Friday, July 7, 2017

Australia Part Two: Port Douglas, The Great Barrier Reef, Cape Tribulation and the Daintree Rainforest

The Trip Heard Round the World Rolls On!

Giant ferns frame the view on the road from Port Douglas to Cape Tribulation

Hello readers, Chris here, checking in from well after these (hopefully high-resolution) pictures were taken and the events described occurred. It has been a crazy time in the present: Otis is at camp, Balboa the beloved dog is doing his best, I'm looking for work (you hiring?) and Jen is clocking hella grants and I'm writing this post from my parents' home in Pound Ridge, NY (though we are soon to return to our home in Montclair). So rather than talk more about this crazy time, let us cast our recollection back to a simpler time, let us take the way-back machine to March 23rd to 30th, 2017.

Port Douglas

This entry has to do with our trip to Port Douglas, which is the last place in Australia that you'd call any sort of town as you head north up Australia's east coast. It was about an hour and a half drive from Cairns and north of Port Douglas, there's another hour of paved road and then ... rainforest.

Jen absorbs the view at a rest area on the road to Port Douglas from Cairns

The drive up from Cairns was very pretty, as the rainforest comes right down to the (curiously empty and undeveloped) beach and the road rides the border between the two. There are a number of scenic overlooks and plenty of opportunity for the passengers to gape at tropic beach views (the driver cannot gape; the road is quite twisty).

Otis enjoys the view at what was apparently a popular launching spot for hang-gliders

Port Douglas itself is a sunbaked little tourist town that draws visitors to see the Great Barrier Reef, estuarine crocodiles on the Daintree River and the many natural attractions of the Daintree Rainforest. We stayed at the lovely Lazy Lizard Motor Inn, and you should too. Port Douglas has a few restaurants (we ate at The Mexican and Sabi's Kitchen more than one) and a beach. It's quiet, hot, and good for biking if the sun isn't on you. The beach is swimmable because they have a guarded area with nets to keep the box jellyfish and estuarine crocodiles out (two of the three animals that Australians fear).
The three of us inside the jellyfish fence at the Port Douglas beach

It is lovely to play paddleball without any fear of a venomous or toothy death

sun sets over the swimming area

This area of Australia provided us with, in my opinion at least, the very best sunsets on our entire trip, which is especially odd since the coast is east facing. Nevertheless, look at these pictures from Market Park:
This particular view reminds me of the wall decoration in Dr. Jacoby's office in Twin Peaks

And just when you can't justify any more sunset pictures, the moon begins to rise

Another funny thing about Port Douglas was the biological shift change. At dusk, all the lorikeets punch out and roost in the town trees, while the giant fruit bats - which had been snoozing in the trees - punch in and get to work. You do not want to park your car under the lorikeets' trees; Enterprise will not appreciate what they do to it.

The lorikeet day shift punches out and heads to the bar

Port Douglas Excursions

From Port Douglas, we went on three excursions: the Great Barrier Reef, and Cape Tribulation and Mossman Gorge, both in Daintree National Park.

Great Barrier Reef

We went on one big GBR tour, we had been hoping for more, but one was how it worked out. We went out of Port Douglas with Wavelength Reef Cruises and were happy with their tour. They had a pretty impressive knowledge of reef biology and ecology and the threats to its health and welfare. A lot of the reef was bleached, as you may have read, which I knew was a response by corals to heat where they expel the symbiotic zooxanthellae that supply the bulk of the coral's calories. What I didn't know (and hopefully will now relate with some small vestige of my former expertise) was that the corals expel the zooxanthellae because their higher metabolism in warmer temperatures leads to chemical changes inside the corals that become toxic to the polyp. Were they not to discharge the algae, the polyp would die, so the bleaching is a last resort response to a chemical emergency inside the coral.

What I further didn't know was that many corals, prior to bleaching, will change color, becoming fluorescent (which, sadly, our GoPro was not good at capturing particularly) as the coral tries various tricks to slow down the zooxanthellae and reduce the toxic buildup. This meant that the reef as we saw it was a patchwork of brownish, and thus relatively healthy coral, brightly colored, and thus stressed coral, and white, and thus bleached and badly stressed coral.

The Great Barrier Reef as we saw it off of Port Douglas was in a state of emergency, but it was nevertheless in better shape than any other reef we saw on our trip. If you're interested in seeing a coral reef, my advice is to go quickly. I really don't think they'll be around too much longer, and it seems to me that every year their health and beauty are likely to fade until they are gone. Sad but true.

Jen and Otis get ready. We're in the suits for jellyfish protection, not because the water is cold.

Our fist stop was almost Maldivian in its color

Otis takes to the fins

I'm not sure if even this anemone is bleached, but I suspect that it is

seeing these branching corals was nice, because I hadn't seen anything like them since seeing staghorn coral (now endangered) in Antigua when I was 12.

You can see these corals showing off many different colors as a precursor (we were told) to bleaching

This anemone was FAB-U-LOUS!

Cape Tribulation

Cape Tribulation I thought was an actual city in fact but there seems to be no notable human settlement there at all. It marks the end of paved roads in Australia even though it's still some 900 kilometers from the tip of Cape York Peninsula, which I just learned is the easternmost of Australia's two bunny-ear peninsulas.

Since the civilization ends at Cape Tribulation (or really, more like back at Port Douglas), there are vast acres of nearly undisturbed wilderness starting on the outskirts of Port Douglas and extending for vast distances to the north.
A perfect place for a Hilton, if you don't mind half your guests being eaten by crocodiles and the other half dying from jellyfish stings!

