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Travel

Located in Australia’s northeast, Queensland is known as the Sunshine State and looks out into the Coral Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The state, capitalled in Brisbane, was named after Queen Victoria in 1859 and is home to six World Heritage-listed preservation sites — fossils at Riversleigh, Gondwana Rainforests, Fraser Island, Great Barrier Reef, Lamington National Park and the Wet Tropics. Of course, when I first read this, all that registered were three magic words — Great. Barrier. Reef. I was already packing my bags!

Bats and biscuits

It was a painfully early morning flight from Sydney (called a red-eye for good reason) that brought me to Cairns, the northernmost big city of Queensland. Human population: around 1.5lakh. Bat population (in the city centre): over 3,000.

“You’ll hear them before you see them,” I was assured by Charlie, who picked me up from the airport, put me in a merry mood by insisting I looked years younger than my age and dropped me off at the wrong hotel, all in 20 minutes flat.

“Madder than cut snakes.” I couldn’t help but recall Bill Bryson’s words on Queenslanders in his hilarious travel book Down Under. But within seconds, Charlie was back, dripping apologies and the sweetest of smiles.

Dropping off my bags at the Hilton Cairns Hotel, located on the waterfront of the pretty Trinity Inlet, I reached Cairns Station to board the Kuranda Scenic Railway.

The Cairns-Kuranda Railway was constructed between 1882 and 1891, during the gold rush. It’s an engineering marvel that saw hundreds of men cut 15 tunnels by hand, in addition to building 37 bridges. The journey up lasted about one hour 45 minutes, through dense rainforests, steep ravines and beautiful waterfalls that run into the Barron River.

There were cool drinks and refreshments on the train. My favourite was the large Anzac biscuit. Just like the railway, this uneven disc of oats, coconut, butter and golden syrup is steeped in history. It was first made by the wives and mothers of soldiers serving in the Australian and New Zealand Army during World War I because it kept fresh for longer than ordinary cookies.

The train dropped me off at Kuranda, a charming little village in the rainforest. In the one hour that I spent walking around, before stopping for lunch at the curiously named Kuranda Hotel Motel, I saw a total of two cars and three human beings, not counting a handful of fellow tourists. Small it may be, but Kuranda is a great place to shop and soon enough I was the happy owner of beaded jewellery, a T-shirt and a quirky watch that I was sure wouldn’t last me the month!

The return to Cairns turned out to be another adventure, on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. It offers sweeping views of the rich green canopy of the world’s oldest continually surviving rainforest. The 7.5km ride has two stops, where forest rangers take tourists on guided boardwalks, pointing out unique ferns and plants and trees hundreds of years old, including the tallest Kauri pines.

Up in the air

I woke up at 3.30am (okay, mom woke me up with an ISD call) and was ready in time for my 4am pick-up. I was going hot-air ballooning above the Atherton Tablelands, located an hour from Cairns.

Heart thumping as much from excitement as anxiety at being airborne in a wicker basket, I followed the safety instructions with a keen ear. It was uncomfortably hot inside the basket, thanks to the giant flame just above our heads that powers the balloon. But the basket was so big and so sturdy that my fears soon evaporated. The lift-off was quite uneventful, the basket merely glided up and up and I didn’t even realise just how high we were till our pilot, Steve, tapped me on the shoulder to point out a kangaroo scampering into a bush. That large animal was just about as big as a rabbit!

Touchdown was loads of fun, because the pilot uses the weight of the passengers to bring the balloon down. The wicker basket tipped over — it is supposed to — and there I was, hanging a few inches above the ground, holding on to the safety handles for dear life and laughing my head off with a bunch of strangers.

The skies conquered, it was time to rule the ground beneath.

After breakfast, I arrived at Blazing Saddles Adventures, a farm that offers adventure sports like horse riding and biking. My itinerary said ATV or all-terrain vehicles. Ahem.

I scurried ahead to warn the instructor that I had never ridden a bicycle before, let alone a motorbike. Anyone, he said, can ride an ATV. So, strapping on a helmet and slipping into knee-high rubber boots, I mounted my red ATV. One hand controls the brakes, the other hand fires the accelerator. The instructor started the engine and with the flick of my wrist, vroom, off I went straight... into a muddy ditch!

A helper dragged out my vehicle and off I went again. Soon I gained total control over my wheels and discovered this latent need for speed within.

