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November 10, 2012 / robertocusato

Australia! a.k.a. Eating Kangaroo in Sydney, Crocodile in Daintree, plus other random Queensland adventures

Aaah, Australia. Even the sound of it is awesome! As a child, OZ was the place I wanted to visit: India, China, Egypt where all exotic and more or less distant places – at the beginning of the 1990s when a plane ticket to those countries was worth an Italian lower-middle class family’s monthly salary I could only dream of visiting the pyramids of Giza, the ghats of Varanasi, or the infamous Tian An Men Square in Beijing in what still was a reclusive China. Yet, no place played as powerful a role in my imagination as Australia did. This country-slash-continent, situated at the antipodes of Italy, encapsulated all those elements that make traveling so magical: it was remote, isolated; it had weird animals; it was very far away from my country, and getting there required a long air journey with various stops; and it had unique geographic  features such as Uluru and the Great Barrier Reef. As a little boy fascinated with geography (I pushed myself to learn the capital cities of all the countries of the World by the venerable age of 8), I would implore my mom to take me to the nearest travel agent to stack up tour operator’s brochures about Australia and other places: a typical tour (costing several million Italian Lira at the time) would include a visit to Sydney, a dip in the Barrier Reef, and a quick visit to Ayers Rock. Imagine what effect such a fascinating land could have on a little boy’s mind: Uluru and kangaroos, koalas and eucalypti, everything conjured to stimulate my kid’s dreams of wilderness and adventure; and it didn’t help that I wanted to be a pilot or the manager of my airline either! Anyway, 20 years have passed but my imagination is as vivid as it has always been. My youth and my twenties brought me to 50+ countries, across 5 continents. Yet, Australia was still missing: that coveted cherry on my personal cake was as elusive as ever. I had been rather close to it – having been to Indonesia many times – yet so distant… But this time it was different. I realized that this chance was too good to be missed. So much free time, enough money, and a LOT of AAdvantage miles made this visit not only possible but also sensible. After all, I would already be in Manila, where it is an easy 35k AA miles hop for a business class Qantas ticket to Sydney. Well, not that easy – given the weird ticketing requirements they have out there in the Philippines – but I pulled it off nevertheless. And boy I am glad I did! Because, together with that, I was also able to secure a business class ticket from Melbourne to Los Angeles… on Qantas’ A380! Both these flights are part of dedicated reports, so I will not talk much about them here. Let’s just say that I can fathom few other ways to reach and leave Australia in a more stylish way!

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Stranger: “Hi mate. How you doin’?”. Myself: “I am fine. How are you doing?” Stranger: “Oh I’m great! I am going back home. To Australia” This conversation really happened, with my neighbor on Qantas business class on my Manila – Sydney flight. You see, many people on a plane would not even acknowledge you. You would try to mutter a “hi” to them, and they would just disappear into their newspapers or book pretending not to having heard you. But this folk next to me was an Aussie. And – let’s face it – your average Aussie is pretty awesome. Friendly, easygoing, casual, smiley, extrovert: the kind of person you can’t help but embrace. And that it what happened to me. I usually struggle in starting a conversation with a stranger on an airplane. I just like to sit down, relax, enjoy the in-flight entertainment and the food. Sleep maybe. But in this case, it was different. In less than 10 minutes I was having a real conversation sharing life stories and anecdotes about traveling with someone who was just a perfect stranger just minutes earlier. But this guy was Australian. That made a whole lot of a difference.

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Oh, Australia. What a magical place you are! Bill Bryson – author of that masterpiece of travel literature “Down Under” – is right: Australia is remote, far away; it’s a place you hardly hear about, except for some big fire or for some newly-discovered poisonous animal. Yet Australia is a magical place, riddled with cheery folks that friendlier couldn’t be. “Hi mate, how are you?” should be the title of the Australian National Anthem, a new happy-sing-along tune featuring a lot of positive words about the happiest of the lands on Earth. Because Australia has really nothing to worry about. Really, let’s face it: who could be in a better position the the Aussies are? A continent as big as America, with valuable minerals popping out the grounds everywhere, and only 20 million people inhabiting it; a closeness to the fast-emerging and developing Asia that other Western countries can only dream of; and an amazing country populated by unique animals and featuring some amazing natural wonders. From giant worms to deadly stingrays, from the Great Barrier Reef to Uluru, this country does it big (Texans, listen up)! I believe there is no better place than Sydney from where to start your Australian adventure. This cosmopolitan, vibrant, eclectic city sits in one of the World’s finest natural harbors – whoever visited the city knows what I am talking about. Take the Sydney Opera House for instance: this unique building enjoys a fantastic waterfront location, blessed by the Sydney Harbor Bridge in the background and by the residential neighbors across the water. No other city in the World (pardon me, Rio de Janeiro) enjoys such a stunning setting. This is a fact. What’s not so straightforward to many people is that there is MUCH more to Sydney than its inner harbor. Believe me folks, there really is! I would start from The Rocks.

