Archive | July, 2013

Queensland Adventures — The Jungle.

16 Jul

Chris and I travelled to the far north of Queensland, Australia to experience the Great Barrier Reef and the tropical jungle. In the popular imagination, fashioned by films and fiction, the jungle is a steamy, noisy, dangerous environment. One has to hack through dense, tangled undergrowth with a machete, be on the lookout for venomous snakes dangling down from the tress and be deafened by a cacophony of chattering monkeys, shrieking birds and a rasping chorus of cicadas. Rivers are infested with voracious piranhas and deadly crocodiles. Then there is the constant threat of encountering fierce cannibals or head-hunters.
Of course, that wasn’t the reality for us in the Queensland rainforest and we weren’t na├»ve enough to expect it. We had already been on a jungle trek in Ghana, Africa and the most dangerous thing we encountered was an army of viciously biting red ants which marched up several tourists’ legs! We found out where the phrase “ants in your pants” came from. Much of that African guided walk concentrated on the medicinal qualities of plants and the symbiotic relationship between certain trees and certain insects. All the birds and animals were hiding away high up in the forest canopy and we would have had to have got up before dawn to have any chance of seeing them.
It was the same in Queensland. The rain forest was disappointingly “safe” and quiet. Much has been chopped down anyway to make way for sugar-cane plantations. The Daintree Rain Forest even has a fairly busy, metalled road running through the middle of it, so the biggest danger for a bird or an animal is not being pounced on by a predator but being mown down by a 4 by 4. A lot of the wildlife is endangered because of loss of habitat or human enchroachment. Before the Daintree was turned into a National Park and a World Heritage Site, the Queensland government was actually selling off large chunks of it for development in order to make money. Luckily the buyers were prevented from creating farms, logging businesses, golf courses or tourist resorts by conservation laws that came in the nick of time to protect such a unique and fragile environment.
We drove up from Port Douglas on a small group tour. We knew that we wouldn’t be visiting the fantasy jungle of popular fiction, but did have high hopes of spotting a crocodile or possible catching a glimpse of a snake. There was also a very slim chance of coming across a weird flightless bird called the cassowary. It is the third biggest bird in the world after the ostrich and the emu. Only 110 survive in the huge Queensland rain forest and our chances of seeing one were rated as only 10%.
Our first little jungle trek was in the Mossman Gorge. It was along a well worn tourist track. No machetes were needed. A crystal clear river tumbled over a scattering of boulders, whilst jungle trout lurked in the shallows. A colourful Bush Turkey scuttled through the undergrowth. But apart from that, the main interest was in the trees, all fighting each other in a race for the light. We learnt about the Strangler Fig, a silent killer, which slowly squeezes the life out its host. Then there’s an unusual tree ( name forgotten) that opens up little splits in its bark to secrete a sweet, sticky sap. This attracts ants which then repel any other predators which might harm the tree. It is a fascinating example of cooperation in the wild. OK, we didn’t get pounced on by a jaguar or half squeezed to death by an anaconda ( wrong continent anyway), but it was still an absorbing and unusual experience for us urbanites from the UK.
Our first big opportunity to encounter one of Steve Backshall’s “Deadly 60” was our crocodile cruise on the Daintree River estuary. Here salty sea water mixes with the freshwater running down from the mountains to form an ideal habitat for Australia’s largest and most deadly predator, the Estaurine Crocodile. I had read about lethal crocodile attacks on people foolish enough to swim in the quiet lagoons just off the main river. We were told the story of a man who had taken his two sons, 7 and 5, on a fishing trip on the Daintree. At the end of the day, he pulled his boat up on to the river bank and briefly turned his back on his sons to secure it. When he turned back, his 5 year old, who had been playing at the water’s edge, had suddenly disappeared. An estuarine crocodile had struck without warning.
