Australia: Land of Rain Forests, Great Barrier Reef
By Mike Chan

One of the best things about going on vacation is visiting friends who live there. And during our once-in-a-lifetime trip to Australia, we embarked upon a 2,000 mile road trip with a close Australian family whom we had met in our church in Sunnyvale.

Years earlier, the father and I had played together on the worship team and quickly developed a close friendship. Our kids, then ages 9, 11, and 13 also became fast friends with their 3 children. However, after only one year in the States they decided to return to Australia, where they had lived the previous 20 years. Before they left, they asked if we would be interested in going on a road trip in June, and we eagerly said, "Yes!"

FREEZING DOWN UNDER

Looking back, our 3-week visit to the Land Down Under was an adventure of temperature extremes.

The weather during the road trip had been bone chilling for us Californians, especially on Phillip Island, near the southernmost coast of the continent There, we saw artic penguins frolicking in the surf at sunset. The only thing missing was an igloo.

Our 2,000 mile road trip took us through the eastern and southern regions of Australia. Packed into a 12-passenger van with our Australian friends, we had a great time seeing beautiful cities like Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, and smaller towns such as Apollo Bay, Gungadai, Wagga Wagga, Dubbo and Bathurst, but we were ready for a 4-day respite from the cold and rain. After all, June was wintertime in Australia.

TROPICAL BLISS

We were more than ready when the Quantas jet flew us over a thousand miles clear to the top of Australia to experience the tropical climate of Cairns and the region known as Queensland.

Our itinerary for the four day trip was as follows:

Day 1 - fly in from Sydney, settle into the hotel, explore downtown Cairns (pronounced "Cans").

Day 2 - Hike the Mossman Gorge rain forest and explore the seaside town of Port Douglass.

Day 3 - Take the historic railway to Kuranda, deep in the Daintree rain forest, then Skytram over to the Tsapukai Aborigine Center.

Day 4 - Take an all day excursion to Michaelmas Cay (pronounced Micamas) and the Great Barrier Reef.

DAY ONE

The flight into Cairns was relatively short, with one stopover in Brisbane, a Miami-like city on the "Sun Coast." Cairns immediately reminded us of the Hawaiian Islands, with its palm trees, sugar cane fields and balmy weather, even in winter. Although a major tourist destination, Cairns still had the feel of a small town, and the locals we met were invariably friendly, helpful, and a bit curious to talk to someone from the States.

We stayed at the Best Western Cairns Village Resort, which we found on the Internet. The Resort is a bit off the main drag, but if you have a car, it’s only a few minutes to downtown, and the $70 price tag for a family of five with full American breakfast was a good deal. The resort has five acres of lush landscape, a swimming pool with waterfall, covered outdoor eating area and tropical themed lobby. The family suite we had, although nothing fancy, was clean and provided all the basics.

That evening we walked the downtown area of the City. Downtown Cairns is a charming mix of tourist shops, restaurants, and local merchants; most are involved with the fishing industry. There is an indoor "night market" where one can find all variety of goods, from fresh produce to kangaroo steak, from didgeridoos and boomerangs to lighted toilet seats. You could get a good massage at one of the booths or buy a custom glass sculpture at another. What would normally be a crescent moon to us in California shown down on us as a huge smile, reminding us we were in a different hemisphere.

DAY TWO

Mossman Gorge was about a half hour drive outside of town and is located at the edge of the Daintree World Heritage Rain Forest, one of the great rainforests of the world. The 110-million-year-old forest is the second-largest virgin tract in the world after South America's Amazon.

The hike we took brought us through towering canopy trees lined with ferns and vines, across a rope bridge and to a vista of the Gorge. Because it was raining (after all, it was a rain forest) we opted for the shorter route and returned to our car for the short drive to Port Douglass.

Port Douglass is the charming, seaside town made famous when former President Clinton and family visited. The town’s beach is wide, miles long, and lined with palm trees. Shops along the main streets carried all variety of aborigine and Australian goods. It was a great place to relax, eat lunch and shop.

DAY THREE

The train ride on the Kuranda railway takes you 1.5 hours up through tropical forests once thought impassable. Some 15 rough hewn tunnels were cut at the cost of many lives. The fastidiously maintained antique train huffs and puffs along the steep grades that were considered an engineering marvel when first opened in 1891.The train stops briefly for some views of waterfalls and gorges.

Our favorite section of the town of Kuranda was the open air market. We saw thousands of bees making honey (talk about fresh), ate pureed frozen tropical fruit and ostrich and alligator sausage from the vendors.

SKY GONDOLA

On the outskirts of town, by the railway station, was the entrance to Skyrail. The cableway was my wife Mae’s favorite part of the trip and was also an engineering marvel in its own right, traveling over 7.5 km over pristine world heritage rain forest. The eerily quiet ride and the clear plexiglass gondolas hovering just above the treetops allowed us to see, hear and sometimes smell the tropical landscape below.

