Subject: Australia Memoirs-part 1
G'day, 'Ziners:

It's obvious to me that the posting of the photos is going to take a little longer, so here's the verbage only!

Gail in Eugene CAIRNS, AUSTRALIA, NOVEMBER 2000 Traveling stretches and reshapes me, piques my curiosity but never satisfies it completely, and brings me home with fresh perspective. From Venice to Vera Cruz, Puerto Montt to Perpignan, Amman to Anaheim, Siena to Santiago, all the places I've been leave a subtle echo in my psyche, much like the scent of rosemary lingering on my warm skin hours after I've come in from the garden on a still summer evening. I enjoy the process of trip planning, but since Serendipity always travels with me, it's often the surprises which leave the sweetest trace.

Even so, I'm occasionally so unexpectedly captivated by a place that I'm without defenses. When I first saw the town where I now live, some 40-odd years ago, all green and glowing in a lush spring, I felt as if I had been dropped by a net of fine gossamer, no one strand strong enough to hold me, but taken as a whole, enough to keep me tranced. Cape Breton and Scotland's Hebrides have caught me up, however, these I expected. With family names like McNeil, MacDonald, McKenna and McCormick, it's only to be predicted. But Australia? I wasn't even prepared to like it, really: too big, too raw, too burly, too far, too hot! In six trips, I have only touched parts of Queensland, but I'm well and truly snared, grumbling about returning home before I'm ready each time!

This trip, my friend, my son and I started in Cairns, the gateway to Far North Queensland. My friend is a cancer survivor, indominitable of spirit although fragile of body; my son and I are tough old travelers. These characteristics become important later! November is the tail end of the dry season in Queensland, or the beginning of the Wet, depending on the year. Normally it's a great time to visit, with late afternoon showers some days, but fine, warm mornings.

Cairns has jumped the clock, no longer a damp and soggy outpost favored by scuba divers, Barrier Reef visitors and backpackers, but a bustling center for tourism and commerce. Upscale eateries, shops and accommodations have sprung up, dollars are being poured into revamping the waterfront, and tourists and travelers alike feel safe and welcome. The town council has looked at the high-rise tourism model of Gold Coast, Surfers' Paradise and Brisbane, and has opted for a much more controlled eco-friendly development, Queenslander style. My son and I have purchased a holiday flat in a new project near Centenary Park on the north side of Cairns, so some of our days were occupied with solicitors, bankers and the like. But there's always time to play!

No trip to Cairns is complete for me without a Skyrail ride up through the rainforest to the village of Kuranda, on the eastern edge of the Atherton Tablelands. The train, which chugs through more than 30 tunnels up the gorge to Kuranda is not nearly so appealing as the Skyrail. I love the feeling of floating just above the canopy, trying to spy the flashing blue of the Ulysses butterflies, the cockatiels ghosting through the leaves, and the changes of vegetation as the gondolas climb through different eco-zones. There are two en route stops where passengers can get off for a rainforest walk and rangers are available for a free talk. No matter how many times I've done a walk, I learn something new each time. Kuranda, located on the banks of the Barron River, has a short main street lined with shops and restaurants, plus a series of booths selling handmade and homemade items, open two or three days weekly. My favorite day is always Sunday, for the markets seem livelier. The town council is encouraging handmade and local crafts rather than imported mass-produced items. There's a wonderful butterfly habitat to visit as well as a huge net-covered bird sanctuary for those not interested in the shopping. I recommend taking the early Skyrail up and making reservations for the second-to-the-last return trip, about 3:30pm. Sometimes the last returns can get too crowded. Sliding down the hill in the afternoon, the gondolas provide great views of the town, the bay and the headlands.