So it was with a frisson of fear tinged with nervous excitement that we set off on our croc cruise. I had already decided that if we spotted one I wouldn’t lean too far over the side of the boat to take a picture! The river is densely bordered by mangrove forests. We glided slowly along the river bank, scouring the tangled roots and branches for signs of life. As the undergrowth closed in on us I was briefly transported to the scene in “Dr No” when Bond and his companions are penetrating deep into the villain’s jungle heartland. The side creeks, favourite haunts of crocodiles, were so overgrown that we could barely struggle through them, with overhanging branches regularly lashing the roof of the boat. We went to a place where a female crocodile had been located all week, but when we got there, she’d disappeared! Another crocodile nesting place on a wooded island had been attacked and destroyed by a gang of feral pigs, eager for an easy meal of eggs and tiny reptiles once the adult mother was away. The pigs had been set loose by people in the past so that they could have fun hunting them. Now they are a real problem.
We didn’t have much luck. All we saw were two baby crocs, one a few weeks old and one about a year. They had left the care of their mother and stood very little chance of survival. Both of them lay completely still on logs by the waterside, well camouflaged and barely discernible. As we looked at the second young croc, a green tree snake slithered through the leaves, causing a ripple of excitement to run through our group. It disappeared in seconds. The snake proved to be the highlight of the river trip and our scary encounter with a giant crocodile remained firmly in our imaginations.
North of the Daintree river, we left the main drag to explore a side track barely wide enough to contain our vehicle. This went through a stretch of private forest that the tour company had negotiated entry to. On another bushwalk we spotted a large, greeny grey lizard clinging to a trunk. It was completely motionless. It was a Boyd’s Forest Dragon. It had large, swivelling eyes, a double crest on its head and a line of fleshy spikes running along the length of its back. Like the baby crocodiles, it was very well camouflaged and we only spotted it due to the expertise and sharp eyes of our excellent guide. With patience and skill there is wildlife to be found in Australia’s rain-forest. It’s not just a mass of trees.
We drove on, deeper into the jungle. Then, as casually as you like, a very large, flightless bird wandered out of the forest and on to the track right in front of us. It had a blue face that turned pale orange at the back of its longish neck. At the bottom of its throat hung a small red, turkey-like wattle. It’s round, dark brown body looked as if it was covered with fur rather than feathers and its long white legs ended in 3 large splayed toes, festooned with talons. The most extraordinary thing though was a bony crest that sat on top of its head. It was an adolescent cassowary, one of those mysterious birds that we had only a minimal chance of spotting. It was probably a female as it was on its own. The males look after the eggs and the chicks. while the females wander free, leading a promiscuous lifestyle.
It was the high spot of the trip. We had seen a large exotic and rare bird, in the wild. This wasn’t a zoo. We watched it for a minute or more and then it melted back into the forest.
Later we went to see an adult cassowary at Port Douglas wildlife park.( the excellent Wildlife Habitat.) Its head and neck were a deep glowing blue. It had a bright red wattle hanging down at the front and red, bubbly skin at the back, just before it’s neck joined the dark feathers of its body. The bony crest or helmet was large and striking. It is called a casque and grows to about 7 inches ( 18cms) in height. Nobody know for sure the purpose of this casque. It could be used for sexual signalling or employed as a weapon or a foraging tool. It may be a device for amplifying sound or simply a battering ram, as the cassowary lowers its head and charges through the forest at speeds of up to 31 mph. It’s a strange but beautiful bird and still very much a mystery wrapped up in an enigma ( with apologies to Winston Churchill.) Cassowaries can be dangerous when startled, lashing out with their large, sharp claws. The middle one is particularly dangerous. They are capable of disembowelling a human or a dog if cornered. But such attacks are rare and it is the cassowaries that are in most danger, from dog attacks or speeding traffic. Also those pesky feral pigs are a problem again. They destroy eggs and nests and compete for food. Cassowaries can swim in rivers and the sea. They emit a low, booming sound, right on the edge of human hearing. They live for 40 to 50 years.
