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Queensland, Australia - part II
October 2023

    Itinerary:
   
Girraween Environmental Lodge and Girraween National Park
    O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat and Lamington National Park
    Michaelmas Cay, Great Barrier Reef
    Cassowary House, Kuranda and Baron Gorge National Park
    Daintree River and Rainforest (boardwalks and Mossman Gorge)
    Sweetwater Lodge, Julatten
    Atheron Tablelands: Lake Eacham, Hasties Swamp, Curtain Fig Tree, Mount Hypipamee, Yungaburra


Synopsis

Back at Brisbane, we took a flight up north to Cairns (pronounced Cans in Australia not Karens).

Another side note: In this day and age of living with the United States' TSA where over 15 years ago, we gave up our rights to wear shoes or carry liquids more than 3 oz while going through security, I was simply stunned when I didn't have to show any form of ID while checking into our domestic AU flight, getting through security, or getting on the plane. I'm not sure how long that will last in Australia, but it's refreshing to know such places where trust and normal humanity still exist.

Cairns and Great Barrier Reef

Flying into Cairns, I could make out the outlines of cayes and shallow reefs paralleling the shoreline in the green-blue ocean. Stepping off the plane in Cairns, we were engulfed in the warmer temperature and humidity of the wet tropics.

After reluctantly submitting to the lack of a sedan at the rental car place, we drove in our MG SUV (that I hated) to our Cairns hotel, which was located on the Esplanade: the boardwalk that runs along the city's waterfront. After checking into our hotel and getting settled, we walked along the Esplanade and were fortunate that the incoming tide was still low. Dozens of shorebirds, wading birds, gulls and terns rested and fed in the mudflats. Most of the shorebirds were Bar-tailed Godwits and Greater Knots, but there were also Curlew and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, a Terek's Sandpiper, and Red-necked Stint in the mix. Australian Terns and Silver Gulls stood with the sandpipers in the rising tides. Little Egret and White-faced Herons probed the shallow waters. Several other birders leaned against the railing snapping away with their telephoto lens, we joined them, but were far outnumbered by tourists just enjoying the sunshine and the water. The large man-made swimming lagoon at the end of the boardwalk was overflowing both with water and tourists.

Cairns was an interesting juxtaposition of UNESCO rainforest, UNESCO coral reef, and hopping tourist town with upscale resorts, fancy restaurants, and bars. After enjoying a lovely meal at one of the waterfront restaurants, we strolled back toward our hotel. An artist rendition of a neon coral reef and aboriginal art illuminated the pathway. The streets became more crowded with tourists closer to the center of the hotels and restaurants. I happened to look up to see a large flying creature against the night sky. My immediate reaction was owl because of the sheer size, but it was flying wrong and shaped wrong. I exclaimed - "a bat!" A friggin huge bat with a meter wingspan was flying only a couple dozen feet above everyone's heads. We continued to see the Spectacled Flying Fox over Cairns and they seemed quite comfortable with the lights and noise of town.

The next morning, we went to the marina for our snorkeling cruise with Seastar Cruises. I chose Seastar because they were a small operation (only 35 people per tour, versus 100 which other cruises do). Also they go to Michaelmas Cay, a protected island for the nesting seabirds. After a 1-hour bumpy, ocean-sprayed ride over open blue water, we were greeted with the sound and smell of the seabirds of Michaelmas Cay. The sandy island was covered with screeching boobies, terns, and noddies. A Green Sea Turtle floated in the waters off the bow of the boat.

Taking the glass bottom boat to shore, we spotted a second Sea Turtle floating in the waves. Underneath the waves, our guide pointed out the various corals of purple, green, and yellow. On the sandy shore, the smell and screeches of seabirds intensified. It would have been nice to have my camera and binoculars while on the island, but they were back at the boat. Those wouldn't do well snorkeling. Terns and noddies sat in the sand, while the boobies guarded their higher status on the grassy hill. A single frigatebird perched on the rope fencing that demarcated the area people were allowed on the beach.

We strapped on our snorkels and fins and floated in the waves over brilliant corals, giant clams, white sand, and colorful fish. Giant sea slugs that looked like sea cucumbers crawled along the sandy bottom. Currents played over the soft corals creating ripples. Visibility started to diminish as the waves churned up sand into the water. We slowly made our way back to the boat and climbed aboard for a fairly decent buffet lunch.

