AUSTRALIA: GREAT BARRIER REEF
22-28 January 2016
For the first time ever, our beloved Emirates didn’t run like clockwork. We were informed as we neared Dubai that our landing would be delayed because of thick mist over the airport. The delay was only an hour… but an hour was enough to jeopardise our connecting flight to Brisbane!
On (eventually) landing, we were relieved to see that we hadn’t missed our flight because, like many others, it had been delayed for 2 hours in the domino effect the mist had caused. The relief was short-lived as we realised that this salvation was at the very real risk of missing our next flight, the connection from Brisbane to Cairns, which had only 2 hours transit time.
Never ones to have our spirits dampened by logistics, we drowned our concerns in the buffet in the Business Lounge. Scottish salmon, prawns, Champagne, a hotdog and mini doughnut (for good measure) later and we were truly in a “what will be will be” headspace when we boarded the plane for our 16 hour flight.
Sadly, the Bourbon-fuelled old worry-wart next to us in the window seat of our 3-seater row, reminded us several times of the implications of the delay since – sorry for him – his connection was an hour after the original landing time so he had a snowball’s hope in hell of catching it. And had us in hell living and re-living the prospect.
But, the travel gods (or rather, the Aussie work ethic since it was all thanks to our luggage coming out on the carousel quicksticks) were on our side, and we whipped through the controls, which deposited us neatly in front of the Virgin Australia check-in desk to hand over our luggage for the short hop to Cairns. What simple genius to have a Domestic check-in counter in the International Arrivals so you don’t have to hump everything across the airport between terminals!
And a good thing too because Christian got into trouble as it was for jumping on the terminal transfer bus through the back door, which was right in front of him when the bus stopped. Despite no signage to that effect, the driver was insistent that it was Exit Only and made Christian get off the bus and come through the front door… only to walk down the length of the bus to take the exact same seat. Christian might have been less compliant if he’d already humped our 2 big suitcases in with him!
The 2-hour Cairns flight was an excellent time to nap, with lots of legroom and nobody sharing our 3-seater, and we were soon in sunny Cairns with our private transfer driver ready and waiting for us. Her name was Coral, not a word of a lie! She joked that the only thing that contested with her for most things named after it, is Cook this-that-and-the-other, after Captain James Cook, who had the first contact with this part of the world.
Coral (The Driver) was very knowledgeable and shared snippets of interest on what we were passing as we took the scenic hour-long drive along the Cook Highway (a bit of a misnomer, being a delightful meandering mostly single lane road). It was mostly tropical forest creeping up the mountain (the same range that runs all the way down to Sydney) on the left and the Coral Sea on the right, with intermittent traffic circles which allow access to the artery that runs to the coastal towns dotted along the tropical North East Queensland coastline. The Australian Government has strictly regulated big chain access into this part of their country, so everything is still quaint and countrified.
The road into Port Douglas – our final destination, EVENTUALLY, having left home on Friday night and arriving Sunday afternoon! – is lined with hundred of huge palm trees, a disproportionately grandiose entrance to the charming boutique seaside town.
We had booked into By The Sea luxury apartments because of its high rating for location, but its reviews had understated completely. Placed on the corner of Macrossan Street (home to all the retail and entertainment action) and The Esplanade (running along our end of 4 Mile Beach), we could not have asked for better. And we didn’t have to ask. For anything. The hotel included EVERYTHING in their package. We could get (free) beach chairs, loungers, towels, beach games, bicycles, cooler boxes, ice, DVDs, books, gym equipment, laptops, tablets, boardgames etc etc etc from reception. No charge, no rush to return. How very awesome; what a nice touch!
After our long haul to get to Port Douglas, we were amped to see the place! A quick shower and some clean clothes later and we were on our way out and into town to get some supplies. Being walking distance from anywhere to anywhere, Port Douglas manages to cram everything you need for a perfect holiday – beach, restaurants, pubs, excursions suppliers and essential holidays goods shops – in a handful of roads and we had placed ourselves perfectly to access everything.
Starting with a gander of the famous (well, to us anyway, having read all the travel info in the onflight magazine) 4 Mile Beach, we slipped off our slops and hit the sand. It’s a strange beach; not the soft white sand you’d think, the sand is compacted and solid underfoot, like the tide permanently only just went out. There are also “stingers” rife, so you can’t swim anywhere but in a small demarcated area, fenced by tight mesh nets and manned by lifeguards. It’s really unusual to see so many people walking along the beach, but not breaking the waterline.
I delighted in walking on the little balls of sand that (presumably) crabs spit out when making their tunnels. It was sort of like sandy bubble wrap or crashing through piles of crunchy leaves; weirdly addictive.
