|We left the city of Cairns and continued south mostly along the Capricorn coast and occasionally heading inland if someplace looked interesting. In Australia, about 90% of the population is along the coastlines and when you venture inland it very quickly changes to rural environments that seem really “out there”. We visited many beach towns including Mission Beach, Townsville, and Airlie Beach. At Mission Beach we took an ocean kayak tour out to Dunk Island. Our guides were Simon and Sierra, two American recent college graduates working as kayak guides living the good life for a while before (maybe) heading back to the USA.
We spent four days in Townsville and enjoyed riding our bicycles on the esplanade. We rented mountain bicycles one day which was pretty much a disaster as they were really crappy bicycles and the trails were quite technical so we did a lot of walking, but hey we had still fun. We do miss mountain biking though and know it will be an effort to get back in the groove once back in Tucson. We took a ferry over to Magnetic Island which is part natural park and part resort. We snorkeled right from the beach along a snorkel trail. Buoys in the water guide you to the best sights on the reef. Our favorite sight was giant clams about three feet across and over 30 years old. This reef was not actually part of the Great Barrier Reef but is considered a fringe reef. It wasn’t as dramatic or colorful as the Great Barrier but was still quite thrilling. Hiking on the island we saw four koala bears hanging out in eucalyptus trees. They are so, so cute and one had a baby hanging on that was even more adorable. Koala bears aren’t bears but marsupials.
We enjoyed snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef in Cairns so much that we just had to do it again in Airlie Beach. We didn’t realize the GBR is so huge that it runs along almost half the eastern coast shoreline. Our boat ride to the reef took three hours but was quite enjoyable as it weaved through the Whitsunday islands. There are about 75 islands and it a favorite spot for sailing because the winds are good but the ocean tends to be calmer because of all the islands. Plus, we saw several humpback whales. One put on a real show for us and breached about six times in a row. When we got to the reef there was a permanent dive platform that we could use so that we could go in and out of the water as much as we wanted. Even with wetsuits we did get quite cold after about an hour and loved being able to jump out for some hot tea. We snorkeled on the Hardy Reef which has a very deep drop off on one side and just oodles of fish. I think the fish around this area might be used to people and they just swam all around us. What an experience! Snorkeling on the reef has definitely been one of the highlights of our trip.
We headed inland about 200 miles to the mining towns of Rubyvale and Sapphire. These towns are known for their very productive sapphire mines. We toured a mine and also tried our hand at “fossicking” which is the Aussie word for panning. We bought two buckets of dirt and found about 30 sapphire stones. Four of the stones were identified as cuttable quality and the rest are just little chips not worth anything. So, unfortunately we did not find enough sapphires to pay for our trip.
From there we headed to Carnarvon National Park which was a real treat. The main attraction is hiking in the Carnarvon Gorge. The gorge is 18 miles long and the walls are about 600 feet high. There were a couple of really fascinating side gorges that were slot canyons and one rock formation called the amphitheater. To get to the amphitheater we had to climb up a series of ladders and catwalks through a narrow crack in the canyon. On the other end it opened up to a deep sink hole. One day we hiked 18 miles with 20 river crossings. There are also over 200 Aboriginal rock art sites in the gorge but only three sites are open to visitors. A lot of the rock art is stencil art of hands. The left hand means giving spirit back to the land and the right hand means taking strength from the land. The stencils were created by mixing ochre minerals with water and then spraying it on the sandstone from the mouth. The ochre spray is absorbed by the sandstone which gives it real staying power. Some of the colors look so vibrant and new but are estimated to be thousands of years old. Kangaroos and wallabies were really abundant in this park and were all over the campground. We even saw some mama kangaroos with a joey in the pouch.
We are now back along the coast about 400 miles north of Brisbane. We are moving south at a really slow pace because the weather will get cooler as we move south. The weather now is just superb. Warm, sunny days and cool nights. Even though it is winter here and kids are in school the campgrounds are really busy with all the “grey nomads” which are the equivalent to the snowbirds who descend upon Tucson in the winter.