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