It was something of the end of an era as we pulled into Cairns at 6:30am in the morning. This was to be our last Greyhound coach journey of our time away (The bus driver by the way was again classicially entertaining as he announced dryly upon boarding that there was to be "No smoking, no drinking and no drugs.... pretty bloody dull eh?"). However, the fact that we'd been on the bus for over 10 hours overnight, meant that we were not really in the frame of mind to mark this momentous occasion and were far more concerned with finding the bed waiting for us at a nearby hostel. Eventually, the hostel bus pulled up and deposited us at our lodgings, where we flumped into bed and caught up on some much needed shut eye.
One thing we had noticed when we pulled up was the preponderance of early morning mosquitos (and lack of any manner of fly nets on the room windows) buzzing around the area. This was sufficiently off putting to give us pause for thought on whether we wished to spend the entire week here. A few phone calls later - we were also informed that the hostel was near a storm drain... hence the volume of insects - and we'd found ourselves alternate lodgings elsewhere (with en-suite, TV and fridge!) for 5 nights of our stay in the northern tropical city.
When we'd eventually peeled ourselves up out of bed, we headed off for a gentle stroll along the sea front. Now it must be said that the Cairns beaches (certainly the one we saw) are not the finest, and had more of an open mud-flat and mangrove swamp feel. Nontheless, we were aware that the city possessed a wonderful man made safe swimming lagoon, and had already planned to spend copious amounts of time there instead. This was just as well really, as whilst we were ambling along the promenade, we noticed a large yellow warning sign ahead. Naturally assuming that it was another of the stinger signs we'd seen so many of during our travels up the coast, we didn't really pay it any mind, until we got closer. It appears that the hazards in the northern tropical waters are rather larger. This was no jellyfish warning sign, but one for the large crocodiles that are known to frequent the local beach (no more than a few scant feet away from a shiny newly built waterfront kiddies playground, which we found a touch perturbing). No chance we were going anywhere near the seawater now! In fact, later in the week, we noticed in a local rag that the crocs were actually proving to be quite the thorn in the locals side at the moment as it was "Rutting" season, and the beaches were crawling with large, over amorous scaly piles of toothy hormones... consider us forewarned.
Cairns itself proved to be an emminently pleasurable town to wander around, despite the in your face nature of the tourism industry. We frequently had to change our course to dodge around the a-frame advertisments littering the pavement outside almost every shop - all of which were promising to beat any price on any tour to seemingly anywhere. It seems in Cairns, everyone is a travel agent.
That evening, we visited the locally famous Woolshed pub, which is renowned as quite the backpacker haunt. The chief reason being just about every hostel in town gives their guests "Free meal" vouchers for the Woolshed, allowing them to take their pick of such culinary delights as Chilli-con-carne or Spaghetti Bolognaise (with the option to "upgrade" ones meal to something from the proper menu for a discounted price). The serving system itself was incredibly odd, as streams of backpackers queued out into the street clutching their meal vouchers before handing them over to a check out girl on the door and picking their subsequent feed up at a nearby hatch inside. It all felt distinctly like a soup-kitchen. We were not to be deterred though, and Dunc in fact had already decided to upgrade his meal to a T-Bone steak for the princly sum of $6 (about $2.50). This was probably just as well as when we picked up our orders, Dunc was given a visual treat of a gargantuan lump of beef dominating a plate filled with mash and veggies, whilst Vickie had to make do with a slightly less (but free) Kingly feed of a meagre portion of pasta.
Once we'd shifted ourstuff to our new accomodation down the road, we agreed that we were going to be much more comfy here, and were doubly chuffed to discover that it was directly over the road from the aforementioned swimming lagoon. Feeling good about life, we made our way down to reception to book the one obligatory Cairns activity, a trip out to the Great Barrier Reef. Now ordinarily this would be a slightly cagy and mundane experience but fortunately for us, our receptionist was a hugely entertaining local lad - with unmatching eye colours no less. He seemed highly knowledgable about the area, and informed us proudly that "I've lived here for over 7 years skinning crocs for a living". We backed slowly a couple of feet away from the desk. He also treated us to such un pc exclamations as "We need to remind those Japs who won world war two" - a roundabout reference to the preponderance of asian tourists on one particular day trip - and "It sounds really gay but its actually quite good" - when recommending the nearby Butterfly sanctuary to us. We were sold, and walked away grinning with a reef diving trip and rental car for exploration later in the week.
