mode of transport to and from. To get to Kuranda we took the Skyrail gondola, actually a sequence of two gondola rides, one with an intermediate stop. That stop was to be our first view of Barron Gorge, with its waterfall drop of 800 feet. While rising in the gondola we could catch site of Green Island, miles away in the Pacific.
Top left: View of the rainforest from the Skyrail. Top right: A rainforest walk at one of the gondola stops. Bottom left: One wonders how the explorers and surveyors got through this jungle. Bottom right: A view of the falls of Barrons Gorge.
The destination, Kuranda, is known as a market place, but that held little interest for us, so we settled for an enjoyable lunch and the obligatory ice cream.
Top left: Before the falls. Top right and bottom left: In Kuranda. Bottom right: Reused rails. I’ll bet the benches aren’t often relocated.
Our return trip was by railroad. The Kuranda Scenic Railway runs on a historic route and is said to be an engineering marvel of the time. There are 15 hand-dug tunnels, 55 bridges, and 98 curves, a couple quite sharp. The coach we rode in was nearly one hundred years old. On that return trip, we stopped at another viewpoint to see the Barron Falls. (Barron Gorge is a National Park.) We returned in time to see the bats fly again. All in all a most enjoyable day.
Top left: Our train at a stop. Top right: Another view of Barrons Gorge. Bottom left: Stoney Creek Falls, falls which come very close to the train tracks. Bottom right: Frances in our train carriage.
I’ll finish as I started, with a story concerning COVID-19 and it’s effect on individuals. While waiting in a nearby hotel lobby for the bus to pick us up for our tour this morning, we observed a couple being briefed by some representative of their tour group. The couple were elderly Americans, or perhaps Canadians. They had just arrived in Australia. The couple were told they must begin a fourteen-day quarantine. They looked confused, stricken, then resigned. Likely they had long planned this trip and saved for it. It’s not just the sick who are suffering.
For us, we are hopeful our current plans for returning to the States on Thursday will go as scheduled. But we’ll slip in one more visit before this—to Australia’s capital, Canberra.