North Queensland - Daintree Barra Farm & Great Barrier Reef
Sep 28, 2008
|North Queensland 8th–28th September
We left Sydney on 8th September, bound for tropical North Queensland. We arrived in Cairns, which is the main town and tourist hub to overcast skies and humid tropical rain.
We asked a local whether he thought it would be wise to visit the Great Barrier Reef in these conditions (we had a trip booked for the following day). “Postpone”, he said unless you fancy spending a few hours being sick over the side! We did.
Cairns was boring and touristy and the rain continued so we went to see The Dark Knight – Batman film, which was ace.
On the second day, we moved up the coast to Port Douglas, travelling through World Heritage (coast and rainforest) scenery – the landscape is very similar to Viti Levu, Fiji.
Port Douglas is a very pretty town and much nicer than Cairns, but as it was still raining during our stay we didn’t get to see much. This was okay, as it only takes a couple of hours to walk around and see the main sites.
We had arranged with Jane of Daintree Barra Farm to be picked up at 4pm from our hostel (Parrotfish Lodge – a beach version of the Pink House).
Jane arrived in a beat-up “ute” (utility truck – Toyota). We squashed into the front with Jane. This thing has no suspension and is noisy as hell. The only road access to the farm is via a very bumpy dirt track, which cuts through the adjoining property - a huge 624 acres with Brahmin cattle. It takes nearly 1/2 an hour to get to Jane’s place once on the track and involves opening a lot of gates on the way.
Jane and her partner Mike own the farm and live here with three dogs (George – hyper active top dog, Kia – old and deaf and Cisco – bottom dog, depressed and bullied by Kia). Plus one ginger female cat called Puddy Woop).
The farm is a 165 acres, bush farm and they have been here for 10 years. They have done nearly all the work by themselves and it is a seemingly never-ending project.
Both are former, self-confessed and very proud of it, hippies. They went on to run the local newspaper (Jane) – sold to Murdoch in later years and become Mayor (Mike) of the local council and well-known environmentalist. Mike was regularly on the radio, chairing conferences and meeting with govt. ministers during our stay.
He has also been arrested for various green protests including the campaign to stop the road being built through the rainforest. This involved people burying themselves in the ground in an attempt to stop the road being built. They lost the battle but as a result pushed through the World Heritage listing for the reef and rainforest to protect what remains.
When they bought the farm all the trees had been taken for logging. They re-planted 15,000 species indigenous to the rainforest. It is a really beautiful setting but very isolated.
The main focus of the farm is fresh-water Barramundi fish and Mangosteens – these are a round fruit, the same size as a mandarin but with a very hard skin like a pomegranate. The flesh is in segments but white like a lychee. They are not in season now so don’t know how they taste but have been told like a lemony lychee. Known as the Queen of Fruit in Asia and in high demand.
They also grow taro fruit, which is a starchy root vegetable popular in South Pacific countries. We have had it for dinner nearly every night and have grown quite fond of it. It is particularly good with a chilli con carne or curry.
The taro was originally planted by their son as a cash crop to go travelling with, but Jane ended up holding the baby when he left early. She went on to accidentally poison some of the patch and it all got a bit neglected after at. Poor Anne (our fellow helper from France who was here a couple of weeks before us) had to weed the taro field, as one of her tasks – and having seen the weeds remaining it must have been a horrible job. Lucky for us we weren’t needed for any weeding!
Our first hard job was to harvest the taro. This is a long process, which starts on Sunday and finishes Thursday when the packed boxes go to market. We were tasked with digging up the taro fruit (300 needed), de-heading (cutting off the big triffid like leaves – Mel’s job) and then loading the Ute. Jane then cleaned them with the power-hose and left them to dry. The next day, we “de-haired” them – a bit of exfoliation and pulling out any stray roots. Very boring, but the i-pod helped! Then they get graded, weighed and packed.
We made a big mistake of starting too late in the day on the harvest and ended up working in the sweltering 30∞ scorching, midday sun. We learnt our lesson, and started at 7am the following Sunday, much better and much more productive.
Daily as dusk falls, our other main task is to feed the fish. There are five dams (big, man-made ponds). Only three of the dams have fish in. We feed two of them; one has smaller fish (approx 1 kilo) and the other bigger ones (3 kilos plus). The smaller ones eat ferociously and are waiting for their pellets, which we throw in using handmade scoops (4 litre plastic milk containers cut in half). James and Anne were the best feed throwers.
We also got to fish for our tea. This was quite a traumatic experience, as the Barramundi didn’t die very quickly after being put into a bucket filled with ice – lots of flapping around. As none of us had ever caught a fish before we didn’t really know what to do. Catching and reeling the fish in was easy. Trying to land it up a steep bank and get the hook out proved very tricky.