Wisdom gained: There’ s nothing like powering your own wheels! Driving school, here I come.

Wild night out

The day ended at Cairns Night Zoo. First up was a very Aussie dinner of barbecued meats, rounded off with a Pavlova. That’s a meringue-based sweet surrender that’ll play a ballet with your taste buds. Quite fittingly, it was first created in honour of the Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova, possibly when she visited Australia-New Zealand in the 1920s. [Psst: Though Pavlova can easily be termed Australia’s national dessert, it was first created in New Zealand!]

Dinner done, we grabbed a flashlight each and stepped into the zoo area, in total darkness. Walking under tall trees, with the buzz of night insects in my ear and animal smells all around me, it felt more like walking through Harry Potter’s Forbidden Forest. All the animals, like dingoes (wild dogs), koalas, crocodiles, bandicoots, owls, wombats, deadly snakes and other reptiles were in secure enclosures but the darkness made everything eerie and goosebumpy.

Cairns Zoo is one of the very few places in Australia where visitors can hold a koala and get their picture clicked, for an extra fee. When I held Kayla the koala for my photo op, she felt like a big soft toy, with a thumping heart.

After our explorations, we gathered in an open area for billy tea and damper bread — bush food of the Aboriginals, who were the island’s original inhabitants before Europeans colonised it. The tea was a refreshing brew of eucalyptus, so named because it’s boiled in a little bucket called a “billy”. And as we munched on our sticky damper, who should come calling but a “mob” of kangaroos. We were given dried cereal to feed them and the roos (that’s what the Aussies call their national animal fondly) seemed more comfortable with us than we were with them!

Finding Nemo

It was D-day, or should I say GBR-day! The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system with over 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands, stretching for more than 2,600km over an area of 344,400sq km. That’s nearly four times the size of West Bengal!

The GBR can be seen from outer space and is composed of billions of tiny organisms called coral polyps. Personally, the reef was simply the most stunningly beautiful thing I had seen. EVER!

Large luxury boats operated by various tour companies take tourists out to the reef. I was booked with Great Adventures, which leaves from the Reef Fleet Terminal at Cairns. The journey to a mid-ocean platform took 45 minutes.

ighting on the platform stationed on the Outer Reef, first I got into a full-body wetsuit, to protect against stinging jellyfish. One can enjoy the reef through a number of activities, including snorkelling, underwater scooter, seawalking, diving, helicopter trip and a ride in a glass semi-submersible. One piece of advice was constantly repeated: DO NOT stand on the reef, it will get damaged.

While everyone around me was grabbing goggles and fins and merrily jumping into the blue waters, drawing upon my superior swimming skills, I opted for a snorkelling guide. I was assigned the unsuspecting Desdemond.

Here’s the thing. You may be the champ of your club swimming pool but the Pacific Ocean is, um, slightly bigger. The moment I realised I was swimming in the middle of the ocean — repeat, middle of the ocean — I yelped, spluttered and generally made an ass of myself. “You are wearing a life jacket, you will NOT drown,” Desdemond was polite but firm.

Snorkelling is all about not breathing through your nose, forming a lip seal around a tube and breathing through a tiny partition of your lips into the tube that stays above water. Sounds simple but try not breathing through your nose and then we’ll talk. I almost gave up.

But I really wanted to swim with the fishes. So, remembering Archimedes and Hrithik Roshan (in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara), I tried once more. And the moment I relaxed my body and submerged my face in the water, I was so transfixed by the sheer beauty of the reef and its many residents that I forgot to be scared.

More than 1,500 species of fish live on the reef, other than whales, dolphins, porpoises, sea turtles, sea snakes, sharks, stingrays, skates, chimaera, molluscs, clams, sea horses... Desdemond and I crossed beautiful reef structures, colourful corals and schools of the most brilliantly coloured fish, including a massive but gentle Maori wrasse. I could identify the zebra fish, the striped surgeon fish and cute little Nemo or clownfish. We came upon hundreds of transparent jellyfish called moonlight jellyfish. These don’t sting and I was allowed to touch them. Below us stood a giant clam that slammed itself shut as soon as our fins came close. Desdemond dived to the bottom and brought up a sea cucumber, which is actually an animal. I was in a daze. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be able to witness such beauty. It brought tears to my eyes. Or maybe it was the saltwater!