A couple of lazy days sunning ourselves in the scorching tropical heat followed and soon enough, our great barrier reef trip came around. Vickie had been slightly uncertain as to whether she would be able to dive suffering as she does with any changes in air pressure. Unfortunately this was borne out when the dive instructor recommended that she didn't dive if she suffered ear ache on planes, as she could hurt herself on the 10m deep dive. Not to worry, there was still (supposedly jelly fish free) snorkelling to enjoy (plus we got a partial refund on the ticket price).
The 2 hour trip out to the reef was on the choppy side which fortunately wasn't a problem for us hardy ginger biscuit-eating, boat-going sea dogs. Others were not as lucky though, and before too long, a handful of people had turned transparent and launched their breakfasts into the little onboard sick bags. It all got a bit fragrant below decks, so we headed straight to the top deck to get away from the unpleasantness. In fact some of these poor saps were due to be on an overnight diving trip with another boat that we were due to unload them onto on our way out. In fact, once we'd met up with said other boat and disgorged the overnighters, there was only about 10 of us left on the boat. Not too shabby considering that many of the other day trips pile about 100 or so people into the water at once.
Dunc was still due to have an intro dive with the instructor, so eagerly kitted up once we'd picked our dive spot on Thetford Reef and moored up. Loaded up with scuba tank, mask, flippers and weights, he hit the water with gusto. And nearly landed right on top of a jellyfish. The reef waters, it seems, aren't quite as jelly free as we were led to believe (In fact, we found out that another boat actually stalled not long before due to its engine getting clogged up with jelly fish carcasses). He wasn't going to let this deter him though, and before long, was drifting around confidently 20-30 feet below the surface, wrestling with a tempremantal underwater camera and generally having a rare old time. Vickie meanwhile, was struggling a little. She was now a much more confident snorkeller and, if not having completely conquered her Jelly fish anxieties, had certainly learnt to put it to one side. However, the other girls left on board were either lying flat and still trying not to throw up anymore, or hanging off the side of the boat, refusing to let go and swim anywhere because they thought there were sharks or other deadly critters in the water. It was no small measure of just how much more comfortable Vickie had become as a snorkeller as instead of hanging off the boat with the others, she was actually getting quite irritated with their uselessness and the fact that it was limiting the amount of time she could spend out on the reef. She did manage to go out for an explore on her own, and managed to dodge the plentiful jellyfish to make it out to the reef for a bit of a lookaround, but all in all, it was too brief an adventure.
These unfortunate factors led to a very chipper Dunc resurfacing to be greeted by a thoroughly sulky Vickie, who was grumping and grumbling about the fact that it was money wasted and why did we bother coming. This foul mood, combined with the fact that there seemed to be more wildlife and better coral near the surface than deeper down, led Dunc to decline the offer of a second afternoon dive, and instead go snorkelling with Vickie to allow us both some decent water time. A brief lunch and location change later, and it was back into the drink with us. We spent a simply brilliant 50 minutes or so drifting around, pointing and grunting into our snorkels with amazement at the multitude of creatures going about their daily lives in the multicoloured coral below. It wasn't quite the spectacle that the Whitsundays had offered up, but seemed to contain its own sense of grandeur and was nevertheless completely absorbing. By this time, Vickie had helped Dunc to get the underwater camera working, and he was frantically snapping away at whatever piqued their interest.
On the way back to the boat, we noticed a hulking figure drifting around near the propeller. Although it wasn't a shark (mores the pity), it turned out to be a large 1m long "Jack" which bore a striking resemblance to a small, toothy tuna. We stared in amazement at this sinister looking fish as he skulked around nearby, and briefly panicked when he appeared to lunge directly at our feet (It was actually going for some food nearby, but it got awful close!). As we returned to the deck, we understood exactly why this chunky fellow had popped up to say hello when the crew began to lob some leftover titbits over the side for him, giving us a great surface view as he greedily tucked into the handouts. No two ways about it, the great barrier reef is definitely a wonder of the world.
