Saturday 2 December 2023

JJ's on Tour - Port Douglas, Kuranda Skyrail & Great Barrier Reef, Australia.

Having enjoyed a wonderful few days on Hamilton Island, see link below, we were back onboard a plane heading south to Brisbane to catch a connecting flight to travel further north into Queensland and up the coast to Cairns where we intended to hire a car and drive to Port Douglas.
JJ's on Tour - Hamilton Island and Whitehaven Beach

The flight to Cairns via Brisbane is just over six hours, and once we had landed and picked up our car the evening was already closing in, and so we stopped off in the outskirts of what appeared to be a lovely looking city, and somewhere it would have been nice to linger, but instead quickly picked up a few groceries, before driving to our accommodation. 

Our route so far on our travels through Australia, starting down in Melbourne just before New Year 2023.
Map courtesy of

The first leg of our stay saw us basing ourselves is the little coastal town of Port Douglas, home to some 3,500 - 4,000 souls, that can often double with the influx of tourists like us staying there, with the town named in honour of the former Premier of Queensland, John Douglas from March 1877 to January 1879.

Premier of Queensland, from March 1877 to January 1879,
John Douglas after whom Port Douglas is named.

We had made the trip to this part of the state to see the coastal features of this amazing part of the world, namely the lush tropical rainforests that clad the nearby mountains and of course a closer look at the Great Barrier Reef.

As you will see from the map below Port Douglas was handily placed for our plan to take a couple of boat trips out to explore the reef at Low Isles and the local coast area with its classic mangroves and sometimes home to the Australian Salt Water Crocodile, and also to head back down towards Cairns to take the world famous Kuranda Skyrail that offers a very unique way to see the rainforest, from the canopy and at ground level before taking a glorious rail trip back down to the coast via the Kuranda railway.

After landing at Cairns airport we made the one hour drive up the coast, via the Cook Highway, Route 44, to Port Douglas, top left on the map, with a nine mile boat trip planned the next day out to Low Isles close to Batt Reef on the Great Barrier Reef, and later return south to enjoy the Kuranda Skyrail and our fist close up look at the Daintree Rainforest.

Whilst staying in the area we then planned to relocate to the Daintree Rainforest Ecolodge where we could spend some time right in the heart of the forest, before returning to the coast for the final part of our stay at Palm Cove, those legs to be covered in future posts.

I should say that on arrivals at Cairns Airport I was delighted to see that one of my planned visits for our stay was well represented in the passenger forecourt as we made our way out to the car hire office in the form of this nicely restored Daimler Dingo Scout Car, suitably displayed in the markings of my Dad's old division, Guard's Armoured, and displaying the tac-sign '52' indicating a vehicle of the 1st Bridging Troop, Royal Engineers, from the collection of the Australian Armour and Artillery Museum, close by on the outskirts of town.

Daimler Dingo Scout Car in the markings of Guards Armoured Division, at Cairns Airport, from the Australian Armour and Artillery Museum, to be covered in a future post. 

It was getting a bit 'dimpsey' (an ancient Devonian expression that you can Google)  by the time we got to Port Douglas, so we contented ourselves in grabbing a bite to eat that evening before exploring the town the next morning.

Living close to the sea ourselves, all be it in a very different part of the world, we immediately tuned into the small coastal town vibe that we are very familiar with and we were blessed with some glorious sunny weather shinning bright over the marina the next morning, in perfect timing for our planned boat trip to Low Isles out on the Great Barrier Reef.

Port Douglas Marina looking splendid under a beautifully blue North Queensland sky setting up the day for out trip to Low Isles on the Great Barrier Reef.

The Low Isles is a short nine mile boat trip out from Port Douglas and the destination for our first day in town aboard the former America's Cup Press Boat 'Wavedancer, seen below.

We were very impressed with the giant catamaran 'Wavedancer' that was the boat to take us out for our day on Low Isles, and the crew made everyone feel very welcome, with plenty of room on board to find a pleasant spot to sit and just enjoy the view as we made our way out, it having been constructed as a 'Press-Boat' for a previous America's Cup Yacht Race event, not to mention the very enjoyable catering for those feeling peckish that included a great buffet lunch on board before we made our way to the island on the glass bottom boat that enabled a dry look at the reef below.