Centenary Park, a 30-minute walk from the central part of town and also accessible by frequent and reasonable bus service, is definitely worth a morning! Walking trails loop around two lakes, one salt and one fresh water, where birds and other wildlife are easily spotted. There's a wonderful boardwalk through a patch of rainforest, about a 15-minute stroll; another option is a circle path through a time capsule of rainforest plants, from eons ago to the present. It's a delight, but be sure to bring bug repellent! Huge fuel tanks from WWII have been brought down from a nearby hill and revamped into the most interesting art center you'll ever see, called, what else, The Tanks. Backing onto the park is the Mt Whitfield Nature Reserve, sprawling up the hills north of town. An easy circuit trail attracts locals for a morning workout, and a longer trail challenges the more fit. Here's where some of that we're so tough attitude can lead to trouble: park information puts a five hour price on the longer trail, and my son and I were convinced that didn't mean us. We managed two and a half hours for the trail, but I needed a two-hour nap afterwards! Sunscreen, bug repellent and water are necessary for this scramble. Besides bush chickens, bush turkeys, goanas, marvelous spiders and lots of birds, we spotted a small mob of very shy little red rock wallabies. What a treat! And thank goodness my friend, Donna, elected to stay at the unit: this trail could have done her in!

Just a few meters down the road is the Flecker Botanic Garden, a gem of a rainforest garden. Entry is free, although donations are accepted. The paths wind through many different rainforest habitats, there's lots of information on the plants, and lists of what's blooming are available in the shop/office. The in-garden café serves nice snacks and features a champagne brunch on the weekends. I can't wait to become a volunteer (called, of course, a gardeneer)! Guided walks are available for the garden and the Centenary Park for a modest fee; reservations are required.

Dining in Cairns is lots of fun: from the noisy open-air take-aways on the Esplanade to more a formal atmosphere at the Pier, there's something for every taste: Italian, Greek, Japanese, Chinese, Australian, Middle Eastern and even Swiss! On the Esplanade, I love the Raw Prawn, featuring sit-down meals with inventive choices, although with a limited vegetarian selection (this is the case most everywhere in Queensland, though). For fun, try the Swiss Café north of the Esplanade, on Shields Street, in a little strip mall. The owner is Swiss and has quite a Swiss/German clientele; dine early or phone for reservations; his few tables will fill quickly. The Red Ochre in central Cairns recently won an award in a Queensland-wide culinary contest; I haven't tried the restaurant, but friends have recommended it highly. Like many dinner establishments, the Red Ochre is open from 6:30 to late. Cairns restaurants are either fully licensed (wine and spirits are sold on premise for diners) or BYOB (you may bring your own bottle and pay a modest corkage). Australian wine is some of the finest in the world, and several shops in Cairns have an amazing selection of wines. If you're a wine connoisseur, check with the restaurant even if they don't advertise BYOB, for if you find a marvelous St Henri or E and E Black Pepper that is yelling to be enjoyed, they may allow you to bring it. We always offer a glass to the owner in any case!

If you have a hire-car, wander up north about 20 kilometers to Palm Cove. The little main street sits on a sweet beach, with eateries, hotels and guest houses lining the inland side of the drive. The Novotel resort has great golfing, and for a fine meal, call the Paperbark Restaurant for reservations. The Paperbark's wine cellar is deep and wide as well. Further up the coast is Port Douglas, almost a Carmel-in-Australia, where chi-chi shops are tucked between upscale cafes. It seems new resorts are opening weekly here!

In Cairns (and most Australian towns and cities), old-style pubs, actually called hotels, serve simple meals in sometimes rowdy and raucous surroundings. Most often situated on a corner, the building will have a wide verandah on the second story, often embellished with iron work, and the pub is on the ground floor, swinging doors and all. On a hot and muggy day, the fumes wafting out the open windows and doors can set you back a step, but the food is usually reasonable. I'd ask some locals for a recommendation if you'd like to try one.

Although sometimes interpretive centers leave me unsatisfied, the Aboriginal center at Tjapukai is worth the time. The Dreamtime show is so-so, but the film on the history of Aboriginal life in Queensland will break your heart. It's a four-kleenex event. Outdoors, there's a chance to practice boomerang throws and spear tosses with Aboriginal folk, and a young dance troupe puts on a lively show, complete with digiridoos and song. On a previous visit, one of the young dancers painted my four-month-old granddaughter's face with an Aboriginal blessing, a memory which always brings me a smile. The center hosts large groups, so an early morning or later afternoon visit can avoid some of the crush. The on-site dining room offers a wide selection of buffet items. Most visitors are rushed through the facility in two hours, but three will allow a leisurely visit.

