So Long and Thanks for All the Fish

February 18:  Walking through O’Hare International Airport last week, I noticed this ad, and it reminded me that I needed to post something about our trip to Cairns (pronounced “cans”) and the Great Barrier Reef.  When we told people in Australia that we would be going there, they all responded in about the same way: Better do it now before it’s all gone.   So, if you never make to the Great Barrier Reef, read on…

December 9: A 2.5ish-hour plane ride from Sydney and we entered a totally different climate in Cairns, on Australia’s northeast coast.  Tired of the rainy days in Sydney, we greeted the warm humidity with a smile.  People were wearing singlets (tank tops) and sunnies (sunglasses), walking leisurely from shop to shop, and smelling of salt, sand, and suntan lotion.  We had several items on our to-do list: visit Koranda, see the rainforest, and snorkel on the Reef.  The good news is we did them all; the bad news is we got a bit sunburned in the process.  No worries, though!  We are not in pain and we had a great time doing it all!

Upon arrival into Cairns, we headed to an island resort called Fitzroy Island.  This island is about 1.5 hours from Cairns by boat and part of the national park system, with history spanning Aborginal culture, significance as a Chinese Quarantine Station for the Queensland goldfields, and use as a Coast Watch Station during World War II.  The island is surrounded by colorful corals and many kinds of fish, and its highest point, Fitzroy Summit, is 269 meters (882 feet).  It was pretty cool being here because I had never been to an  island resort before – we were literally isolated, surrounded not only by the Coral Sea but by the jungle as well.   

In the rainforest on Fitzroy Island

The resort itself is fairly small, with limited restaurant and bar hours, but we occupied ourselves by hiking Fitzroy Summit. The hike up Fitzroy was steep and exhausting. Even though most of the trail was in the shade, the sun beat down on us through the leaves and the trail never seemed to end. The humidity attacked us from the beginning!  About 2/3 of the way up, we were warned by a descending German tourist that it would only get worse, but we endeavored forward.

Hiking the steep trail (L), arriving exhausted (R)!Panoramic view from Fitzroy Summit - not really worth the hike!

We spent a lot of time on the beach and snorkeling and in the pool.  It was nice to just relax, after the hussle and bussle of Sydney, where we had spent the previous three days.

Fitzroy Island's coral beach (L), with fish at my feet (R)!

Friday afternoon, we took the ferry back to Cairns and checked into the Hilton for the remainder of our stay. We walked on the Esplanade, a street filled with shops, cafes, and restaurants bordering the oceanfront beaches and parks.  It was HOT HOT HOT, with the thermometer recording 35 C (= 95 F) – and very humid.  There were many places to eat, and it was hard to choose one – what surprised us was the lack of seafood on the menus.  Pizza it is!  We also ate a lot of gelato to stay cool! 

Saturday morning we took the train up to Kuranda, a self-proclaimed “hippy village” in the rainforest.  The railway was built between 1882 and 1891, when it was put into service to supply the tin miners near Herberton with food.  Today, it meanders for about 1.5 hours, over the Barron River, through 15 tunnels, and over dozens of bridges, giving us gorgeous views of the valley and the Coral Sea below.  We arrived at Kuranda and made our way to the Kuranda home-made ice cream shop, supporting the local economy and a family-owned business and having a cool treat in the process. The owner proudly told us he’s been working with his wife for over 30 years and though he’s given up coffee, he does eat four coffee-walnut ice creams cones every day!

Fighting the fossil for my ice cream!

Kuranda is a cute village and if you’re into shopping for souvenirs, kitschy dust-collecting items, or interesting art, this is the place for you. I shouldn’t sound so snooty – I admired my share of kangaroo-fur coin purses and stubby holders, and Tim bought a few boomerangs.  We soon made our way back down to Cairns, though, via the cable car, which gave us some great views (and sounds) of the jungle below, Barron Falls and gorge, and the Coral Sea.

Coral Sea, as seen from Skyrail Cablecar, on the way down from Kuranda.

In the land of rainforests and the Great Barrier Reef, who would think to see a dance show?  Me, that’s who!  Saturday night, Tim and I attended the evening performance at the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park, which included dinner and a brief introduction to the Aboriginal culture of the traditional people of present-day Queensland. Much of the Aboriginal culture is secret but they do share “children’s stories” and simple dances, as well as how to start a fire,  Survivor-style (i.e., without a match).  And the dancers were fantastic! They were enthusiastic about sharing their culture through dance and happy to answer questions. I highly recommend Tjapukai by Night – it’s a lot of fun, the food is good, and it’s definitely worth the money.  We had the additional pleasure of dining with Anguta, a graduate student from Greenland who was studying for a time in Australia.  He provided new conversation (and some fantastic photos) and it was great to meet him!

