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.
Through the by now familiar cane fields to the unremarkable settlement of Mossman.
The Mossman Gorge visitors’ centre is open and spacious. It is run by local indigenous people and has a quiet, well ordered and efficient air about it.
There are Dream Time guided tours available based on the local culture and mythology.
We opt for the shuttle bus and the free, unguided walks along the tracks. There are short ones and long ones. The bus ride of a few kilometres immediately takes you into what we used to call jungles in the days when the Empire and Commonwealth featured large in the curriculum.
The rainforest is a quiet, lush, sombre green. We walk on solidly constructed wooden walkways past the bathing point on the river where a number of people are already cooling off. The Mossman is a sizeable river. At this point it flows over huge boulders and creates a number of natural plunge pools.
We choose the longer walk. The tracks are well tended and have many information points describing the local flora and fauna, it’s uses and the local mythology attached to it. The woodland we walk through gives every indication of being pristine, apart from the tourist track of course. There is a wide variety of trees and undergrowth. Many have huge buttress roots. We are reacquainted with the charmingly and appropriately named strangler fig which has preyed on and killed a number of trees to further its own ends. From time to time there are glimpses of the towering, cloud smeared, wooded slopes of the surrounding hills. This is a rugged area. There are little byways which take you to leafy pools and streams and particularly impressive trees. There is an exquisite little forest dragon keeping a wary eye on us from behind a rock.
Walking at a sedate pace it doesn’t feel too hot in the shaded wood until you stop whereupon you are enveloped in a dense blanket of air and find yourself dripping sweat within seconds.
We return to the pool and this time take a plunge ourselves. Or at least I do. Alison does a rather uncharacteristic maiden-aunt-on-the-beach act by wading in with her shoes off and her ‘kiss- me-quick’ hat on until he water is up to her ankles. The water is delightfully cold and there is plenty of sand on the bottom.
Back to the centre on our return ticket. ‘Two returns to the rainforest, please’ isn’t a request that I’ve often made to a bus driver, but there you go. We write a suitably complimentary comment in the visitors’ book. We drop in on the gallery which displays original works on rainforest themes, mainly prints, by local artists. The work is attractive, often elegant and presented in a very stylish way. The prices are comparable to works in other professional galleries. We’re not in the market for anything more bulky or expensive than T-shirts at the moment so are just looking.
Verdict: an excellent and potentially very cheap day out in these touristy parts. The whole presentation and conduct of the place is commendable.
Night. And a hot one. No change there then. We take a brief walk around Port Douglas. Interesting to visit but not a place where we’d choose to live.
Drive from Port Douglas, early morning, 14th November.
The evening is tense. We are trying to decide whether we drive inland or stay put. The weather satellite pics shows a narrow coastal fringe of cloud. The same is forecast for tomorrow, the morning of the total eclipse. It should be clear west of Mareeba according to the latest Weather Bureau report. Eventually we come down on the side the drive inland. It won’t be worse than on the beach and may be better. Not as far as the Palmer Roadhouse though. Ten thousand people have congregated there. Sounds like it will be overpopulated by those of the New Age. Unappealing.
We set off at two am. The drive out is through the warm darkness and across the flat, coastal area of the Cook Highway beyond Port Douglas. We climb into the hills to Julatten by an incredibly long and winding road. We turn North onto the Mulligan Highway. Graeme has warned us of the danger of kangaroos and stock on the roads. Signs on the road repeat the warning as does the squashed body of a roo. There are very few cars. This is a relief, we had feared a mass exodus. Clearly not everyone is as worried about the weather as we are. Then we are on to the long, straight road beyond Mount Carbine. We see A number of cars that have already parked on the roadside as we drive. The road verge is of sunbaked mud with scattered trees beyond. We spot a broad area, drive off the road and park. It is around three thirty am.