Another day spent lounging at the lagoon followed, before we picked up our hire car (an amusingly diminutive Daihatsu that was more like a corgi toy than an actual mode of transport) and headed up into the nearby Atherton Tablelands. Said to be northern Queenslands "natural air conditioner", the tablelands were a verdant and lush green locale, filled chock full with regrowth rainforest interspersed by local agriculture and small, pretty towns. First stop was Kuranda and the scenic Barron Gorge waterfall. Although initially sceptical and unenthusiastic as we meandered along the pathway to it - waterfall snobs that we are - we were actually highly impressed when we rounded a corner into a clearing and saw it fully. A torrent of water hurried down a craggy gorge and the whole area had a feeling of wilderness not unlike Venezuela. The light drizzle was probably helping the atmosphere to be fair. We stayed for a while, making surprised noises at each other, and commenting on how impressive it was. Next up was the previously mentioned "Gay but quite good" Butterfly sanctuary. This was an activity that Vickie in particular was rather keen to partake in, and sure enough, as we opened the doors into the main enclosure, she erupted into several "ooohs" and "so pretty(s)". Dunc meanwhile was wrestling with the video camera and the annoying tendancies of the bird sized insects to flutter off behind a tree just as he was trying to focus on them.
A brief but wholly unsatisfactory lunch of warm and squashed home made cheese sandwhiches later, we dragged our rumbling bellies towards the small village of Yungaburra. On the way we stopped at a rather unique sight, the curtain fig tree. This spectacular tree is actually a woody parasite, that had grown huge over the years by feasting on two large pine trees. As pests go, we had to agree that it made for quite a sight, and spent a while strolling around it and the nearby rainforest boardwalks (all the while keeping a beady eye out for tree kangaroos and, unsurprisingly, not seeing a single one). As we pulled into Yunguburra itself and were debating our next course of action - Vickie at this juncture pointed at the map and commented childishly that a lot of local place names seemed to be "something knob", before giggling into her can of sprite - over a soft drink and some crisps, the heavens opened. And stayed open for the remainder of the day. Rainforest was never a truer term.
During the afternoon, we stopped at a number of beautiful (if slightly soggy) sights, including a couple of huge crater lakes and some slightly disappointing waterfalls. We had also spotted a place called Paronella park on the map. Paronella park is actually a restored 100 year old spanish castle, built by a nobleman for his betrothed, right before she promptly buggered off back to Spain, the poor sod. We drove 40 minutes out of our way to get there, only to swiftly do an about turn in the car park when we realised that it cost a whopping $26 each just to get through the gates. On the plus side, the drive took us through some sprawling suger cane, banana, mango and pawpaw plantations which gave us a real sense of the size of the industry and the exotic crops grown here. We arrived back, exhausted and famished after such a long day. We both agreed that we'd had a really healthy week on the eating front, and promptly capitulated completely by pigging out at a nearby McDonalds. Cant win 'em all.
The following day, it was time for us to saddle up and head off into central australia and the geographical and spiritual heart of the country, Uluru.
Alice Springs/Ayers rock
Dropping the car back in Cairns proved to be a little less straightforward that we'd have liked when the chap on the desk refused to acknowledge that they'd promised us a courtesy lift to the airport upon returning the car. It was only with some insistant stubbornness from Dunc that he relented and handed us our bond back (Which Dunc mangled into several dozen tiny pieces), reluctantly telling us to wait in reception for a bit. 5 minutes later, the man returned looking slightly sheepish and asking what we'd done with the bond cheque he'd given us - evidently he'd been looking at the wrong rental contract when he'd argued about the lift, so Dunc had actually ripped up someone elses bond. Dunc stifled a grin and casually gestured towards the bin where it lay, pretty much disintigrated. The mans face sunk and he apologised before swiftly arranging our airport lift for us. That'll learn him!
