In 1787, the first fleet left Portsmouth, England with its load of convict passengers bound for what is now called Australia. Captain Arthur Phillip aboard HMS *Sirius* was not taken with Botany Bay and went on to find one of the finest harbours in the world, in which a thousand sail of the line might ride in perfect security the finest harbour in the world, a place now simply called Sydney. Their journey of over eight months contrasts sharply with our direct 15-hour 25-minute Vancouver to Sydney flight, which after a few movies, meals and snoozes deposited us on the other side of the world.
Wed booked the flight, four days stay in Sydney, New South Wales, and had tickets to a performance at the Sydney Opera House, and that was it. The plan was to spend four days in Sydney and then figure out where to go for the remainder of our three-week visit. The land Down Under offers an endless variety of travel experiences but, with the help of a local travel professional, we decided to visit the Great Barrier Reef and then the wet tropical rainforest area.
It was autumn in Australia and although leaves were swirling underfoot, the weather was spring/summer warm to us, and less packed with visitors. Darkness comes by early evening, so we started each day promptly and explored the city by foot, ferry, rail and bus. Hotelled near historic Hyde Park with its Archibald Fountain, mature trees, grand walkways and Art Deco Anzac Memorial our walking routes took us past many notable historic buildings and we gradually became immersed in the essence of the city. First off was a three-hour boat tour of the harbour, with its 254 km of shoreline and 54 sq km of water, to better orient ourselves. Having viewed such destinations as the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the vibrant Darling Harbour area and the Rocks from the water, we set off to visit them by foot making good use of the many walkways, which provide an endlessly changing panorama of stunning views of the city and harbour.
The iconic Sydney Opera House is an obvious must-see destination and we had tickets to a concert on a Sunday afternoon. At intermission, midst a very moving performance of music by Mozart performed by full orchestra and complete with 300-voice choir, we sipped bubbly while standing in the upper lounge overlooking the magnificent harbour. With its historic bridge, myriad sailboats, ferries and other watercraft on sun sparkled water against a backdrop of deep blue sky it was one of those unforgettable magic moments.
No short travel article could do justice to the variety of delights that Sydney offers from the readily available incredible array of international cuisine to the 19th century Queen Victoria Building (QVB). This remarkable site occupies a whole city block, with its centre dome, magnificent stained glass and superb shops, to the 30-hectare Royal Botanic Gardens, which embraces Farm Cove, to its 37 sandy beaches. There’s no lack of information on this clean, modern, historic and fascinating city, though even combined they likely only scratch the surface.
Flying direct from Sydney to Hamilton Island in Queenslands Whitsunday Islands, the temperature notched up a few degrees and now, to us, it was hot summer weather. Beaches, boats, brilliantly coloured birds, palm trees, swimming pools, shuttle buses and wonderful food choices gave us the perfect spot for some R & R. But it was to the Great Barrier Reef that we were drawn, and a full day was needed.
Aboard the FantaSea high-speed catamaran, we cruised through the Whitsunday Islands to the Coral Sea, receiving snorkelling information and scuba experience options, had one-on-one discussions with marine biologists as to what to expect upon arrival and what protocol is required when at the reef and saw filmed footage of the area. But the actual experience surpassed even what we were anticipating after all that orientation. We rode in the semi-sub accompanied by a marine biologist who explained what it was we were seeing, we viewed the scuba diving lesson from the underwater observatory and we indulged in a sumptuous lunch. But, snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef was the best experience.
Not knowing a single soul on the entire continent was a good thing, as we had to clad ourselves in stinger suits before going into the water. These lightweight, form clinging body suits with hoods and mitts offer protection against jelly fish and, in particular, the minute but deadly Irukandji. Looking alarmingly like a lumpy uncooked sausage in an insipidly pale pink number, I joined my aqua-clad husband and, once wed gotten over laughing at appearance we entered the marvellous world of the reef.