A few kilometers north of Tjapukai is Wild World, a small but well-kept zoo, also worth the time. Again, go early or toward the end of the day to avoid tour buses! Staff puts on talks about snakes, koalas, crocodiles and birds at different times during the day, and a photo with a koala in my arms is a must! The kangaroo enclosure is large, with several types of 'roos roaming around. They'll happily munch 'roo food from your hand, although by the end of the day they're not so eager. Koala Corner offers light snacks at midday, and there is a dining area which isn't always open. I'd allow three hours for the park visit, including sit-down time to enjoy a snack.

Back in Cairns, there's one more attraction: the Night Markets. Located right on the Esplanade in an arcade are market stalls that stay open quite late at night. It's everything from the most gimcrack of souvenirs to nice Australian-made goods in a lively setting. Some evenings the aisles are so crowded you can hardly make your way into the booths, other evenings it's possible to stroll almost unmolested. Hot, noisy, funky and fun, it's a relaxing way to walk off some of your dinner if you've eaten downtown.

As our week in Cairns progressed, the afternoon rain showers became longer and heavier, but never cold (November in Oregon tends to be gloomy and chilly). We planned to take our hire car north to Cape Tribulation, one of my true places of belonging. The highway runs along the coved coastline, passing miles of serene, park-strung beaches, tempting no matter the weather. Care must be taken, however, with swimming or wading in the surf, especially November to April, because of the stingers, nasty, poisonous jellyfish. Warnings are posted at all the parks. Through sugar cane country, we sped past Porto (Port Douglas) up to Mossman. We stop here for two reasons: a shopping area for last-minute supplies, including a bookstore, and the Mossman Gorge. Just a few kilometers from town (you may have to ask for directions) is a wonderful tropical stream peppered with large boulders. It's great for a refreshing swim or an easy hike upcreek, and no danger of crocs since it's too far inland.

Then it's off north to the Daintree River, where the World Heritage Rain Forest actually begins. The ferry across the river takes only a minute, and runs except in the most extreme wet weather (that means every January through March!). The road narrows, climbs over hills (called Ranges), dips into deep watersheds and we are finally, really, truly in one of the most exquisite rain forests in the world. We stop at the Alexandra Ranges Overlook to enjoy the sweep of rainforest and beach, where the Daintree flows into the Coral Sea. Overcast and muggy with splatters of rain, the weather doesn't dampen my joy in drinking in the absolutely unique rainforest smell, hearing the buzz of unseen insects, watching the birds and butterflies darting through the canopy. We start to see the huge tree ferns and other ancient plants which are Queensland's signature flora; how can there be so very many variations of green?

This road north has not been surfaced all that long; the macadamed surface has eliminated the pall of dust that accompanied us in the past, but still the going is slow, partly because we are gawking left and right. Darn! The rainforest ice cream shop is shut down; I had been looking forward to a fresh mango cone! Accommodations and little roadside cafes seem all spiffed up, more prosperous since last year. We take the quick side trip into Crocodylus, one of my favorite rainforest retreats. I'd heard that cyclones had dropped some of the huge canopy trees that shelter the main area, but the green recovers quickly. Crocodylus is mostly a hostel, with dorm-style accommodations in large tents with shared showerblock and bath, and family-style tents with ensuite baths. Communal cooking facilities are available as well as a modest take-away serving hefty portions, all under a huge wing of shade cloth. The jungle comes in close here; there's a self-guided rainforest walk and guides are available for day and night hikes. On a night walk I'll never forget, we set out with flashlights and the flickering silver of a full moon through the canopy. About an hour into the walk, our guide sat us down on logs about 25 feet from each other and turned off our lights. Never have I felt so vulnerable, but after ten minutes, when my heart stopped racing, I could hear the rustlings of the abundant rainforest life all around me. What a thrill! Cassowaries, those huge birds with a heavy crown of bone on their heads, live here; sighting one in the wild on a day walk was another thrill. An adolescent cassowary has been known to hang around the laundry, where rock music is often played; his fondness for Elvis tunes naturally has everyone calling him, -what else?- Elvis.