Monday, June 15, 2020

The Low Isles

[Kyle]Fortunately, we had a bit of mild weather leaving Cairns. We did the whole sail to the Low Isles in smooth seas using our backup spinnaker. We were moving fast enough that we arrived two hours earlier than we had originally anticipated.

Leaving Cairns in the rain (surprise?!)

When we pulled in, we were messaged by Justine on the only other sailing boat in the anchorage, 'Shima', a catamaran much bigger than us. She and her husband Glen are from Gove in the remote Northern Territory and had been at Low Isles basically since the pandemic lockdowns started. They even spent some of their time subbing for island caretakers who could not come in for their stint. Justine said they had not seen any non-local boats for ages and wanted to say hi before they finally left for a haulout at Cairns the next morning. {Maryanne: Amazingly Justine has been a 'friend' via Women Who Sail Australia for some time giving me heaps of useful advice to all my ozzy questions!}.

They came over in their dinghy and spoke to us from it, so as not to break any potential quarantine for us. Mostly, the conversation was about the Covid-19 regs for continuing northbound. They, being used to cruising in heavily populated crocodile areas, also had plenty of advice about that. This included, “Don't sit on your sugar-scoop transom”, which I was presently doing. The croc-free offshore islands were fine, but definitely don't do it in continental estuaries. I couldn't help but notice that they had a big, aluminum dinghy, much less chewy than our Portland Pudgy. They recommended the snorkeling here and even gave us a helpful list of all of the fishes individual names, since they had been here long enough to meet every one of them.

Maryanne usually likes to snorkel at low tide. For the briefest moment, I saw her thinking a sentence that started with, “If low tide is at 6:30...?”, but she wisely stopped herself before actually uttering it. I was determined after our whole Cairns marathon that I would NOT be getting up any earlier than an hour after sunrise, preferably more.

Lucky for her, low tide turned out to be at 11:30. We went in and had a look around. No crocs. Also, no anything else. The water was way too murky to see much at all. Now I can't remember, was murky good or bad? We did have a few adorable long-finned spadefish show up (like at Bait Reef).

We finally have stinger suits (aka 'smurf outfits')
and got to put them to the test
They are supposed to stop any jelly fish stings
(since some are deadly here, it seemed like a good idea!)

We headed toward the island and eventually found a few healthier than normal patches of coral and some schools of fish. We swam a long way and finally only returned when the cold water drove us home.

Snorkelling: we spotted a host of giant clams and a few other interesting spots

We are not supposed to be feeding the fish here, so we have been saving our food scraps in the cockpit to throw overboard when it's permitted when we are next underway. At some point, we were visited by a family of three Varied Honeyeaters, which seems to be the total population of them in the Low Isles. They found an apple core and spent ages turning it into sauce that they could lick up with their nectar-eating tongues. Anything the full-sized fledgling couldn't manage, the parents would grind up further and feed it to the youngster.

We were visited several times a day by the family of Varied Honeyeaters
They have such lovely chatter and vocalizations

They are beautiful, medium-sized birds with speckled yellow chests. The best thing about them is that they have wonderfully complex whistling songs that just sound like happiness itself. Since their calls are so distinctive, Maryanne and I were quickly able to keep track of their movements on the islands by listening for them. When they would get louder, we would know they were coming in for another snack (we eventually worked out that overripe bananas were their absolute favorite. That's good because it's part of their normal diet). They made sure to always pay for their food with a little harmonized serenade, perching on the lifelines for us like they were lining up on stage. Oh, we are going to miss them when we are gone.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Cairns, Tablelands, and Daintree


We had the nearly full moon to help us with our pre-dawn departure from Kent Island. It went pretty smoothly, but the route into deep water required a short leg right into the wind and seas. Both were strong enough that we were barely able to make headway, even with both engines going. The current through the channel and the decreasing depth made for some disproportionately large pipe breakers there.

Maryanne and I have done a fair bit of sailing, but conditions like this are why we can't let ourselves get complacent. That fear is telling us to pay attention. Suddenly, our overly rolly anchorage, which was more annoying than dangerous, became one of those tunnel vision moments where the only things that mattered was holding on and keeping panic at bay long enough to steer through it.

Stupid waves!

Anyway, once we turned downwind, we had a really fast sail up the coast to Cairns. We managed to keep ourselves from being technically over-canvassed in terms of the area of sail interacting with the wind, but I found myself more than once silently thanking our sailmaker for their diligence.

I was hoping our arrival into Cairns would be a bright and sunny, heroic affair, but instead it was a dreary, wet one. I had been looking forward to Cairns completely out of proportion to any actual thing about the place. Don't get me wrong, Cairns is a nice city and well worth a visit, but to me, it will always be more than that.

We are BACK in Cairns!
(previously we flew in, this is our first time by boat)

First, some background...

A long time ago, the airline I worked for (which no longer exists) offered as a benefit a free round-trip flight anywhere they went. A quick look at the route map revealed Cairns, Australia as the very farthest outpost of their already far-flung empire. I booked the four long flights required to complete the journey, (this was before Maryanne), and in due course was delivered to the end of the line.

