Time for a change Down Under …

Planning this trip, we made some … miscalculations. Not many, just a few. Our stupidity both hindered and helped us.

Lisa in Perth

We were too stupid, for example, to realize that two months wasn’t enough time to see even a tenth of Australia; but we were also so stupid we didn’t realize how expensive two months in Australia – let alone the six we needed – would be. If we’d stayed much longer we would have gone broke, but fast.

It was somewhere in New Zealand that we started planning for Australia, and some logistical problems immediately became evident. Driving in New Zealand gave us a dim concept of how long it took to get anywhere; though in hindsight, driving in Melba was not a good indicator of much, besides the durability, reliability and stench of the 1989 Mitsubishi campervan. At any rate we were faced with a choice of what to see Down Under, or to be more exact, what to miss.

Tasmania was the first casualty. I will regret that decision, I think, for a long time: but at the time we thought it was both too costly to take the ferry and too time-consuming to see the whole island properly. Then, out of time and cost considerations, and some raw calculations of the cost of a hospital stay for heat stroke, we cut the Outback, including the “musts” of Uluru, the Olgas, and the Kimberley.

Marc in PerthBy this time we agreed it was necessary, somewhere down the road, to return to Australia and see what we’d missed. That trip will have to take a backburner to the Japan-China-Mongolia-Siberia odyssey already forming in our travel-enfeebled minds.

But we didn’t sacrifice everything. We did the entire East Coast, including the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree rainforest, Cairns, Townsville, Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne. We did the Blue Mountains and Snowy Mountains, and several other parks and beaches besides. We saw the big plaster Banana, Prawn, Mango and Merino. We did miss the Big Clam, for which I will never forgive myself.

And, after cutting all that other good stuff we were able to dedicate the last three weeks to the West Coast, where we saw The Great Michael Franti and a bunch of other bands and got to know Perth – a terrific city – and about 1,000 kilometers of coastline.

One thing we didn’t see: clouds. Of the 22 days we spent out west we had one (1) cloudy day. Thus we broke the pattern of rain that followed us from New Zealand across the South Pacific and all over eastern Oz.

Except for that one day, which will be described.

Incidentally, the West Coast apparently does not see many Americans. We ran into approximately two in 22 days. Which was OK by us because Americans are big bores. Ha! Just kidding. But they are.

Kangaroo and EmuAnyway Perth is a great town. Except for the hostels. This tale demands telling.

In three separate stays in the jewel of the west we stayed in three different places, and all were either ripoffs or foul dens of iniquity. Or both. I will mention them here to warn other travelers.

First there was Hotel Bambu, which lied in its advertising and turned out to be little more than a party pad for the owner’s friends. We treated ourselves to en suite rooms very infrequently on this trip, because of the cost (on average $20-$30 more than rooms without a bathroom), so when we relented and booked a room with a toilet and shower it was kind of a big deal, the sort of thing we looked forward to, the sort of thing that made our day. Unfortunately, after we showed up, the “bathroom” was a locked door that turned out to be a storage closet. We got a discount, but little sleep, as the place is also trying to be a club.

After returning from the Southbound Festival in Busselton we were a little tired and looking forward to some rest before picking up our car and heading north. We were to be denied that rest once again. 1201 East Backpackers was a slum, plain and simple. Somebody turned an office building into a hostel and didn’t bother evicting the cockroaches (Metaphor? You be the judge). And some snotty French guy at the desk robbed me of an hour’s Internet time.

Perth streetAfter our Great Northern Adventure, which will be the subject of the next two posts (the last concerning Australia, we have moved on to SE Asia), we returned to Perth convinced we didn’t have bad enough luck to strike out a third time. Fools!

At first we seemed to have found the tonic for our accommodation woes. Governor Robinson’s was a tidy out-of-the-way place with cheap rooms, only $55 a night: high ceilings and darkwood floors: a cozy common room and brick courtyard. We booked three nights so as to have space in which to prepare to leave the country – packing, unpacking, re-packing, and the all-important purge of heavy, useless items: that fifth water bottle, one or two of the seven books I was reading at the time.

