Friday, February 26, 2016

February 24th – Heat and Crocs in Darwin

On the face of it, Darwin shouldn't really work as a city. It may be the capital of the huge Northern Territory, but only 220,000 people live in the entire territory. The unrelenting heat and humidity are almost unbearable (especially coming in the wet season as we were); the soil is too thin for much in the way of agriculture; it's been destroyed by three successive cyclones in its short life (most recently in 1974 by Cyclone Tracy, which blew in with winds in excess of 175 mph); and it was virtually wiped off the map by Japanese bombs in the Second World War. The fact that the charming headline in the local newspaper was, "Local Has World's Loudest Burp", is perhaps an indication that not much happens here! 

Yet, somehow Darwin just goes from strength to strength. Everywhere you look, new developments and tower blocks are being built – it's a prosperous, well-run and expanding city. Residents I've spoken to, say that you either love Darwin or hate it – if you give it a chance, it gets under your skin, and before you know it, you've put down roots here.

It's not a climate to do too much on foot, but we spent our morning trying to dig out the city's few remaining historic sites – those that haven't been devoured by ants, blown up by Japanese bombs, or blown away by cyclones. Perhaps most interesting were the many memorials from the Second World War, commemorating those hundreds who died when a totally unprepared Darwin became Australia's only city to be bombed. To avoid spreading hysteria amongst the sheltered Australian public, the government kept most of the details of the bombing secret – which means that Darwinites are incredibly keen to get the story out there as much as possible.

Having totally over-heated, we came back to the ship to cool down, before joining a tour to see the amazing Jumping Crocodiles of the Adelaide River. It was an awesome sight to be on the boat, and see these menacing monsters suddenly come up to the surface stealthily next to us, and stare directly into their beady eys – it was their size that took you aback, most of them being over 5 metres long.

The boat driver reckoned he knew them all by name (most of them were named after their various wounds or missing limbs, that confirmed that the life of a crocodile must be a pretty tough one), and he knew just where to go to persuade them out of the water with a juicy lump of pork chop. As he dangled the meat, the croc would grumpily thrash about and snap his jaws to get his snack, before being coaxed to jump violently in the air, up to 6 feet high. As he wiggled like a hula dancer to get ever higher just a feet away from us, then you got to appreciate just how big and powerful he was.

The guide was keen to impress on us that we should never lean out of the boat to take our photos – one of the other crocs might come for us – and the sense of violence, danger and menace created by these prehistoric beasts made for a totally  unforgettable experience.

Crocodile Dundee may be the Northern Territory's most famous resident, but it was those awesome crocs that were the star of Darwin's show.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

February 22nd – Monday in Thursday Island

Today (rather inappropriately, on a Monday), we visited Australia's northernmost frontier, Thursday Island, in the Torres Strait Islands, just off the top of Queensland, and just south of Papua New Guinea. 

This is a tiny little place, just over a square mile in area and with only about 3,000 inhabitants, so there's not much "action" here – not helped by the fact that it was absolutely boiling, which meant that everything seemed to be moving at a snail's pace. But, the most memorable thing about our stay was the setting – located in the middle of a string of attractive little green islands, surrounded by impossibly turquoise languid seas.

With the mercury hitting 100F, those beautiful waters seemed just perfect for cooling down in, until you're reminded by the locals that attacks from sharks and crocodiles make swimming a very dangerous activity. It's an irony that the island's most alluring feature was also its most hazardous one.

We were only here for a short morning visit, so we didn't have long to explore the island; but, we had time to pay a visit up to the main historic sight – Green Hill Fort, a fortification built in the 1880s, when it was thought that the Russians would attack. To be honest, the extreme temperatures and humidity here would probably have seen off the Russians pretty quickly (if they'd ever made it this far), and then the fort saw service during the Second World War, when this was Australia's northernmost frontier, against the expanding Japanese.