The wind began to pick up even more and the boat took us to our next snorkeling spot - Hastings Reef, which was only a 30 minute wavy ride away. Hastings Reef was completely submerged in the ocean. We could see other tour boats moored a good distance away at their designated snorkeling areas. At our patch of the reef, waves broke over the coral creating spray and foam. The water of the open ocean was much cooler than at the cay. We snorkeled within the buoy-marked bounds of the reef. Large walls composed of rock and coral dropped off to the sandy bottom. Waves dramatically swept over the top of the reef threatening to push us into the 2-3 feet of shallow water and into coral. Sticking to the deep channels, we swam through the narrow channels of soft and hard coral admiring the one meter long giant clams, colorful tangs and parrotfish, staghorn, brain, and plate corals, and clams encrusted in the coral shelves.

Even with the wetsuit and life jacket, we were chilled and tired from the day of snorkeling. We turned into the boat a little early and tried to warm up with tea and snack cakes. The ride back to Cairns was worse with the building winds and waves. It was a long 1.5 hours back and a few people got pretty sick. Dramamine was my saviour.

Encrusted in salt and badly sunburnt (our reef-safe sunscreen was not waterproof, as we learned the hard way), we drove north from Cairns and stopped off for provisions before our next stop:

Cassowary House, Kuranda (and Barron Gorge National Park).

After a windy road up the mountain, we arrived at the Cassowary House early in the evening. Our quaint cottage was tucked in the rainforest above a small creek. In the waning light, we could hear birds high in the canopy and much more bug activity (something we lacked at Girraween and Lamington NP). Brushturkeys strutted around the grounds. From the cottage's small balcony that overlooked the creek and rainforest, we watched the brushturkeys clamber up the branches, making short flights to higher branches, and eventually up in the canopy. Before dawn, we were startled awake to the clatter of the brushturkeys jumping down onto the cottage roof, followed by the scraping and scratching of their claws on corrugated plastic. Talk about a wake up call!

Birding around the cottage revealed a new set of rainforest birds, different cousins from what we encountered at O'Reilly's. Victoria Riflebird, Rufous Shrike-thrush, Dusky Myzomela, Orange-footed Megapode (Scrubfowl), Rose-crowned Fruit-dove, and Macleay's Honeyeater were all seen around the Cassowary House. It was easy to see why this place was popular with the birders.

We drove up through Kuranda National Park on Black Mountain Road, which supposedly has a good chance of seeing the Southern Cassowary. After passing the clearcut section of the forest, we entered the dense vine- and fern-covered rainforest once again. Bar-shouldered, Spotted, and Pacific Emerald Doves flushed from the road upon our approach. A Musky Kangaroo-rat sunned itself on the side of the road, but we didn't see any cassowary. We did see fresh signs of a cassowary however. A large seed laden poop was in the middle of the road, where it wasn't the previous day. At least, we knew they were still in the area. At night, we walked along the road near the cottage. We spotted red-legged pademelons, bandicoots, and a distant white-lipped treefrog.

During our stay at the Cassowary House, we drove over Barron Falls in the Barron Gorge National Park. The falls were a mere trickle compared to what it must be during the rainy season. But it was a lovely hike through the rainforest. Scrubturkeys were busy scratching in the leaf litter and Spotted Catbirds mewed loudly from the dense canopy.

We also walked along the nearby Wrights Lookout Track. The track crossed through rainforest and gum tree forest. Pied, Black-faced, and Spectacled Monarchs fluttered in the canopy in search of grubs and insects. A small troupe of female Victoria's Riflebirds ignored the attention of a male. In the open eucalyptus forest, a male Lovely Fairy-wren displayed its brilliant blue crown and cheeks. The trail dropped down (steeply) to Surprise Creek where crayfish scuttled along the creek bottom, a small Lace Monitor walked along the logs, and Tropical Rockmasters paused long enough for us to admire their brilliant color. The track eventually popped out on a grassy ridge above the Barron Gorge and began to weave between the rainforest edge and under power lines. The track obviously doubled as a service road for the power company. Unfortunately, it didn't make for the most interesting environment and with the growing heat of the day, we decided to turn around.

After our two nights at the Cassowary House, we drove north following the coast to the Daintree Rainforest. Along the way, we stopped at a couple of sandy beaches, which were empty for the most part. At Wonga Beach, Hornbill Friarbird, Double-eyed Fig-Parrot, Metallic Starlings, and Wompoo Fruit-Doves searched the mangroves for fruits. A couple of Pied Oystercatchers flew over the open water and a White-bellied Sea-eagle glided in the clear blue sky.

Daintree Rainforest and Daintree Crocodylus

Farther north, we took the cable-pulley ferry across the Daintree River. After the brief crossing, we drove through the rainforest, which somehow seemed much more lush and green. After a few brief stops at the Mount Alexandra lookout (beautiful!), the Jindalba boardwalk (closed for construction work), and the Ice Cream Factory (good, but what ice cream wouldn't be good on a warm day in the rainforest), we drove out to Cow Bay Beach.

