PORT DOUGLAS :: QUEENSLAND :: WED AUG 22 2012A few days ago I commented here that I was feeling a little jaded after arriving in far north Queensland (FNQ) for my third visit in 18 months, and was worried that I had exhausted my capacity to find entertainment and interest in the region. A little bit later, over at Google +, I noted that FNQ seemed to be suffering from a downturn in the tourist industry, a possibly permanent nosedive. Meals at the pubs seemed smaller and more generic, and free breakfasts at our resort now costed AUS$5.50 (for toast and cereal!), in an attempt to dissuade long-termers from abusing their privleges. Flimsy evidence to go upon, but I know a downturn when I smell one, or taste one! My old watering hole the Blue Sky Brewery has closed down... that's as sure a sign as any! I've read that arrivals at Cairns International Airport fell from a record high of 1.2 Million in 2006, to 550,000 in 2009. This year (2012/13), 750,000 arrivals are expected, thanks to the booming Chinese sector. Queensland is a state with a two-speed economy, and areas like Cairns have a skills surplus... I saw that in the Australian. Of course, talk of a tourist slump in Queensland is nothing new, and you would expect the Australian high dollar to have a dampening effect, but I think the industry's woes are more systemic, even cultural. Go to any resort or hotel in Cairns, for example, and you will get bombarded with brochures advertising activities like sky diving, bungee jumping, or even tours which combine them (dive on a reef, and then a helicopter which zoom you inland to a waiting bungee rope. That's cool and all, but I can't help but feel there is something tacky about focussing on this style of tourism, especially considering the real and untamed beauty of the environment here. There seem to be too many brochures for horse riding tours on the beach, and not enough brochures just about the beach. Do you really need to jump out of an aeroplane on the reef, to appreciate the reef? You can jump up out of planes anywhere in the world, but real coral reefs are relatively rare (and getting rarer). I can sense something depressingly Australian in this focus on the high octane, perhaps even a glimpse of the Cultural Cringe. It is the same kind of mentality which erected the Big Banana. In a part of the world which brims with real world colour and culture (indigenous, pioneer European, Asian), there is a tendency to cover it all over with fakery. That's what happened in Kuranda, and that also seems the fate to have befallen Port Douglas, the celebrated resort town north of Cairns, which I have visited today.
A guy flicking a stock whip meets you at the station, promising oldtime pleasures. (8.30am and 9.30am) head out through the warming suburbs of Cairns, bound for Kuranda. It is pretty much a tourist service these days, and the fares reflect this. I was scheduled to spend a few hours here, in this popular North Queensland resort, from 5am to around 9am the following morn. I might have caught the sunrise if I was lucky. However, the aftershocks and nuclear meltdown fears in Japan necessitated a change to the flight plan, and I received an even luckier break. On the way home we dumped our cabin crew at Kansai Airport, safe from the crisis in eastern Japan, and picked up a new crew. It was my first visit to Kansai and I thought it looked kind of cool from the air, built as it is on an artifical island off the shore of Kobe and Osaka and connected to the mainland by causeway. We had to wait about two hours on the tarmac while a new crew came on board, but I was just happy to be away from Tokyo... at least there weren't any aftershocks here! Eventually we were off on the long leg south, but all this mucking about had put us four hours behind schedule. By the time we sailed down into Cairns International Airport it was about 8.30am. The sun was already up and doing its thing, burning through the humidity. The view on landing, suffice to say, was amazing. It was the perfect balm to a week spent in disaster-stricken Japan. I didn't care how late I was.
Thanks to the 4-hour delay in Japan and the long, long outdoor walkway connecting the international and domestic terminals in Cairns, I missed my morning connection to Sydney. This might have been bad news for my Mum and Dad down on the NSW Central Coast who were dying to meet me, but it was an opportunity for me. In the spirit of One Mile at a Time, I scented freebies. Unlike the bearded guys in the queue behind me, who had missed their flights out of general tardiness, I had a valid excuse... the Great Tohoku Earthquake. To be fair, I had kind of ambled my way along the long walkway from the international to domestic terminals, weighed down by my luggage, and ogling at all the flowers. I suppose if I had run, I would have made it, but I was now on tropical time. I didn't care if I was late! By the time I made it to departures and waited in line for my serve, the plane was already out on the runway. D'oh! I hadn't slept properly in at least a week, due to all the aftershocks and radiation fears in Tokyo, and I hadn't really eaten either. But at least I was safe, on Australian soil, and in one of the most beautiful cities in the southern hemisphere. As Lucky at One Mile at a Time would say, being bumped can be a blessing.
Most people get the Scenic Train from Cairns up to Kuranda, and then return to the coast by Skyrail cablecar. The idea being that at the end of the day you might be a little tired, and the cablecar ride is bound to perk you up, and you get to see the view front on as you slide on down. It is the old travelling maxim: save the best to last! But my Dad is not the most patient man, so we had to deal the whole thing the wrong way round... skyrail up, then train back down at the end. A bus took us from our hotel (Bohemia Resort) to Freshwater Station, where you board the cablecar. Rustic houses on stilts to protect themselves from floods, but plenty of foreigners around with their foreign ways. It seemed like every taxi driver in town was an Indian. There was some Indian looking architecture as well.
My driver dropped me off down near The Esplanade. For a moment I thought he had brought me to the wrong place; the street looked so sleepy to eyes accustomed to Japanese bustle and hustle. Granted, it was a Sunday and a warm day in the off season, but still. A small group of Aborigines sat around in the shade on the edge of the mall, chilling. A scattering of tourists -- Australian, British, Japanese, Korean -- milled up and down the street buying souvenirs, while others enjoyed coffee and cake on the footpath. From time to time a plane fell from orbit to cut across the bright blue sky, on its approach to the airport. This being Queensland, there had to be at least one establishment in spitting range called the School of Arts Hotel. But it was too early for a beer.
Cheered by this unexpected detour on my return to Sydney, I took a right turn hoping to catch the sea. What I found was the wide river and the place they call Trinity Wharf. I passed the Barrier Reef Hotel on the way.
Down at the wharf, a P&O cruise ship sat berthed.
There were a lot of boats berthed at Trinity Wharf, as a matter of fact.
Fronting the wharf are the luxury hotels...
...including this one practically groaning beneath greenery.
Kuranda is known by the local Bama as Ngunbay, the place of platypus.
Bird avairies are kind of dime a dozen these days, but the Butterfly Sanctuary is truly something...
The Nando's revolution has reached Cairns...
...as has the Asian food invasion. A Japanese friend of mine, Ken Anazawa, reckons this food court looks just like those in Singapore. "Australia is becoming more like Asia all the time," he said. Ken-san was right... Cairns is a little slice of Asia amidst the cane fields and wide verandahs. For Australians it is a gateway to Asia, and jets from its airport fly to exotic destinations such as Singapore and Papua New Guinea. I would never have known that, if I hadn't spent a few lunch hours walking around the place. And like the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear reactor meltdown which threw me out of Japan, my discovery here was totally an accident!