Tasted fantastic though after Mike had hot-smoked half and pan-fried the rest.
The other main job was mowing. Jane and Mike have a great ride on mower, which helps! The grass grows really quickly here so needs to be kept in check and there is lots of it! James first go was very successful. This was around the yard with not many obstacles.
Our second mowing challenge was the mangosteen orchard. The priority being to mow around the mangosteen trees so as to stop the grass competing with the tree for water. This is where it went wrong.
Mel managed to break a major limb of what she thought was a mangosteen tree. In her horror and resulting panic, she went on to accidentally reverse the mower into a standpipe for the irrigation system and snapped the hose below ground level. Luckily it transpired that the tree wasn’t a mangosteen just the Bleeding Heart trees planted to provide shade – happens all the time said Jane.
The pipe was fixed in half hour by James and Pete (old friend of Jane and Mike’s on “holiday” here but not getting much relaxing done!)
The next day, we were sent to the Tablelands – a flat area west of here to collect some gypsum to spread on the taro patch – used to alkalise the soil.
It took a round trip of nearly 5 hours to get a ton of it. Pete and James then spread it on the wrong plot of land. Oops. No one mentioned that there were two taro fields, we naturally went to the one that we had been harvesting not knowing there was another field that had been ploughed and waiting for the next crop!
As well as general housework and cooking for the “family”, we have also had some time off to visit Cape Tribulation further north as well as a day trip to the Great Barrier Reef.
Cape Tribulation was named by Capt. J. Cook. He smashed HMS Barque Endeavour into the Barrier Reef just North of here, which was the beginning of a run of bad luck for the poor old soul. There’s also a Mt. Disappointment and Mt. Misery.
He repaired the damage upon discovering the rainforest. The timber industry, (Red Cedar in particular) subsequently plundered the region.
The trip to the Reef was amazing. We booked the trip with Haba, recommended by Jane and Mike. They have a small but well fast catamaran and we sailed with 20 other passengers. The conditions were perfect – sunny skies and 15-20 metre visibility underwater. We hired an underwater digital camera and snorkelled for 2 ish hours at two sites on the Opal Reef. We saw lots of beautiful coral and colourful fish but didn’t manage to find Nemo! But did get a photo, plus lots of our own to share with you!
Incidentally, our hosts/employers/landlords advised the people from Pixar when they researched Finding Nemo.
We made a deal with Jane and Mike that in return for borrowing their car (a Peugeot not the Ute), we would collect their friend Pete from Cairns airport in the evening after the reef trip. James drove back in the dark with no road kill / Roo incidents. The Peug lives across the Daintree River (therefore avoiding the track access). To get back to the farm we had to drive the car over a field in pitch-blackness to the bank of the river and then get in their boat to cross to the North bank of the river and the farm. There is no jetty on the south bank.
Jane was driving the boat but couldn’t find the torch. So as soon as we turned the car headlights off we couldn’t see anything at all. Both James and I fell on our arses down the sandy bank to the little beach where Jane was waiting with the boat. Jane was yelling at us not to linger. “Hurry up” she shouted. “Don’t linger. Imminent crocodile danger”! We hastily scrambled into the boat, loaded Pete’s luggage and made it back without incident. Once on land, Jane told us she had seen red eyes glowing on the beach, but we think it was just Mel’s discarded cigarette! Thank God for Mike who had found the torch and was there to guide us into the farm’s jetty from the other side of the river. We laughed a lot later that evening.
We have also fixed nets for 5000 baby barramundi – this involved fixing holes and sewing cord around the edge to hold the fish in. Unfortunately, about 100 fish died – we think they were eaten by a night Heron.
We also cadged a free ride with a friend of Jane and Mike’s who runs a river cruise. We saw two crocodiles lurking on the riverbank and visited Daintree village where we had lunch of crocodile, barramundi and kangaroo with chips (the potato was a luxury as there is none here only taro!)
On our penultimate day, we went into Mossman – the nearest town with a supermarket and bottle shop (off-licence). We went to pick up our vouchers for the Japanese Rail Pass that we had bought online (the courier won’t deliver any further north) and get some more vino tinto. We also went for a walk around stunning Mossman Gorge, which is a sacred Aboriginal site owned by the Kuku Yalanji with crystal clear swimming holes in a rainforest setting.
We leave Australia on Sunday, 28th September for Japan. Tokyo is going to be a bit of a culture shock after the slow pace and quiet of the farm but we are ready for a change. Australia has been a fantastic experience. We just wish we had longer and more money to explore more of this vast country. We would love to come back one day… “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my”!
Lots of love, Mel and James xxxxx