Well, firrst of all, we’re in Australia! We left Barbara’s ridiculously early on Saturday morning – she very generously got up with us at 3.30 a.m. to give us a lift to the airport! We flew via Brisbane (where we luckily had $5 in Aussie dollars that Stephen had given us, so we could buy a coffee!) and arrived in Cairns at midday. It was a bit of an inauspicious arrival – it was raining, and we got a taxi to the campervan rental place and had a pretty unpleasant experience with them – we’d booked with the cheapest company we could find online, and when we got into the detail, we discovered that there’s a reason they’re cheap! They pushed us hard to pay extra to lower our insurance excess, which we refused, and they pushed us to upgrade our AA cover, which we also refused, and they wanted to charge us extra to hire camping chairs, and to fill our gas bottle, and for all sorts of things – we just kept saying no, but it was a bit of a hassle, really. And then they told us that rather than taking a credit card swipe to cover our insurance excess, we actually had to pay them the money and have it sit in their account (earning interest!) throughout the hire. Grrr. No way round it, so we had to pay, but to add insult to injury they charged us a credit card fee of $50!! So by the time we drove away, we were both pretty irritated, and it was raining, and we weren’t in a very good mood with Australia! We drove towards the city centre until we spotted a McDonald’s, and stopped for a meal and to use their free WiFi to investigate (a) Vodafone shops, so we could sort out a WiFi device for ourselves, and (b) campsites to stay in that night – the hire place had given us a list of the holiday park chain they’re affiliated to, but there doesn’t appear to be any free book listing all the campsites in Australia, as there was in NZ – maybe it’s too big a list! We’ve managed to pick up a Queensland listing book, and we’ve had some good tips for listing websites from people we’ve met since, so we should be ok – but we were a bit annoyed with that, too!
From McDonald’s we drove into Cairns and found a Vodafone shop, and were pleasantly surprised to be able to buy a mobile WiFi device with 3GB of data on it for a mere $60 – bargain! So we’re now internet-connected (well, in major towns and cities – not a lot of mobile reception in between them!) We then decided to drive out of town towards the Northern beaches, as we knew we wanted to go north to Port Douglas the next day. We got as far as Palm Cove, and drove in to find a campsite on the beach that we’d found online – we managed to get a site, but it was absolutely packed! We chatted to the lady at the office and she told us this is peak season here, as everyone from Sydney and Melbourne comes north to get away from the bad weather starting there. There’s a phenomenon known as the ‘Grey Nomads’, all the retired people from down south who spend three months of the year up north in their state-of-the-art caravans and mobile homes! We walked through the campsite marvelling at the size and splendour of some of them – they’ve got generators, huge outside awnings attached, with chairs and tables and lighting, some have mobile washing machines, BBQs, all sorts! And they look like pretty permanent set-ups, a lot of them. So, the lady said it would be worth us calling ahead to book sites, as a lot of holiday parks will be very busy at the moment.
We sat in our camper van that night, thinking about all the hundreds of people we were suddenly sharing our trip with, and all the things that were ‘different’ (read: not as good!) about our new camper van as compared to the one we’ve just spent 5 weeks in in NZ – various things about the layout are slightly different, it’s got different things in with the crockery and cooking stuff, etc. – and feeling a bit down-in-the-mouth about having left New Zealand, where we were so spoilt with low season and having all the campsites and attractions to ourselves! We’ve so enjoyed the way we’ve travelled, pottering about and not planning anything in advance, and we were sad at the idea that we might need to be more organised and book everything ahead here. Anyway, we decided a good night’s sleep would help, so we made our bed and went to sleep.
The next day seemed much brighter – quite literally, as we woke up to brilliant sunshine, and added ‘the weather’ to the top of our list of things that are good about being in Australia! It really is so lovely to be hot – it’s shorts and t-shirts weather, and we’re wearing suncream, and we’re sleeping with the windows open at night and not tucked up in 3 blankets – so that really is lovely! We had breakfast and decided to set off up to Port Douglas, where we were aiming to book a diving trip on the Great Barrier Reef. We then got chatting to the lady in the office, who said she could book any of the trips and give us a better price than the operator, as she can drop her commission a bit – so we chose a boat (actually, one we’d been recommended by divers we met in the Poor Knights) and asked her to book it for us for the next day. It was full! So we booked for the day after, and suddenly had an extra day to do what we wanted.
