Medieval Tourney and the Steve Irwin Australia Zoo
Trip Start Aug 09, 2007
47Trip End Jul 29, 2008
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We left the tropical climate of Cairns, began heading south and soon were winding 'Yo Momma' up a long, steep road of switchbacks leading 1000m up into the lush highlands of the Atherton Tablelands. This region is known as the Tablelands because the fertile land produces fruit, vegetable and grain crops all year round providing Australia’s North Eastern population a constant supply of food. As far as tourism goes, the Tablelands is well known for the two massive strangler fig trees it supports; the Cathedral and the Curtain Fig Trees, respectively. Our first stop was to see the Cathedral Fig Tree near Danbulla National Park, about 60km south-west of Cairns. This fig tree is over 500 years old and known as the Cathedral due to its massive, open and hollow structure
In addition to giant fig trees, the Tablelands is also home to the shy platypus – in fact, the platypus is *only* found in Eastern Australia!! Platypus are interesting animals, not only for the way they look but for how they defy characterization. They are semi-aquatic egg-laying mammals that are venomous, duck-billed and beaver-tailed. They are absolutely adorable and we wanted to see one!
We continued driving through the highlands until we reached Milla Milla Falls which literally means Plenty of Water in the Aboriginal language. This is a beautiful veil of water 18m long and was a great place to grab a dip (ie/traveller’s shower) before continuing a bit further and crashing for the night. As we drove further down the backroads of the highway, however, we couldn’t help but notice the intriguing signs for Paronella Park…what could this mysterious park be? Though the signs provided no information, we thought to ourselves "It is so well signed, it must be amazing". With visions of what adventure this hidden park may hold for us – ostrich riding? Waterfall sliding? Ziplining across the tablelands? – we settled into Yo Momma and dozed off
We were intent on hitting the highway the next morning to continue on the main route south but when we reached the fork that forced us to choose between Paronella Park and the highway, we chose the Park. Down the potholed dirt road we travelled, lured onwards by the promise of it being just around the corner (similar to the Wawa signs on Highway 17), we continued to this elusive park, somehow overlooked in our travel guides. Finally, finally we saw the park stretched out before us…some sedans, a gift shop, a fence???...where are the ostriches, the ziplines and the open air to explore? We approached the gift shop leaving the one and only obnoxious vehicle (ours) behind in the otherwise tame parking lot – not a great sign. We met the exuberant owner of the park whose passion for his park was truly admirable, but it had to be since he was charging $30 each to get in!!! Not one to miss a deal to haggle, we talked him down to free entry and – if we were not thoroughly impressed – a full refund on leaving (sigh…me extraño America Latina!). He had showed us some brochures boasting pictures of what was behind the tall fence – castles, waterfalls, caves where many a movie had been filmed – and he told us tales of who once ruled this elusive land – a Spanish eccentric comparable to the Great Gatsby by the sounds of it. The owner told us this was the #1 tourist attraction in all of Australia – that’s right – this park trumped the Great Barrier Reef, Sydney Harbour, Uluru, the Great Ocean Road, petting Koalas and Kangaroos – none of that could compare to what lay behind these walls
We began the tour by exiting the gift shop which brought us to the inner circle of the fence. The grounds were quite beautiful I must say; anciently aristocratic with old stone houses crumbling and being overtaken by weeds set among some towering trees and next to a waterfall. The original owner of these lands, Jose Paronella, arrived from Spain in 1913 searching for a better life. An eccentric, he developed his property to be a sort of public playground for his neighbours. He built a tennis court, a movie theatre and ballroom to entertain his guests (for a fee), all in a traditional Spanish motif. He created a hydroelectric dam from the waterfall on his property to power his movies and the rest of his property. That was about all there was to say about the park, but the tour just kept going and going without capturing our imaginations any further. We did find ourselves in a bat cave at one point which was interesting. In the end, we retrieved half our money (a fair compromise I thought) and were off. I understand that this is now highly rated by Lonely Planet, perhaps the tour experience has changed?