Beach seen, we tried the other direction. A short trot down Macrossan Street (well, the full length) and we were at the bayfront, which Coral had said was a popular sundowner spot. We agreed, so we double-backed and got the groceries (the usual bread, bacon, cheese, eggs), as well as a selection of local beers – tinnies singles so we could sample a selection.
We returned to By The Sea to drop off our spoils and take advantage of the cooler box and ice on offer. Feeling very pleased with ourselves, we headed for the park to enjoy our first Aussie sunset.
There were several people who had the same idea – a mixed bag of young and old, families and couples – so we had plenty to keep us entertained with the sea in front of us and (amongst other things) the heated family cricket game right behind us.
It’s really good to see people enjoying public space. And even more so to see them respecting what they have been given. The park is spotless and well maintained – even the public ablution block which is unmanned, but clean and in perfect working order, which would sadly never be the case at home.
On our way home we made the traditional stop in the Irish bar (uncreatively named Paddy’s) for a Guinness to log it against our growing Index. At R96 a pint, it comes in 5th behind Hong Kong, Toledo, Reykjavic and UK. It’s an expensive way to comfort us against the extortionate price the Baron charges (R36 a pint), which prompted the global research!
While at Paddy’s we were recommended pizzas at Rattle & Hum Pizza bar and, never ones to turn down a pizza, it made the perfect dinner plan. Needless to say, the whole experience was different to home… but the most disturbing was when we asked for the condiments (expecting chopped garlic and chilli) and we given little sealed tubs of prepacked “garlic aoli”, a sort of creamed garlic sauce. Really not the same.
Exhausted from the travel, we were home and in bed by 9!
… and only woke up at midday on Monday! 15 hours sleep to get over the travel!
It was overcast which had no doubt contributed to our lie in, but it was still 27 degrees with 90% humidity so the beach was the natural choice for the afternoon.
But, before that, we had important business. Lunch. And booking our Great Barrier Reef Tour.
We walked down to the Bay since that seemed the most logical place for boat companies and we hit paydirt. We got megawraps at Hog’s Breath Diner from their lunchtime bargain $9.90 menu AND we got a chance to review the literature on the various company and tour options. We narrowed down our choices and crossed off the shortlist by visiting the respective companies until we settled on the Calypso full day tour to the Outer Reef, with 2 snorkels and a dive (Christian’s first!) between Agincourt and Opal Reefs.
Very pleased with our accomplishments, we walked back to our sanctum to commence our afternoon’s beachtime.
Arming ourselves with loungers, towels and books from the resort library, we took the left turn onto The Esplanade and hit the 4 Mile Beach. Knowing what to expect this time, we handled ourselves like locals, dropping off our loungers and our bag near the lifeguard tower and taking a long walk along the beach to see if the 4 Mile bit was literal.
We can’t be empirically sure, but it seems credible enough. The beach is on a shallow concave bay so even though it feels like you’re walking in a straight line toward a corner, you never reach the corner because you’re on a constant gradual curve. We gave the curve a half hour and then turned around and retraced our footsteps.
The burst of activity having made up for our slothly start to the day, we felt justified in spending the rest of the afternoon lounging about and soaking in the view, until it started to get dark so we retreated to the heated pool at our resort.
Impossible to resurrect ourselves for public consumption, we decided to get DVDs from the resort library and make nachos for dinner (we had all the supplies already and our unit had a convection microwave, so it couldn’t be simpler). Again we were grateful for our choice of digs – literally everything we could ask for!
By the time we’d cooked, eaten (in a very civilised fashion at the table on our private patio) and watched our movies, it was (again) the early hours of the morning. It was clear that acclimatising wasn’t going to be an overnight game!
Tuesday started a little later than planned, but still in the a.m., which was a good start. As it turned out it was a public holiday, Australia Day, so there were festivities planned in town. We prepared with a bacon sarmie, using one slice of bacon each… although Aussie bacon packs the same size as home consist of only 3 humongous rashers per pack! Each rasher being easily as long as my forearm, elbow to fingertip!
In keeping with the patriotism, we decided to tick off all the hotspots on the tourist map we’d been provided by our reception on arrival. On closer inspection, we were tickled to see that few of the landmarks were of actual historical significance and we’d incidentally already seen/been to most of the places on the map.
Still, we needed to take a turn past the festival being held at the park and that was the start of Murphy street which ran parallel between Macrossan and the sea and would loop us neatly back to our beach, where we could complete the afternoon.
Getting to the park was easy. Lots of the restaurants and shops in town were closed for the public holiday… and EVERYONE was at the park. The organisers had picket-fenced off most of the park for a big marquee that housed 4 eating stations (obviously the 4 top restaurants in town) and they’d even set up 2 smaller marquees on either end, one with a generous band line-up and the other with entertainment like pie judging and tug ‘o war contests. Very festive.