The prospect of a 47(!) hour coach trip from Cairns to Alice springs really didn't appeal, so we decided to fly there instead (flying in fact proving to be almost $100 each cheaper anyway). Boarding the plane, there was a brief panic when what appeared to be smoke began billowing out from the air conditioning units overhead. The cabin crew must have noted our concerned faces as they announced over the tannoy that this was just caused by nothing more mundane than the humidity in the air outside. We sighed in collective relief and got comfy for the flight. As we cruised over the Australian mainland, we began to get a real sense for the emptiness of the place as the landscape slowly changed from bright green, to brown, then to bright red as the outback began to take hold. Every so often, rivers and creeks intertwined across the flat expanses, leading Vickie to sagely observe that it seemed fitting that this area was known as the heart of Australia when it apparently had veins running through it.
It became immediately obvious to us that we'd arrived somewhere a bit warm when a wall of heat struck us the second we departed the plane. We sweatily made our way across town to our hostel, and checked in before hitting the pool as soon as we could to cool down a touch. The heat itself was actually noticably dryer than in Cairns, which meant that we were drying off and heating up pretty much the second we got out of the water. This was definitely an SPF30+ part of the world. That evening, we signed up for a town tour with the hostel owner, an impossibly theatrical and animated chap called "Mulga" for the bargin price of $2 (including a complimentary beer at sunset!). We were ferried around the central graveyard to be shown some of Alices more famous residents, the flying doctor museum, given a history of how Alice springs came to being at the local telegraph station before finally settling on the sombre war memorial atop Anzac hill for a beer to watch the sun go down over the west MacDonnell mountain range. Strikingly good value for $2 we felt.
When our alarm went off at the ungodly hour of 5:30am the following morning, we reluctantly peeled ourselves out of bed and sleepily shuffled to meet up with the people from Emu Run, who were conducting our day tour to Ayers Rock (whose real name is actually Uluru) and the Olgas (Kata-Tujta). We met up with our guides for the day, a pair of typically weather beaten and rough round the edges northern territorians called Peter and Jack. Peter in fact bore a striking resemblance to "Wally" of Crocodile Dundee fame (right down to the khaki shorts and knee high socks). As we pulled out of town, we were informed that we were embarking on the longest day trip in Australia and possibly the world and that by the time we were finished tonight, we would have covered a distance greater than 1100kms (Or London to Edinburgh and back again to put it into context).
We watched a magical sunrise en route and were just quietly enjoying the view when the driver ruined the mood slightly by embarking on a lengthy and graphic description of how the coach toilets work, which took some of the moment away. The arrow straight road cut a path through the barren desert, stretching unflinchingly off into the horizon and showing us just how far we were going to be travelling today. There are apparently no speed limits in large stretches of the Northern Territory roads, which didn't seem to stop our driver from pootling along at a rather pedestrian pace. A brief stop at a local roadhouse and we trundled into Ayers Rock resort some 5 hours later. Sidling around the local visitor information centre gave us both a sense of the history of Uluru and Kata-Tujta, and the ever present commercialism surrounding development of the area. Fortunately, it wasn't long before we left and headed out into the national park itself.
Kata-Tujta was our first stop, and we couldn't help but remark at the size of this gargantuan rock formation rapidly filling our view, especially when contrasted with the unyeilding flatness of the surrounding area. We disembarked from the coach, and quickly placed our recently purcased overhead "Flynets" on to cover our head-holes from the local insectoids. Within 5 steps we were convinced that these were possibly the smartest purchases we'd made since arriving in Oz as the flies swarmed all over us in a frantic attempt to get into any orifice that presented itself. Other people gesticulated wildly to vainly try and get rid of them, but we strode on purposefully (and it must be said, slightly smugly) on our 2km walk to see the rocks up close. The texture of the rock was akin to the worlds largest toffee crisp and the bright red surface was frequently interspersed with bright green plantlife and even the occasional babbling creek. It was certainly more fertile than either of us were expecting, and this just seemed to enhance the contrast between the pockets of life, and the barren-ness of the rock surrounding it. This was indeed most different to the humid tropics we'd just arrived from.
