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Cairns: Reef and Rainforest in Australia's Far North

by Walter and Cherie Glaser

The water is crystal clear, and looking through our snorkeling masks we see an underwater fairyland. Coral outcrops of every shape and size, from sections that look like a huge brain to others that remind us of bright blue staghorns, are inhabited by brightly colored fish of every imaginable shape and size. The vivid blues, pinks, greens, yellows, blacks, purples, whites, and aquas that appear in either the fish or the coral present a kaleidoscope of color and movement.

Just a few feet away, other snorkellers are stepping off an underwater platform to swim or drift over this aquatic "spectacular," while a small boat takes a group of environmentalists together with a marine biologist to another part of the reef nearby. There the biologist -- a Barrier Reef specialist trained at the North Queensland-based James Cook University -- explains the fragile ecology and environment of this, the greatest coral reef structure in the world's oceans.

In the deeper water just near us, qualified divers in wetsuits and airtanks are exploring the underwater canyons separating the coral outcrops. As we watch, a passenger on the deck of the Quicksilver, the wave-piercing catamaran that brought us to the Great Barrier Reef, throws a handful of bread into the water at the spot where we are swimming.

Instantly, hundreds of large, brightly-colored fish, averaging eighteen inches in length, appear from under the coral shelves and seem to implode into the bread like a movie of an exploding fireworks being played in reverse. Ignoring the swimmers right alongside, they make the water boil for a second or so, then swim around, hoping for more. The whole event has taken eight seconds. The bread has gone.

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and there is no better way of seeing it than from one of the high-tech Quicksilver wave-piercing catamarans. These sleek, Australian-built and designed, triple-hulled vessels not only speed up the trip to the reef, but make the journey comfortable and educational.

Snorkeling alongside the Quicksilver over the spectacular, multi-hued coral, swimming among huge fish that seem as curious about us as we are about them, enjoying the ride to the reef which, on pre-Quicksilver journeys had invariably turned me green with sea-sickness, made me realize to what extent tourism is being enhanced by first class operators who are experts in their fields. But, a day trip to the Great Barrier Reef is just a tiny fraction of what Far North Queensland has to offer the visitor.

Cairns, Australia's northern-most city, is as far north of Brisbane as the distant metropolis of Melbourne is to the south. Before World War II, Cairns was a sleepy, sugar-growing center and fishing port. During the war with Japan, it became an important operational center for American and Australian forces then fighting in New Guinea and Guadalcanal, but lapsed back into rural catatonia once the tumult and the shouting of WWII died.

The enormous natural beauty of North Queensland had huge tourist potential, highlighted by the simultaneous creation of an outstanding, ecology-friendly development of the area in the 1980's. The development of world class resorts, professional golf courses, better roads, and an international airport capable of handling 747's coincided with ecological safeguards such as declaring the two-million-year-old rainforest a World Heritage National Park, and introducing legislation that ensured that the fragile environment of the area would be completely protected.

The combination worked perfectly. Today you can enjoy some of the best resort facilities in the Pacific basin, play golf on championship courses, stay at world class eco-lodges situated in Amazon-like rainforest, swim from uncrowded, pristine, golden-sand beaches, take ski-lift-type gondolas to carry you just above the rainforest canopy from Cairns to Kuranda, dine at fabulous restaurants, play roulette or blackjack at the new Cairns Casino, take a river trip on which you will see crocodiles, pythons, bats and birds living in their own natural environment, and watch Australia's best aboriginal theatre. Talented members of local tribes, choreographed by a New York producer now resident here, present a show that introduces the overseas visitors to the aboriginal culture, history and legend collectively known as "The Dreamtime."

Our particular recommendation is to take a four day cruise on the Reef Escape, a comfortable, 80-passenger coastal cruise ship that takes you to Cooktown.

Once the most northerly Queensland US/Australian forward base in the WWII Pacific campaign, Cooktown is, today, a quiet backwater. It is only accessible to four-wheel drive vehicles by road and shallow draft boats that can enter the silted-up harbor. The few inhabitants make a living from a little eco-tourism and by supplying food, clothing, fishing tackle, and other necessities to the aboriginal tribes that inhabit the Cape York Peninsula. Fish and prawn farms are constantly battling the damage done by feral pigs (the north of Australia has over two million of these). The pigs frequently raid the fish farms, punching holes in the dikes which let out thousands of litters of water, leaving fish and prawns to die in the resulting mud.