We got on the road and immediately came to a standstill – there was a triathlon on the road between Cairns and Port Douglas, and everything was stopped, with police marshalling traffic in convoys every half hour in between the bikes! We stopped one of the marshals and asked if there was any chance of getting to Port Douglas, and he said no, not until the evening when the roads would re-open – but we could maybe try the inland route, which was longer but a nice drive. So, we headed down the road, with me frantically flipping through the road atlas to find the inland route! We turned off and headed to Kuranda, which is the first town on the way into the Atherton Tablelands. Absolutely beautiful landscape, winding roads up into hills covered in tropical rainforest – we kept stopping at look-outs to take photos, it was a wonderful drive. In Kuranda, we saw a sign for Barron Falls, so went down the road and parked and went for a walk along a wonderful boardwalk to the falls, via various lookouts. There were quite a few other people there, but in fact, we decided we didn’t mind at all – it’s a different kind of experience than wandering around on your own, but very sociable, and everyone is having such a good time, it’s nice to be surrounded by people on holiday! So, by the time we left there, we had decided we’ve settled in and we love Australia!
We looked at the map and decided rather than going to Port Douglas, we’d head further north, along the inland road to Cooktown, which is the furthest north you can get along the coast on sealed roads (we’re not supposed to take the camper on unsealed roads, it voids our insurance!) So we set off, via Mareeba, and then the Mulligan Highway through Mount Molloy. It was an amazing road – exactly how you imagine driving in Australia, with red sand and sparse trees and huge open skies, and long, straight, empty stretches of road ribboning out in front of you. We absolutely loved the driving – we had our iPod blaring music, and the windows wide open (the van has air con, which is brilliant, but we were enjoying the fresh air!) We even saw kangaroos – roadkill, rather than bouncing, unfortunately, but there were loads of them!
As we were driving along, I noticed on the map that there was a different road you could take inland, to a town called Laura, which was the end of the sealed road. It’s actually further north than Cooktown, but more importantly, my mum’s called Laura, so we decided to jack in the Cooktown plan and go there instead! I read the guide book and found out there was a community campground there, so we knew we’d have somewhere to stay, so we headed off down that road! We arrived in Laura just before dusk, and took our obligatory photo at the town name sign, to send to my mum! Laura consisted of one roadhouse – pub/shop/petrol station – and a ‘heritage visitor centre’, which was shut, with a campsite next to it, which was empty! We looked around for someone to pay, but couldn’t find anyone – we did find an electric hook-up, though, so we set up camp for the night! We wandered over to the loo block together (safety in numbers!) and fell about laughing at the sign that said ‘please close the toilet seats when not in use, or they get blocked by green tree frogs’ – just as a frog jumped down the wall towards Chris! We walked back and were admiring a flock of pink and white birds – parakeets of some sort, we thought – on the phone lines across the road, just before they all took flight and came and roosted (very loudly!) in the trees we were camped under!
We woke up early due to a mixture of sun and parakeets (noisy little buggers!) and had showers, breakfast etc., then went over to the heritage centre, as we’d seen a vehicle pull up at it. The chap there was very friendly, and when we asked if we could pay him for camping, he said ‘No – there’s an office there that’s meant to collect camping fees, but the guy often doesn’t show up, so I always just tell people if there’s no one here, enjoy the free camping!’ He did let us pay him for entry to an Aboriginal rock art sit, Split Rock, which was just down the road, and gave us a rough map so we’d know where to go.
We drove down the road and obviously completely missed the turning, as 40 minutes later Chris said ‘I’m sure we’ve gone too far!’ and we had to turn around and go back! It was worth it, though, as we saw our first actual, real, live, bouncing along the side of the road kangaroos! Two of them! I was very excited and insisted the hour-long detour was a small price to pay. We eventually got back to the rock art site, and parked at the car park, put on our hiking boots and started walking up the trail. There had been one other vehicle in the car park, and we passed three people walking down the trail as we walked up, but once we got up to the site we were on our own – brilliant. There was a small boardwalk and some discreet barriers and interpretative signs, but basically, you were stood in the bush looking at paintings on the rock face that are 13,000 years old. Really amazing – we were very glad we’d made the effort to turn around (and the steep uphill hike!)