We get out into a silence rendered more intense by a quiet, insect background. The air smells delicately spicy, sort of vanilla. It is warm but not the humid oppression of Port Douglas. Then we see the starscape in the sky above us. It is just stunning. The sky is totally dark. The air is clear. The exquisite bright band of the Milky Way rises from the south east to cross the sky. The bold brilliance of Orion is vertically above us and Sirius a little to the west. Canopus leads the stars of the Ship scattered along the Milky Way. Suddenly I realise that the four stars just above a tree in front of us is the Southern Cross. Hello at last! The Coal Sack is clearly visible. A hole in the Milky Way just below the Cross as we see it. Above that there are several patches of nebulousity. Once again I’m using SkySafari with its compass setting. It really is good. There’s eta Carinae, lambda Centauri and the Southern Pleiades. The whole area is incredibly rich. Sweeping it with binoculars takes your breath away. There’s kappa Crucis, the Jewel Box in the Cross. I need to get a look at that with a telescope. Now, low in the sky through the trees, I see alpha Centauri. For the first time in my life I see the third brightest star in the sky.
Time for a little ceremony. The only luxury item in my luggage is the old ‘Norton’s Star Atlas’ I used to use as a teenaged amateur astronomer. I have the glossy, greatly expanded and updated version at home. I used to look at the plate of the South Polar stars and say to myself; ‘ Someday I’ll see you.’ Well, today’s the day! Alison takes a photo of me with the battered old volume open at that page standing in front of the Southern Cross. There’s no way you can see the Cross but I know it’s there.
Port Douglas, Impressions. 13th November
On Monday we leave Lake Eacham. We take the road down from Mareeba to the Captain Cook Highway. It is a spectacular descent through dense forest. The highway itself is a very scenic drive with some fine views of the coast.
Port Douglas: luxuriant tropical foliage, heavy and humid. Overall effect of walking through a hothouse. An Australian Santa Barbara though slightly more flamboyant and marginally downmarket. Tiled pavements and shops which aspire to boutiquehood. Pricy craftwork, much of it claiming to be of aboriginal provenance. Australian schools must be offering GCSE Aboriginal Art on the curriculum these days.
Graeme is the owner of our cottage which is well appointed and very well situated. He wears a tweed fishing hat over his long, beach boy locks and is very helpful.
We have a detached, two storey residence. It is surrounded by large tropical trees and plants filled with loud and brightly coloured birds. It is very secluded. It has a plunge pool which we make use of in short order. Greatly refreshed we binge on free and fast Internet access. It is now hot and windy with a few spots of rain. This seems to play havoc with the TV reception. The programmes, as usual, are largely second hand English productions. Quizzes and Stephen Fry seem to be staples. Eventually we locate a suitably sober news channel.
We take a stroll through the hot town. There’s a guy with a dobro-type guitar. He plays random phrases and hits the instrument from time to time with his metal bar. He interjects comments about sunglasses. There’s an oriental girl of very delicate appearance sitting cross-legged and using beautifully graceful arm movements to play what appears to be an electronic gourd. Perhaps a twenty first century gamelan. There are crowds of tourists and rugged looking Aussie holidaymakers up for the eclipse.
We return to the cottage, hermetically seal it as far as possible and turn the air conditioner on full blast which produces a habitable environment in a relatively short time. After dinner we stroll to the beach. There is a first aid kit of vinegar for stingers. Further along the breezy shore is a life guard hut with a poster depicting the various native stinging beasties. Further still is the smart premises of the Port Douglas Surf Life Saving Club. We return via the Ice Cream Planet on the corner of our street and sample their wares. The verdict is positive.
On Tuesday we walk to the lookout on top of the hill behind our cottage through a very tropical mix of spectacular palms and other exotic plants and swish holiday residences. At the top there is a toposcope showing us that we are as far from London as we are from New York. There is a sweeping view of the bay and Four Mile Beach and the huge, green hills beyond. It is a steep walk. Some people have hired scooters or used the local trike service which seems to be the Aussie holidaymakers’ vehicle of choice.
Coffee in town. A tropical downpour is in progress as we sit under a parasol. The rainwater is probably stronger than the coffee. Back for a plunge in the deliciously cold pool and a simple lunch. We chill with iPads in front of the news channel on exceptionally comfortable loungers. It’s a hell of a job but someone has to do it.
