All twelve days of Australian adventure can be found here.
Notes on the Country of Australia
Day Six (May 12, 2012)
in which we get to Cairns, ride a train to the rain forest, meet koalas and do some singing
The morning view from the top floors of the Pacific International Hotel in Cairns is pretty darn breathtaking. The sun bounces off the harbor, lights up the rain-forested mountains further inland and gives depth to the clouds as it tries in vain to burn off the never-ending supply.
So how do you get to that view? You start by catching your flight the day before from Sydney. Australian airports are adorable, because they service an entire continent without being much larger than an airport you’d find in, oh, Iowa. Even so, get there two hours early, so you can enjoy the full Australian airport experience. Look for discount Billabong shirts in the terminal’s surf wear shop. Buy some chocolate-covered macadamia nuts with a koala on the package. Skim the magazine racks to see what Australian pop culture looks like. Be horrified as you realize that they adopt huge portions of American pop culture, and that out of everything they could have selected, they went with the Kardashians.
Australian airports also have bag scanners from 200 years in the future. You get some kind of a sticker with a bar code attached to your bag, you put it on the stand, and then twin lasers circle your bag to get the bar code. I don’t know that it’s better than what we’re doing in America, but it looks very futuristic. That’s what you want to see before hopping on the giant metal bird that will hang in the sky long enough to get you to Queensland.
The Cairns airport is even tinier than Sydney’s, because now that the gold-mining industry has hit a rough patch over the last century or so, Cairns is only for the tourists. We got off our plane well after sunset, and it was raining our whole ride to the hotel; you couldn’t see the town as we drove. The other passengers in the airport shuttle were two pairs of women – one older set and one younger – headed to town for a girls-only party weekend; fortune smiled on us, and neither pair joined us when we got out at the Pacific International. We checked in and went to bed in our sky palace on one of the upper floors.
And when we woke up, what a view! Our balcony faced the harbor, looking across “downtown” Cairns – a slice of waterside living, somewhere between the Jersey Shore and South Beach. Without any beach.
Funny story on that. The waterfront at Cairns (pronounced Cahns, for those who speak no Australian) is a mangrove swamp in its natural state. Mangrove swamps are amazing sources of biodiversity and natural beauty – a complex yet inspiring ecosystem where flora and fauna engage in a delicate symbiotic dance. But they are bad spots for hard-bodied 22-year-olds to hang out in thong bikinis.
The greater Cairns tourism council thought long and hard, consulting with the 22-year-old bikini-wearing hardbodies council. After painstaking research and a very dignified tequila mixer, they determined that a beach might be better for business. So they ripped out a mile and a half of mangroves, dropped down some sand and waited for the magic to happen.
It worked great for a little while, but no one told the harbor about the plan. After a few weeks, tidal patterns started converting the beach into a mud flat, and every afternoon at low tide, the waterfront looked out on a vast plain of mildly smelly eco-muck. This was also not suitable habitat for 22-year-old hardbodies, so they started to think about how to get rid of the mud. Only, before anyone could do anything, enough birds and other species that love mud flats moved into the area. Environmentalist, presumably still pissed about the mangrove thing, weren’t going to lose Round 2, so they helped secure some legal protections for the mud flats. So now tourists enjoy a scenic brown vista, filled with long-legged birds, mudskippers and crocodiles waiting to eat small dogs that get too close to the edge of the boardwalk.
As to the culture: Queensland is a world apart from New South Wales. It’s warmer (mid-80s in May, compared with mid-60s), it’s smaller (150,000 people in Cairns to 4.6 million in Sydney) and it’s slower. No Australian city is as tightly wound as Washington, but Cairns has a vacation vibe that set it apart from our previous location. There’s regular businesses there, but most days the ratio of smelly international backpackers to people in three-piece suits hovers at 1,000:1. Where Sydney has a little bit of everything, Cairns has dive bars and nature – and if you aren’t a smelly international backpacker, you’re going to get the tourist version of nature. The key is to embrace that fact.
