This is the seventh blog post on our round the world trip August – November 2016. It covers Cairns, Port Douglas and the Daintree rainforest.
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Our flight from Adelaide to Cairns on Jetstar was uneventful – fortunately the checkin agent ignored our overweight bags. Even though we were going east we had to put our watches back as there is no daylight saving time in Queensland.
Cairns is the centre for tourism in Northern Queensland but the airport was surprisingly small. Our car rental from East Coast was off-airport and we were driven to the town centre by an American (one of the very few we met in Australia) who had lived not far from us in New Jersey.
We stayed two nights in Cairns in a guest house which seems to be the only old building left on the Esplanade. It had definitely seen better days but made a change from a plastic motel room. Most of its residents were feathered.
We were glad we had the car as Cairns is a very spread-out place with wide streets. The centre was very busy and we had difficulty finding a parking space before eating huge steaks on the pavement outside Outdoor Jacks. There was a choice of three ice cream shops on the same block. We were definitely back in civilisation.
We had a quieter day making plans for our 16-day stay in Queensland as we had only booked the guest house, car and one tour before we left home. The visitor centre was very helpful and booked us on the Kuranda train trip and Skyrail cableway for the next day.
Kuranda Scenic Railway
The Kuranda Scenic Railway is a tourist train that winds up through the rainforest to Kuranda Village. The railway was opened in 1891 with the aim of serving the mining areas to the west. The train takes almost 2 hours to travel 23 miles on a single track built into the side of a mountain and climbing over 1000ft. Some of the carriages were over 100 years old and had plenty of woodwork inside. You can either return on the train or on the Skyrail cableway.
We joined the train at Freshwater station where we could leave the car. It was rather drizzly when we left, but the weather did improve quite a bit during the day. The train was fairly full and we had numbered seats. There were a lot of Japanese people. The two locomotives had been painted all over by local aboriginals in bright colours on a blue background.
Kuranda Village consists almost entirely of restaurants and assorted tourist traps. First we went in the opposite direction from the village and took a boat tour on the river which was not enormously exciting except that we could see the Skyrail way above the river. Scary.
The boat was not very full but it did have a lodger in a bird’s nest among the life jackets.
After lunch and inspecting some of the tourist shops we headed back down the street to the Skyrail terminal. Cable cars are not my favourite means of transport but I was not going to miss this. The cars each hold 4 people and for most of the journey you are suspended above the rain forest. Only the last bit is steep down.
There are two places to stop and walk to viewpoints. You have to get out and change to a different car at the second one where there was also a park ranger doing guided tours along a short path. The Skyrail is 7.5km long and it took about 1 hour including the stops to reach terra firma. I did it, after peering through my fingertips for the first few minutes.
A bus (with another Australian joker driving it) took us back to Freshwater where we rejoined the car and drove for an hour north to Port Douglas.
At Port Douglas we stayed in a very nice and modern motel room with a kitchen at the Best Western Lazy Lizard. The owner (an Irishman) suggested eating at the Combined Club at the marina where we had a very good meal.
Although it was dark we could see that Port Douglas was a much nicer place than Cairns. Bits of it looked rather like the smarter coastal areas of Florida where, we were alarmed to see, a hurricane was approaching and headed not too far from our house – fortunately it later moved away.
The road to Cooktown by 4WD bus
The next day was the one trip we had booked in advance – a 4WD bus tour to Cooktown which is north beyond the World Heritage Daintree Rainforest. Kate, who was both guide and driver, from Adventure North Australia picked us up at 8am. There were already 4 other people on the bus which had started from Cairns at 6.30am.
This was not the slowest bus we have ever been on. We first passed sugar cane fields and some farmland and then arrived at the Daintree River ferry which is a chain ferry. We had to wait for a fuel tanker to be taken across on its own. There were plenty of crocodile warnings but no crocs and very few of what Kate called “loggerdiles”.
We drove on a twisty road through the Daintree, stopping at the Heritage Lodge for scones and jam and cream which the Australians seem to eat for elevenses. There were plenty of road signs for cassowaries and some people who joined the tour at the Heritage had seen 2 of them.
We continued past Cape Tribulation which was just a few houses, then past Emmergen Creek and on to the 4WD only Bloomfield Track. This road was not as bad as we had been led to believe as it had recently been graded. It’s quite narrow and Kate had a radio to warn other traffic when we were racing up the hills.
At the end of the rainforest we stopped for a while at Wujal Wujal aboriginal shop and craft place. We were now out of the rainforest and in cattle country. This was also on a big river and a local was sitting dangling his feel in it – were there no crocs?
We had lunch at a cafe in the village of Ayton, named after Ayton in Yorkshire where Captain Cook was born. Our final stop was at the Lions Den pub, one of those extremely quirky establishments you come across in out of the way places. There was a life-size model lion at the front, also plenty of weird notices and a long-haired guy playing the guitar.
