Our Trip to New Zealand and Australia: Part 4 – Cairns, Australia

Our next scheduled tour stop is Cairns, Australia. Since there are no direct flights from Auckland, we must first go to Sydney, which means going through customs. The flight to Sydney is about two and a half hours, clearing Australia customs turns out to be painless. Actually, Australian customs is a model of efficiency.

We transfer to the Qantas domestic terminal and soon find ourselves on the three-hour flight to Cairns (Australians say, cans, as in tin cans). The history of Cairns traces back to about 1875. It was linked to the newly discovered gold fields west of the city. Older habitation by Aboriginal tribesmen of the area – and Australia in general – dates back, by some estimates, 40,000 to 50,000 years.

Cairns is a rather small, upscale city. It is trendy and happens to be one of the chief access points to the Great Barrier Reef – an immense expanse of undersea coral stretching for nearly 2,000 miles along the coast of northeast Australia. The area is well known for sugar plantations too.

We check into the Shangri-La Hotel – very posh. The hardwood floors are mahogany and the bathroom is trimmed in teak. We have a balcony which looks out over a palm tree studded courtyard with walkways sporting all sorts of tropical plants. We go for a walk around an adjacent marina, next to the hotel. If this isn’t Paradise, it’s about as close as anything I’ve ever seen on planet Earth.

Skyrail view

Skyrail view

That evening, we go with the Globus group to Tjapukai Aboriginal Culture Park. We witness folklore, culture and an interactive portrayal of Aboriginal customs. The plaintive sound of the didgeridoo plays in the background, it becomes easy to comprehend the aboriginal concept of what they call "the dream time". We are in an outside area, it is well past dark. We stand in a big circle, in the center, five Aboriginal tribesmen engage in a chant while two of them start a fire by rubbing sticks together (it’s a variation of a spindle or drill technique). Finally, they get a glowing coal in a bed of tinder. After blowing on it gently, they soon have a roaring fire going. Then one of them starts an audience participation sing-along. Afterward, we are treated to a buffet dinner, followed by more Aboriginal entertainment – a lighter and more entertaining note. When we get back to our hotel, I can still hear the sound of the didgeridoo.

At last night’s outing during the dinner, I was directed by one of the staff to walk outside the building to a special building next door for my call to nature. The sidewalk was covered with huge cane toads that had learned that hanging around an artificially lit area at night was a good place to catch flying insects. These critters mark one of Australia’s sadder chapters in environmental management. In 1935, after hearing sugar cane farmers complain about beetles that were ravishing their crops, several Hawaiian toads were shipped in on the mistaken notion that they would start feasting on the beetles. It was later discovered that the toads (scientific name Bufo Marinus) can’t jump very high, so they did not eat the cane beetles which stayed up on the upper stalks of the cane plants. The farmers had to go back to using chemicals to deal with their beetle problems.

Meanwhile, the toads were forgotten – at least for a while. They were on their own and they proved to be hardy survivors. It didn’t take long to find out how well the toads would do in their new Australian home. They breed like flies, as the saying goes. Each pair of cane toads can lay 33,000 eggs per spawning (some published references estimate they produce as much as 60,000 eggs!). Their "toadpoles" develop faster than many Australian frogs so they can outcompete Aussie frogs for food. Toads and toadpoles seem to be resistant to some herbicides and eutrophic water which would normally kill frogs and tadpoles. All stages of a toad’s life are poisonous so they have no natural predators to keep their numbers in check. Toads not only eat the food normally available to Australian frogs, there is growing anecdotal evidence that they eat frogs as well, especially metamorphs. Fish who eat toadpoles die. Animals who eat toad adults die. Since 1935, they have spread across most of Queensland, they are almost entirely across the Northern Territory. The final chapter concerning the cane toad has yet to be written.

On Sunday, November 12, 2006, we have breakfast on the veranda of the Shangri-La Hotel. We soon learn that if we leave our food unattended for a few minutes, opportunistic weaver finches (many people erroneously call them "house sparrows" in the U.S.) quickly help themselves.

We join our group and get on a boat for a fifteen-minute ride to Green Island, a coral outcrop about 10 miles out from the coast, which marks the edge of the Great Barrier Reef. Once there, we are situated about 50 miles south of where Steve Irwin tragically lost his life. Some people in our group opt for a glass bottom boat tour. Lil and I, however, go for snorkeling. We have never snorkeled before, but I have seen lots about it in television documentaries. I am convinced it can’t be that difficult. Besides, this is a chance in a lifetime. Peter had forewarned us about the possibility of being stung by the deadly Irukandji jellyfish. He said it would be a good idea to spend the extra money for a protective suit to wear while skin diving. As it turned out, the consensus among our group seemed to be that Peter was probably being his overcautious self, since the people passing out the gear didn’t seem concerned. We elected to skip the protective suits.

Snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef

Snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef

We pick up our gear and head out to a designated area. I am not expecting a lot. I figure the water will be shallow and there really won’t be much to see. Once we have everything on, we find walking forward with the flippers is difficult and awkward – much easier to walk backwards. As we go further, the water gradually gets deeper. We start to see some grasses. I am surprised to come upon some brain coral and colorful tropical fish swimming in and around the coral. Farther out, there’s brain coral, even tube coral. Finally, we see a big, beautiful five-pointed starfish – bright orange with dark blue splotches running down its spines.

This was nothing like you would see on a Jacques Cousteau documentary. The water depth where we snorkeled was probably about five feet. Anytime we stopped, we could easily stand. It was like being in another world. We can now say we had snorkeled on the Great Barrier Reef. Is that cool – or is that cool! The boat ride to the mainland was anticlimactic – not surprising.

>Once back, we took a tour bus to visit a crocodile farm. While this was informative and mildly interesting, I had trouble concentrating – the snorkeling experience was still fresh in my mind.

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