A fair dinkum didgeridoo is made by termites, Australians are proud of their convict heritage, and whip-cracking is harder than it looks. These are just a few of the facts we learned during our six port calls in Australia. We visited war tunnels and botanical gardens, snorkelled in the world’s most famous coral reef, sailed in a yachting destination, hiked through a rainforest, saw forty kangaroos in the wild, and kayaked twice: once in Sydney Harbour and again along the coastline of Tasmania. Wow! If Australia is not your bucket list, it should be!
Signs were in English; stores, roads, and rules were familiar. Right away we could feel that we were leaving Asia behind and entering a new continent – Australia. Named after famous evolutionist Charles Darwin, Darwin is a comfortable blend of frontier town and modern city, and it serves as Australia’s gateway to Southeast Asia.
More ships were sunk here than in Pearl Harbour. A passionate park ranger loves to tell stories of World War II when the town of Darwin was an important base for Allied action against the Japanese in the Pacific. After the ranger’s introductory talk, we were directed into Tunnel 5, which extends hundreds of feet under the city and is lined with dozens of World War II photographs. Tunnel 5 is one of the many oil storage tunnels built to protect the fuel supplies from Japanese air raids. The war ended before the tunnels got much use, but the park ranger feels they were important. Enthusiastically, he informed us the tunnels could easily be reactivated in case of WWIII.
“We ought to go see some plants,” said Cathy, realizing that the rest of our Australia tours would be water-based.
George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens is a one-hour walk from the cruise ship dock, and the 105-acre Gardens required several hours to thoroughly explore. Palms, orchids, boab trees, mangroves – all attractively grouped along trails with names like Wet Forest, Shade Garden, Rainforest Loop, and Frangipani Hill. It was a hot (35º C) but enjoyable and low-cost day, as admission to the Gardens is free).
We fell in love with Cairns on a Sunday, which happened to be Mother’s Day. The Esplanade, Boardwalk, and spectacular swimming lagoon were filled with happy people enjoying the day.
Vibrant but relaxed, Cairns has wide streets, a tropical climate, a lush setting, and a great location – right next door to the most famous coral reef in the world, the Great Barrier Reef. Early the next morning we boarded a luxury catamaran for a full-day excursion to the Reef.
Our first look beneath the surface was nothing short of breathtaking. Giant clams, turtles, and swirling schools of brilliantly-coloured fish amid luxurious beds of hard and soft coral. And yes, we saw Nemo.
The Great Barrier Reef Excursion, operated by a company called Seastar Cruises, was first-class. We had guided snorkel sessions and glass-bottom boat tours at two destinations: Hastings Reef (on the outer edge of the Reef) and Michaelmas Cay (a little island with thousands of birds). Stinger suits (to protect against jellyfish) and optical masks were provided, and there were pool noodles and life rings to assist timid snorkellers. Thanks are owed to fellow passenger Sandra, who organized this excursion for fifteen lucky couples from our ship.
If it’s the Whitsundays, there has to be sailing. The Whitsunday collection of islands is one of the most popular yachting destinations in the Southern Hemisphere, so our first task was to join a sailing vessel for a two-hour sail through the waters.
The crew did all the work; we simply relaxed on board, ate scones with Devonshire cream, and enjoyed the scenery: little green islands with sandy fringes of beaches and bays, most of which are undeveloped.
Hamilton Island is the largest inhabited island in the Whitsunday group. A mini-Hawaii was the concept when Hamilton Island was first developed in the 1970s.
It didn’t really take off until it was bought in 2004 by Bob Oatley for $200 million. Today Hamilton is a car-free resort paradise. Roads are plied by golf buggies and free shuttle buses, and the white beaches buzz with water sports.
The name Whitsunday is not quite correct, as it is based on Captain Cook’s belief that the passage was discovered on Whitsunday, a feast day observed seven weeks after Easter. It was actually discovered on Whit-Monday because the International Date Line had not been established.
A full-size porta-potty was towed behind a well-used Jeep the last time we took a cruise ship shore excursion titled 4WD Experience. This time? Keith, our driver/guide, welcomed us aboard a brand new Mercedes sprinter, the cleanest four-wheel-drive vehicle we have ever seen. Keith wasn’t towing a toilet, but he knew where to find bathrooms along the way.
