Cairns: Rainforest & Reef

On Saturday, with no obligations at the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre, I booked a tour to the Daintree Rainforest. This rainforest runs right to the shore, leading the locals to observe that this is “where the rainforest meets the reef.”

The tour included stops at various lookouts with great views, time in the rainforest by bus, on foot, and boat. Our tour group also had a great lunch at the Daintree Treehouse. I ordered the Barrimundi, a local fish (it’s hiding under the fries). But the star of the dish was the assortment of 9 or so tropical fruits, some of which I’d never seen before. Tasty!

One of our last stops was to see how a tree can be taken over by another in a process that can take centuries — even a millennium. It starts when a bird drops a seed in the top of an existing tree. On germinating, the new plant starts dropping shoots down, eventually surrounding its host. Then the termites come and, since the new tree is immune, eat away the original tree until all that’s left is a whole new plant, one with a lattice-like structure.

On the way back, shortly after the sun had set, we passed an area that is home to literally hundreds of wallabies. Hundreds! They kept their distance, but you can get a bit of an idea from these photos.

Cairns: To the Top

Every day there’s a different group at the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre. In addition to volunteers, like me, who signed up through Oceans 2 Earth, there are local volunteers, veterinary students, and a rotating roster of leaders who offer expertise and supervision. This was the group working at the Centre today, Friday.

In the afternoon I took off on a hike to visit the lighthouse and summit on Fitzroy Island, a roundtrip of about 2 miles with a breathtaking (literally!) ascension to a high point for amazing views. Tomorrow is a day off, and I’ve booked a tour to the Daintree Rainforest and other nearby sites.

Cairns: Under the Sea

Today, Wednesday, after finishing my duties at the Turtle Centre, I joined Vanessa, a volunteer from Germany, for a couple of snorkeling sessions off the beaches of Fitzroy Island. This time of year, however, the waters have been known to host rather small jelly fish with an outsized sting. Apparently a sting requires an airlift to a hospital where the patient spends three days in horrific pain that even morphine won’t relieve. Yeah, so swimmers are advised to wear these stylish “stinger suits” which cover you from head to toe. At least wearing this thing meant that I didn’t need to apply any sunscreen on this beautiful, sunny day.

Anyway, the warm waters of the Great Barrier Reef are home to an amazing array of fish and coral. These pictures utterly fail to do justice to the color and variety of the sea life, but I’m posting them anyway — so there!

And I’m left to wonder: is there a restaurant here in Cairns that will be serving a turkey dinner tomorrow?

Cairns: Turtles in the Tropics

I arrived in Cairns, Australia on Sunday and began my volunteering at the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre on Monday. The Centre is located on Fitzroy Island, about 45 minutes from Cairns on a fast ferry. This tropical island is in the Great Barrier Reef, and a popular location for snorkeling and scuba. The volunteers leave Cairns at 8 am, arriving at the island’s resort. Then it’s just a 10-minute walk to reach the facility which hosts a variety of turtles in need of care. Most of the turtles here will be released as soon as it’s possible.

The work (so far, at least) has included cleaning tank filters, preparing food, feeding the turtles, and cleaning the tanks with skimmers and suction. It’s pretty easy work, made easier by the number of volunteers on site. I’ve been here two days, and both days we’ve been done by noon. After that we’re free to return to Cairns on the 12:15 ferry or stay and enjoy this tropical island and leave at 5 pm.

Today I wandered down to Nudey Beach (and, no, it’s not a nude beach, despite the name). This is a lovely island, and a great place to spend a couple of weeks.

And now for a a confession: I bailed on the housing arrangements. I was scheduled to stay at a local hostel. Even though I did request a single room, I’ve seen monastic cells with more amenities. I had a small bed, a chair, a shelf, a coat rack. And a toilet down to the right, then turn left, then turn right again. Not exactly convenient. The hot tub, however, was very convenient, located just a few feet from my door. This was nice for many of the guests who enjoyed soaking and chatting and laughing until the wee hours, but not so nice for me.

So after one night I found a great deal on an apartment: I have a large and comfy bed, a living area, a full kitchen, washer and dryer, TV, and more — all in my unit. This is much better!

Yellow Water Cruise

Saturday morning I went on a sunrise cruise leaving from the billabong known as Yellow Water. (According to my computer, a billabong is “a branch of a river forming a backwater or stagnant pool, made by water flowing from the main stream during a flood.”)

Anyway, we saw a great number of crocodiles, active as the day was still relatively cool. We also saw (at a distance) some buffalo and even half a dozen wallabies. Alas! I didn’t have my super zoom lens, or I might have photos worth sharing. But we also saw a great number of birds, and I’ve included a few of my better photos. This was my favorite tour / activity of my days in Kakadu National Park; it was great to end on such a high note.

Later I returned to Darwin, and tomorrow morning I fly to Cairns to begin my second volunteer project on Monday morning. This time I will be working at a sea turtle rehabilitation program on an island about a 45-minute ferry ride from Cairns. I’ll have more to share in a day or so.