So, no big crocs, only one small snake, no poisonous spiders, no Tarzan and no Jane. But our brief sighting of the elusive Southern Cassowary in the wild was a thrilling encounter leaving an indelible memory. It was our David Attenborough moment and the unexpected highlight of our Queensland jungle adventure.

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QUEENSLAND ADVENTURES — Breaking on Through.

6 Jul

My wife Chris, and I travelled to Port Douglas in the far north-eastern corner of Australia in April, 2013, following a visit to Sydney to see her son John and his partner Freya. Port Douglas is a pretty place in an idyllic location. It sits on a peninsula, surrounded on 3 sides by the sparkling ocean. From it’s palm -fringed shore there are views of distant wooded mountains dropping down to the shore. When Chris mentioned to the Aussie husband of a friend of hers that we were going to Port Douglas, he remarked :”Oh, does your husband play golf?” He was thinking of the numerous upmarket resorts that sprinkle the area, complete with their own; gardens, pools, shops, restaurants, gyms, tennis courts and golf courses. In fact there is so much to do that one might easily forget to go out through the security gates and see what Australia looks like! Our friend didn’t think to mention the Great Barrier Reef or the Daintree Tropical Rain Forest which were the real reasons for our visit. Both of them are World Heritage Sites, and are sited in this area of far north Queensland.
We approached our boat trip to the outer reaches of the Barrier Reef with equal amounts of excitement and trepidation. This was to be one of the outstanding highlights of our holiday and we had shelled out a lot of money to go on the trip, yet we were very nervous because neither of us had ever snorkelled before.
For most of my life I have been a very weak swimmer. My mother is a non-swimmer and I’ve inherited her innate fear of deep water. My earliest memory, which I can still vividly recall, is of falling in a boating lake in Colwyn Bay at the age of three. I can still conjure up the memory of being underwater, cut off from the world. My dad quickly dragged me out and I was fine, but the incident probably cemented the fear that was already inside me. Mum used to write me fake sick notes to excuse me from going to swimming lessons with school when I was about 9. On one of the few occasions when I did go, the instructor, an ex-army type, noticed me quivering hesitantly on the edge of the pool, afraid to enter the water. He sadistically ordered me to jump in. I needed gentle, sensitive coaxing, but instead got shock therapy! The result was another near disaster ( in my eyes) and I had to be rescued again. In the end I could only manage a width of doggy-paddle by the time I left primary school. This slowly developed into a pathetic, flapping front- crawl which swiftly exhausted me on my rare visits to the baths. I was scared to go to the deep end where my feet couldn’t touch the bottom.
Gradually through the years, I forced myself to do a slow breast stroke with a poor leg action and my head stuck awkwardly out of the water. Only when I got to 60, helped by Chris, did I finally manage to swim whole lengths without risking drowning. Now at the local pool I can swim up to 30 lengths without getting tired. I may be just about the slowest person in the pool, but it’s still a massive achievement for me.
However, despite this progress, the thought of plunging into the deep ocean, putting my head completely under water and breathing through a plastic tube, caused my old fears to come flooding back. It seemed to me a daunting task. Even though she is a much better swimmer than me, Chris was nervous too. As the boat slipped out of the marina and headed out to open sea, I felt the familiar butterflies fluttering around in my stomach. Would we or wouldn’t we?
As all the guide books tell you, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is one of the natural wonders of the world. It consists of 2900 individual reefs and 900 islands, stretching for 1600 miles off the Queensland coast. It can be seen from outer space and is the world’s largest structure made by living organisms. We saw it from the air as we flew in and out of Cairns. The shallower sea around the reefs glowed a stunning, azure blue. The reef has been built by billions of tiny organisms known as coral polyps. The coral attracts a mesmerising variety of marine life. The whole area was declared a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site in 1981. Taking all this into consideration, I didn’t think there was much chance that I would stay ashore and play a round of golf!
