Chilling in the Sounds

The idle tenor of life in the Sounds.
The morning is clear and sunny and rapidly becomes hot. Some of us are a little lobsterish after exposure to the sun out on the water yesterday.
The morning is spent lounging over tea, breakfast then coffees. iPads are in evidence. The New Zealand News is watched. If you go to Sky News it’s all Aussie. The Hobbit premier in Wellington is the big story. Odd how even a brief visit can make a place more real.
Eventually our Calvinist upbringing shames us into action. We decide on an expedition into the big city, Picton, to pick up some supplies. Driving on the winding roads is becoming second nature now. The views of the sound that we catch on the way over are stunning, all under an intense blue sky.
Picton is looking good. It’s central street is well kept and the ornamentally tiled pavements are very attractive. We wander down to the park on the sea front, previously undiscovered, and take a vegetable scone (!) and a very good ginger beer at one of the plesant cafes. We buy postcards, aloe vera for the sunburn and stamps. Then into the well-stocked supermarket. This is in a very small mall. The local teens were hanging out here the day we arrived. Looking cool and detached in such a restricted and obviously provincial space must be quite a challenge but they were doing their best.
Back for further snacks and serious application to lounging. In some cases we may have drifted off for a moment or two.
As the shadows grow on the surrounding headlands some high cloud appears and the breeze gets up. This seems to be a pattern in the Sounds. We decide on a further, marginally more athletic outing. Back up the Moetapu road to Linkwater. Then right off the Picton road to Anakiwa bay to pick up the start of the Queen Charlotte Track. This is a walk beside the sound of that name some 70km in length. It is reckoned to require three to four days to complete. There is a variety of accommodation on offer along the route. You are also required to obtain a DOC permit for the main walk. We are only going for an evening stroll which will not require a permit.
The track is wide and well maintained. The water is a beautiful rich green through the trees. The bush is delightfully cool for walking. There are some very large trees in here and the ubiquitous ponga ferns which still look alien to us. At one point we spot two birds on a nest in a tree. They look like penguins, but since one of them flies off they are clearly not that. Some sort of primitive looking duck, we guess.
We reach a small bay a couple of miles further along. A beautiful area of grass and shingle beach brightly lit by the evening sun. There is a tall wading bird in the water close by. Then we spot a brilliant flash of blue. A kingfisher. The NZ version, like the ones we saw in Oz, is bigger and less shy than the British one. We watch for quite a while as it flies around the mouth of a small stream.

Along the track we’ve seen two other couples. One consisted of a large, bearded American in sandles with an Chinese lady elegantly clad in a way that suggest a fashion-conscious gunslinger.
We take a final look at the whole route on a display map back at the starting point. It would be easily manageable, we think, but would require planning ahead with the accommodation which is how it’s usually done.
Dinner. What to do about it? This is the sort of pressing decision which makes life here so stressful. We opt for eating out in Havelock. The owner of the holiday home has recommended the beer-battered blue cod and chips at the ‘Slip Inn’. So dutifully we set out for the metropolis of Pelorus Sound.
The little town is very quiet when we arrive. Many boats are bobbing in the marina but people are scarce. Into the ‘Slip’. Modern and rather cosy with some competent but expensive paintings on the wall. We order from a cheerful local lass. Soon afterwards the meal arrives. Very good. Being one time devotees of the exquisite fish and chips of Scarborough and Whitby we are not easily overwhelmed by efforts in this field but this is a lot more than adequate. It is a generous portion served with a good salad.
We chat for a while with the waitress. She’s a volunteer firefighter and general emergency worker. A good citizen. The moon is full and upside down in the north as we leave. Jupiter is below it. There are some duplicatus clouds in the sky beside them. We wind our way back towards Linkwater and stop to get a few shots of the moonlit Pelorus Sound. Then back to the mountainous fastness which is Moetapu Bay.


