Thursday, November 19, 2015

After a brief intermission...

Hi, again.  Did that last post leave anyone hanging? 
In fact, I am still alive and doing quite well.

Above:  My 2011 3-month route.  Note the huge gaps, including all of NSW.  Clearly there's lots more to discover! 

I didn't have the heart to bring my 2011 Oz Blog to a close after returning from my near-circumnavigation of Australia back in 2011.  Actually, I never even finished telling you about my trip!  When I came home, I decided to leave the blog open with the hopes of A) eventually rounding it out with a final chapter and a summary of my favorite things; and B) returning down under to continue my adventures. There were too many things left undone, unseen, un-experienced.  Too many hills and trees never climbed, too many bubbles never blown through snorkel or regulator. On the former hope, I quickly gave up because everything was my favorite thing.  However, at long last, the details of my final leg and last WWOOF experience are below.  As for the latter hope, I'm happy to say that I will be making a come-back in January to explore coastal New South Wales!!  Well, as much as I can in a week.  

Conclusion of Oz Blog: Part 1 (30 April - 12 May)

View Townsville from the top of Castle Rock, with Magnetic Island off shore;  ReefHQ and marina at right

After my trip to Magnetic Island, having cancelled my Sydney itinerary due to illness, I continued with my plan to do one more WWOOF experience outside of nearby Townsville, Queensland.  With only a short time before my pre-set flight out of Melbourne, I hooked up with Russell Kelly and his wife Rachel near Bowling Green Bay National Park.  Russell is the genius behind the popular BYO Guides, including the fully-submersible Coral Finder and Reef Finder field ID guides, and Rachel is a brilliant fisheries scientist.  Together they maintain a Land For Wildlife property just beside the NP.  Living and working on the property involved a whole lot of wildlife, as the name implies.  During the week, I helped out around the property, and I also followed Russell and Rachel around to learn about their careers in marine science: from casual chats with fishermen about new MPA zones to a behind-the-scenes of the documentary studio where teams were editing 3D coral growth simulation animations and proofing the new edition of Coral Finder.

Some animals were very helpful,  like the Wally mom and her Joey who loved to help with laundry (read: play with); and sometimes the Bush Turkeys came out of the bushes to pitch in with trash pick-up!  This Land For Wildlife lived up to its name.  There were wild critters everywhere, pretty much all the time.  The most surprising had to be the Children's Python (yes, that's the snake's actual common name) who we found next to the outdoor shower one night.

As I write this today, I'm nearing the end of my long career as a student.  As I look back over my 2011 Oz Blog, I'm reminded of how grateful I am to have met so many amazing people through WWOOF Australia.  Although I never ended up on a "typical farm" as most WWOOF-ers do, I was inspired by the people I worked with, who have been able to shape their lives and professions around their passions for marine animals and conservation of wildlife and bush habitat.  So, here's one more plug for their enterprises:

Torres Pearls .... Turtlehead Island, Queensland

BYO Guides and GBRMPA .... Townsville, Queensland

Venus Bay Eco Retreat and Parks Victoria .... Venus Bay, Victoria.  After I got home, I received a very special parcel in the mail from them, containing the clip below.

The local paper ran a small spot about some of my experiences and conversations with locals and officials about fishery regulation issues and future management of local shore bird habitat and local stocks of Pipi Clam (Donax deltoides).  Unfortunately, habitat protection and sustainable harvest battles are still underway.

Preparing for Oz Blog: Part 2

Since my return to the US in 2011, I've had some big changes (as I'd hope after ~5 years).  I remained in Monterey Bay to work as a research diver, lab tech, lab manager, and other kinds of science labor for a while to raise some money to support my drastic decision (some would say, I would say insane decision) to go after a PhD.  Yup, you can pick your own adjective to describe those of us who have an extra degree, then want to get an extra, extra degree.  

As if starting an extra graduate degree wouldn't be challenging enough, I moved to the heart of French-speaking Québec, Canada, to do it.  Did I speak a lick of French?  Nope!  Now I'm 70% through my program.  Do I speak French now?  Not really.  My last few years have certainly had some big challenges, but it's been amazing to learn about Canadian and Quebecois cultures and climate, as well as do my dissertation as part of the Canadian Aquatic Invasive Species Network (CAISN).   

