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Down Under, by Land, Sea and Air


Zubbie15
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Ever since my father almost took a job in Perth when I was 9 or 10, I’ve been intrigued by the country. I’ve been trying to plan a trip to Australia since roughly 2007, but have always had a difficult time coordinating our schedules to have sufficient time to get a decent (3+ weeks) amount of time to appreciate the county. Last year it finally worked out, and we were able to arrange 24 nights Down Under. Because we were going in the Southern Hemisphere winter (end of July through most of August), I decided to focus primarily on warmer destinations. I also wanted to focus on more wilderness areas than cities, since to me that is of more interest, and in many cases represents the more unique parts of countries. Since I’d been planning for so long, I had ended up with a fairly well-researched plan, which ended up being as follows:

 

1 night Los Angeles as a stopover

1 night en-route over the Pacific

7 nights Port Douglas, in tropical Queensland

8 nights in the Top End (1 night Darwin, 1 night Batchelor, 2 nights Katherine, 1 night Cooinda, 2 nights Jabiru, and 1 night Darwin)

5 nights in the Red Centre (2 nights Alice Springs, 1 night Kings Canyon, 2 nights Uluru)

4 nights Sydney

 

With this itinerary, we were able to see some of the well-known natural sites in Oz, including the Great Barrier Reef; the Daintree Rainforest, which is known as the oldest rainforest in the world; Kakadu National Park; and Uluru and Kata-Tjuta. We did spend a lot of time outdoors, and certainly spent a fair amount of time in the wild, but this certainly wasn’t a safari as you’d get in Africa or India.

 

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However, hopefully this report will be of interest to some people here. I should also point out that a lot of my favourite wildlife pictures have already been posted in the appropriate “Show us your…” threads, so some of those won’t be new on this site. Also, I’m going to write this semi-chronologically, but will jump around a bit if I think it helps the narrative. Having said that, let’s get this started.

 

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Having never been to Australia, I'm looking forward to your report!

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Thanks @@SafariChick, I certainly hope this will be useful for people. :) Being in California, you are reasonably close to Australia, I'd certainly recommend a trip down at some point. Continuing on...

 

En route

 

When planning this trip, we decided that we’d spend a night in Los Angeles on our way over. There were multiple reasons for this – we weren’t too excited to fly 6 hours to LA, then 14 hours to Brisbane, then 2.5 hours to Cairns, and then have a 1 hour transfer to Port Douglas, along with all the associated waits in the airports; we’d never crossed the Pacific Ocean before, so we weren’t sure how the jetlag would hit us; and I’d actually never set in California, so I thought a day in LA would be interesting. Having done it now, I think I’d have preferred to go straight through to have the extra day in Australia, and will do that from now on.

We planned to take it slow while in LA, to try to store up energy for the long flight ahead, so we got a late start. We went to Hollywood, and there grabbed a tour of star’s houses (since there wasn’t anything else available). This was interesting, but primarily to see the various neighbourhoods of LA. We took a couple of pictures - I think 6 in total, which I can do before leaving my driveway if I am in the mood - but pretty much realized we were just killing time.

 

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After grabbing an early dinner, we headed to the airport. As a general rule, I was quite happy with QANTAS, in spite of the less than stellar reputation they have, but at LAX they were very disorganized, which wasn’t great since there were 3 jumbos leaving at almost the same time, so a lot of people were checking in.

 

In any case, the flight to Australia was smooth and not as painful as I’d expected, and we were excited to land in Brisbane as the sun came up.

 

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We had plenty of time to connect on the flight to Cairns. I had hoped that on landing we’d be able to get a good view of either the rainforest or the reef, but it was cloudy so no such luck.

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Lovely, a Down Under trip report! It will bring back so many great memories. Keep it comin', @@Zubbie15!

