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A bit chilly in Cairns, winter, 2007


Saturday, 14 July 2007

Holidays ought to be restful but they seldom start out that way, in my experience: There is always the hassle of Getting There, unless, of course, one is enjoying a quiet week at home alone. Such was not my fate this time, alas. Jo was grimly determined to punctuate a miserable Wellington winter with a week in the tropics and I was going to come and bloody well enjoy it too.

Actually, this trip must have been more stressful than most, because my diary is a mess of odd words and scribbled half-phrases – very little that is coherent – and it has taken me four years to get around to writing it up. I’m not even quite sure of the dates: they could be out by a week or two, but it doesn’t seem important.

So, here we were, struggling out of the pit at 2:30 a.m., bundling a sleepy six-year-old into the car, and driving into town. We left the car in our parking building and waited for the taxi we’d ordered to take us the rest of the way to the airport.

And waited.

If the bugger had been on time, we’d have breezed through check-in fairly quickly. As it was, the queue was a complete scrum by the time we arrived, and so we waited some more.

As if that weren’t inauspicious enough, there was some sort of mechanical problem with the plane from Sydney, which delayed us another couple of hours. Finally we arrived in Cairns (pronounced “Canz” by most of the locals, starting with some announcement on the airport PA) around 1400-ish, and rocked up to the car rental counter. I’d prepaid but (these things don’t surprise me any more) there was another $450 to fork over for something or other. Still, at least I was reputedly to get $200 of that back when I returned the car.

If I return your bloody car, I muttered under my breath.

We drove, I suppose, about 20 km north from the airport to our accommodation at Trinity Beach. The operation of our motel, “On The Beach” (hi, Neville), seemed to rest in the unsteady hands of two teenagers: a mute girl with luridly pink hair and an affable but cretinous boy in need of a shave. We were given the keys to 46 Osprey, and some vague arm-waving which meant we should drive around the block, locate the building with the unspecified street number, poke one of the buttons on the key fob to open the gates, enter the unmarked door, and go up one flight of stairs to apartment 2. (There was no “46” involved in any of this.)

We were greeted by a bale of dirty laundry at the door.

Butterflies and Beaches

Sunday, 15 July 2007

Rebecca’s little body clock went off at 0730 “her” time, which would have seemed quite civilised if we’d been home, but which equated to 0530 Canz time, alas.

Still, at least we could park her in front of the telly and collapse back into bed, couldn’t we?

Ah, no. Here we discovered another joy of On The Bench: no cable. Despite the brochure in our room assuring us that “all rooms in this building have AusStar installed” (on p. 7, if you want to check) it most certainly was not installed in ours. So Rebecca watched one of those mindless fishing shows instead, while Jo and I summoned up enough courage to face the day.

We took the SkyRail to Kuranda; a gondola contraption which runs for a bit more than 7 km over the rainforest canopy. About half way, at Barron Falls Station, we stopped at the Rainforest Interpretation Centre for a sort of mini-tour. The weather was cool and a bit drizzly and windy, anyway, so with the extra altitude and being in the semi-dark of the forest floor, it was actually surprisingly cold in there. Joanne, a human salamander at the best of times, was suffering greatly from the cold.

Which meant I did, too.

We arrived at the end of the line, and walked into Kuranda, which is a charming little village. At the lolly shop, we watched through the show-window as the staff rolled out the goo that lollies are made from into long strips, which got cut up into little edible chips. Rebecca nagged us for a bagful, and I ate most of them.

The highlight of Kuranda, especially for a little girl, just has to be the butterfly sanctuary. This is a large, airy greenhouse-like space, where the foliage is pretty enough, but as well the place is stocked with a selection of showy lepidoptera. The stars of the show are undoubtedly the beautiful metallic-blue Ulysses butterfly, Papilio ulysses, though these seemed more stand-offish than many of the others when we were there. Rebecca was wearing a bright pink hat with the word ‘Gorgeous’ picked out in rhinestones, which numbers of the insects seemed to mistake for their favourite flowers, and they’d come and sit for a while on her head. This went down very well indeed.

This place, the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, is evidently the largest butterfly farm in Australia, and one of the largest in the world. And fun for anyone with a soul.

When we came back, we drove to some large mall or another in Canz, and found a shop where we could buy some DVDs, to compensate for the limited selection of entertainment available at On The Rocks. We lucked out, and found some place having a clearance sale, picking up Missy Higgins’s On a Clear Night among other treasures.

Another early night.

Monday, 16 July 2007

Our first stop today, as we headed north to Daintree, was some unnamed beach. We just randomly stopped our car on the side of the highway, walked across the road and through some trees.... Between the strand of leaning palms, and the glittering blue ocean, white sand stretched as far as the eye could see in both directions. There were no other people in sight at all. Apart from the occasional whoosh of a car passing on the highway, we might have had the entire continent to ourselves.

