Brad led the brave and the fit up the steep and rocky path on Lizard Island to the summit, called Cook’s Look. We set out at 6am before sunrise, so we could beat the heat. Good plan, as we all got sweaty and winded even as the sun was rising. I commented to Lori, “When the Aussies say this hike it for the “fit,” double it. We were all amazed by how difficult it was. At a beautiful lookout half way up, we looked out to the nearby islands and saw a rainbow arching from a white cloud to the blue-blue water. We persevered to the top, where the early explorer James Cook (circa 1770) had climbed to look for a break in the fringe reef and a good way out for his ship the Endeavor, which had been damaged on the reef. We signed a guest book at the summit (protected from the rain by a plastic and a wooden box). Rumor has it that Prince William and Kate will be coming to Lizard Island for their honeymoon. Perhaps they will be signing the book next week! It was still treacherous on the descent, many steep steps down on the rocks and many steep rock faces to take baby steps sideways. Charlie slipped and fell on a sandy patch but luckily was not hurt, just bruised. We made it back to the beach, where we could snorkel. Erin did. Charlie and I enjoyed some coffee and muffins and went around Watson’s Bay with Brad on the glass bottom boat. The beach around Watson’s Bay is deserted and very beautiful.
Erin was brave to learn how to scuba dive and fortunately enjoyed the company of the Tennessee kids and the South Africans. Erin dove at Two Islands, Ribbon Reef #9 and Escape Reef. When we asked Erin what she saw under water, she exclaimed, “Everything!” We learned to identify so many types of coral: fingertip, staghorn, plate, soft, spaghetti, brain, boulder, mushroom, slipper, honeycomb… Have I left any out? We saw lots of parrot fish, sea cucumbers, starfish, clown fish, also known as anemone fish, butterfly fish, rabbit fish, five striped bandits, little damsels in a variety of colors and even reef sharks. Luckily none of us got scraped or stung by anything. Brad told us about one type of coral to avoid (looks like green seaweed) and a cone shell that sends a stinger out 23 cm to paralyze you, so don’t put it in your pocket! We avoided touching any coral or shells, and held our breath when we floated very close over top of the reef. Most of the reef was brown, but some corals were yellow, blue or purple, pink and green. The fish sported the brightest colors: bright yellow, green and electric blue. Even the lips of the giant clams were purple and green.
Brad, the marine biologist on board, helped me overcome my anxieties about snorkeling, and led me through three snorkel opportunities: at the fringe reef of Two Islands, Ribbon Reef No. 9 and the patch reef of Escape Reef, which was the most extensive and amazing. We had the chance to snorkel or dive at Ribbon Reef #3 but it was high tide and the swells were large, so it would have been difficult. Brad took the glass bottom boat out in every reef we visited, and he would point out the names of the corals and fish we saw. He explained about the polyps that extrude or retract, the way corals fight each other for space and depend on the light to live, how most of them latch on to rock, how the algae give them color, how old some of them are (30 year old boulder coral) and how they reproduce.
Erin and I both used the underwater camera while snorkeling and snapped photos of a sting ray, many giant clams (so cool!), many small colorful fish and lots of species of coral. Will upload some of these photos when I get home! My favorite day of discovery was this last snorkel at Escape Reef, because I was amazed at how extensive it was: 30 ft walls covered with coral and then it is like a maze to swim through. You really need to be there in the water in a coral reef to understand what it is really like, and it is an amazing ecosystem to witness and learn about.
Met some nice new friends from Tennessee, Germany, Switzerland, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Hope to keep in touch with them! Our “vessel” the Coral Princess accommodates 50 passengers, but it was half-full with 23. We were also lucky to have four other young adults, near Erin’s age: the Tennesee family had their two sons, one friend and a fiancé with them. The Swiss couple Franz and Marianne live just a few minutes from Villars sur Ollon, where I skated for two summers in the 70s. They were both pilots and avid hikers, had hiked Kilamanjaro. All the passengers were very congenial. It was also interesting to hear the different places where people had traveled: African safaris and such. Fiona, the Australian travel writer knew Susan, the travel writer from Melbourne who we met at Uluru.
