Sunday, July 20, 2008

a day with the birds (port douglas day 2 of 5)

Today, our second day in Port Douglas, we went to a rather gimmicky but enjoyable little zoo down the road for breakfast. A sumptuous buffet of fresh and dried tropical fruits, baked goods, and heavy British staples allowed us to eat for an hour straight. We wanted to linger, as we were surrounded by rude yet charming dining companions: the zoo’s vast aviary, flying and roosting all around us. Cockatoos, parrots, ducks: you name it, they wanted our breakfast. The silly rainbow lorikeets, the most personable, especially wanted muffins and coffee, while the shy egrets were after the bacon. They were not allowed handouts, but this rule was only loosely enforced. I worried about their nutrition, but they all seemed healthy.

After breakfast, we wandered off into the animal enclosures—and I mean into, as it is another lovely park-like set-up where you wander around fields and swamps and the like with the animals free with you within the large enclosures. Our first stop was the kangaroo and wallaby field. Wallabies are like mini kangaroos, and are rather painfully adorable. We got to feed some of the more adventurous little hoppers, including a mom with a tiny baby (‘joey’) in her pouch. Their little mouths feel rather like rabbits’, and their paws feel like rodents’.

As we wandered out of that field, Petra was accosted by an emu who was VERY interested in making friends with her and her handfuls of remaining food. While a friendly fluffy bird may not sound very intimidating, remember that emus are as tall as Petra, have beaks as big as my hand, can run very fast, and have a look in their eyes at all times that can only be described as psychotic. Petra bore up well under the emu’s attentions, though, and parted from the well-fed bird with all her fingers in tact.

A close relative of the emu was also at this zoo, though it was cordoned off in one of the few areas where visitors are not allowed to wander. The cassowary is a little smaller than the emu, with a brightly coloured head and razor-sharp claws. It’s pretty much a dinosaur’s head and legs stuck onto an emu’s torso. Cassowaries live deep in the rainforest of this part of Queensland, and were originally thought to have died out with the rest of the dinosaurs years ago. While the Aboriginal people of the area knew they were still around (as they were a favourite meal), the birds remained an enigma to white scientists for years. It was quite remarkable to see its lizard-like movement, hear it’s belly-tingling deep thrumming call, and feel the effect of its vicious red-eyed stare. Even its keeper is scared of it—calls it the Psycho Karate Chicken, as it can make gigantic leaps and can kick in any direction. It somehow seemed more threatening than any zoo animal I’ve encountered before. Must be something in the genes: run away from dinosaurs!

Too bad these instincts didn’t extend to little marsh chicken things. There were native wetland birds that looked like guinea hens that a goth had painted (black bodies, blood-red heads, black eyes) running rampant around our feet in the grasses and hummocks of the main enclosure. Unfortunately, my flip-flop(‘thong’)-clad feet strayed too near a nest that one such bird was attempting to build right on the edge of the path. I was pulled harshly from my adoration of the cassowary by a beak sinking into my big toe. I later found out that this particular bird is named Swampy, and has a reputation for being beak-happy and for building inconvenient nests. While I mopped up my bleeding toe, the keepers went off to move his nest again.

The culmination and highlight of the day were the koalas. We were mesmerized by watching a teenaged koala scamper around his sawed-off trees. It was quite the sight, as they hardly ever move. This one must have covered fifteen feet in the twenty minutes we watched him! After this energetic display, we went off to meet with his sister who was working as a model for the afternoon. (Scanned version of touristy photo forthcoming.) Working animals in Australia are unionized, so she had to get her timecard punched at the beginning and end of the photo shoot. By law, as a koala, she is only allowed to work half an hour a day, 3 days a week. Holding her for the photo was fascinating. She was very heavy at 20 lbs (9 kilos), and smelled pleasantly but distinctly of eucalyptus and musk. Her fur was soft, rather like a healthy dog’s, and her paws were hard and rubbery. She was very warm, and clung tightly to my torso, bottom paws on my hip bones and arms on my shoulders. Wonderful.

And there were arboreal kangaroos, too. Yup, you read that right: kangaroos that live in trees. But I’m tired and want to go to bed now, so you can read up on them yourself. :) Sorry. Goodnight.

port douglas (day 1 of 5)

As I’d mentioned, my parents are visiting on their annual trip from the States. They’ve been here almost a month now, and as a special treat took the four of us (me, Erika, and them) up to the coast of the northeastern corner of Australia, Queensland, for a vacation. Going on vacation to Queensland is the Australian equivalent of going to Florida, at least as far as warmth and beaches and the like goes. Queensland is much less populated (by humans) and more creatively hazardous than Florida (vicious crocodiles that put alligators to shame, jellyfish more deadly than man-o-wars, a host of other surprises), and has a pejorative reputation of being a bit of a rural backwater. As a reference point, this was the home turf of Steve Irwin, aka the Crocodile Hunter.

