As part of our trip to Cairns, we spent two nights in the small town of Port Douglas located about an hour's drive to the north. Port Douglas was a much smaller resort town, with a population of only 3000 residents and a "downtown" area that largely consisted of a single street. We were traveling to Port Douglas due to its role as a gateway to the Daintree Rainforest, a jungle region with an ancient heritage that hosts a wide assortment of exotic wildlife. The plan was to spend some time in Port Douglas itself and then explore the rugged terrain of the rainforest, driving to the literal end of the road at a ferry crossing along the way. However, we continued to experience bad luck when it came to weather, as frequent rainfall made our time in Port Douglas less enjoyable than it otherwise might have been. August is the dry season for northern Queensland and Port Douglas gets less than one inch of rain normally in these months, but we never would have known it from our experience.
We drove into Port Douglas in the late afternoon after spending about an hour coming north from Kuranda. The drive along Route 44 had followed the coast the whole way, and the scenery likely would have been dramatic if it hadn't been pouring down rain the whole time. The downpour had slackened to a light drizzle by the time that we arrived and checked into our hotel at the Pink Flamingo Resort. This was a small place with only about two dozen rooms, but the staff was exceedingly nice and we had a suite of rooms entirely to ourselves, with a full kitchen and dining area in addition to the standard bedroom and bathroom. If the weather outside had been warm and sunny instead of cold and raining, I'm sure that it would have been pleasant to relax outside by the pool. We ended up being quite happy with our accomodations during the two days we spent here.
We didn't have a lot of time to spend on this first evening in Port Douglas since we were arriving late in the day, and the one place that we were able to check out was the beach. Port Douglas first attracted attention as a tourist destination due to its wide sandy beaches, with this long expanse known as Four Mile Beach. All of the pictures that we'd seen online depicted Four Mile Beach in bright sunlight, with a dazzling stretch of white sand separating the blue of the ocean from the blue of the sky above; see this image from Wikipedia for example. On this particular evening the beach was still a beautiful sight, especially when the tropical foliage was silhouetted against the fading sunlight. However, it was chilly enough that no one was swimming in the water and the overcast skies gave the whole place a bit of an austere look.
Here are some more pictures from Four Mile Beach. We were relatively close to the northern end of the beach, where a hill rises up from the town of Port Douglas and provides views looking out over the water. That's the spot where the most expensive beach homes in Port Douglas are located, situated for the views and to catch the ocean breezes as they roll in from the Pacific. One of the nice things about Port Douglas is that it's not very crowded, and even here during the height of the winter tourist season the place didn't feel overrun by visitors. While walking along the beach, we also happened to notice these tiny crabs that rolled up sand into little balls as they burrowed underground. Those little orbs of sand were then scattered by the wind into unusual geometric patterns that almost looked like art sculptures. There was a whole world taking place here on the beach outside of human notice that we were only catching a small glipse of.
We ate dinner both nights in Port Douglas, although I suppose we didn't really have much of a choice given the isolated nature of the town. There was a wide selection of different restaurants available catering to all of the major food types that tourists would want to eat, everything from traditional Australian food to Chinese or Indian or French cuisine. Almost all of the shops and eateries in Port Douglas were located on a single road (Macrossan Street) which could be walked from end to end in less than 10 minutes. As I've mentioned a few times already, Port Douglas is a small town only a fraction of the size of Cairns. After eating dinner, we spent some time wandering around the streets looking at some of the various stores. Port Douglas tends to cater towards the wealthy since this area is harder to reach for budget tourists, and that was reflected in the upscale nature of many of the boutique stores in the town.