Highlights of my first years in Canada include my first snowman/snow-sports/snow-anything, going to the Arctic and seeing the Aurora Borealis, doing field research in 3 different provinces, trying to learn French.  Oh, and I got a cat!

The story of my return to Oz is that I'm finally "living the dream" of getting paid to travel for science!  Well, at least, getting my science-travel paid for, which might not be the same thing, exactly.  But it's close!!  I will give a presentation of my research at an international conference in Sydney, NSW, so of course I inserted some cushion days.  I mean, a small part of my motivation here has to do with the 37-hour commute each way.  And, by the way, Sydney, Australia is one of the most visited cities in the world, for many great reasons.  So yeah. I am determined to get out and about in NSW.  (I was also able to book a full day layover in Hong Kong, woot!!)

With t-minus-2 months, I've got a lot to prepare, and I'm still in phase 1 of fun-time-planning.  Of course, I'm preparing my research for its debut, which will take up most of my time, and I'm slowly making an itinerary for my 7 cushion days in NSW.  So far, I have a huge list of potential things to do, without really knowing what's going to work together, and how to get around.  I'd love your recommendations.  If you've read my blog, you'll know that I'm super-stingy.  I'm on a student budget, but more importantly, I prefer the "luxury" of a hike-in beach picnic or a valuable SCUBA dive trip over any possible hoity-toity, expensive venues or tourist experiences.

Obviously, I have my mask and snorkel ready to pack (they certainly won't get used during Québec's winter), but I've been on the fence about taking camping gear, particularly because I wonder if Summer in the parks near Sydney might be toooo popular for me to reliably find safe campsites each night during my short trip.  Recommendations are wanted on that point. :)

Ta-ta, for now.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Magnetic Island & Townsville

--29 April 2011--

Above:  Rainbow Lorikeets line up and squawk to be hand-fed by visitors at the Bungalow Bay Koala Village campground

And so at last, I write to you from a lovely spot in Townsville, Queensland!  I hope you all are doing well, in health and happiness, and I wonder how many of you are, like me, sitting in front of a television watching the Royal Wedding take place in London.  Along with a couple dozen other travelers and backpackers, I’m relaxing at the hostel’s outdoor patio TV nook, pretending not to take too much interest in the media coverage leading up to the Oscars-like event, complete with Aussie-takes on interviews, behind-the-scenes’, and Red Carpet , only slightly classier than the Oscars.  The evening is quite lovely, really, and I’m so exceedingly glad to be here, laughing along with other “backpacker ambassadors” from around the world over silly British hats and customs and admitting to each other how romantic it all is, in fact.

Below:  Internation audience at Reef Lodge in Townsville tuned in to watch the more bearable parts of the Royal Wedding (29 April 2011)
I had arrived in Townsville much earlier than planned, and upon unusual circumstances.  You see, my grand scheme had included an excursion south, along the eastern Queensland coast to the Whitsunday Islands for more high seas adventures, but the true story is that after my fantastical, magical 5-day dive tour to the Outer Great Barrier Reef, I came down with the most amazing viral cold!  Luckily, it didn’t wipe me out until after our last dive—4 days and 15 hours of diving could tear down anybody’s immune system, I suppose.

Below:  One of two Giant Cuttlefish at Osprey Reef on last week's dive trip.  Before we realized it, we had stumbled between 2 cuttlefish in some sort of colorful conversation..I’m sure they were trying to signal for us to get the heck out of their way! (Photo by JM Burck)
I was therefore required to endure Cairns for just a little time longer.  Even before I regained my “land legs”, the virus had forced me to hunker down at a hostel, where I stayed as long as I could endure.  After a couple of days, not only was my convalescence was well underway; I was also entirely disenchanted by the city sounds and surrounds.  Time for relocation!

