Tuesday, October 27, 2009

We woke up at 4:30 for our 4:45 taxi ride to the airport. Our flight was due to leave at 6, but left a little late due to problems in Sydney, where we were landing. We slept most of the flight. In Sydney, it was cloudy once again - we hoped it would be sunny when we came to Sydney for more than just the airport. We thought it would be a quick transfer to our flight to Cairns, but that flight was delayed as well - the catering truck was delayed or something. We left late, and left without any hot water or any ice. In return, they gave us free television (Virgin Blue has television, but it's not normally free).

We landed in Cairns just after noon. It was, as expected, refreshingly hot. The airport was a mess - nearly everything was under construction. Our driver/guide Benji met us right away, and our luggage was some of the first off, so that was good, since we were running late and had a long drive ahead of us. Before we started our drive in earnest, however, we had a little side trip to Kuranda. The Kuranda Village is a small town up in the mountains above Cairns, and was important for supplies (metals and wood) back in the day. Now it is a tourist attaction, with both the long-existing train and the relatively new Skyrail. Benji asked us if we wanted the train up and the skyrail back, or the other way around. It had been so long since we booked our trip, however, that we had literally no clue what the pros and cons of either was.

When we got to the ticketing booth, however, our decision was made for us, as there were no more trains going up, only coming back. So we immediately hopped on the skyrail, and were told that we needed to be on the 3:30 train back. As we ascended up the hillside on the skyrail, we were still trying to figure out exactly what we were doing. It had been less than an hour since we landed, and we were a little disoriented with everything going on. The scenery, though, was amazing. We had the rainforest right in front of us, and the shoreline and Cairns right behind us. Justin kept changing seats (carefully), trying to get photos and video of everything. The Skyrail were basically the same size as, and worked the same as, the little gondolas that you might take to get from one side of a zoo or amusement park to another. But we were about 100 feet above the rainforest.

After about 15 minutes, we got to the first stop. There was a Park Ranger there who asked if we needed any help, and after we stared blankly for about five seconds, he determined we did. He told us what was actually going on. The Skyrail has three sections and four stations (the two ends and two intermediate sections). At each of the stations, you can get out and wander around to see whatever is around. So in that regard, the Skyrail can take as little or as much time as you want. The only reason we had to "hurry" was because we had a scheduled train ride back to where we started. Looking at our watch, and talking to the guide, we realized we didn't actually have to worry. We could take a fair amount of time at all of the stops and still have time before boarding the train. The guide showed us a really tall Kauri Pine (like we saw at the Adelaide Botanic Garden), and an interesting palm locally called "Wait awhile" (a number of them are in this picture) that acts more like a vine than a palm. It has a number of hooks all over it, and the hooks grab on to trees and other foliage to help climb to the top of the rainforest. Once there, the plant drops all of the spines, since they are no longer necessary.

On the second leg of the Skyrail journey, we saw a big waterfall, Barron Falls. We also saw some trees we have at home, including Castanospermum and Bracychiton. We also think we saw some King Palms, but since there are so many possible palms, and we were so high up, they could have been something else. After getting off the Skyrail at the next station, there were a couple more lookout points for the falls. The last leg of the journey was more of the same, with a nice little "break" of 2-3 minutes, when the wind picked up and our car just sat motionless. Well, motionless except for being blown around by the wind. Once on solid ground again, we were very happy. We wandered around Kuranda a bit, which was a huge tourist trap, but at least had nice warm weather that was good to walk in. We grabbed a bite to eat, then hopped on the train. The train ride was nice, but we were facing backwards, so we never quite knew what we were coming up on. It was a bit warmer than the Skyrail, but still pretty comfortable. We crossed over numerous bridges, through numerous tunnels, and down a lot of steep hills. It must have been hellish to build the line, especially during the wet season.

