- The Washington Times - Friday, February 17, 2006

CAIRNS, Australia — Neville is a gangly, curious-looking fellow with a perpetual grin glued to his beaklike face and with shoulders jutting upward in a V as if he were perpetually trying to insert them into his ears. It is a posture that suggests he once heard something apoplectically funny and just couldn’t get over it.

After trading short biographies as he drives me to the Hinterland Aviation Terminal for my flight up the coast, Neville offers, “Coming up is my hometown, the bustling, cosmopolitan metropolis of Yorkies Knob.” A beach sign and a dune with some grass are off toward the coast on the right.

“So that would make you ‘Neville the Knob?’ ”

“No, mate. They call us Yorkies. Neville the Yorkie — unless, of course, you’re a Sheila, then it’s Neville the Devil, heh, heh, heh,” he says, chuckling.

Welcome to Queensland, the northeastern state of Australia.

Yorkies Knob is a beach town with a beach just north of Cairns, which is a larger beach town without much of a beach. Its streets are lined with small beach hotels and beach souvenir shops, but though the shore is rough and scenic enough for a stroll, Lake Michigan has better surf than Trinity Bay and, for that matter, a better beach, too.

Cairns does have a lovely waterfront park with a glorious municipal pool that attracts elderly married couples on vacation and young dreadlocked boys and girls gathered in a circle playing didgeridoos.

All this, high-end shopping and nightlife surround the newly refurbished and hip Shangri-La Hotel. The Shangri-La is one of the finer chains of hotels in Asia and well worth the stay if you have the means, whether it is in Beijing, Kuala Lumpur or Cairns.

About eight miles north of Cairns is Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park and the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, offering a low-intensity introduction to Queensland’s native history and the Daintree Rainforest.

All the cultural alternatives cannot hide the fact that Cairns is really a jumping-off point for some tourists’ never-ending need to — well — jump off.

The main drag along Cairn’s waterfront, the Esplanade, is loaded with storefronts for companies that will pack your entire vacation with sky diving, white-water rafting, sea kayaking and bungee jumping. Many offer to cram most of it into one day. In short, Cairns is an adrenaline junkie’s paradise.

Considering that I have, of late, begun making noises normally associated with heavy lifting while putting on my socks, I opt for perhaps one of the only things in the world I can honestly say has ever been worth waking up for at 4 a.m.: a sunrise hot-air balloon ride over the Australian tablelands.

After I nearly fall asleep in the hotel elevator, a vision of horror appears through the lobby windows and pulls up to the hotel door. “Raging Thunder” is painted on the side of the bus that has come to fetch me.

It is 4:45, and I am not a morning person, much less an “it ain’t even morning, yet” person.

READYFORFUN, MATE?

I resign myself that if some yahoo with “Raging Thunder” on his bush hat screams into the tour-bus microphone, “Are ya ready to have some fun, mate?” I am going to end up rotting in an Australian prison awaiting endless appeals of my murder conviction. And, no, you aren’t made a citizen for doing things like that anymore.

However, the international incident never materializes. The interior lights are kept off, and many are sleeping. The driver is hushed as he asks my name as if he is going to be along shortly with my morning tea and a newspaper. After a 45-minute nap, I awake to see the quiet and purple glow of a new day broken by roaring flames leaping into multicolored balloons, noise and flame fading as the bags swell and begin to float up from the grass.

The response among the gang of 20 loading into the basket is one of church-whispered reverence. The safety briefing is in hushed tones, and the heat of the burners is welcome against the morning chill. Another roar of light and heat, then floating and silence.

A mist hangs among the farms of the tablelands and between the peaks of the rain-forested mountains that lift the plateau above the Queensland coast. The sun peeks above the ridgeline and begins to warm. It is the ultimate anti-adrenaline rush, a slow, sleepy morning massage leading into a beautiful new day Down Under. The winds are calm, and the flight lasts for an hour. If it lasted for a week, it would not be long enough.

The sun, sitting upright in the sky above the mountains, is our wake-up call. Our descent, slowed by the roar and heat of the balloon’s burners, is a wake-up call for dozens of wallabies in a field below. They begin bouncing out of crops as if in a 5- or 6-acre whack-a-mole game.

It is a sight that has me smiling the next day when I am once again airborne after Neville drops me at the Hinterland Aviation Terminal for the 30-minute flight up the jaw-dropping Queensland coast to a small outback airfield and my destination, Peppers Bloomfield Lodge.

The pilot turns to me on approach and says, “Sorry, you missed a bit of fun. The folks from the lodge have already cleared the airstrip. We sometimes have to buzz the field to get the wallabies off so we can land. It is quite a sight.” No worries. I had seen the show the day before.

Peppers Bloomfield Lodge is a fortress of solitude, accessible only by boat and serving just 34 guests at a time. The resort is situated at the mouth of the Bloomfield River on the coast of Weary Bay in Far North Queensland, placing it in the middle of the only place on Earth where two World Heritage Protected Sites, the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef, lie side by side.