The following morning we woke up early and grabbed a quick breakfast in Port Douglas, then headed off to the north. We were heading for Cape Tribulation, an even smaller and more remote village located along the northern coastline, where I had a mystery activity lined up for Liz. Although the distance to Cape Tribulation was only about 50 miles / 85 kilometers, it was going to take a good two hours to get there by car due to the rough nature of the roads that we would be driving upon. We were going to be traveling through the Daintree Rainforest along the way, and that included making a ferry crossing along the Daintree River. This was the first notable stop that we encountered along the way:
The ferry crossing had signs at the entrance warning that we were entering cassowary country, the tall flightless birds that inhabit the jungles of northern Queensland. Cassowaries aren't too far different from the raptors in Jurassic Park, about the same size only with feathers instead of scales, and they supposedly have a nasty temper. They mostly feed on fruit but can and have killed humans with the claws on their feet, which can reach lengths of 5 inches in size - again, they're basically dinosaurs with feathers. Anyway, we didn't have to wait long before the ferry pulled up to the docks, looking like a prop right out of an Indiana Jones film. The low, flat boat could only carry about a dozen cars at a time but the river was narrow enough and traffic limited enough that this was plenty. With a light rain continuing to fall from the misty fog overhead, this legitimately felt like an adventure, the two of us heading off into the wilderness into parts unknown.
The crossing itself only took a few minutes to reach the other side of the Daintree River. We would have liked to get out and explore the ferry but everyone was cautioned to remain inside their cars throughout the process. The river is supposed to have plenty of crocodiles living in it, although we never saw anything more threatening than a little bird who came along on the ferry for a ride. This was a true blast, and we could have easily been off in the Amazon based on the rainforest scenery that we were experiencing.
These were a few pictures of what the drive looking like heading through the Daintree Rainforest en route to Cape Tribulation. The road mostly stuck to the coastline as it snaked its way through some rough terrain, with thick vegetation overhead blocking out the sky for much of the journey. The rain felt appropriate here even if it was unseasonable, as this area gets drenched on a daily basis throughout the wet portion of the calendar. We made one stop along the way at an overlook named Walu Wugirriga, where it was so foggy outside that we could barely see the ocean off in the distance. I think that one of my favorite things that we spotted along the way was the cassowary crossing signs, which we stopped to take a picture of at one point. We never saw any of the dangerous birds on our trip, which was hardly surprising since they generally steer clear of humans. I would have liked to see one from the safety of our car, but only from that vantage point.
Eventually we reached Cape Tribulation in mid-morning. This geographic feature was named by Captain Cook during his 1770 voyage of exploration, gaining its name due to the fact that Cook's ship ran aground on a reef here and the crew needed to stop and spend some time making repairs. Cape Tribulation made even Port Douglas look like a metropolis, with a population of only 118 people living in the area year-round (although there were more people present for the tourist season). This is a very remote area and it tends to attact backpackers and other tourists who want to make an escape into a natural setting. These pictures were taken at the small beach area of Cape Tribulation, not far from where Captain Cook beached his ship more than two centuries earlier. The most notable feature here was the mangrove trees, with their highly distinctive above-ground root clusters. Those roots would be submerged underwater at high tide and then become exposed at low tide, which was roughly when we were taking these pictures. The entire beach was surrounded by dense jungle foliage and with the misty conditions overhead this continued to be a surreal experience.
We headed from the beach to the surprise activity that I'd planned for Liz, and it turned out to be horseback riding for the two of us! I'm terrible at keeping a straight face and I'm happy that I managed to keep this a mystery right up until when we pulled into the stableyard. We had booked a reservation with Cape Tribulation Horse Rides, the only group in the area that offered horseback riding on the beaches. The facilities for the horses proved to be a bit ramshackle in nature, with the horses that weren't being saddled for the day roaming around the area outside of any paddock. I guess they didn't have anywhere in particular to go and couldn't leave without being noticed. Our riding group for the day had about ten people in total, including a family of five from the Netherlands on holiday. The weather continued to be overcast and rainy so we saddled up with heavy overcoats and prepared to head out on the trail.