Fortunately, Allyson and I were in a total-immersion program for tourists, because the Pacific International hotel caters primarily to Asians. We found this out while taking in our breakfast; we were the only white customers in the hotel’s restaurant.
Also, it should be noted that the hotel’s restaurant, the Bushfire Flame Grill, operates at night as a Brazilian-style BBQ working with Australian ingredients, serving mostly Asians.
The exciting details of our breakfast are lost to history, as they are crowded out by the memory of what followed. We didn’t want to waste our first day wandering Cairns in a haze; instead, we went online days earlier, assessed the tourism options and booked some adventures before we even arrived. That morning, we were going to take a choo-choo.
Cairns was a mining town in the late 19th century. Companies found gold in the highlands, then transported it down to the coastal ports to take it somewhere you could actually spend money. With all the flooding and mudslides that you get in the rainforests, someone had the bright idea that a reliable railroad might be the best way to get supplies and cheap labor up to the mountains. Since they had all that cheap labor on hand, they used it – rather than technology or engineering expertise – to hack a rail line along, through and over mountains. It was one of those inspiring 10-year projects where human life is the smallest line-item on your budget.
There’s no more gold in them thar hills, but the Kuranda Scenic Railway remains. A big tour bus drove us about six miles through sugarcane fields to the Freshwater Station. After a few minutes looking at the historic displays – dioramas and that sort of thing – we could hear the train pulling up. As trains go, it was cute. We had the regular accommodations, sharing a wood-paneled passenger car with all the other tourists; we were across from a completely unfriendly middle-aged couple and behind two younger girls who were wearing a conspicuous amount of makeup for a rainforest. They didn’t smile once. Sullen girls with too much makeup: they are a planetary phenomenon.
The ride is, as billed, scenic. Once the train starts climbing, you’re traveling along the side of a mountain, through a rainforest, with views of the ocean peeking through the trees on one side of the train. When you cross a span on a bridge, it’s because you’re passing a waterfall on the other side of the train. The tunnels are not lit and therefore slightly less scenic, but if you’re observant you can make out the ectoplasmic trails of the ghosts of drunken Irish immigrant laborers who died in dynamite pranks.
It’s cool, I’m 1/16 Irish.
Near the end of the ride (which takes an hour or so) you get the most scenic view of all. The Barron River makes about a 300-foot nosedive down a rock face. In the wet season, it’s probably mind-boggling, but even during our visit it was pretty enough for a picture. And if you don’t believe me, ask the many Asian tourists on the train.
The real beauty of the scenic railway isn’t the scenery, though. It’s the destination. The train lets you out at Kuranda. Just like Cairns, it was a town built for the mines and plantations (coffee, in this case); just like Cairns, it now relies almost exclusively on tourism. Unlike Cairns, it effectively doubles as the name of a stereotypical, assertive black woman who refers to herself in the third person. As in, “Kuranda don’t think so.”
Kuranda always had a tourism element – in ye olde days, if you had a hotel near a big waterfall or hot spring, you were the equivalent of Disneyland – and now that we’re in the 21st century, they have the system down. The train gets you to town late in the morning, you can catch another touristy mode of conveyance back to Cairns in the late afternoon, and in the hours in between you have about 8 fun tourist traps to choose from. To get to them, you have to walk past food courts and 20 different souvenir shops. The ice-cream-shop to year-round-resident ratio is hovering around 1:2.
We weren’t window shopping, though. This was a hard-target special-ops tourism mission, with Allyson running point. We were going to see some koalas.
Now, my wife is an exceptional woman of many talents; each day I am inspired by her unique gifts and cherish the many foibles that make her the woman I love. She is a completely unremarkable woman, however, in her dopey love of animals. She finds pigs in costumes irresistible; and she is particularly enamored of bears. I grant you, bears are more interesting and deadly than the animals most women fixate on, but her dopiness far outshines the novelty. Koalas aren’t technically bears, but they’re close enough; we had already purchased a plush koala at the Sydney Harbor Bridge gift shop; and at Kuranda Koala Gardens, it is legal to cuddle them. Our visit there was inevitable as death or Asian tourists taking a picture of a waterfall.
