Pt. Douglas: Witnessing a Cyclone in a Rainforest

Trip Start Sep 24, 2008
Trip End Jul 21, 2009

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Flag of Australia  , Queensland,
Monday, March 9, 2009

March 5-8, 2009:  Port Douglas and Daintree National Park/Rainforest, Queensland, Australia

Beware of Marine Stingers!
We arrived late morning in Cairns, in northern Queensland, on our flight from Sydney on Mar 5.  Cairns is a fairly large city and is one of the main gateways south to the Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays, east to the Great Barrier Reef and north to Daintree Rainforest.  We decided to forego staying in Cairns and take a shuttle straight up the coast to Port Douglas.  Port Douglas, a smaller former whaling town, is the gateway to Daintree Rainforest, containing beautiful vegetation and all sorts of wildlife including crocodiles, kangaroos, reptiles, frogs and birds and this would be our focus for the next few days. 

The shuttle took us north along the coastal Captain Cook Highway that runs along the Coral Sea.  My god is this one of the finest coastal drives on the planet.  I did not make it to the Great Ocean Drive the girls saw down near Melbourne, but the drive between Cairns and Port Douglas was some of the finest coastal scenery I have scene.  Take the splendid Pacific Coast Highway drive in California and substitute those staggering cliffs for pristine white sand beachs and tropical jungle just behind the road.  There were neverending beaches that were all completely deserted and were all equally inviting. 

We reached Port Douglas after a couple of hours and checked into the Dougie's Backpackers Resort.  Resort indeed it was for a backpacker's hostel.  There was both a campground, dorms and private rooms.  There was a pool area, a nice large yard with hammocks, tables everywhere, several TVs (including in the private rooms), a huge bar area, pool table and the kitchen.  They had an industrial grade kitchen with a mammoth island with tons of burners and five fridges you would find in a restaurant - the stainless steel with glass front mega-fridges that seem like they could come to life and swallow you whole.  Dougie's also has an excellent, informative and friendly staff that knew a ton about all of the touristy things to do in the region.

With Sarah off to the doctor to see if her ear was clear for diving, Mary and I rented a couple of bicycles from the hostel and rode down to the town and the beach.  We checked in with a few dive shop operators to find out we would need to call and book directly in Cairns, Mary checked out some absurdly overpriced bathing suits and we sorted out the cost of a rental car, as that would be our means of transport to the rainforest.  After making a lap around town, we rode down to the Four Mile Beach to go for a dip and check it out.   

Unfortunately, in northern Queensland in the summer/early fall time, there are marine stingers (box jellyfish) throughout the waters on the coast.  This is the species of jellyfish Will Smith uses to kill himself in Seven Pounds.  It was no wonder that many of those pristine white sand beaches didn't have swimmers everywhere in the.  Though the waves are relatively calm, there is a lifeguard stand on Four Mile Beach and a cordoned off net area that is the size of a small swimming pool, where you are allowed to swim without fear of stingers and without having to wear a stinger suit.  It sucked, but better than being stung.  We went swimming nonetheless and I made Mary nervous by getting too close to the netting.  The water was still that wonderful tropical warm as we were not that far south of Indonesia being this far north in Australia.

After a swim, Mary and I went for a long and extremely romantic walk down the beach.  The sand stretches quite literally four four miles uninterrupted and is framed by palms, streams and rainforest jungle just behind the sand.  It was fantastic.  The only thing that would have made it better was if there were blue skies.  The skies were cloudy and not having checked the weather, we had no idea what was coming.  We would find out.

Following our stroll on the beach, the two of us hopped on our bikes, loaded up on groceries at the store, and made our way back to the hostel to relax and meet up with Sarah.  I chilled out with my Orhan Pamuk book, My Name is Red (Nobel Prize winning author's novel about love, passion for one's work, east meets west, the art of miniaturism all set in a murder mystery in 16th century Ottoman Turkey) and went swimming in the pool, while Mary went out for a run.  Sarah eventually returned from the doctor with some bad news:  no go on diving.  She was obviously bummed as she had sat through both Thailand and Indonesia on the sidelines waiting in anticipation and expecting to be able to dive in the Barrier Reef.  However, health comes first. 

After having some comfort beers during Dougie's Happy Hour and watching some Simpsons reruns on TV (God bless the worldwide infatuation with the Simpsons, more on this in Argentina), Mary returned from her run and got all showered up.  We all decided to walk down to town for dinner since Sarah had not seen it yet and everything immediately around us was closed.  We settled in at the Rattle and Hum bar and restaurant and enjoyed a good meal (I am always game for a wood-fire oven pizza).  Thankfully, we had some drinks and one of the waitresses convinced us to be lazy and take a cab back home rather than walk 30 minutes in the dark.  Not more than five minutes after entering the cab, all hell broke loose.  I saw monsoon downpour in India and Indonesia.  Cyclone rains in a rainforest region can stand up to a monsoon any day of the week.  To the soundtrack of massive rainfall, we relaxed with an episode of Lost, hoping for good weather when we would drive to the rainforest the next day.   

