When I pulled into the very tropical town of Port Douglas (pop. 4,000) last week, I was pretty tired from my long drive
across the bone-dry Outback, so I decided to stay here for a day or two. But Port Douglas, as I discovered, was a really nice
town, so I ended up staying for an entire week. And I could've stayed for a month because, of all the small towns
that I've visited in Australia so far – and I've been to a lot of them – Port Douglas is probably my favorite.
After traveling across the dry Outback, I was starting to wonder if I'd ever seen rain
again. This is Creedence Clearwater Revival singing Have You Ever Seen the Rain?
March in tropical Australia is towards the end of the Wet Season, or simply "The Wet" as they call it, and Port Douglas is usually
pretty rainy this time of year. Fortunately though, the weather cooperated this past week and, although it was hot and sticky
here with occasional afternoon deluges, it wasn't any worse than, say, Miami in June. I could handle it. In fact,
after traveling through some of the hottest and driest parts of the world, the high humidity and intermittent downpours
were actually quite refreshing.
The main city in northeastern Australia is Cairns (pop. 100,000), which is about 40 miles 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 747s, 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 really 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 website and replying to e-mails, I finally emerged from my
room at the Lazy Lizard Motel, the nicest motel I've stayed at so far in Australia and, with off-season rates of only US$37 a night,
a real bargain. I drove up to the tropical Mossman Gorge in the afternoon and hiked around the steamy, old growth Daintree
Rainforest there for an hour.
Above: The Daintree Rainforest was named for Richard Daintree (1832 - 1878), an Australian
geologist and photographer. At 180 million years old, it's the oldest forest in the world. Gee, it doesn't
look a day over 179 million years old.
And when I say "old growth" I really mean it. Scientists estimate that the Daintree Rainforest has been there
for about 180 million years, back before the large dinosaurs roamed the earth. In fact, it's considered to be the oldest forest in the
entire world and includes some of the world's oldest species of plants and trees.
Some of the plant species I walked by there have been on the Earth for over 100 million years, which is staggering. The 460 square-mile
Daintree is a fascinating jungle with an incredible amount of biological diversity, far greater diversity than anywhere else in Australia, with
thousands (millions perhaps) of plant and animal species. I'd definitely recommend visiting it if you ever get up to Port Douglas.
But be ready to sweat, though, because after about 10 minutes into my hike, my shirt was totally drenched.
Later that afternoon I drove down to the peaceful Daintree River and hopped on a small, quiet electric-powered boat for a "croc
spotting" cruise. The trip lasted an hour and we saw a couple of crocodiles (albeit disappointingly small) along with lots of
tree snakes and exotic birds. But best of all, our guide looked a lot like Jennifer Aniston. Not bad for eight bucks.
Above left: A swinging bridge in the Daintree.
Above right: Folks enjoying a swim in the Daintree Rainforest. But watch out for those crocs!
Above left: The rainforest includes whisk ferns and club mosses, some of the oldest plants in the world.
Above center: A short while later, I went down to the Daintree River and hopped on a boat to go croc spotting.
Above right: Hunting for crocodiles on the Daintree. Jennifer Aniston is to the left, steering the boat.
Above left: Looking upstream into the Daintree rainforest. At 460 square miles, this is
the largest contiguous tropical rainforest in Australia.
Above center: That little blob is one of the "salties" we spotted. It's definitely
not a good idea to swim here.
Above right: The quiet Daintree River and rainforest at sunset. A large flock
of huge bats descended a few moments after I took this photo. They were, quite literally, 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 with Dorothy.
The GREAT Great Barrier Reef
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 six weeks earlier. 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.
Above: The Quicksilver heading out to the reef.
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.
Nevertheless, it was a beautiful morning and I perched myself on the top deck as the QuickSilver cruised through the Pacific at
25 knots. After a couple hours, we reached Agincourt Reef where we tied up to an offshore "pontoon" (i.e., floating
platform). 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 into 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 on the Quicksilver 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, so you'll just have to
imagine it. My only regret about the reef trip was going on the overstuffed 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 (gee, what a concept), go on a smaller boat.
As I've mentioned in previous updates, there are lots of hazards in Australia that keep you on your toes here, such as mooching
kangaroos. Quite seriously though, one of the hazards of going on a reef trip is being left behind 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 they
depart in the morning and then again just before they leave 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 final and most important reef tip:
Del's Reef Tip #3
Don't get left behind.
Above left: The next morning, it was onto the Quicksilver for a dash out to the Great Barrier Reef.
Above center: Settling in for our trip out to the reef. The outer reef is about 50 miles offshore
and takes a couple of hours to get there.
Above right: Tying up to the floating pontoon at Agincourt Reef.
Above left: Feeding the masses on the pontoon. I skipped lunch so I could have more time
swimming in the reef. Heck, you can eat barbeque chicken anytime, but how often can you swim on the Great Barrier Reef?
Above right: We left the pontoon after a few hours and headed back to Port Douglas. That watercraft in
the foreground, tied up to the pontoon, is a semi-submerged viewing platform, kind of like the submarine at Disneyland.
Above left: So long, Agincourt Reef.
Above center: Heading back to Port Douglas. Hopefully everyone's aboard!
Above right: Arriving back in Port Douglas that afternoon, salty, sunburned and smiling. The Great Barrier Reef was amazing.