On my way to Port Douglas for a few days of beaches and hot weather I passed through Cairns. It’s a nice enough little place notable for it’s esplanade of shops and cafes, and for it’s boardwalk views of the gorgeous Gulf of Carpinteria.
There are some fine beaches in the area but not in Cairns proper so they have built this huge pool along the boardwalk. It appears to be very well used and it’s open and staffed 24 hours.
I was very happy to be riding the rails again on The Sunlander from Brisbane to Cairns. This is a thirty-one hour stroll up the northeast coast of Australia, with short stops at almost every town or city along the route. I’ve travelled by rail in three of Australia’s eight territories and each train has had it’s own personality – the Ghan moving through the desert like a waltz across a massive dance floor with it’s nostalgic feel and traditional service, the efficient Overlander rocking and rolling through the hills between Adelaide and Melbourne, and the jazzy Sunlander hopping from place to place along the north coast.
Everyone on The Sunlander talked about the food. There was lots of it, all prepared from scratch in the kitchen adjoining the dining car, and it was certainly good. Somewhere under this massive seafood platter is something called Moreton Bay bug. I found the name a bit off-putting, and the taste somewhere between crab and scallops. I think we would call it crayfish.
This was afternoon tea for two.
Our train was sparsely occupied, while the trip three days earlier had been filled to capacity with people flocking to Cairns and Port Douglas to secure the best viewing sites for a total solar eclipse on November 15. The local papers had published special editions and retailers were having a hey day with eclipse specials and creative store windows. This is the only place in the world where the eclipse would be seen in its totality and people came from far away to witness a phenomena that, according to Wikipedia only occurs at the same location once every 360 to 410 years. Some 50,000 people would overrun Cairns and the population of the tiny town of Port Douglas (just over 5,000 in 2011) would more than double over the few days around the eclipse.
I wondered if the few of us on the train would be able to glimpse the eclipse and it turned out that we had front row seats. We all woke early enough to enjoy an unimpeded vision of a gorgeous sunrise, followed within a few minutes by darkness and then back to sunshine again as the moon passed in a dazzling arc over the sun. I heard later that it had been a cloudy morning in Port Douglas with much of the eclipse not visible, except for a brief clearing just as the eclipse was at it’s fullest.
As we went further north the woods and scrub gave way to fields and fields of pineapples and sugar cane. A couple of weeks later I would meet a family of sugar cane farmers from McKay and learn from them about the vagaries of making a living on cane – dealing with the forces of nature and the bigger challenge of trying to grow food crops in a country increasingly concerned with environmental issues. With global focus on the state of the Great Barrier Reef, there’s widespread belief that tons of fertilizer and pesticides are washed into the sea, hastening the destruction of the coral. “Not true”, said this farmer “fertilizer is so dear that we won’t waste an ounce if it can be avoided.” I would hear the opposing view in a lecture that I can only call evangelical, from a tour guide on the Great Barrier Reef.
A banana plantation.
I was completely pleased with my choice of Frangipani Villa for my stay in Port Douglas. It’s a gorgeous little piece of paradise made all the more attractive by the warm hospitality of hosts, Bob and Leona. I loved my ‘treehouse’ above the pool and especially the joy of sleeping with the doors and windows wide open. And it didn’t bother me one bit to be wakened early each day day by the most amazing chorus of birds, one of which made a sound exactly like someone rapping on my door. Really.
I loved getting to know Bob and Leona. We chatted about politics and grandchildren and it was here that I really got into the swing of having ‘tea’ at four in the afternoon – only it was wine actually. Lots of good Sauvignon blancs to be had.
This little fist-sized frog is a permanent resident. He disappeared from his usual spot here one night and scared the wits out of Leona the next morning when she came across him on the kitchen counter. Bob came to the rescue, depositing him in the back garden only to find him next morning in his usual place in the potted plant inside the villa.
Immediately on arriving at Frangipani I was treated to an orientation of Port Douglas. Bob tells me it makes their lives a lot easier when guests know where to go to eat, and how to get around. He’s also a wealth of information about the area. He says the Clintons are rumored to have purchased property here.
