It didn’t take us very long to really like Port Douglas. Actually, it’s the first town that we’ve seen in Australia (except Sydney four years ago) that we wanted to stay in for more than a night. It helps that the (nice but cramped) campground is only 100 meters away from the beautiful beach and only 200 meters away from downtown … which is really not much more than a single, pleasant street lined with cafes, shops and restaurants. It’s all a bit upscale (the lady running the campground called it “toffy”) and rather expensive … but not in a way that we found bothering.
We went for a few walks along the four mile long beach, bought fresh prawns right off the fishing boats …
… had local oysters for happy hour …
… before enjoying the sunset.
Port Douglas really reminds us of our vacation in Hawaii. Except that there are gigantic fruit bats flying down the streets at dusk.
We really came here to take a snorkeling trip out to the Great Barrier Reef (it’s quit close to the coastline), but the weather (yet again) won’t allow it. It’s been mostly cloudy and we’ve had some short tropical downpours, but the real problem is the wind, which has been blowing with 30 knots for the last days. That makes the water just too rough to go out and especially to snorkel. The very few tour operators that run trips don’t seem to come back with very satisfied clients … in the evenings, we’ve watched them stagger off the boat with green faces, clutching their barf bags.
The forecast calls for absolutely no change in the next week and after two (very pleasant) days of waiting, we’ve decided to head even further north to the Daintree National Park and Cape Tribulation, where the paved road ends. The plan is to spend a few days up there, before coming back down to Port Douglas … hopefully by then the wind will have died down and we will be able to go out to the reef for a day. Time is running out a bit, we only have about a week remaining before we return the camper in Cairns and fly inland to Alice Springs.
The beach life here in Northern Queensland can be quite frustrating. Most of the beaches up here are beautiful, often palm-lined, and can stretch for many miles … unfortunately, taking long walks is about all you can do on them.
It’s especially frustrating for the kids, who would love to go swimming. Further south (e.g. along the Sunshine Coast), the water was too cold … up here in the north, marine stingers might be waiting for you in the surf. The stingers are small jellyfish that drag about 3 meter long tentacles behind them, and apparently their poison is some of the deadliest (and maybe THE most painful) known to man.
They are found in the waters here until the month of May and “should” be gone by now, but who knows. The lifeguards tell us to assume that they are still there. Some of the locals think it’s too dangerous to go into the water without a protective suit … others think it’s perfectly safe. And the only ones you actually see swimming are very few (and very daring) European tourists. Just two weeks ago the papers here wrote about a family with two small children on a long term vacation, caravaning around Australia (sounds a bit like us). The parents were out swimming (not 50 meters away from the beach) and were killed by marine stingers while their kids were watching from the beach. To be fair, this happened in North-West Australia … but still sounds a bit disconcerting.
Oh yes … I almost forgot … if the jellyfish don’t get you, the saltwater crocodiles or rip tides might. There is a good reason every hotel or camp site here has a pool.
After Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays, we headed inland again, up to the Atherton Tablelands. The contrast between the tropical coastline (mangroves, palms, sandy beaches … ) and the hinterland is quite extreme. As soon as you drive inland for an hour, the land rises up, the temperatures drop, and you feel like you are back in Europe. Anna thinks it looks like the British heartland … I think it has a lot of similarities to southern Germany or the dairy farming country just inland from the Northern California coast.
What makes it different from both of those are the huge stretches of untouched cloud- and rain forests. We went for a short walk to an observation tower, that reaches above the canopy … which really gives you a different perspective. Unfortunately, it started pouring (again), just as we were the farthest away from the car.
A day later we visited Mossman Gorge (a lower elevation rainforest), which was nice enough. A bit of hiking among the trees and then a refreshing dip in a swimming hole.
More pictures here http://www.flickr.com/photos/uwefassnacht/sets/72157633724349443 and here http://www.flickr.com/photos/uwefassnacht/sets/72157633725873614
No real highlights, but more interesting than the coastal drive. We plan to skip Cairns (have to return there to drop off our camper anyway) and head straight to Port Douglas, which we’ve heard nothing but good things about.
The next stop along the coast was Airlie Beach … a bit of a backpacker party town and the jumping off point to see the famous Whitsunday Islands.
We had thought a lot about how to best see the Whitsundays. Most people take a day trip out to its most famous beach (Whitehaven), which is said to be one of the most beautiful in the world. The problem is that you land on it at the same time as hundreds of other day trippers do … taking away from that “deserted, tropical beach” experience. People have told us that it’s like a locust swarm descending on a farm … apparently the beach turns into a wild mixture of picnic ground and football field within minutes. Probably the best option is to take a multi-day trip out on a sailboat, slowly cruising the many islands and getting to the popular spots early in the morning or late in the evening (without the day guests). But the weather was quite overcast and the forecast called for rain … which made it too risky to spend $1600 on an overnight trip (image what the multi-day trips cost).