The resort has been in this locale for much less than the 100 million years that the Daintree Rainforest has been around, yet it is tucked in so neatly that you hardly notice the place until someone comes out of nowhere to hand you a cocktail.

It is so chummy with its environs that one of its premier bungalows has no windows. Actually on one side, it has no walls. So, it is just you, your significant squeeze, a beautiful breeze and about a fourth of the world’s known insects and snakes, all comfy cozy.

For those less trusting of mosquito netting, the other bungalows are enclosed with plush hardwood furnishings and beautiful views of the river, through windows. Even so, if you are the slightest bit uptight about sharing your living space with geckos and other small lizards, stay at the Shangri-La in Cairns; you will have houseguests in the rain forest.

In fact, you are more likely to see a gecko than a staff member. Rooms are tidied as if by magic. The bar is open all day on an honor system. Bloomfield is all about guests experiencing their surroundings. The whole place has a mi-casa-es-su-casa vibe.

Cocktail hour and the time immediately after meals are when the staff inquires about your plans for the next day and makes tour arrangements. Some tours are further afield, such as a flight to cattle-station country to view Aboriginal cave paintings. Others are just up the river and around the bend.

MARRIAGECOUNSELING

On one of the tours, female members of the Walker family of the Wujal Wujal (pronounced WooJoo WooJoo) tribe lead a walk to Bloomfield Falls. Gloria, a large, painfully shy woman, is our guide. As is the custom with many Aboriginal people, direct eye contact with others is considered rude, and Gloria is leading her first group of foreign tourists to the falls.

I try to help her break the ice and get used to dealing with nosy tourists as we stroll the half-mile walk to the falls.

“So, can you tell me about the history of the falls?”

“Yes.”

Minutes go by, and then we pass a sign warning of recent crocodile activity.

“I guess you have seen your share of crocodiles, huh? Have you had any close calls?”

“Yes.”

Then suddenly, she talks as she points to the right.

“Paintings on the rock, over there. … Platypus, crocs and things. … very old.”

Before us, the trail opens onto a shore descending into a pool and a serene waterfall.

“No further. It’s sacred,” she says.

“Why is it sacred?”

“This place is for marriage counseling.”

We all look at each other, perplexed.

“The marriage counselor brings people here?”

“No.”

Then suddenly, from nowhere, Gloria finds a monotone tour-guide groove: “If you have a problem with your husband. You both walk to the falls. Take a drink together, be quiet, and watch the water. After an hour, you walk back home. No more problem.”

After I pick my jaw up off the rocks, I tell her, “I would probably have to build my house right here to save myself all that walking.”

To our delight, Gloria erupts in a snort followed by a robust laugh.

“My aunt’s husband made this path up here with his feet, all by himself,” she says.

All of Bloomfield Lodge’s many outings, from snorkeling to bird-watching, are guided, and with good reason. Return business. It is in everyone’s interest to give you the experience of Australia at its wild and woolly best — but without some of the more permanent side effects.

The rain forest is so chock-full of mammoth palms, strangler figs, wild orchids, spiders larger than your outstretched hand and a fifth of Australia’s indigenous birds all squawking at once that you can miss the signs along the river paths warning of crocodiles.

Yup, as in Crocodile Dunbitme. As in you are walking your poodle one minute, and the next you are saying, “Where did Fifi go?” I guess now is as good a time as any to discuss the realities of the Australian wilds.

Pay attention to signs. If it says, “Stingers, No Swimming,” don’t swim. If it says, “Warning. Crocodile Activity,” be warned; they’re there, and they’re active. As in, “So long, Fifi.”

In short, Charles Darwin has a plan for tourists stumbling about Australia as if it were the neighborhood park. There is no need to stay locked in your bungalow, but talk with the locals, talk with the guides and heed their advice.

Outside Australia, the usual suspects get all the headlines: said crocodiles and the great white shark, also known as “Mr. White” or “Whitey” in the south and “tiger shark” up north. Scary-looking, big teeth. They make for one good and many bad movies.

However, the locals are more wary of some cuddly-sounding critters that can just as quickly punch your transfer ticket from Down Under to Really Down Under.

“Stingers” is a slightly understated, but more appropriate little nickname, for a box jellyfish, which if you confuse it with a box turtle and try to take it home with you in an old shoebox, will kill you — as in dead, as in $4,000, please, to fly your carcass back home.

Being an expatriate Texan on the East Coast, I have come to know certain truths and their consequences. When in Texas, check your boots for scorpions, or you will get stung; when swimming in the Atlantic, watch for sea nettles and jellyfish, or you will get stung. As in ouch, that smarts; I hate it when that happens.

Down Under, the cute little box jelly is a truth that is significantly more consequential. Here is the play-by-play.

You’ll be swimming happily along, and next you’ll exit the water at high speed, screaming, then pitch face-first onto the sand. Not to worry, the pain won’t last long, because you’ll quit bothering to breath in about three to five minutes. So, if there is nobody around sporting a CPR merit badge, your vacation just became permanent.

