Cairns – Railway Trip Washed out – Kuranda -The Railway Station – The Butterfly Sanctuary – Aborigine Show- Rain Forest – Skyway- Barron Falls –Great Barrier Reef
After the desert vastness of the Uluru landscape , Cairns was the exact opposite . As our plane came in for a landing, we were treated to the sight of rain swept, heavily forested mountains and our plane’s windows were streaked with rain . Luckily , the rain let up a little as we located our shuttle and loaded our luggage. Dusk was falling fast as we drove through puddles of water to our hotel on the Esplanade. However, by the time we’d settled in and were ready for dinner , the rain had returned full force and we found ourselves in the midst of a tropical storm . There was no question of going anywhere out of the hotel but we were able to find a Pan- Asian restaurant , Cho Gao , right next door . It proved to be a good choice. The food, a combination of Malaysian , Thai and Vietnamese was excellent and the Vietnamese waitress who served us was friendly and obliging . As we sipped our beers , we noticed two large groups of young people right next to us . They kept switching from one table to another and we twigged that they were office colleagues enjoying Friday night . Today’s youngsters have inherited a more difficult world than the one we started out in but , for a moment , as I looked at their smiling faces and their boisterous hi-jinks ,I wished I was one of them. Wanting to keep light , we passed on the main dishes at Cho Gao but had several appetizers( or entrees as they are called Down Under) . All of them were great. Outside it was still pouring and we got back to the room and went to bed with the sound of rain pattering on the windows.
When we had arrived in Cairns it was getting on to nightfall and we hadn’t had a chance to really see our surroundings . Next morning , I looked out of the hotel windows at one of the most gorgeous views I’ve ever seen. The sea , a palm fringed esplanade , mountains… all in one vista. It was still cloudy though the rain had stopped. Downstairs , we got the news that , because of the heavy rains , our train to Kuranda had been cancelled. Instead, after the usual breakfast buffet , we boarded a luxury bus and set off through the town . ( Actually , the buffet was different . Cairns has a large Asian population and many Asian visitors . Thus , the buffet featured congee, miso soup, noodles and all the fixings and salads in addition to the usual items).
Cairns is a beautiful town and , of all the places in Australia , it’s the one I could be happy in . A sprawling town of about 155,000 it was founded in order to export the gold discovered nearby but today it’s dependent mainly on tourism and farming ( sugarcane, pineapples , mangoes ). We threaded our way past all kinds of motels , hotels , bars , eateries and some beautiful bungalows before the road took us through lush sugarcane fields. We also passed the railway line, parts of which were submerged from the heavy rains . No wonder our rail trip had been cancelled.
Stopping at Kuranda, we took some photos at the quaint Railway station , then went to the main drag and the Butterfly Sanctuary.A wonderful place , not to be missed. We walked through the air-conditioned museum as a guide told us about butterflies — their brief life , their courting rituals , their life cycle and the various types . All the while hundreds of butterflies, blue , green , orange , brown , you name it – fluttered around us, occasionally alighting on our heads. In the laboratory we saw how the larvae and caterpillars are guided to adulthood before being released . Fascinating fact : The caterpillars eat three times their weight in leaves every day and excrete accordingly . The waste is cleared out daily and used for compost ( half a ton over a six-month period !). In the butterfly display cabinets , we saw some magnificent specimens , the largest of which was 14 inches across and we learned the difference between butterflies and moths.
Crossing the street , we went to the food court and had some pies ( kangaroo, steak and kidney , lamb ) but they were a disappointment. We then reboarded the bus and went on the rainforest tour .At the tour center , we were issued plastic ponchos because the rain had returned full force . We got aboard our vehicle a converted LST, an amphibious craft of WWII vintage ,with plastic roof and open sides that took us through the rainforest and into a river. The driver cum guide, Steve, was very funny . This was a real rain forest , not like the sorry excuse for one we’d seen in Antigua. Some of the vegetation was deadly , carrying barbed spikes which work their way into the flesh and can cause agony for six months or more. After the ” Duck Tour ” , we moved to another part of the complex and saw the Aborigine show where four Aborigine men showed us their traditional dances and put on an exhibition of boomerang and spear throwing . The dances were unexpectedly entertaining , thanks to the audience participation . One of our group , A—, did us all proud with his enthusiastic and inspired efforts . Afterwards , another American tourist came up and thanked him for having represented our country so well ! The spear throwing was a revelation , particularly the extra range the throwers got by fitting on an extension to the spears. The spears are not all that accurate but a massed barrage stands a good chance of bringing down prey.
It was pouring once again ( It rained forty inches in Cairns in the month of February alone !) and we were soaked as we ran to the bus and went to the Skyway , an aerial tramway that took us on a breathtaking ride over the top of the rainforest.Through the perspex sides of the cable car we could see the tops of the trees . some of which had orchids growing on them . We made one stop to see the rain swollen Barron Falls. The roaring cataract was a miniature Iguazu , with the mist from the falls rising all the way to the top. Awesome !! At the bottom of the hill , we went through the obligatory souvenir shop and boarded the bus back to Cairns. A very wet but rewarding day.
That night we ate at the Bushfire Grill , a Brazilian style rodizio across from our hotel. Unlike the U.S, where diners help themselves at a salad bar before tucking into the meats , here a limited number of salads was served at the table . I liked this method of service better because, otherwise one has a tendency to over indulge at the salad bar and be stuffed by the time the meats arrive. Good food and service .
Next day , we set out after breakfast for the Great Barrier reef. Walking across the Marina we embarked on the Reef Magic , a large catamaran, for the 90 minute ride to the Reef. The ride was smooth and , at our destination , we got off at Marine World , a large two-story floating platform at the eastern end of the reef . Built on pontoons , it had ample undercover seating ,a children’s safety swimming enclosure and easy access to the water for both snorkelers and divers . In the five hours that we spent on board we went for rides first in a glass bottom boat and then in a semi-submersible that gave us a close-up view of the reef.
The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest reef composed of over 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands stretching over an area of about 133,000 sq mi.Located in the Coral Sea, off the Queensland Coast , its size is almost incomprehensible. It is the world’s single biggest structure made by living organisms and it can be seen from outer space. Billions of fish swim in its nooks and crannies and it is usually a riot of color. Unfortunately for us , we visited it on a day when it was raining almost throughout . The cloudy skies and the absence of sunlight meant that the reef’s vibrant colors were muted and transformed into dull browns and grays . There were a lot of fish , but except for one large tame grouper named Wally , they were all the size of minnows. Overall , our very expensive reef tour was a bit of a disappointment , partly because we had expected so much but mostly because of the inclement weather. In between the various activities , we were served a hot and cold buffet lunch , plain but filling . What I remember most was that the pineapple slices were extraordinarily sweet.
The return journey to Cairns was uneventful and we disembarked at the Marina around 4 o’clock. The rain did not let up at all and that night we went to a nearby Chinese restaurant whose name I forget but where the food was very good . The next morning we departed for Sydney , the last stop on the Australian leg of our tour.
P.S Here’s a bit of Australian humor… At the muddy , rain swollen Barron River , our guide remarked that swimming was a no-no because of the estuarine crocodiles that inhabit the river. These crocs are very aggressive and vicious and have been known to attack any living thing , including humans . However , he said , the Australian swim team trains in these waters … that’s what makes them so fast !!