Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Back from Australia, part 3

And now for the final installment of our travelogue. We booked a day tour on the Wavelength snorkeling boat to see the Great Barrier Reef and it was incredible.

We snorkeled at three sites on the outer reef: Ray Ban on middle Opal Reef, Long Bommie on a satellite reef off of Opal Reef, and Turtle Bay on a satellite reef off of Tongue Reef. Ray Ban is warmer and relatively shallow, up to 20 feet deep, so the sandy floor still gets enough sunlight to be a lighter shade of blue. The coral formations there are like an open maze. Long Bommie is a tall, isolated tower of coral in cooler, deeper waters. Snorkelling around it takes about 30-45 minutes and is like surveying a mountain from above. On one side of the bommie, the water is deep enough that you can't see the ocean floor. Turtle Bay has coral mazes intermixed with wide open spaces with a clear view to the ocean floor. Sea turtles like to frequent this area, hence the name.

Snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef was amazing. As I get older, fewer experiences really rekindle my sense of wonder; but this was one of them. It was like flying over a totally foreign three-dimensional landscape brimming with bizarre and colorful life. I had no previous frame of reference for what I was seeing.

It was also a bit scary navigating around the coral formations. Not only can they be injured when touched, but they can also injure you by scratching or stinging. The currents, while gentle, may push you into the coral if you're not attentive. Also, if you're swimming above a wide expanse of flat-topped coral reef close to the surface, there's the possibility (especially at low tide) that the top of the reef may get closer and closer to the surface until the sharp corals are almost right up under your body. You don't want this scraping up against your stomach:

Blue staghorn coral

During the course of the day, we saw lots of colorful coral and fish, sea stars (including a neat blue one), giant clams, a lagoon ray, a sea turtle, and (from the boat) a humpback whale.

One humorous highlight of our tour was the reef ecology presentation during lunch. It was given by the crew's marine biologist, a young woman with a thick New Zealand accent who talked at about 100 miles per hour. I think the content of the talk may have been good, but I only understood about three out of every five words :)

The day after visiting the reef, we drove up the coast in our rental car to the Daintree Rainforest area. Perhaps this is a good time to expound upon the joys of driving in Australia. For starters, you drive on the left side and the driver's seat is on the right side, so...
  • The controls are a mirror image, so whenever you try to signal a turn, you end up turning on the windshield wipers instead.

  • You reach for the gear shift with your right hand...and it's not there. (Do this multiple times for good measure.)

  • You keep drifting to the left edge of the lane because your brain is used to the driver's vantage point being further to the left than it actually is.

  • And even if you're walking, not driving, you keep looking in the wrong direction for oncoming traffic whenever you cross the street.
Also, the lanes on the highways seem narrower. And, roundabouts! We had to get used to negotiating them because they are a lot more common in Australia, used in many places where American road planners would use a four-way intersection or highway exit instead.

Our first stop in the Daintree area was Mossman Gorge, where we went on a guided rainforest walk with a member of the Kuku Yalanji aboriginal tribe through private land on their reservation. We also trekked on the Mossman Gorge walking track at Daintree National Park.

Mossman River Gorge

Rainforest trees often have buttressed roots

Strangler fig vines strangling a tree

Strangler fig vines strangling me

At the end of the track, an ice cream truck awaits in the parking lot, serving up dipped cones garnished with a strange candy bar called Flake to hungry hikers.

Also waiting in the parking lot are the bush turkeys, which look like smaller regular turkeys, but their fan of tail feathers is oriented sideways like a fish's tail (an adaptation that allows them to run through the dense brush). The bush turkeys cast a speculative eye at our ice cream cones as we ate them in the parking lot.

One notable aspect about visiting Daintree National Park (a designated World Heritage Site) is that the rainforest is so strictly protected that the park actually has very few trails, probably no more than a few miles total. However, many private property owners who own nearby land operate walking tours through their property. They seem to do a good job of preserving the rainforest on their land; I'm not sure if this is because of land use regulations, the economic benefits to their tour operations, or some other reason.

The next day was our last in the Daintree area. We walked the Dubuji Boardwalk and saw coastal rainforest, big mangroves, noisy scrub fowl, and a few butterflies. We gawked at bugs, dead and alive, at the Daintree Entomological Museum. We took a detour to the Daintree Ice Cream Company and sampled ice cream flavors made from local tropical fruits: passionfruit, yellow sapote, macadamia nut, and wattle seed. (Golden wattle is a kind of acacia tree endemic to Australia; the ice cream tastes like coffee.)

While driving along the highway, my spouse caught a glimpse of a spectacular electric blue Ulysses Butterfly. They look like this:

All too soon, our trip concluded; we flew from Cairns to Sydney that evening, continuing to San Francisco the next day. And this travelogue concludes with a short lesson in Aussie slang. Everyone in the States knows about "G'day mate" and "barbie", and some may be aware of a few Aussie English usages that fall oddly on the American ear: "petrol" for gas, "lift" for elevator, "car park" for parking lot, "hiring" a car instead of renting it. But here are some especially fun words I added to my vocabulary:
  • "dodgy" - questionable; flaky; sketchy; unreliable; suspect

  • "daggy" - corny, cheesy, tasteless, or unfashionable

  • "yabbies" - small freshwater crayfish endemic to South Eastern Australia (seen on a restaurant menu)

  • ...and my favorite Aussie slang: "budgie smugglers" - a Speedo (it helps to know that a budgie is a small pet bird like a parakeet)
Lots more pics of our trip posted on Flickr!


Anonymous said...

Hi the Mander!
What a great trip! Yes, the Aussies place a very high priority on their natural habitats. They have probably THE most stringent regulations for development and water. I frequently referred back to their regulations when I worked in the wastewater industry and watershed protection!

Anonymous said...

"dodgy" is also in British slang as well. I recall watching an episode of "Inspector Morse" on PBS years ago when Morse's sidekick referred to a hospital's records as being somewhat "dodgy".

It appears as though you had fun "down under."