It wasn’t until leaving that Gov. Robinson’s gave us a sour taste, by charging $70 per night out of the blue, and by refusing to acknowledge that the room was advertised online for less. And by the owner – I assume the rude schmuck at the desk was the owner – smarmily dismissing our complaints.

Perth was a really nice town, clean and less expensive than elsewhere in Australia, and Fremantle (just to the south) had a bustling, diverse weekend market and a beautiful colonial downtown. Both had great restaurants and bars. Too bad about the hostels.

Here’s the third installment of the story series we’re doing for Friends of the Earth. Have a read. Soon (we hope) you’ll see the video at

Bush fires, droughts, record temps: Down Under has undergone a reassessment of values in the wake of a brutal summer of warming
By Marc Ethier and Lisa Archer

Australia, the Red Continent, has always been a sun-baked, inhospitable land. Popular imagination and reality converge on Australia as a flat, dry desert country, hardened, blasted and shaped by intense heat. The sun Down Under is a killer, pounding thousands of square miles of intemperate, desiccated, dangerous waste sandwiched between slim coastal strips of drying rainforest.

“Sunburnt” is how Aussies have always described their home, not without a little pride. But now Australia is more than sunburnt – it is burning.

Over the last decade – and especially over the last few years – the country’s climate crisis has worsened to the point of alarm. A drought of epic proportions, the worst on record, has afflicted three of the nation’s southern states, where half the population lives. Reservoirs are evaporating: some outside Melbourne in Victoria operate at 40-percent capacity or lower. A dozen communities have lost their water sources altogether.

Then there are the fires. At points this summer bush fires have raged out of control across Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales, threatening suburbs of Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart – in fact many of the population centers of the east and southeast coast. Fueled by sirocco-like winds out of the Outback, the fires have taxed limited firefighting resources across the Blue and Snowy mountain ranges and consumed millions of dollars in property and livestock; according to state Premier Steve Bracks, this summer 20 percent of all Victoria has burned.

But then, all Australia is burning: no country has grown hotter over the last 100 years. Shifting weather patterns are frying the south, crushing the country’s agricultural hubs. Tragedies abound: A suicide epidemic has swept the ranks of farmers whose families have tilled the soil and raised livestock for generations – but who now despair because they can’t draw life out of the scorched earth.

Receptive audience

The hardiest of the typically hardy Aussie has begun to worry. It’s little wonder then that Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, has had such a profound impact here. The film made more than AU$4 million through the end of last year and quickly grew into a national phenomenon, galvanizing popular support for groups dedicated to finding solutions to global warming and prompting activists and non-activists alike to face the issue. The film may have been a minor revelation for many in America, but in Australia, as in New Zealand, it was much more: a watershed event.

Sarah Bishop, a native of Queensland – which has not escaped the season of bush fires – was among the many who were moved and felt compelled to act shortly after seeing the film. The 22-year-old journalism and communications student at Griffith University in Brisbane began doing research and organizing discussion groups last fall.

Studying the issue just made Bishop more aware of the immensity of the problem. She enjoyed speaking out, but in her words, “Why should anyone listen to me?” So she came up with something better. “Youth are the main demographic that we need to get interested in this issue, so I wanted to do something that would get their attention. Working with Get Up Climate Action Now (, Bishop conceived a 1,000-kilometer walk from Brisbane to Sydney through the inferno of an Australian summer. Her two-month march began in late January and will feature speeches and a petition drive, and culminate in a visit to Prime Minister John Howard’s residence to protest the Howard government’s refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol.

“Per capita, Australia is among the top producers of greenhouse gases,” Bishop says. “We’re seeing mass devastation in Australia and we can stop it. … I don’t want to be from a generation that was given this gift, this beautiful planet, and be the ones that have ruined it. It’s selfish, it’s irresponsible.”