Welcome to The Rocks

This historical, walkable, friendly neighborhood is one of the original settlements of the Europeans immigrants moving to this remote land. Well, more than moving we should say being moved, as Australia 150 years ago was more of a penal colony where people were deported more than a promised land like the Americas where people wanted to start a new living. The Rocks was likely everything bad about Australia: the settlement housed a bunch of rowdy and pretty-much-lawless Europeans, and the place was more like a shantytown – a city of shame of sort – than anything else. Well, people, this is definitely no longer the case.

Lively weekend market – The Rocks

The Rocks is probably my favorite neighborhood in the whole Australia (at least, the part of Australia I have visited, which isn’t that much). It’s a historical, very well-kept, pleasant neighborhood, with plenty of trendy restaurants, pubs, and boutiques.

The Australian Hotel, home to the famous ‘roo pizza

It is in a way hard to picture The Rocks as a poor and dejected place – so much is the place peaceful and well-tended that you would be forgiven to think this area was never a shantytown; but some features of the place – the old brick building, the old signs (well, new now) hanging of the walls, the narrow stairways leading to a myriad, mazy streets preserve the feeling of old time gone – times when criminals and pioneers worked together to build themselves a new life.

Welcome to Sydney, c.a 1860

Typical building in The Rocks

The Rocks gets very lively during weekends, when a street market animated by cheerful vendors comes to life: from quangdong berry jam (a bushberry) to hand-made greeting cards, you can buy almost everything a tourist can desire. Walking around among a dense crowd had never felt better. Perhaps it is the weather, perhaps the cheerfulness of the OZs… I don’t know what it exactly is, but I can tell you this: dragging myself while being pushed and bumped on by a multitude of people had never felt so “right” as it did there; all those things that usually make your market visits miserable were there, yet they didn’t bother me at all. I was actually happy to be there, among these strangers that went about their business in a happy and mindless way.

Partying @ The Rocks

And people, I can tell you that Sydneysiders have A LOT to be happy about! Take the weather for instance. It was mid-July, the height of the Austral winter… and it was 22C outside! Seriously!? It was sunny, and a little breezy, enough to warrant a light sweater and not too hot to discourage you to stand under the sun. In two words: just perfect.

Typical winter-day view of downtown Sydney. They said this winter was warmer than usual… I do not believe it. I am sure locals were just being modest, aware that their perfect weather could lead to serious foreign retaliation…

Take the beaches of Sydney for instance, like beautiful Manly.

To Manly!

This is Hungtington Beach-meets-Australia folks. And it’s insane that even in wintertime the ocean water was warm enough to allow people to bathe. Imagine a mile(s) long stretch of sandy beach dotted by beach-volleyball courts and aspiring surfers. Add happy families playing in the sand or couples romantically admiring the vast, endless ocean opening in front of them… and you have a picture-perfect image of what Sydney residents do during their winter and summer weekends.

Manly Beach

What’s even more astounding about this place is that the may street along the ocean shore is dotted by sleek, contemporary condos and hotels, which reminded me a lot the French Riviera with its understated luxury. I wouldn’t blame Sydneysiders for never wanting to leave this place: they’ve got it all in here.

Need to say nothing more

So… we have The Rocks, we have Manly… what else, could you say? After all, this is much more than many other cities worldwide can only even imagine to sport! No worries my friends, this is just the beginning! For instance… have you ever heard of that building called the Sydney Opera House? That white, sleek, unmistakable building blessing Sydney’s harbor? Or what about the Sydney Harbor Bridge, that massive steel bridge that is to Sydney as crumbled peanuts are to a hot-fudge sundae?

Sydney’s harbor – like I briefly mentioned earlier – is truly spectacular. No matter which angle you see it from, it’s always stunning, its sinuous curves gently populated with houses and skyscrapers. A gentle breeze seems to perpetually blow on this part of the city, making it all the more enjoyable to walk around or to just sit at one of the many cafes dotting the waterfront. Cafes, yes. Because this is another Australian thing: good coffee. Likely thanks to the many Italian immigrants who contributed to the diversification of the ethnic mix of the country in its early days, Aussies have a thing – a good thing – for coffee. Espresso, macchiato, cappuccino, caffelatte… You name it, a barista will make it. Granted, it won’t come cheap (expect to pay 4-5AUD for a cappuccino); but hardly anything comes cheap in this cpuntry that has proven to be recession-proof thanks to its huge natural wealth: when the dollar and the euro tanked, the Australian dollar soared, making the country one of the richest in the World on a nominal per-capita basis (minimum mandated salary hovers about 21AUD/hour here. No wonders many students from around the World decide to spend a gap year upside down).