Daintree township is quite a long way north from Trinity Beach; we must have driven for an hour or so, and one of the tourist web sites says it is 56 km north of Port Douglas, which sounds about right. It lies on the Daintree River, and is the departure point for various river excusions. There are few points of interest in the village itself, however: the Timber Museum is all I discovered, and we didn’t bother with that. Beyond that, there’s a café or two – over-priced from what I remember – and sundry tour operators, though even those appeared fairly drab and uninviting.

We went to one, nevertheless, and booked ourselves a trip on the river to look for some crocodiles. There’s nothing in my diary about it, though I vaguely recall some cock-up with the time and much running around before we eventually made it aboard the boat. Then there was some pottering up and down the river for an hour or two and eventually, right at the end, we spotted some poor croc trying to catch a snooze on a sunny mudbank, and rode up to persecute it. (No, to be fair to the operator, we kept a reasonable distance. She must have been aware of us, but not sufficiently concerned to slip into the water.) I guess you’d say the whole expedition was restful rather than stimulating.

Back at Over The Edge, we explored the joys of unworkable, mismatched Tupperware in the kitchen, and noted with amusement a notice advising the $70 charge we would incur if we should happen to lose the gate opener. Regards Clive and Mary, our hosts.

Screw you Clive and Mary, our hosts.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

We had nothing planned for this day except to mooch on into Canz for a look around, perhaps a bit of shopping, etc. Our first observation was an extremely pleasant one; the Canz city fathers have an enlightened attitude to parking. Rather than the rapacious policy we’re used to at home, here it costs only a couple of bucks for four hours or something staggeringly reasonable. In Wellington, the spiteful bureaucratic cretins in office charge $4 per hour for street parking, and the clockwork Gestapo they sneeringly call “Parkwise” tickets anything that gets in their way, regardless of how reasonable it might be.

Since I don’t have much else to say about this day, let me digress briefly on the nature of these malignant bastards - the evil, filthy, Wellington parking wardens.

There is little good can be said for the car parking enforcement arm of Wellington City Council, the abiding evil, Parkwise. Two anecdotes will serve to illustrate their mentality and integrity. The first was so outrageous that it made the local papers and the ensuing public outcry forced Wellington City Council to back down and forgive the fines. (Not that they did so quickly or willingly: I use the word ‘forced’ on purpose.) To quote ‘The Dominion Post’ editorial of 23-Feb-2010 on the incident, “While football fans were cheering the Wellington Phoenix [soccer team] to a nail-biting victory at Westpac Stadium on Sunday evening, parking wardens were ticketing the vehicles of 61 fans who had exceeded the maximum parking time outside the ground – because the match went into extra time, then a penalty shootout.”

My second anecdote never made it on to the public arena; I observed it personally. I was walking along Featherston Street with my daughter early on a Saturday morning, when parking is restricted to two hours but is free. I noticed a Parkwise apparatchik ticketing someone. As I passed I saw that the parking voucher kiosk had a notice taped to it – unsigned and visible only from the footpath – which said ‘no parking’ on that date. There was no indication (seal or signature or title) to indicate the legitimacy of the notice, nor any other indications that parking was proscribed; there were no road cones or anything. The people who had parked there would probably have gotten out of their cars and walked off across the road, towards the shopping district, without even being aware the sign was there. This set-up appeared to me not far short of entrapment. I explained this to the Parkwise bitch, who looked back at me with the rapier intellect of a flatworm and said it was “probably” the drivers’ own fault for failing to check for a sign. My girl was only 10 at the time, so I refrained from speaking further, for fear of speaking intemperately.

One of the adventures we were set on experiencing while we were in the area was to snorkel on the Reef. In the absence of any local knowledge, we wandered into a couple of booking agents more or less at random, asking for information and prices. We settled on the second or third one when Jo got talking to the young woman who was helping us. I zoned out, as you do when women get chatting, and upon returning to the world was pleasantly surprised to discover that Jo had done the business and we were set. As we left, Jo told me why she had chosen this particular operator: “I feel I can trust a girl from the Chathams with a young daughter.” And, so, we found some lunch, wandered around a bit more, and returned to Trinity Beach where we spent the afternoon lazing in the sand, watching Rebecca happily running in and out of the waves.

Reef and Rainforest

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

We arove (it’s not a word, but it should be) in Canz with plenty of time to spare, and parked under the Pier Complex. It cost $5 for the day; earlybird special. Did you read that, you broken-brained arseholes in Wellington? Did you? I hope you die soon.