You probably weren’t aware that cuddling a koala is a legal issue, but it absolutely is. You can’t do it in New South Wales, and even in Queensland there are some strict regulations. Koalas don’t look stressed –animals that hardly move for hours on end, except to yawn, never do. But getting hugged by an endless procession of sweaty humans apparently leads to koala PTSD, and with their vicious claws and teeth, you don’t want a koala to go through its own personal version of “Falling Down” just as you’re about to get to second base. So each koala has a 30-minute daily cuddling limit; they have to be held in a very particular way; and there is no champagne room for alone time with you and your koala. A supervisor must be there at all times.
After a little bit of warm-up koala observation we paid our money, and Allyson assumed the position. A koala wrangler instructed her on proper holding technique – no hip-to-hip contact, hands above the waist, and no freak dancing. We were informed that the koala’s name was Piper. And with the introductions completed, Allyson’s dreams finally came true.
The photos will indicate that Allyson was unbelievably pleased, that the default look on a koala’s face is one of unadulterated malice, and that koala claws look like something out of Guillermo del Toro movie. Allyson reports that koala fur feels like human hair, and that koalas smell very bad. They aren’t poisonous, like most things in Australia, but they look like they could be.
We could have tossed the koala over Allyson’s shoulder and called it a day, but Kuranda still had a lot to offer. The Koala Gardens is actually a nifty little zoo with more than koalas. The wombat was hiding inside a hollow log, but we spent a few minutes in the kangaroo pen, where all kinds of hopping marsupials will eat out of your hands. The tiny ones look like rats with astounding leaping ability, which is horrifying on paper but intriguing in practice.
The exit of the gardens puts you pretty close to the entrance of the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary. Now, I am an exceptional man of many talents; each day I am inspired by my unique gifts and cherish the many foibles that make me the man I love. I am a completely unremarkable woman, however, in my dopey love of butterflies. So we dropped a few more koala bucks and checked it out.
Our engaging guide Juliette provided a stirring tour of the butterfly sex industry. Did you know that by the time you see a butterfly, it’s probably within a few days of death? Did you know that female butterflies, from the second they leave the cocoon, try desperately to avoid being raped by male butterflies until they find the mate they want? That in a captive environment, they have to sequester the female cocoons to prevent the genetically inferior males from finding an easy target whose wings haven’t dried out?
Here you thought you were witnessing beautiful miracles, when in fact a butterfly sanctuary is a special victims unit. The lion of the Australian butterfly jungle is the Ulysses, an enormous electric-blue specimen that, if you have a very good camera, you can get a blurry photo of.
The rest of Kuranda was by-the-book. We had lunch, looked at a few the shops, then doubled back to the Koala Gardens to see if the wombat was out. He was eating some corn, so we got to spend a few minutes observing nature’s fuzzy bulldozer.
But we had to get home. And if 75 percent of the fun is getting to Kuranda, cuddling koalas and seeing butterflies, then the other 25 percent is leaving. We could have taken the afternoon train, but there was another, slightly less 19th-century option: the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. Instead of going through the jungle, the Skyrail goes over it, and if you’re riding on a non-crowded day then you’ll probably have a car all to yourself. It’s a 7.5 kilometer ride, and you could probably have a really good make-out session along the way, if you weren’t upset at your wife for cheating on you with a small marsupial earlier in the day.
The views were very nice – even nicer than those from the balcony of the Pacific International Hotel, in that there were no out-of-service swimming pools in them. But there weren’t any more exciting wildlife encounters until we reached the station at the bottom. As we were waiting for the bus, someone pointed out the large fake spider on the huge fake web nearby. They were not fake. It was a golden orb spider, and as we watched, it caught and devoured a fly. It looked like a Halloween prop, and as far as one living thing devouring another, this is the most acceptable version to witness – where you could theoretically step on the devourer if it decides it’s still peckish.