I was taken aback by the loud rock music that immediately assaulted me when stepping out of the car. It wasn't something I was expecting in a pristine rainforest-beach setting. I know Australians have a reputation for partying, but partying in the rainforest was a new one to me. Away from the music and farther down the sandy beach were large boulders of volcanic rock. Molten rock hitting the ocean water eons ago left these interesting patterns in red and gray. Fiddler crabs scampered over the rocks, quickly hiding when we approached. Sand-sifting crabs created patterns on the beach by rolling balls of sand outside of their burrows. Pandanus, umbrella trees, and mangroves lined the beach. Being one of the first easy access points in the Daintree Rainforest, Cow Bay Beach was quite busy with tourists (and a loud party). A group of kids played in the ocean and didn't seem to take heed to the crocodile warning signs as one canonballed into the mangrove-lined lagoon. (Oh, Aussies will be Aussies).

Just down the road from Cow Bay Beach was our lodge for the next couple of nights. We knew Daintree Crocodylus would be our "roughest" rustic accommodation with permanent tents on wooden platforms surrounded by the rainforest. I knew it was going to be basic, but didn't realize there was no reception office or person who would check us in. Rather there was a chalkboard of instructions and a map of the lodge circling which tent was ours. The only staff we saw during our stay were the 2 people working in the cafe during dinner. The dining hall/lounge was a tarp-covered open area with large wooden tables and adjacent to the fenced in pool. Electricity was available during the evenings for a few hours, but there were no outlets available in the tents (with or without private baths). Gravel paths snaked their ways between tents and common areas. Our tent was the farthest from the parking area, but wheelbarrows were available to haul our luggage in.

Using the wheelbarrow to take our luggage to the tent, Tor wheeled behind the service area (the quickest and most direct way to get to the tent), while I put our perishable groceries in the shared kitchen fridge (which I later realized was only on when the electricity was on and therefore wasn't very good at keeping things cold). After I dropped off the groceries, I went to look for Tor near our tent. I found him pushing the empty wheelbarrow from the tent while wearing a mixed look of agitation and excitement. Before I could ask, he blurted out, "I saw a Cassowary. Let's go look for it." I followed him down the gravel path back toward the service area. He explained that he saw 2 cassowaries moving behind the dense forest vegetation as he was pushing our bags. I knew it was a long shot to see if they were still there, but it was worth a look. The "service area" ran behind the kitchen, office, laundry room and other various utility buildings. The service road was gravel lined with discarded items and trash. A small stream ran down an old disused road creating a muddy channel. We walked the old road, pausing to listen and look for any signs of movement in the bushes. The road petered out into the rainforest and an old retention pond, but we didn't see any signs of the giant birds. We began back up the old road, when we both turned around to see a cassowary walk out of the rainforest and on to the road we were on. While we both fumbled with our cameras, I realized the bird continued to walk straight toward us. Those forward facing eyes, big powerful legs, and their reputation for being aggressive (and killing at least one person) were enough to make me abandon any effort to take pictures at that moment. "We should stop taking pictures and move away from it." I muttered to Tor (because speaking loudly might provoke it?). We backed away from the large bird as it continued to approach us. Looking around, we took shelter behind the large buttress root of a tree next to the road. As we stood behind the root, the bird stopped right in front of us and proceeded to drink from the stream. It was an immature bird, without the full head crest, but those sharp claws and big feet were plenty formidable. The young cassowary continued to drink as we took pictures. It seemed to take its time, hopefully not contemplating if it should attack us, before it wandered into the forest and disappeared into the thick foliage. We were both relieved (to still be alive) and giddy to have such a long encounter with the cassowary. The immature cassowary wasn't the one that Tor had seen earlier (he saw full crested adults), so 3 cassowaries behind the lodge was rather magical.

At least the cassowary encounter made up for what the Crocodylus lacked. Perhaps the cheap accomodations in the rainforest attracted a broader crowd: people like us who enjoy the nature and beauty of the rainforest and beach to people who were there to party and screw around (maybe literally). Since there's no insulation with a tent, we could hear everything nearby. The first night was a couple arguing late into the night. Threats to tell the wife about the affair and taunts to a neighbor who kindly asked them to keep their voices down were made. When the fighting couple finally turned in for the night, we awoke to the oddest, loudest cry above our heads. An answering cry came from the distance. But the strange calls continued throughout the night in odd intervals and seemed to surround us. We later learned that these were the calls of the Orange-footed Megapode. The second night both the couple who were having an affair and the megapodes moved off, but were replaced by giggling women who were probably drunk. I was hoping for a more immersive rainforest experience at the Crocodylus, unfortunately the people who were also there during our time were looking for something else.