What a magical moment that was. The flight landed in the wee, dark hours of the morning from Guam in the Northern Hemisphere. The door was opened and the conditioned air of the cabin quickly gave way to the warm, humid, tropical air of northern Queensland. There was no jetway, so the occupants of the plane descended stairs to the concrete tarmac, still radiating heat from the previous day. Even though we were being herded along by ramp workers with lighted wands, I paused for a moment to look up at the night sky. The Southern Cross was right in front of me and the few Northern constellations that I could make out were all upside down. Orion crosses the sky down here by doing a handstand. The air was fragrant, but with different smells than I had ever known before. It was the middle of the night, but my body thought it was midday. It really felt like I had arrived on the other side of the world.

That arrival was only a short stop on the way to even more remote parts of the country, but I will always think of Cairns as a portal to a vast and mostly empty country full of natural wonders and friendly people with a weird manner of speaking. Back then, I had never even been on a sailboat, although I found them interesting. I certainly never dreamed I would ever span the immense distance on my own boat.

I liked Australia so much that I came as often as I could, which wasn't nearly enough because of the distance. Every time, the Australian part of the journey started at Cairns.

The last time I came was the first time with Maryanne. We had just finished our eastbound crossing of the North Atlantic to Scotland, where we had first met years before. Many years after that, there is now an unbroken path in the water between Scotland and Cairns that we have sailed together through hundreds of alternating single-person watches and joint day trips between far-flung islands. This 'other end of the world' is now our day-to-day home. Cairns is no longer the end of a big fold-out map, but is instead the place where we live. We're Queenslanders now – sort of. We have been for three months.. It's the place where we buy groceries, have our mail sent and do laundry. We are its newest arrivals and for a short few days, we live here. Never in the wildest dreams that I had when I stepped off of that plane for the first time did I ever imagine that I would be living on a sailboat in Cairns. Not only that, but it's the same one we have lived on since working for that moribund company a subway ride from base, where we could look out our same cabin windows at the Empire State Building.

Despite all of this, returning to Cairns didn't feel like a big homecoming. The city that had previously bustled with tourists was pretty quiet. We took a walk along the waterfront, which had some familiar landmarks, although heavily renovated. We never had time to find our old hotel or even the districts we had frequented back then. That made Cairns feel mostly like one of the usual provisioning/resupply stops.

Squeezing in all the possible benefits of having a dock and a car..

We decided for efficiency's sake to make a reservation at the main marina there. They are clearly getting away with something with their markup as it is the most expensive place to moor north of Sydney. Maryanne especially does not like to pay so much for something and not get the full value out of it. That meant we were going to have to go full blast while we we're there to get our money's worth.

Then it got even worse. We booked a car as well. Since you can't do much with a car in one day, we booked it for two. I'm really starting to dread provisioning stops...

So, we were at the car place right at opening time and then it was out of town to make the most of the Autumn daylight. Day One was a big loop that took in as much of the scenery to the south as we could see in one day. Mostly, it was a whole lot of short hikes to big waterfalls which were even more swollen by the recent rains (it is supposed to be Dry Season here). At one of them, we ate our lunch of packed sandwiches at a place that clearly was used to catering to hundreds. The place was completely shut, with no staff nor caretakers in attendance.

Almost everywhere we went was that way. We would be the only car, or maybe one in two, in a parking lot big enough for hundreds, plus a dozen or so big buses. That allowed us to see more because there were no queues to negotiate.

{Maryanne: We did a long loop south via the Tablelands. Stopping at various waterfalls and lookouts, taking walks along well managed trails and just enjoying the tropical rainforests. We kept our eyes peeled for cassowaries (no luck), and enjoyed a (finally) sunny day. Most of the key tourist sites are still closed due to Covid19, so it helped that we didn't have to choose what to miss on our long loop. Next time it would be nice to see some of the canopy walkways, and the overgrown buildings of Paronella Park lit after dark... next time! We had invited Sue and Larry (of Serengeti) to join us, but at the last minute their dinghy engine decided to tantrum and refuse to play - we felt a little guilty having fun without them but are pleased to report all is well now with their dinghy.}

The Boulders - Wooroonooran National Park

Josephine Falls - Wooroonooran National Park

Mungalli - deserted!

Ellinja Falls
The tree has flowers on the trunk to aid the bats who pollinate it

Zillie Falls

Milla Milla Falls and trails

McHugh Lookout

Hypipamee National Park with its Diatreme
(a Volcanic Pipe formed by a gaseous explosion)

The giant 'Curtain Fig' Tree along the way

We stopped at Yungaburra hoping to see Platypus
but we were too early (best at dusk) - only ducks!