Four Mile Beach is only steps from the Frangipani Villa. It’s not four miles long but it is an absolutely glorious beach. I was disappointed to find however that you can’t swim off this beach – or any other beach in Port Douglas at this time of year, except in areas cordoned off with nets. It was a very humid thirty-two degrees and the turquoise water and sparkling white surf was oh-so-inviting. I splashed in the shallows on my beach walks but there were dire warnings every hundred meters or so – signs and yellow tubes holding large bottles of vinegar – that swimming is a seriously foolish thing to do. Seriously. The signs warn of ‘stingers’.
Now ‘stinger’ seemed to me like a somewhat benign term. I wondered just how bad a sting could be, and I assumed that the vinegar assiduously maintained along the beach would take the pain and danger out of a sting. Wrong. ‘Stinger’, as it turns out is Aussie for box jellyfish. You might recall that I accurately described this creature in an earlier post as ‘the most dangerous animal in the world’. And I would learn from a very knowledgable source that not only does vinegar not stop the pain of a ‘sting’ from a box jellyfish – and he was very adamant about that – but that it’s so painful that your entire body goes into a massive cramp, including your heart and that the usual outcome is death. The only treatment is morphine and ‘any other drug they can get into you’ in such massive doses that survival is unlikely. I have no idea what purpose the vinegar bottles serve other than as an interesting, if misleading reminder that swimming at this beach through the summer months is not an option. When I snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef later in the week we were all well protected with stinger suits – nylon body suits complete with feet, gloves and hoods.
The Frangipani is well stocked with cruising bikes and although there is terrific shuttle service very close by, peddling was my favorite mode of transportation for the week. A paved path leads right into Port Douglas or anywhere else in the neighborhood that I wanted to go…and no hills. Nice.
Sunday is market day in Port Douglas. Locals bring in their fresh produce and crafts and set up under the spreading trees in the park….
…but being Sunday they are competing for customers with this pristine and very old church along the shoreline. I bought a cold lemonade at the market and sat on the lawn outside the church to listen to the choir imploring us to ‘come to Jesus’…
…but instead I dropped into my favorite watering hole for a ‘pot’ of local ale before heading back to the Frangipani for happy hour. These Aussie’s sure do like their pints and quarts. I’m becoming acclimatized to it, although I do believe that if I lived in this country for long I’d have to go away regularly to give my liver a break.
They have cane toad races nightly at the Iron Bar. I thought about entering Bob and Leona’s houseguest but I wasn’t sure if he was a cane toad.
The Port Douglas Wildlife Habitat is in happy proximity to The Frangipani and I rode my bike over one morning for a pleasant stroll through this surprisingly good (for the size of Port Douglas) display of birds and animals native to the area.
This is a cassowary. There are about a thousand of them in the Daintree Rainforest north of Port Douglas. I took a tour of The Daintree and hoped to see one in the wild but they are reclusive and rarely seen so I was glad to meet this resident up close and personal.
I was strolling casually down the path through the habitat when this quite large emu came barreling toward me at a full gallop, apparently startled by a bird. I could not recall reading about any deaths by an emu encounter in Australia so instead of stepping aside, surely the sensible thing to do, I raised my camera as it came swishing past. Kind of cool.
A couple of bucks buys a bag a ‘roo food and, as I arrived shortly after opening it was a very good investment. The locals were hungry and friendly. They were very gentle but nonetheless insistent, hooking their claws around my fingers to make sure I didn’t wander off until they’d had their fill.
It’s Spring in Port Douglas so there were lots of babies around. This one made a beeline for the shelter of mom’s pouch as I approached.
These are the second set of Black Necked Storks born at the habitat. Interestingly, the first set of chicks apparently fell prey to a predator…in the habitat. These toddlers stand about sixty centimeters tall.
While we were all preoccupied with the stork family this clever bird made the most of the chow wagon.
This is the only koala I saw in Australia. Although they are quite prevalent in the wild, they sleep most of the time high in the trees and are hard to pick out. Koala’s, by the way are not bears and they’re apparently pretty sensitive about it. They’re marsupials.
Just a few of the instigators of my morning wake up calls. The locals say there are at least four hundred and fifty different birds in the area and I’m pretty sure they all gather to watch the sunrise in Bob and Leona’s front garden.
So far I’m pretty impressed with this little spot almost at the end of the track up northeast Australia. I’ll snorkel the Great Barrier Reef and spend a day in the Daintree Rainforest in my week here. Stay tuned….