With two of the Tjapukai dancers.


Sunday, Sunday, Sunday… Reef day!  We were looking forward to snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef, so we bought passage on Ocean Freedom, a smaller tour boat that would take us to Upolu Reef and Upolu Cay.  We were told that this boat isn’t normally booked out (i.e., full), but there was a cruise ship in town, so it was packed.  However, we had the whole ocean to explore, so a little crowding on deck wouldn’t be an issue.  The Great Barrier Reef is listed as a World Heritage Site and is the home to 400 species of coral and 1500 species of fish.  I won’t say that we saw them all but we did see a lot!  Stretching up to Papua New Guinea (2600 km = 1615 mi) and encompassing an area of over 20,000 square kilometers, the Reef has been described as the largest living organism – just the small part we saw on Upolu Reef was pretty impressive.

Corals near Upolu Reef and Cay, on the Great Barrier Reef. These pictures were taken with a disposable (Kodak) underwater camera.

Starfish near Upolu Cay. This photo was taken with the same Kodak underwater camera.

Of course, it’s impossible (well, for me, anyway) to have photographed all of the different things we saw, but I’m pretty sure we saw several different varieties of hogfish, triggerfish, parrotfish, butterfly fish, and angel fish, among many others.  I held a black sea cucumber in my hand (!) and we saw others, including a leopard-print one and a spiny one.  As for the coral, well, how about brain coral, branch coral, staghorn coral, and spaghetti coral?  The Ocean Freedom staff told us the corals are named for how they look, so use your imagination (or just click on the links)!

Holding a black sea cucumber!

Another neat stop was Upolu Cay, a nearby sandbar in the middle of the ocean!   It consists of layers of reef rock but there is no vegetation or beach rock and therefore it changes in shape, size and position.  Unfortunately, the tide was in when we arrived, so the sand wasn’t above the surface of the water, but we still got to swim to the sandbar and stand up in the middle of the ocean.  That was pretty cool!

On Upolu Cay, in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef.

We were warned that the entrance to the hotel would be blocked Sunday evening for a fireworks display and later noticed a crowd gathering in the nearby park.  We strolled over and watched carolers and dancers perform – it seemed like the entire population of the area was there to enjoy Carols by Candlelight.

Fogarty Park (Cairns) filled with people for "Carols by Candlelight".


Being here in Cairns and so close to one of the iconic Australian locations was… well, there are no words to describe it.  Imagine combining your favorite places, food, and people into one memorable experience and that’s what it’s like visiting the Great Barrier Reef.  I am not much of a water person (thank you very much, Jaws and David Hildreth, who once told me that in the ocean, you’re part of the food chain), but I had little fear bobbing in the waves… of course, I wore an inflated snorkel vest and Ocean Freedom’s very friendly staff kept close watch on all of us (which may have helped…a little 😉 ).  The beautiful undersea wildlife distracted me and inspired me.

The corals are fragile; the life around them is fragile.   This poster is another reminder of that and how we are witnessing changes on a global scale, changes that are occurring at a rate faster than at almost any other time in the past.  We have to be mindful of our actions that can lead to rising temperatures and ocean acidification, which can bleach and kill the coral.  We don’t know what effect the death of coral will have on the ocean food chain and we shouldn’t try to find out.

But I said this blog is not about politics, so I will end on a lighter note.  GO TO CAIRNS. GO OUT ONTO THE GREAT BARRIER REEF. You will see another world, both undersea and along the Esplanade (!).  Overnight on an island or on a tour boat to get away from civilization for awhile.  We had a perfectly lovely time and didn’t encounter anyone mad as a cut snake.  Perhaps if we had stayed longer, we would have.  And that would have been perfectly fine by us!


Other links:
More about the Koranda Scenic Railway
Video at Tjapukai
Good (professional?) video of the Tjapukai dancers
Information about Ocean Freedom’s parent company can be found here.
More about the Great Barrier Reef can be found here, here, and here.
Amazing images of the Great Barrier Reed and its inhabitants can be found here.
Images of Upolu Reef can be found here.
Learn about trepang (sea cucumber) here.  What no one tells you is that the poor thing has just one tube for eating, digesting, and excreting!
Information about the Torres Strait sea cucumber (trepang) trade can be found here and here.
Information about Upolu Cay can be found here and here.
Stories about snorkelers and divers being left behind on the Reef by tour boat companies can be found herehere, and here.
Video from Carols by Candlelight (to be uploaded shortly)
Information about climate effects on the Great Barrier Reef can be found here and here.

Thanks to Sam Lorkin at Escape Travel and to Rachel at The Tour Specialists for coordinating the logistics of this trip.