The 98-foot luxury catamaran Wavedancer, our boat for the day on our trip to Low Isles 

As I mentioned, the boat and catering arrangements were very easy to enjoy!

Port Douglas and the moorings in Packers Creek

Our first view of Low Isles and its imposing lighthouse

The short nine mile trip out to the islands was very pleasant and once the Wavedancer was tied up to its floating mooring, and after our very enjoyable buffet lunch, we were encouraged to prepare for the short boat trip in to the island, with those intending to bathe with the Irukandji donning their stinger suits before embarking, whereas those of us intending to simply enjoy exploring the island and soaking up a bit of R&R in the sun whilst observing the wildlife opted for the glass bottom boat that enabled a dry viewing of the coral on the Great Barrier Reef, doing very well I gather, despite all the prostrations from various quarters that the natural wonder was doomed before the early part of the century was over.

Our first view of the Great Barrier Reef and its blooming coral

Low Isles is made up of two islands, Low Island being a sandy cay, whilst the nearby Woody Island is a mangrove island, with both adjacent to the reef that surrounds them and is home to a diverse community of marine life.

The reef seen in these pictures is dominated by fifteen species of soft corals and over 150 species of hard corals dispersed among them, providing a home for a large variety of fish, molluscs, sea cucumbers and other animals.

There are nine species of sea grass growing on the sand flats of Low Isles which is home to the spider shell, rays, green turtles and dugongs, and interestingly the late Steve Irwin was killed by a stingray on the Batt Reef, just east of Low Isles.

More accustomed to looking skywards rather than seawards, the one thing that immediately caught my attention over and above the constant briefings from the crew about this that and the other, was the birdlife, especially as our travels to this part of the world had coincided with the height of the breeding season for most species, and I immediately noticed two species of Terns flying over and close to the boat, which I later identified as Bridled and Greater Crested, which heralded a splendid afternoon of the most delightful bird watching any enthusiast could enjoy.

Stinger suits donned, the water did its trick of drawing the bathers

A Bridled Tern, one of many to be seen from the islands breeding colony, cruising on a fishing trip with plenty of hungry fledglings to be seen on shore.

Bridled Terns populate the island and were in full-on chick-raising duties during our visit

In addition to the Terns, other treats lay instore with our first introduction to the local giant pigeon we were to become more familiar with during our stay in this part of Queensland, with the Pied Imperial Pigeon, busy with nest duties in the shade of the fronds of a coconut palm close to the beach.

A Pied Imperial Pigeon sat on the nest, securely arranged in a coconut tree

The other species of Tern seen during our visit to Low Isles were these Greater Crested Terns, equally busy feeding their young

However the 'piste de resistance' of the day lay only a few yards away at the top of the Low Isles Light House, established in November 1878 and with modernisation keeping it still in operation today, protecting mariners from the hazards of the local waters around.

As we gazed up it was very noticeable that the gaze was being returned, and the massive heap of sticks adorning the top of the light soon drew the eye to the new keeper, one of a pair of Eastern Ospreys, themselves very busy with the work of bringing up a new generation.

My only experience of Ospreys in the northern hemisphere is seeing the nest site of the protected pair that set up home on Loch Garten in Scotland, back in the nineties, but the birds were long gone when we visited the site, that and seeing the odd captive bird, so seeing this closely related species in the wild next to its nest was a holiday highlight and a real treat.

The magnificent Eastern Osprey perched below the nest and such a treat to see. 

The knowledge modern science has around the Great Barrier Reef is based on the work of the great research done by people like Dr Charles Maurice Yonge who at the tender age of 28 was appointed leader of an expedition of twelve scientists to Low Isle and the Great Barrier Reef, arriving on the 16th July 1928, together with his new wife Mattie, who served as the expedition's medical officer.

Sir Charles Yonge and his wife Mattie in 1928-29 during the expedition to the Low Isles.

In the thirteen months of pioneering research carried out by this team from the British Association for the Advancement of Science they concluded their expedition with ground breaking studies of the giant clams and their relationship with the local corals, forming much of the basis of clam research today

The island houses a delightful museum recording the exploits of these pioneering scientists together with displays of items associated with their stay.

An old winch, used to drag trolleys up the beach with stores brought in by boat, circa 1920.