Even as I marvelled at the sights I just saw, I found myself onboard a helicopter, enjoying an aerial view of the reef. The polyps cannot grow above water, so what you see from above is the vast expanse of the reef and an impressive array of blue-green, the ocean changing colour at varying depths.

That night, I dreamt of Ariel, the Disney mermaid.

Cassowary and croc

Tropical North Queensland is billed as the place “where the rainforest meets the reef.” Having explored the best that nature could possibly offer (the reef, I mean) I was initially a little dismissive of the Daintree Rainforest, about two hours out of Cairns. Soon I stood corrected, and completely awed.

Spread across 2,600sq km, the Daintree is the largest tropical rainforest in Australia, much of it a World Heritage Site listed under Unesco. It’s home to primitive flora and endemic fauna that boggle the mind and soothe the eye in equal measure. Beautiful ferns, giant trees, poisonous plants, the Daintree has them all! Add to that reptiles and insects, butterflies and birds, exotic animals like the tree kangaroo and echidna and more.

Our guide was Harold, a member of the Kuku Yalanji indigenous tribe, and he was full of terrible jokes and delightful trivia about the forest. We were particularly fascinated by his tales of the cassowary. This is a large flightless bird, a cross between an emu and a turkey in appearance, and native to the tropical forests of Australia and New Guinea. They play a crucial role in the forest by swallowing fruits whole and spreading the seeds with their droppings. And they make the best husbands, second only to the sea horse. It’s the male cassowary that hatches the eggs and rears the young. The male sea horse, of course, goes a step further and gets pregnant!

Harold explained how the cassowary can be an extremely dangerous creature, especially if he has chicks with him. “A cassowary has a dagger-like claw running five inches long that can rip apart your stomach in seconds,” Harold declared, adding that he had seen a cassowary at the exact spot where we were standing, just a month back. Gulp.

“So, if we see a cassowary now, what will you do?” Ethel from England wanted to know, eyeing Harold’s slim walking stick. “I’ll climb up the nearest tree and ask you to climb the next one, not mine,” came Harold’s reply. None of us were completely sure if it was one of his jokes. We all stuck together for the rest of the walkabout.

Next, we boarded a little boat and went looking for crocodiles on the Daintree river. Tropical North Queensland is croc territory alright, home to 23 salt-water and fresh-water species. Every river, pond or billabong sports a yellow danger sign, warning people not to swim in these croc-infested waters. Strangely, people still do, and frequently get eaten. People even get crocodiles in their backyard swimming pools here. Yikes!

From the boat, we saw a baby croc sunning itself on a rock and the snout of a five-foot male, christened Scarface by local residents. I didn’t know which I felt more — the thrill or the chill.

t2 travel guide

Getting there: Qantas, Virgin and Jetstar are the popular carriers connecting Cairns to cities like Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane. Try www.zuji.com.au and www.flightcentre.com.au for bookings.
From the airport: Shuttle buses, taxis and rental cars are available.
Staying: Cairns and Port Douglas together boast of over 400 hotels, from backpacker hostels to luxury resorts.
Eating out: Loads of options. Ochre, Dundees and Charlie’s seafood buffet dinner at Acacia Court Hotel are famous. For a drink or three, head to Gilligan’s.
Best time to visit: May-Sept (winter).
Trip tip: The activities are great fun but they don’t come cheap. Plan ahead, watch out for family deals and lean-season prices.

Other places of interest

Port Douglas: It has the charm of a laidback seaside village and the comforts of a resort town. Ideal for a romantic holiday. Like Cairns, Port Douglas is also a gateway to the reef and the rainforest.
Cape Tribulation: A World Heritage rainforest like the Daintree, it has guided walkabouts, broadwalks and jungle surfing far above the ground.
Cape York: At the northern-most tip of Australia, Cape York Peninsula is all about the outdoors — camping, nature walks in national parks, helicopter cattle musters... Also home to the world’s largest body of prehistoric rock art painted in caves by Aborigines 15,000 years ago.
Cooktown: It’s the largest town in the Cape York Peninsula and had gained prominence during the gold rush. Tourists can visit the relics even today. There’s also a botanic garden & rock art.
Torres Strait Islands: These are 274 islands at the very tip of Cape York, home to the indigenous Torres Strait Islanders.