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Port Douglas



The two main towns to stay in this part of the country are Cairns and Port Douglas. Cairns is a larger city (population ~150 000), with a reputation for having a bit more of a party atmosphere, while Port Douglas is known as a smaller (Wikipedia says a permanent population of 3205), more up-market area to stay. We decided, since we like the quiet, to stay in PD. The other advantage to this location is that it is an hour closer to the Daintree Rainforest, and the reef is closer to shore here compared to Cairns. I think being based here worked well – ideally, we’d probably have done a 3 or 4 night liveaboard boat trip for the reef, and then stayed at a hotel actually in the rainforest, but there were some medical issues that were unresolved when we booked that made staying multiple days on a boat less than ideal.



We really enjoyed Port Douglas, which was a small essentially one main road town. As expected from its name, it has a small port near the main town area, from where the reef trips leave.



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This port area was also nice at the end of the day, because the rays of the setting sun would come over the mountains and illuminate the sky.



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As well, there was a large colony of Spectacled Flying Foxes in the vicinity, so at dusk it was possible to stand near the port and watch them head off to the forest for the night. It was too dark for good pictures, but quite a sight, and a few flew near enough to us to impress with their size.



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4 Mile Beach



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One other feature of the Port Douglas area that is well-known is 4 Mile Beach. We are, in general, not beach people, but we had an evening free and so walked down for sunset. At that time of day, the beach was fairly deserted, but offered a lot of interesting photographic opportunities.



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While the sun wasn’t directly visible from the vantage of the beach, it was still a beautiful evening. Sunrise pictures would probably be better, but every morning we were rushing off for tours so we didn't have that opportunity.



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Evening Spotlighting



As mentioned previously, we had a free evening in Port Douglas. This was because I had originally arranged to do a nocturnal spotlighting tour with the company Back Country Bliss Adventures (http://backcountrybliss.com.au/after-dark-wildlife-spotting/), in an attempt to see more of the native wildlife. Unfortunately, they had not been having many sightings in the days before we there, which I guess is typical in the drier winter, so they gave us the option to cancel. While this was disappointing, I thought it was good of them to let us know this and not waste our time.



The alternative was to go with a company known as Wait-a-While (http://www.waitawhile.com.au/), which seems to have a more comprehensive tour for wildlife spotting. They are based in Cairns though, and the extra hour of time on the road each way wasn’t appealing to us.



Thus, our spotlighting plans weren’t to be on this trip.


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First full day – snorkeling

When dealing with jetlag, I always find the best solution is to spend the first day outside, ideally in the sun, to help reset your internal clock and, by being active, avoiding the need to fall asleep. This worked quite well for us – around 3PM local time we’d generally feel sleepy for a little while, but that would quickly pass and apart from that we adjusted to the time quite well. Our first day out was snorkeling with Calypso Snorkel, a snorkeling-only boat that holds about 45 people (http://www.calypsoreefcruises.com/snorkel.htm). They go predominantly to Opal Reef, which is supposed to be one of the better day trip spots for snorkeling. Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef is somewhat of a trade-off, as in the winter one doesn't have to wear the stinger suits, as the dangerous jellyfish are not present (or at least greatly reduced), but at the same time the water is cooler (about 24C while we were there, which doesn't seem cold but after 3 hours you could feel it a little) and the seas are usually rougher. This day, the waves were quite high, and several people were seasick.

I don't really know much about marine wildlife, so I think I'll just post the pictures. We had rented a small waterproof point-and-shoot for our snorkeling, which was nice. However, with all the waves, a lot of photos weren't really in focus, as the lag between shutter pressing and picture taking often included being moved by the waves.

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Overall, it was a fun day out on the water despite the waves. We were even fortunate enough to come across a couple of Humpback Whales on our way back to shore, which was a nice way to end the day.

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@@Zubbie15

Beautiful photographs, especially those of the sunset. Pure class!

Keep it coming please.

