Above is a picture of the island as we approached in the helicopter
. To the left is a picture of our family and long time friend Erik Papp,
who joined us. The swimming pool in the foreground is where we completed our
PADI Open Water certification so we could scuba dive with Daniel and Erik.
That opened a whole new world of under sea exploration for us. Daniel and
Erik saw a giant manta ray, and we all saw many reef sharks, fish of every
description, moray eels, and colorful corals and nudibranchs. We saw giant
sea turtles both in the water and on land. The island is a nesting ground
for both Green Leatherback and Ridley turtles and it was nesting
season. We took flashlights out to observe just after sunset and just before
dawn. They crawl up the beach to a location oriented by memory and scent
and spend the night digging a massive hole in which to lay up to one hundred
eggs. Before dawn the job is done and they crawl, utterly exhausted, back
to the sea. What a privilege it was to see these magnificent creatures.
The tip of Heron Island was a spot where you could sit all alone
and look at a three hundred degree panorama of ocean, unobstructed. It seemed
that you could see the curve of the earth out there, it was so crystal
clear. Getting to the tip of the island required careful travel
through the center of the island. There were Black Noddy Terns
everywhere, on the ground sunning themselves, up in nests caring for their
young, and zooming dangerously through the trees at about head level. In
fact there were many species of birds congregating there. Eastern
Reef Egrets (mistakenly identified as Herons years ago, hence the name of
the island), Lesser Golden Plovers, Bar Shouldered Doves, Buff Banded Land
Rails, Silver Eyes, Silver Gulls and Bar Tailed Godwits all spend time on
the island. But the most entertaining of them all was the Wedge tailed Shearwater
or Mutton Bird. Our first night there was our last night there without earplugs!
Mutton Birds fighting over scarce nesting holes in the ground can
roughly be described as sounding like asthmatic infants being brutally murdered.
On our second night there we went out with
flashlights and watched the Mutton Birds crash land on the island
after a day of feeding at sea. Erik would yell " incoming flight" and we'd
all duck and run as a large bird would weave through the trees and plow
into the ground, with little apparent control. After the nest was found,
usually already occupied, the arguing would start and last,
off and on, throughout the night and end at dawn when the birds would leave
to feed again. There was no television on the island, and who would need
it with all this excitement at night!
Our next stop was back to the mainland and on to greater Queensland.
We said good-bye to Erik and the four of us set off on a nine day tour.
We rented a car and headed north of Cairns to Mossman Gorge, famous for
its rain forest and pristine river. Just outside the park entrance to the
gorge was an aboriginal settlement with a gift shop. This is where we began
a tour and lecture with Guranji, a local aboriginal. We had been discouraged
about touring with an aboriginal by the local Australians, but found that
if you are patient with regards to time, its well worth the wait. Guranji
took us on a small walkabout and we saw how shelters were built and how the
people of the rain forest lived. He regaled us with stories from his own
life, growing up in Australia. He showed us the different plants that the
Aboriginals used from the rain forest. And, sadly, he told us about the
prejudice that has existed toward the aboriginals from the predominant white
We hiked for a couple hours with Guranji through the forest.
At one point we came to a rock near the river which demonstrated the different
colors of red and brown and orange ochres that the aboriginals could extract
rubbing different rocks together. They used these pigments for their art
and decorative work and the colors were truly stunning. We later saw many
examples of their drawings--using Aboriginal motifs. After our walk, Guranji
demonstrated playing a didgeradoo with great skill and let us all give it
a try. We made some pretty strange sounds and discovered that
playing a didgeradoo is very very difficult. We also learned
what an accomplished artist Guranji is and saw some of his work. We felt
very lucky to have shared this day with Guranji and to know so much more
about the Aboriginal way of life.
It was always warm and we were always looking for a way to cool
off. The swimming area of the Mossman River was the most popular around
with crystal clear water, several sandy beaches and diving rocks. The small
fish there were entertaining to watch. They had adapted to humans in the
water and would swim quite close to you. They also liked being fed swatted
horseflies and would swarm and almost leap out of the water in a feeding
frenzy. On a tour of waterfalls in the area we found this spot where Daniel
and Sarah could cut loose. It was fun to watch those free spirits emerge.
One day we went on a long hike in a park forest. As time passed, the
air got damp and heavy and it started to sprinkle. The few people we saw
on the trail were quickly heading back for their cars, but we decided to
finish the looping trail. We had two tiny umbrellas between the four of us
and tried to share them as best we could. Soon the rain turned into a full
tropical downpour and we found it impossible to stay dry. We covered the
cameras and passports as best we could and surrendered to a complete soaking.