Taking pictures from horseback is a little bit tricky to manage, and we relied on our cell phones to capture these images. This was one trail ride where the guides didn't seem to care if we snapped photos while the horses were walking. The initial trail passed through an open meadow before heading into the forests, and we didn't manage to make it even five minutes before the skies opened up and began pouring down with more rain. Liz actually enjoyed this experience as a novelty but I could have done without the continued rain. After riding for about 20 minutes through a muddy forest trail, we emerged onto the beach itself, where the gentle waves of the Pacific Ocean lapped up against the tropical greenery. The rain had temporarily stopped at this point and we actually had a little bit of sunlight poking through the cloud cover overhead.
The trail guides stopped for a few minutes out on the sand to take pictures of everyone. They were very nice about snapping a bunch of pictures with our cell phones, including ducking down into the surf to get a ground-level view looking up at us on horseback. We actually looked a bit like real horseback riders here, between our helmets and our heavy raincoats. (Well, Liz actually does know how to ride whereas I do my best to avoid embarassing myself.) I also got a kick out of the Dutch family on our trip all lined up here in a row of five. The horses did a fantastic job of posing for these pictures as well.
As we turned around and began to retrace our steps back to the stables, the guides led their horses out into the waters of the ocean for the first time. Horses typically don't mind the water and their herd instinct usually causes them to follow the leader even into unusual conditions. My horse didn't want to walk into the ocean but went ahead and followed Liz's horse with some gentle encouragement. Liz thinks that the picture of me above is one of the best that I took on the whole trip, looking a bit like a cowboy as my horse stepped into the waves. All that I needed was boots instead of my sneakers and I think I'd be close to pulling off the look.
We were hit with more rain on the way back as we transitioned from the forest back into the open meadows again. One fun part of the return trip was the guides opening up the pace and letting the horses go to a trot for a short time. Most trail rides don't do this since they're working with inexperienced riders, and the only previous time that I remember taking a horse to a trot was on a ride in Corpus Cristi, Texas when I was about sixteen years old. Liz of course had no problems and could have ridden back at a gallop if need be. We returned safe and sound back to our car, if a little bit on the soaked side. This was a fantastic experience and highly recommended to anyone reading, especially if they like horses. My one regret is that this would have been a lot more fun if we hadn't been getting rained on half the time.
After stopping for lunch at one of the few restaurants in the tiny town of Cape Tribulation, we began the return drive back through the Daintree Rainforest. We stopped along the way at a place called the Daintree Discovery Center, a nature park with a series of trails and elevated walkways running through the rainforest environment. This was our best chance to experience the rainforest up close, including at the canopy level by climbing the observation tower that had been built as part of the attraction. Daintree's rainforest looked pretty much the way that I'd always imagined a jungle to look like, lots of towering trees with thick leaf covering. We could hear plenty of birds calling to one another from the treetops, with a brightly-colored shape occasionally flying into or out of view. The only thing missing was the heat; since we were visiting in the middle of winter, it was cool enough that we were wearing long sleeves and long pants. If we had come back in the middle of January (the Australian summer), this place would have been a hot and humid oven.
The most notable attraction at the Daintree Discovery Center was the canopy tower, a weather and research station that extended up to the level of the treetops. The stated height of the tower was 23 meters / 75 feet and it definitely felt that tall as we climbed up the five stories to the top level. The observation deck at the top was quite small (as the picture of Liz taking a photo for another family of tourists indicated), holding a couple of benches along with the instruments used to record weather data for researchers. Although we were able to look out above the treetops here, we still couldn't see too far because the jungle was simply too thick. The ground was similarly obscured from view when looking straight down, far too many tree branches obstructing the path. As a result the canopy tower was a bit of a letdown for me, a neat experience to be sure but without anything all that interesting to see.