Our day on Low Isle simply flew by and in seemingly no time we were heading back to the Wavedancer with a bit of a wait while successive boat trips went back to the beach to collect more of our party, giving time for those of us already aboard to observe the marine life that tends to gather around large boats, particularly when little people are want to drop the occasional tit-bit overboard.

Batfish were drawn to the stern of the boat by the occasional tit-bit dropped by fascinated children and adults

Of course if you draw fish to a boat in these waters you might get more than you bargained for, with this Reef Shark I photographed coming close to the boat to take a closer look.

Our first day based in Port Douglas was a spectacular adventure out on to the Great Barrier Reef in glorious sunshine. Our next day was to be equally spectacular if very much different and with a sky, the time of year being the 'wet season', heralding a change in the weather as the clouds rolled in over the Coral Sea.

Located about fifteen minutes north of Cairns the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway is a great way to get to see the world's oldest tropical rainforest as it makes the five mile climb up to Kuranda on the Atherton Tableland, with the opportunity to explore it over and below the canopy and like the Great Barrier Reef off shore is one of the great natural wonders that north Queensland has to offer.

The views offered of the coastal area in this part of Australia are simply stunning, as I hope my pictures have captured, and as the car starts to climb into the coastal Macalister mountain range, clad in thick rainforest of ancient trees, the views of the forest canopy and the occasional glimpse of the rugged terrain below are absorbingly breath taking.
The view from the car to Smithfields, a suburb of Cairns and beyond to Machans Beach

As mentioned the Skyrail offers the visitor the opportunity to see the forest not only from above, but by stepping off at about the halfway point of the climb, at the Rainforest Interpretation Centre, you also get the opportunity to follow a boarded walkway through the forest with lots of information boards strategically placed to give you more of an idea about the extraordinary plants and animals that inhabit this place.

Much of the National Park in the local area has restricted access due to the need to protect the shy and often elusive Cassowary, a large flightless bird that inhabits the deep parts of the rainforest and with its predilection of feeding on the fruits of several hundred species of rainforest plants and trees, plays a vital role in the ecosystem by its ability to spread the seeds of those plants over a very wide area in their dense scats, with the rare Ryparosa tree found to have a much higher germination rate after its seeds have passed through the gut of the Cassowary.

As with all dense rainforest this whole ecosystem is about a race for the light, and the trees that make up the great variety to be seen are designed to grow quickly and take advantage of any gaps in the canopy caused by the demise of a former resident.

The dense clusters of 'Oskars', small saplings with large leaves, are known to be very patient for their opportunity to make a bid for any gap that occurs, with many of them as old as twenty years and ready at a moment to put on a spurt of growth under the trigger of increased light.

Whilst other species, such as the 'Pioneer' find it impossible to survive in the gloom of the forest and so their seeds lie dormant until similarly triggered into growth.

With trees like the mighty Queensland Kauri, the example seen above, likely more than 400 years old, patience is important as well as fast growth, as this species is remarkable for the speed in which it grows straight and tall, punching through the canopy before spreading out like a giant umbrella to block out the sun to all those below.

The Kauri has been around for about 200 million years and, having no low branches, has developed a smooth self-shedding bark that helps it prevent its demise at the expense of strangling vines and other plants that would use it to climb ever higher and compete with it for the light.

In the Rainforest Interpretation Centre you will find lots of information about this very ancient eco-system, together with some excellent recreations of the local wildlife that you may not see at the time of your visit, or if you do see them prove to be very difficult to photograph!

Sadly not the real thing, but a model in the nearby Skyrail information display, of a mighty Ulysses Butterfly, Papilio ulysses, with a wingspan getting up to 10.5cms, that are massive, looking like bright blue tea plates flying through the forest, but never stopping long enough to let me get their picture, so I had to content with showing you this instead.

Again not the real bird and its young, but we would get to see the astonishing Southern Cassowary when we arrived at the top stop of our cable-car trip at Kuranda.

Climbing aboard the next cable car we carried on with our ascent, totally absorbed with the extraordinary views of the surrounding country as we passed over Barron River and its Falls and the railway that would complete the second part of our adventure as we descended back down to the coast.

The mighty Barron River dominates this part of the country

The first time we caught sight of the Barron Falls it was not that impressive in terms of flow as the rain had been slight in the preceding days but we would return by car a few days later, after the weather had changed, and it was very impressive to see how quickly a couple of days of rain could turn these falls into a mighty torrent. 

