Category Archives: Queensland

Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef

The wind finally let up a bit yesterday (still quite strong at 15 knots) and we were on the boat pier, ready to go at 8:00am. After a lot of research on the different snorkel tour operators, we had decided to go with Wavelength (and would highly recommend them). They are one of the pricier tours, but don’t take scuba divers (which means they visit the better snorkeling sites) and they go out all the way to the outer reef.

Even though the reef is the closest to the coast anywhere here, the trip out is still two hours … in pretty rough seas. Fortunately, all of us made it without getting sea sick. Once there, the water was surprisingly cold and nobody went in without a wet suit … which also acts as a bit of an insurance policy against any stingers that might be left in the season.

We had talked quite a bit with other tourists about how the snorkeling compared with elsewhere (The Red Sea, Caribbean, Thailand, Fiji, …) and got a wide variety of opinions. So we weren’t sure what to expect. Unfortunately, we had a bit of a cloudy day (makes a huge difference), but when the sun came out a few minutes every once in a while, it was quite spectacular. The coral cover and variety was excellent, as was the marine life. Our personal “snorkeling benchmark” is Atutaki (a small atoll in the Cook Islands, see our post here), and the snorkeling yesterday was absolutely up to par, if not even a bit better.

We also had a marine biologist on board, who could not only answer any and all questions, but also gave an interesting talk about the current state of the reef … and it’s very depressing future. Apparently 50% of the reef (meaning coral and fish) have disappeared over the last 20 years … and the trend is accelerating. Most biologists believe that it will be gone (or have changed into algae beds) in the next 20 years. The main causes seem to be industrial fertilizer run-off, overfishing, shipping pollution and a drastic increase in water temperature.

Better come and see it while it’s still here!

Here are a few pictures from the day (including underwater shots that others on the boat took):

Tomorrow we’ll return our camper van, fly to Alice Springs and into the “red heart” of the continent.



Daintree National Park and Cape Tribulation

Heading north out of Port Douglas, our first stop was the Daintree river. The attraction here is to get on one of the (numerous) boats and to spend some time slowly going along the river banks to look for crocodiles and birds.

We happened to snag an hour of good weather and ended up seeing about a dozen of each … crocodiles in sizes ranging from 40 centimeters to 4 meters … and birds in various colors and shapes (we’re not exactly “birders” and have a hard time distinguishing an eagle from a sparrow).

A few pictures here:

From the river it was another hour of slow driving (the road is quite spectacular, but also quite narrow) until we reached the end of the paved road at Cape Tribulation.

This is as far as you can north along the coast without an off-road vehicle. We checked into the only campground and parked the van about 50 meters away from the beach … which turned out to be the most beautiful so far. There really wasn’t much to do in the area (except a few short walks through the rainforest), but we decided that it was a nice spot to wait until the wind would die down enough to go snorkeling out on the reef.

So we spent the days cracking coconuts, walking along the beach, reading and catching up on the kids school work.

A few more pictures here:

Oh, I almost forgot … we encountered yet another one of those deadly Australian animals. Cassowaries look like small Ostriches, just more colorful and with a weird bent horn on their heads. Apparently, they can get quite aggressive and jump at people (feet first), doing quite a bit of damage with their sharp claws. This seems to happen often enough that it warrants warning signs:

Port Douglas

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.

Swimming here sucks

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.

The Atherton Tablelands and Mossman Gorge

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 and here

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.

Air Whitsunday

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:

Thank you Anna!

A day with Tom

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.