We participated in sailing the 60-foot [18.3 m] former racing yacht *Banjo Paterson* a few days later as we headed out to the seven-kilometre white silica sand Whitehaven beach on Whitsunday Island. Unspoiled and quiet, this ribbon of beach with its crystal clear water and lush foliage is considered one of the top 10 beaches in the world. Beyond ideal, it is a place to simply be, wander slowly and marvel.
The marine biologist on board prepared us for more snorkelling at Chalkies Beach with its fringing reef and soft corals (this time in more figure flattering neoprene suits). This is where we hovered over a turtle watching it munch unperturbed on bottom grasses and explored the corals.
Well feed, full of satisfaction at the wonders of this beautiful area and sailing gently back to the mainland, we learned about the real AB Banjo Paterson (1864-1941). He was the famous bush poet who penned Clancy of the Overflow and Waltzing Matilda. His image appears on the Australian $10 bill against the copy protection micro printing background of the words from The Man from Snowy River.
Once on the mainland and in a rental car, we head north to Cairns. Acres of sugar cane, banana plantations, cane train tracks and trucks, and towns rest in heat and humidity seemingly unchanged since the 1950s. Off the main road, we headed into small communities meeting friendly and welcoming people like those in Babinda, Queensland who told us theirs was the wettest town on earth, and to be sure to take the crocodile warnings seriously. We visited lonely beaches and, indeed, the further north we went, the bigger and more detailed beach notices became - crocodile warnings, stinger warnings, and cassowary warnings. We didnt see anyone swimming, but we noticed the stinger nets at popular swim sites, and we never did see the legendary monstrously large cassowary bird.
Sister city to Sidney, B.C., Cairns is the gateway to tropical Queensland and from here we headed into the wet tropical rainforests. An unforgettably long day with our guide Wayne took us into The Daintree and to Cape Tribulation, the only place in the world where the rainforest meets the reef. Meandering up the Daintree River, our guide pointed out crocodiles basking on the mudflats, snakes coiled in tree branches and a baby croc resting on an overhanging branch. A five-metre-long ancient male croc swam eerily along the bank and a later boat reported that he headed to that branch, knocked off the baby croc and then ate it. Thus, we learned a little more about the habits of crocodiles.
Interpretive walks through deeply shaded and densely wooded areas revealed the secrets of the vines, canopies and life within the rainforests. Showing us an idiot fruit, Wayne explains that it comes from an ancient flowering tree native to The Daintree for 120 million years, the Ribbonwood or *Idiospermum Australiense*.
We ended the day hot, sweaty, entranced and humbled at the ancient nature wed experienced at Cape Tribulation, our furthest point north on this trip. Back along the winding coast road, past the magnificent northern beaches, we headed back into Cairns for a day of recovery before making our way to Kuranda, a village in the rainforest 300 metres above sea level.
Taking the seven-and-a-half-kilometre Skyrail gondola journey up over the forest, we could now see the forest canopy we have been viewing from the ground on our tour with Wayne the day before and appreciated it even more. A former hippy refuge, Kuranda is now a tourist haven with shops, restaurants, a birdworld, koala gardens and butterfly sanctuary. We headed away from the hubbub and were rewarded by finding a winding street, which evoked the 1960s and lead us to a drumming circle. A variety of musicians with an array of instruments were engaged in one of their impromptu musical gatherings.
We also found Jimmy Boongar Edwards in his rambling studio eagerly chatting with people about his art and what it represented. Having learned from his grandparents about the bush and his tribal peoples, hes spent most of his life painting the stories that were told to him.
Built for the gold rush, the historic Kuranda Scenic Railway with its heritage carriages took us back to Cairns through the Barron Gorge by way of 15 tunnels, around 93 curves, alongside waterfalls and over bridges.
A flight to Sydney, then another to Vancouver and we arrive amazingly the same time we left (due to the international date line) with a strong hankering to return to Australia. We had, like many of the guidebooks, just scratched the surface of what that great land Down under has to offer.
OCTOBER 2009 SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER ISLAND
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