Chris and I sailed out on a large hydrofoil that surfed swiftly over the waves. It carried loads of other passengers — there’s safety in numbers! We were given an illustrated talk about the reef by a marine biologist. Then we watched a short film about how to snorkel, which emphasised how easy it was. I started to think that I’d probably give it a go. The expectation of how wonderful it would be was beginning to overpower my fear of making a fool of myself.
We arrived at a large floating platform on the outer fringes of the reef 40 kms out from Port Douglas. The sun was blazing and the ocean was sparkling. We put off the moment of decision by going for a fascinating ride in a semi-submersible vessel which was part of the package. The top of the boat was above the ocean while the bottom, where we sat, was hanging down below the water and we got a close view of the coral. It was all shapes and sizes and in a variety of hues. Some of the coral formations were like colourful cauliflowers, others were like multi-coloured sponges. We saw giant clams slowly opening and closing their jaws. We saw starfish and shimmering shoals of luminescent tropical fish. The trouble was that all this was viewed through a thick window so everything had a slightly blurred, bluey tinge to it. My numerous photos didn’t turn out very well. Next we ventured into an underwater observation tunnel which hung down from the platform. This too was a very good experience. This time we saw divers plunging between the canyons of coral and amongst the fish. We further prevaricated by eating a delicious buffet lunch on the platform. As we ate I could sense that Chris was hesitating too. Maybe we should have brought notes from our mothers to let us off!
Finally, the moment of truth arrived as time was pressing on. We had travelled halfway round the globe to experience one of the wonders of the world. We had paid a lot of money to go on this trip. We had had instruction and all the necessary equipment was available to us. Lifeguards were on duty to keep us safe. Were we really going to let this fantastic opportunity slip by because we were a bit nervous?
So we did it! We put on black, lycra, wet-suits to protect us from the sun and from stinging box-jellyfish. We clipped on yellow life-jackets. A lifeguard then put on my goggles, ramming them down hard on my nose so that I didn’t have any choice but to breathe through my mouth. She tucked the breathing tube inside the strap of my goggles and showed me how to hold it in my mouth. I had to clench it between my back teeth and then breath through my mouth. I was about to gag but thankfully got matters under control after a few deep breaths. Lastly I put on the long, cumbersome flippers. Standing there on the steps leading down to the water, I felt like a cross between a complete prat and an astronaut. I now knew how Buzz and Neal must have felt before they made their first great steps for mankind! I could tell that the female lifeguard who assisted me could barely contain her laughter!
After counting to three, I launched myself out into the crystal clear water. Chris quickly followed. I floated on the surface for a few moments and then put my head under and breathed through the tube. It worked and it was wonderful! I experienced a big surge of adrenaline. It was if I had been held captive by my life-long fears and now suddenly I was free!
Below me, through the clear, shining water, was a beautiful, colourful section of reef. Black and white striped Zebra fish and rainbow hued Angel fish swam around just below me, almost within touching distance. Shoals of glistening, luminescent blue fish swirled around. And I was watching it all, quietly and calmly, without panicking or spluttering or swallowing half the Pacific Ocean. I cannot give an accurate description of what I saw as it was all a bit of a blur. It was more the thrill of the experience than spotting specific things.
I had had the same liberating feeling of exhilaration when I first went skiing in the Dolomites and when I went white- water canoeing down the Ardeche Gorge in Provence. Both of these “achievements” had come in my early 40’s after half a lifetime of being cautious and timid, a family trait. Both of them felt like I was breaking free of inherited restraints. Snorkelling at the Great Barrier Reef also fitted into this category. To paraphrase Jim Morrison, it felt as if I was breaking on through to the other side.
Regular snorkelers and divers may laugh at me, but, in the context of my life, snorkelling in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Queensland was a memorable experience and wonderful “achievement.” Chris was elated too. We will certainly do it again!