Later we scan the weather reports for the next morning anxiously. It is not looking great. We take a late and very warm evening stroll through the town to an eclipse market. A live country band is playing in a nearby bar. It is all strangely subdued.
November 11th November, late
The night has fallen with the rapid onset of darkness and sudden, unnerving burst of cicada activity we have noted before. We eat to the accompaniment of Sarah Vaughan (via the iPhone) and the cicada aubade.
It is very clear outside. We decide to go down to the lakeside and take a look at the stars. We get out at the lakeside car park in pitch darkness. There is a wonderful display of stars. The trees around are a bit high for a perfect view but this is the best sight we’ve had so far of the southern sky. There is a cloudy patch of light low in the west which is the star clouds in Sagittarius. The teapot shape is diving, spout first, towards the western horizon. I find other familiar stars. Altair then Deneb, the inverted Pegasus and Andromeda and the Pleiades very low in the north east.
Our eyes are now accustomed to the dark. It is still very warm. This tropical night seems to induce synaesthesia. I feel the sky as dark velvet. The stars are like tiny, brilliant drops of some exotic pine resin. I can smell them. OK, maybe its the surrounding trees, eucalyptus and the like. But this is really exciting. This is my first good view of the southern constellations.
Fomalhaut is close to the zenith and I clearly see the shape of the southern fish. Below it is another definite shape, Grus really does look like an aboriginal stylised crane. Achernar I had picked out even in the glare above Brisbane and it is high to my left.
I’m using the iPad app SkySafari (set to show the sky at Cairns since I don’t have internet connectivity for the ‘Current Location’ setting) and, as a self luminous star map, it really is good for navigation.
I locate alpha Pavonis. The remarkable app informs me that it was named ‘Peacock’ by HM Nautical Almanac Office in the 1930s. From Peacock I can identify stars in Indus and Tucana. Between Pavo and Sagittarius is the exquisite circlet of Corona Australis looking unreal as it is so precisely drawn. From Achernar I can trace the river Eridanus. I always thought it a bit of a cheat to have a river as a constellation, after all, any group of stars can take the shape of a river. But the stars of Eridanus seen from this latitude link together beautifully like a pearl necklace, reinforcing the velvet feel of the sky.
Above Achernar the Phoenix is another moderately convincing bird shape. Below Achernar alpha and beta Hydri are easy to spot. And just above beta the faint patch of light that is the Smaller Magellanic Cloud. That’s definitely 25 points on my ‘I Spy’ score. My app tells me that the larger cloud has risen but the trees around the lake are too high and dense to make a sighting. A treat for another night, but not I think, tomorrow when we’ll be in Port Douglas and back in the bright lights. We call it a night, and a very satisfying one too.
On the way back as we make our way down the dark track to our cabin Alison cries ‘Stop!’ I peer at what I take at first to be a large root across the path. It is not. It is a large snake motionless in the headlights. It must be close to eight feet in length. We wait for it to move. It doesn’t. I get the impression it is basking in the warmth of the path rather than crossing it. Eventually I get out of the car, approach it gingerly on the assumption that any snake that size is going to be a constrictor rather than a venomous one. I poke it very gently with a stick. I must admit I checked the stick carefully before picking it up. The snake turns and moves back towards the side then stops again. Another gentle nudge. The huge beast slides gracefully and unhurriedly back into the undergrowth. We drive on.
This is not the sort of incident you associate with an evening’s star watching, not in Northamptonshire, anyway.
Sunday 11th November
Late start again. Fed the local birds. Alison calls me over to the public area, a few chairs under a sunshade with the statutory barbie equipment. There are two exquisite finch-like birds dipping in the water of a little ornamental stream. They are slate blue trimmed with brilliant scarlet on rump and eyemask. We sit for half an hour and see a beautiful bird which looks like a miniature emperor penguin which has remembered how to fly. There is a larger green bird with rich olive plumages, a lizard sitting on a piece of pink granite and and our first genuine kangaroo. Well OK it’s a pademelon, (a small wallaby) but if it looks like a kangaroo and hops like a kangaroo….
We decide to visit Herberton, a heritage village around 25 miles from here. As we leave we spot a couple of antechinus close to the cabin, a reminder to keep the net door closed.