I am pretty sure you have seen this building before. Should I even post more pics of it??

The picture-perfect Sydney Harbour Bridge

Sydney’s CDB (Central Business District)

Walking from Potts Point – where my guesthouse was – to the Opera House must be one of the great walks of the World. You first gets to walk through the charming, tree-lined streets of the above-mentioned neighborhood – so close to King’s Cross yet so culturally distant – an enclave of lofty buildings, chic restaurants, and new designers’ boutiques; then you get to walk through Woolloomoolloo – no misspelling there – whose well-kept waterfront leads you to the entrance of the Royal Botanical Gardens. Before writing about the latter, I want to briefly introduce King’s Cross.

The World-famous Coca-Cola sign in King’s Cross

King’s Cross is the dark side of Sydney. At least, this is what people generally believe. Because King’s Cross ain’t that bad, really. It’s more what Pigalle is to Paris than what the Bronx is to NYC. It’s a culturally diverse, now very tourisic neighborhood with lots of cheap eateries and the occasional prostitute and strip club. Big deal. What’s unique of this area is the kind of crowd you can find. Granted, the occasional pickpocketer may be around the corner. But so she may be in CBD. What you won’t necessarily find in CBD is a vast array of Italian, Middle Eastern, and local flavors; a vital mix of newly-arrived immigrants that are just starting to find their direction in this vast continent. To me, a visit to King’s Cross is a must – if you do not like the area you can always walk by to Potts Point and dine at one of its trendy restaurants. A win-win deal!

Entering the Gardens

These are simply gorgeous, perfect to work out, relax, sunbathe, or do whatever other leisurely activity you can possibly think of. Exotic flowers and tree are the perfect corollary for Australia’s incredible birds – the Ibis being the most extraordinary of them.

We have pigeons; Aussies have White Ibis. Unfair.

I happened to walk towards the Sydney Opera House on a beautiful Sunday Morning (around 9am I would say), and I was impressed by the number of joggers I encountered on my way. And this brings me to an important point: Australians ARE healthy/outdoorsy people. Jogging, surfing, scuba diving, hiking, climbing, swimming… is there ANY activity Australians do not enjoy doing? It’s no wonder that OZ is the country with the highest number of gold medals per capita won at the summer Olympics! People here breathe exercise. They do not see it as a punishment but as an enjoyment. It’s the mindset that matters. America, please listen up. Anyways, after leaving the beautiful Botanical Gardens you  hit the boardwalk and you approach the Sydney Opera House. This building is truly unique. I must say – to be totally honest with you – that it’s less spectacular than I was expecting. Yet I suspect that is only because I had REALLY high expectations. Same thing happened when I visited the Taj Mahal in India – you realize how magnificent they are only after they sink into your soul. Well, this building is exactly what everyone says it is: magnificent. Stunning. Certainly, unique. The sail-shaped roofs of the building (even though they weren’t conceived as sails, that is what they remind everyone of) perfectly fits into Sydney’s urban landscape. Its position right on the waterfront only adds to the magic of this building.

Ok ok, just one more.

Yet, Sydney is more than its harbor. Downtown (or “CBD”, as they say here Down Under) is a bustling and lively place with a distinct European flavor. From skyscrapers to Victorian buildings, there is always some hustle and bustle in this part of the city.

Monorail!

Sydney Tower

Downtown Sydney

Walk a little further south, and you enter Chinatown – a conundrum of stores and restaurants that everything but showcase the diversity of the country. Because, yes, Australia – just like most of the Americas – is a country of (recent) immigrants. Chinese workers migrated from China in the 1800s to work in the booming gold industry. Much like the American Far West, Australia had huge reserves of gold in its riverbeds, which attracted migrant workers to enhance the production of the precious metal. The thing the British were not expecting was that the newly-arrived workers were so good at their job. They started to accumulate increasing wealth, which attracted more Chinese people to what must have seemed like an El Dorado to them. Their economic clout started to increase, to become significant, which scared the local landowners and politicians who decided to clamp down on immigration and to segregate the local communities of immigrants. Now, how then did Australia become a country of immigrants? Well, that was because restrictions applied on everyone but Caucasians. As to say: if you are from Ireland or Serbia you are welcome to come in; otherwise, please remain where you are. While these policies may seem anachronistic and clearly racist today, they are still enforced in a way: after all, Australia is a continent the size of Europe with only twenty million people; there would certainly be opportunities for a lot more people within the country, especially counting the number of natural resources yet to be exploited in the vast Outback. Still, immigrants from Asia are less than welcome. Having an open-minded prime minister like Kevin Rudd (fluent in Mandarin) certainly helped Australia looking more East (well, north, actually) for economic opportunities; yet, there is still a lot of progress to be made.

