It had been a mild New Zealand winter, Ngaire and I had had a stream of wonderful guests to stay at Waihoihoi Women’s Lodge at Waipu in sub tropical Northland, New Zealand. Despite the fact that we already lived in paradise, it felt time for a holiday – a chance to recharge the batteries before the summer.
North Queensland felt like an ideal place to escape to in a New Zealand winter – 27 degrees, beaches, the Great Barrier Reef – all very tempting. A search for airline seats and an email or two later we were booked.
Although there are direct flights from Auckland to Cairns, we went via Sydney and had a few nights there to catch up with old friends. Arriving in Cairns we knew we were in the tropics – the woman in front of us with knee length ugg boots must have been melting! Since we were also still dressed for Sydney weather we were grateful for the air conditioned shuttle that the Pink Flamingo girls had waiting for us at the airport.
Cairns and North
A 50 minute drive took us along the Captain Cook Highway dotted with alluring beaches and tempting hideaways, and we arrived at the tourist town of Port Douglas. Sam showed us to our lovely (economy) garden studio, but when she showed us one of the private villas which was also available, we did the sums, and soon decided to take the plunge and stay there.
Definitely the right choice. Two rooms inside – a bedroom and lounge/kitchen area, and two rooms outside – both totally private. One set up with a dining setting and hammock and one with a candelabra and outside bath and shower. All of this was painted brilliant tropical colours, and surrounded by lush tropical gardens – and nearby of course was the swimming pool.
Exploring Port Douglas
The first day we hired bikes to explore what is actually a small peninsula – with four miles of safe sandy beach on one side, and a small harbour on the other. First stop coffee – Soul’nPepper is right by the harbour entrance beside the small historic church St Mary by the Sea, and we soon became regulars. They have the friendliest staff in town, great coffee and sitting under the palms looking straight out to the Barrier Reef – it could not be better. After coffee we rode the bikes along to the end of 4 mile beach and of course went for a dip.
Snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef
Day 2 – I went out to the Great Barrier Reef with Wavelength.
I decided on them because they specialised in small (30 max) snorkelling trips, and had been committed eco tourism operators for a long time. The first dive spot was magic – the most beautiful coral – I could not believe it – exquisite – huge boulder coral, bright blue coral like stag horns, small soft corals and anemones – and fish everywhere. The highlight were several giant clams.
On the second dive a marine biologist took us on a guided tour and we got to touch some of the huge slug like creatures I had seen on the ocean floor. A luscious lunch was included in the price, including my favourite – prawns.
As we approached our final dive spot, I was talking to the woman beside me about sharks and the possibility of seeing one – I looked over the side and saw a dark shadow over a metre long pass under the boat. We immediately yelled “shark!”, and everyone rushed to the side of the boat. Our guides smiled knowingly, and invited us to come over to meet the ‘shark’.
It was in fact a huge fish – a Maori Wrasse, one of the reef’s endangered species. Affectionately known as Killer, it regularly arrives for a feed from the back of the boat. Its huge head dives out of the water to eat the proffered squid, and it allowed us to stroke it – it seemed fearless, and was one of the most magnificent creatures I had ever met.
I arrived back on land to find Ngaire very mellow after a massage in our room, and to a note from the go go go girls at Pink Flamingo announcing a poolside film showing that evening. We ordered pizza and gathered with four others around the pool to watch Mulholand Drive – a rather bewildering film, but definitely a fun way to watch it.
Doing the Shops in Port Douglas
The next two days we lazed around the pool and did the shops – one particularly good one called Bilby – an authentic Aboriginal Art Gallery, where we got some great T shirts. One evening we joined the monthly Wags – Wednesday afternoon Gentleman (and Ladies) Sailing, the next we joined Chief for an hour’s sunset tour on his Harley Davidson Trike and were delivered in style to The Inlet for dinner – for me an entree of garlic prawns, and for Ngaire a magnificent seafood salad.