We finally arrived at Cooktown at 2.30. This was another spreadout place but not very big. The town’s claim to fame is that Captain Cook ran aground here in summer 1770 and had to repair his ship. Kate drove us round and then up to a great viewpoint where it was very windy. Cook had used it as a lookout and there were display boards about him.
The locals certainly make the most of their association with Caption Cook. Apart from the name of the town itself there’s a statue of him, a cairn which marks the exact place where he ran aground and a plaque at the place where he made peace with the locals.
Some of the other people on the tour were staying at Cooktown which might have been nice but it didn’t seem like there was much to do there except visit the James Cook Museum. This we did while Kate was having 30 minutes rest. It was a nice local museum with good displays about Captain Cook’s 7 weeks in Cooktown including a big model of his ship the Endeavour.
The drive back was on the Mulligan Highway, the main road to the west of the Daintree. We passed some black rock mountains which are apparently the only home for 3 animal species, and had a brief stop for a snack at the Palmer River Roadhouse.
The scenery from a viewpoint on the Great Dividing Range in the late afternoon was quite spectacular. We were back at the Lazy Lizard at 7.30. It’s 350km one way from Cairns to Cooktown on the main road. Kate would not be back at Cairns until 8.30. A long day.
A planning day
Our main reason for going to Northern Queensland was to see the Great Barrier Reef. Research on the Internet led us to Quicksilver’s tour to Agincourt Reef. Next day (a Friday) we went to their office to book for the following Monday but were told that the weather on Tuesday would be “as good as it gets” so we booked for then.
What to do on the days in between? Another visit to the Daintree (at a slower pace than Kate) was the obvious thing and so we booked Saturday and Sunday night at the Daintree Rainforest Retreat Motel. We briefly visited the 4 mile beach at Port Douglas where a sign warned of a recent croc sighting and another one cautioned against stingers of which box jellyfish are the most lethal. All the warning notices are also in German apparently because Germans have been less cautious about crocs. People were in the sea in a marked out area further along.
The Daintree rainforest and the cassowary hunt
Then began the great cassowary hunt. They look at bit like emus but with a shorter neck and fatter body. The females are larger than the males and can be 6ft tall. They have a bluish tinge to their feathers and a kind of crest on their heads. They also have a set of very nasty claws.
The females definitely have their act together. As soon as they have laid their eggs, they go off enjoying themselves while the males incubate the eggs and look after the chicks. They only eat certain fruits which are neatly recycled. The seeds come out of the other end of the bird and grow again. The nearest we had got to one so far was in the Crocodile Park at Broome but there is a good chance of seeing one in the wild in the Daintree.
On the way to the Rainforest Retreat we stopped at Mossman Gorge, a pleasant scenic area now managed by aboriginals. There’s a new visitor centre, restaurant and shop and you can walk some way through the rainforest.
We crossed the Daintree River on the chain ferry and only stopped at Cow Bay on our way to the motel. This was a lovely sandy beach – with crocodile warnings.
The retreat motel was just a little way back from the road and surrounded by dense forest. We had a nice room in a low block overlooking a small square lawn. It was very dark and we were glad to be lent a good torch which helped to find our way to the pub across the road for dinner.
On our one full day in the Daintree we pursued the cassowary hunt as we explored the area in more detail. We slowed down every time we came to a cassowary road sign but to no avail.
There are several boardwalk trails off the road. The Marrdja boardwalk concentrated on botanic features. The rainforest is very dense with tree ferns, lianas and a high canopy. Some of the mangroves had roots growing up called snorkel roots. There is also a very nasty stinging tree which has little hairs that stick to you and cause excruciating pain which can last for months.
We visited several spectacular sandy beaches all with crocodile warnings but no cassowaries.
At the Daintree Ice Cream Company we had the day’s special, a combination of coconut, passion fruit, wattle seeds and black sapote. Almost all their fruits for the ice cream, including some I had never heard of, are grown on their premises. The owner recommended the Jindalba trail for the cassowary.
By the time we left the Daintree we had been to this trail three times but the nearest we got to the cassowary was hearing it grunting some way away.
Our second dinner in the Daintree was at a place called Crocodylus which is a kind of jungle camp. They have a barbecue on Sundays. We had plenty of good food at a good price and the whole evening was very well organized.
On the way back to Port Douglas we visited the Daintree Discovery Center where you can walk on an elevated metal walkway which is mostly about 4m off the ground. There is a 26m tower with good views. There was no sign of the cassowary on the Cassowary Walk but plenty about it in the information area.
We stopped off by the Daintree River to take a river trip. The scenery was very pleasant, and we had another Australian joker for a guide, but we saw only 3 crocodiles. The 1-metre one was the largest crocodile we saw in the wild on the entire trip.
Back at the Lazy Lizard another guest told us that Etty Beach south of Cairns was a good place to see the cassowary. We would be there in a couple of days. Let’s hope we have more luck.