Lively and bustling: Chinatown

More of Chinatown

This digression is to introduce Sydney’s Chinatown. your usual yet always amazing conglomerate of eateries, shops, and Chinese-style malls. Yes, malls. Filled with Chinese goods and such. I had never seen anything like that outside of China, but it was surely a pleasant surprise. Chinatown’s streets are clean (New York, take note) and not as bustling as other Chinatowns around the World. Well, that’s the thing: this is Australia. Aussies are tidy people. Don’t get fooled by their farmer spirit or outdoorsy mindset: Australians like efficiency and cleanliness. From Chinatown it’s an easy transition to Tumbalong Park with its shops and the Australian Maritime Museum, from which it’s a mere 5 minute walk to Darling Harbor, another beautiful harbor than makes for perfect walks under the Austral sun.

So many places to go to…!

Here I had the chance to try kangaroo meat for the first time at Blackbird Cafe’, a sleek a contemporary cafe’/steakhouse where kangaroo loin is perfectly done rare with wonderful roasted potatoes. Kangaroo was very surprising – a lean, slightly gamy meat that has to be consumed rare as otherwise would become as hard and chewy as the soil of a leather shoe. A true, remarkable surprise (one of the many this country reserved to my visit indeed!).

Kangaroo loin. Rare, please!

Darling Harbor waterfront

But Sydney – as I was soon to discover – is not the only nice surprise I encountered. It was just the first one. Take Chinatown in Sydney for instance. You would expect that – as the economic capital of the country (together with Melbourne) – Sydney had the biggest or most vibrant Chinatown in the country. So, imagine the surprise when – after a short hop to Brisbane – I found a wonderful and as lively Chinatown there.

Welcome to Brisbane’s Chinatown!

Walking towards Fortitude Valley

Chinatown – and its neighbor Fortitude Valley – happens to be in the most Bohemian and alternative area of Brisbane. Along Brunswick St contemporary art museums & galleries stands side-by-side by newly-opened cafes and refurbished, old buildings. The feeling here is somewhat similar to what I experienced in King’s Cross in Sydney, less the adult entertainment part. It’s no wonder that artists and students/young professionals settle in this part of the city, as real estate is good value-for-money and the neighborhood’s future bright. Yet it’s hard to find an unpleasant side of Brisbane. I stayed at a dirty but cheap hostel near Roma Station (a 15 minute walk from Brisbane’s CBD) and I walked all the way to Chinatown – an enjoyable 45 minutes hike that gives you a clearer overview of the city. You walk past Roma St and then you walk all the way along Ann St, one of the main arteries of central Brisbane, getting a nice overview over the city center’s life.

Towards Fortitude Valley

In Ann St, for instance, you find the small yet brilliant Brisbane Museum, a free little gem displaying art and memorabilia related to the city. The staff is eager to help and clearly excited at the idea that tourists want to learn more about their town (which is not at all strange, given how nice and beautiful their town is). The museum itself is close to King George Square, one of the liveliest central spaces in the city (and where the City Hall is located).

City Hall

King George V statue

Sitting on one of the many benches dotting the square is a good way to do people watching in a town always on the move. Backpackers finding their way, businessmen sipping cappuccinos, elders strolling around… you can really observe an interesting slice of Australian society there! Walking southwards a couple of blocks you then hit Queen St Mall, a beautiful pedestrian street filled with shops, malls, and restaurants.

Queen St Mall

There was something clearly European about Queen St, yet very Australian. I think I walked up and down the street 2-3 times in an hour just because I thought it was fun. Nonsensical. As nonsensical is – for someone like me who’s used to have winter in January and not in July – to find a big, lively Christmas market near the Treasury Building. Here I had a Cornish Paisty-meets-Australian Meat Pie snack, and it was oh-my-so-delicious! I walked around and tried local cheese, peri-peri beef jerky, observed people shopping, enjoyed the colors, odors, and sounds of wintertime at a time that I have always associated with summertime. That, per se, was magical.

Typical Australian breakfast fare: not bad uh (but how expensive!)

The Treasury Building is a beauty by itself: behold!

Treasury Building

Walking south you eventually hit the Queensland Parliament, where this vast region is administered from. You see, when I say that I love Australia I really should say that I love Queensland, because I spent the vast majority of my time there. So far, in fact, my time in Australia has been limited to 3 days in Sydney and 7 in Queensland. Sydney was of course lovely, but my awesome impression of Australia comes from Queensland, a state that stretches from the sophistication of Brisbane to the wilderness of Cape Tribulation; a region whose far north is seen by Aussies as a remote outpost, very much like Darwin or Alice Springs; a state whose diversity – from mango plantations to vineyards – has few equals in the World.