Daintree National Park:  First Attempt and Hanging With Fat Albert
We arose on Mar 6 to the continued heavy downpour from the night before.  This induces great laziness as we had to walk 30 minutes to town to pick up the car.  After having breakfast and killing time, we finally decided to take a lightening up in the rain as our cue to grab umbrellas from the hostel and get our car.  Before long, we were out on the road heading up to Daintree. 

Daintree National Park comprises a portion of the mammoth 1200 square kilometer Daintree Rainforest.  At an age of 135mm years, Daintree is the oldest rainforest on the planet.  By way of comparison, the Amazon Rainforest is a mere 6mm years old.  Daintree is damn old.  The rainforest is washed of its rains out to see by the mighty Daintree River.  Where the river meets the sea is a silty and shifting sandbar with the tides.  As a result of the backwash from the ocean, there is salt, brackish and freshwater found in the river.  The river is also infested with the mammoth and fearsome saltwater crocodiles.  Over the years, there have been numerous crocodile attacks on boats in the river and idiotic people either on its riverbanks or swimming.  Entry to the National Park requires crossing the river on a cable-pulled car ferry that costs AUD15.  We paid our toll amongst the cyclone rains and were on our way into the park. 

The rainforest is exquisite.  There are towering trees creating a canopy over the road that are of the lushest greens easily matching those we had seen in our various adventures through SE Asia and past trips to equatorial South America.  There are so many beautiful and different types of plant and tree species from ground dwellers, to large leafed plants growing directly from tree trunks to the canopy creating giants themselves.  The sky was absolutely bawling with tears the entire drive.  I have never driven through such rain anywhere in my life.  Thankfully, still driving on the other side of the road, I had traded in my minivan from Lombok for a much more maneuverable car

We passed by several signs for both kangaoroo and cassowary (weird, blue headed bird that looks like an ostrich) signs and we were instructed to be on high alert.  More than anything else, Sarah was on the lookout for a kangaroo.  This was tops on her list of things to check off from Australia.  Unfortunately, she went home empty handed (like Sean Penn in I Am Sam).  We made a stop at the Alexandra Lookout, providing views of the emptying of Daintree River into the Ocean and the coast along the Coral Sea.  With the clouds and rains, it was quite mysterious looking, but obviously not as beautiful as it could have been.

After enjoying the beautiful and rain filled drive, we were in a rainforest after all, so were not bummed at all, we reached the Daintree Discovery Center, which is smack dab in the middle of the rainforest.  Other than a cafe and a source of information, the main attraction is the rainforest walk and canopy tower.  Through a series of catwalks, ground trails and a massive tower with tiered platforms rising to the top of the canopy, it provides unique vantage points of different parts of the rainforest.  Rainforests have a wealth of plant and animal life at many different levels all the way up to the top of the canopy and it is quite rare to be able to see all the sections in one place.  

Alas, because of the cyclone, the catwalks were closed from danger.  The cyclone was basically just passing through this part of Australia from where we were in Daintree all the way down to Cairns and pouring on the Great Barrier Reef (Cairns sits towards the southern part of the massive reef system).  We decided we would return the next day (hopefully) and I indugled in a massive slice of chocolate cake and a glass of milk while Mary (abstaining from sweets for 40 days) enviously watched.  We spent a bit of time just watching, listening and taking video of the cyclone rain int he heart of the rainforest.  It was a beautiful moment.

With part one of our plan out the window, we drove a bit further up the road toward Cape Tribulation - the natural end of a tour through the National Park.  Alas, shortly the chaotic rains caused us to turn around, not knowing if there would be a mudslide around the next bend.  On our way back, we decided to go for a river cruise to see some crocodiles.  

There are a bunch of tour operators on the Port Douglas side of the ferry crossing, so we signed up with one of them and after waiting for a while were off on our private tour (since there were few customers because of the rains).  Our tour guide runs a solar powered boat, which is awesome for three reasons: 1) it is environmentally friendly 2) there is no noise so it is peaceful and you don't scare off the crocs 3) there are no diesel fumes.  If you are going on a Daintree river cruise, make sure you ask for the solar powered boat.  The boat is also equipped with a camera and a TV, so the guide can zoom in on things he sees, so that customers may get a better view (and so he can show an existing catalog of pictures for education purposes).   