So I grabbed some meds from the Chemist and jumped on the Greyhound Bus to Townsville.  Luckily this particular bus was not nearly as crowded as “The Bus to Hell” I experienced in WA (see Exmouth blog entry), lasted merely 5 hours, and included some onboard entertainment—“What a Girl Wants” isn’t exactly my cup o’ tea, but who could deny the cinematic talents of Colin Firth, especially when feeling sniffly and cramped on a bus?!  In no time, the bus pulled up in Townsville, and we were quickly herded off and through the terminal office.  Before I knew it, I was settling down to a seat in the air-conditioned cabin of the SunFerry, bound for Magnetic Island.

Magnetic Island is a short leap off the coast of Townsville—seriously, not 15 minutes after I sat down and listened halfheartedly to the lifejacket safety briefing, we were docking into Nelly Bay and residents, visitors, and holiday-makers were filing out of the vessel.  In a feat of tourism efficiency, we were all herded from the Ferry terminal to our respective island busses.  A total time of 45 minutes elapsed between my stepping off the bus in Townsville and my having my camping site set up at Bungalow Bay Koala Village on Magnetic Island; this not only demonstrates the proximity of Maggie Is. to Townsville, but also the extent to which this area was prepared to handle the Australian Spring Break crowd.  That’s right, in my quest for peace, quiet, and recuperation, I had been lead into the midst of a Spring Break “destination”.  Ooops. 

I visited MI at a special time, and this was a special year, as I came to understand.  I arrived 21 April, and around the Easter holidays was ANZAC Day, which celebrates the accomplishments and sacrifices of Australian and New Zealander troops and officers in all wars.  That’s a lot of celebration and memorial for just one day!!  Therefore, the holiday is taken pretty seriously, and I had a rather confusing set of days spent on Magnetic Island.  Half of the time, the streets, pubs, and parks were filled with college kids and families, running about with beer and cheer; the other half, every business was closed and I found myself alone on the trails!  I felt like I missed a very important series of memo’s!  Nevertheless, the island hiking trails and secluded bays were not the less enchanting for the bad timing.  On my first evening, I took a hike to one of the historical fort sites and lookouts for an absolutely splendid sunset.  The girl at the reception had indicated to me that the “walk” was an easy stroll and a couple stone step-ways, perfect for a sunset wine-picnic.  The hike itself proved to be just that—except that I had to walk a sweaty 1.5km uphill just to get to the trailhead…in flip-flops and a DRESS!  I felt ridiculous—once again, I had missed the proverbial memo—but it paid off, and who could be grumpy with one’s own private sunset picnic, looking out over Australia, high above the Magnetic Island tropical paradise?!

Above:  Sunset on the Forts trail, overlooking Florence Bay.  "Quick Stroll" my ass!  Below:  Balding Bay, with the beach on the far right, “Whale Rock” in the center across the water, and a second jumping cliff on the far left.  What a fun day!
 Camping seemed to be exactly the tranquil medicine that I needed to recover from illness, and each day I spent there I felt healthier and more energetic.  I spent an entire magnificent day at the secluded Balding Bay, where I balanced relaxation with swimming and watching wildlife.  I had the whole morning to myself there—not a single other hiker, jet-skiier, or yachtie approached the bay until 11am, so I enjoyed the pristine coast alone, with the exception of a visit from an inquisitive Green Sea Turtle, who came up for breath only 10 feet from my rocky perch!  In the afternoon, visitors trickled into the tiny bay—strenuous hikes filtered out most of the common holiday-makers—and I was soon joined by a family of seven, who’s entire intent upon visiting Balding Bay was to leap off the abrupt stone cliffs.  Indeed, among the adrenaline-seekers, Balding is well-known as a destination for easily-accessible cliff jumping!  The family was primarily comprised of children aged 8 to 15, so I naturally joined them, happy to have found some companions at my identical maturity level!  We happily spent the afternoon exploring the edges of the bay, where cryptic ocre-inscribed arrows indicated the plunging-points at the tops of the cliffs.  The best one was “Whale Rock”, which, if viewed from across the bay, looks just like a happy Sperm Whale…with a marine scientist jumping off its forehead!!!  The rocks at Balding Bay offer some delicious 3-second free-fall jumps (although they don’t look so high in these photos, somehow) into wide, deep-ish sandy basins, so I recommend this activity only for the superiorly adventurous…or the childish! ;)