But we were intrigued by the town's history and, on the Reef Escape cruise decided to find out what Cooktown was all about, by phoning ahead and booking one of the town's only two taxis for a guided tour. Our taxi driver proved to be a lady, young, attractive and wearing the national dress of North Queensland - shorts, T-shirt, sandals and a wide-brimmed hat. She was the sort of young woman you would expect to see working in a boutique, rather than driving a taxi. But in Cooktown employment is scarce, and driving one of the only two taxis in town is a good job. And Julie Delaney did it superbly - an excellent guide as well as driver.

Cooktown's relative isolation from the rest of Australia and its searing heat did not worry her. That's just the way it is in this part of the world. April to December is hot and dry, then comes "The Big Wet," as the North Queenslanders call it. Then, the only alternative to ordinary rain is a torrential tropical downpour, somewhat like standing under a warm waterfall.

As we drove towards the Cooktown Museum Julie was briefing us on the town's early history:

After gold was discovered, in the early 1870's, at Palmer River, 120 miles inland from here, Cooktown became the second-largest town in Queensland after Brisbane. At one point there were more Chinese here than there were Caucasians.

The ships used to come into Cooktown direct from the Canton area, unloading hundreds of Chinese who had come to work on the goldfields. They would march through the bush in a long line, and the local aboriginals, who were cannibals at the time, would rush in and grab three or four who would never be heard of again. It was a dramatic time in this area's history.

The Cooktown Museum, an old building, almost destroyed by a tropical cyclone but subsequently fully restored, had once been a Mission headquarters. Now it is the place that every visitor who really wants to get a feel for North Queensland history must come to see. The large, brick structure with its wide verandahs and airy rooms is typical of early "Top End" architecture.

The collection of old photographs, paintings, drawings, artifacts, documents, and displays captivated us immediately. They linked today's sleepy hollow to yesterday's booming, bustling, frontier town. As we moved from room to room, Julie gave us quite a lot of additional information and background to fill in the gaps and bring this little town's history to life. Early photographs of tent-dwelling "diggers" (as the miners were then called, and a name that in WWI was widened to cover the reference to Australian troops) and pictures of early Chinese miners and residents all brought early Cooktown to life. We left the museum having learned much about the area's early days and the people who helped to shape its destiny.

The main street was now so lazily quiet in the afternoon heat that all one could hear was the buzzing of insects and the occasional bark of a distant dog. It had not always been so.

Captain Cook had unwillingly discovered the area in 1770 when his ship, the Endeavour, ran aground here and the whole complement of 94 people that had been on board spent 48 days ashore, repairing the ship and waiting for favorable winds.

Nothing more happened in this area for over 100 years until 1883. That year, Irish explorer James Venture Mulligan found gold on the Palmer River, and Cookstown (as it was then called) sprang up almost overnight. 68 bordellos and 64 saloons, known in Australia as pubs, were a clear indication of the miners' priorities. And there were wall-to-wall bars, gambling halls, boarding houses, provisioning stores, and the other peripheral establishments needed to service the booming goldfield and what was now a town of 6,000 settlers.

When the gold ran out most of the inhabitants left, returning to distant lands or moving on to other, newer goldfields like those in Western Australia. But some remained until, during World War II, the advancing tide of the Japanese army had rolled so close that orders came down to evacuate all women and children from Cooktown. The place never recovered economically and now there are only some 1,600 people living in the area. They are engaged in farming, fishing, aqua-culture, government administration and, to a lesser extent, tourism.

Julie took us to Grassy Hill from where the lighthouse guided ships into the harbor before it became silted up. From this vantage point we could see the old WWII landing strip that was the last United States Air Force advance base this side of New Guinea. Our taxi-tour covered Captain Cook's landing site and then a visit into the eucalyptus-shaded area where the old Chinese cemetery has now been restored.

In the adjacent European section, tombstones also graphically told their story of early demises caused by illness, hardship, childbirth-gone-wrong, assault, and aboriginal spears.

We were touched by a simple cross with a plaque reading:

In commemoration of the Normanby woman who was buried in the vicinity of this ground in 1880. No-one knows where she came from or who she was. She took that secret with her. She was a European woman brought up by the Normanby aboriginal tribe 40 miles S.W. of Cooktown. She was captured by the European Authorities and brought to "civilization" in which she could not survive.