We returned to the highway and headed south
Along this stretch between Cairns and Brisbane, we knew of two big things to do. The first was the Whitsunday Islands – several continental islands off the eastern coast begging to be sailed, snorkeled and explored. The second was Fraser Island – a World Heritage site and known as the largest sand island in the world at 120km wide and 24km long. Fraser Island is known for its varied landscape, despite only being rooted in sand!! It boasts deep freshwater lakes, tropical rainforest (what remains after clearcutters anyways) and dangerous dingoes!! We initially thought we could see both but as our time and budget both shrunk away, we thought we’d just try for Fraser Island.
After a refreshing night’s sleep off the main highways on a small country road, we arrived in the tiny coastal town of Rainbow Beach which has a beautiful stretch of beach to its credit as well as being a good jumping off point for Fraser Island Tours
After driving around in search of a place to park Yo Momma for the night, but with no luck, we decided to sleep at the Visitor’s Centre. We saw some other vans parked there, some enjoying a bbq out the back, so we figured it would be no problem and, anyways, it seemed the most appropriate place for us! We were sound asleep when suddenly we heard a loud knocking on the side of the van – I awoke shaking and completely terrified, apparently not over the freaky encounter from Cairns. It turned out to be a cop instead of a drunken asshole, which was great, but we had to leave, which was crappy. We drove around and around looking for a place before finally finding one. We were pretty ready at this point to be done with Yo Momma.
We were only another 250km to Brisbane so we enjoyed another day at the beach, packed up and hit the road hoping for smooth sailing into town
Brisbane is the capital of Queensland state with over 3 million people living in and around this city. It is named after the Brisbane river which extends through the heart of downtown Brissy and whose carefully-monitored dam supplies the drinking water for the area. Brisbane is known to many as Bris-Vegas poking fun at its quieter nature, but it’s been ranked as one of the best cities in the world to live in (16th by the Economist in 2009) and has been on the world stage hosting World Expo in ’88
First, Brisbane has been living in drought conditions from 2001 to 2008 and we arrived near the worst of it with dam levels being very low, requiring high levels of water conservation. Practically, this means that we shower with a bucket next to us and then use that water for the lawn. Similarly, the washing machine water is diverted into buckets which are also used outside. No car washing is allowed (and it is generally viewed as the absolute worst waste of water possible), either is personal pool filling or lawn watering. I really felt that, as Canadians, we could be doing more without necessarily going without – it was more about the attention the Australians gave to their water usage than it was about depriving themselves. The result is that the residents of Brisbane tend to use about 140L/day per person while Canadians residential use averages around 300L/day (2001 OECD report). We also noticed that their homes are non-insulated due to their temperate climate (though, as softened travelers we did find the winter nights very cold!!)
One really nice thing we noted was that they have outdoor pools available all year round (not sure how this fits with the drought though…). Clare and I enjoyed swimming laps and I felt I could really get used to such a mild climate that allows you to keep up your favourite summer activities all year round.
Nik, Clare and I took off early the next day heading to famous Byron Bay, about 160km south of Brissy, renowned for its surfing, sun-worshiping and also for its proximity to Nimbin, an off-beat hippie town filled with lots of drugs. On our way down, we veered out for a detour to Springbrook National Park, a beautiful area of rugged cliffs, lush trees and views from 900m. It is located on an ancient and now inactive volcano and it was quite a long and beautiful drive in along narrow, windy, rugged dirt roads and up steep switchbacks to a number of beautiful trailheads. Unfortunately, this area is also known for its rain and frequent misty ‘white-outs’ which we were caught in meaning our hike left us drenched and our only view was of a big white cloud rather than the intended view. But, it was fun nonetheless and let us stretch our legs before arriving in Byron’s Bay.