The food at the dining hall was satisfying and basic: a variety of meals easily prepared in advance and kept in a warm pot on the stove. The grounds around the lodge had some wildlife at night. Aside from the loud megapodes, a few bandicoots rustled around in the leaf litter outside of the tent and maybe a couple of sugar gliders landed in a nearby tree. The trail system was definitely lacking. It might have been a decent trail at one point, but there was no maintenance and was only marked with ribbons in the trees. The overall lodge itself felt a little worn down. The low cost of our stay had me wondering if it was just barely staying afloat enough to stick to the minimum without thought for keeping up appearances. The lodge has been around for decades, but I wonder just how many more it has in it.

In the evenings, we walked the path that paralleled the main road out to Cow Bay Beach. Across the street from the lodge, cows grazed in the field and a small residential area housed locals, b&bs and rentals. We walked down the small residential street, surprised at the diversity of birds we could see more easily in the open habitat. Superb Fruit-dove, Australian Koel, Bush Thick-knee, Rainbow Lorikeet, Leaden Flycatcher, and Green Oriole were found in the trees in the front yards of the houses. Spectacled Flying Foxes flew into the fruiting trees to feed during the waning light. It was impressive to see these large mammals fly with their giant wings.

During our stay in the Daintree Rainforest, we took an early morning guided boat tour of the Daintree River. Our tour companions for the morning were an experienced young Australian birder, a Dutch tourist, and two local women who knew the tour guide. Of all the many tours offered on the Daintree, I chose this one based on it being recommended by many birding sites. It was a smaller boat and it left early in the morning (a good time to see birds). We learned about and saw more than just birds though. Our guide gave us a tour of the ecology of the river and area while pointing out birds along the way. We saw 2 saltwater crocodiles (not limited to saltwater) and 3 common tree snakes who favored hunting (sitting) for frogs in hibiscus trees. A well-camouflaged Papuan Frogmouth stood sentinel on its nest in the mangrove trees. The beauty of the mangrove-lined river was reflected in the calm Daintree waters. The Dutch tourist began asking questions about the saltwater crocodiles in the river (their density, numbers, when to see them, etc) and it was obvious that was the reason he was on the tour. But instead of picking the tour boat that touts nothing but crocodiles, he chose this one. I don't know why, but at least we were happy with the boat tour. The Australian birder was happy when we saw a pair of Spotted Whistling Ducks, a Great-billed Heron, and an Azure Kingfisher.

Back on the north side of the Daintree River, we drove up the road towards Cape Tribulation and stopped at the boardwalk trails along the way. The Madja Boardwalk took us through Australian fan palms, over muddy banks of the mangrove, and through dense rainforest. In the mangrove, we spotted Varied Triller, Australian Figbirds, and another Papuan Frogmouth sitting on its nest. Mudskippers and purple mangrove crabs crawled over the muddy roots of the mangroves. The occasional loud pop of a seed opening pierced the warm tropical air. On the Dubuji Boardwalk, we walked through dense stands of fan palms and tree ferns in a mangrove swamp. A colony of Spectacled Flying Foxes stretched their wings and fanned themselves to stay cool in sunny treetops of eucalyptus. From the short Kulki Boardwalk, we lookout from the rainforest and over mangroves to the white sand beach of Cape Tribulation. A large Lace Monitor scampered through the mangroves on the beach. A White-bellied Sea-eagle snatched a large Spanish Mackerel from the ocean. Returning from Cape Tribulation, we saw an adult cassowary cross the road. As quickly as it appeared, it disappeared into the rainforest. Also along Cape Tribulation Road was the Daintree Ice Cream Company, where we stopped for a taster of sapotille, coconut, passionfruit, and wattleseed ice cream. A great way to cap the day in the Daintree Rainforest, especially refreshing on a hot spring day!

After our stay in Daintree Rainforest, we traveled back south and stopped at Mossman Gorge, which was a Daintree Rainforest lite version for the casual tourist. Mossman Gorge was owned and operated by the local aboriginal people. This destination is popular to both tourists seeking the beauty and experience of the rainforest and locals wanting to swim in the Mossman River. From the visitor center, we took the shuttle up to the trailhead (it is possible to walk along the road, but it is open, hot, and only half of the walk is through rainforest). A new elevated boardwalk took us through the rainforest canopy and along the river. At the river access point, bathers enjoyed the rushing waters of Mossman River (despite the signs warning that the river height was not suitable for swimming). Continuing past the river, we entered the rainforest and took the circular track through the giant fig trees and fern trees. A Black-faced Monarch added moss to its cup nest. Jungle perch swam in the shallows of a crystal clear stream. A feral pig rooted its way in the underbrush.