To be honest, the town still has a bit of a sleepy frontier feel to it – not much happens here – but, there's a decent infrastructure on the island, and the quality of life for the islanders (over half of whom are indigenous Melanesians) seems pretty good. I can't say that I'd be looking to buy a holiday home here (the isolation, the heat, the sharks and crocs, and the lack of action are all pretty good deterrents), but it's the gorgeous setting that's Thursday Island's chief asset.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

February 19th & 20th – Escape To Port Douglas

Sometimes on a long cruise, it's good to have a change of scene and have a night away from the ship. So, our overnight visit to Cairns was the perfect opportunity to do just this, especially as my Uncle Peter and his wife Mary had flown down from Papua New Guinea to meet us.

We headed an hour up the coast to the attractive resort of Port Douglas. PD shares a lot of features with Cairns – it's a perfect jumping off point to explore both the Great Barrier Reef, and to get into the UNESCO World Heritage Rainforest that lines the coast – but, it's in a much less mass-market environment, more boutique and less backpacker.

In the afternoon, we visited the beautiful Daintree Rainforest at the Mossman Gorge – as we followed the trails through the thick forest, it was alive with the sound of insects. As we got ever deeper into the forest, the insect calls were rivalled by the sound of distant thunder and the sky grew black with rain clouds. Not much light filters down through the canopy anyway, but it got so dark in there that it felt like we might lose the trail. Just before the heavens opened, the insects' screams got incredibly loud and high-pitched, like an alarm – were they trying to warn us of something?

What they were probably trying to tell us, was that the rainforest was about to well and truly live up to its name, as enormous drops began to plummet from the sky, soaking us to the skin. I guess that you don't get as lush and green as this without lots of rain, and it felt like a year's worth fell in the space of half an hour. Actually, there's something invigorating about being in the rainforest as the rain falls – this was what the forest is all about.

The rain eventually stopped, and instead of cooling things down, it only got more steamy as the humidity got even more intense. Of course, the only way to deal with this, is to do as the Australians do, and have a few beers to re-hydrate and cool down. So, we had a fun night in PD, bumping into an entertaining group of extremely drunk girls from Melbourne who had taken their re-hydration efforts to new limits – I managed to resist their constant efforts to get me to dance with them.

The next day, we went up into the tablelands behind the mountains – huge rolling landscapes of pastureland, mango plantations and forest, interspersed with quiet up-country towns. There's not many people up here, but we did bump into some cute wallabies who came close enough to feed. I always wonder how people can live up here in the extreme heat and humidity, in such sparsely populated territory, but it is an very beautiful part of the world.

These two days were a great way to re-charge our batteries in an environment that felt so different from the enclosed community onboard. We saw some great sights, had some great company, and did some much-needed catching up. Another wonderful trip.

February 18th – Toasted in Townsville

What do you do for an afternoon in Townsville when the temperature hits 37 degrees C? Not a lot is the answer (apart from sweat a lot and constantly complain about how unbearably hot it is).

Actually, you do have a few choices – you could go to Reef HQ (an aquarium which boasts that it has the world's largest living reef), or visit Magnetic Island, or go to the Billabong Sanctuary to cuddle a koala. However, we rejected all these options, preferring to traipse around the roasting semi-deserted streets of the town, and to explore its attractive esplanade. I presume that it was too hot for even the Townsvillites, because there was scarcely anyone around, apart from overheating cruise passengers, hugging any shade they could find.

One place where we did encounter people, was at the water park on the esplanade where lots of families were frolicking in the water fountains, trying to keep cool. It's ironic that Townsville's beaches, which you'd assume would be perfect for cooling off on, are actually off limits – the presence of lots of nasty stingers mean that it's not safe to get back in the water.

Townsville is clearly a place that's got lots of potential – it has some attractive historic architecture (dating from the days when it was the main port for the Queensland Gold Rush), and it has redeveloped its riverfront in an attempt re-invigorate its rather provincial feel. If it were 10 degrees cooler and a few percent less humid, it would have been a lovely place to visit.