Immediately after announcing the walk, Bishop got the reaction she wanted: more and louder conversation, helped by Internet buzz around the event that grew to include the mainstream media and more admirers and volunteers than Bishop knew what to do with. She appeared on the over of the Sydney Morning Herald. Her website ( exploded with hits. The phone started ringing and hasn’t stopped. “The reaction was incredible,” she says. “It just took off and it hasn’t slowed down. People are really interested, and that’s very exciting to see.”

Hard at work

On the other side of Brisbane, in a tiny office next to a bicycle shop, Emma Brindal helps coordinate Friends of the Earth’s Climate Justice Campaign and the group’s work to get recognition for climate refugees. Brindal, a part-time teacher, volunteers with a handful of others to organize events like Australia’s participation in last November’s Walk Against Warming, part of a global day of action on climate change; she sees her country, a power player in Pacific geopolitics, coming to grips with the problem of man-made warming while learning simultaneously to serve as a role model for First World nations in the face of the impending disaster of rising sea levels.

But the fight is ongoing. Today Australia, following the UN’s lead, does not recognize the status of climate refugees. “Climate change is the biggest social justice issue the world has ever faced,” Brindal says. “We’re looking at millions and millions of people facing worse poverty and disease and displacement – and in the worst case, potentially the loss of whole cultures – when we’re looking at small island nation-states that could disappear.”

Brindal, Sarah Bishop and their colleagues and fellow activists know too well that no matter how great the dialogue about Australia’s problems or those of its neighbors, more help is needed. The good news – at least on the homefront – is that the famously stalwart Australian character may provide that help.

As Australia burns – as unpredictable weather becomes a striking daily reality – its national psyche bears up, seeking solutions: the expected reaction from so legendarily resilient a people. Reflecting a concomitant concern about the ozone layer, a national discussion has opened over how to reduce the nation’s skin cancer cases, which outpace the rest of the world.

The argument, for the average Aussie, is settled. The incontrovertible evidence of global warming – mystifyingly still a remote question for many Americans, in part because their media hasn’t demonstrated the courage to make the issue regular front-page news – is daily demonstrated. Down Under, further debate is moot.

The future for the continent – and the planet

Morning talk shows greet Aussies at the start of every 40 C-degree day with special reports on “what you can do to reduce greenhouse gases,” which Australia, reliant on coal for 85 percent of its electricity, produces more of than France or Italy – each of which has three times its population. Water patrols, water conservation commercials, half-flush toilets, tight restrictions on personal and commercial water use: all are now regular and accepted features of life, the new reality, on the Red Continent.

Roused to action, Australia is, hopefully, turning a corner in its climate crisis. Its re-education could serve as a lesson to the world.

“It’s not just about our children’s lives and our grandchildren’s lives,” says Sarah Bishop, who will finish her 1,000-kilometer walk on John Howard’s doorstep March 31, just hours before Sydney turns out the lights in an effort to publicize Australia’s consumption of electricity. “I’m young – I’m 22, and I’m hoping to live for at least another 60 years. And the effects of climate change are going to have an effect during my lifetime.

“It’s not going to change by itself. Every individual makes a difference. And obviously collectively we make even more of a difference.”


The Highest Place In Australia. Mount Kosciuszko, 2,228 meters, 7,310 feet, higher than Laramie, Wyoming, the most Wyoming of all places in Australia – at least, of all the places we visited. On Christmas Day we got snow here, and it was the talk of all Australia for the remainder of our time Down Under. This picture was taken near the summit.


We hiked some 25 kilometers in two days over crests of crumbling granite and meadows of lupines, gentians, buttercups, dandelions: terre verte dryness, windswept high plains, snow fences and violent blasts of wind, krumholtz and twisted, stunted trees, glacial catchments fed by murmuring brooks: the Main Range Track. Many familiar shapes and colors: but many strange ones too: ferns we didn’t recognize, snow gums sprouting green buds out of grey skeletons, tors of gneiss-like rock in odd misshapen knobs, great black crows whose voices by a trick of the wind resembled humans’. A strange hopping variety of ant. Bogong moths in multitudes retreating, like us, from the heat below.