We got back down to Cairns just before 5. Benji asked us if we were good with windy roads, Justin said yes and Crystal said "um..." We hadn't taken any Bonine, but as it turned out it didn't matter. The road was windy in spots, but overall it was a very nice drive, with good views of the Dividing Range to the west and the ocean to the east. Benji was a good conversationalist, and seemed to like that we weren't just sitting there quietly. We got the distinct impression that on many of his drives he is incredibly bored. We got to the Daintree River, and had to wait a couple of minutes for the ferry to cross and come back, so we walked around the riverbank. There was a sign saying there were crocs in the area, and to watch out. Justin was walking around taking pictures when Benji yelled "watch out" - Justin spun around and looked everywhere, only to see Benji and Crystal laughing. Justin promised Crystal he would get her back.

On the other side of the river, the rainforest became much more dense, and it was now dark as well. Benji didn't know exactly where our hotel was, so Justin looked it up on his iPhone, but the address was inexact and the cell coverage was in and out (mostly out). Fortunately Justin sort of remembered where it was, since we had to rebook our lodging in Cape Trib just a month or so before we left. He was correct on where it was, but incorrect on how to get there. We ended up driving by it a couple of times before finally finding it.

When we arrived it was 7pm. The proprietor, Dawn, showed us to our room, which was a nice little cottage in the middle of her fruit farm. Then she drove us to dinner, and gave us a flashlight so we could walk back. North of the Daintree River there is no permanent power (just generators), so there are no street lights. The restaurant, Whet, was very good, with good food and good drinks. Justin's drink was basically a Cosmopolitan, but made with "51" Cachaca instead of Vodka. He made sure to take down the Cachaca brand in the hopes that we could purchase some back home. Good Cachaca is hard to find in the US. We unpacked and did a little laundry when we got back, then went to sleep.

Cape Trib is the "end of the road" up the Australian east coast, 110 km north of Cairns, with only a gnarly dirt road connecting Cape Trib to Cooktown farther north. Cape Trib itself is already "off the grid," as there is no power lines north of the Daintree river. Thus, everything in Cape Trib is run off of generators, solar power, or other alternative power systems.

Cape Trib is famous for being where the "Rainforest meets the Reef." Cape Trib is part of the the Greater Daintree Rainforest, which has existed continuously for more than 110 million years, making it the planet's oldest existing rainforest. Because of the various continents moving around over time, and the earth going through multiple ice ages and warm periods, most of the areas that used to be rainforest are now dry (e.g. the Sahara desert), and many areas that did not used to have rainforests now do (e.g. the Amazon basin). The Daintree Rainforest, however, has moved in a way where it has had a relatively steady climate, and thus has many of its original forests. Some t ree species once thought to be long extinct have only relatively recently been discovered.

The Daintree Rainforest contains 30% of frog, marsupial and reptile species in Australia, and 65% of Australia's bat and butterfly species. 20% of bird species in the country can be found in this area. There are also over 12000 species of bugs. All of this bio-diversity is contained within an area that takes up 0.2% of Australia's landmass. The Daintree Rainforest was added as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988.

Seven years earlier, the Great Barrier Reef was added as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Thus, Cape Trib is the only place in the world where two World Heritage areas exist side by side. You can literally walk through the rainforest, come to the edge of the rainforest and have a white sandy beach and the ocean right in front of you.

Cape Trib is also famous for being the spot where Captain James Cook started running into all sorts of problems while navigating up the Eastern Australian coast in 1770.  Cook named the area Cape Tribulation "because here began all our Troubles."  Cook had been the first European to "discover" the eastern coast, and had been slowly making his way up the coast, but then ran into trouble at Cape Trib, running aground on the coral reef and tearing a hole in the bottom of his ship. The Endeavour limped its way up the coast until present-day Cooktown, where it stayed for seven weeks for repairs.

As an aside, Justin has read Captain Cook's biography, and it is one of the better pieces of non-fiction that he has read. Not quite as good as Endurance, but very good. The fact that someone was almost to Antarctica in the 1700s, and "discovered" Australia, Hawaii, and Easter Island (among other places) is frankly amazing. It is literally impossible to repeat, unless someone starts finding new planets on their own.