Parliament House

From the Parliament building it’s easy to access to the Royal Botanical Gardens (yes, a lot of botanical gardens here – all of them beautiful), which grant a spectacular view over the city on one side and that get you to the (in)famous Brisbane riverfront on the other.

View of Brisbane CBD from the Botanical Gardens

Brisbane Riverfront is justly famous as a stunning place where to walk, exercise, catch up with friends, you name it. The view you can enjoy from the southern shore over downtown is fantastic.

The Brisbane River

Brisbane from the riverfront

One more view of Brisbane (notice the water taxi)

…aaand one more :)

What’s so infamous about this awesome riverfront then? Well, a couple of years back, sadly, a devastating flood caused by the river’s swelling due to torrential downpours destroyed much of what used to be near the water: houses, restaurants, boats… a lot of devastation.

This is what happened…

A lot of people lost a lot, and even though the majority of them were (thankfully) insured, it was a devastating blow to the happy-easy-going dwellers of Brissie. Still, after two years, you would hardly say that this part of town was devastated – you probably wouldn’t even notice it was flooded…! This is clearly a testament to the hard work and determination of the locals, who decided not to complain but to start rebuilding the city at once. Another great quality of Australians indeed. There is a lot to do in Brisbane, arts and food wise. It’s a very livable city with the cordiality of a provincial town but the feeling of a metropolis connected to the World. I would totally see myself living here (well, I see myself living in a lot of different places, but I can see myself having a family here), in a progressive city with a wonderful winter weather and close to the great beaches of the Gold Coast. Life could be much more miserable.

A diverse city

I feel that a short digression here is needed to talk about public transportation. Like almost everywhere else in the World (but the Persian Gulf region and the US), gas is relatively expensive in Australia. Also, these are cities planned and built by European settler, who liked relatively high-rising buildings concentrated in a compact area. As the population expanded and as the country became increasingly wealthy and exposed to mainstream American culture, Aussies decided to use the vast amount at their disposal to create suburban neighborhoods similar to the ones found across the Pacific (think New Jersey though, not Texas or L.A.!). So, you have now a mix of European and North American urban plans here, with people still needing to go downtown for work in an area that doesn’t present free or cheap parking options. So, what do you do? But what all the World but the US is trying to do, of course: Enhance public transportation! While taking the bus or the subway in Australia isn’t cheap (it really isn’t – it reminded me of London), it is an extremely convenient way of traveling. First of all, the network is extensive: no matter where you live, you can rest assured there is a bus/train/subway station not too far away from your place; second, frequency: you can always count on your local public transportation to come by when you need it (well, within reason, of course); third, punctuality: they run pretty much on time all the time; fourth: good discounts for frequent travelers/users: this abates the steep cost of single tickets and makes it very appealing to people who actually live in these cities when compared to driving (and paying for gas, parking, tolls, etc.). If you count the fact that city centers are bustling with boutiques, cafes, and malls (so much different from American cities with their dilapidated downtowns), you understand why Australians really do not need a car that much – they can ride public transportation and then walk basically everywhere (and a mild climate helps as well, of course).

Simply: beautiful Brisbane

My two days in Brisbane flew away quickly. I surely did a lot of walking since the weather was perfect for that and since that’s by far the best way to explore a new place. My next destination: Cairns.

View of Cairns from my room at the Shangri-La Hotel

And view of Cairns’ Marina, from the same room

But I leave Cairns for the end, as this little, touristy, cute town was my very last stop in Australia (if you exclude a transit night in Melbourne: I didn’t see anything but just zipping through the city made me decide I will be back next year: I simply cannot live without seeing Victoria and South Australia at this point!). I will instead talk about what has been one the naturalistic highlights of this entire trip: diving the Great Barrier Reef.

Our boat – Out to the Reef!

There are so many tour operators in Cairns offering diving trips that it’s actually a mess to decide which one to chose. Funny thing is that in the end there are only 3-4 boats going out every day, which means that – in the end – the choice is very limited. These excursions tend to be expensive, with a lot of hidden extras that can quickly add up and make the cost of your ticket reach 200 USD for less than a day on the reef. Still, totally worth it. The feeling of being out there is incredible. It takes one hour of high-speed boat over a choppy sea to get to the elusive Barrier (do a favor to yourself and take anti motion sickness pills – they will offer them to you for free), and once you get there you cannot really see much from the boat. It takes a wetsuit and a tank or – for the less adventurous – a snorkel to enjoy the beauty of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. In three dives (the last two without a guide, as they even charge you for one!) I was able to see black sea cucumbers, a white tip shark, a wonderful turtle, and countless fishes plus a beautiful nudibranch. Here some pictures that speaks more than one thousand words.

Look at this predator of the sea!

So blue!

A colorful nudibranch

Flying fish

Impressive, isn’t it?