A glimpse of the next part of our journey following lunch in Kuranda.

Stepping off the cable car in Kuranda, we had time to kill in the town while we waited for the train to take us down to the coast, and so after a spot of lunch and a wonder around the stalls in the market, we whiled away the time enjoying the birds in the Kuranda Bird World, home to some sixty native and exotic species from other rainforests around the world.

Carolyn making friends with a local Galah

My sandals getting a close inspection from an Electus Parrot, Electus roratus, a native species in Australia and New Guinea.

An Alexandrine Parakeet, Psittacula eupatria, native to south and south-east Asia 

A shy Indian Ringed-neck Parakeet, Psittacula krameri, this one being a yellow flavour, others can be a blueish grey and the more familiar green, native to Africa and Asia.

Two wonderful Major Mitchell's Cockatoo or Pink Cockatoo, Lophachroa leadbeateri, more often to be seen in the more arid and semi-arid inland areas of Australia and also South-East Queensland's sub-tropical region.

A Pied Heron, Ardea picata, also known as the Pied Egret and found frequenting the coastal and sub-coastal areas of Northern Australia as well as parts of New Guinea

The Eastern Cattle Egret, Bubulcus coromandus, a species of heron, native to south, south eastern Asia and Australia.

An impressive White Faced Heron, Egretta novaehollandiae, common in all but the driest parts of Australia, this bird is also found in Indonesia and parts of New Zealand.

Two affectionate Java Sparrows, or Java Finch, Lonchura oryzivora, native to Indonesia and a popular cage bird, but because of the illegal pet trade and persecution by farmers because of its feeding on rice, all this together with loss of natural habitat has seen this bird put on the endangered list.

A bird that I was so pleased to see given its importance to the local area and one that can be difficult to see in the wild, due to its rather shy habits and limited access to its breeding areas, was this Southern Cassowary, Casaurius casaurius, now listed as endangered under Australian Federal legislation and vulnerable under Queensland listings with an estimated 5,000 birds remaining in Australia from a count made in June 2023.

This bird has to be treated with respect as like many flightless birds when they feel threatened, can rely on powerful clawed toes as well as an ability to jump high to deliver slashing blows against people and animals, with the innermost claw on each foot elongated and very sharp. 

The Cassowary is closely related to the Kiwi, another remarkable Antipodean bird we saw on our travels, with males similar in appearance to but smaller than females who are the dominant sex, with males avoiding the latter if meeting inadvertently outside of the breeding season. The presence of the noticeable helmet or casque, a bony core surmounted by a leathery keratinous sheath, this one seen here missing a large chunk on top, remains a subject of much speculation, with one theory suspecting its use for heat control in the bird, allowing it to dissipate heat and keep cool in hot weather.

My quick snap of a Helmeted Friarbird, Philemon buceroids, in action and helping to reduce the number of large bugs Australia has in abundance. Most prominent in the Northern coastal territories of Australia and found in Indonesia, mainly to be found in sub-tropical and tropical forests, the Friarbird population is stable at present but forecast to decline by about ten percent in the next ten years putting the species in the vulnerable category.

A walk around the Kuranda Bird World is well recommended if you have time to spare waiting for a train, and we found the time flew by, quite literally, and we were soon needing to make our way to the station but on the way out took the time to take a look at another kind of bird, this one not in such a particularly healthy state.

Built in late 1942 in Long Beach, California, this US 5th Airforce C-47, serial no. 41-38668 arrived in Brisbane in January 1943, and given the name 'Geronimo', serving in a wartime roll, until her handing over to the Australian authorities to be registered for civilian use in 1944 and pictured below serving with Trans-Australia Airline in 1962.

By the early eighties Geronimo was retired and awaiting the wreckers yard, to be recued for her final role as a film star in 1983, during which the damage she sustained saw her back at the wreckers yard after filming had concluded, before her shattered remains were purchased and she found her final resting place here in Kuranda.

A rather sad end for a grand old lady, but fortunately we are blessed with a fair few C47's around the world, many in flying condition, to remember this fine transport aircraft that helped the Allies to victory in WWII.