We drive through the strange, Edward Lear landscape of the Atherton tablelands in brilliant sunshine with the Aussie commentary from the Gabba on the car radio. Herberton heritage village is the old mining village. There is old equipment outside baking and rusting in the sun, the place is deserted, perhaps because it is 25 dollars to get in. It’s getting late anyway so we decide to move on. The lady who’s in charge comes out, I imagine she is going to regale us with tales of hardship and heartache and implore us to come in. This is not the Aussie style. She is friendly,open and genuinely interested in our travels and chats for quite a while.
We carry on to modern Herberton. We both think it reminiscent of a Wild West township or the last Spanish town we met on our abortive day out to Portugal. This latter impression is reinforced when we sit at a cafe table with our iced teas and ice cream and the radio plays a selection from ‘Carmen’.
On through Atherton, another Wild West township, to the Hypipamee crater. An enormous hole in the ground of volcanic origin and scary dimensions. It is next to the Dinner falls, an impressive series of cascades. On the way in we encounter a sign telling us to report ‘…all cassowary sightings and incidents.’ Regrettably we have neither to report.
Back towards Yungaburra with a magnificent vista of high hills surrounding us in the far distance as the sun drops low in the sky. At Yungaburra we call in on the Curtain Fig Tree. This is an aboriginal site centred around an extraordinary tree which started out as a parasite on another tree, long since killed and rotted. The structure that remains is huge. A vast curtain of roots or suckers as the name suggests. The site is well presented with a walkway around it and well worth a visit. The animated group of Japanese tourists in front of us clearly seem to think so.
Saturday 10th November, afternoon
The township has the spread out, casually end of the world look we’ve seen on the Scottish isles. Admittedly its a different end of the world. The trees might have been sketched by Lear and the birds too. We wander into a bookshop in our search for a coffee shop. The owner is seated in one armchair and his associate, mate or cobber in another. The shop is a large shed filled from top to bottom with books. ‘I can get you a coffee’ says the owner. It turns out to be a three dollar coffee rather than the complimentary one I’d sort of been hoping for but it looks good and we sit outside with him and his mate. He was Born in Swansea and came over with his family in the 1950s. He is an interesting speaker and tells us of his adventures as a book dealer and collector. He compares the obsession to gold prospecting. He speaks of trips to Paris to hunt down rare volumes, of how he sells at a profit but sometimes keeps a plum item for himself. A hard bound edition of ‘The Devil’s Regiment’ is such a volume. He defends the book against ‘Kimbles, kindles whatever they’re called.’ He looks forward to the time when they’re obsolete and people return to the book which he will then sell at a vast price.
We ask about the platypus. They are supposed to inhabit he creek just beyond Yungaburra. ‘Oh, yes ‘ he says ‘you can see them often’ speaking so casually about the fabulous beast.
We walk to the creek. It is muddy and brown, surrounded by trees. We follow the path through it to the road at he end of town. We’re about to retrace our steps thinking to return tomorrow when we meet a couple who ask us if we’ve seen any. He tells us they’ve seen platypus for the last couple of days. We stroll back down the creek. The couple stop frozen by the water. The man is pointing. There is a dark shape crossing the brown stream. It disappears into he bank. We wait. The platypus reappears and crosses the stream again. I rush to capture it on the camcorder. For half an hour we follow the antediluvian beast as it zigzags its way upstream. I get a lot of good shots. It is not timid. It is photogenic and knows it is the star if the show. We cannot believe we are looking at this living fossil, this legend, this icon, this epiphany of the bizarre. And its as real and as everyday and as matter-of-fact as a cat or dog. We are elated as we walk back towards the township.
The Capricorn night is falling at breakneck speed as we shop in a well stocked food store for spuds and biscuits and an eight dollar map which is mainly adverts and largely useless for navigational purposes as we miss the Lake Eacham turn on the way back and have to turn back at lake Barrine. We find our turn and drive into the living myriaphonic dark.