At some points the rain came down so intensely it was impossible to see
straight ahead with water running off your head into your eyes. We were laughing
and splashing like four big kids as we finished our hike with the forest
to ourselves. It was an unpredictably wonderful time.
The flora and fauna of Australia is many times unique, and we were
on a quest to see as much diversity as possible. The strangler fig tree isn't
unique to Australia but this particular one, unusual in shape and hundreds
of years old, was aptly named The Curtain Fig. This area of Queensland,
called the Tablelands because of its mesa-like formation, was home to the
elusive, nocturnal platypus. We set out to see and photograph this shy monotreme
with the dogged determination. Morning and night, with flashlights in hand,
we hiked to streams and ponds only to see their dark shadows disappear after
a few moments. That was disappointing, but we did see some other animals
in the process, like tree kangaroos and owls. One predictable way to see
wildlife of course, is in a zoo. Sarah is petting a wallaby, a smaller, less
shy creature than the large red or gray kangaroos. We visited several small
zoos and learned more about koalas and other animals native to Australia.
Did you know that koalas should be picked up by their arms and not
as we would with human babies? ( Their ribs are so weak and fragile that
they break very easily) And the cassowary bird, which is a principal player
in the reforestation of the tropical forest, is incubated and cared for
only by the male of the species! Sadly, they are very endangered, not from
poor parenting, but low reproductive rates, loss of habitat and fatal encounters
with cars and domestic animals.
Only in Australia will you see caution signs like these. I have
to say it was challenging for us driving there. You have to drive on the
left, watch out for all kinds of wildlife and still try to sight see. We
tended to drive slowly, which drove the locals crazy. They would zoom past
us in complete frustration. So we drove as a team with one reading the maps,
one on lookout for animals, roads and road rage, one keeping us on the LEFT,
and one actually driving! Who would like to be at the wheel with this many
back seat drivers? Amazingly, we were a successful team with plenty of kilometers
covered and no accidents or fatalities.
On January 7th we were back in Cairns and sadly had to say good-bye
to Daniel and Sarah. It was so wonderful to see them in the middle of
our big trip and share some time together. They flew back to Brisbane and
then on to the U.S. on separate flights the following day. Rejuvenated
from our rendezvous with the family, off we went to Cape Tribulation.
The water looks nice, doesn't it? So clear, so warm, so.... deserted!
Well, there is a good reason for no one being in the water. Swimming all
along the Queensland coast in summer (October-April), is the deadly little
box jellyfish. Australia looses tourists and daredevils every year to these
creatures, which interestingly enough, inhabit the coast only, not the Great
Cape Tribulation is home to one of the few virgin wet tropical rain
forests left on earth. By virgin, I mean that it has never been logged
and is in pristine condition. In an effort to preserve the remaining forest,
it has been designated as a Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. And it is magnificent.
We hiked through the forest day and night with guides who pointed out all
kinds of plants and animals we would never have noticed or identified.
One of the first things we learned was to look out for the Gympie Gympie
plant with its heart shaped leaves. They say it feels like needles of fiberglass
if you brush against it, and the pain lasts a long, long time. Another
plant, the lawyer vine, will hook you with its barbed vines. The cassowary
bird can be dangerous because it will use its long sharp claws to kick and
slice anything threatening its young. And we were warned not to swim in
large rivers because of the mighty saltwater crocodile. So, we were careful!
The birds of the forest created a symphony up in the canopy and we spent
hours listening to them. I wish we would have bought a tape of their calls,
they was so exquisite.
This precious little bundle I am holding
is an orphaned baby fruit bat. We stopped at a small sanctuary along the
road called the Bat House, where volunteers care for the baby bats. We learned
that the fruit farmers consider them pests and kill the adults. Volunteers
save the few babies that they can. There is no rabies in Australia, so the
bats were perfectly safe to handle and they were as sweet, intelligent and
affectionate as they could be. They reminded me of curious little puppies
who wanted to be cuddled and petted, and would lick your fingers if they
smelled fruit. The younger bats are actually swaddled in tiny sheets to
simulate their mother's constant embrace in the wild. We stayed there for
an hour or more, feeding and holding these babies and when we tried to leave,
one of them flew to me, grabbed on and wouldn't let go. I almost had a new
The village of Daintree, along the mighty Daintree river, was our next
stop. We stayed in a small trailer cabin, one of 6 , on a small family
dairy farm which was walking distance to everything. Each morning we had
fresh whole milk, as much as we wanted, and a panoramic view of the valley
dotted with cows and migratory birds. At sunset, the sky became dark with
thousands of fruit bats heading inland to feed. Their passing could take
an hour or more as they followed the river on their journey. One morning
we went on a bird watching boat trip with 8 very serious bird watchers and
two expert guides. We saw or heard dozens of migratory as well as indigenous
birds as we moved along the tributaries of the Daintree River. Species like
the Papuan Frogmouth, Laughing Kookaburra, Sulpher-Crested Cockatoo and Royal
Spoonbill dazzled us that early morning. We even saw a young saltwater crocodile,
unusual for that time of year. Daintree was a pastoral setting where we could
have happily lingered quite a while.