But by the time we’d found where we needed to go, and checked in, they were starting to board passengers already, so we went straight on. There was tea and ‘instant’ (it’s coffee, Jim, but not as we know it) waiting at the counter, and comfy seats, and the boat was far from crowded, so we were off to a grand start. Within 15 minutes we’d met Mark, who helpfully relieved my credit card of another $90 in exchange for an almost personal (“a maximum of seex people”) snorkelling adventure which three essentially non-swimmers, one of them a six year old, would find safe and enjoyable. And then we were underway....

The trip out to the reef took about an hour and a half, and it was pretty choppy. This didn’t bother Jo and I, both seasoned veterans of many a Cook Strait ferry crossing where 4 m. swells are very ordinary, but Bex didn’t like it much, and some other folks were even sick. This, despite the many tantalising opportunities to unburden themselves of yet more money, being offered by the friendly crew. It brought a tear to my eye. To be fair, there was also a snorkelling presentation which was illuminating, funny, and free. Tip of the day: Spit into your goggles before putting them on. It keeps them from fogging up.

We finally arrived at this massive pontoon thing. Everyone poured off the boat and dispersed throughout the pontoon, heading for diverse centres of activity: snorkelling, diving, various glass-bottomed contraptions.

Goggles, flippers, and snorkels were piled into big plastic bins, with various cryptic felt-tipped-pen markings on them, allegedly indicating the size. The mouth bits in the snorkels were all at least half bitten through; many were bitten off entirely; the aggregate effect was vaguely nauseating. We steeled ourselves, and picked out the best of what we could, thoughtfully spat into our goggles, then headed down a ladder to the waterline, in search of Mark and the Rubber Ring Express.

I had learned earlier that the water was 24°C, which seemed pretty warm to me, so I thought (except I didn’t think) that I could get away without the additional expense of wetsuits for the family. Oh, dear. Ok, I will admit that it didn’t feel like 24 to me, either, but from the moment the girls’ feet touched the water they started performing. Dear god! Anybody would think they were being lowered down into a vat of liquid nitrogen. Ultimately this detracted from the whole experience, so my advice to anyone else, unless you’re well-used to immersing yourself in the open ocean, is to just bite the bullet and wrap yourself up in a wetsuit.

Together with two other visitors, Mark arranged us, star-like, around a flotation ring, which he towed away from the pontoon by main strength. It was a very impressive thing, and I’m sure this sort of performance lands young Mark the odd mermaid from time to time. The first thing I noticed, and Rebecca did too, was the texture of the ocean surface. What we had experienced as chop on the cruise out from Canz was here a mobile surface of rolling hills, perhaps a metre and a half from top to trough. There was no breaking water, only the grey surface of the sea rising and falling around us. Although we were only a few metres from the pontoon, we could no longer see or hear any of it at all; it felt like we were in the middle of a whole wide ocean.

I’m pretty sure this was in Rebecca’s mind; I think she was frightened. And, as noted above, we were all cold, although I was putting on a brave face, unwilling to admit that my miserliness had been a mistake. Most of the time, rather than laying face-down, breathing through the mangled plastic tube, and looking around, Bex held herself up on the floating ring, half out of the water. Jo and I tried to encourage her, though, to be honest, we were suffering somewhat ourselves. She did lower herself down a couple of times, to look at something we pointed out, but I wouldn’t call her experience ‘snorkelling’ as such. (Three years later, off the coast of Sabah, she would make up for it.) Jo and I had a somewhat better time of it, and the two other members of the party, who were more confident swimmers, probably had a great experience. Many times they left off clutching the ring and swam off on various sorties of their own.

We were out for probably half an hour before Mark towed us all back to the pontoon. Even I found it difficult to scramble aboard, because my legs were shaking so badly with the cold, and we had to lift Bex out of the water, poor little thing. The girls were forgiving, but it has to be said that this was not my finest hour.

We spent the remainder of our time out at the pontoon in various glass-bottomed contrivances, observing the reef and its life in warm, dry, comfort. It really is astonishing; nobody can over-hype the Great Barrier Reef. With the one exception of the Grand Canyon, it is the most spectacular sight I have ever seen.

Go there.

On the return trip, on the big cat from the pontoon back to Canz, Bex crashed out and slept most of the way: no bad thing. And, too, she must have been quite moved by the day’s experiences: At bedtime, back at By The Cringe, I was required on monster patrol that night.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

We didn’t venture far from Out For Lunch today, but spent a quiet day, recovering from the rigours of the reef experience. In my diary I wrote “‘quiet’ in the sense that we’ve had only the one pitched battle between the girls so far. Mind you, it’s not yet 9:30, so there’s plenty of time.”

God help me when Rebecca hits puberty. I think I’ll just move out for a few years, and leave the pair of them to it.

Happily, the girls swanned off to the beach shortly after that, leaving me and my book in peace and tranquility, other than a brief visit from the woman who serviced our room. I actually recall that morning very well. I wrote the code that would take my thesis data, and output range charts for selected subsets. And that was Appendix 2, pp. 195 to 205, thank you very much.