Lake Eacham, Saturday 10th November, morning
I’m awake very early. The surrounding forest is alive with complex, subtly multihued noises which build an intricate, mesmerising structure. It is like being inside a Paul Klee painting except I hear it instead of seeing it. It lulls me back to sleep. I wake at 9.40. The light has pushed the forest sounds into the background.
We breakfast from the hamper presented to us on our arrival. We set aside our putative vegetarianism to engage with the generous helping of bacon and sausage.
Sitting outside we place bananas and grapes on the posts beside our veranda. Within a very short time the birds descend on it and clear it. There is a slim and delicate bird with a long bill with a long tongue in it. It is green and olive with bold cream markings. There is a large, bully-boy sort of bird with a glorious green back and a massive beak. It’s call sounds like a tomcat out for a night on the tiles. Further investigation in the cabin’s bird identification book suggest the spotted cat bird.
We stroll through the dense woodland. It is overcast, close and warm. We arrive at the lake’s edge. There is a sign describing turtles and beneath it in the water the real thing.
The lakeside area is set out for the worship of the Australian goddess Barbie. A number of families are seated at meals while some youths splash in the water. It looks tempting but a paranoia about leeches, parasites and other dark realities keeps us out.
We do our washing then set out to Yungaburra a few miles up the road.
Wednesday, brief impressions of Brisbane.
We took the bus into the centre of Brisbane, the BCD. We take a coffee in Jimmy’s on the Mall where a black and white ibis is scavenging. ‘What is that bird called’ we ask a waiter, ‘A bloody nuisance’ he replies. Then to the botanical gardens. There are many large exotic trees including banyans. Large topical butterflies flutter around us as we walk. We come across the cafe which is, unfortunately closed but beside it sits a large iguana. At first we take it for a model, then it moves.
There is the sound of a party of children. A group of Aussie school kids in their broad-brimmed outdoor hats are being led around the gardens. We spot them as walk briskly past a genuine mangrove swamp at the edge of the river. Echoes of their pioneer forefathers.
We cross a bridge over the river Brisbane to Southbank. This is a relatively recent development, largely cultural but includes an urban beach, cafes and restaurants. We hop on a City Cat. This is a catamaran ferry and commuter service. It takes us up past he CBD which is impressive with its clean, tall modern lines in different shades of glass. There are several little ferry stations looking like colonial outposts against the tall palm trees. There are smart and no doubt expensive riverside residences and there is a very English church on a hill full of such residences which might have been transplanted from the south of France.
We go up and down the river then disembark on the city side and the ferryman takes no fee on the grounds that we’ve only effectively gone one stop!
Night falls rapidly in the warmth of the city streets as we make our way back to the bus stop. We eat at an expensive Italian restaurant where two smart and probably well off Aussie girls are fluttering at a darkly good looking waiter.
Tuesday evening is mainly overcast. We have dinner in an Indian restaurant in nearby Rosalie after a walk through the scented night. Here there is a group of popular and lively eateries. Cup Day revellers are in evidence among the clientele. The meal is more than adequate and plentiful.
Late on I take a look through the balcony door and see a bright star high in the South East. I guess that it is Canopus. This is the first time in my life that I have seen the second brightest star in the entire sky.
We take a late stroll through the brightly lit streets. Only a few of the brighter stars are visible through the glare. In the north is an inverted view of Orion, Taurus, Aries and Pegasus. It is still warm and Sirius is very high and bright. This is not it’s usual sparkling, frosty and wintry persona. Fomalhaut, which I am so used to seeing lying on the bottom of its aquarium tank on the southern horizon of an autumn evening, is high up in the South West.
Turning again to the south, Achernar is high in front of us and we can identify the Tucan and the Peacock from the southern aviary. We try to organise the few remaining available stars into a southern cross. It is not convincing. Later I realise that the Cross has not risen yet. I’ve been using SkySafari to familiarise myself with the southern sky. I have the location set at Christchurch, NZ where the Cross is circumpolar. In Brisbane at 23 degrees South, the cross will not rise for another hour or two.
It will be a while before I’m as comfortable with this view of the sky as I am with the one where the Plough and Cassiopeia are permanent residents. Here, they are nowhere to be seen.