Finally, we made it to Port Douglas! Such a neat little holiday town. We stayed smack downtown in a serviced apartment, Villa San Michele (highly recommend!). It was low season, and so relatively quiet. We had everything in walking distance and loved it. Our first activity was making aboriginal art at a local gallery in Mossman. Binna, the owner, is actually a relatively well known aboriginal artist. He did a great job engaging our kids. They all very patiently handpainted their boomerangs with a quazillion dots in the typical colors.
The next day we set sail to snorkel at Low Isles, and island not too far off the coast. This was my first snorkeling experience in this type of environment. I loved every second of it. At Low Isles, you typically see turtles, but it was an extremely low tide that afternoon – the turtles were beyond the sand bank, and sadly out of our view. Nevertheless it was magical. The coral is so close – I often had to navigate my way backwards not to get trapped on top. You could hear (hear!) the coral fish scratch the coral. An explosion of colors, and all sizes of fish. Towards the end of our snorkeling the water got murkier and murkier as the tide pulled sand into sea, and on my way back to the shore, a black-tip shark appeared out of nowhere and swam literally right by me. I could have touched him. The boys loved the snorkeling too, but Elyse was having none of it. She tried, and our guide started out enthousiastically with a “let’s be mermaids today!”. Both quickly gave up. Elyse really isn’t comfortable yet with her head under water, and the lovely instructor spotted a friend …
The next day, we switched sea for land, and took a guided walk at Mossman Gorge. The kids huffed and puffed as usual, they-did-noooot-want-to-walk. But they got into it fast; especially as we first got to experience a small smoke ceremony to protect us from evil spirits, and let the ancestor spirits know that friends were entering their land. A couple steps into the hike, we saw a large boa, evoking a whoa! from the boys. Our aboriginal guide then had the kids paint on themselves with clay, and explained how different clans identify themselves. On yet another part of the hike was a display of hardwood “swords” and boomerangs. All-in-all a great morning. I pushed them to go with us for another 1-2km walk to the actual gorge, to see the water. Loud protest, off course. Until we got to the swimming hole. We didn’t bring our swim gear (it rained), but the boys got into the water in their underwear anyways. It was advertised not to swim due to undercurrent etc, but we assessed that it was safe. The boys had a BLAST swimming in the pouring rain. Pushing and pulling each other onto and off rocks. This is what most kids miss these days… adventurous play … On our way home they exclaimed this was the best day EVER. Yup, that’s how we roll. Loud protest at first, excitement in the end.
And then for our grand Australian finale … snorkeling the outer Great Barrier Reef. We had first planned on going to the Agincourt reef and pontoon so that Elyse could come with us (she could play on the large pontoon, take a glass bottom boat ride etc) but our guide to Low Isles gently advised against it. They have so, so, so many people come through that area all the time, that she felt a smaller tour was well worth the effort, and the money. I had heard the same from a colleague of mine. So we split up. One of us would stay home with Elyse and have a fun day with her, while the other parent took one of the boys to the Reef. Matthias and I went the first day, Steven and Vincent the next. Our prayers to the weather gods were heard once more. We had spectacular weather – not a drop of rain, and calm seas. (The next 2 days if would pour down day and night; it’s rain season after all).
Words can not describe how I felt in the water. Holding Matthias’ hand, experiencing this together, our excitement when we spotted something cool. The different types of coral gardens. The incredible fish; small, big, solitary or in large swarms. The sounds of the ocean. The biologist’s stories. This one ranks very high on the list of things I have had the fortune of experiencing in my life. I watched in awe as Matthias asked the captain all sorts of questions on how to steer the boat (what is that for? And that? Does that show depth? How does the compass work?), and asked the biologist all sorts of questions. It’s amazing to see those young brains take it all in, and be so incredibly open to the world, without inhibition.
We learned so much about how the reef and the rainforest sustain each other. During the summer heat, when the sun heats the coral, the coral apparently releases a gas. Those gas-bubbles rise, and bind with water molecules. The molecules start to form clouds, and the vacuum created right over the sea pulls in new air (wind) from over land. The wind pushes the rain on land, to release rain over the forest. The rain washes nutrients and minerals through the mangroves to the coral. The mangroves are essential to the reef as they keep debris away from the sea. It’s also in the mangroves that different fish species lay their eggs – like a nursery. (I hope I remembered all that right. Any biologists in the audience, feel free to correct me.) The marine biologist also painted a grim picture of the state of the reef. Like other places on the planet that we had the fortune of visiting (e.g. Icefields parkway in Canada, Patagonia in Chile), this gentleman described how in one lifetime he has seen the reef come under immense stress. When asked whether this wasn’t a phenomenon that occurred many time in history, the answer is yes. But like with other ecosystems, it’s the pace with which this warming is occurring that does not leave nature time to adapt. Matthias asked what the one single biggest thing is that he could do to help preserve the reef. The biologist’s opinion was to stop eating meat. Plain and simple. For the energy it takes to produce, package and transport meat, for the greenhouse gasses, for the loss of forest to prairie, and the immense water consumption. We can’t claim we are vegetarians just yet, but we certainly are way more conscious of how often we eat meat (and fish for that matter). Same with plastic. We are so much more conscious of how much single use plastic goes through our hands. We have to do something! Collectively!
