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The GREAT Great Barrier Reef  (Port Douglas)

(Reprint from News: March 28, 2002)

March 24, 2002


The main city in northeastern Australia is Cairns (pop. 100,000), which is about an hour south of Port Douglas.  Australians pronounce it "Cans," but when Americans pronounce it that way, they sound like idiots, so I just say "Cairns."  Cairns is the only city on the northeastern coast that has an airport capable of handling 747's, so most tourists who fly from Sydney to the Great Barrier Reef just stay at Cairns, which is a big mistake.  Other than having an airport, Cairns isn't that great.  In fact, it's kind of a dingy town.  Furthermore, the Reef is just as close to Port Douglas as it is to Cairns.  Since Port Douglas is a lot more pleasant and has a lot more to offer than Cairns, including the nearby Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation, here's a tip:  


Del's Reef Tip #1

If you're going to the Great Barrier Reef, stay in Port Douglas and not in Cairns (or Cans).


After spending about a week in Port Douglas getting caught up with my e-mail and updating my website, I finally emerged from my room at the Lazy Lizard Motel, the nicest motel I've stayed at so far and, with off-season rates of only US$37 a night, a real bargain.  I drove up to the tropical Mossman Gorge that afternoon and hiked around the steamy, old-growth Daintree Rainforest there for an hour.  This is a really interesting jungle and it's a place I'd definitely recommend visiting if you ever get up to Port Douglas.  Be ready to sweat, though, because after about 10 minutes into my hike, my shirt was drenched.


The Australian group, the Bee Gees, have Jive Talked me all over Australia. 

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Later that afternoon, I hopped on a small, quiet electric-powered boat for a "croc spotting" cruise on the peaceful Daintree River.  The trip lasted only an hour, but we did see a couple of crocodiles (albeit disappointingly small) along with lots of tree snakes and exotic birds.  Best of all, the guide looked just like Jennifer Aniston.  Not bad for 8 bucks.


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Above left:  Croc spotting on the lazy Daintree River near Port Douglas.  

Above center:  That little blob is one of the "salties" we spotted.  Definitely not a good idea to swim here.

Above right:  The quiet Daintree River and rainforest at sunset.  A few minutes later, a flock of HUGE bats descended (they were as large as seagulls).  It was like the monkey scene in "The Wizard of Oz" and I thought I was going to get carried off.  "I'll get you, my pretty..."


The next morning, I stuffed my daypack full of suntan lotion, thongs (as in sandals, not as in bathing suits), and a towel and headed out to the Great Barrier Reef, something I'd been looking forward to doing since I arrived in Australia.  The Great Barrier Reef, which is actually a patchwork of several hundred small reefs, lies about 50 miles offshore so you have to take a boat out to see it. 


There are about a gazillion boat companies in Port Douglas that offer Reef trips every day and I picked the biggest boat, called the QuickSilver.  That was a mistake because, as I discovered, the larger the boat, the older and more sedentary the clientele.  As I realized after I paid for my ticket and hopped on board, this was definitely a Lawrence Welk boat.  Not that I dislike Lawrence Welk -- I just don't want to go swimming with him.  Especially since he's been dead for six years.   


Anyway, it was a beautiful morning and I perched myself on the top deck as the QuickSilver cruised out into the Pacific Ocean at 25 knots.  After a couple hours, we reached Agincourt Reef where we tied up to an offshore pontoon, and I immediately dove in the water and stayed there for the most of the next three hours.  As ridiculous as it sounds, I was one of the few people in our 300-person group who actually WENT IN THE WATER (what a strange concept).  In fact, I swam so far from the QuickSilver that one of the lifeguards had to hop in a Zodiac and round me up (oops!), giving me a friendly lecture about not swimming alone in box jellyfish territory.  The other folks mostly ate lunch, walked through the underwater viewing platform, took a trip on a glass-bottomed boat, and listened to Lawrence Welk.


As for the reef:  it's absolutely incredible.  I saw coral of all colors, shapes, and sizes and countless varieties of fish.  Sorry, but I didn't have an underwater camera with me, so I can't post any cool photos of the reef -- you'll just have to imagine it.  My only regret about my reef trip was going on the QuickSilver, so here's another tip for those who want to swim in the Reef:  


Del's Reef Tip #2

If you want to stay dry and eat barbeque chicken, go on a big boat like the QuickSilver.  If you want to actually swim or dive (heaven forbid), go on a smaller boat.


As I've mentioned in previous updates, there are a lot of hazards in Australia that keep you on your toes here, such as mooching kangaroos.  Quite seriously, one of the hazards of going on a reef trip is being left behind on the reef after the boat leaves at the end of the day.  That's not a big problem if there's a pontoon nearby and if a boat comes out every day, like at Agincourt Reef.  But a lot of smaller boats don't come out every day and don't anchor anywhere near a pontoon.  Since the reefs are about 50 miles offshore, this could be... well... a problem, as you might imagine.  


A few years ago, in fact, a young American couple took a dive boat out from Port Douglas to this very same Agincourt Reef -- though miles from the pontoon -- and were inadvertently left behind.  They swam alone in the middle of this shark-infested ocean until they finally succumbed.  Bummer...


To ensure that passengers aren't left behind at the reefs, boat crews typically do "head counts" on board before departing in the morning and then again just before leaving the reef.  Sure enough, we sat in the sun for five minutes while (or "whilst" as they say here in Australia) the crew scrambled around, counting heads.  Unfortunately, the count didn't match the initial count, so we sat there for another five minutes while the crew did another count.  This time, the numbers matched up, so we left Agincourt Reef.  As we said goodbye to the reef, I humorously (or "humourously," as they say here in Australia) kept thinking, "What if their FIRST count was correct?"  Hmmm....


So here's my last Reef Tip:


Del's Reef Tip #3

Don't get left behind.


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Above left:  The next morning, it was onto the Quicksilver for a dash out to the Great Barrier Reef. 

Above center:  The best diving is on the Outer Reef, about 50 miles offshore.  It takes a couple of hours to get there.

Above right:  Tying up to the floating pontoon at Agincourt Reef.


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Above left:  Feeding the portly masses on the pontoon.  I skipped lunch to get more reef time.  Heck, you can eat anytime -- but how often can you swim on the Great Barrier Reef?

Above center:  Heading back to Port Douglas.  I was one of the few people on the boat who actually went in the water.

Above right:  Arriving back in Port Douglas that afternoon, salty and sunburned.  The Great Barrier Reef, though, was amazing.



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