Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Day 203: Townsville

Possibly the oddest place we've visited on our travels, Townsville was a place where absolutely nothing went to plan.

After arriving early at the swish holiday park that Fi and Paul had stayed the night at, we met up and got a plan together. We had a few things we wanted to do in the daytime. Fi didn't want a big party for her birthday, just some nice food in the evening. Our tasks were simple:

- Visit the art gallery
- Possibly visit the free water park in the centre of town
- Find a shop selling buttons so Paul could fix his shorts
- Find a decent, reasonably-priced restaurant for Fi's birthday meal
- Find a book exchange so we could offload some of our rapidly growing finished stock

Right from the start, the town thwarted every effort.

The art gallery was closed pending the installation of a new exhibition. No problem, it was a nice day. We could go to the water park...wait, no, the water park was closed until June. A real shame, as those cannons looked like great fun.


A button shop? Are you kidding? Apparently we were, as there was neither hide nor hair of a haberdashery in the town. I guess when clothes get damaged the locals just chuck them away and buy new ones. Paul got around it in the end by nicking a button off another pair of shorts and using that. Fashion crisis avoided.

The restaurant was also a bust. The best we could find was either dodgy-looking pub grub at extortionate prices, or swanky places that made the bar prices look like a steal. Fi decided instead that we'd go to Woolworths and stock up on goodies which we'd cook ourselves at the holiday park.

Before that though, we went in search of a book exchange. Lonely Planet recommended "Jim's Book Exchange" as the superior choice in the town, but after locating the road it was supposedly on, we couldn't find it. The information centre was around the corner so I stopped in.

"Jim's Book Exchange? Oh yes, that was great. Nice place, lots of choice."
"So, where exactly is it?"
"Oh, it closed down a couple of years ago."

In fairness, our Lonely Planet was out of date by about 5 years so I couldn't complain too much. The information centre volunteers were surprised to hear the water park was closed ("Really? No-one told us! We've been directing people there all week!") but they came up trumps with an alternative book exchange for us to visit.

At least, that was the idea.

It started off promisingly: a small business park, a big yellow awning with "Book Exchange" written in bold white letters, a decent array of literature. I took my handful of novels up to the counter.

"What would I be able to exchange for these?"
"Sorry, we're not exchanging books currently unless they've originally been purchased here."
"Umm, OK. Could I just sell them to you, then?"
"No, we're not buying books either."

Right - so they are a book exchange which neither buys nor exchanges books. They just sell them. They are, in essence, a book shop.

Resisting the urge to rip down their filthy, lying awning, we set off back to Woolworths to get food and drink for the night, expecting that since the time we last left the area the supermarket may have burned down/become involved in a hostage situation/turned into a used car dealership.

Thankfully, something did actually go right and we piled up the trolley with a plethora of tasty treats before driving back to the holiday park. I need to mention the rocky hill not far from where we parkede in town, which inexplicably had a doodle of The Saint on one of its faces. Maybe Roger Moore visited the town at some point. I bet the water park was opened for him.


In true "crazy party" style we filled Paul and Fi's van with balloons whilst Fi was on the phone. We also went nuts with the decorations.



It was the best we could find, OK?

We laid out all the food and wine and got to work.



The rest of the night is a bit blurry, and I only have photos to go on to try and make sense of things. At some point, Paul turned into a psychedelic hedgehog.



I do recall a couple of other backpackers arriving in the kitchen and looking enviously at our food haul. One of them got a piece of bread, opened a jar of pasta sauce, and poured the sauce on top of it. Then ate it. I am absolutely not making this up; that was their dinner for the evening. I'm not saying we're flashpackers, but I can't ever imagine a situation where we'd get to that level of desperation. I mean, sure, it's feasible that you're on a tight budget. But pasta is cheaper than bread...why not use the pasta sauce and make a proper meal? The mind boggles.

At around 10:30pm we had been partying for around 5 hours and were ready to hit the hay. Apparently opening our van doors at such a ridiculously late hour was too much for one of our neighbouring motorhome occupants. Marching over in nightdress and hair curlers, an old lady glared at us and shouted in a broad Aussie accent, "Some poiple are tryna sloip hyer yanow!" before stomping off again. Point taken, we'll try not to be such party animals next time. Who knows what would have happened if we'd have arrived back at - gasp! - midnight?

Townsville is not really a place to visit for its own sake. However, it is a decent base to stay for a night if you are heading down to the Billabong Sanctuary which, as luck would have it, we were the next day.

Day 200 - 202: Daintree and Cape Tribulation

Erin took us out to walk off the hangover the morning after the dive. Port Douglas beach is only about 10 minutes walk away from their place.


