North Queensland: Croc and roll

By Anna Leask

Anna Leask meets the inhabitants of creek, reef and rainforest in the north of Queensland.

The inmates at Hartley's Crocodile Adventures appreciate a bit of easy meat. Photo / Supplied
The inmates at Hartley's Crocodile Adventures appreciate a bit of easy meat. Photo / Supplied

As I flew into Cairns I knew the trip was going to be a good one.

From the plane I could already see the tropical brilliance of Far North Queensland: the palm trees, ocean and vast blue skies.

I stepped out of Cairns International Airport into a sunny 32C and headed into the city for a look around.

Cairns was established as a mining town but its port has also been a major exporting point for agricultural products, sugar cane and gold.

These days it's the tourists who bring in the most money, and the city's vibrant atmosphere, especially on the waterfront, reflects that.

Cairns' famous Esplanade attracts strolling tourists, joggers, skateboarders, office workers and swimmers, taking advantage of a man-made lagoon surrounded by white sand.

I checked into the Paradise Palms Resort and Country Club and spent the afternoon relaxing by the pool before testing the menu at 59, the onsite restaurant.

The next day started at 4.30am, when I was driven over the Kuranda Range Rd to the famous Tablelands for a hot air balloon ride. Once we left the ground, just after dawn, any nerves were allayed. To say the view was breathtaking is an understatement. After a smooth landing we helped to fold and pack the balloon into its bag and were whisked off for a champagne "Aussie" breakfast in an outback hut. Bubbles, bacon and eggs at 8.30am - I had no problem with that.

Next stop was the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. It's touted as "the world's most beautiful rainforest experience" and didn't fail to deliver. I travelled through the sky enjoying panoramic views of Barron Gorge National Park and taking in the sheer enormity of the environment. Skyrail stops in Kuranda, "the village in the rainforest". Kuranda boasts art galleries, wildlife attractions and markets - where I could have spent hours dallying over the array of goods.

The return trip was on the 100-year-old Kuranda Scenic Railway, which snaked down through the Barron Gorge and came with a comprehensive history lesson on the area.

Day three: Cruise day. Sunlover Cruises' Tropic Sunbird took about an hour to reach Moore Reef, where we spent just over four hours.

I climbed into the belly of a semi-submersible boat and was introduced to the reef in spectacular fashion. We glided about a metre above it and had fantastic views of the sea life. The glass-bottom boat and viewing window beneath the pontoon also offered beautiful views. But to really appreciate this underwater world, it is essential to don a snorkel and mask.

From the moment I got in the crystal clear, warm water, tropical fish in every shade and colour came up close so I could get a good look, and I was swimming about 30cm above the mountains of coral.

From the delicate beauty of gentle tropical fish, it was on to Hartley's Crocodile Adventures, where the denizens had far, far bigger teeth.

I was transfixed by the scaly monsters - salt and freshwater crocs and snakes - watching as a ranger fed the saltwater giants from inside an enclosure, wincing as their jaws snapped shut with a pop.

Apparently the freshies aren't too interested in eating humans, and the ranger happily fed them by hand, but you won't see me sharing a creek with them any time soon.

Hartley's also offers a thrilling ride up a lagoon where crocs leap from the water to snatch food from a pole dangled over the side of the boat. It's truly heart-stopping when the big blighters come churning up out of the murky depths, jaws hungrily open.

Bart the beast even performed the death roll made famous in the Crocodile Dundee movies.

My next accommodation stop was the stunning Rydges Sabaya Resort, just out of Port Douglas, or "Port" as the locals call it. North Queensland is not short of picturesque views and I was not disappointed with a walk along Port's Four Mile Beach and a drive to Island Point Lookout.

The views continued the next day as I departed on a Billy Tea Safari.

I jumped aboard Matilda, a specially converted 4WD, and in air-conditioned comfort rode north to Mossman for a cruise along the Daintree River.

On the cruise we heard all about the life of mangroves and did a bit more croc and snake spotting - quite exciting for some tourists who insisted on running to the opposite side of the boat to take pictures despite being told it would tip us in if anyone did it.

Then, it was back into Matilda for an ascent over the Alexandra Range for a view of the World Heritage rainforest and unbelievably beautiful scenery where the rainforest meets the ocean.

We took a walk through the forest, checking out trees that have been there more than 400 years.

But the day was not over.

We drove up the historic and famous Bloomfield Track to Emmagen Creek where we took a dip, first making sure there were no lurking crocs, and had a lesson on billy tea-making. After a sip and a taste of damper we were back on the road to the spectacular Cape Tribulation, where the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Forest meet.

It's not really surprising that two World Heritage sites exist side by side in this overwhelmingly lovely place.

We headed back to civilisation, for the cherry on top of the day - dinner in the rainforest.

Flames of the Forest is like a huge dinner party under a candlelit canopy.

We were presented with bubbly and canapes - kangaroo, salmon and goat's cheese delights, before being seated for the main event.

Our six-course extravaganza featured crocodile linguine, vanilla-poached chicken, locally caught barramundi steamed in banana leaf and bush damper with spreads.

And finally, sated with the natural beauty of this region and good food, it was off to bed.

- Herald on Sunday

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