Edited by Earthian
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Second day – a trip to the Rainforest



During my research for this trip, it seems that the typical tourist in this part of Australia is drawn to the region because of the Great Barrier Reef. In general, the typical itinerary seems to be to fly into town, take a trip out to the reef, and then on the second day in the area go to the Daintree Rainforest. The choice of the rainforest seems predominantly because it has a World Heritage status, more than due to any real interest in the forest (in my opinion, at least). After these two days are done, followed by perhaps the addition of a third relaxation day, most people then leave the area. In any case, this means that there are a lot of day trips that leave Cairns and Port Douglas, and hit the highlights of the rainforest for tourists. We decided to take one of these tours, rather than driving ourselves, to get a taste of the region. As such, we chose the top rated tour in Port Douglas, run by Tony’s Tropical Tours (http://www.tropicaltours.com.au/).



After our group had been picked up, the first stop was at Mossman Gorge. This gorge is actually quite easy to get to from Port Douglas, but despite its proximity I quite enjoyed it. There are a variety of walks in the area, which I would have enjoyed, but because we had a lot of stops to make that day we only got a quick taste of the gorge. The gorge is administered by the local Aboriginal people, and so also has information about their heritage, including a variety of tours.



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We stayed primarily in the main area, which has a walk along a stream that is full of boulders.



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We were there early enough to be able to enjoy some fog in the branches of the trees, before it got too hot.



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The walk also briefly passes through the rainforest, with some information provided about the various plans and animals of the area.


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I enjoyed Mossman Gorge, and would probably want to devote more time to it if I was to return. We only went to the area where all the day tours pass along, I'd imagine continuing further would provide a much more peaceful experience.


Edited by Zubbie15
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Daintree River Cruise



Following our time at Mossman Gorge, we continued along to the Daintree River. In order to get further into the rainforest, cars need to take a cable ferry across the river. There are also cruises along the river, which allow some wildlife viewing. This was more of a taste than anything, as it was about an hour on the river. It seemed to primary goal was to show off the crocodiles in the river, and we saw several.



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The guide also was pretty good to see this Common Tree Snake.



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There was a variety of birdlife along the river, including this Little Egret.



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However, overall the focus of the trip was the crocodiles, so it was difficult to get good pictures of the birds as the boat would not spend long at any of them. The cruise was a nice little diversion, but probably wouldn't be serious enough for a lot of people interested in wildlife.



When the boat docked, we proceeded to rejoin our vehicle, and continue up into the Daintree. It was definitely quieter here, the need for a ferry apparently causing a lot less people to visit and live in this area. Our first stop was a lookout, which allowed us the opportunity to appreciate the size of the forest, and to see where the Daintree River empties into the ocean.



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This was followed by a quick pit-stop at a beach, not only to use the facilities but also to have a quick wander around.



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The things I found most interesting were the designs made by the Sand Bubbler Crabs, which while foraging generate balls of sand outside their burrows. Some of the designs were quite attractive.



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We continued along the road after that. This area has an important population of Southern Cassowary, which is greatly affected by collisions with automobiles. There are many road signs warning of the danger, which have further been defaced to provide a reminder of what happens if one isn't careful.



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Just saw an episode the other night of "Biggest & Baddest" on NatGeo Wild featuring the Southern Cassowary. Fascinating bird -- basically, prehistoric.

 

Like you, I've longed to see Australia, but agree that you really need at least 3 weeks. It's just so diverse and large. With work considerations, I think I'll have to wait a few more years before I can consider taking that much time off. Until then, I'll satisfy my craving vicariously through you. Looking forward to following along on this adventure.

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@@Alexander33, they warned us that if we came across a Cassowary we needed to be quite careful, I guess they can be quite vicious if they decide to be. I hope you enjoy the report - I'm already considering a return to Australia, focusing on the more southern section of the country but I guess not until 2018 likely (or 2017, if I can't get a trip to India arranged).

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@@Zubbie15

 

I think you are correct on the danger with Cassowaries. That "helmet" on their heads looks like it could do some real damage, not to mention those powerful legs. They are fast, too!

 

Ah, a long-term planner like me. I like. India's also on my list -- somewhere!