So instead we watched the weather forecast very closely and I jumped on a scenic flight as soon as the weather looked clear for the next few hours. Anna called it an early birthday present for me and volunteered to stay behind with the kids.
I got lucky in that the floatplane was flying a few clients out to different resorts on the islands and so I got about two hours worth of flying (and a few water landings) for the price of one.
We went over the Whitsundays first (giving us the chance to see Whitehaven Beach from the air), before flying out to the actual Great Barrier Reef … which is quite a way further out to sea.
I got to sit up front and the flight turned out to be absolutely spectacular. You really need to be in a plane to get an appreciation of the vastness of the reef and how many islands there are.
A few more pictures here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/uwefassnacht/sets/72157633725538520
Thank you Anna!
After our day at Keppel Island we pointed the van north again. Truth be told, the landscape along the coast has become quite boring. Featureless and flat with endless sugar cane fields, mixed up with a bit of forest here and there … very much unchanged for hundreds and hundreds of miles (and hours and hours of driving).
In Mackay we visited our friend Tom and his family. We had met him and his daughters on Lara’s birthday in Namche Bazaar and then again further up on the trail to Everest. He immigrated from Denmark in his twenties and has worked in the mining sector ever since … it was quite interesting to spend a day with him and get his perspective on life in Australia (and how it differs from Europe or the U.S.).
He also took us to his farm, which is up the Pioneer valley and close to the Eungella National Park. The area is known for it’s Platypus population and we (after waiting completely quietly for almost 15 minutes) actually saw two of these extremely elusive animals in a pond about 100 meters away from his house.
The landscape up on the plateau looks almost a bit like southern Germany. Rolling hills, dairy farms ..and it felt good to get away from the (boring) coastal drive for a day.
After weathering another day of torrential rain on a campground, the forecast finally predicted a sunny day and we decided to take a day trip out to one of the islands to see what the snorkeling is like.
Keppel Island is only a few miles away from the little town of Yeppoon and we signed up for an all-day tour, consisting of some time in a glass-bottom boat and snorkeling, followed by “boom netting”.
After the boat took us across to the island, we spent some time on its beaches … which turned out to be absolutely beautiful. Unfortunately, the water also turned out to be quite cool (trust me, it’s a lot colder than it looks on the pictures).
While in the glass bottom boat we saw a large sea snake (a first for me) and the snorkeling turned out to be OK-ish (the visibility was not great). But it was Finn’s first time snorkeling ever and he did absolutely great. (Un)fortunately I think he got a bit spoiled … the first animal he saw after putting his mask in the water was a large sea turtle (you don’t exactly see them constantly). I’m afraid that has set his expectations quite high for his future snorkel life.
The day finished off with some “boom netting”, an activity I had never heard of before. Basically a net is dragged behind the boat, to which people hold on to. I personally didn’t quite see the appeal, but Anna and Lara tried it for a few minutes … before the water got too cold to stand it any longer.
All in all we had a fun day out, but (like so often here) were left wondering a bit whether it justified the high price tag.
I’ve put a few more pictures here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/uwefassnacht/sets/72157633534501011
After leaving the Australia Zoo, we headed east and got to Caloundra beach on the Sunshine Coast within an hour. Looking back now, we should have stayed the day, but the water didn’t look all that clear and it was quite overcast and cool … so we decided to let the kids splash around for a bit before heading further north along the coast. The next stop was the (very nice) town of Noosa and we watched the surfers a bit while picnicking. We also had a good look at the map and realized that we hadn’t come very far at all … considering the total distance we wanted to cover. That, and the surprisingly cold weather and water, made us decide to get moving and we covered another 300 kilometers before pulling in at a free roadside campsite for the night. There are quite a few of them in Australia, some with picnic tables, simple toilets and BBQ grills to use … others are nothing more than a bit of level space to put a camper or two on.
The next days we slowly made our way north and stayed two nights in the town of Agnes Water on the Capricorn Coast. Quite frankly, we were a bit disappointed by our days on the beaches so far. The weather was quite overcast and we had two days of solid tropical downpours … and there really isn’t too much to do in the rain. When it was not raining, it was pleasantly warm, but the water temperature was A LOT colder than we had expected. Lara sticks it out for a few minutes, but Finn (who is just skin and bones) starts shivering almost as soon as he gets into the water … even while wearing a short wet suit.
The beaches as such are nice enough, but (at least so far) I wouldn’t call them spectacular. Nothing you wouldn’t see in south-east Asia or the U.S.
Speaking of the U.S. … the landscape along the coast is very very similar to that of North Carolina or Florida. Maybe we just have to go further north or to the islands off the coast to see Australia’s beaches at their best.