Below:  My marine reptilian visitor, Balding Bay
Over the next few days, I mainly concentrated on getting healthy whilst refraining from passing on my cold to others.  This made enjoying Easter holidays in a social manner quite impossible, but at least I managed to enjoy the holiday in my own peculiar way.  On Easter Sunday, the Bungalow Bay Koala Sanctuary offered a Sunday Brunch, so I “congregated” amongst other visitors over a “Bush Breakfast”, complete with Aussie Bush Guide/Host and native wildlife!  After our first pass at the meat-lovers’ buffet, the guide walked around with various Australian animals and a lively commentary on evolution, conservation, and anthropology.  As you can imagine, I had a thoroughly entertaining Easter morning!!  A bit more exciting than sitting in church, eh?!  First Course:  the Estuarine Crocodile (the “saltie”).  Although just a yearling, the female croc was a pretty rambunctious photo-companion!  However, the Carpet Python that he passed around was more affectionate—indeed, a little too clingy for my tastes (especially when the guide gave her to me then completely walked away to tend to his breakfast!)
Above:  Florence Bay Lookout, where I saw a Wobbegong Shark plus lots of great shallow coral within snorkeling range!.  Below:  Bungalow Bay wildlife.  These were my campsite neighbors for the week. 
Above:  Our true-blue Aussie Bush guide lectures about the pleasures and dangers of the Australian pet trade while introducing us to a female Carpet Python; then he hands her off to me and leaves to finish his breakfast.  Um….are we done here?!

Right:  Next up, the Estuarine Crocodile, also known as the “Saltie”.  This one is just a wee babe.

 My Easter wasn’t all meat and predators, though!  After finishing up my “bush toast” and “bush bacon”, etc., we ventured through the sanctuary to meet the more cuddly animals, including the 5 koala’s, echidna, and black and white cockatoos.  I was impressed and exceedingly entertained by the guide’s relationship with his koala-in-care.  Namely, that he didn’t make a very good case for his claim of temperamental koala’s, as he swung the indifferent animal back and forth during his lecture.  Although Koalas seem cute and sleepy and stoned—whatever word you want to use—they have been known to do some major claw-damage to unsuspecting human visitors; so much so that the Queensland Government has instilled a law that Koalas can only “work” 120 hours per week, so that they don’t become “disruptive”—apparently after being passed back and forth every day for multiple photo-ops, these animals can get extremely distempered and relate their emotion by clawing and scratching.  Yikes!  I definitely agree with these employment stipulations!!  Since my tour group consisted of over 20 people, I decided to opt out of the koala-holding photo-op, as you can imagine! 

Above:  the sanctuary guide shows us how to be a koala’s tree, but the koala is still half-asleep and doesn’t seem to notice either way!  Below:  a bit of a snack, then back to sleep!

 I was perfectly contented, however, with engaging the attentions of the resident Black Cockatoo.  I LOVE THESE BIRDS!!  I don’t consider myself a bird-lover, mind you, and before arriving in Australia, I had never even heard of a black cockatoo.  These are by no means RARE birds; however, throughout the course of my travels around the country, I have had so, so many NEAR-sightings of this bird—whether a distant call, or a near-miss fly-over—that by this time, I was absolutely dying to meet this amazing bird!  The live up to 70 years (so…not such a good idea for a pet, eh?) and while their brains are pea-sized and they don’t have the silly-word-learning capabilities of their white cockatoo relatives, they are equally as raucous and wonderfully convivial…and they can dance (see video below!);)

Above and Right:  I love black cockatoos and this one loves me too! …or maybe he is just trained to nab sunflower seeds like, I take what I can get ;)   But he sure can dance!

Below:  An echidna joins us for Sunday Brunch….he’s not QUITE the Easter Bunny we were expecting!

On Tuesday I traversed the rest of the Island—well, the parts that were accessible by foot, anyway—tramping away the sniffles on over 40 miles of trails and beaches.  Horseshoe Bay, Arcadia, Nelly Bay, Picnic Bay, and numerous outlooks were all along my daylong routes.  After all the exercise, my cold was nearly well disappeared and I was able to enjoy the sun and forests of the island, as well as some of beaches, boutiques and pie shops!

