When setting out on a great Australian adventure, expectations are high. Perhaps this vast land conjures images of Sydney’s sparkling harbour and iconic opera house, the expansive Outback, the depths of the Great Barrier Reef, and its popular mascots, the koala and the kangaroo. Indeed, Oz offers all of this – and much, much more!
It’s now strange to me that Australia never quite topped my travel bucket list in years past, but after moving to Asia, it became one of those places that I never stopped hearing about. Over the course of my own subsequent 17-day exploration of Oz (including Daintree Rainforest, Hayman Island and the Great Barrier Reef, the Outback stretching from Uluru through Kings Canyon to Alice Springs, Adelaide and its nearby wine country spanning Barossa/McLaren Vale/Adelaide Hills, and Kangaroo Island), and separate urban visits to Sydney and Melbourne, I rapidly learned why travelers are wowed by Australia’s diverse landscapes, imposing landmarks, charming wildlife, local culture, and inspired culinary scene.
In a country as large as Australia (just shy of 7.7 million square kilometers, and comparable in size to the United States of America), its massive variety of offerings and attractions should come as no surprise. Still, perhaps you (like me) did not realize that it even contains the polar opposite to its dry desert Outback. The northeastern state of Queensland plays host to lush rainforest, including the UNESCO World Heritage site of Daintree. The oldest surviving rainforest in the world, Daintree contains remnants that date back some 170 million years.
To access this northern tropical area and also the Great Barrier Reef, the eclectic city of Cairns is your likely launchpad. An old port town, Cairns’ luster has perhaps faded a bit since the heyday of its mining past. But a sunrise or sunset stroll along its waterfront promenade is a peaceful way to begin a trip – and may even serve as a vantage point for a periodic controlled forest fire (known as a ‘prescribed burn’ and intended to help prevent more serious fires and stimulate forest renewal).
Driving in Australia is often the best way to get around – and generally quite simple, as long as you are used to, or can quickly adapt to, driving on the left side of the road (if I can do it, anyone can!). This area is no exception. Rent a car and head up the coast to Port Douglas, a nearby resort town, popular for a reason. Strolling its quiet streets is a lovely way to while away an afternoon, with the town’s relaxed vibe and plenty of little shops, restaurants, watering holes, and ice cream parlors to keep almost anyone entertained and satiated. In late afternoon, make the short climb to the Flagstaff Hill lookout point to enjoy a sun-drenched vista over a stretch of Four Mile Beach and its gently swaying palm trees.
Some opt to chill out in Port Douglas for a few days, but if hanging for that long in a resort town is not your style, rest assured that a brief stop is not only possible but absolutely easy to accomplish and a fine option for shaking off some jetlag before continuing your adventure. If you really want to wake yourself up and take in some fab views, try paragliding!
Daintree Rainforest is likely the main reason you may linger on land in this region. I suggest taking the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway on the way up to Daintree from Cairns. Spend a little extra cash on the morning Canopy Glider option, which allows you to float over the rainforest in an open-air gondola (instead of one that is closed) and learn from an accompanying, knowledgeable guide who can answer any of your questions along the way. Regarding the open-air part, don’t worry – you’ll be tethered for the ride, and you’ll secure loose items before you depart (a camera around your neck is fine). As availability is limited (each gondola seats a max of 4 people, and there is only 1 morning departure per day), you will need to plan in advance. But I promise you will get more out of this approach to the experience, and it is of course much better for photography en route. It is a rainforest, so remember that you do run the ‘risk’ of getting a bit wet during rainy reason (~December through April) – but rainforests are also at their greenest and liveliest during these months, and preparing for the possibility of rainfall should be a breeze.
Along the course of the ~2-hour, one-way skyrail journey, you will stop at 2 ‘mid-stations’ to stretch your legs, get up close to the trees you’ve only grazed the canopy of until this point, admire waterfalls, and perhaps catch a few glimpses of some native wildlife – wild turkeys, praying mantids, or otherwise.
More wildlife can be observed at the Kuranda Wildlife Experience after you disembark the skyrail. This is more of a family, zoo-like experience, but if you enjoy animals, birds, reptiles, and butterflies (all native to the area), you may find parts of this interesting – and importantly, the animals are given relatively generous space to roam and seem to be treated respectfully. If you are a photographer, this is your chance to practice your skills with elusive butterflies – and very non-elusive koalas.
You can also get quite close to kangaroos – tough to say no to that!
And a first for me, I was very amused to observe another marsupial native to Oz – the wombat! This is a curious animal with some truly unique characteristics. Unlike kangaroos, these are quadrupedal marsupials, so they walk on all fours. Their pouch sits backwards, which is believed to help prevent them from getting their young dirty while digging. Their teeth and claws are rodent-like (and if you ‘zoom out’ a bit when viewing them, I guarantee you will think they look like overgrown – but somehow cute and furry – rats). They are herbivores that feast on grass and similar items, but they are hunted by dingoes and Tasmanian devils (insert flashbacks to Seinfeld and certain cartoons – some of you may know what I mean here!). And its most fascinating features involve its rear – seriously. The wombat’s backside is actually a cartilaginous plate which serves as a primary means of defense against predators. It literally burrows into a tunnel face-forward, and would-be wombat hunters are blocked by the plate! Evolution never ceases to amaze. Another handy skill? It can crush the skull of a predator against the top of a tunnel using its powerful hind legs. Impressive, for an overgrown rat! Oh, and it poops squares. ‘Cubic scats’ would be a more technical way of phrasing this phenomenon. Keep an open mind, and there are many more facts you can learn about all of the varied species at Kuranda.
After you wrap up your day in the forest, enjoy a relaxed return on the 120-year-old Kuranda Scenic Railway for a different perspective and a view of some of the local waterfalls. If you like, spring for a gold class upgrade for a slightly more luxurious experience with refreshments (we received very generous pours of the house wine). Similar to the canopy glider skyrail, the gold class railway option is only available twice daily, with a single mid-afternoon return to Cairns. Perfect timing for another sundowner on the waterfront.
This is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg on the world’s smallest continent but largest island. Stay tuned for Hayman Island and the Great Barrier Reef, up next!
All images © 2015 deb fong photography
Travel tip: All of Skyrail’s packages (including wildlife or cultural experiences in the rainforest and various logistical options/upgrades) can be viewed and purchased here.