On January 15 we were back in Brisbane and had one day left before
the next part of our journey. We decided to visit the Australia Zoo, made
famous by Steve Irwin the "crocodile hunter" on TV. About an hour north of
the city, it was a delightful experience with knowledgeable, enthusiastic
guides, healthy animals and even the entire Irwin family there to share their
love of animals. Steve was as passionate and theatrical in person as he
is on TV, and has quite a following, especially among the tourists. Their
5 year old daughter Bindi was playing with the baby goats in the petting zoo
section, oblivious to the tourists watching her and clearly already has a
way with animals. What a magical environment for a child to grow up in.
Our last 9 days in Australia were spent traveling down the coast
to Sydney. We booked an open ticket on a bus so we could stop where we liked.
After some research on Dale's part, we decided to spend a few days at Byron
Bay and do some scuba diving. This area is a favorite vacation spot for
the locals as well as tourists. It's far enough south that there are no
box jellyfish to worry about and the diving was outstanding with the clearest
water we experienced in Australia. We took a dive boat out to a tiny rock
island and saw many large stingrays, swarms of schooling fish, many multi-colored
nudibranchs, and the visibility was breathtakingly clear. Our dive master
for the day was as impressed as we were and told us that on every dive
he made he was always seeing things he'd never seen before. This was the
kind of discovery we were into.
Our last stop was Sydney, where we rolled into town about 11pm.
We had reservations at the Virgin Backpackers Hostel, which was a primitive
but friendly shelter in the Kings Cross section of the city. In the morning
we had a complimentary cereal breakfast and chatted with some of the young
people staying there. As usual, they were from all over the world, and had
their share of stories to tell. We heard that travel to the eastern islands
of Indonesia (Nusa Tenggara) seemed safe, which was very good to hear. We
had to make a decision about where to travel our last two months in Asia.
The Sydney Aquarium was without a doubt, the most breathtaking aquarium
we have ever seen. Here was a very large platypus display, designed to
turn day into night so all could see this nocturnal animal swimming and
feeding. There were several large tanks with glass tunnels through them
where you could see all types of sharks, rays, turtles and schools of fish,
from the bottom or the top. Small tanks had brilliant reef fish, jellies,
and nudibranchs. It was located on Sydney Harbour, a great central location.
A word of advice, you can skip the Sydney Zoo....
After a few days at the Virgin, we decided to splurge and stay around
the corner at the Kingsview Hotel, complete with a functioning bathtub!
One night we went out to film the colorful nightlife on the street. Two
young men suddenly ran up and demanded our film and camera. We were shocked
and in a split second of analysis decided to say no to them. There were
plenty of people around, and a police station was at the end of the block,
so we held our ground. They came at us, yelling in our faces to give them
the camera and I just stood there and yelled back at them. One man left,
but the other was still at it. I started to get more nervous and Dale was
across the street, so I waited until a slow moving car was about to pass,
and ran across the street just in front of it so this character couldn't
follow me. The yelling and demands continued as a stream of cars passed,
but we popped into our hotel, which brought an end to it all. It was a shocking
experience and I asked the hotel clerk his opinion of what had happened.
He said we were filming in an area where illegal activities were happening
and we no doubt caught them on film. He also said these immigrants were constantly
fighting either the locals or each other. In the safety of our room we watched
our film and sure enough, there were our two would-be muggers coming at us,
yelling. Nothing else looked bad on the film however, so who knows why these
guys wanted our camera.
January 26 was our last day in Sydney and it also happened to be
Australia Day, a day of great national celebration and pride. The city was
packed with people. There was a fear of terrorism, but aside from seeing
an agent filming some Indonesian tourists, thankfully nothing happened. The
journey through eastern Australia was just wonderful, everything we thought
it would be and more.
And so it was on to our next stop, Singapore.