After Daintree we started our cannonball run down the Coast. In the course of the next five weeks we did and saw more things than can be easily fit into a cohesive narrative. The highlights:cockatoo-eating-bullet-1.JPG

Port Douglas: South of Mossman Gorge we stopped at Port Douglas, at the Rainforest Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary, for Breakfast with the Birds. This was something we’d heard about while tasting exotic fruit in Daintree. Basically it’s a breakfast buffet in an aviary. As you can imagine the birds have little compunction about helping themselves to your bacon. Mostly it’s not a problem: but we had an encounter with an ibis that involved shattered glass and spilled mimosas. The ibis is a large bird. croc-bullet-1.JPGPictured here is a cockatoo that swooped onto a neighboring table and helped himself to a large biscuit; he munched merrily from the safety of his perch for the duration of our meal, emitting occasional satisfied screeching caws. The cockatoo it turns out is a very common bird in Australia but that doesn’t make him any less cool to look at.

Magnetic Island: Technically not part of the Whitsundays, Magnetic, a nature koala-with-baby-bullet-2.JPGpreserve off the Townsville coast, belongs to the Great Barrier Reef and is listed as a World Heritage Site (not an uncommon designation throughout Oz). The place has a laid-back island approach to living and more koalas than it knows what to do with. Magnetic gave us our first experience with several bird species, including black cockatoos, curlews, and kookaburras – the laughter of the kookaburra being one of those special sounds that vividly evokes place, and which to us will always mean Australia. Parrots and sunbirds were plentiful too: constant drama in the treetops as some nest or perch was loudly contested. The island’s 5,100 hectares echoed daily and nightly with conversation and quarreling. Our campground had lorikeet-bullet-2.JPGpeacocks and a pea hen and a graceful young curlew who sipped daintily from the swimming pool. Geologically, if Vedauwoo were an island, it would look exactly like Magnetic. We took a nice sweaty hike to a place called Balding Bay but didn’t see the famous rock wallabies, which are about a third the size of regular wallabies and known to cavort around the granite boulders well into the morning despite being nocturnal. It is a place of luminous sands, piney incense, and a sense of safety – refuge – for wildlife from the hardship of the mainland. Except for the death adders, highly poisonous, squat brown snakes that hide under cover of leaves.

Eungella: In lowland Queensland the first furnace blast of heat hits you around 8:30 a.m. We retreated up to Eungella, a rainforest national park atop a steep ridge of mountains about eighty kilometers inland from Mackay. This is a cloud channel forest habitat of ferns and epiphytes, strangler figs and red cedar covered in grandfather’s beard, lantana (of course) and lemon aspen, where the platypus lives in greatest cockatoo-flock-bullet-3.JPGabundance, though of course that’s not as abundant as Once Upon A Time. After a patient hour waiting by the Broken River for the little natatory beast we spotted one diving around a hollowed-out tree carcass: the platypus uses its duck-like bill to root out slimy invertebrates buried in the riverbed. We also spotted, for the first but not last time, bush turkeys, big black-and-red birds that make nests in piles of leaves at the base of large trees. They have a membrane of skin that hangs, limp and sallow, around their necks like a bandanna. According to a local birdwatching guide, Ugo, the local wisdom regarding the cooking of bush turkeys is: “Put a rock in the pot, when the rock is soft, throw away the bird.” (Ugo used to play and coach rugby for the University of Colorado and knows Laramie well.) Also in Eungella we saw flocks – hordes – of cacophonous cockatoos, two or three river turtles (single-headed), an enormous brown snake (very poisonous), and the Jesus lizard, which dashes upright across water. All in all a cool and instructive retreat from the oppressive climate of the coast.

Rockhampton: Have you ever been to Casper, Wyoming? Then you know what Rockhampton, Australia’s country music capital, looks like. Here I learned that a “pot” is a small glass of beer, a “schooner” is something shy of a pint, a “pint” is a pint, and a “jug” is a pitcher. I also took my first tentative steps toward an understanding of cricket courtesy of a tolerant barmaid – an understanding that later paid off when I was able to not be bored sick watching The Ashes with my cousin Deb’s husband, Paul, in Sydney. “For a crappy town it’s not so bad,” Lisa said of Rockhampton. Most importantly, Rockhampton is home to a Sizzler, and yes, we ate there, and yes, it was scrumptious. Just outside town we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and the weather noticeably cooled. South of town we drove past grove after grove of eucalypts still smoking, their trunks charred, the undergrowth all burned away and the ground blackened, the latest victims of the countless fires raging across the seaboard.

Hat Head: In New South Wales we spent a couple days in the tiny hamlet of Hat Head, on the North Coast. We hiked around the rocky promontory of Korogora Point, marc-at-hat-head-bullet-5.JPGthe only people on the trail that day, a sterling blue day of perfect sunshine and calm waters. There we had our first real encounter with the flies that Lonely Planet calls “incredibly annoying” – but the good news is, they taste delicious. Korogora Point boasts steep cliffs, Death Hole and Ward’s Hole, where surf douses black rocks a hundred meters below, and signs warn walkers to beware strong winds and shaky footing. Proceed At Your Own Risk. Huge brown-bodied, red-legged spiders sit squat across the trail in the center of thick webs, bouncing with the breezes. A mantle of krumholtz-type scrub covers everything up to the void. Sea gulls and terns and cockatoos glide by. Despite a, shall we say, Kafkaesque night in our cabin at the local caravan park we’d go back any day.