Our flight to Queensland was remarkably pleasant, a quality I attribute to two key factors:
1) The absence of stress and anxiety in the airport security procedures. I kept my shoes on, and none of us even had to show identification until we went to pick up the rental car at the end of the flight. It was an incredibly refreshing experience, and one that reinforced for me how dehumanising and unpleasant the airline security process is at home.
2) The presence of unexpected quantities of chocolate ice cream in transit. Thanks, Qantas!

Queensland’s winter weather is a tropical dream-come-true after grey and windy Melbourne. The heat and sunshine hit me as soon as I stepped off the plane. I could feel my spirits rising with the humidity. My hair swiftly followed, and has now achieved a level of curliness it is unlikely to reach again unless assisted by copious amounts of product.

Queensland so far seems full of delightful – and occasionally scary – animals. We’d scarcely arrived when we passed a mob of wild kangaroos monopolizing a cattle field. Fortunately the cows and kangaroos seem inclined to ignore each other. A bit farther along I spotted an absolutely enormous crocodile snoozing on the bank of a creek. Kookaburras are in abundant evidence, as are a smallish breed of wild fowl* we’ve christened “jungle chicken.” Possums don’t so much go bump as scratch and snuffle in the night, and the raucous screeches from the flocks of flying foxes (i.e. giant bats) echo throughout our neighbourhood. The bats are adorable. They’re nursing their young at the moment, and if you catch them at the right time, you can see the baby bats crawling around in the flowering gum trees, nibbling the blossoms.

From Melbourne we flew to Cairns (pronounced “cans,” like tinned products), which we passed quickly through in favour of more remote destinations. The road wound north past tiny towns, scattered businesses, tourist attractions, resort condominiums and holiday compounds. Despite notably increasing development, however, Queensland remains markedly empty. Mountains coated with rainforests bound seemingly endless sugar cane fields. The cane fields dominate the view as they have historically dominated the economy, though the areas large and growing tourism industry is gaining ground. The road never stays far from the coast, hugging the shore with occasionally unnerving proximity (think Great Ocean Road) and winding past pristine white beaches with turquoise waves and palm trees. Due to the convenient proximity of mountains and beach, this whole area is popular with hang-gliders, paragliders, and the like. We were tickled by the wonderful yellow road signs warning of the dangers that Box Jellyfish (“Marine Stingers”) pose to bathers who venture out of the designated swimming areas at the wrong time of year.

Port Douglas – our destination – is long and skinny. Although only the tip of it is actually strictly peninsular, the whole town feels finger-like because it stretches along the aptly named four-mile beach. The town is full of shops, great restaurants, and quasi-gated resort/spa compounds. Fortunately, the town is big enough that you can sense the existence of people, events, and a community unrelated to (or at least coexistent with) tourism: there is substance to Port Douglas beyond the tourists and the institutions that manage us.

Our holiday apartment was perfect: a fully furnished two-bedroom with a kitchen (so we could cook and avoid eating out every day), tile floors (great for sandy feet!) and a lovely patio. After checking in and getting settled, my parents, Erika, and I headed into town for the tail end of the Sunday market. There was a vendor selling coin purses and wallets made out of cane toad pelts. I kid you not. They were…bizarre. Eyes and legs and all. We also saw a man with two enormous and immaculately white Cockatoos on his head wandering the main street.

We finished off the day with a delicious dinner at a restaurant whose setting is so breathtaking that it’s difficult to describe. To reach Nautilus from the main street, you walk up a steep torch-lined trail through tall, lush rainforest plants and trees. The restaurant itself sits on a series of wide and open wooden platforms framed by more trees and plants. They describe themselves as “the ultimate outdoor dining experience,” and they are. We watched a possum scamper along a palm branch on the edge of the floodlit area while enjoying our perfectly cooked and creatively prepared meal. A capital culmination of our first day on vacation.

Note: the restaurant depicted here is not Nautilis, but another delicious venue, The Living Room, where we celebrated Mum’s birthday on Friday. Also pictured are a few shots of Palm Cove, a town down the coast a bit towards Cairns.

* Our Jungle Chicken is actually called Orange Footed Scrub Fowl, “Megapodius Reinwart”.