Arnem Land & the Custodians of the Land

On Friday I joined an all-day excursion into Arnem Land, an area entirely under Aboriginal control. This means, for example, you aren’t even allowed into this region without purchasing a permit. And even then you are limited to visit only the one destination you’re allowed to request. Or you can join a tour offered by an Aboriginal-owned company as I did. During the busy season (when it’s not 104° outside!) this tour takes up to 20 people. Today, however, our guide, Trevor, had only four guests, a far more intimate experience.

We got to experience first-hand some of the varied scenery of the area, but Trevor focused our visit on sites where we could see and learn about some of the rock art, some of which could be as old as 80,000 years. As knowledgeable as Trevor was regarding the ancient art, he also told us there are vortices that can do all sorts of things, like the one that once transported him instantaneously to South America. And that we most certainly have been visited by extraterrestrials. Right….

We also stopped at Injalak Arts, an indigenously owned art center that is run by and for Aboriginal artists. We saw some of the artists at work on their unique creations, followed by an opportunity to visit the gallery store. I picked up a couple of books for grandkids written and illustrated by Graham Badari, one of the artists I met today.

Oh, and we learned about the area crocodiles. When it’s as warm as it was today the crocs stay under the water as much as possible. Apparently their brains will fry when the temperature rises above about 93°. We did see part of one of the reptiles at Cahills Crossing, which marks the boundary with Arnem Land. He (or she?) briefly poked a snout above water, took a breath, and vanished again beneath the muddy waters of the East Alligator River.

High Points in Kakadu

Thursday I enjoyed a one-hour flight over Kakadu National Park. By car one can see barely one percent of this huge reserve; flying allowed me to see up to 30% of the various landscapes: rivers, escarpments, wetlands, and forests. Pictured here is the East Alligator River — a name given by an early explorer unaware that the local crocodiles are not the same as alligators found elsewhere. In just a few weeks the river should be full and indeed overflowing into the various flood plains. Towards the end of the flight we passed over my hotel for my stay in Jabiru: the more aptly named Crocodile Hotel.

After my flight I headed to a hide at the Mamakala wetlands which was loaded with birds. I also spotted a couple of wallabies who hopped away before I could take their picture.

I then headed to Nourlangie, home to some ancient rock art as well as a pretty good lookout. As the temperature had reached a high of about 105°, I then headed back to my hotel and a refreshing dip in the pool. Ahh!

Ubirr: Ancient Rock Art and More

Wednesday I arrived in Jabiru, the largest town in Kakadu, and checked into the Crocodile Hotel which is shaped just like — wait for it! — a crocodile. Appropriate as the area is known both for “salties” and “freshies”, two kinds of crocs. Signs in the area warn against swimming in the area.

I then headed to Ubirr, host to a collection of rock art, some of which is 20,000 years old, and the spectacular views from a lookout. The rock art was pretty cool, but just as I arrived at the lookout dark clouds appeared on the horizon. And they were headed our way, accompanied by thunder, lightening, and rain. At least the pesky flies left me alone, and the temperature, which had climbed to 101° F dropped a bit. I was soaked in minutes, and eager to get off a high point amidst the lightening.

So I didn’t see the sunset I expected from Ubirr, but on the 40-minute drive back to Jabiru I was treated to a final burst of color as dusk descended into dark. Back at the hotel I replaced soaked clothes with dry and headed to the hotel restaurant for an excellent dinner of chicken and bacon with pasta and a creamy sauce. Yum!

Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve

Tuesday I departed The Ghan and spent a night in Darwin, at “the Top End” of Australia. After enjoying one of the best fish and chips dinners ever, I enjoyed sleeping in a full-sized bed. Wednesday morning I picked up my rental car and started the journey to Kakadu National Park.

My first stop on the way was at the Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve. Right now, according to the calendar, the Top End is in the season known simply as the Wet. But the rain hadn’t shown up just yet, and the area remains pretty dry. The walkway seen in the first photo should soon extend over a vast wetland. Meanwhile, there are areas where water may yet be found — along with loads and loads of birds, not to mention a few feral buffalo. Oh, and as you have come to expect, I also found a flower or two to photograph.

The Ghan: Excursions

In addition to a sunrise breakfast outside the town of Marla in the outback, The Ghan made two additional stops: Alice Springs and Katherine.

In Alice Springs I opted for the “Simpsons Gap Discovery Walk,” which promised “a moving experience.” Not so much. Our guide took us on three short walks. One to see a large tree (not pictured here). Another which took us to a lookout (also not pictured here). Finally the third very short hike brought us to Simpsons Gap which boasts a permanent watering hole and a nearby population of Black-footed Rock Wallabies. The scenery was quite lovely, and we even saw one of the area wallabies, though at quite a distance.

In Katherine most of the passengers (having few options, to be honest) chose the Nitmiluk Gorge Cruise through pretty stunning sandstone structures. Actually, there were two gorges we cruised, requiring a short hike to get to the second boat. Along that hike we could see some ancient Rock Art painted by the Jawoyn people. I was particularly struck by how trees, shrubs, and grasses grow even when rooted in what appears to be nothing more than solid rock. Finally, during the rainy season known simply as “the Wet” (which according to the calendar should have started by now but hasn’t yet), the river rises so much and flows so powerfully that some trees simply grow sideways.