As a reader, you’ve surely had your fill of wildlife at this point. But journalistic integrity forces me to inform you that our quest for wildlife raged on into the night. When we got back to town, I snapped off a quick jog along the waterfront, to scope out the many mud-loving birds and find us somewhere to eat dinner. We had a nice pan-Asian meal at the Banana Leaf, a few blocks from the hotel, and then we hunted the most dangerous game of all: drunks.
You can have a beach town without a beach, but you can’t have a beach town without drinking. Cairns has some upscale options for dining and libations, but the real heart of the downtown is a pedestrian mall lined with cheap hotels, bars, and the bad-decision industries made viable by bars. The evenings are made for boozing and then doing something you’ll hide from your children until the day you die.
If you have shame, that is. I have no problems, possible future children of Chris and Allyson, telling you that your mother and I did a little karaoke.
We actually had some karaoke history. Long before my wife and I were even dating, we somehow conceived of a friendly karaoke challenge, dubbed “8 for ‘08” – we would each perform eight songs over a year; we would each choose four songs for ourselves; and we would each choose four songs for each other. She gave me the theme to “Flashdance,” and I gave her Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy.” It’s fairly astounding that we ever married.
But we did, and we entered our blessed union with very few hang-ups about embarrassing ourselves by singing in public. We saw the street sign advertising karaoke night at Paddywhacks, circled the downtown for a bit and then came back for the magic – it seemed better than the “Irish” bar that smelled decidedly like activities not sanctioned by the Catholic church.
It was the off-season in Cairns, so Paddywhacks wasn’t slammed. But quantity comes second to quality. The karaoke area was occupied by a group of local ladies who informed Allyson they were just there for “girls’ night out,” and judging from the amount of steam they were blowing off, they all worked as sex slaves. In a salt mine. On an asteroid run by Nazi robots. We saw a rendition of “Thunderstruck” so passionate and incoherent that Brian Johnson surely sensed a disturbance in the Force. No song was met with anything less that full-throated whoooooooos.
I brought the room down a bit with “If You Really Love Me” by Stevie Wonder. Mr. Wonder is my favorite recording artist, and I am excellent at singing his songs when alone in my car with the windows rolled up. He’s out of my vocal range in public, and even in Australia they recognized this; but the ladies were polite enough to tolerate me for four minutes.
Allyson was far, far superior with her rendition of “I Saw Her Standing There.” Allyson cannot, technically, sing. She has no confidence in her voice and very little ability to carry a tune. But she somehow knows how to perform, and everyone is impressed by the sight of a 5’1” Jewish girl in glasses owning a microphone. You get the sense that not liking her would be a hate crime. People actually danced while she sang. I was not one of them, as I was busy seething in a jealous rage in the bar, trying to pick a song that would earn me recognition as an international music sensation.
Australian karaoke lists aren’t dramatically different from American ones; the more of the world you see, the more you appreciate that American culture is like the ebola virus. It penetrates other societies with brutal efficiency and has a horrifying mortality rate. We’re at the point where an “authentic” foreign cultural experience often involves Maroon 5, and you should be angry about this – the next time someone tells you to shut up about which bands suck or don’t suck, politely inform them that the intellectual stimulation of 7 billion people is a stake. They’ll still think of you as a prig, but you’ll be able to live with yourself.
I eventually settled on a song that breaks down all demographic barriers; a song that any self-respecting middle-aged woman would appreciate. A song that I can make my own, by virtue of the resonating alto that God has blessed me with. I sang “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” by Melissa Manchester.
Now, I have extensive experience as a stage performer; I’ve entertained 300 strangers for 30 minutes at a time with nothing more than a microphone and my personality. Karaoke isn’t my wheelhouse, though. So I still get nervous; even when I know the words, I lock on to the screen with the lyrics, and none of my movements could be identified as dancing. At best, I can manage a mild spasm while singing. However, I know that I can sing “Don’t Cry Out Loud.” I sang until my soul hurt. I sang like America’s international dominance depended on it. And for all I know, it did.
The details are fuzzy, but I do know that a woman came up to me afterwards and thanked me for the performance. And I know she was Australian. Mission Accomplished.
See the World