There is a midway point during the Skyrail ride where you can disembark and take a short walk through a section of the rain forest on elevated platforms. Trees are labeled and guides are available to answer your questions.

The Skyrail ends within walking distance of the Aborigine Cultural Center known as Tjapukai which is owned and operated by the local aborgine community.

You can spend a half-day at the Center, learning about aborigine religion, history and customs by watching the multimedia theatre show or the live action musicians and dancers on the open air stage.

Our favorite activities were learning how to throw a boomerang and spear. The spear is thrown using a wooden arm extender, which gives the thrower extra power. We were glad we didn’t need to use these tools to survive; we would have starved to death. Hitting something is MUCH harder than it looks.

DAY FOUR

The absolute highlight of our stay in Cairns was the day long trip to the Great Barrier Reef, the largest living organism in the world. There are many tour companies offering tours to the Reef. However, some travel out only so far as the inner reef, which has slowly been dying out due to pollution from the mainland.

The day long excursion we took was to the small natural reserve of Michaelmas Cay, a small spit of sand about 20 miles from the harbor and in the midst of the outer reef. Although a bit pricey in local dollars, after taking advantage of the favorable exchange rate, the trip came out to around $60 U.S. per person. The price included the high-speed catamaran trip, a buffet lunch, all the equipment needed, use of a private miniature sub, plus constant pampering from the courteous and knowledgeable crew. In hindsight, it was a bargain.

The ship we took was the Ocean Spirit, a huge catamaran that could hold several hundred passengers.

We were a bit concerned about the prospect of sea sickness after talking to a few other tourists at the hotel, however both the outbound and return trips were smooth and uneventful, except for the whale sighting.

The Cay itself is only a few hundred yards long, but it is home to thousands of native birds and the surrounding coral reefs that make this a protected nature reserve. Rules for the feeding of fish are strictly enforced. In fact, crewmembers could be fired for giving the fish too much food during our visit.

Moored offshore was a miniature sub for those guests who didn’t want to snorkel or scuba. We took the 20-minute sub tour and enjoyed hearing the expert commentary in several languages while peering out our individual portholes. The sub was well ventilated and never once did we feel claustrophobic.

SNORKLING THE REEF

After a family pow-wow, we decided to try our hand at snorkeling the reef. After all, what better way to experience the Reef than up close and personal? The cruise included a brief instructional class on snorkeling that was helpful for the kids.

Although initially a bit chilly in our swimming suits in the winter waters, we quickly got used to the water, which was similar to being in an unheated pool. Giant clams, sea turtles and all variety of colorful reef fish danced across our masks set against a backdrop of giant coral, some the size of a Volkswagen. With this incredible tableau surrounding us, we quickly forgot about the water temperature and were thankful we had purchased a few waterproof cameras on shore before we left.

The Ocean Spirit had an excellent crew, which provided a gourmet buffet lunch of shrimp, chicken wings, fish fillets, fresh fruit, a variety of salads, cold cuts and breads. I went for the hot chocolate. Ginger pills were also available for those who were experiencing sea sickness. I tried one just for fun. It wasn’t bad. After snorkeling, we were able to shower on the lower deck then enjoy dessert while being entertained by the crew. We arrived back in Cairns full of vivid memories.

COSTS

Our 3- week trip to Australia cost us $12,000 U.S. or $2,400 each. About 2/3 of this cost was for air travel, both for the roundtrip from SFO to Sydney, and from Sydney to Cairns and back. Once in Australia, most things were quite reasonable, given the favorable exchange rate ($.55 US for $1.00 Au at the time of our trip). In addition, Australia is very family oriented. Most places offer family rates on things like admission to movies, restaurants, and most tourist attractions.

****

BEFORE YOU GO, REMEMBER TO:

  • Prepare yourself for the 13 hour flight (from SFO) and associated jet lag. Scheduling an outbound late night flight helps the kids sleep on the way over.
  • Drive on the opposite side of the road, like in England. Hey, the steering wheel is on the wrong side!
  • Book a 3-attraction ticket for Kuranda, Skyrail and Tjapukai to coordinate transportation and timing.
  • Book your Great Barrier Reef tour in advance and confirm reservations the day before.
  • Buy an underwater camera.
  • E njoy yourselves! Australia is a great place for families!

NOTEWORTHY WEBSITES:

Best Western Site  - Best Western resort information.
www.cairnsattractions.com/a_kuranda-railway.html - what to do and see in Cairns.
www.skyrail.com.au - detailed information on this gondola tourist attraction.
www.oceanspirit.com.au/cairns2/Reef_Cruises_Cairns_Michaelmas.htm - for catamaran info.

Sunnyvale resident Mike Chan has travelled with his family around the globe. This is his second article for BAFT.

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