Australia's Far North is full of such poignant mysteries. But now it was back to the ship after one of the most informative and interesting days ever experienced.

Our four-day cruise itinerary from Cairns was to take us north: first to Cooktown, then to Lizard Island, and finally to swim, snorkel, and generally explore the Ribbon Reef section of the Great Barrier Reef before returning to Cairns. After the fascinating Cooktown experience, we sailed on high tide, heading for Lizard Island.

The Reef Escape was one of those happy combinations that makes a laid-back, memorable experience. Originally designed to sail the Hawkesbury River's inland waterways just north of Sydney, the vessel was very user-friendly and staffed with a friendly crew of young Australians for whom no request was too much trouble.

The leisurely cruise across the calm, azure waters gave us a chance to meet our fellow passengers. There were cattle ranchers from Texas, a retired civil engineer from Hong Kong, a Singaporean couple from the banking industry, honeymooners from Adelaide, and many others, all equally diverse. The common denominator was that all were prepared to relax, enjoy a fascinating few days away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, sit back, and enjoy being pampered. And pampered we were!

There is something special about young Australians of the kind who made up our crew. People who bad-mouth all of today's youth should really take this trip, it may change their minds. Not only were these youngsters hard-working, efficient, and capable, but everything they did was carried out in such a happy, co-operative way that by the time our four day cruise was over, even the worst grumps among the passengers had forgotten their aches, pains, and bad tempers and were wearing sunny smiles.

From the time we had heard that it was a hideaway for the world's "Rich and Famous," Lizard Island had always intrigued us. And as the Reef Escape approached we had expected utter luxury. After all, hadn't some of the British Royals taken refuge here from day-to-day headlines?

But as our ship approached the island we were told that its tiny 33-room luxury resort was "out of bounds." When guests pay as much for their privacy as those staying here do, it is not unreasonable that intruders from the real world are kept out of the way.

So we sailed straight past the palm-hidden huts and manicured beach to round the headland and go ashore on an uninhabited beach some distance from the resort.

If you have never snorkeled in the crystal-clear waters in this part of the world, you are in for a marvelous surprise. And age is no barrier to the experience. Our crew had provided thorough instruction for first-time snorkellers, and I watched one crew member help a lady in her 60's don her mask and snorkel.

At first, somewhat nervous and insecure, the gear was carefully fitted. A crew member then accompanied her as she walked into the water and swam with her to a nearby sheltered area.

Between large clumps of coral reef, giant clams opened and closed meter-long jaws in gentle rhythm, drawing plankton and other nutrients into what clams have instead of a stomach. And these marvelous structures of nature were home to myriad multi-hued tropical fish. Again, these had to be seen to be believed. Some looked like long, thin sticks, others were bright yellow disks with jet-black markings.

There were some with what looked like mustaches (with which they stir the sand and uncover tiny crustaceans), others with big spots on their tails to confuse the larger predators into thinking the spots are their eyes. There were fish which, when attacked, blow themselves up like balloons and float to the surface, and others that swim in tight, crowded schools, so close together that they looked like a solid living ball moving across the ocean floor.

Twenty minutes later the first-time-snorkeling lady was back on the beach, eyes aglow as if she had just discovered another world. This had been good planning indeed, for the following day would be spent over a reef. There the water would be shallow, but there was no island to wade ashore on. Lizard Island therefore, was a marvelous practice ground for novice snorkellers.

With a minimum of fuss the crew had brought a sumptuous picnic lunch ashore. Soon everyone was thoroughly enjoying this prior to going back into the water or donning shoes to walk along a track to the island's small airstrip.

Late in the afternoon we returned to the ship to get ready for "Captain's Dinner." By this time the ice was well and truly broken and the atmosphere was really relaxed. "Haven't had this much fun in years" said one of the passengers as he joined the crew at the microphone to sing a Frank Sinatra ballad so off-key that Ol' Blue Eyes would surely have known that he had done it "his way."

The following day we stopped at Ribbon Reef, and snorkeled over pillars of coral that were huge by comparison to those at Lizard. The fish here were also considerably larger than those seen the previous day.

