Friday, June 26, 2009

Day 5 – Kuranda / Cairns

Day 5 – Kuranda / Cairns

I awoke with a king-sized crick in my neck this morning after a busy day on the Great Barrier Reef yesterday. When I walked from the bedroom to the living room, I could hear sports on the television, but an unfamiliar play-by-play by the sportscaster. It turns out that Gerry was watching a cricket match play between Australia and New Zealand. I had never watched cricket before, and understood the sport only as a very loose comparison to baseball. I found out that it only compares to baseball in a very small way. First, a cricket match could last five days and still end up in a draw! Second, all the players wear white, as this is the dress code at a cricket match. Third, players break for tea in the middle of a match! I imagined baseball players, during the 7th-inning stretch, putting down their bats and gloves to gather around the infield to pour tea out of a kettle into those tiny cups and sip some Earl Grey or chamomile with their pinkies sticking out! This vision brought wrought a chuckle out of me.

Mum cooked up another lumberjack breakfast – something she prepares only occasionally back home. Steak, eggs, English muffin, coffee, and a bowl of all-bran topped with banana as if I wasn't full from the previous courses! Today, the plan was to go for a train ride, so we took our trusty Hyundai Getz to Cairns Central, which served not only as a mall, but also had a train station inside as well. Mum once again used her "Aussie Specialist" travel agent credential to get us a sweet rate on a train up to Kuranda, a sleepy tourist area located in the muggy rainforest a little more than 90 minutes north of Cairns.

I felt fortunate to be inside the car of a train, as opposed to out on the reef today, because we experienced a torrential downpour that lasted almost the entire ride from Cairns to Kuranda. It was nice to have the windows open for a fresh breeze, because the rain made the already humid weather even less tolerable. Days like today lend no surprise to the fact that this region of Northern Queensland receives an ample 75 inches of rain per year, thereby providing the nutrition that sustains the lush green landscape that is the rainforest we saw passing before us.

The public address system broadcast a collection of old-style "bush" music – songs from the 1800s that entertained the miners and people who took on the prodigious construction of this ambitious railway. If you've ever listened to bluegrass music, i.e, the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers' film, Oh Brother, Where art Thou, imagine this music as an Australian first cousin to that genre. However, the music pertained to Australian-centric themes like the plight of the koala bear, and its vanishing habitat, as well as the potential dangers of how a single flood could erase years of dedicated labor toward this massive railroad. The railroad path was built with tunnels that enable the train to not only climb the fairly steep mountains, but to also travel through them as well. Considering the constant threat of flooding and a possible ensuing lack of supplies and food, the construction workers, who were probably undersized compared to similar workers of today, were very brave to take on this task considering they were paid perhaps $4 per week. The train, which was only about 25% filled with tourists, made a couple of stops along the way in Freshwater Station and Barron Falls. The latter stop featured some of the largest waterfalls I had ever seen in person, descending about 1 kilometer to a flowing river below. Instead of seeing beautiful blue water like what we had seen at sea the day before, the fresh rain flowing down the falls created a brown, rushing river that could draw a comparison to a scene from the Amazon: not quite as picturesque, but instead a beautiful jungle.

When we arrived at Kuranda, we were thankful that the rain had finally stopped. I wasn't sure what to expect upon our arrival, as I was too spellbound by the torrential downpour to peruse the brochure that was given to us at Cairns Central. I first noticed a collection of restaurants, pubs, souvenir shops, and unusual tourist attractions like the Venom Zoo and Birdworld. I was also surprised to discover a cluster of aboriginal art galleries that also sold overpriced didgeridoos. As I learned to play it a few years ago, I had always wanted to buy a didgeridoo, but I found the $200 price tag a tad high. Furthermore, I didn't want to have to schlep the large, log-shaped musical instrument back to Cairns, and then back to Sydney, and then have to deal with shipping it back home to the States.

When we stepped off the train at about 11:30am, we were all a bit parched, and Mum was craving a mango smoothie after she saw a sign that advertised "the best smoothies in Queensland". I found the smoothie hut, and purchased three for Gerry, Mum and me. Since we had almost three hours until the train departed for Cairns, we decided to follow our smoothies with a real lunch. We ate a relatively conventional lunch at a stand that sold enormous burgers as well as a passionfruit-flavored soda I hadn't tasted in 22 years. As soon as the cold, delicious refreshment splashed against my tongue, I immediately experienced a rush of memories dating back to my childhood when I practically lived on passionfruit soda during a previous trip to Australia one summer.