The Pelorus Mail

We take the mail boat from Havelock up through the Pelorus Sound. We go as far up as Maud Island delivering mail to the isolated folks who live out that way.
The skipper is a scot who visited Havelock as he was travelling around and has never left the place again. Clearly a man who believes he had found his niche in life.
On board with us were an Australian couple, another Aussie and his Glaswegian wife and yet more Aussies, a couple and their travelling companion, a casually but elegantly attired gent who sounded a bit like Gore Vidal so I said to him; ‘You’re from the States I take it!’ ‘Shame on you he replied, I’m from Alberta!’ Faux pas. There were also two English couples one from Kent and one from Lancashire the male of whom was intensely irritating. It is always a bad sign if someone opens a conversation by describing their home plumbing problem in great technical detail. I climbed the ladder to the top deck to escape him. Alison had already retreated there for the same reason.
It was so pleasant and sunny up aloft that we spent virtually the whole day there, which eventually came to about eight hours. We descended to steerage occasionally for coffee which you just helped yourself to.
The people who live out here are largely farmers, pretty surprising considering the steepness of he hills here and the amount of bush on them. They were all waiting on the pier for their mail and deliveries. Better to say either they or their dogs were waiting for the mail as the dog, and there almost invariably was one, was often there first.
The skipper kept up an entertaining and informative talk on the region throwing us titbits of information throughout the trip over the tannoy. There are a number of interesting characters in the area. There is an heir of the Scottish engineering family of Brownlie in his eighties who seems to be the Southern Hemisphere’s answer to Fred Dibnah. He runs a range of power tools purely on water power in his workshop. There is the local possum hunter, a redoubtable lady, who came out to meet us in her boat, with the dog, of course.
We stopped for lunch at a most unlikely looking restaurant at Te Rawa, miles up the sound. And miles from anywhere except that it’s on the Nydia track which is a two day walk over the hills and the cafe provides overnight accommodation. It also has fuel for the boats on the sound. It’s still difficult to see how they survive as a business but the season is not really under way yet. Perhaps it will get a lot busier. They claim to sell the best chips in New Zealand at $5 a plate but we had our own packed lunch with us so did not indulge. The interior was an odd assortment of bits and pieces. The proprietor a large bearded Guy in shorts. The overall effect was friendly and welcoming. There is a dog in this photo.
The trip was a long one but the weather held up. The sound became choppier and windier as we got further out. We were hoping to spot dolphins. These failed to materialise in spite of us spotting a large number of shearwaters and gannets near Maud Island. The skipper assured us this was a sure sign of the presence of the marine whizz kids. He also told us that orca are quite frequently encountered in the sound. Maud Island is another reserve which DOC are trying to return to it’s pristine state. There are a three wardens on the island.
Our Lancastrian nemesis seemed to use a rather forced cough to redirect the group’s attention to himself if it showed any sign of wandering so we kept to the poop deck ( or whatever the correct nautical term is) as the boat headed for home. At one point the skipper became a bit panicky and called Alison down to take the wheel through a particularly dangerous shark-infested maelstrom.
We arrive back in Havelock around five thirty. The skipper asked me at one point if I was a boating man. I had to admit to being a landlubber. I did tell him that my grandfather was a ship’s engineer with Cunard before the Second World War. Dad was an engineer too and though not nautical loved the Clyde steamers and similar vessels. He used to take me on paddle steamer trips down the Bristol Channel from Newport when I was a kid. So ‘This one’s for you, dad.’ I thought to myself at the end of this hugely enjoyable day.


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Moetapu Bay

After a fairly hectic few days travelling it was a relief to find ourselves in Moetapu Bay.
This place is a remote haven of peace but has satellite TV and very good broadband so you don’t actually feel isolated. Best of both worlds.

It’s the ideal place to sit and chill. We’ve walked as far as the beach, a boater’s beach rather than Norfolk-type beach and up to a viewpoint a few hundred yards away.


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Wellington and the Interislander