I should really mention Tom and Erin's house - it's lovely. In fact, the houses in Australia in general are better laid-out, and have a lot more character than those in the UK. This is probably due to having far more space in the country than we do, where anything with "character" is likely to set you back half a million. They are only renting at present but an apartment which is almost identical came on the market just as we left, and they were going to bid on it - I don't blame them. Did I mention that they had a communal pool in the backyard?



Time was ticking on, so after a great lunch put together by Erin we set off for the Daintree. This is a rainforest in the north of the east coast which covers a vast area; we were heading to Cape Tribulation, a reputedly beautiful area on the coast's pinnacle. It's a little out of the way and you have to take a car ferry to get to it. Cape Tribulation Camping was our destination for the evening, and the road to get there was spectacular; we stopped a couple of times to take in the view.


After arriving at the campsite, the four of us were starving so decided to combat this with pizza. It was a good strategy.


We were able to see a bit more of the area we were staying in the following day. It was stunning, set on edge of the forest with a beach on the doorstep.



There are a number of walks you can do in Cape Tribulation, the easiest of which are along the many boardwalks accessible from the beach. We decided to go on the Dubuji Boardwalk, which was a one hour round trip. Pleasant enough, but there wasn't much to see other than rainforest and sap dripping from trees on the route.


A few people behind us on the walk said that they saw a cassowary on the path; we tracked back but couldn't see it. It must have vanished into the bush. Cassowaries are flightless birds which are rare in the wild now; less than 1500 can be found and so there are plenty of warning signs around warning people to watch out for them when driving.


Paul and Fi left the next morning whilst we hung around to go on an eco-tour up the river to see some crocodiles. First of all though, we stopped at the Daintree Ice Cream Company for some locally produced ice cream. Four flavours in one bowl - soursop, passionfruit, black sapote (which tasted like chocolate) and wattleseed. It wasn't bad, but had obviously been frozen previously and tasted a bit icy which was a shame. Still, it kept us going until the Daintree River Wildlife Cruise started.

We got on an electric boat called the Solar Whisper which glided up the river making next to no noise at all, whilst our guide provided a heap of information about the river's occupants. Freshwater crocs are more placid than their saltwater counterparts. Interestingly, the saltwater variety can be found in either fresh or salt water, which makes things interesting. I guess keeping your distance is probably the best advice all around.

Funnily enough, the first thing we saw wasn't a crocodile, but a frog which was taking refuge in one of the boats by the pier.


The guide then spotted an amethystine python in a tree nearby. These can grow up to 8.5m long.


It wasn't long before we saw our first croc. It was only a baby, about 2.5 months old.


The dominant male in the area is called Scarface who is around 4.5m long. We didn't see him in the area; males don't tend to have much to do with rearing the kids. Even the mothers don't hang around for long, as the babies only stay around for a couple of months before they are expected to look after themselves. 80% of the crocs in the river are female. Gender is determined by very specific temperatures in the nest: if it's 31.5 degrees Celsius, the egg will hatch as a male. Any hotter or colder, and the baby will be female. Less than 1% of eggs will survive. They're eaten by birds, wild pigs, iguanas, sharks, and other crocodiles. If they survive that, they may well be flooded out (that's assuming they are even fertilised to start with). Once they get to six years old they can start to relax a bit, as they'll have grown to about 1.5m long at that point.

We met Dusty along the way, a female aged somewhere between 30 and 40 years. She was huge.



Scooter was a ~14 year old male who enjoyed the mud:


Elizabeth was around 20 years old, and had a few of her babies still hanging around her.



We also saw an azure kingfisher on the way back:


It was a decent trip out, lasting about an hour and a half and I think our "crocs in the wild" quota was well and truly filled.

After lunch we drove back down the coast, in the direction of Townsville where we were planning to meet up with Paul and Fi. We didn't make it that far as it was quite a trek. Instead, we stopped overnight at Bushy Parker Park on a free site and cooked up a decent chicken curry on the portable stove. It wasn't far to Townsville so we could get there early the next morning to begin the celebrations for Fi's birthday!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Day 199: Port Douglas - Diving the Great Barrier Reef

It's one of the world's most famous dive sites but I was fairly ambivalent about the Great Barrier Reef. I'd heard so many stories from people who said it had been over-dived and the beauty of the reef had been spoiled due to inconsiderate divers walking all over the coral. However, Port Douglas was less visited than Cairns by divers (the latter is the biggest distributor of PADI certificates in the world, followed by Koh Tao), so is probably the best chance you have to see undamaged reef. 

We paid $250 for 3 dives for the day (a far cry from the bargainous dive shops in SE Asia) and jumped on board the Poseidon, the boat that Tom works on. Erin was our instructor for the day, so the five of us made a perfect small dive group.