We spent the afternoon driving back along the amazing open road to Port Douglas, stopping at a roadhouse for a pie for lunch. Chris needed a new battery for his watch, so we drove into the town looking for a shop, and eventually were directed to the next town, Mossman, where we found a jeweller’s who sold watch batteries. Port Douglas looked lovely, though – a real resort town, lots of little shops and cafes along the main drag, selling hats and surf gear and sunglasses – a very summery feel! And the main road into town in lined with palm trees, it all feels very tropical. We found the shop at Mossman, but unfortunately it looks like the battery’s not the problem, Chris needs a new watch! It was only mid-afternoon, so we looked around for something to do, and found a line in the Rough Guide about Mossman Gorge, so we drove there. The road was closed, but lots of cars were parked at the ‘Road Closed’ sign, so we parked and walked up it, passing a few people on the way who were walking back, some carrying towels and swimsuits. We got up there and found a fantastic boardwalk through the rainforest, with lots of different lookouts over the river, which flows down over huge boulders, gathering in big green pools – it’s so beautiful, everywhere you looked was just amazing. We walked over the swingbridge, and then down to a little beach where people were swimming in the river, and wished we had brought our swimming cossies! We saw a bush turkey, pecking around on the beach. It was fantastic, a really lovely place – we were so glad we’d spotted it in the guide book!
After that, we drove back to Port Douglas and to the Big 4 holiday park. We wanted to stay in one, as our Top 10 member’s card gives us a discount at these, so we wanted to get a list of them and find out about other discounts etc. We had a long chat with the ladies in the office and picked up lots of useful information – including the fact that as we go south, things will get less busy and we won’t need to book ahead, so in fact we can have a relaxed, ‘plan-less’ itinerary most of the time after all! We parked up on a site and soon got chatting to our next-door neighbours, self-confessed ‘Grey Nomads’ who are travelling around Australia for 7 months, with an amazingly organised itinerary, and bookings already made at campsites almost all the way! They’ve been a font of useful information, and given us lots of tips about websites listing free campsites, and that sort of thing. We phoned Chris’s aunt Karen, who’s on holiday in Cairns at the moment, and made plans to meet up on a couple of days’ time on our way south. Then we made a late supper, and went to bed!
This morning we were up early and waiting for the bus to pick us up for our diving trip at 8 a.m. We were the first pick-up, so we got to peer into lots of different hotels and resorts as we picked everyone else up, very interesting! We got to the marina and walked down to our boat, Calypso, which was wonderful – a big catamaran, with lots of sun deck space, and also lots of comfy inside space – we sat down and got ourselves a complimentary coffee and a chocolate brownie to munch on while we filled in our diving paperwork. There was a bit of a delay setting off, as their sister boat had engine trouble, so 30 people got transferred onto our boat! We wondered if it would make things feel crowded, but actually, the boat was so spacious and the organisation was so good, we hardly noticed it. We were amazed to find that out of almost 100 people on board, only 5 of us were certified divers – there were 15 doing an introductory diving course, and the rest were snorkelers. So us 5 had VIP treatment all day – we had a great briefing with our dive guide as we set off, and she’d set up all our gear already, and got us all out onto the dive deck and kitted up before we reached the first site, so we could jump in and be diving while the others were still having their briefings. So we barely noticed any of the other people, we may as well have been the only people on the boat! The others were a nice crowd, as well – a couple from Adelaide and a chap from Sydney, whose partner was doing an introductory dive.
The diving was absolutely superb – we did three dives, limited to 45 minutes, so Chris and I both came up with both air and bottom time left, but it was great to get to three different sites. The visibility was great, up to 25m, and huge lovely blue water in the sunshine – and the coral, and the fish, were just beautiful. On the second dive we got dropped off by the little safety tender, and did our dive back towards the boat, and on the other two we just went straight off the boat and back to it – so it was very easy diving, with no currents, and we could all just really enjoy the scenery and the fish life. We saw a white-tipped shark, some huge parrotfish and potato cod, some blue spotted rays, a hawksbill turtle – and clownfish, pipefish, angelfish, puffer fish, lobster, and all sorts of shoals of little colourful things. Absolutely stunning. One of the nicest bits was when we came into the shallows, into 2-3 metres of water underneath where the snorkelers were, and floated close to the reef across there – it was so colourful, and the sunshine was penetrating so far into the water, it was just beautiful. There was a photographer on board who came and found us on two of the dives and took photos, which of course we ended up buying (although with a ‘honeymoon discount’!), so those are the photos we can post here! There were brownies and flapjacks and tea and coffee and fruit between dives, and lunch after the second dive, during which one of the crew gave a bit of a talk about the reef, the coral, the fish etc. – it was just a really well run day, and one of the best dive trips we’ve ever done, we really had a great day. We’re very glad to be in Australia, and settled in to our new camper van, and we’re so looking forward to the next few weeks!
Now Chris is doing a bit of laundry, and I’m off to make supper, so we’ll hopefully get round to uploading this later on! We might also try to get onto Skype – we’re feeling a bit out of touch with everyone, I think because everyone’s reading our blog, no one is in touch by email – so we never hear anyone else’s news! I assume no news is good news and you’re all OK, anyway!