(all underwater pictures here were taken with an Olympus camera with underwater box borrowed from the boat for the "modest" price of 30 aud - totally worth it!).

I have about one hundred more pictures of the dives – but I will spare you the pain. I am sure you got the point. The barrier is extremely lively and – in certain points – very colorful. Even though this was July (the height of the Austral winter) the water wasn’t too cold – Cairns falls right in the tropics after all – and the visibility was almost at its best (20 meters I would say). These weren’t the best dives I have ever had – I had equally or better dives in the Philippines or in Thailand, and the huge number of tourists on the boat made the experience a bit annoying and touristy – but they were surely good and I am glad I got to dive what is the second longest reef in the World. One day, and it was time to move on. There is so much to do in Northern Queensland. Beaches, national parks, deadly animals, little cute towns… you name it, Northern Queensland has it. I am totally in love with this part of the World. I really am!

North of Cairns we go!

The best way to explore the area is by renting a car. For many people driving a manual car on the left side of the road is simply too daunting. But if this is not your case, then you will highly enjoy the experience. Roads are not too trafficked up here, and Australians are actually pretty good drivers. Plus, excursions and day trips tend to be expensive and – while extremely comprehensive – they do not allow you that flexibility that makes renting a car such an attractive option (attractions are sparse and you never know when you will find a place that you may find interesting and could want to visit! Plus, you can find cars for just 40-50 usd a day – including insurance coverage).

My spectacular Hyundai Getz… not a Maserati but it worked just fine

Driving north from Cairns to Port Douglas along highway 44 brings you across a stunning coast dotted by some seriously-beautiful beaches (think Palm Cove, for instance, a ritzy and resort-y area with a dream-like stretch of sand).

Picture-perfect Palm Cove Beach

There are a lot of panoramic points in this area, where you can admire the stunning profile of Queensland coast. Just drive, park, and take a lot of pictures! Here are some examples:

Daintree River

View towards Cairns coming down the road from Kuranda

I think you get the point: lookouts are fairly common here and quite scenic. A real treat. As a real treat (and gem) is the little town of Port Douglas – likely the ritziest place in Northern Queensland.

Beautiful Port Douglas!

Port Douglas is a gem. Like, a real diamond. Think an Australian version of Cannes in the French Riviera but more intimate. This is the place where the rich and famous come to wind up and escape the crowds. There is a definite sense of wealth in the air, but not of pretentiousness. Because Australians really cannot be pretentious, they are what they are: mates. The town is so well-kept that it makes you want to move here. Indefinitely.

Port Douglas lively bar and restaurant scene

Yachts, tanned bodies, happy elders, and upper middle-class families with children crowd the local beaches and night scene. Quite an interesting mix. While it’s all a bit touristy in Port Douglas, it never gets tacky. It’s not like visiting Orlando or Las Vegas with souvenirs in every single store. Here you certainly find a lot of trinkets, but they are presented in a different way. Or perhaps it’s the same and the nice weather or Northern Queensland made everything seems better than it is. Whatever. I do not care. I love Port Douglas.

Life scene – Port Douglas

Port Douglas is famous for its long stretch of sandy beach. The famous 4 Mile Beach is simply astonishing.

What do you think? Nice uh?

Now, this brings me to another picture, this one:

Stingers!

and this one as well:

Crocodiles!

Queensland is a beautiful land, that has a lot of outdoor activities for everyone. Yet, it hides some insidious dangers that while they would frighten the innocent tourist don’t even tickle Aussies self-preservation instinct. You see, Northern Queensland is famous for two animals that like to make tourists’ life miserable: stingers and crocodiles. Stingers are jellyfish, but of the nasty side. They carry so much poison on their tentacles that just touching them can cause unspeakable pain and permanent burns. Crazy. These sneaky animals populate the warm waters of Queensland during the Austral Summer, when the weather is hot and humid. Something to keep in mind if you’ll ever visit this part of the World. Crocodiles are, well, do you really need an introduction? These animals often associated with the cute logo of Crocs shoes are in fact some of the most formidable predators in existence. They are patient, clever, and can be perfectly mimetic in their habitat. It’s not unusual to hear stories of people killed by crocodiles or who come back ashore with some missing body parts. Scary. But also tasty. Because crocodile meat is tender and white. And tasty. And healthy. After doing some wonderful crocodile spotting on the Daintree River, I couldn’t resist the temptation to try a Croc burger at the Daintree Village. It was really good and it made my tummy quite happy!

Crocodile Burger

The Daintree Rainforest is quite a spectacular place. Its habitat houses some of the ancient-most trees in the World, that lived and prospered so isolated to give scientists an opportunity to study plants how they were millions of years ago. Crocodiles, Cassowaries, and many other animals populate this large, remote, and largely unspoiled area – after you drive to Cape Tribulation, the asphalt road ends.