The Blue Mountains were long the natural border that kept white Australians from penetrating the interior of the continent. It took decades after initial settlement of the East for the line of steep cliffs of crumbling sandstone and hanging gardens of dripping vegetation to be overcome, for settlers to clamber Up And Over; they eventually broke free – as all convicts must, given time – by traveling along ridges for miles rather than scaling them, following the dramatic line along the edge of undulating peaks instead of attempting what even today would be a perilous climb over treacherous terrain.

We just drove. In a car. On a road. It was easy.


The men who achieved the feat of first crossing the Blue Mountains are still renowned as heroes – and Lisa and I, despite our soft American-ness, had no trouble understanding why.


It’s not enough to look at a map: maps don’t convey anything of the drama of landscape. Even contour maps, even for someone with a vivid imagination.


No imagination could invent this landscape. Fortunately one isn’t required.


They don’t call the region around Katoomba, precisely west of Sydney, “The Edge” for nothing. This is where the botanic equivalent of a dinosaur was recently found tucked away under a hidden rim deep in the unseen wilderness, happily undiscovered and thoroughly unknown to science. (Of course now that it has been discovered the Wollemi can achieve its destiny: as an exotic houseplant.) The place as a whole is an exhilarating skein of spectacular scenery, an endless zoo of eucalypts: paper-barked blue gum, mottled coachwood, red-barked “turpentine tree” (resembling a redwood); brown barrel, mountain ash, sinuate-leaved sassafras; hanging swamps of coiling water vine, mulberry and “lilli pilli” – all overhung with the piney incense of eucalyptus oil, so thick in the air it gives everything blue look, and framed by dramatic Triassic geology. A long low mesa fills the horizon.


At first The Edge and environs weren’t easy to see – literally. We arrived in Katoomba late in the afternoon of a sunny day and awoke with plans for a full day only to discover whiteout fog that swallowed the town until sunset. By the third day the fog had drifted south (though wisps continued to float over Katoomba’s thoroughfares), and we were able to explore more than the town’s four used bookstores and several excellent cafes (see especially the Paragon).


We trundled down the steep stone Furber Steps to Reed’s Plateau, along the path of Katoomba Falls where it spills via terraces into the valley to join the Kedumba River. A mountain goat would get vertigo here. Precipitous shelves of shale dangle over a huge chasm, really a canyon, opening into the valley: hazy blue and blue-green, vast, enormous, where the trees go on forever. We pass Witches Leap, where brown algae feeds on sewage runoff, and Vera’s Grotto, where we spy a couple lyre birds (featured on the Aussie 10-cent coin) nesting in the peat and papery leaves of the forest floor. The brightly-plumed, peacock-like lyre bird hoots like a pigeon, with a whistle – a complicated mimicry of other bird calls – and is said to move tons of earth in a lifetime of rooting and nesting.


We watched the airborne birds in the shadow of the Three Sisters, yellow-grey sandstone plinths that are remnants of “blocking” as clay bands sap away to form fault lines. The Sisters are a kind of headland jutting into the valley, covered in tiers of trees clinging and leaning into the void. Below, where the rock has tumbled – every 10,000 years or so – as it finally loses its grip (dramatically, one imagines), the hillside is jagged with massive blocks of moss-covered stone, around which we stepped when we finally reached the bottom. Rusty coils, buckets, sieves and bits of machinery from a long-abandoned mining operation make an interesting addition to the valley milieu. The mine’s coal track is now used to haul lazy Americans and the wheelchair-bound back to the top after the long knee-cracking descent of the Steps. For a nominal fee of course.


Back on the rim, $20 poorer. From a lookout point we stared down at a flock of black cockatoos wheeling and turning in the canyon. Their calls echoed off the sandstone. Despite the high visitation there was no other sound, except the wind.