We drive from Paraparaumu to Wellington. It’s a busy road into the city and approaching rush hour. We stop at a self service petrol station which takes a little working out. We negotiate the one-way system, Alison navigating and find Rydge’s in Wellington’s Featherston Street. It is very expensive but well placed. We really dislike the way this place gives you the impression that if you are thinking about how expensive things are then you’re a second-class citizen. You’re only there to be fleeced. Pure greed of these city places and thoroughly unpleasant.
A night out in Wellington’s Cuba Street and nearby. Wellington is living up to its reputation as the windy city. This is a very different place from Queensland. the breeze from the strait is quite chill but the evening is light. It is much more our cup of tea. A walk around a lively street fair where you can find everything from healthy honey and massages to African drums and Mexican tacos. Pizza in a decent and relatively inexpensive restaurant. Coffee in ‘Midnight Expresso’, a 50s beat-style coffee bar. Excellent coffee, muffins and atmosphere. We’d endorse Lonely Planet’s recommendation.
We board the Interislander ferry at Aotea Quay for Picton, South Island at 8.25 on Saturday 24th November. It’s a pleasant crossing, very calm. There are a couple of parties of school kids on board but they’re OK, just enjoying themselves. Memories of trips to France. We sit in the warmly sunlit lounge taking turns on deck to watch rugged Wellington dropping behind us and later the even more rugged Queen Charlotte Sound closing around us.
We disembark at Picton, a nice looking little place at the head of the Sound surrounded by high, steep hills. We wait for our luggage at the carousel. This is where boat travel becomes as slow as flying. We pick up a hire car from Pegasus, a NZ company. Their cars are a little older and more battered than Hertz’s but then so are we.
After lunch and a supermarket shop we drive out of town along steep and winding roads fearfully reminiscent of the FWH. We miss the turn at Linkwater so find ourselves in Havelock, rather a neat little port. We get a coffee then drive back to Moetapu Bay.
It turns out to be a Beautiful holiday home in a remote and beautiful area on the Mahau Sound. Perfick.

Night Owl in Wellington.

Leaving Aotea Quay.

New Zealand, between the islands.

The route of the Interislander.

Approaching Picton, South Island.

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Kapiti Kiwis

There’s a separate page with a long blog entry relating our Kapiti adventure.
Look for the tab ‘Kapiti Island’ on the index menu at the top of the page.

The Kapiti Island reserve is attempting to return the island to its something like its primeval state by removing all mammalian predators and cultivating endangered native birds. This is done under the auspices of the Department of Conservation (DOC). The north end of the island is still owned by the Maori families who originally farmed it. They have a lodge catering for tourists. We spent the night of 22nd-23rd November here.

At the Paraparaumu Boat Club, the ferry to Kapiti Island.


Kapiti Island from Paraparaumu.


Manaaki, our guide at the lodge. Knowledgeable, articulate and hospitable.


Kakas at the lodge. An inquisitive, nay, cheeky bird.


Alison with Vicky at the beach tepee. The actual accommodation is more permanent.


Quiet Roads and Volcanoes

The early morning view of Taranaki is breathtaking. Yer actual snow-covered-peak against a clear blue sky. The snow lies in scimitar slashes down its sides as if applied by a master calligrapher. We decide to drive right round the mountain via New Plymouth to get a complete picture of it. Shortly after we start Taranaki wraps itself in cloud like some Pacific god wrapping himself in his feathered cloak and remains hidden for the rest of the day.


New Plymouth is pleasant. It has the spacious, laid-back airiness we’ve already encountered so often in New Zealand. The weather is beautiful. The seafront area is decorated by flower beds and various sculptural-cultural things. The skate park is busy. The library is superb with excellent facilities tended by courteous and helpful young people. We indulge ourselves in the internet nook.
Lunch in a quayside cafe and off we go towards Opunake and Hawera. The road is open and winds but gently when it does wind. A blessed relief from the demented rally driver’s heaven of yesterday. The landscape is open and pleasant rather than picturesque. It is uneventful, which suits us right down to the ground.


Uneventful that is, until we are approaching Wanganui when we spot a towering plume of smoke to the north. Half in jest I ask ‘Is that a fire or a volcano erupting?’ because I do know that the Tongariro area is still active. We forget about it. We stop at a very modest looking Chinese establishment in Bulls (yes, Bulls) for surprisingly good fish and chips. The TV is on. The news begins. Main headline, the eruption of Tongariro. Holidaymakers and hikers have had to run for their lives as the volcano threw up a huge cloud of ash and dust. Eyewitnesses speak of their panic as a quiet trek in the hills turned into a Hollywood disaster production. I wish we’d got a shot of it at its height. Memo to self: photograph everything in New Zealand. Outside the town we pull over and get a couple of shots of the ash plume now smeared out across the northern sky.
The hill ranges to the east of us close in and we drive nearer to the coast. Now we pass through Carnarvon and Foxton before returning to Maori territory in Otake and Waikanae and reach Paraparaumu. A brief search locates the motel. A rather uncommunicative concierge signs us in but does not offer to order our breakfast as we’re too late. The internet works if you stand in the doorway.
Out for a walk under the first quarter of the inverted moon. Paraparaumu appears to be closed for the night. We locate the boat club and decide to risk parking the car there for our day away tomorrow.
We pick up milk and breakfast bars at the brightly lit Asian run superette which is the only sign of life apart from a few young men playing pool in a bar across the road.