The owner/guide was an incredibly nice Australian guy who knew a ton about the river and clearly loved the crocs and the wildlife in the region.  Having spent a long time running tours everyday, he knew exactly where every croc lives, had names for all of the adult crocs, knew who just had babies, knew which of the large male crocs had girlfriends and where those girlfriends lived, etc.  Male crocs are quite territorial and they have a harem of girls within this large swath of the river.  We saw probably about five crocs in total, most of them were quite still with barely their head sticking out of the water.  Still, we are able to get quite close and it was pretty awesome seeing them in their natural habitat.  We saw a couple of baby crocs as well.  From a distance, as we were advancing in the river, we saw the main event, the old man Fat Albert himself, swimming across the river.  He was MASSIVE!  Fat Albert was probably at least 4-5m long (at least 15ft)!  Adult male saltwater crocodiles can be as large as 6m.  Though lazy and not eating on a daily basis, from Wiki: large adult saltwater crocodiles can potentially eat any animal within its range, including monkeys, kangaroos, wild boar, dingos, goannas, birds, domestic livestock, pets, water buffalo, gaurs, sharks, and humans, among other large animals as well. 

Along the way, Mary was allowed to drive the boat.  We also saw a tube snake, surprisingly I was able to stand pretty close to it and check it out along with the guide and Sarah, while Mary kept her distance.  We also saw a gorgeous green tree frog.  We didn't see any crocodiles jumping out of the water, which would have been awesome, but it was still a great experience. 

When we arrived back in Port Douglas, we cooked up a delightful feast of chicken fajitas and watched a couple of episodes of Lost in our room before passing out to make another assault on the Discovery Center and Cape Tribulation in the morning.

Daintree National Park:  Second Attempt and an Unexpected Turn of Events
At some point during these couple of days in Port Douglas, the three of us were hanging around when Sarah unexpectedly suggested that the girls dramatically alter their travel plans, so that Mary and I could travel together in South America.  Originally, the girls were off to New Zealand and I was off to South America and my next meeting with Mary would have been in the US or who knows where or when.  Sarah basically said that New Zealand is always there, but if we were getting married, we should build our relationship and that would be difficult to do if we were traveling apart.  It was a huge concession on her part to break from her original travel plans and spoke to how much she had learned to embrace being an independent traveler from her experience in Malaysia/Indonesia and how considerate and happy she really was for the recent events in Mary's life.  Mary and I were quite elated and in the coming days would sort out how we would re-arrange our itinerary to make things work out (it wouldn't be the last time!).  The girls would reunite in Chile and in Peru, for a pre-arranged tour, in about a month, so it wasn't as though this was goodbye between the girls. 

Mar 7 also brought some much needed great weather and allowed us to visit the rainforest sans rain.  We made our way through the ferry crossing, got some better views from the Alexandra Lookout and made it back to the Discovery Center, this time allowed to enter.  It was pretty extraordinary as we were able to look up close at all of the various plant life from the various levels of the rainforest.  Being atop the canopy and looking down on the trees in a dense rainforest is something I had never done nor will I ever forget.  We enjoyed some light hiking on the actual ground of the rainforest, which might have been even cooler than being atop the canopy. 

After visiting the Discovery Center, we made our way all the way north to Cape Tribulation.  We weren't exactly sure where the beach was, but saw a trailhead, so we started hiking through the rainforest along a well maintained trail.  All of a sudden, we appeared out of the dense foliage and onto the sand.  To our left was the wide expanse of the sand, in front of us was the spectacular Coral Sea and to our right was a mangled mess of mangroves.  With the waters receded, I was able to scamper through the jumble of tree roots that made the mangroves.  It was simply spectacular and absolutely no one was around, but the three of us.  What a climax! 

On our way home, we made the only mistake of the day.  We saw signs for this vineyard both days and we decided to go on the wild goose chase to the winery.  Who doesn't love a winery, right?  Well, we were wrong.  We eventually took the many many turns off the main highway and reached the small winery that was run by a really sweet looking old couple.  So far, so good.  Unfortunately, all of the wines were really sweet and quite frankly terrible tasting fruit wines.  We were given a choice - AUD5 for a tasting or free tasting with purchase of a AUD15 bottle of wine.  For some unknown reason still to this day, we decided to pay for one tasting and walk out with two bottles of bad wine. 

Heading to the Great Barrier Reef
We recovered from our mistake, we returned back to Dougie's.  Earlier that day Sarah had scheduled herself on a liveaboard boat heading out to the Barrier Reef to do some snorkeling (since she couldn't dive).  We made the mistake of not signing up for her boat because we had a discount at one of the companies from one our dive shop back in Koh Tao, Thailand.  Unfortunately, because of the cyclone and various canceled boat trips out on the Barrier Reef, all of the dive shops that we called in Cairns were filled up or too expensive for the next few days.  We thought we were screwed out of diving the Barrier Reef!  Sarah was leaving early the next morning to catch her dive boat out of Cairns and we decided to leave the next day as well and try our luck on finding a dive boat once we got to Cairns. 

The three of us then cooked up the leftovers into some grubbing nachos and quesadillas.  Our last night with Sarah, we drank some wine and played cards and said goodbye and good night.  The following day, we rode the shuttle back down the beautiful coastal drive to Cairns to see if we could find a way out to the Great Barrier Reef.   

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