It was interesting to watch the snorkellers who had only just learnt the technique during our stopover at Lizard. Excited and fearless, they handled the situation like ducks taking to the water. It was quite clear that a new dimension had been added to their lives. But even those who didn't snorkel had clearly enjoyed their trip. The cruise had given visitors from Italy, Hong Kong, U.S.A., Britain, Germany, Canada, Holland, and South Africa as well as the Australians on board a lovely four-day cruising holiday in style and comfort. And the wonders of the Barrier Reef and the history of Queensland's "Top End" were sure to be topics of conversation for a long time after they returned home. But now it was time to exchange addresses and bid each other farewell. The cruise had come to its end.

Back in Cairns the next morning, I couldn't help making a mental comparison as I walked along the Esplanade. Ten years ago, old buildings -- many of them wooden -- had stood facing the waterfront. Today, world-class hotels have taken their place. Fortunately, their architecture is interesting and seems to fit in with the personality of the old town nearby. And the waterfront skyline has so far been spared the Miami-style skyscrapers which I find so intrusive in other cities. Cairns has made it into the twentieth century and yet done so without losing any of its relaxed charm.

One thing that is impossible to define is the "average visitor." There's no such thing. The people who pass me on the street seem to fit no particular category. One moment it's a young couple from Australia's south. They wear cut-away shorts, strong walking shoes, wide-brimmed Akubra hats, and heavy back-packs. Next is a small group of Japanese, in designer shorts and with every piece of clothing carrying a famous French name. Each with a camera seeming to grow out of their right hands, they send Messrs. Kodak and Fuji into ecstatic profitability.

We visit the Radisson Hotel to explore its unique lobby. Looking around, we cannot help thinking that we have stepped into the rainforest. Huge trees rise to the roof of the three-storey-high atrium. In the vines suspended from the canopy, pythons and sulphur-crested cockatoos look down at the gawking visitors. There is a crocodile in the creek that flows past our feet and the more we look, the more we see. Echidnas, cane toads, possums, and even aboriginal cave paintings abound. It takes more than a few moments to realize that this whole scene is a man-made replica. Already this lobby is one of the great tourist attractions of Cairns.

Next door to the Radisson is the Pier Marketplace, a luxurious shopping center which incorporates some of the world's best known brand-names, as well as restaurants and bars. Shop windows here are equal to Sydney and Melbourne's best in both display and content. Both Country Road and Carla Zampatti have "sale" notices in their windows. Shopping seems to be irresistible on holidays.

At dinner with a large group, the conversation turns to the outstanding hotel options one now finds in North Queensland. Naturally, the Sheraton Mirage gets a rave, but others talk about great experiences that they have had at the Pacific International Hotel, a superbly run and reasonably priced establishment that is a preferred address for many knowledgeable visitors. Across the road, the brand new Cairns Casino appears to be a special magnet for many Asian "High Rollers." What a far cry from the motels and pubs that were the only choice a decade or two ago.

One lady in our party has stayed at the Club Tropical at Port Douglas, and extols its virtues. Herself an interior decorator, she is enchanted by the way this resort has decorated each suite in the exotic style and fabrics of a different country in Asia. It's the most imaginative and attractive effect she has ever seen, she says. And who else has ever constructed a water-garden on the roof over the lobby, and then stocked it with native fish?

The range of other accommodation in this area is also very wide indeed. There are marvelous eco-lodges like the Coconut Beach Resort that is set right in the middle of the rainforest and on the edge of the Pacific, and is very much tuned into the environment. There are luxury resorts, perhaps the best and most glamorous of which is the Sheraton Mirage with its lake-sized pool and its brilliant golf course and facilities. There are small, comfortable resort hotels right along the coast, and those who prefer bed and breakfast style or inexpensive motels will also not be disappointed. The important thing is to get a travel agent who knows what they're talking about, or to check through the brochures which you can request from the Queensland Tourist Corporation.

They tell us about Kuranda. We must go, they say, and go at least one way by train. It is one of the great train journeys of the world. Five minutes of extolling Kuranda's virtues and we are convinced.

The next morning sees us on our way. We've chosen to take the "up by cable car, back by commentary train" option. The gondola of our Austrian-built cable car swings over the trees of the mighty tropical rainforest, heading up into the Atherton Tablelands. All one hears is the click of Japanese cameras, and this time ours are clicking too. The view down to the coastal plain and out to sea is memorable. Kuranda has long been home to communes of alternate-lifestyle artists and craftsmen who sell their handicrafts, produce, and other wares at the open-air Kuranda Market. A stall selling Kangaroo leather hats is swamped by a group of young Japanese. The mind boggles at the idea of these new acquisitions being proudly paraded down the Ginza. We head for the Tjapukai Aboriginal Dance Theater. At first I'm skeptical, fearing a tourist trap. Five minutes into the show, which is performed by local Aboriginals whose home is in this area, and I'm enthralled.