We circled the event and then realigned with our original plan to head up Murphy Street to the lookout point. The map did not show how steep the road was though and – in the stuffy humid heat – we were puffing, panting and sopping by the time we got to the top of the short hill. The view was pretty though, so glad we did it, all considered.
At least we were able to go down the other side of the hill and end up at our corner, grab the usual collection of beach paraphernalia and call it a day.
Having to be at (and that means walking to) our dive shop at 8am for boarding our dive trip, we needed an early night. We hit the Cole’s supermarket (the only chain allowed in town – and fast becoming our favourite place thanks to their range, prices and unwavering commitment to airconditioning!) and picked up a tray of lasagne. We complemented our glamorous dinner fittingly by picking up a bottle of wine from the hole-in-the-wall bottleshop; literally a booth counter in the wall, with a glass window where you could browse the merchandise, which you ask the cashier to fetch for you.
Despite our best attempt at responsible behaviour, we both still nearly didn’t sleep a wink, both worried we’d sleep through our 3 alarms (all set to different times in line with their respective SA / Dubai / Aus settings) and miss our dive trip.
Of course we (Christian) didn’t and soon enough it was 7am and we were fuelling up with scrambles on toast, heading out the door, traversing town like seasoned pro’s and at the dock with time to spare.
There were about 30 people in all on our trip; 7 diving, with all but me on an intro dive. This meant that the best course of action was for us to snorkel the first site and then dive separately at the second (Chris with the intro group and me with a dedicated dive master who could take me a few metres deeper than the intro group) and then the option existed for us to either snorkel or dive the last site.
The boat took us out to the farthest point and we had a brilliant first experience with the world-famous (!) bucketlist (!) Great. Barrier. Reef! The visibility was spectacular. being able to see 30-40 metres in the crystal clear water… not that you needed to when the action is all so close to the surface. With the coral growing best in the sunlight, there is a great deal to see within a few metres under the surface. Even so, at the edge of the coral shelf, where the depths plunge, the water looks bright royal blue and is translucent so you can still see quite a distance below, to see the likes of the turtle and small shark we saw within the first few minutes of the excursion!
It seemed like a tall order to beat, but the scuba diving was truly spectacular. Christian had an incredible opportunity to have his first dive in such a magnificent place – and he’s amped to do it again (although we’ll have to carefully consider where if we’re going to meet his expectations with the bar set this high!). My dive was naturally excellent too, being lucky enough to have a private dive at my pace and duration. The highlight was seeing sharks up close. Even though these local sharks are too small to eat people (and have no interest in us), it was still electrifying to be so close to something in the wild. At one point I was nothing short of mesmerised by a shark a few metres from me that was swimming in a loose figure of 8 through a shoal of silvery fish that shimmered and sheened around it giving it an ethereal glow. Of course the dive instructor took all the magic out of it later when he explained that this was likely part of the shark’s ecosystem / hygiene routine… drat.
We opted to snorkel the last site since it was a high reef with lots to see on the surface and worked on our free-diving with the snorkels instead to add to our rapidly-increasing range of aqua skills.
What a day. Really truly awesome.
We rounded off with a seafood dinner (of course) of the local speciality, barramundi, a white flaky fish that was done beautifully in a thick, fluffy and crunchy batter and served with a mountain of chips. It started to drizzle during dinner and our timing could not have been better because soon after we got back to our spot, it started coming down in sheets! So hard it took out the town’s electricity and the whole of Port Douglas was in blackout.
The rain here is something else. It comes down hard for long periods. It rained through almost every night, incessant throughout the night. Presumably it’s typical of tropical climates (and this isn’t even anywhere near monsoon season!). And they do say that the rain in Port Douglas is measured in metres, not centimetres. And it is kind enough to rain at night rather than dampening the daytimes. But surely all this rain should ease up the humidity somewhat?!?
It’s probably why the beach sand is so odd. It’s always like some rogue wave has washed up the shoreline and flattened what should be soft white sand. No doubt it’s a combination of the punishing rain all night and the inability for anything to dry because of the humidity. It had taken Christian’s shirt 2 day to dry after our traipse up to lookout point – and that was on our covered patio under the ceiling fan!
Our last morning was a bright and sunny one so we ditched our original plan to use resort bicycles to take a ride down the beachfront to Wilderness Village (a zoo habitat thingie) in favour of taking advantage of our beach a last time. The sun was bright, the sky blue and the sea (well, our little demarcated swimming section) warm as a bath. Paradise!