This was a great one-day activity, recommended by our driver who brought us from the Cairns Airport to the Shangri-La. The cable car gives you a spectacular view of the height of the rainforest, which is 190 million years old. There are two transfer points along the way. At the first stop, a park ranger gave us a guided nature walk. He told us about the basket ferns that grow high in the trees and sometimes weigh 500 lbs, making the tree fall over. He told us the age of a giant fig tree, let us feel the velvety back of a species of ginger leaf and showed a benign looking poisonous plant. We saw another parasitic tree that starts in a high branch of another tree, then throws down roots, wraps itself around the host and even neighboring trees and may eventually smother the host. It was one big competition for light in the forest, where only 2% of the light reaches the ground. The second transfer point offered a view of a waterfall. Then, we arrived at Kuranda, a fun little village with many boutiques and cafes and also a butterfly farm. We saw some bright neon blue butterflies and some neon green birds in the forest. Some trees looked like giant white poinsettias (they weren’t, and I’ll have to research what they are.).
We did a little shopping and had a yummy lunch, and then came back down the cable cars for a 3:30 pickup and ride to the cruise ship terminal for 4pm boarding.
Wake up call at 4am; check out and depart on a large tour bus at 5am for the three hour drive to Kings Canyon. Stopped for breakfast at a roadside camp – very bare bones. Paid $50 for three plates of eggs, bacon (like ham), two pieces of dry toast and coffee. Bought the 1.5 liters of water per person we needed for our 6 km hike of the Rim. The guide interviewed each of us to see if we were fit for the strenuous hike up “cardiac hill,” the first 500 steps in stone. Yes, she said a woman had a heart attack there just three days ago and had to be taken by helicopter to the nearest hospital, which was a three hour drive away. We were all surprised both by how strenuous the hike was, as the terrain all rock up and down, stepping wide across crevices and at a very fast pace; the guide was always saying hurry up. When you take photos, you have to stop and snap them fast (no way can you walk and take photos at the same time, as you would trip in an instant). The scenery was amazing, in the same league with the Grand Canyon. Charlie commented that it was too bad you had to keep looking at your feet and where you were stepping, because the scenery is incredible, and there was no time to stop for more than a few seconds. Then Charlie punctuated his thought, saying, “Oh well!” which made me laugh. Erin and Charlie took turns carrying the backpack with the three water bottles, which we really needed. It was warm and we worked hard and got very thirsty very often. Good news was the load got lighter as the journey progressed. I had my heavy DSLR camera around my neck and in one hand and small Canon in the other hand, and I struggled to balance as we scaled down rocks that offered ledges too narrow to place your foot down in any way but sideways. Our quads got a major workout. At one point we crossed some wooden bridges and descended into the canyon to the Garden of Eden where there is an oasis of cool water. You could swim, if you could get in and out in a matter of three minutes! We saw many dead trees and opportunistic plants. Snakes inhabit the canyon, but we didn’t see them, only lizards, ants and flies. Charlie and I wore our fly nets, and Erin applied lots of the cream. The hike was EXHAUSTING, and we all thought we would be very sore later. (By some Easter miracle, we were fine.)
For the Uluru sunset, Cheryl made the choice to set up our champagne and snack at a private shelter. We were exhausted from hiking in the heat and having started our day at 4 am, and I had taken so many photos in the past two days, I admitted to being “all pictured out.” Charlie and Erin raised their glasses in a toast and we all had a laugh. Do you know why the shelter was private? Because from that vantage point, you couldn’t take a good photo of Uluru: it was in shadow, and of course the sunset was brilliantly bright. Hundreds of tourists were huddled like outback flies at a superior vantage point. It was okay. I was ready to put the camera down and enjoy several glasses of Australian bubbly. Excellent day, excellent guide. As Courtney would say, “Epic.” We were all very thankful.
Cheryl told us many of the Aboriginal legends that have been passed down for years: stories with morals about not lying or stealing with terrible fates befalling the unfortunate folks who made bad choices. Of course, there are signs in the rocks (like a huge skull shape on the side of Uluru) that tie into the fables. We learned just one Aboriginal word, “mullah-mullah,” which means “looks pretty but doesn’t do anything useful.” The English settlers would ask the natives their names for various new plants they found, and this one purple flower was called a “mullah-mullah.” Story made good material for inside jokes.