 Right:  I snapped a quick pick of one of the Nelly Bay 'nudie' beaches as I hurried along the busy holiday road; 

Right: Picnic Bay stinger-free swimming enclosure.  It seems that people like swimming here even though this is one of the ONLY 2 beaches on the island that still gets stingers!!  Every other bay has filled with water too cold for dangerous jellies, but people still want to swim at THIS ONE, with Townsville in the background and the yellow-capped lifeguards nearby.

 When the holiday crowds had finally departed the camp grounds, I too found that I was healed, healthy, and ready to set forth from the blissful island towards the mainland once again.  By the way, am I the only one who feels a serious sense of accomplishment when recovering from a non-threatening illness overseas?  Given my history of travel misadventures when I’ve been sick overseas, I was incredibly pleased to be healed and healthy after a completely ‘eventless’ illness!  I therefore excitedly booked yet another dive trip!  This time, to visit the World War II wreck, ‘SS Yongala’, rated one of the best wreck dives in the world!  Because of the remote accessibility, this site is only accessed by a few companies, only 3x per week.

Above:  Mmmm, award-winning Australian Meat Pie (Mango Chicken!!), just the thing to keep my all-day hiking/wandering going strong!!  Below:  More bays and lookouts, this one is Horseshoe Bay, as viewed from near the top of the island

I was so excited to get back underwater after my island retreat that on Wednesday (27 April) I arose before dawn to pack up my campsite and head across the island to catch the dive vessel in Nelly Bay.  However, after all the fuss and arrangement, and after waiting for over an hour at the docks, the company called to tell me that the dive had been cancelled!  It seemed that no miraculous healing on my part could control or contain the whims of the Coral Sea, and that this sea had decided to disrupt Northern Queensland with sub-torrential winds and rain for the week to come.
Above:  NOT the dive vessel I had hoped for, but the SunFerry, a zippy 20-min cruise between Townsville and Magnetic Island

Well, I had already packed up my stuff and gotten this far, right?  So I held back my salty tears and boarded the passenger ferry instead, which took me back to Townsville on the mainland Oz.  And this is where I have been for the last few days, mostly bumming around The Sweatshop cafe to mooch free wi-fi, while sipping my 4-hour-cold cappuccino and peering at local artists and fashionistas as they negotiated over art and gossiped about the latest happenings at the “Australian Model Search” which has been taking place down the street this week.  Completely un-captivating, I thought.  

 Above:  Townsville CBD and Castle Hill in the background.  Kinda an odd place, but I think I like it here :)
Below:  Reef HQ Aquarium diver and green sea turtle

I much preferred visiting the nearby museum and Reef HQ Aquarium—plenty of the beautiful people were in there, too 8-].  Besides the other aquarium visitors, though, I was incredibly impressed with the Reef HQ!  Although it is only 1/4th the size of our beloved Monterey Bay Aquarium, it is jam-packed with fantastic exhibits, including a huge living coral reef—complete with freshwater sawfish, tawny nurse shark, sea turtles, several leopard sharks, and heaps of fish and inverts!  Plus, I got to go behind-the-scenes to visit their sea turtle hospital—which works much like Monterey Bay’s marine mammal stranding/rescue network—and met many of the rescued turtles that had been saved from the ill fates produced by ocean plastics, fishing gear, and boat-strikes.  The rest of my days in town have consisted of more hiking and walking-about, plus watching the local Rugby League club tournaments at the Townsville sports complex.  Even after my Sunset-Beach rugby intro last year, I still had no idea what was going on for most of these games, but it was entirely entertaining, nonetheless!
 Above:  just one of the ”beautiful people” showing off the latest Aussie helmet fashion trends!!  Below:  Reef HQ Living Indoor Coral Reef it’s hard to tell in this photo that this is just a huge tank and is only a few years old!!

  Above:  Townsville’s  Reef HQ Aquarium.  Yes, that is a giant [reproduction of an] orb spider....luckily Queensland's humongous orb spiders don't get QUITE so huge!  Also, a Leopard Shark and Chocolate-Dip Chromis inside the aquarium.  Below:  The HAWKFISHES of the Great Barrier Reef!