After stocking up on more provisions at the Woolworth in Mossman, we continued south, turning inland and up to higher ground toward Julatten. With Kingfisher Lodge being fully booked out (even when we checked 8 months in advance!), I picked the nearby Sweetwater Lodge .

Sweetwater Lodge, Julatten

The lodge was situated on the outskirts of town between cow fields, paddocks, patches of eucalyptus forest and the rainforest that stretched up toward Mount Lewis. Compared to Daintree Crocodlyus, the accommodations were on the opposite end. Only 2 units were available on the Sweetwater Lodge vast grounds. The mini-houses had floor to ceiling windows, which overlooked the adjacent gum tree forest. An enclosed outdoor shower (with rainfall shower head) and an outdoor kitchen with dining area were perfect for enjoying the warm weather and beautiful setting. In the late afternoon, we had tea on the patio, while listening to the new birds of the area. Brown and White-checked Honeyeaters, Sahul Sunbirds, and Mistletoebirds dined on the bottlebrush hedges. Kites and Wedge-tailed Eagles glided on thermals. Pale-headed Rosella, Barred Cuckooshrike, and Laughing Kookaburra perched in the tall eucalyptus, while Red-backed and Lovely Fairywrens feed in the flowering hedges. The open forest was a great place to view the birds compared to the dense rainforest.

Primary rainforest (and restored rainforest that the owners had replanted) made up most of the grounds of Sweetwater Lodge. Most of it, however, was inaccessible. A short 1-mile trail (maintenance road) followed the rushing creek up to the nearby town's water supply. The road was once a logging road, but after the intake for the water supply, the old road was taken back by the forest. We had tried to follow the old track, but were quickly discouraged by the many wait-a-while vines (thorny vines that climbing ferns used to cling to trees) across the path.

Also at Sweetwater Lodge was the platypus pond: a widened and slow moving spot in the creek that was a good spot to view the resident platypus. A tin-roofed open-sided cabana complete with mini kitchen, lounge chairs, and bar overlooked the pond. Hopeful to see a platypus, Tor parked himself at the platypus cabana for many hours during the evening and in the morning, hoping to catch a glimpse while I wandered the grounds enjoying the local birds in the open eucalypt forest. One afternoon, we both sat vigil at the platypus pond. The only ripples on the pond were caused by the Yellow-faced and Brown-headed Honeyeaters that would dive head first in the water for a cool bath. After the sun had gone down and the light began to wane, we continued to wait together. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a subtle ripple that quickly disappeared as soon as I could focus on it. The platypus popped up a couple more times, before I could convince myself that it really was a platypus, but it was our first sighting of this odd creature!

At night, we walked the grounds around the lodge. Immediately next to our cabin, the red-legged pademelons grazed on the lawn. In the eucalyptus patches, there was a lot of rustling in the tall grass, likely from a pademelon or bandicoot; it was impossible to see. Walking the rainforest road at night, we spooked a megapode roosting high up in the trees. A Chameleon Gecko tried to evade detection by closing its eyes and turning away from us. Also shy was a Northern Leaf-tailed Gecko that moved around the tree trunk to hide from the beams of our headlamps. Both of these geckos displayed an impressive ability to camouflage themselves. The cool night air was pleasant to walk in compared to the heat of the day. The Milky Way twinkled brilliantly against the dark sky. In the distance, we could hear the megapodes calling from the rainforest.

We had made arrangements with a local guide to take us up Mount Lewis for the day, but the plans fell through and we spent our day at the lodge. During the hot afternoon, we drove down the road making a brief stop at the Abattoir Swamp, which had a bird blind. The swamp was pretty dry in the spring, so there wasn't much to see from the blind. But the nearby bottlebrush trees were full of honeyeaters feeding on the red blossoms. Continuing down the road, we turned inland where the eucalyptus trees were much shorter and more open. Large clay termite mounds dotted the charred forest. Recent wildfires had gone through the area. The eucalyptus forest of Australia depends on the occasional fire, but climate change has increased both the frequency and the intensity. During our road trip, we saw a lot of signs of wildfires as well as several active wildfires, mostly in the distance, but once driving through the thick billowing white smoke. We drove up to Mary Farms Roads to see the Australian Bustards that were known to frequent the area. Sure enough, we saw 4 bustards walking through the fields. One male was displaying in the middle of a field with its tail cocked high and its pendulous neck pouch swinging low over the ground as it strutted through the tall golden grass.

back to part II or onto part III

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