I have been to many railway stations in my life, with fond memories as a five year old insisting that my Mum stop the car outside Backwell station in Somerset, so that I could watch the London express, steam engines back then, pass through, and I love the opportunity when it presents to simply let the train take the strain, to quote an old British Rail advert, rather than drive.

JJ’s Wargames on Tour - South Island New Zealand, Part Two

That said the Kuranda railway and its stunningly picturesque station amid its rainforest setting has to be up there, along with our amazing trip over the mountains in South Island, New Zealand, from Greymouth to Christchurch on Christmas Eve, link above.

The sign on the sides of the carriages tells you all you need to know about what this railway journey is all about, and not just the function of taking us back down to the coast so that we could make the drive back up to Port Douglas.

The feeling I got of pleasurable train journeys back home was only enhanced by the cream and brown livery of the carriages, mimicking the look of the old trains that used to ply their way down to my home in Blighty, namely the old Great Western Railway, GWR, affectionately known as God’s Wonderful Railway with stretches between Exeter and Penzance running along the coast and still following the route designed and built by the great British engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

However the scenery on this railway journey is in the Premier League, as we soon discovered, as our train made a gentle passage along a curving rail that meandered through rainforest clad rocky slopes draped in waterfalls, combined with intermittent stops to allow the passengers to descend onto a platform lookout and take time to absorb the view in pleasant contemplation.

Since returning home, we have recommended this railway trip to friends and family who were heading to this part of the world and they have reported back how grateful they were that we did, as they to were simply blown away by this wonderful train journey, and it’s certainly an experience that will live long in the memory for both Carolyn and myself.

Our return to Port Douglas coincided with a marked change in the weather and we counted ourselves so fortunate to have had the weather we did on the first day of our stay for our trip out to Low Isles.

However no matter how overcast our last few days in the town were it was still lovely and warm outside even in a strong coastal breeze and we made the most of our stay by walking the nearby cliffs to get another view of the local sights that included Four Mile Beach and the mouth of the harbour and marina

The view from the cliffs at Port Douglas looking back along Four Mile Beech. 

A Varied Triller Lalage leucomela perched in the cliff top trees during our walk on the coast near Port Douglas. A small member of the Cuckoo Shrike family it can be seen along much of the tropical and sub-tropical hinterland of the east-coast of Australia, ranging from Sydney to the Cape York Peninsula, feasting on insects and fruit in the rainforests and woodland.

White-Breasted Woodswallow fledglings, Artamus leucorynchus, were everywhere about the town as were their parents, delighting in the ready meals of flying insects that inhabit the river mangroves ready to be caught on the wing by these very agile flyers.

On out last day in Port Douglas before our relocating to the Daintree Rainforest Ecolodge, we decided to enjoy ourselves with a trip along the mouth of Packers Creek that forms the marina and harbour of the town, on the paddleboat, Lady Douglas, offering another opportunity to seeing the town from another view point as well as more of the local wildlife.

On the way along the creek there were the usual pleasure boats moored up, with the odd one such as that below, that immediately caught my eye, another Pearl Lugger of the type seen in Brisbane, this one beautifully restored and certainly not rigged for any diving excursions.

The trip also gave a great view of the mangroves, that form such an important part of the local ecosystem providing as they do important breeding habitat for many fish, waterborne insects and other marine life, further supporting the local bird life such as the Woodswallows seen previously, and the Magpie Geese that flew overhead and were to become a familiar sight on our journey through Northern Australia.

The banks of Packers Creek are festooned with mangrove trees

A flight of Magpie Geese, Anseranas semipalmata, with there very pronounced foreheads, passed overhead as we made our way up Packers Creek.

As you can see from the pictures, the sky remained decidedly changeable and moody, but our boat trip made for a very pleasant diversion and with most of the flying invertebrates grounded by the blustery conditions, the Woodswallows were similarly confined and were to be found awaiting our return to the dock, festooning the rigging of the other tied up boats, taking a break from the fledgling feeding.

The next day we were leaving Port Douglas, bound for Cape Tribulation, before retracing our route for a short stay in the heart of the Daintree Rainforest and our Ecolodge accommodation.

Next up: The Camperdown project continues with the completion of the British Leeward Division and a look at the history of the three new ships that have just finished completion in JJ's rigging yards, more anon.


No comments:

Post a Comment