Wednesday, January 3, 2001
Before going on, we need to describe a bit of geography. Cairns and the northern beaches are on a very narrow strip of coastal plain on which much sugar cane is grown. Thirty miles, or so off the beach lies the middle of the Great Barrier Reef. The area is warm to hot all year, like southern Florida, and is subject to frequent, major cyclonic storms. The plain quickly gives way to steep mountains that rise to a relatively flat area called the “tablelands”. The mountains wring HUGE amounts of rain out of the moist sea air, raining up to about ten meters per year. (We’re entering the rainy season, now.) As you can imagine, it is, literally, a tropical rainforest jungle on the steep sides of the mountains. On the tablelands the climate dries out and cools off somewhat and there is a wide band of rich farming country that seems to grow just about anything. By the time you’ve driven about 150 km west from the beaches you enter the “outback” desert that changes little as you drive the vast expanse of the interior of Australia.
With a few lingering showers, we had breakfast at an open air café on the ocean about two blocks from the Palms. There, we plotted the tour strategy for our visit, deciding on a wildlife tour, a snorkel trip to the Great Barrier Reef, a train/cable car trip up to the tablelands above Cairns and a visit to an Aboriginal cultural showcase. Returning to the Palms, we commissioned Bev to make reservations for us and went back to the beach for a bit of sun.
By 3:00 we were picked up for our first tour by Alberto who runs a one-man operation called Wildscapes Safaris. You might say that self-taught naturalist, Alberto, has a passion for the platypus. When not carting tourists around, he studies the animals, films them and publishes his research. He has hosted National Geographic film crews in his study area and had at least one of those films aired in Australia. After picking up three Brits to fill out the tour we were on our way, driving up the switchback highway through the rainforest to the tablelands. There, we finally drove out an unpaved road, past a farm to the banks of a river where platypus live.
We walked, waited and watched, walked, waited and watched some more, and were finally rewarded with a rare view of a platypus feeding in the middle of the river, in the wild. You’d see bubbles rising to the surface and, after about 45seconds, a dark furry platypus would appear on the surface. After swimming for about 15 seconds it would resubmerge and repeat the process. Slowly the animal moved to our side of the river, was joined by a second animal and we got close views of them, and photos to prove it.
After dinner in a local restaurant, we moved on to phase two, a nocturnal wildlife spotting tour. Since it was raining in the rainforest we stayed in the dry tablelands. With our red spotlights we explored the forest on each side of an unpaved track and, over the course of a couple of hours, spotted a range of wildlife. Our finds included several species of possum, three species of kangaroo, two kinds of owls and a couple of kinds of large spiders waiting for their prey. The van slowly became quiet as its occupants became sleepy and we started the drive home, getting back about midnight to grab some zees for the next day’s adventure.