While one half of the family was out snorkeling, the other half went to the local zoo. It’s a small zoo, but reasonably ok. It’s here we got to see the Cassowary, and got to feed kangaroos. Elyse loved everything about it. Our final day in the area we spent exploring “the oldest rainforest on the planet”, the Daintree Forest. So old, because there has been little volcanic activity here, and so the forest has not known the same destruction and renewal as other rainforests on the planet. It was a slow “discover”, or rather, drive through. We took one hike into the mangrove, which was fascinating. It rained hard though, and we didn’t bring all of our rainjackets (typical!). Not that rain bothers us, but getting soaked to the bone is no fun. We made it to Cape Tribulation where the kids built a fort in the sand, and we watched the stingrays right of the beach.
Port Douglas was the cherry on the cake of our time in Australia. We will never forget the Reef.
Australia, you were great.
Where we stayed:
- Port Douglas – Villa San Michele. Excellent location smack in the middle of Port Douglas. The beach is a short 5 min walk, and the harbor is too. Despite being in the center of town, it was super quiet as the rooms are set back from the street. 2 small pools. The apartment had been renovated and was super spacious.
Where we ate:
- Port Douglas – Monkey Joes Cafe. Excellent lunch here (great avocado toast! and heavenly banana bread!). They deserve to be much higher on the TripAdvisor ranking, in our opinion.
- Port Douglas – The Little Larder. Loved my cup of coffee here.
- Port Douglas – Whileaway Bookshop & Café. A bookshop annex café. I could live here. Great selection of calendars, note books and so much more …
- Port Douglas – The Mexican. So so so sooooo good. Fresh and delicious.
Where we played:
I should mention that renting a car from Port Douglas for the week was relatively cheap compared to taking the bus/taxi (with 5). We rented the car, and were happy we did. We were able to drive to Mossman Gorge, to the Daintree Forest, to the Mossman Gallery etc.
We took our Barrier Reef trips with 2 different companies – Calypso and Wavelength. Both were fantastic. Very well organized, seamless, professional, etc.
- Port Douglas – Low Isles with Calypso Reef Cruises. The trip itself was good, and the staff on board friendly and professional. That said, when I called to make reservations (given it’s low season, the boat doesn’t necessarily sails every day, or only once a day), I asked specifically about our chances to see turtles, as that one of the main attractions for us to take this trip. We knew we would go to the Outer Reef, and were hesitant to add another reef tour (for obvious budgetary reasons). The lady on the phone said that chances were very high to see turtles as there are lots and lots in the area. But as soon as we were on the boat, I asked the staff again, and they said that we would likely not see turtles as it was extremely low tide, and a sandbank would create a natural barrier near the island. So make sure you are ask more than once. Off course we realize wildlife sitings are never guaranteed, but I feel this was true misinformation on the booking’s team behalf.
- Port Douglas – Outer reef – Great barrier reef – Wavelength Reef Charters. They took us to 3 different snorkeling spots where we snorkeled for an hour at each site. In between we were offered excellent refreshments, snacks and lunch. During lunch, a great talk by the biologist on board to learn about the reef. This is a smaller boat, and not fully booked so I estimate we were with maybe 50 passengers. Every site was different, and spectacular despite the stress the reef is under (which was well articulated by the marine biologists). The team make pictures of you and for you. The gear was clean and professional. Highly recommend this tour!
- Mossman – Janbal Gallery – Art gallery workshop. A small gallery, the owner is a well known aboriginal artist, and it’s wonderful to hear him talk about his art, and the experimentation to continue to evolve his art while staying true to his roots. Binna is deaf, so it is recommended to book via his website – which is super straightforward. Despite his disability, he communicated very well with us and our children. The kids very much enjoyed the art class.
- Mossman Gorge – Guided Dreamtime Walk – an easy but engaging walk, as the indigenous guide takes you through the forest and tells stories of his ancestors.