Above:  the creepy Hall-O-Helmets in the Museum of Tropical Queensland…it was like walking through an exhibit of Doctor Who villains!  The exhibit traced the very lively history of helmet-divers, and my favorite, I think, was the pressure-dented pearl-diver helmet, bottom right.  Below:  I got bored after watching most of the royal wedding and walked around (with my favorite/free SkyTrans cap, haha).

As I end this post, "Kate The Commoner” is exiting West Minister Abbey as Princess of Wales and we are honored to endure a live cacophony of trumpets and bells in her honor.  “Last night she slept in a hote, tonight she’ll sleep in a palace”.  Oh, geeze.  I'm about as amused as Her Royal Easter Egg, and it's Friday night, so I'm outta here!!!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Diggin’ the “Spirit of Freedom”

 (14-18 April 2011)

Port Douglas was an ideal place to relax for a few days after my Daintree tour, but it was time to move onto my next adventure!  Sorry there are so few photos of the lovely Pt. Dougie (see end of previous post), but I simply couldn’t be bothered for some reason to take more than 2 pics. ;)

On Thursday (14 April) I humbly hopped onto the public bus from Port Douglas and then majestically stepped off at the VIP red-carpeted private tarmac, where I would begin my most glorious 5-day dive trip.  Wait a sec, a DIVE trip that starts at the airport?!  Yes, indeed, that’s how I roll, y’all!!...apparently. ;)  Four other passengers and I boarded the small aircraft, which flew us north over the GBR and Queensland coast to Lizard Island, where we met up with our dive vessel, the “Spirit of Freedom.”

This dive vessel was tricked out in every respect to make it comfortable for all the wonderful folks who actually paid full price for the trip ;)  Sun deck, dive deck, full kitchen and dining room, lounge, satellite phone, ID guides… basically: It all!!

The rest is history!  The trip schedule was as follows: wake up, [eat, nap, dive] x 4, sleep, repeat.  Check out my Picasa album for the photos taken by the SOF crew and divemasters.  The slideshow is below, but if it doesn't appear/work, click here to go to the online album).

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Tourist in Cairns: Rainforest to Reef

(8-13 April 2011)

Left:  Cairns (pronounced “cans”) CBD and marina.

Name anything fun.  Now go to the Cairns tourism web pages and you can bet you’ll find at least 6 tour companies offering all-inclusive this’s and special-discount that’s which will guarantee that you do your fun thing along with a dozen other confused fun-seekers.  In the whirlwind of fliers, pamphlets, and neon posters that plaster the city (and which, I begin to suspect, may actually have structural importance to the buildings and streets themselves) it is quite necessary to be on one’s guard at all times—or rather, on guard of one’s holiday budget.  Just imagine a city with more tourist offices  than gas stations, banks, and grocery stores; perhaps even combined.  The whole economy is set up to lure visitors and reel in the cash.  Of course, there certainly ARE some amazing things to do and see in northern Queensland, and despite this flurry of tour offers, I found Cairns a convenient base, if only in small doses.  And even if I won’t admit that I was taken in by the tour-mania, the facts show that I partook in THREE tours out of that city of temptation.  And I enjoyed every second of each!! 

Right:  cruising out of the Cairns marina, 7am.

When I returned from the Torres Strait on Friday (8 April), I had only to spend one evening in the CBD before making a quick escape to the Marina early on Saturday morning, to join up with the crew of the Rum Runner for our 2-day dive trip out to the Great Barrier Reef!  As we motor-sailed away (not sure what exactly to call it) I was very pleased to see the harbor and city fade away towards the horizon.  Pleased to be out of the city, yes; but on that day, I did a LOT of watching the horizon.  Friday and Saturday had some pretty big swell, and I learned first-hand that the “Great Barrier” only takes care of so much ocean energy, and that big winds inside the reef can stir up some very uncomfortable sea and stomach churnings!  Luckily, skipper and chef Jase didn’t take offense at me losing his delightfully prepared lunch!