Our all-day route took us through a mountainside eucalyptus forest, then up a steep bush track built by pioneers.
We enjoyed a guided tropical forest walk in Mt. Tambourine National Park, a traditional Aussie barbecue lunch, whip-cracking and boomerang demonstrations, and visits to an arts centre and a local winery.
Keith knows a lot about local plants and animals.
Keith showed us strangler figs, flooded gums, picabeen plants, galah (pink parrots), kookaburras, platypus habitat, and at least forty Eastern Grey kangaroos hopping in the wild. Here are a few facts we learned:
- ten percent of light hits the floor in a tropical forest
- a fair dinkum (real, authentic) didgeridoo is hollowed out by termites
- don’t run through a rainforest, or the “wait-awhile” thorns will get you
- the elusive lyrebird can imitate 65 bird songs; having a split voicebox, the lyrebird can even make two sounds at once
- whip-cracking is harder than it looks
Patrick knows all the boats in Sydney harbour: when they were built, who owns them, how they performed in the Sydney-to-Hobart sailing race.
There’s no better way to see this magnificent harbour than to paddle with historian and local character Patrick of Natural Wanders.
Fellow passengers Bill and Tannia joined us on this harbour adventure, which began at Patrick’s boat shed in Lavender Bay. Our goal was to paddle under the Harbour Bridge for some photos of us with the Sydney Opera House and our cruise ship in the background. That goal was easily met, and there was time to see much more: bays and beaches, boat building yards, marinas, and expensive and historic waterfront real estate. We even had time for a walk around island bushland to see Aboriginal pictographs and picturesque harbour views.
Many thanks for the 10 km wander and for the annotated photos, Patrick. And thanks, Bill and Tannia, for joining us. To complete our workout, the four of us walked back over the Harbour Bridge to the cruise ship terminal.
An Australian fur seal thrashed about, killing a big fish. Two sea eagles watched us from their treetops. The cormorants looked like they are wearing penguin suits. The kelp are prettier here, while the oystercatchers look and sound just as they do at home. We spent the day exploring the coastline near Hobart, and it was interesting to compare Tasmanian marine life to that of Canada’s west coast.
Tinderbox Marine Nature Reserve Paddle was the name of our tour. Sometimes we paddled (14 km total), sometimes we drifted as our guide, Reg, pointed out places of interest or provided commentary on animal and plant life. We paddled beneath rugged sea cliffs and into sea caves, stopping for a picnic lunch (yum) on a sandy beach.
This was a relaxing, well-organized, and thoroughly enjoyable day under sunny skies – well done Reg!
Reg is a Tassie local and “literally mad about kayaking.” Reg and his wife Jenny run multi-day kayak trips, as well as several day-tours. If you are planning a trip to Tasmania, please check out their website.
Smooth sailing – most of the time
One sea turtle, one large shark, a school of dolphins, flying fish too numerous to count: all sited from our verandah one day when the Timor Sea was as smooth as glass.
Torres Strait was lumpier. This passage between Australia and the island of New Guinea and all the way to Cairns requires a Great Barrier Reef pilot, specially trained and licensed to protect the reef and the ships from shallow water and strong currents. Our pilot provided a lecture on the life a pilot. It is the best job in the world, says he, except when the pilot ladder is not up to snuff; five to six pilots are killed or injured each year due to precarious ladders used to climb from pilot boat to the ship.
“Rough mounting seas” was the sea state when we transited the Coral Sea between Brisbane and Sydney, and it was not pleasant. With a 50-knot headwind, our ship rode the 20-foot waves like a bucking bronco, causing seasickness among many passengers and crew. There has been other sickness on board, too: coughs, colds, and an outbreak of gastroenteritis which reached the threshold for reporting to the U.S. Center for Disease Control. A strict sanitation protocol was placed for two weeks between Borneo and Sydney. The self-serve plates of cookies re-appeared when we sailed away from Sydney, so we assume the outbreak is officially under control. Don’t worry! We are well, and we have enjoyed every single moment in Australia.