The box jellyfish is responsible for more deaths in Australia than snakes, sharks and saltwater crocodiles together.

Here is some of the rest of the hit-list hit parade.

m Irukandji. A jellyfish that is nearly invisible to the naked eye. It is the smallest animal on Earth capable of killing humans. Its poison is so slow-acting that most deaths are misdiagnosed as simple heart attacks.

• Blue ring octopus. A beautiful inhabitant of the Great Barrier Reef. Touching one ruins the day for everyone on the tour boat and gets you an ambulance ride with the lights on.

m Barrier Reef cone shell. Different cute critter, same results as above.

• Red back spider. A cousin of the black widow that is common around Australian backyard toolsheds and (get this little travelers’ tip) likes to nest in groups under the toilet seats of public rest stops.

• Taipan. A snake whose venom is strong enough to kill 100 adults with only one bite.

• Brown snake. A little less venomous, but it gets you just as dead.

In fact, of the 10 most dangerous snakes in the world, eight are found in Australia.

All of this is not intended to get you worried. Just use some common sense and talk to the locals before venturing out in the wilds.

If a visiting Ozzie wanted to go jogging in Rock Creek Park alone at 1 a.m., you would suggest he do so surrounded by a Navy Seal team. That is because this is your jungle, and you know all about the habitat and the animals that inhabit it. So don’t go diddy-bopping around the Outback without using basic sense.

BIGMAMA

Bloomfield’s most popular excursion is a day trip aboard the locally built 18-meter ketch Big Mama, which offers a much more sedate expedition to the Hope Islands and the Great Barrier Reef than the Coral Sea tourist soup served up by the adventure tourism storefronts in Cairns.

Big Mama is up on blocks for yearly repairs, so, instead, six guests travel by car to the beach and board the Rum Runner, a large dive boat, and head to Cape Tribulation to rock and roll out to the reef.

The off-season crowd is about half the usual size, but it still seems like an oceangoing tour bus. At least it is not 4 a.m. when the crew starts yelling at the throng onboard, “Are you ready to have some fun, mates?”

Then they ask if anyone onboard saw the movie “Open Water,” the 90-minute snuff film about scuba divers who surface to find that their tour boat has left them to get gnawed on by sharks all night.

When some hands go up, the whole crew cheers in unison, “It wasn’t us.” I feel so much safer. However, being one to travel in acceptance mode, I tune my vacation sensibility to “party time” setting.

The trip out to one of the small islands that dot the reef is noisy and silly, with the crew obviously having performed this skit for many a boatload before us. In fact, the tan lads have smirks on their faces that perpetually reveal their disbelief that they are getting away with being paid to assist vacationing college girls with their cocktails and swim fins.

“That’s one of our mates, Jackie, up there on the mast. He’ll be keeping a sharp lookout for any lost bikini tops.”

“At your service, you can count on me, ladies,” Jackie yells from atop the mast. It has the feel of a commando raid performed by the Little Rascals.

The well-rehearsed lines accompany precise movement about the stage, and all the goings-on do not hinder the crew as they perform a safety briefing for scuba diving, hand out snorkeling gear and prepare the cabin for lunch.

“What was that restaurant where you were maitre ‘d, Jackie?”

“La petite Sheila, mate.”

After acclimating to the party on deck, the quiet of getting under the water almost comes as a shock, but within minutes, a visual spectacle replaces the follies onboard.

AHAPPYPLACE

Fish and coral in colors not even dreamed of at Crayola, starfish of cobalt blue, golden light streaming in beams through the calm surface. I am on an underwater balloon ride; it is another anti-adrenaline rush. Calm, quiet, floating.

I finally have a tangible happy place to go in my mind during my next yoga class: “How Australia got to be such a rough and tumble good time.” Or “Captain Cook discovers a continent, but then gets all full of himself and gets his head beat in on Valentine’s Day.” But that was in Hawaii.

In 1770, an admiral, under orders from King George III, sent Cook on a mission to Tahiti, and while he was in the neighborhood, to hang a left and toddle over to Terra Australis Incognita and see if it was there. It sounded like a fun little detour.

However, though Cook was plenty good at sailing, he didn’t know Latin, so little did he know he was looking for the “Unknown Southern Continent.” No one in the admiralty had actually seen this Australis place, but it sounded smashing to hear them tell about it and well worth the trouble to find.

Cook did as he was told and discovered Australia right where people said it should be if it was there. Thus, he claimed everything he could see from the deck for the king.

Without maps, it was not long before Cook discovered a large chunk of Great Barrier Reef with the bottom of his ship the Endeavor’s hull. Cook watched his boat sink, but before he returned home, he named some of the more prominent landmarks in the Daintree area, such as Cape Sorrow, Mount Misery and Cape Tribulation, names that still say a lot about the history of Down Under.


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