“I can see how the Wollemi could go undiscovered here,” Lisa said. And how this place – this entire line of country – could have daunted for a generation a society of even the doughtiest explorers.


… Trundling down to Brisbane, on the southern border of Queensland. We’d scheduled a rendezvous with a couple interviewees and were seeking a much-needed break, having already traveled some 3,600 kilometers since Cairns. We did the interviews – maybe I should say we got them out of the way – with a college activist and a Friends of the Earth volunteer. Then we went Insane In The Brisbane for a few days – but it was more of a catatonic insanity, mostly resting in our creaky backpackers (hostel) room and wandering distractedly along the waterfront.

Brisbane’s waterfront is well designed and vibrant, with marketplaces and museums, restaurants and pubs aplenty, all festooned with public art and open green spaces. Brisbane is a big city but laid-back, easygoing, and has, I suspect, an army of landscape architects to thank.

Possum in tree

We had to go. We could not stay. We must needs depart. Leaving Brisbane we pointed the car toward Sydney, where my cousin Deb awaited our arrival. Deb and her husband, Paul, and their daughter, Katie, live in the hills to the north of Australia’s New York, in a suburb called Bayview: they graciously invited us to stay for a few days and use their home as a base from which to explore the city.

But first we had to get there, some 1,000 kilometers south of Brisbane.

Farewell Queensland. We hardly knew ye. Crossing into New South Wales we again repaired to the hills, just guessing now but guessing right, moving inland under the shadow of Mount Warning through the “hippie” hamlet of Nimbin to Nightcap National Park, where we hiked up to Protestors Falls past coiled pythons and wounded septuagenarians. In the Seventies a group of protestors saved a large swath of the area’s forest from logging, including the falls, which drop into a marvelous grotto of slick mossy granite and table-sized shelves ideal for picnicking – and meditating. They are one reason for so many shall we say progressives seeking this area. Strangely though, and wonderfully, the park is not very heavily visited: we spent half an hour on a weekend afternoon watching the spray of the falls and enjoying the cool air without seeing another person. A short bush hike afterward around Mount Nardi, a low shoulder of ancient rock covered with stands of stately doughman trees, was equally undisturbed by humans.

Lisa in Nightcap

Eventually we returned to the highway and wandered into Sydney, which at the time was experiencing a befuddling cold snap: surprising rain and chill winds greeted us. Deb’s welcome was the opposite, and we had a delightful few days talking about Michigan, family, cricket (with Paul, who I hope has a better opinion of American sports fans after I endeavored – with some difficulty, and some success – to learn the game), food, wine, and Katie’s accent – not quite Australian, but not American either. A charming cross between the two, I’d say.

Deb, who moved to Sydney with Paul in 1989, lives in a beautiful neighborhood near Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park (now apparently on fire), overlooking an inlet filled with boats big and small. They partially own a boat themselves, a 46-foot yacht called “Stingray Bay,” and we spent an afternoon tooling around Refuge Bay and sipping wine anchored in a discreet cove while schools of basketball-sized jellyfish glowed just beneath the surface. A lovely way to pass the time.

Staying with Deb and family we were tempted to camp out on their back porch, poolside, and watch the birds from beneath their grass-roofed gazebo. Perhaps sip fruity drinks and nibble Tim-Tams all day long. But we couldn’t miss out on the famous attractions of Sydney: the Opera House, the Harbor Bridge, the Aquarium, the Royal Botanic Gardens. The neighborhood of The Rocks is best for pub-crawling: don’t miss Fortune of War, est. 1828, reputed to be the city’s oldest pub. (I didn’t.) We commuted via the city’s excellent rail system but could have used a few more days. In the end as with everything else on this trip there was too much to do, too much to see, and we ended by feeling unsatisfied and rushed. Boo-hoo.