Our first dive site was Totem. Not the most exciting dive, it was fairly bleached, with lots of broken coral. We saw some maori wrasse and lots of clams, as well as a nudibranch (Notradamus Minor according to the book).

Castle Rock was next, and was much better. There was a school of glittering baitfis which are obviously used to divers. The commercial photographers that come down with groups bring food with them in order to get the fish into photos with divers. You can fool these same fish into thinking you have food by rubbing your fingers together, and they'll come over to investigate.





Swimming past a rocky area, we saw some farmer damselfish. These chaps have marked out an area which they look after on the seabed, and if anyone enters that area they get irritated and try and chase you away. Ignoring the fact that they are harmless and pretty small, they do a good job of looking annoyed so we moved on whilst trying not to laugh.

Malabar groupers and yellow-tailed fusiliers were also present, and we met a huge flowery cod known to the divemasters, which sits on the seabed looking exceptionally grumpy. He's used to people coming to have their photo taken next to him, which we did, although at one point he moved towards me fairly rapidly (perhaps thinking I had food) and after one look at his rows of needle-sharp teeth, I backed off sharpish.


As well as this, we saw a flame file shell which is an amazing creature. Looking at it head-on, it appears to have electricity rippling across its surface.




As well as this, we saw a flame file shell which is an amazing creature. Looking at it head-on, it appears to have electricity rippling across its surface.

Then it was lunchtime. A decent cold buffet was on offer and I'd forgotten how hungry diving made me. After stuffing various sandwiches, prawns and cakes into my face, I was ready for our final dive.

Advanced Bommie was fairly decent, we saw a grey reef whaler shark (not to be confused with a whale shark - on every diver's "to see" list), some tomato clown fish, and an amazing school of batfish which we swam right into the middle of, and let them surround us.



Was the reef dive worth doing? Possibly. I'd had better dives in Asia at a better price. If I was on my own, I probably would have skipped it. However, the chance to dive with good friends and have our own knowledgeable divemaster made it worthwhile (thanks Erin!). I didn't see anything hugely exciting, but it was good fun and if this is your first time diving then you'll probably get a lot from it. I think, like a lot of dive sites, the more you do it the more you'll see and enjoy - I guess this is why scuba diving instructors are always so enthusiastic!

We were ready for a night out on the town after dinner. After getting the bus into the centre (well, it's basically one road of bars) we immediately hit a stumbling block after we realised that our passports were back at Tom and Erin's. Of course, this meant that the bouncers at the first bar asked for ID and refused to accept UK driving licences. Paul gallantly jumped onto a bus back to go and grab them (20 minutes each way) whilst we managed to get into the next bar along without any issue.  Tom and Erin joined us shortly after and, invoking the Law of Sod, we ended up staying at this same bar for the rest of the night, negating the need for passports at all. Ah well, I guess Gilly can take heart that she looks under 18. Much beer, cider and sparkling wine was consumed and we got back at about 2:30am, utterly exhausted.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Day 198: Mossman Gorge

We set off the next morning for Mossman Gorge, part of the Daintree National Park and only a 15 minute drive from Port Douglas. After arriving at the main information hub, Gilly and I decided to go on a guided bush walk whilst Paul and Fi explored the Gorge themselves. Our guide was an Aborigine called Yongandah (although he used "Robert" for simplicity - a superb choice of name, I feel), who had a staggering breadth of knowledge about the surrounding environment. After we began the walk, Robert pointed out various "bushtucker" which indigenous people would gather for food. Reliance on the land is extremely important to the Aboriginal culture. Similar to American Indians, they only took what they would use and didn't over-farm the land and, as occurred in the US, invading people and cultures with a misplaced sense of entitlement quickly eroded the native claim of the land, leaving little for the indigenous people. He pointed out wild ginger and paper bark, and showed us how Aboriginal shelters are built:



Robert also told us about boomerangs. A quintessential Australian icon, most people are only familiar with the returning boomerang - the arc-shaped variant. What we didn't realise is that there are several other types. X- and Y-shaped boomerangs are designed to take out a number of birds when thrown into a pack in the air, as they keep spinning. There are also hook-shaped boomerangs and one called a "killer" boomerang which is only used in the forest as it doesn't travel far but can easily knock out a wild pig or other similarly sized animal.


We were shown the candlenut tree, the fruit of which produces a lot of flammable oil and can work as a natural alternative to paraffin.