A rushed 5km loop trail around Lake Barrine (Crater Lakes National Park)

Still, despite our best efforts, we made it back to Cairns well after dark. There would be no sleeping in, though, because we had already booked a Daintree river tour at sunrise the next morning. Daintree is a hundred and fifty kilometers north of Cairns. {Maryanne: As compensation, Kyle and I eat out at a local Thai restraurant that night!}

Our guide for the day went by the nickname of “Sauce”. An avid naturalist, he has been living in the Daintree area for over twenty years. A few years ago, after acquiring the experience necessary for his commercial boating license on the car ferry that runs across the river, he bought his own boat and started his own tour company.

We met him at his dock, where he welcomed Maryanne and me aboard his twelve passenger boat. We would be the only ones going out today. That was nice, at least for us. There was no jostling around other tourists to try to get a good look at anything and we could linger when and where we wanted.

We had been hoping to spot some crocodiles, of which the Daintree has loads. It was cold and drizzly though. Suace explained that when the water is warmer than the air, the crocs slow their metabolisms down to where they can stay submerged for up to five hours between breaths. The moral of that story is that even if you haven't seen them for a while, there are probably still crocs everywhere. It's not the ones you can see that you need to be most worried about.

Since the crocs were sleeping, our tour mostly focused on the varied bird life of the area. Sauce knew all of their calls by heart. If he heard one, he'd swing the boat around and pull right up to it. Our favorites were the big Frogmouths, which look like owls. Sauce must know where their favorite perches are because their camouflage looks exactly like the bark on the tree. We would be ten feet away from them with him pointing at them and we wouldn't be able to see them until they moved.

A host of birds between rain showers on the Daintree River Wild Watch
with our guide Ian “Sauce” Worcester
Did you spot the beautiful 'Frogmouth' couple?

The drizzle got heavier until it eventually turned into real rain. Sauce gave us an extra half hour and then sped us back to the dock. When we got there, we were soaked through. Dry Season, eh? {Maryanne: actually Kyle was soaked through since he declined the use of a poncho when offered - I was perfectly dry!}

For the rest of the day, Maryanne had a drive planned up to Cape Tribulation, home to one of the most diverse tropical rain forests on Earth. To get there, we would have to take the aforementioned ferry. During a typical June tourist season, the lines for the ferry can stretch for hours (The government had offered to build a bridge, but the locals voted it down, saying it would bring too much traffic to the fragile environment). The round-trip fee is meant to encourage larger groups in fewer vehicles and deter casual visitors.

That was then. Now the ferry is free of charge until the end of the month and there is no waiting, another byproduct of the pandemic. Maryanne and I arrived at the far bank with three local cars within five minutes of driving aboard. The locals peeled off quickly, leaving the whole road to just us. We drove straight to the end, where we parked in an empty lot and took a walk on the beach after passing what is now the ubiquitous “Danger, Crocodiles” signs.

Just before we got there, we spotted a Cassowary crossing the road (The population of them up here is reported to be 53 several years ago and declining). Wouldn't you know it, the one other car we saw was coming the other way. They stopped just ahead of us to snap pictures of it. I stopped so as not to block their shot, but they stayed there until the bird had disappeared into the jungle, so we never got our turn. We did get a good look at one in the wild, though, which is definitely special.

Cassowaries are famously foul-tempered. They have a tendency to charge and slash at your throat with a special throat-slashing talon they have for just that purpose if they think you might be looking at them. This is odd because they are ground foraging fruit and nut eaters. Other ground birds range between docile and skittish. There are theories about there being strong competition for mates among Cassowaries, but I suspect that they are just really annoyed at being lumped in with annoying hippy vegans. That's what their velociraptor ancestors would have done.*

Cape Tribulation (Kulki), with Boardwalk trails and views from Myall & Cape Tribulation Beaches

Dubuji Boardwalk trails & Myall Beach

Madja Botanical Walk with some giant basket ferns among the rainforest to enjoy

Jindalba Boardwalk with some amazingly tall trees (impossible to photograph)

As we made our way down the coast, we stopped at lots of amazing rain forest walks, most of which were on raised wooden walkways. My favorite was a big area of umbrella palms, which really do look like they each need a cafe table beneath.

We then crossed the Daintree again and headed to the suspiciously posh Port Douglas for dinner. There we ate at a waterfront table in our own empty corner of a restaurant where people usually have to wait outside for an hour before getting in.

A stop at Port Douglas for the views and a late lunch

Whew, what an amazing and exhausting couple of days. Time to return the car? Oh, no! We have shops to go to and Begonia needs to be prepared for a sunrise departure. Ugh!

We split up. Maryanne hit the shops and I got the boat ready. When I was done, I was ready to collapse. That's when Maryanne arrived with a mountain of stuff, all of which had to be stowed before we went out into the actual ocean again. It's like being at work again. I need only four hours of sleep, so as long as I can just get three hours, I should be good, as long as I have my two hours...

{Maryanne: Despite an incredible two days driving around and sightseeing among the natural wonders of the area, there was a huge amount of animals we'd hoped to see but didn't: Crocodiles, Tree Kangaroos, a host of possam species, water dragons, pythons, tree frogs and Platypus.... Another reason to return some day!}.

*Statements not verified by science