Above:  This is how happy I am to leave Cairns, and before we hit the high winds aboard the Rum Runner!  All of my dive equip... ya never know when you'll need 10 pairs of fins that don't fit! ;)

After 3 hours of “finding my sea legs”, we arrived at Michaelmas Cay and I was ever so ready to get off the rocking boat and into the water!  Unfortunately the Coral Sea conditions had forced many other tour vessels to take refuge in the relatively sheltered waters off Michaelmas Cay, so there were a good 80 people already splashing about when we arrived.  Most of the people, however, were snorkelers and beach-goers, and their vessels vacated OUR reef by the afternoon.  After that, the reef was ours for the exploring!  The cay is comprised of a small, crescent-shaped sandy island, surrounded by shallow coral reefs.  Its remote position and scant vegetation means that it is home to thousands of seabirds.  I wish I had time to get a better look at them, but I was busy not getting pooped on while gearing up and getting to the water!

Above:  Michaelmas Cay Seabird Sanctuary.  If you can't tell that it's a bird sanctuary by the looks of it, the noise and smell were quite convincing.  Below:  Dozens of seabird species co-habit this tiny sandy refuge, many have been blown here from across the Coral Sea!  I think they are as excited as I am this afternoon when all the day-trip boats departed.

 As the only scuba diver onboard, I had my pick of dive sites and times, conditions permitting.  Actually, we had a very tiny group of passengers—just 4 of us, and 4 crew!  I guess the icky conditions weeded out everybody but the die-hard adventurers (or those with tight schedules).  Accompanied by as many crew as could be spared for some fun, I did a few 7-12m dives right near the mooring, and a couple on either end of the cay.  The visibility was horrible for GBR standards, but pretty darn great by my California standards!  And I the coral was still just as stunningly beautiful as on any clear day.  Highlights include heaps of green sea turtles and black-tip reef sharks, giant Tridacna clams and lots of Dr. Seuss-ian Sea Whip corals.  On the last dive at Michaelmas, we nearly met face-to-barb with a bull ray, about 2m in diameter.  Ok, maybe just ONE drawback of low visibility, those gigantic deadly stingrays.  Luckily, we were able to take a wide detour before it took much notice of us.  The night dive was less than spectacular, but it was still a night dive, woo!  At one point, we did cover our lights so that we could play around with the bioluminescent plankton, like underwater sparklers!

Above:  Sunset over the Coral Sea/GBR!  And gigantic Frigate Birds (spp?) hover above the boat in the wind.  Below:  A somewhat soggy map of Michaelmas cay and dive Saturday's dive sites (Sunday on Upolu Cay, no pics) 

On Sunday morning we pulled anchor and set sail for Upolu Reef, which had no sand cay, but was still a fantastic dive.  Again, viz was crap, but the fishes and corals were crazy enough for my pleasure!  At this point, my perception of the GBR was that it was surprisingly tame!  Nothing had yet jumped out to attack me!  No jelly stings, no sunburn…was I in the right place?!  My Rum Runner trip was simply good times and good dives on a somewhat rough sea.

Above:  Our awesome Rum Runner crew and 3 fabulous guests!!  Below:  The saltwater has gone to my head..and Jase pretends not to notice my nonsense.

We docked in Cairns again on Sunday, I decided to get a more complete view of north Queensland, and visited the nearest tour office (the hostel lobby, naturally) and filled my week with “Experiences of a Lifetime”….on standby rates. ;)  This quest continued with a day of Native Fun with a couple Aboriginal tribes people. 

Now, I’m not entirely sure how to describe this kind of tour without hearing the tourism agent chiming in my head, so forgive me if I wind up sounding like her.  Whatever I say, you are in no way legally obliged to book this tour!  (although I recommend it if you go to Cairns, Haha.)  The “Daintree Dreaming” was what I considered my second really touristy activity since I’ve been in the country.  As I’ve mentioned, I have been trying to do my own thing when possible, and a bus full of roudy tourists/backpackers gives me a serious case of no-thank-you-very-much.

Right:  That’s no Batman Signal, the Flying Foxes take over Cairns every night at dusk!