The theater and its performance is a credit to the American choreographer and manager who has lifted the standard here to such a high point. This troupe has rave reviews on their frequent overseas tours when they perform in cities like London, Tokyo, and Atlanta. Their dance representation of emus and kangaroos is eerily accurate.

Time to catch our train and we head for the picture-postcard station. The railway line, today one of the area's major tourist attractions, was completed in 1888, when a gold rush in the area combined with the opening up of the Atherton Tablelands behind Kuranda, creating a great demand for transportation through the rugged wilderness.

Traveling along this route is breathtaking. The track claws its way along sheer cliffs, gauges its way through tunnels drilled through solid granite, tippy-toes over somewhat flimsy looking pylons that seem to suspend the train in mid-air, and passes roaring, ear-shattering waterfalls that crash off cliffs alongside the track, momentarily shrouding the train in mist and spray.

Down, down, down, past some of Australia's finest tropical scenery and too soon we arrive at the end of our journey -- a station with the quaint name of "Freshwater Connection." Whoever is responsible for restoring the station and converting it into a turn of the century restaurant with old train-cars as the dining area, deserves a big pat on the back.

There is much to see and do in this fascinating part of the world, travel is safe here, people are friendly, speak English and only have two minor complaints about Americans -- their strange, twangy accents and the fact that they drive on the wrong side of the road.

Getting there
Qantas and Air New Zealand operates frequent services from USA to Cairns in North Queensland from where these cruises depart.

Queensland Tourist Corporation:
Fax (61) 7.833.5436 in Australia
(44) 171.836.5881 in London
(310) 788.0128 in Los Angeles

Best time to go
End January to end March is the "Wet Season" in Far North Queensland, so the best time to go is from April to January. Because North Queensland is in the tropics, but seasons are opposite to those in the Northern Hemisphere, June to October is absolutely ideal.

The cruise on Reef Escape:
Captain Cook Cruises
No. 6 Jetty
Circular Quay, Sydney
2000, Australia
Fax (61) 2.251.4725
This is a 4-day cruise, Cairns-Cooktown-Lizard Island-Barrier Reef-Cairns and operated by This is the same organization that operates Sydney's most famous harbor cruises.

Quicksilver connections:
Port Douglas
Phone: (61) 070.99.5455
Fax: (61) 070.99.5525

What to take
A wide-brimmed hat, swimwear, loose, comfortable and informal cotton clothes, good walking shoes, sunblock, and if you wear glasses you may wish to get snorkeling goggles with your eye-glass prescription lenses.

Hotels in the Cairns/Port Douglas area
Radisson Hotel
at the Pier, Cairns
Phone: (61) 070.31.1411
Fax: (61) 070.31.5340

Sheraton Mirage
Port Douglas
Phone: (61) 070.99.5888
Fax: (61) 070.99.5345

Pacific International
Esplanade and Spence Streets, Cairns
Phone: (61) 070.51.7888
Fax: (61) 070.51.0210

Club Tropical resort
Wharf and Macrossan Streets, Port Douglas
Phone: (61) 070.99.5885
Fax: 070.99.5868

Coconut Beach Rainforest Resort
Coconut Beach, Cape Tribulation
Phone: (61) 070.98.0033
Fax: (61) 070.98.0047

Daintree Eco Tourist Lodge
20 Daintree Road, Daintree
Phone: (61) 070.98.6100
Fax: (61) 070.98.6200

Silky Oaks Lodge
Mossman River Gorge, Mossman.
Phone: (61) 070.98.1666
Fax: (61) 070.98.1983

Recommended Restaurants in Cairns
Sassi Island Point
2 Island Point Road
Port Douglas
Phone: (61) 070.99.5323

Wharf and Macrossan Streets
Port Douglas
Phone: (61) 070.99.5885

17 Murphy Street
Port Douglas
Phone: (61) 070.99.5330


Walter & Cherie Glaser are an international travel-writing team based down under in Melbourne, Australia.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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