After lunch, Mum wanted to do some shopping, and I wanted to see some wildlife. Since I'm not a huge fan of snakes, scorpions, and other venomous creatures, I opted to go to Birdworld. Gerry tagged along, even though he had seen many of the birds on a regular basis. Birdworld is an interactive aviary where customers can see an international array of rare and colorful birds and feed them if they wish. These beautiful creatures must have been treated well because they didn't fear humans at all, unlike birds in a more natural habitat. I saw birds as small as sparrows and lorikeets, and as big as cassowaries. For those that don't know, a cassowary is a bird as big as an ostrich, but has a natural helmet-like growth atop its frontal lobe. It also has giant claws which can be quite dangerous if the cassowary is upset or feels threatened. These flightless birds were kept on the other side of the fence, as opposed to all the other birds. Occasionally, a bird would land on my shoulder or head and just sit there. This made for some opportune moment with photographers. I was only "anointed' by a bird once, and wasn't terribly upset because in certain cultures, this can be considered good luck.

When Gerry and I left Birdworld, we met back up with Mum who had treated herself to a beautiful necklace containing a cornucopia of colored semi-precious stones. The three of us had a pint of beer at the Kuranda Hotel Motel, which looked as old as the bush music we listened to on the train ride up here. When the time came to board the train to head back to Cairns, we were all pretty beat from being on our feet in the relentless Queensland humidity.

I had never slept on a train before, but I passed out as soon as it started chugging back toward Cairns. Needless to say, the train ride back seemed a lot shorter than the outbound ride. When I woke up, we were almost home, and I began performing a childish custom that had always confounded me. Every time the train passed by people waiting at a railroad crossing, I waved to them. Surprisingly, both young and old people mostly waved back even though they had no idea who I was!

As soon as we got back to The Lakes resort, I was the first to hop in the shower, as my sweat-soaked body needed a shower more than Mum and Uncle Gerry. They opted to simply change into their bathing suites and hop in the pool. I met them there via the Hotel Guest center, purchased a few overpriced postcards and airmail stamps, lounged by the pool and wrote simple notes to some friends and family members back in Los Angeles. Uncle Gerry and Mum soon became hungry, so they hopped out of the pool, we headed back to the room, and they showered and changed to go out to dinner. We couldn't decide what we wanted in spite of a collection of restaurant ads and coupons the resort provided for us, so we elected to simply drive around Cairns, get a lay of the land, and act impulsively about our dinner decision.

We saw an ad for a food court/tourist market that looked appealing, so we drove there first. As it was Friday night, parking was extremely scant around the Cairns marina, but after 20 minutes of driving around, we finally found one. Once we were settled with the car, we walked three blocks back to this food court, and of course, I was already perspiring from the sticky weather. I was impressed with the array of souvenirs available, but was a bit perturbed to find the same exact postcards I had purchased at the resort for half the price. Several kiosks offered 40-minute massages for $15 AUS, which seemed too good to be true. As much as I would have loved a nice massage given the crick in my neck that was aggravated by the nap on the train ride back, I wouldn't have wanted to keep Mum and Gerry sitting around while I was lavished with an inexpensive, therapeutic rubdown. We ended up not buying anything there, since it seemed as though a majority of the inventory that was being aggressively peddled by the predominantly Asian merchants would have induced buyer's remorse a few hours later. We decided to leave this loud marketplace, as we preferred something quieter and healthier. Most of the eateries served "takeaway" greasy Panda-Express-type Chinese food. I saw a nice Chinese restaurant closer to the water that Gerry ended up footing the bill for. Mum and I were most appreciative for this, because our dinner was close to $100 AUS for three people! We then walked back to the car after dinner, and passed a massive municipal kids' pool near the beach which was no more than a meter deep, but was almost a 5 square kilometers in total area! A similar pool would not survive in the US, because without a lifeguard on duty, it would only be a matter of time before someone got hurt, and the city got sued. Even though the time was 10pm and nightfall had long since arrived, many kids and some adults were still splashing around in their bathing suits!

Mum, Gerry and I got in the car and recounted our busy day before we headed back to The Lakes. As much as I would have liked to spend a Friday night out on the town in Cairns, I decided I was too tired to roll solo, only to have to finagle a cab ride home later, so we all went back to the hotel together.

Gerry and I cracked open a beer, Mum was the first to bed, and I stayed up late watching a play-by-play recap of the Thanksgiving football games back home which were televised on the Foxtel Sports channel. As much as I enjoyed learning about cricket and other international sports, my heart will always pledge allegiance to baseball and American "gridiron!"

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