One nut's oil can produce as much as 20 minutes of flame; ideal for lighting a village and completely natural. The forest also provides other goodies (or not-so-goodies) - take for example this fallen tree which lay in our path:


Looking closely, you can see a black substance in the bark:


This is a tar tree, and the liquid oozing out of the trunk is very dangerous to touch. It will feel like your skin is on fire; the reason the branch hasn't been moved is that cutting it with a saw isn't possible - the amount of corrosive liquid that would come out of it when cut means unless you're wearing a hazmat suit, you would likely get burned by the stuff. As such, the only thing that the authorities can do is fence off any offending trees. It shows how ignorance in the forest can be dangerous - I'd never have considered tree sap to be so harmful. As with many things though, when used in certain ways it can be beneficial. Aborigines coat their spears and other weapons with it, and it acts like a poison which will stop the heart of any animal whose bloodstream it gets into. It also only affects the heart alone, so the meat itself is safe to eat.


Trees like the above provide shields and boomerangs for Aboriginal people. The process for creating one such shield can take many, many years; when the tree is small, they will drill a couple of holes into the bark and thread a handle through - maybe made from leaves or vines. Then, once the tree has grown sufficiently, they can cut out the shield complete with handle. Very clever. The angular trunk also makes it ideal for cutting out boomerangs. The "wait awhile" vine is used for fishing - it is covered in sharp thorns which will quickly entangle any passer-by who isn't paying attention in the forest:


It gets its name due to the length of time it takes to grow, as well the length of time it takes to unhook yourself if you're unfortunate enough to get tangled in it...

Robert took us next to a huge strangler fig in the heart of the forest:

P1160781 NEW



This was the inspiration for James Cameron's treetop villages in Avatar. Robert told us that a number of the film crew came to take photographs of this tree and another close by when they were researching how the forest would look. It's an impressive sight, spreading its roots out in all directions and for amazing distances; Robert said that they had tracked the path of this particular tree's roots for over two kilometres. Strangler figs, as the name suggests, envelop an existing tree almost parasitically and grow downwards, essentially killing the host tree and turning it into a shell - this tree is actually two conjoined trees. These trees are sacred to the Aboriginal people and Robert told us the story of someone who didn't have a kind heart, who took photographs of the tree, but when he tried to develop them they all turned out blank. Robert said he could feel our warmth and kindness, and the tree was happy for us to be there. Which was nice.

We were taken to a cave in the forest to see some Aboriginal rock art which Robert couldn't date, but confirmed was at least a century old. Identifiable pictures included a dingo, stingray, cassowary and a ship - possibly Portuguese.




The colours were intriguing, and Robert showed us how these were made - simply by using different types of clay and mineral stones found in the area:



We were also shown the soap plant which produces a cleansing natural foam, that you can not only use to wash away dirt, but also treat various skin rashes and on top of which it works as an alternative to Deep Heat.

Other things we learned:

 - Certain streams are used by Aborigines to bathe in, and also to give birth in. Women and men have separate bathing areas and streams and the tourist paths are closed if they ever want to use these. - The green ants which are found everywhere in this part of Australia can be eaten, and their pincers can be used as stitches.

 - If a crime is committed within a tribe which warrants sufficient punishment, a tribe member can either choose to leave the tribe which would effectively exclude them from most other tribes, or opt to have a spear thrust through their leg. If the latter is picked, then the crime is forgiven and never spoken of again (but the recipient probably has a bit of a limp for the foreseeable future). If a man commits a crime against a woman, all of the women of the tribe form a "corridor" of two lines which the man has to walk through. Whilst walking, the women can hit him with sticks. If he runs, he has to go back to the start and do it again. If he survives to the end, his crime is forgiven - but many don't make it.

 - Didgeridoos are made from branches hollowed out by termites. A branch is cut and placed on top of a termite mound, and the termites will eat their way up the centre of it.

On the subject of didgeridoos, Robert showed his skill at the end of the tour by giving us a demonstration. He said it took him about two weeks of solid practice; I guess he probably didn't have much else on during the time given how good he is; he managed to do impressions of animals and even a car, all fantastic.

I can highly recommend Kuku Yalanji Dreamtime Tours, it was a very enjoyable two hours spent with an inspirational man.


On the way back to Port Douglas we stopped off at Silky Oaks to jump off a stump into a freezing cold river. Well, why not? That night we cooked up a curry as a team effort, and I tried my hand at making scones using raw sugar and a measuring jug that used cups instead of ounces. They weren't a disaster but they turned out like cookies rather than scones.


They were a decent accompaniment to a game of Texas Hold'em Poker. After a strong start by Tom, I managed to pull back and win the game with a pair of queens on the flop, earning me the whopping sum of thirty bucks.


We hit the sack not long after, we were going to be up early the next day to dive the Great Barrier Reef with Erin as our guide.