Mad Drive to the Big Mountain

We set off from Auckland, negotiate the busy city highway past the big pointy thing and over the impressive harbour bridge. With relief we get out onto the open road to Hamilton. We drive through many little towns all much of a muchness. One main street. One storey shops. Graphic pollution aplenty. We stop at a ‘Service Centre’ for ‘long blacks with a little milk’. Past Hamilton and on to highway three. More cloned townships. To the right, the interior, Tongariro and co. All rugged and dark. But we drive on through a toytown summer landscape. Highway four, a little more undulating. To the west there are distant high hills. We stop again in Ngaruawahia, (no honestly, that’s what it was called) with vast sweeps of high, Pacific cloud in an impossibly pure pale blue sky above it. Then we make a fateful decision. We’ll take the scenic route to Stratford. Highway forty three. The Forgotten World Highway.
We roll on through increasingly undulating country. It’s sub-alpine says Alison who knows about that continental stuff, all conifers and cows and limestone outcrops. The road begins to wind. This is scenic, this is what we came for. The windiness becomes more marked. The hills are steeper. This is well scenic and dead picturesque. The windings and slopes intensify. You feel like you’re on a merry-go-round of unusual topology run by a somewhat unhinged fairground man. Always under an intense blue sky and a blazing sun.
The driving is becoming physically demanding. The bends are acute, the slopes severe. We negotiate ridge after ridge. This is like Derbyshire on acid. Giant green hills and limestone tors complete with sheep and cows flung across the map by a deranged giant. Eventually we plunge into the Tangaraku gorge. The wildly twisting descent is strewn with piles of fallen rocks and rendered hair-raising by the glare of the setting sun. Huge rock faces broken up by tree ferns tower over us. This is dead scenic with a vengeance. Intimidating might be closer to the mark. We stop in deep, green shadow at the bottom of the gorge. The bit of the sky which is still visible above is the purest blue imaginable. A sign informs us that we are not far from Joshua Morgan’s grave. He was the surveyor of the road who died here in 1892.

We were due in Stratford at five to meet Alison’s long lost cousins. This was revised to six before we started on forty three. Our latest estimate is seven thirty but no mobile network has ever penetrated this far so we can’t let them know.
Onward and upward, then onwards and downwards, apparently for the rest of eternity. We cross saddle after saddle. The view at the top of each is like the Grand Canyon with grass on it. Astoundingly the whole area is farmed. Clearly by mad people. We pass through Whangamomona, a wildly winding name eminently suited to the region. This is the capital of the Manawatu-Wanganui Republic. As we leave, a sign welcomes us back to New Zealand, but obviously we have left reality far behind.
Eventually the gradients imperceptibly decrease. The windy bits relax and unravel. At close to eight in the evening we roll past several small settlements like Douglas and Toko toward Stratford. We have covered something over one hundred miles through this unbelievable landscape.
Then, like the final Big Bang grand finale of a firework display after a brief lull, Mount Taranaki suddenly swings into view. It’s worth the crazy drive. A towering, symmetrical cone softened by distance to a pale purple madder against the glowing pink of the sunset sky. It is reminiscent of a faded woodcut of Fujiyama.
Roslyn picks us up after we check into the motel. We are taken to her and Kevin’s spacious and cosy home and once again regaled with kiwi hospitality. An excellent meal. A wide ranging after-dinner conversation. Genealogical bearings are established. They are both amused at our naivety in supposing that ‘scenic route’ means the same in New Zealand as it does in England. Kevin has worked in the area all his life and tells us tales of the rugged folk who inhabit the forgotten world and its ‘republic’. We are presented with splendid kiwi-emblazoned socks, wooly, thick and warm. We reciprocate with a set of coasters of native Australian design.
As we leave we remark on upside down Orion but the two New Zealanders tell us it is a saucepan with the handle pointing upwards, not a man with his sword hanging down. This sociable evening is a wonderful end to a weird and wonderful day. One thing we can promise, we will not forget our journey on the Never-to-be-Forgotten World Highway.


