In the state of Queensland, the tropical weather continued at our next destination; the north eastern coastal city of Cairns. The 5th most populated area in Australia. There is a very different vibe here notable as soon as you arrive; holidays, summer, sea, ice cream and fun. Although it has no beaches of note (there are mudflats) the area is of course host to the Great Barrier Reef and we were promised a whole day there creating a buzz of excitement for us and our fellow travellers. Our welcome to the Hilton included a lovely glass of wine, one of the first hotels to offer this. It was a grand and beautiful lounge and reception area, creating the essence of the sea with its blue art and hints of the aboriginal heritage. Our room, to our absolute delight offered us a fantastic uninterrupted view overlooking the river Barron, our gateway to the Reef. The esplanade skirted the river and the hotel offering us a good walking opportunity with the option to see plenty of scenery, wildlife, swim in the man-made lagoon, shop, eat and drink. This walkway links the hotels with the speedboats, catamarans and reef tour boats so there was plenty to see and do within walking distance.
The city began life in the 1830’s as a seafaring port on the Trinity inlets, much of its history reflected in the buildings that can still be seen dotted around it like the Post Office. The esplanade is planted with mango and frangipani trees that scent the warm air, but do little to mask the stink of ‘eau du tar’ from the road works or the construction going on around Cairns. I couldn’t fail to hear the driver of our coach claim ‘they’ are ruining his town with all this construction, giving a little hint of the local’s perspective on progress. The tigress pointed out the covered night markets which ignite around 4pm with the usual fare of tourist tat and food stuffs but if you care to you might want to spend a bit more money in the Galleria where Louis Vuitton and Prada might be more to your taste. I’d need to spend a bit of time in the Casino if I wanted to shop there! While it was very close to our hotel we didn’t go, therefore I didn’t buy anything expensive and that’s all I have to say about that.
Spectacled flying foxes and giant fruit bats are very common in the tropical North, they dangled upside down from the esplanade trees. Asleep for most of the day, around 530pm they jumped into life to forage across the river to the rainforest for food. Thousands of these animals twittering as they flew, filling the dusk with a continual high pitch squeal as they made their way across the esplanade out into the estuary heading for the rainforest for their evening meal. This lasts for about half an hour, the sky is filled with the spectacled flying bats, sometimes a fruit bat can be seen alongside them but they seemed much happier strutting around Cairns in the absence of their smaller kin.
In the evening we could wander along the esplanade and enjoy fantastic seafood or steak in one of the many restaurants. Steak and a bottle of wine around $80 AUD is about £42 our money. The wash of the sea, the squeal of the bats is almost forgotten as you are tempted by the aroma of food, soaked in spices, herbs and garlic. The staff were friendly, often international travelling around the country, keen to know you, find out what you are doing here and share a bit of their own story. Tipping is not as much of a thing here as it is in America the approach is quite relaxed, if you feel it warrants one then they are happy to accept it but they won’t chase after you for it.
Our first big trip in Cairns was out to the Great Barrier Reef on Saturday, we joined our sizeable craft about 9 am full of anticipation and excitement. I had wanted to scuba dive but there had been some concerns about a previous passenger falling ill after the experience and that made me hesitate. It was just as well we had to book it on the boat. The Lion booked a helmet dive and I intended to join him but his medical history put paid to that. Having had this cancelled I turned my attention back to the scuba dive, the Hyena, a little older than me and a Yorkshireman, had also signed up for it. If he could do it then I would and so following a rigorous checking of my health matters I signed on the dotted line. I was exhilarated with the decision made if more than a bit apprehensive. The information sheet was quite explicit about the risks, the trick was to look right through most of these and find the joy secreted within.
An informative presentation by the on board Marine Biologist advised us that the Reef was 2600 kilometres long and covered an area of 344 400 square kilometres. In 1770 Captain Cook’s ship ran aground here and he was not quite sure why. Following a recce up Lizard Island’s mountainous terrain he noted blue channels between the reef and how he might steer clearly when he left. The area was populated by the indigenous Gurang aborigines at that time. Their Dreamtime stories of the development of the Reef appear to link with the scientific information available. There are around 3000 reef systems within the Great Barrier, these are either 1) fringing reefs which are extensions of islands, 2) ribbon reefs which run parallel to shore but do not have lagoons and 3) the patch reefs, horseshoe in shape which is where we would be berthed. Estimates place the Reef at over 1 million years old with changes affected by the ice age the latest of which was 18 000 years ago. Nowadays the Reef is a world heritage site, protected and monitored for change and deterioration. It is both animal and plant, a living symbiotic organism that adapts to this relationship, its environment and those which depend on it.
The Reef itself consists of a variety of over 600 types of coral, boulder coral, stag horn and leather corals. The marine biologist advised we were going to encounter some of the 6000 species of fish that thrive in this environment. They would be colourful and adaptive in their evolution to maximise their food intake; the Butterfly fish with its long snout to suck out the contents between the coral, the Surgeon fish with a sharp appendage on its tail to fend off predators as it feasts. The famous large Bumphead or Maori wrasse, known affectionately as Willy and Parrotfish that eat coral, grind it down and excrete it as sand back into the sea. The Triggerfish would look very obvious from their pouty mouth. Sea Anemone, giant clams, reef sharks, jelly fish and skates not forgetting 6 of the worlds species of turtles would be out on the reef waiting to meet us.
The rest of the journey we were invited to reflect on the environmental impact we humans were having on the Reef and how this was being combatted. Our Marine Biologist offered a wealth of information about the work being undertaken to counter this. We would see some bleaching caused by global warming. Work is still needed to deal with the antiquated fishing methods in the area, described as work in progress it is clear there is much to be done to protect it. As we neared our destination the anticipation and the anxiety about the dive grew. I knew one thing, this was going to be an absolute highlight of the holiday.