Leonie Coombes gets the most out of a wet and windy week­end in Cairns

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

HEY call this part of Queens­land the Wet Trop­ics with good cause. We de­part Syd­ney in fine weather and ar­rive three hours later to over­cast skies and spot­ting rain. Not enough to spoil an in­ti­mate week­end get­away. Be­sides, our ho­tel, the Sebel Cairns, is beau­ti­fully sit­u­ated close to the cen­tre of town and of­fers ev­ery con­ceiv­able lux­ury. Who cares about the weather, we say to one an­other.

Old-fash­ioned Queens­land ar­chi­tec­ture en­dures in the heart of Cairns where deep, over-hang­ing ve­ran­das shade pedes­tri­ans from the heat and rain. Coun­try-style colo­nial pubs that wel­comed bushies in for a few beers more than a cen­tury ago now court an in­ter­na­tional clien­tele. But com­pet­ing with them are nu­mer­ous li­censed restau­rants and trendy cafes serv­ing ev­ery­thing from meat pies to sushi.

The rain con­tin­ues so the pop­u­lar water­front walk along Cairns Es­planade is out as it’s too ex­posed; so too are the Botanic Gar­dens. Catch­ing a movie is for quit­ters. We trawl through Rusty’s Mar­ket be­cause it is mid­town, roofed and of­fers one of Aus­tralia’s most en­tic­ing dis­plays of trop­i­cal pro­duce. Next we head for the Reef Casino, and not for the gam­bling. On the roof of this build­ing is Cairns Wildlife Dome. The lift, within sight of vo­ra­cious pok­ies, takes vis­i­tors to a world in­hab­ited by even hun­grier crea­tures.

Go­liath, a 4m salt­wa­ter croc­o­dile, lives up here in an en­closed pool that repli­cates con­di­tions he may have en­joyed in the wild. Feed­ing time is in­struc­tive. His som­no­lent de­meanour changes al­most im­per­cep­ti­bly to open-eyed aware­ness when a chicken wing on a string is splashed nearby. He barely moves a mus­cle. Then, lung­ing at it with awe­some en­ergy, his jaws close around the morsel with a loud woomp. We jump back in­stinc­tively.

Docile crea­tures live in this leafy, net­ted realm, too. We scratch the back of a sleepy koala cling­ing to a keeper. Bet­tongs, snakes, lizards and sev­eral na­tive bird species all seem hap­pily un­aware that theirs is a rooftop world.

Across the road, in our comfortable eyrie on the ninth floor of the Sebel, we sur­vey scud­ding clouds and driv­ing rain. We make our way to Co­cos, the Sebel’s ex­cel­lent restau­rant. Palms whip and sway; we drink lots and we eat, be­cause the piled prawns, oys­ters and bugs at the seafood buf­fet, to­gether with fish, roasts, ter­rines and hand­made del­i­ca­cies, will sus­tain us through the wild night ahead.

But we awake to calm air, sun­shine pok­ing be­hind cloud. We de­cide on main­land ad­ven­tur­ing in a rental car. The help­ful concierge ar­ranges for a ve­hi­cle to be de­liv­ered to the Sebel, con­sults with us on the best places to go and waves us off within 45 min­utes.

In a con­vert­ible with its hood down, all our cares blow away. The scenic road to Cape Tribu­la­tion, about three hours to the north, takes us by un­tram­melled beaches fac­ing the Coral Sea with high hills be­hind for pro­tec­tion. We pause for lunch in the pretty in­land town of Moss­man be­fore pro­ceed­ing to the Daintree River and its ve­hi­cle ferry. Driv­ing off, we en­ter the 135-mil­lion-year-old trop­i­cal rain­for­est.

Min­utes away is the won­der­ful Daintree Dis­cov­ery Cen­tre, with its 23m high Canopy Tower over­look­ing soar­ing trees and the for­est floor. Aerial walk­ways and ground-level trails through ferns and bush tucker plants com­monly pro­duce sight­ings of cas­sowaries, brush tur­keys and Ulysses blue but­ter­flies. Equally im­por­tant, the cen­tre’s cof­fee shop serves cap­puc­ci­nos that meet the stan­dards of peo­ple who drive con­vert­ibles. It is all so invit­ing that re­turn­ing to ours is dif­fi­cult.

It is a slow but up­lift­ing 65km drive from Daintree to Cape Tribu­la­tion. Head­ing north we pass through small com­mu­ni­ties such as Cow Bay, made up of farms, a school and a mo­tel. Far­ther on, bun­ga­lows, re­sorts and restau­rants are tan­ta­lis­ingly con­cealed in a green leaf­s­cape of vines, trees and dense shrubs crowd­ing in on the wind­ing but sealed road. On ar­rival at the cape we walk a short path­way to sur­vey the hori­zon from a grey sand beach that forms a broad arc.

In June 1770, James Cook took a par­al­lel course up this un­charted coast in a small ves­sel, dodg­ing reefs. Here be­gun all our trou­bles,’’ he said of this re­mote spot, when En­deav­our struck and stuck fast on coral 20km off­shore. Cook named it Cape Tribu­la­tion in dour re­sponse to his mis­for­tune. Im­me­di­ately re­al­is­ing that tribu­la­tion was an un­der­state­ment, he called the peak be­hind Mt Sor­row. It is an el­e­gant re­sponse to what must have been an ex­ple­tive-filled sit­u­a­tion.

Fos­sick­ing for shells, we feel as un­trou­bled as Cook must have felt des­per­ate. That aside, it oc­curs to us that

Rise and shine: Early-morn­ing walk­ers and cy­clists prom­e­nade along Cairns Es­planade, past the la­goon that’s a pop­u­lar spot for cool­ing off when the tem­per­a­ture rises

Head­ing north: Driv­ing near Moss­man, en route to Cape Tribu­la­tion lit­tle has changed in this un­spoiled re­gion for the past 239 years. Head­ing back down the coast we too strike a mod­icum of tribu­la­tion when the weather closes in and rain buck­ets down without much warn­ing. It is, af­ter all, the wet sea­son, which ex­tends from Novem­ber to May. The nar­row road of­fers few op­por­tu­ni­ties to pull over and put the hood up on our im­age-en­hanc­ing con­vert­ible. Sit­ting there in our droop­ing base­ball caps, a sor­row­ful sight to smirk­ing dry mo­torists, we have time to re­flect on the de­fi­cien­cies of top­less cars. Mo­torised hoods go up very slowly when you are get­ting drenched.

Slightly bedrag­gled, we stop at Port Dou­glas for din­ner. This so­phis­ti­cated hol­i­day town, a 45 min­ut­edrive north of Cairns, is a stark con­trast to the wilder­ness around Cape Tribu­la­tion, but no less ap­peal­ing. Re­tain­ing some­thing of the at­mos­phere of a 19th-cen­tury port de­spite a sprawl of lux­u­ri­ous re­sorts, the is­sue here is where to eat. Award-winning

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