Kawau Island

The following day Jenny drives us down to the bay and we take a small ferry out to the big island of Kawau. The little boat makes a number of stops in the various bays of the island to deliver post bags and building materials. Passengers disembark for holiday baches on the shore. We do he same at the old Governor’s residence dating from the nineteenth century. The whole island was cultivated by him as a botanical garden and has many species of plant both native and imported. We walk up and over a hill covered in trees and ferns. It is here that we first really become acquainted with the song of the tui. This bird is ubiquitous in New Zealand. it is said to have two voice boxes and produces the most extraordinary musical tones which fill the woodlands.

Eventually we arrive at a disused copper smelting plant. Some of the rocks of the area are coloured rich cerulean and pale green by copper compounds. There are the rusting remains of a steam engine boiler. There is a smelting oven with its chimney made of big stone blocks which would not look out of place on a Yorkshire moor. But what must once have been a busy if compact industrial site is now deserted and tranquil. The waters of the inlet lap around about. The tuis flute and chime. A gannet flies past.
We walk back by another track with views through tall trees to steep drops over the intense blue-green water of the Pacific. There is a downhill walk through an enchanted gully of fern trees to the big house again. There is time for a quick look around before the ferry arrives. The interior looks like a real home. There is an airy and light feeling to the whole place. Scuffs on the banisters are the ghosts of boisterous children’s games.
On to a local pottery. You can watch the stages of the process of manufacture of big, chunky plates and urns here. You can look at a vintage potter’s wheel which was driven by steam. Or, like us, you can sit outside, among well tended plants, to drink tea and eat cake.
Back to Jenny’s for a delicious light lunch washed down with water flavoured with a lemon which I pick straight off the tree. We take a look at her excellent studio space in a big old garage. She is experimenting with acrylics and the results brighten the walls with fresh colours. Later we are treated to another excellent dinner. The guests eat well at Jenny’s hotel! We are sent of to bed early for our early morning start next day.
In the morning we have to wrench ourselves away from this wonderful haven. Jenny drives us to a state park nearby at Anchor Bay so we can get a view of the genuine New Zealand bush. The area has been fenced off to keep out predators in an attempt to return it to its primeval condition. We walk along a track and enter an area of fern trees and other native species. Instantly there is a weird change in the quality of the birdsong. It is alien, somehow more primitive. It is a very odd experience. Sadly we cannot stay long.
Jenny runs us in to the Hertz depot on Auckland’s North Shore. We pick up our car and resist the temptation to kidnap Jenny and take her with us as combo guide, housekeeper, cook and mum.
We head south on highway one.
If there was ever a warmer welcome given to any visitors to New Zealand then they were indeed fortunate


Jenny’s Place

The flight to New Zealand is mercifully short, if a little bumpy and very cramped. It is hard to believe that the long beach which appears from the cloud below us is really part of that almost mythical land.
On arrival and after due processing by the border folk we are met by Jenny. Efficiently she supplies us with water, loads us into her car and carries us off to her home near Matakana. We travel through the city of Auckland and past its huge harbour bridge before traversing the suburbs. The buildings are generally low, wood-built and well spaced out. It is immediately obvious that we are in yet another zone as far as the flora is concerned. The landscape beyond is reminiscent of Derbyshire, but more tumbled, more turbulent. To the north of Auckland we are soon into farming country which once again recalls England, but England with an odd accent.
Matakana is a small, neatly kept settlement with a distinctly upmarket feel. It reminds me of Norman Rockwell’s Stockbridge. But we go straight through Matakana and onward into increasingly hilly countryside by narrow roads and finally by a very steep gravel track we arrive at Chez Jenny. This is where we are to stay thanks to her generosity.
My first reaction, which remains with me throughout our visit is ‘Make the most of this, you’ll wake up in a minute!’ We get out of the car. We are on top of a high hill. There is a sloping lawn before us surrounded by beautiful trees and shrubs. This opens onto a truly stunning view over a wide bay dotted with islands and with a distant hint of Auckland beyond. It’s now after eight but still light and there is a distinct and un-Queensland-like but welcome chill in the air. In the evening light the view conjures Avalon, indescribably lovely and for ever out of reach. Behind the house is eleven acres (count them) of New Zealand bush. Strange birds are flying around making previously unheard, exotic sounds all of which adds to the dreamlike quality of the scene.
The house itself is a large open plan structure with a very spacious lounge and kitchen. It is an eco-house and there is a high wall of heat-retaining bricks in front of the open wooden staircase. The high roof itself with its big beautifully coloured wooden trusses is visible above the main living area giving something of the impression of a Saxon hall. There are lovely tiles and carpets on the floor and some splendid wooden furniture. The colours, enhanced by the choice of pictures on he walls are a glowing warm honey buff and faded pinks and crimsons. The interior is described by Jenny as ‘rustic’ which I guess is technically true but the overall air is of an easy-going and welcoming opulence.