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I think the main danger from an angry Cassowary is disembowelment. One slashing kick with their sharp spurs can supposedly disembowel a human!

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Finishing up the tour...



We continued along, reaching a private reserve that the company has access to. This allows for a 1 hour trek through the rainforest, with the guide explaining the biology and uses of various plants. There were signs of Cassowaries in the area, but with two groups of 8 tramping along the paths, we unsurprisingly didn’t have any luck seeing one.



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The forest, however, was quite attractive, and enjoyable to experience in a quieter setting than Mossman Gorge.


From here, we went to picnic area, which overlooked a forest stream, and had lunch. This was my first exposure to Vegemite, which was interesting. I’ve certainly never tasted anything like that, and while I didn’t hate it I can’t say I’ve had a craving for it since returning. Following lunch, we followed a short path through the woods along the river for some nice views. There would be the chance to swim here if people wanted, but the day was relatively cool and so no one took that offer up.



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After walking through the forest, we headed further north toward Cape Tribulation, which is billed as the location where the rainforest and the reef meet. To be honest, it was pretty much just another beach. :) In the car park, we saw a Brush-Turkey, but it scurried off quite quickly so the picture opportunities weren't the best.



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From there, we took a short walk onto the beach itself, and then along one side went up a boardwalk that afforded view from a higher vantage point. After a couple of pictures, we were back to the van.



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On our way back, we stopped at the Daintree Ice Cream company, and sampled some ice cream made with local fruits. It was interesting to see flavors that I’d never heard of (Wattleseed, Sapote, Soursop, etc). They give you a bowl with 4 pre-selected flavors, which we ate while exploring the garden.



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We then continued back to Port Douglas, making it in time for dinner and an early bedtime as we were off snorkeling again the next day.


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Snorkeling trip #2



I was really looking forward to our second day out on the reef, as we were going with Wavelength (http://www.wavelength.com.au/), the company that appears to be universally considered the best snorkeling boat out of Port Douglas (at least, based on the Tripadvisor comments). They have a smaller boat, with only ~30 people taken out per day. It was definitely the most basic boat we had of our trips, but that was more than made up for while on the reef. They state that they have exclusive access to unique sites at several different reefs, and we could definitely see that the reef was in better shape (healthier) than our other trips out. As usual for these tours, there were 3 separate stops, one in the morning of an hour, one at lunch time for 90 minutes (but you need to eat during that time too), and a third in the afternoon for an hour. As before, my marine knowledge is horrible, so I’ll just present some pictures.



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Continued...



One of the great things about Wavelength was that two members of the crew got into the water with the snorkelers at each site, and were there to answer questions and show people interesting. This contrasted, for example, with our first trip, where the crew only got in at the second stop, and in the end we saw things we otherwise would have missed by having the crew members in the water.



Without this help, we would have definitely missed this Turtle (sorry for the bad quality - can you find it?)



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They also found for us this White-tipped Shark lounging in the reef.



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Other sites, continuing (I loved the colours of the giant clams):



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This was our best day out on the reef, and I think if I was returning and planning multiple trips out to the reef I’d be very tempted to do all of them with Wavelength.


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Nice healthy coral gardens, yes the Giant Clam colours are quite spectacular. Your mistake with the Vegemite was that you didn't have it on toasted Turkish Bread with Avocado smash ( that's trendy cafe speak for mashed).

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I'm enjoying reading this! Looking forward to the Kakadu and Katherine parts, the only parts of your trip where I've also been!

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Really enjoying your underwater shots. Beautiful colors!

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~ @@Zubbie15

 

The consistently outstanding image quality of your trip photos knocks me over!

I don't know how you do it. Clear, sharp, saturated colors, lovely composition.

They make the trip report fairly jump with excitement.

Mossman Gorge sounds especially delightful.

Many thanks for posting such a high quality trip report!

Tom K.

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Thanks all for the kind words. @@elefromoz, I appreciate the Vegemite tip, I'll have to try it out when we return. ;)

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