Harbor Bridge

After four days we figured it was time to go as Christmas approached and no one should have to endure foreign visitors during the holidays, least of all smelly uncouth ones. With a lot of hugs and smiles we left Deb, Paul and Katie, and headed for the hazy dark line in the west that signified the Blue Mountains.

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.

To expand (slightly) on what Lisa wrote about the Great Barrier Reef:

Some weeks ago now we flew from Auckland to Melbourne, slept for a couple days, then caught a domestic flight up to Cairns in northern Queensland, where the plan was to pick up a rental car and, after a quick jaunt north to Daintree, head back to Melbourne over the course of a month and reach the city in time for New Year’s.

The plan, like all our plans, worked to perfection (except that it took a bit longer than anticipated, about five weeks), and we’ve had many exciting adventures.

One of the first was a mandatory visit to the Great Barrier Reef. Cairns is one of the chief jumping-off places for the reef, which extends from Cape York in the north down to Bundaberg, and during our brief stay in that sweaty jungle town we could not fail to pay respect to the great continuous wall of living (and dying) coral and all the many forms of life it contains and sustains. Could not, I say, and would not!

gbr coral

It’s a big strewthing reef (how’s that for vernacular!), a big colorful ecosystem, awe-inspiring in its vastness. It is bigger than New Zealand – but Lisa saw about a millionth of it and I even less, so I don’t have much to illuminate for you about the reef itself. Seeing any significant portion of it when your trip is not financed by National Geographic is basically impossible, chiefly because of the prohibitive cost. If you want that kind of information there are plenty of web sources … start by going to Google, like a journalist would. (Actually at that point you will have done more than most journalists.)

Ahem. The logistics however may be of interest. Here’s how they’ve organized GBR tours: You pay about AU$175 per person. You take a couple of Dramamine to prevent seasickness. A large ferry takes you 45 minutes out to sea to a permanent pontoon station, replete with kitchen, observatory and full-time caretaker, anchored off the reef.

On the way you listen to the staff of the boat – including several marine biologists, among them a woman who speaks seven languages – reference the movie “Finding Nemo” about a hundred times in describing the visual encounters you’re about to have. (Reference and reverence: seems that movie got a lot right, if the good people at Reef Magic Cruises are to be trusted. And they are.) You summon all you can remember of “Nemo,” which it turns out is not much, and arrive at the pontoon in perfect weather. You head straight for the semi-submersible boat – sort of a half-boat, half-submarine – and get an up-close look at the teeming underwater metropolis of the reef.

Impressive. You see clownfish, angelfish, parrotfish, surgeon fish. You get a rare morning sighting of a reef shark, prowling around the mushroom-shaped boulder coral and the forests of staghorn, or branching, coral.

With a picture guide in hand you spot more fish: unicorn fish, stripey, pipefish, snapper, cowfish. Boxfish, batfish, combfish, cardinal fish. One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish. One of the biologists points out “Wally,” a giant hump-headed Maori wrasse who seems always to be around, not only at the regular feeding times. Wally is the size of five snappers.


But while you are grasping (or gasping at) the diversity of the reef from an abstract, aloof perspective – the poltroon on the pontoon – your intrepid wife has donned a dive suit and is snorkeling joyfully around the reef with a sea turtle. She is seeing the fish, which swarm fearlessly around her, up close and personal – viewing the reef not through inches-thick glass but paper-thin plastic.

Black fish, blue fish, old fish, new fish. As they say in Oz, good on ya, girl.

lisa in suit

Reef Magic is one of the few independently owned reef tour companies and their approach shows it. They do a great job with a large group, giving everyone the right amount of attention (not too much), even the scowling guy in the baseball hat sitting with a book in the corner, popping Dramamine like candy.

With interest in, and concern for the sustainability of the GBR at an all-time high, small eco-friendly outfits like Magic Reef are insurance against over-visitation and over-corporatization because they are in the business of education and sustainable tourism. They care.

It’s a fine business model, if you can make ends meet. As a visit to the GBR is mandatory in this part of the world, we were glad to give our money to that kind of company.

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