We are in the cottage which is down the garden through a path bordered by fine plants. The cottage itself is large and well furnished and has the same wonderful view of the bay with its islands through a large picture window. A big comfortable bed ensures that our nights are warm and restful. If we want an even clearer view we can sit on the decking at the front.
Back in the house we are served a thick and delicious vegetable stew with bread followed by a fresh fruit salad for dessert. Jenny positively mothers us all evening and indeed is the most attentive of hostesses throughout our visit. I can’t help thinking of the Hobbit and his visit to the Last Homely House, it seems somehow appropriate.
During the night I am up for an hour southern stargazing. In spite of the glow from Auckland which obscures some of the stars of Centaurus and Triangulum the view of the Night sky is terrific. I look at the Tarantula nebula within the LMC and at the bright globular cluster 47 Tucanae and eta Carinae, all real treats in the binoculars. The southern Pleiades also look good but would have to yield pride of place to the northern original which is still visible, upside down of course, in the northern sky. I am pleased to see that my grasp of the southern constellations is improving.


The Great Barrier Reef

Down the baking Captain Cook Highway to Ellis Beach on the Coral Sea. Not so Jolly Roger (earring but no parrot) in charge. Breeze through palms and across surf and sand but still hot. We are booked in for a reef snorkelling trip to the Great Barrier Reef tomorrow morning. We take a run into Cairns to suss out the area. Undiscovered Cairns surprises with its elegant, modern quayside. Sea wood and stone and concrete poetry and upmarket restaurants.
Next morning the terminal is bustling, everyone’s a rushing to see the reef before it disappears. Soon we’re through the formalities and ushered onto the boat which is a sleek and seaworthy looking catamaran. Ninety minutes through bright sun and spray takes us to the station moored over the reef. We join the throng to be issued with Lycra suits, flotation gear, flips and snorkels. We don the unflattering gear with a sense of going over the top. Into the sea a little awkwardly off what looks like a vegetable tray.
Jack the instructor is a lady of Aussie directness and gives us a quick but informative tour round the reef holding on to a life buoy. Mysteriously glowing colours of the reef and the fish mesmerise as we drift above them. A sense of magic as the gorgeously coloured and boldly patterned fish gather round us bidding us good morning. We are introduced to a sea cucumber, a permanent employee of the reef with the cleaning and maintenance department. He salutes us with a squirt of clear water. Wally appears, the master of ceremonies. He is a large wrasse in stunning aquamarine and yellow livery with a quoiff of deeper blue and large amber eyes. We pat his head. He circles in a courtly manner before table hopping to another snorkelling group.
We are deemed seaworthy and set loose to float free above the multicoloured bed. Lunch is served by the multitasking crew. They strike me as too young for the responsibilities of this business. Says more about me than them. Back in the water we float timelessly. We miss the glass-bottomed-boat but no worries. It is super-relaxing. I recall as a kid looking at pictures of divers in mysterious green depths, surrounded by the denizens of the deep and sunken gold. Pretty much where I am now but the colours are more vibrant.
Diving is tricky though I nearly get to the bottom. The sun shines on through the afternoon. the swell increases but just adds to the fun. All too soon last orders are called on the Boat of Many Colours.
Back through afternoon sunlight to the distant green hills of Cairns. An English lady swam with a turtle, lucky her. But we saw the eclipse, she didn’t. Honours even. Back through holiday town Cairns. Lots of people out in the park and the esplanade, an artificial beach a la Brisbane. There are groups of upmarket backpackers who look like a fashion shoot for a line of vagabond chic.
Home at last through the tropical twilight to our cabin on the Coral Sea. A magical end to our Aussie adventure.