Otis kept lookout during this selfie to protect us from any sneaky crocodiles (not really)

The area around Port Douglas has many beaches, and the rainforest reaches right down to the deserted sand. As in Port Douglas, the beaches on Cape Tribulation are unsafe for swimming or sun bathing because of man-eating monsters: estuarine crocodiles, the world's largest living reptile and largest estuarine predator, and two types of box jellyfish - the sea wasp, which just kills you, and the irukandji box jellyfish, which kills you and incites in its victims a "sense of impending doom," apparently rightfully so!

Near this beach we saw our first macropod, which was maybe a tree kangaroo or maybe a wallaby. Whatever it was, it was not photographed but it definitely made our trip to Australia feel more complete.
A wildlife warning sign you are unlikely to see in New Jersey

How not to be eaten

Otis's hand for scale near an Australian golden orb weaver
Not deadly, but perhaps more disturbing to some readers, are the fantastically large Australian golden orb weaver spiders. I've just read that their venom is similar but to but weaker than that of our black widow, and that their chelicerae (spider teeth) and capable of leaving a scar, so perhaps I was unwise to let Otis place his had so near them. (Though really, they just sit there and Otis' hand is not really as close as it appears to be in the picture. Still, wow, that's one hell of a spider.)

basket fern

Much of what we did in Cape Tribulation was walk on boardwalks into different habitats explained through interpretive signs. We saw our old friends the flying fox fruit bats noisily roosting in trees, more kinds of mangroves than one would think possible, a lot of birds and insects and plants. One thing we saw a lot of were these giant epiphytic ferns that made huge baskets in the trees. According to the signs, they provide a lot of valuable habitat.

Cape Tribulation is also the home of the third animal that Australians fear, the ill-tempered and endangered cassowary. We had seen signs all over warning that the giant birds were often killed by cars, so we had been keeping our eyes peeled. We didn't know at this time just how bad their reputation for violence was, so we were quite keen to see one, but we later found out that their reputation is quite extreme. Apparently, cassowaries are unlikely to run from humans, and if they decide their dignity has been brought into question, they'll jump in the air and kick with both feet at the same time. Also, they look like dinosaurs. And probably breathe fire.

Do not taunt happy fun cassowary

And then we saw them! This is a dad cassowary with three or four chicks, and they were visiting the same ice cream stand we were! The Daintree Ice Cream Stand has its own orchard in which it grows unusual tropical fruits from around the world to incorporate into their ice cream and the cassowaries like those fruits as well. The family was walking through the orchard scoring fruits as we were driving in. They almost made us too late to get our ice cream, but not quite. Our ice cream was delicious and full of unknown fruits, we saw a giant stick insect and then walked through the orchard hoping to catch another sight of the cassowaries.
Dad cassowary and the babies (after the eggs hatch, the mom cassowary goes on a long vacation, I saw Jen's eyes light up for a moment when this knowledge was laid upon us) in the Daintree Ice Cream Stand orchard. They look far away in the picture, but as seen with your eyes, they were plenty close! If I recall, our big camera ran out of batteries right when we caught sight of these guys, so this is from the phone.

Otis places his hand near a jackfruit for scale. Otis's hand was our official "for scale" measuring device.

Jen enjoys ice cream as we walk through the orchard looking for the cassowary family. Wary also describes the ice cream stand dude who accompanied us!

The biggest bug phasmid we saw on our whole trip, a giant stick insect at the ice cream stand
Our drive home was full of sunsets, as so much of our trip to Port Douglas was.

Sunset from the Daintree River ferry. Since it was more like a road that drove across the river than a boat, some of us refused to believe we had ever been on a ferry. Eyes were rolled.

Sometimes on the way back from Cape Tribulation, you have to stop at a crocodile infested beach to catch a sight of the sunset.

Mossman Gorge

Just half an hour out of Port Douglas is a subsection of Daintree Rainforest National Park that includes a walking trail to and around Mossman Gorge. It took a few false starts, but we finally got the family up to the gorge on one of our last days in Port Douglas. Luckily (unluckily?) we extended our stay in PD because our next destination, my college roommate's house in Townsville, was under threat from massive Cyclone Debbie. Jen in particular has lingering memories of ten days without power after Superstorm Sandy and Debbie was looking like (and was) a very strong system.

Our Mossman Gorge hike was pretty steamy and pretty mellow, which was lucky for me because my ankle was not healing as well as I hoped and was even getting worse from too much use. We saw many similar sights as we did in Cape Tribulation, but Mossman Gorge was formed by a mountain river instead of the estuarine ecosystems in CT. This meant no jellyfish and no crocodiles!

Do not look directly at happy fun gorge

Though, of course, since this was Australia we're talking about here, death was never far off. Despite the dire warnings of the signs, we found many swimmers in the park and we enjoyed the crystal clear and quite cool water. Swimming in a river like this is one of my favorite things, and I imagine I'll look back with fondness on our Mossman Gorge trip when I've forgotten many of the other adventures on the Trip Heard Round the World.

photogenic mushroom, an earlier Otis would have been more excited but I carry on some of his earlier enthusiasms!

This doesn't even look real, does it?

Probably the coldest water I've ever seen Jen willingly swim in

The actual Mossman River, Otis and Jen were swimming in one of its tributaries

Otis in the Mossman River. This water had a solid current and many jungle perch and was an ideal swimming spot, other than the constant risk of death

Heading South

So that was it for Port Douglas! Cyclone Debbie kept us away from Townsville, where we had hoped for another GBR trip, so we left Port Douglas on March 30th to fly directly to Brisbane. What could go wrong? On our drive back to Cairns, we stopped at one last beach where folks had made a bunch of cairns. Our stay in Port Douglas gave us most of what I, as an American, think of as the real Australian experience. Our next stop in Brisbane gave us a lot more of what is actually probably the more typical Australian experience. See you all there on our next stop!

No comments:

Post a Comment