Yes, this still works!

The Daintree River is the natural border of the National Park – there isn’t even a single bridge crossing it and only a ferry (transporting cars) plies the crocodile-infested waters of the river.

A first for me!

Another take on the ferry

Within the Park borders sit the Mossman Gorge, a beautiful gorge nestled between the tropical rainforest and owned by the local Aboriginal tribes (I wish I had enough time for a “daydream” walk, where a local guide reveals local, ancestral myths and knowledge).

Mossman Gorge

This place is really magical

Apparently, turtles are commonly sighted here. Needless to say, I spotted none…

Walking on man-made trails and platforms made of recycled plastic (clever!) in a pretty narrow corridor carved out of the outstretching trees is just amazing and it really belittles human beings when compared to Mother Nature. I simply love forests, I never get tired of them! But let’s move on. This part of Queensland is known as Sugar Land. Like the town near Houston, TX. The reason: hectare after hectare of sugar cane plantation, with even a dedicated railway line to transport the sweet crop to the World. it’s just stunning to see how much sugar is produced here – another of the great feats of Australia, a Country that makes not only awesome wines but also coffee, tea, and sugar as it stretches from cool climates to tropical ones. Pretty awesome isn’t it?

Sugar cane plantation

Tea plantation between the Daintree River and Cape Tribulation

Tea leaves

After you cross the Daintree River on that cute ferry I showed you earlier, you are in another World entirely. In about 1 hour of drive through lush rainforest, deserted beaches, and fruit orchards you reach Cape Tribulation, the northernmost part of Queensland you can (easily) reach with your own car. Cape Tribulation is a state of mind, a place where Captain Cook got stuck with its ship and only miraculously escaped a deadly fate. It’s the North, the Zenit of it all, and it gave me a huge sense of satisfaction reaching it. If to that you add the beautiful beach, well, the picture is perfectly clear of why so many people bother to come all the way here.

Cape Tribulation

The road to Cape Tribulation is dotted by cute cafes…

…and unspoiled beaches

Cutting right through the forest

There aren’t really too many words that can describe how beautiful this part of Queensland is. Magnificent, spectacular, and other superlatives like that just don’t cut it. A few more pictures, maybe, will.

Cape Tribulation

Along Cape Tribulation Rd

Sugarcane railway

Back to Port Douglas at sunset

After all this driving, I had one more area I wanted to explore: the Atherton Tablelands. While the two days I reserved for the region weren’t nearly as sufficient as I hoped they would be, I was able to get a good impression of this heavily-agricultural region sitting atop – well – a tableland. The scenery is very different from the coastal one: no lush rainforest here, just flat bushland that doesn’t leave much space to imagination. For those of you unfamiliar with Australian geography, the country works pretty much like this: 1. The Coast 2. The Bushland 3. The Outback That’s it. Simple, but effective. Rainforest gives way to acacia trees and eucalypti. Then, the nothing-ness (which became apparent on my flight from Cairns to Melbourne). Very fascinating. But the Tablelands are a very interesting area to explore – if you have a car, that is. Mangoes and coffee are the big business here. Golden Drop Mango Winery makes excellent mango wine (it really is good) from fermented fruit, while Skybury Coffee – near Mareeba – has some great coffee and spectacular views.

Golden Drop Mango Winery

Mangoes!

Skybury Coffee

View from the coffee shop…

…while enjoying a top-notch cappuccino!

Driving through the Northern Part of the Tablelands has a very rural feeling. It felt like being in the Dukes of Hazard, with small villages and tractors parked on the street and country folks socializing in front of the local general store. Well, perhaps I exaggerated a tad here, but you get the point. Surely interesting – at least to drive through – is the town of Mareeba, one of the biggest settlements in this area.

Mareeba

Mareeba has that remarkable feeling of an outpost town. The architecture, the people, a lot of things recall that imagery of colonization of the wilderness associated with the 1800s. The settlement is today a relatively-prosperous town centered around agriculture – a market town where local farmers come to trade their goods. I didn’t spend much time here, but I had the chance to try a truly remarkable fast-food chain, Red Rooster, that features some of the best chicken I had ever had at a fast-food joint. Even in this Australian are hard to beat!

Red Rooster!

A pub visited by rather questionable fellas

I want to talk briefly about coffee. I am addicted to coffee. Espresso, drip, french press, you name it, I love it. Yet, the last place on Earth I thought I would find good coffee was Australia. But I did. Thanks to Skybury Coffee, home of the Australian Coffee Center. I like Australian coffee, it tastes really good and the view I enjoyed from their terrace was simply stunning. I brought some beans home of course, and I still have to enjoy them. Now that I know I will be back to Australia next year I feel less bad in drinking it! And so, down to my next destination, Kuranda. This center of the opal industry is famous for its opal production and for the magnificent Barron Falls.