The Rainforest and its People
Now it was time to leave the comfort of Port Douglas and go into the wilds in search of crocodiles and the elusive cassowary. First stop after hiring a car was a few kilometres up the highway to Mossman Gorge and the aboriginal community of KuKu Yalanji
We were introduced to the magic of this ancient forest through the eyes of the rainforest people. We learned what to eat, and what not to – and what could heal us as well as what might hurt us along the way. It was a moving introduction to the rainforest, which had been the home of his people for thousands of years. At the end of the walk, we shared billy tea and damper – It felt very special to be walking these dreamtime trails with KuKu Yalanji.
Then it was off to Daintree Village in search of crocodiles. Ellenores seemed a good place to stop for lunch, and was in fact as close as I got to crocodiles, as I ordered a croc burger. We tried the coffee too – but we were spoiled by Port Douglas coffee, so we recommend staying with bottled drinks. We met Ellenore, who was obviously one of the local characters, and when I asked her where we could see a crocodile, she said there had been two swimming down by the jetty. Off we went, but no crocs. We decided against a paid trip to see them, and just kept our eyes out hopefully at every river crossing.
That night we went to On the Inlet again for happy hour and a bucket of prawns to see if their tame groper would come in for his nightly snack – he didn’t, but a video of a previous visit kept us happy.
On Sundays the Port Douglas weekly market is not to be missed, and local woman Claudia also organises a Sunday gay “Brunch with the Locals”. So off we went to meet some of the local lesbian and gay community at a gay owned café, it was great.
Beyond the Daintree…
Next day we were off to Cape Tribulation. As we drove through Mossman we stopped at the weekly market and bought some bizarre looking tropical fruit for dinner, along with some delicious dried mango.Cape Tribulation is as far as the coast road goes, unless you have a four wheel drive, and to get there it means crossing the Daintree River on a car ferry. Beyond the Daintree is indeed another world – no mains electricity, beautiful beaches, endless rainforest. 10kms north of the Ferry is the Daintree Discovery Centre, where we stopped off in search of the elusive cassowary. We learnt that the cassowary was a relative of the New Zealand Moa and Kiwi, and that they grow up to 2m high. We headed all the way up to Cape Trib, as it is affectionately known, where we enjoyed a great swim before heading off in search of some lunch. We had noticed a café by Thornton Beach, and returned there where we shared a splendid chicken baquette.
Then it was back to Coopers Creek for our guided tour with Prue on her family’s land. Prue turned up late, but all was forgiven as she shared her obvious passion for the forest. It was a treat – from licking the bottoms of green ants (yes we did!), to pointing out plants that are yet to be given a name (she is plugging for pruenella….. as she found it), to the story of the blue waterhole which is a sacred women’s place, to seeing copious piles of purple poos which belonged to the endangered Cassowary. The piles were full of seeds – clearly the cassowary has an important role in dispersing these seeds, and one pile was so fresh we must have only just missed seeing the bird and its chick.
Birds and Bats – the Atherton Tablelands
The next day we left the coast and headed up into the Atherton tablelands which is an entirely different climate and eco system. We stopped at the Mareeba wetlands and had a very enjoyable hour long walk around the lake, spotting lots of wildlife, including almost tripping over two emus. Then it was on to Mareeba to Coffee Works for lunch, but were disappointed to find that while coffee was on the menu, food wasn’t. But we did learn that 90% of Australian coffee is grown in the area and we did buy a few samples to take home to friends.
Then it was onto Kuranda – definitely another tourist town, but very well laid out, with walkways, markets, a butterfly haven, two huge bird aviaries. Throughout our time in North Queensland, the cassowary had remained elusive, despite road signs everywhere indicating we should take care not to run them over. This was my last chance to see one, so in the end we paid to go to Birdworld. We were rewarded, not just by seeing these magnificent birds, but also the dozens of other species as we walked through a huge cage. (You can reach Kuranda more directly from Cairns by scenic railway and cable car.)
We decided to stay a night at the Turtle Cove Gay Resort – situated on its own private beach between Cairns and Port Douglas, and as we had read so much about it, we decided we had to check it out. It was beautiful with great facilities, but definitely geared for gay men. We felt a little out of place, although they do have an annual women’s week which would be fun.
It was a great trip, and if we came this way again we would perhaps do an overnight trip with Harold and KuKu Yalanji and also stay somewhere beyond the Daintree River for a few nights.