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. That said, the first few days did see some heavy rains and our first afternoon was a dash between undercover areas to avoid the worst of the torrential 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 a large number of 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. Unfortunately, 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 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 clam. Even at Agincourt, one of the least spoiled parts of the whole reef, I found the coral to be grey and muted in colour 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 it is fair to say of the reef is still very impressive.
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.
When I visited Uluru, it was still frequently referred to as Ayres Rock, the name coined by Westerns when they first found this ancient and sacred aboriginal site. 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, not unreasonable really but was a bit of a shame. Whilst the area is normally desert, summer is the rainy season here; luckily, we had missed the rain, but there had been a lot the week before and the area was unusually green which was a surprise in the heart of a searing hot desert. As evening approached, we headed back to watch the sunset over Uluru. This looked totally unremarkable and the people who had seen it before were saying how we were unlucky.
But then, as the sun finally dropped over 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 in the most impressive sunset I have ever seen; a fine way to see out 2008.
The following morning we returned to Uluru early to watch the sun rise. This was again a spectacular event with the sky filled with many pastel colours. After this, we walked up to Uluru, and on to the top. This was frowned upon at the time by the aboriginal people and is now banned, and we had mixed feeling about walking on the top but joined the group and tried to be as respectful as possible. I am glad that now it is a clear ban as at the time it was a bit of a mixed message. Since it was still very early and the temperatures were reasonable although the path was steep so surprisingly hard going.
Following this, we had a rather long drive down to the area of Kings Canyon which made me very pleased we were on a tour. We were staying in what were described as tents but were really sheds with canvas roofs, again no complaints given the types of insects and spiders that are common across Australia. The site was quite rural and when, at night, all the lights were turned off, the stars were really bright. We were lucky as it was a new moon and, with little cloud, it was easily possible not just to see the Milky Way but also the dark gaps in our galaxy; these have meanings to the aboriginal people who make pictures out of them in a similar way that we make constellations from patterns of stars in the West. This is the only time I have seen the Milky Way so bright and was a truly amazing sight.
The next morning was again an early start to avoid the heat and again there was a great sun rise. The morning was spent walking Kings Canyon, which is a surprisingly deep and straight walled canyon in the heart of the desert. We followed the path around the canyon and to an area known as the Garden of Eden. This is a 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 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.
We spent a weekend in Melbourne to watch the finals of the Australian Open. It was again rather hot, and so we 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 and really worth the visit, the air con also helped in the appeal I think. Melbourne architecture is mostly in a European style and the central station is quite grand. This is next to St Paul's church which is also very impressive. Having spent some years abroad it felt nice to be somewhere more familiar, although I guess it would be less interesting if visiting direct from the West. We 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 which is always a great sight and nice way to spend some time.
We got to watch the finals of all the different tennis events, which were excellent although it was a shame that Andy Murray did not made it through. First there were the junior finals, then the women's and men's doubles, all were good games and the atmosphere in the stadium was really great. The following day was the mixed double and then the highlight of tournament was the men's finals where Nadal battled it out against Federer. This was a very long and exciting game, lasting nearly four and half hours. It was a pretty even game but Nadal did appear to have the edge and ultimately won.
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 when 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 one 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 waters of the lakes or sea.