Size: 7,687,000 sqkm
Time Zone: GMT +8 to +10
Land down under
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Cairns is situated in the far north of Australia, deep in the tropics. With rainforest on one side and the Great Barrier Reef on the other, Cairns has some of the most spectacular scenery in Australia. Our trip was in April, which is towards the end of the wet season, and when the persistent tropical rain becomes less frequent, although the first few days did see some heavy rain and our first afternoon was a dash between undercover areas to avoid the worst of the downpours.
On our second day we took the scenic railway out to the former gold mining town of Kuranda. The railway line traverses many bridges and passes through many tunnels as it meanders its way up into the mountains. The way provides views of many waterfalls, the largest of which is Barron Falls, near the town of Kuranda. The train ride is very impressive, and while Kuranda is about what might be expected of an Australian tourist village, the way back to Cairns is even more exceptional, as a cable car system has been installed above the trees of the rainforest.
The guidebook says that from the cable car not only can the wonders of the rainforest be seen, but there are also views far out to sea onto the Great Barrier Reef, however all we got to see was heavy rain and dense cloud, although the feeling of being suspended above the forest was still quite exciting.
The following day I was up early and caught a bus up the coast and then took a cruse to Agincourt Reef, a section of the Great Barrier Reef situated on the ocean side of the reef. Here I did a snorkelling tour of the reef and got to see some impressive fish as well as some turtles and a giant clams. Even at Agincourt, one of the least spoiled parts of the whole reef, I found the coral to be grey and unexciting compared to the reefs I saw in Malaysia; I found out later that in recent times the high levels of UV due to the reduced ozone layer have bleached much of the reefs, which is a great pity, although the reef is still very impressive in its own right.
While Cairns has no beach itself, it does have a nice waterfront area and has views both out to sea and inland over the tropical hills, and we spent our final day wandering this area of the town before flying back to Sydney.
Uluru is the proper aboriginal name for Ayres Rock. It is situated in the heart of Australia, and so is surrounded by desert for many hundreds of miles. We came here over the New Year period and took a tour which is the easiest way to get around as there is a lot of driving required. We flew into the small Uluru airport and then met our tour and headed straight to the Kata Tjuta rock formations which are nearby. Since it was high summer it was very hot during the day and we were not allowed to do the more taxing walk through the valley of the wind as the park management worry about people getting heat stroke. While the area is normally desert, summer is the rainy season here and while we missed the rain, there had been a lot the week before and the area was unusually green. As evening approached we headed back to watch the sun set over Uluru. This looked totally unremarkable and the people who had seen it before were saying how we were unlucky,
and then as the sun finally dropped on the horizon the whole rock light up in a brilliant red colour and the sky, that had been grey and unexciting, filled with bright reds and oranges. This display continued for about 20 minutes, and then the colours faded through purple to black and the after a little more time 2008 turned into 2009.
The following morning we were back at the rock early so as to watch the sun rise. This was again a spectacular event with the sky filled with the many pastel colours of the sun rise. After this we walked up Uluru, on to the top. This is frowned upon by the aboriginal, mostly I think because they are very keen for people not to die so they can tell others of their stories. Since it was still very early and the temperatures were reasonable, we were in little danger so it was ok to climb. This was surprisingly hard going, but the views from the top were quite excellent.
Following this we had a rather long drive down to the area of Kings Canyon. We were staying in what were described as tents but were really sheds with canvas roofs. The site was quite rural and when all the lights were turned off at night the stars were really bright. We were lucky it was a new moon and with little cloud it was easily possible to see the dark gaps in the Milky Way galaxy. These I seem to remember have meaning to the aboriginal people in the same way in the west the make pictures out of the patterns of stars.
The next morning was again an early start to avoid the heat and again there was a great sun rise. This morning we walked Kings Canyon, which is surprisingly deep and straight walled, and then followed the path around to an area known as the Garden of Eden. This is very sheltered area where vegetation thrives, and so has a justifiable name, given that much of the rest of the surroundings is desert. We ended the tour with another long drive down to Alice Springs, where we spent the following day. There is surprisingly little of interest in Alice Springs. We visited a reptile centre and the old telegraph station as well as looking around several of the ubiquitous aboriginal art galleries, but I don't think there is a great deal else to be gained from Alice, and so I was not unhappy to only spend a day here.
I spent a weekend in Melbourne in watch the finals of the Australian Open. It was again rather warm, and so I did not explore the city very thoroughly. Melbourne seems like a nice place. The city centre is quite affluent and there are many cafes and bars giving it a cosmopolitan feel. As part of the tennis package we got to go up the sky tower which gives great views over the city. Melbourne has a reasonable amount of European style architecture which I rather liked and the central station is quite grand. This is next to St Paul's church which is also impressive. I visited over the Chinese New Year and so there were many activities in the China town area and the streets were packed with parades and people.
I got to watch the finals of all the different tennis events, which was excellent although it was a shame that Andy Murray hadn't made it through. First there were the junior finals, then the women's and then men's doubles. The following day was the mixed double and then the highlight of tournament, the men's finals where Nadal battled it out against Federer. This was a very long and exciting game, although Nadal mostly looked on top throughout, basically winning through Federers errors.
Fraser Island is to the north of Brisbane, and is wholly made from sand. It has a large fresh water table and so has several lakes in the interior and supports a forest of tall trees. This was again a weekend excursion taken where the Sydney temperatures were in the 40's, so it was pleasant to be on a tropical island with temperatures in the cool 30's. On the Saturday we explored on of the inland lakes and walked through the rainforest, and then on the second day we trekked out to another excellent lake and then looked around a wreck at the far end of one of the beaches. With glorious weather Fraser Island is a really nice place to visit, and the lack of roads gives a slight feel of adventure. Mostly, though, it is good for sitting back and relaxing in the pleasant water of the lakes of sea.
Also see: Sydney and surrounding area