Landing was the first shock, because I'd just flown for three hours from Sydney, over a gigantic expanse of brown, but as we came in to Cairns Airport, everything turned green, hilly and lush. And when I say everything, I really mean everything - it wasn't clear there was an airfield until we were pretty much there. It might as well have been Jurassic Park.
Far North Queensland
I don't use that comparison lightly, by the way. The original movie was filmed in Hawaii, on the island of Kauai, where for a few summers we took our family vacations instead of going to Italy. Even though those trips were about twenty years ago, I remember a lot of Kauai clearly, and was struck several times by how similar Cairns and its environs were to it.
I was there to stay with my friend Kyle and his family, as after several years of listening to his stories about the place I'd decided it was time to go see it for myself. Their house was a bit north of Cairns proper, in a woody area called Clifton Beach, and was just a ten minute walk from the beach. The house itself was lovely, rambling and spacious, with fruit trees in the back yard and wild birds of all kinds hanging out every night. Kyle's mom lives there, and his brother Lee (whom I knew from our trip to Phuket a couple years earlier) also spent a few nights there each week. But in addition, Kyle's other two brothers, Hew and Simon, had come up to stay for a week or two, so it was a pretty full house.
In a lot of ways, the Queensland part of the trip was a look at Australia's range of diversity, much more than Sydney. Kyle took me out to see Kuranda, in the Atherton Tablelands, the rainforests of the Daintree National Park, the Great Barrier Reef, and we even went for a road trip south to Mackay, to visit his best friend Glenn (who I also knew from Phuket). That drive down to Mackay gave me a glimpse of what a lot of people must imagine when they think of Australia - flat, dusty, scrublands enlivened by the occasional town or gum tree. It actually reminded me in some ways of driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles via the Central Valley, although I'll admit we have a little less kangaroo roadkill on the I-5.
Roadkill aside, there was a lot of nature on show in that corner of Queensland. The first full day I was there, we drove up to Kuranda to see the town and the jungle surrounding it. There was a zoo of venomous animals, which pretty well satisfied my curiosity about Australia's fauna in all its toothy diversity. In the main hall were glass cases for the snakes and spiders, each containing dire warnings not to lean on or over the cases, and upstairs, by the entrance, the zoo's employees were giving lectures on the various types of spiders, centipedes and lizards they kept up here.
Kyle makes a friend
They even brought a couple out and let us pet or hold the lizard, which wasn't actually poisonous; I chose not to be disappointed by that. Interestingly, they also said how the centipede they had here on show had venom that the Aborigines had used traditionally for its anti-inflammatory properties. Hearing that certainly put my previous discomfort around spiders in London in perspective; this state of affairs that lasted for just a few weeks, when, back home, I opened a packet of salad, drenched it in dressing and promptly found a not particularly pleased looking spider in among the leaves.
Coming down from Kuranda was the most spectacular part, though, because you can get back down to the area around Cairns via cable car (there's also a train that goes up and down the mountain, so I'll have to give that a try next time). I caught it pretty much at the end of the day, so I didn't dawdle too much at each stop, where they let you out to have a look at various displays of local plants and animals. But traveling over the treetops was spectacular, and when it began its descent, after the third stop, I got an amazing view of the entire plain heading out to the sea. Touristy as Kuranda itself is, no one should miss out on the Skyrail.
Two views from the Skyrail
The next day was Daintree, which involved a pretty long drive through increasingly jungly terrain. We even crossed the Daintree River on a cable ferry, which is the only way up to Cape Tribulation (so named because Captain Cook had a pretty terrible time there) by road. Kyle, with the jaunty confidence of so many Australians when talking about their native animals, informed me that the Daintree River was absolutely chock-full of crocodiles, so I naturally spent the five-minute crossing with my face pressed to the window for a glimpse, but ended up disappointed.
In fact, every body of water we passed during that week held them, according to him, but I never saw a single one. To compound my disappointment, the day before at Kuranda, we'd stopped for lunch at a German-style sausage place, which advertised exotic meats like crocodile or kangaroo. I duly ordered up a croc sausage, but was balked when they told me it'd take twenty minutes to prepare. I presumed this meant they had to go out and catch one, slaughter it and prepare it, so I forebore, not wanting to put the owners in any further danger, but it's disappointing I didn't get to reassert to the crocodiles of Queensland just who's at the top of the food chain.
By the way, lest you think all Australians are like Crocodile Dundee when it comes to their deadly animals, I was interested to hear that one of the snakes on display at the Venom Zoo had once made its way into Kyle's living room.
"What did you guys do?" I asked, expecting some frontier story about getting a long stick and extracting the snake that way.
"We called animal services and stayed the hell out of there until it was gone," he said, which is kind of reassuring, if you think about it. It typically means pranks won't involve you finding, say, a bird-eating spider in your sheets at the end of the day.
Anyway, the Daintree was impressive too, just as much as Kuranda. For one thing, according to Bill Bryson, a lot of it is pretty much unchanged from the times of the dinosaurs. We didn't see any T-rexes, which is probably for the best, but we did see something even less common (as it were): the cassowary, a large, blue flightless bird that only lives in the forests of Queensland. Not only that, we saw two of them! Even Kyle and his brothers were impressed, because cassowaries are very shy and retiring. This made up for the lack of crocs. And frankly, cassowaries are a little less interested in sampling how you taste, so this is fine with me.
Forest in the Daintree
This is running a little long, so I'll have to gloss over the Great Barrier Reef, except to say that I gave scuba diving a try and found it amazing down there. Even if you only ever snorkel, though, a visit to Far North Queensland should include taking a boat out to the reef, because its diversity is stunning.
The point, though, is that for all the tourism and backpacking that comes to Cairns, and frankly renders parts of it not particularly charming (Kyle told me of a nightclub called Troppo's, which locals had re-christened Sloppo's), it struck me as a part of the world where the man-made and natural worlds live even closer together than in most other places. It's a good thing to keep in mind, because it means the locals are duly wary but not freaked out by having so many dangerous animals around all the time. For instance, I'd timed my visit to avoid the start of stinger season, when box jellyfish make Queensland's waters unapproachable; during stinger season, therefore, Queenslanders simply go to the pool.
I read another blog post once by a woman from Cairns, who said it was a place that wasn't really designed for humans to live in. I disagree - as long as you stay alert and don't do anything stupid, it's a very hospitable place indeed.
Just don't forget about the hurricanes, and don't eat the chiko-rolls.