Thursday, July 13, 2006

A well needed holiday

Being evacuated from Timor enabled us to have a mostly enjoyable holiday in Tropical Far North Queensland, the Savannah Outback of Queensland and the Northern Territory and Darwin. Neither of us had visited these parts of Australia before so it was educational as well as enjoyable.

I learnt from this experience that holidays are very important; they can and should have a restorative effect on one’s well being. And despite the mostly atrocious weather (rain, rain and more rain) I was very glad that we took the opportunity to explore this part of Australia after landing in a chartered military plane in Townsville. My seven week stay in Australia, after being absent from the country for eleven months, made me realise how easy and pleasant life is for most people, unlike Timor, where life is a daily grind and battle for survival.

The people in Townsville were incredibly friendly and helpful, especially Sol who ran a local Internet café in the CBD. He graciously gave all evacuated AVIs free access to the Internet for as long as we liked. Our surreal week long stay at the Jupiters Townsville Hotel was made easier by the likes of people like Sol and the staff at the hotel who were very accommodating.

We spent a wonderful three days on Magnetic Island and stayed at the YHA in Bungalow Bay near Horseshoe Bay. The weather was sublime and the secluded beaches spectacular. We did a number of walks on the Island and encountered the following animals along the way: allied rock wallaby, koala, green tree snake (which scared me silly), laughing kookaburra, rainbow lorikeet, bush stone-curlew, white bellied sea eagle and brahminy kite to name a few.

We then took a long distance bus to Cairns where we hired a Wicked campervan for three weeks. We spent two nights in a very crowded (with backpackers) Cairns before heading north to the Daintree National Park. Along the way we stayed in the public caravan park on the beach at exclusive Palm Cove (just south of Port Douglas) and Mossman, the cane sugar growing town of the Tropical North, and there it began to rain and did not stop for about ten days straight.

Our home for most of June

The Daintree was absolutely gorgeous; the only tropical rainforest left standing in Australia and justifiably classified as a Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. We stayed at the only National Park campground at Noah Beach for a week and despite the terminal rain, managed to enjoy many walks along the near deserted beaches, and boardwalks that dot the area. I cannot speak highly enough of the Daintree; it is simply stunning. We encountered the following animals: the highly endangered Southern Cassowary and its chick, Australian brush-turkey, orange footed scrub fowl, spotted cat bird, red-capped plover, kingfisher, laughing kookaburra, emerald ground dove, black butcherbird, double-eyed fig-parrot, spectacled flying fox, saw-shelled tortoise, Ulysses blue butterfly, Four o-clock moth, green tree ant, potter wasp nests, damselfly, northern jewelled spider, and one dead feral pig and three live ones to name a few. We were fortunate not to come across the estuarine crocodiles that inhabit the many waterways of the Daintree.

While trapped in the campervan due to the relentless rain outside, I became a little obsessed with these two amorous flies. A little voyeuristic perhaps?

These comic road signs in the Daintree also conveyed a serious message. The endangered Southern Cassowary was threatened not only by destruction of its habitat, but also by people driving cars irresponsibly. Although we were blessed to see one of these magnificent birds, our photos turned out blurry due to taking them from our moving campervan.

Light through a fan palm

A grey and miserable but nevertheless beautiful Cape Tribulation. Just imagine what it looks like on a sunny day!

Estuarine crocodiles live in this river near Cape Tribulation

Upon leaving the Daintree, we spent another night or two in Mossman and headed for the Kingfisher Bird Park on the Atherton Tablelands. The park was replete with a host of different birds but instead of trying to figure out what they were, I merely listened to their melodious calls as I read The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs. This book had such resonance for me having lived for a year in Asia’s poorest nation and I commend it to you.

Next we headed for Mareeba, a big town which claims to have 300 days of sunshine a year. It didn’t disappoint and we finally began to dry out after growing webbed feet in the Daintree. Our reason for staying here was that we wanted to visit the Mareeba Tropical Savannah and Wetland Reserve, a private non-profit reserve for migratory waterbirds. The place was beautiful but just about devoid of birds. Due to the heavy rains brought on by the severe Tropical Cyclone Larry, the birds had yet to arrive but we met a delightful staff member (originally from Melbourne) who told us about the birds that were there: pheasant coucal, willie wagtail, welcome swallow, the majestic black-necked stork (Australia’s only stork), little pied cormorant, great cormorant, green pygmy-goose, comb-crested jacana and the very beautiful and colourful rare Gouldian finch which were being bred in cages for release into the wild. We highly commend the Mareeba Wetlands.

The endangered Gouldian finch which are bred in captivity by the Mareeba Wetlands folk

The Mareeba wetlands replete with water lilies but sans any water birds

The Mareeba wetlands under a different light

Our next destination was Granite Gorge Park which has been privately owned and operated for thirty odd years by Jack, an octogenarian who continues to live in his caravan while his daughter in law “helps” out with the parade of visitors. Again, the weather here was sublime and I was so enamoured by the endangered Mareeba Rock Wallabies and birdlife that we stayed longer than we planned. We encountered many birds but without a reference book to hand I could only name the following: peaceful dove and tawny frog-mouths (photo below). On the way to the Park, we came across the most astonishing sight, a majestic wedge-tailed eagle (Australia’s largest) standing on the side of the road (no doubt it had spotted some road kill).

Our well camouflaged, two resident Tawny frog mouths. Can you spot them?

Foot prints at Granite Gorge

The endangered Mareeba rocky wallaby

Unfortunately our few days of sunshine soon came to an end as we ventured back into the Atherton Tablelands where it had rained every day except for a handful since the cyclone in March. It was so wet, muddy and dreary that my patience soon began to wear. However, we encountered a lovely caravan park host at Lake Eacham, memories of whom I had to extract upon encountering the caravan park host from hell in Millaa Millaa (she was not a happy person as was evidenced by the many rules stuck on paper all over the place along with a strict 10am departure which we flouted and soon encountered her wrath!)

In Malanda, along the river we saw tens of saw-shelled tortoises which we had previously encountered in the Daintree but not in so many numbers. There were babies, juveniles and adults – quite a sight to behold.

Near Millaa Millaa we stopped at the Mungalli Creek Dairy biodynamic farm to partake in some dairy products (we had been eating vegan for most of the trip) as I had discovered their sublime yoghurt in the local supermarkets. They utilise two indigenous fruits to the FNQ area (Davidson’s plum and lemon Aspen) in their yoghurt to great culinary effect.

We had planned on undertaking a number of bush walks in the Wooroonooran National Park but the rain prevented us from doing so. We also discovered a number of the tracks had been closed due to damage sustained during the cyclone. Thus we decided to drive out of the wet and miserable Tablelands and over to Innisfail, the worst affected area to be hit by the cyclone, and stayed a little farther north at Brampton Beach where we again dried ourselves out.

Upon returning to Cairns where we spent a week, we had the most delicious meal at the Red Ochre Grill. It serves up a bevy of native animals and bush foods but we stuck to the vegetarian options and they were incredibly good. It had been such a long time since we had enjoyed a really good meal (Tarazo in Ubud, Bali in January) that we didn’t mind footing the bill (you get what you pay for I reckon). Highly recommended.

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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