Byron’s Bay was a cool little town and we enjoyed checking it out and feasting on some delicious falafel before walking out to the most easterly point of the Australian Mainland
Over the next couple of days, Nik and I explored Brisbane, did some swimming and perfected the vegemite sandwich (they key is butter and a thiiiiiiin layer of vegemite). Downtown Brisbane was very nice and their transit is good - it plopped us right downtown in the Central Business District which sits along the Brisbane River. Along the shore of the river is a really large and beautiful Botanical Garden as well as a downtown beach – it was pretty nice! We also hit up the XXXX Brewery which was great, thanks to their generosity of samples
While exploring downtown one day, we were stoked to have been approached for some random job – selling knives or something – and we were offered $16/hr to do so!! We did some serious consideration of this deal before realizing we couldn’t do so legally but later, when we excitedly told Clare about how rich we could be, she told us that in Australia that was crap money. There are very few, apparently, who work for minimum wage (around $15/hr!) and even low paying jobs tend to be well over $20/hr affording just about everyone enough to live off, what a concept!!
Ready for some fun, we headed to Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo the next day. This was a ways out but well worth the trip and this was definitely one of our highlights. This zoo was all about conservation, education and protection of animals and offered an interactive experience with almost every animal we saw there! We got there pretty early and had to wait for a bit for it to open. When it did, we bolted for the kangaroo and koala areas first but our enthusiasm didn’t initially provide us with the courage to make the most of this first encounter. This zoo is wide open – you are able to walk through wide open parks where koalas and kangaroos are feeding and roaming. We didn’t know at first, but you can actually walk up to these animals and pet and feed them – but – not all kangaroos are made equal. Our first encounter was in an open park where it was just Nik, myself and about 15 red kangaroos (the ones that are always shown to be boxing)
The absolute highlight of my day was getting the chance to hold one of the koalas!! Yes, I had to wait in line and pay a bit but the experience was magical – this little soft fuzzy bundle is handed over to me like a baby and he clung on to the front of me with his sharp nails and, as I looked down to admire the little guy who was snuggled into me, he looked up with his big koala eyes and soft black nose. We had a moment. A short one anyways before he went off to share the same moment with the girl behind me. Either way, I loved it!! We later saw the croc show, now given by Steve Irwin’s wife, which was pretty cool
We left on a high having had such a fun day and knowing that our friend Ryan was coming the next day to meet us in Brissy. On the agenda, a Medieval Festival we found advertised in a wee corner of the paper – En Guard!! This festival, by far, is one of the most unique things that we have ever experienced. Nik and Ryan were completely stoked for this and I tentatively agreed knowing that, at worst, I’d get away with a few good laughs. We got up early and drove a ways out of town into the countryside until we reached the grounds in Caboolture Shire. We couldn’t help but notice that we stood out – we were some of the few people there NOT dressed in Medieval garb…we didn’t realize how seriously many took this annual festival!
We walked past the human chess game, beyond the fencers to the inviting building ahead of us. As we entered, we came upon a performance of sorts where women, children, a plastic baby, men and a large Grim Reaper with scythe were chanting and moving about the room. They moved across a stage and down into the audience where – of course – Ryan hooded himself and joined into the growing circle of weirdness. A small band of musicians played while this random dance continued and, just as I feared we might have lost Ryan for the afternoon, the spell was broken, the music stopped and we exited…a bit confused…
We continued on, walking deeper into the crowd until ahead of us we saw a commotion and sort of formal setting
Nothing that occurred at this festival was done half-assed. This was a full-on joust complete with full-body-armour, huge horses and wooden lances. This was actually quite incredible to watch with the costuming of the horses, the formality of the event and the skill required. I think I also liked that there was no chanting, fake Kings or violent random attacks on others. This was truly a day to remember and when we walked out of the Abbey Medieval Festival, we all felt a certain respect for those who will wait patiently for another year to pass before throwing themselves full on into this magical experience once again.
Ryan was off soon the next day and we were soon gone ourselves. We had a very unique experience around Brisbane; relaxing, authentic, bizarre and exciting all at the same time!! We were sad to say good bye to Clare but we were ready to head back to Sydney to take in so much of what we had missed our first time through.