The walking trails that ran through the Daintree Discovery Center better captured the experience of being in a tropical rainforest. This was a chance to see the massive foliage from the ground level, with the small walking paths seemingly swallowed up by greenery on every side. (The Discovery Center has to use metal grating for all of its infrastructure because the climate would eat away at wood in a couple of years.) There was an extensive audio tour for anyone interested in learning more about the plant life on display, too extensive of an audio tour because it had something like 95 different entries for the dozens and dozens of different plant species. We would have listened to more of it if the whole thing hadn't been quite so specialized
Towards the end of one of the walking paths, the Discovery Center began introducing life-sized models of various different extinct animals that used to live in this region in the distant past. There were the expected dinosaurs along with some giant birds and mammals from the Cenozoic Era that looked pretty terrifying. The Daintree Rainforest is one of the more unique areas in the world since it has remained a tropical rainforest for roughly the last 100 million years, long after the rest of Australia converted to mostly desert and grassland climates. It was all too easy to imagine dinosaurs roaming through these steamy jungles in the far distant past.
We finished up at Daintree Discovery Center in the afternoon and completed our drive back to Port Douglas, including crossing back over the ferry a second time in uneventful fashion. We were up early the next morning to catch our next flight out of the airport in Cairns, and these were some of the pictures that we took along the coastal drive from Port Douglas to Cairns. Unlike our initial drive along the coast a couple days earlier, this time the weather was being cooperative and we were able to capture some of the beautiful wild beaches along the way. We were honestly a little bit annoyed that after several days of rain, now the skies were finally opening up with sunshine right as we were about to hop on a plane and fly down to Sydney. At least we did get to experience these lovely views for a little while, especially the elevated scenic lookout at Rex Point in the last image. People apparently leap off this hill to go hang gliding on the ocean winds, which sounds like a ton of fun if I knew how to do it without killing myself.
And that brought us back to the Cairns airport for what should have been a routine flight. We were set to fly out of Cairns at 11:00 AM on a Tigerair flight and arrive at Sydney at 2:00 PM, with enough time to pick up our rental car and spend some time at Bondi Beach before heading downtown to find our hotel. Everything was normal enough right until we were set to board the plane. We were waiting in line at the door to the plane itself when the airport staff told everyone that they had to return back to the terminal. While that's never a good sign, the Tigerair staff reassured everyone that the plane was experiencing mechanical issues that would soon be fixed and to wait for more announcements. We waited for about an hour before getting another annoucement: the flight would be delayed until 4:30 PM that afternoon and that everyone would need to pick up new boarding passes at the front desk. That was a real downer as it meant that we were going to lose out on a full afternoon in Sydney but there wasn't much we could do. We picked up a new boarding pass, went through security again, and continued waiting at the Cairns airport.
Unfortunately that wasn't the end of our troubles. At around 3:00 PM there was another annoucement that we needed to head back to the front desk yet again. Now there was even worse news: Tigerair couldn't find a mechanic to fix the plane and the flight was canceled entirely, with passengers being asked to check into a hotel and wait for another flight to depart the next morning. This was a total disaster, as we were not only losing the entire day to these travel shenanigans, but we were about to lose part of the following day as well. We had a tour booked for the Sydney Opera House for 9:00 AM the next morning that we did not want to miss. Making matters worse, we could have easily booked another flight into Sydney if Tigerair had simply told us earlier that they were canceling the flight, but by waiting until the late afternoon they had left us with precious few options. We were pretty angry at how we'd been given the run-around all day. Liz was amazing and managed to use her phone to book us last-minute tickets on the only remaining Virgin Australia flight into Sydney that night, paying through the nose at double the rate of our current fares. But it was worth it, as we *HAD* to get out of the Cairns airport by any means necessary at this point before more of our vacation was swallowed up by this nightmare.
Thus we finally managed to get on our new Virgin Australia flight that evening at 6:30 PM, and that was when the above pictures were taken. It was a stressful and frustrating day, and for all of the good things that we saw in Cairns and Port Douglas, the poor weather and the terrible airport experience on departure detracted a bit from the overall experience. Maybe we'll be back again later in the hopes of getting some actual sunshine and warm weather from an area that, again, largely shares the same weather with the islands in the Caribbean. In the meantime, we did learn an important lesson: don't book airplane tickets with Tigerair! Virgin Australia was more expensive but also far more reliable.
Next up: finally arriving in Sydney after the airport experience from hell.