Barron Falls

Now, I visited during the dry season, when the water flows slowly out of the upstream dam. Yet during the rainy season these falls are spectacularly powerful. The setting – within a natural, deep gorge – is unlike anything I had seen before. The forest is all around, lush, teeming with life. And the Kuranda Scenic Railway runs right in the middle of it, carrying tourists from Cairns to Kuranda. I decided to spend the night in Kuranda as I know it’s probably the most touristic town in the Tablelands. What an error! This place literally closes for business after the last train leaves, at around 3.30pm. Nothing remains open but a supermarket. This was probably the only disappointment of my trip to Australia. Oh well, it was a nice night spent at a RV camp with some interesting fella – most notably a Rom fella from Serbia who migrated to Australia 30 years earlier and that did every possible job on Earth in his itinerant life. A treat to the ears. Still, I wish I stayed in Yungaburra or – even better – I wish I had at least one day more to explore this beautiful area. Unfortunately, it was time to go back to Cairns. Driving in Northern Queensland is very scenic. From a dramatic coast, to rainforest, to steep hills, you get everything an avid driver can wish for.

Where do we go??

Once you drive down the dramatic and sinuous road that brings you back to the coast, you are in Cairns.

The Capital of Northern Queensland: Cairns!

Cairns is an odd animal: a tourist-driven town, it hadn’t always been like that. Cairns was more of an agricultural outpost at its inception, but its nice weather, wonderful beaches, and the Great Barrier Reef transformed the fate and the fortune of this once-sleepy town.

Boardwalk in Cairns during low tide

The funny thing about Cairns is that the town doesn’t have a single beach. As the capital of a beach-driven touristic area, this is ironic. At least locals who don’t/cannot drive to Palm Cove Beach – a mere 10-15 km. north of town – can find refuge in the artificial beach and pool built right in the heart of town.

Artificial beach, please!

Cairns is definitely a vibrating place. Lots of young Americans and (especially) Europeans come here to spend some time while working at hotels and restaurants to get by. Hostels and guesthouses abound, as do luxury hotels (I stayed at the Shangri-La Hotel, which I strongly recommend to everyone). Sleepy, lazy and relaxed during the day (with tourists on day trips to the reef or to the forest or to Kuranda); animated at night, when al fresco restaurants and bars come to life. I could have easily spent 3-4 days in Cairns without getting bored. There is something mildly tacky about its many souvenir shops, yet they only add to the relaxed and festive atmosphere. Also, in Cairns I had my first Pie Face. This OZ chain specialized in meat (and other) pies is to be found in every corner of the country. I tell you: there’s a good reason for that. Their pies are really good, relatively inexpensive, and creative (try the dessert pear and ricotta pie: to die for!). I can’t wait to have it again!

Steak and mushroom pie. So yummy!

Nothing much to see in Cairns, but definitely enough things to do to keep you busy. I liked the place, and  I think  I will be back sometimes. Oh, and do not miss some yummy barramundi fish & chips while in town – this widely-available fish is simply fantastic.

Barramundi fish & chips. Divine!

Cairns Art Museum

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ And so, here we go. 12 days after, the time to leave this wonderful country-continent arrived. I must say, Australia really impressed me. Usually every country I visit impresses me for one reason or another. But Australia went way past my expectations. I hope I did justice enough to this country in my trip report. I loved it down here, and I’m going back in 2013 to explore more of it. It’s the people, the nature, the food, and many other aspects that make this country so wonderful. Australians are the most outgoing and easy-going people you will ever meet, which makes it even easier to enjoy it here Upside Down. The art scene is thriving, and it’s the rich, multi-ethnic food scene (try the quangdong berry jam next time you’re in Aussie!). There is always something interesting to do, be it a hike to the Blue Mountains or wine tasting in the Barossa Valley. And I have explored only such a minuscule part of it that I am even more amazed to think about the almost-endless opportunities Australia offers. The point? Bill Bryson is certainly right: Australia is one amazing place!

5 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Daniel / Nov 10 2012 9:39 pm

    The Pie looks pretty sad :(

  2. Jai / Dec 17 2012 12:33 am

    What a great trip report, Thank you very much for the kind words you said about our Country, If you like old, Heritage style places, and great scenery, give Tasmania a try.
    ” Good on ya mate “

  3. Wade / Jan 24 2013 6:34 am

    Great report mate, well done.

  4. Brian / Feb 10 2013 6:58 am

    Wow you did do some research , if you like pies then next time in Sydney go to Newtown and try the Pie Tin , it’s on Brown st and those pies are AMAZING.
    Also for a great fillet steak try The Balkan restaurant Oxford st Darlinghurst.
    You should move here

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