 Above:  Rainforest-covered mountains nearly dwarfed by the surrounding sugar-cane covered landscape.  Below:  Because of all of the new development in Far North Queensland, wallaby populations are being squished into tiny pieces of habitat, shared by domestic animals.  A sad and dangerous fate for this species.
But it seems that to “see” the Daintree rainforest, however, the “all-inclusive” day tour seemed the way to go.  Again, I had to spend a couple measly nights on the outskirts of Cairns, but we hit the road early in the morning.  After breakfast, we met up with an ambassador of the Kuku Yalanji (the regional group of Traditional Owners), who took us to the beach at Mossman to teach us about the native plants and animals.  I had no idea that you could eat Beach Almonds, (very common on beaches throughout the tropics and a favorite snack of squirrels and monkeys in Costa Rica) and that they are quite tasty!  After our “gatherer” portion of the morning, it was time to become hunters!  We each got a nice, sharp reed spear (you got to love a tour that allows children to play with real weapons!) and we hit the beach to wade through the shallows on the hunt for mud crabs and fishes.  The knee-deep coastal waters just outside the mangrove forests were shallow yet muddy, so fish were identified as ripples in the water and crabs as either moving shadows on the bottom, or as a painful pinch on the toe!  The guide assured us that there were no crocs (but I suspected that info was a crock of another sort) as we lost sight of our bare feet in the muck.  

Above:  Wading in the dark waters at Mossman Beach hunting mud crabs, I couldn't help but take in this amazing landscape.  Far North QLD is simply splendid!   

Left:  Brandon (Kuku Yalanji) brandishes his spear, which has already impaled several large mud crabs, while I stumble around with my own spear.

After several frustrating attempts at spearing what turned out in most cases to be sunken leaves, by the end of the morning I had finally nabbed a crab!  I was thrilled until I brought it out of the water and observed its pathetic writhing.  Hmm, I guess I’m less a hunter, more a gatherer. ;)  He also took us—again, barefoot—into the mangrove thickets to find “mud mussels”, Nerita and Mudwhelk snails.  After our bucket was filled with muddy, slithery creatures, we headed back to his own house where his wife and mother cleaned and cooked our critters for morning tea.  Everyone in the group was pretty stoked to eat the crab and mussels, of course, but I think I was one of the few who were as excited about devouring the Nerita snails, with which I had been familiarized in Cabo Blanco. ;)

 Right:  Aaarrrggh!  Heather the Huntress!  The battle was epic, as you can tell by the tiny flailing crab and my enormous smile. ;)  All that's left of the mud crabs and Nerita snails we collected, a lovely complement to lunch!  

We had lunch and a hike into the Daintree World Heritage rainforest to a nice swimming hole (also reputedly croc-free) then met up with a local artist in Daintree to learn about aboriginal painting and art.  The best part of this (especially with my love of crafts) was that after a gallery tour and lecture, we got to paint our own Burnie Bean!  So, the “story” behind the burnie bean is that it is a transportable medium for pictures and notes, like a notepad…or a text messege, if you throw it at somebody!  But the real fun of this large nut is that it is a favorite “game” of children (and, admittedly, adults) to rub the nut on the ground to build up friction and heat, then BURN your buddy with it (hence the name).  What a great game!

 Right:  I enjoy some natural massage therapy!!  Daintree National Park/ World Heritage Rainforest

Observe, the Burnie Bean... becomes a momento to my hunting/gathering success! (after substantial direction by actual aboriginal traditional artists)


After the tour, instead of bumming around Cairns again after this spectacular adventure, I hopped off the bus in the small classy town of Port Douglas, where I camped for cheap across the street from fancy-shmancy golf resorts.  Sweet.  I have to say that Dougie’s Backpacker Resort was the best accommodation I’ve had in all my travels in Oz.  I loved my tiny quiet rainforest campsite property with lots of hammocks and a nice distance from the bustling tourist district, but just across the street from a spectacular beach!  Aah, I thought, I shall do well here. : )

 Above:  Shmancy yachties at the Port Douglas marina ...contrasted with my tropical escape camping paradise at Dougie's...I wonder if the Yabbo's know that they don't have to pay so much for paradise?? (below) and Basket and Staghorn Ferns adorn many of the rainforest trees near the edges of the streams