But I can’t remember what, if anything, we did after that. The diary is mute.

Friday, 20 July 2007

Today we repeated Monday’s drive north as far as the turnoff to Daintree village, but this time bore right and, after a little while, came to the famous Daintree ferry crossing. We didn’t have long to wait before the ferry (it looks like a flat barge) arrived, unloaded a few vehicles travelling back the way we had come, then rolled on. I can’t remember the fare, now, but I seem to recall it was reasonable.

Around 12 km beyond the ferry crossing, we came to the Jindalba Boardwalk. According to multiple web sites, Jindalba is the local Kuku Yalanji people’s name for the area. The boardwalk is a bit more than half a kilometre long, and roughly follows a small stream, crossing it on occasion by means of little bridges, and all under a wonderful canopy of palms and ferns. The boardwalk is elevated off the forest floor, presumably to minimise the damage of stomping tourist feet, and at times it is raised up to 4 metres off the ground, affording elevated views of the surrounding bush. Information signs are posted at intervals, providing identifications of the most striking plants and a bit of interpretive stuff.

On our way back to the carpark, we overtook a guided tour party. They were friendly, and invited us to listen in. We did, for a few minutes. Nobody seemed to mind that we were free-loading.

Our next stop was the ice cream factory. Yes, that’s what I said: the ice cream factory. Not exactly expected, in the middle of the Queensland rainforest, but delightful – especially for a little girl. (And just before the sanctamonious Greenpeacenik in you gets out his soapbox.... Oh, never mind. I really can’t be bothered arguing about it.)

For something more substantial, we drove on to the Fan Palm Cafe, with its famous boardwalk. We lined up for some drinks, and I believe Rebecca managed to rustle up a smoothie, but we all passed on the fresh fish that the place is also known for. I believe I opted for a burger and coffee, which were acceptable but unmemorable.

The principal feature of the place is a private boardwalk which runs through the rainforest from the cafe to a spectacular palm-tree “grotto” – which is truly splendid – and took us in the order of 15 minutes to traverse. I believe the entire thing is maintained by the cafe people, and wholly funded from donations, which is quite something on its own. We dropped a few coins in the tin.

Next we came to the insect museum. The girls sat this one out, but I loved it. It was a very small space but packed to the gun’ales with wonderful old-fashioned glass-fronted cabinets of pinned insects, from all over Australia and beyond. There must be thousands of specimens pinned up in there. The old fashioned atmosphere made me think about the old Dominion Museum back home in Wellington, which I had so enjoyed as a kid. The contrast with our “new” (it’s a few years old now!) museum, Te Papa, couldn’t be more striking.

Te Papa is very modern, high-tech, and museum designer people come from around the world to examine it. But it is an entertainment. Most of the collections are tucked away in back rooms, where they are not even accessible to the public any longer. Its proponents will quickly point out that it is always full of kids, whereas the young me could go to the old Dominion any time and have its wonderful echoing halls virtually to myself. So, yep, it’s full, and packing kids into a museum can’t be entirely bad. But, let’s face it, most of them won’t remember anything of value ten minutes after leaving. Maybe it really was better for a very few, genuinely interested and motivated kids, to get a less glitzy, but more erudite experience – opening drawers, reading labels ... god forbid: learning.

On a row of potted plants lined up outside the insect museum entrance, a few live residents were available for inspection, too. I wish I had written better notes and could now remember what they were. But all I have is the vague feeling that I was not tempted to pick any of them up.

Then it was back home to Off The Handle.

Winding Up

Saturday, 21 July 2007

This was a day of little interest to anyone but ourselves: We went to Canz for some shopping, out to Smithfield Mall, then back to Canz again, to buy a little portable, battery-powered DVD player from Dick Smith. It worked well enough for a few weeks, but crapped out eventually. The resident evil at my local Featherston Street branch of Dork Smith, refused to honour the warranty (“it’s an Australian model; we don’t sell that one here”) or, indeed, to take any sort of responsibility for it at all, and subsequently the lying bastards denied it even had a fault when it very consistently faltered and skipped for us. They were so comprehensively useless that I swore to boycott them from that moment on – a vow I have stuck with these past four years. [And I’m pleased to see they went belly-up and decamped some time later.]

Then, back to Up The Creek for an evening with Harry Potter and the Bledisloe Cup on TV.


Sunday, 22 July 2007

Packing up to head home: the time had come to say goodbye to Beyond The Pale. There’s usually little happy to be said for the last day of a holiday, even a fraught one. I always feel a bit sad.

Canz airport was exotic: There is a $5 charge to use one of the luggage trolleys, for god’s sake (where did all that enlightenment go to?) and no rubbish bins.

So I carried our bags. And I left our rubbish in a neat little pile against a wall. Oh, and yes, I got my $200 refund from Avis.

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