With that, we reboarded the coach and headed off to the national park cultural centre where we would have the opportunity to learn a bit more of the aborigional way of life. This handed us the first of a few rather deep questions that we would spend the rest of our time here asking regarding the history and nobility of the aborigional race. Having read up on some of the history of the area before our arrival, we were a little skeptical as to the message being given to us in the bright and shiny presentation boards. The land has supposedly been ceded back to the local aborigonal community, yet they can't stop tourists from climbing their sacred rock. The local Australians meanwhile seem resentful of the money going into and apparently being squandered by the local aborigiony community who "Don't understand what to do with it". While all this is going on, whole aborigional families sit in clusters on the streets of Alice springs, all seemingly without purpose. Apparently aborigional teenagers (particularly boys) are dying in droves by sniffing petrol. Alchol abuse seems commonplace, and the vast gulf between their own culture and the prevailing western one seems like an insurmountable obsticale to peaceful existance. It was all rather sobering and not unlike our Venezuelan experience with the Warao people. As we left, Dunc rather cynically remarked that if the cultural centre and surrounding land was so sacred that we weren't allowed to take pictures of any kind, then why was it apparently not sacred enough to stop us having tacky expensive souveniers forced down our throat at every opportunity?
Leaving the cultural centre with far more questions than answers, we headed off to the main reason for our journey, Uluru. We were both, to be honest, rather cynical as to exactly what we were going to see here but as we pulled up closer to Uluru, we had to concede that it was actually quite a sight to behold. Its vast bulk loomed imposingly out at us, and there was a palpable air of venerability surrounding it. Peter and Jack took us on a couple of small guided walks around the rock, where we learnt more about some of the aborigional legends behind the different formations, caves and springs. It was all very fascinating, and the rock overall was not only much larger, but a much more involving and interesting experience than either of us had imagined previously (all this despite the fact that it would be dwarfed if placed next to any of the tepuys we saw in Venezuela). One of our guides commented that he had made the trip alone to the rock once, and got a palpable aura of spirituality from it. Standing there absorbing the sights, we were inclined to believe him.
We had deliberately booked the trip on valentines day to give us something to really remember in years to come. The chief reason we booked with Emu Run was also the promise of a champagne barbeque watching sunset over the rock. This was an exciting prospect, and our spirits were in no sense dented when it turned out that the champagne wasn't champagne at all, but sparking wine (it was Hardys though, not goon, so it was ok). We took our seats with some of the plentiful wine and a very tasty barbie dinner, and began to feel quite decadant as we watched the sun sink off in the distance. The rock slowly changed colour from dull red, to bright orange, to an almost burgandy shade as the sun set. We toasted a happy valentines day, and felt like we'd experienced something very special that would stay with us forever.
After treating ourselves to a lie in after such a long and tiring previous day, we stepped out into the scorching 40 degree heat (at 10 in the morning!) and wandered into the Alice springs town centre to catch a bus to our chosen destination, the school of the air. On our way we walked past the now all too familiar sight of groups of dishevelled and destitute aborigional people drinking and sprawled across the pavements. Fortunately, the school itself was a rather more encouraging endorsment as to the positivity of community. It was origionally set up to enable schooling for children in some of the remotest parts of australia and is now responsible for a geographical area larger than the whole of britain. We were greeted enthusiastically at the door by a classic teacher sort who, as Dunc commented, clearly "'Was' her job", before being shown around the broadcasting studios where lessons were conducted from. There was actually a lesson in progress and we stood transfixed as the teacher conversed with her year two pupils, some of whom were as far away as 1000km from the studio. The children interacted via video+audio conferencing and instant "chatroom style" messaging. It was a entralling experience and we spent a very happy hour there taking it all in and marvelling at the will that it must take to achieve something on this scale.
We filled the rest of the day lounging by the pool, discussing the huge social contrasts we had seen during the past few days and wondering what would become of the people of this remote little town - be they Aborigione or White - in the future. The next adventure awaiting us was a mammoth 20 hour train journey to Australias southern coast on "The Legendary Ghan".