Cairns is a Great Town

I have just arrived in Sydney and am in a McDonald’s as the Apple store is closed on a Sunday night. I will post one page and then do a couple more tomorrow evening at the Apple Store. I have been out of contact for a while and the wi-fi here is very slow…. so I am not going to do to much this evening. I will add reef images tomorrow and then do Alice Springs and Ayers Rock (Uluru) tomorrow. 

Cairns is what a city should be; smallish, pleasant, great weather, on the coast, vibrant, good food, great birds, and inhabited by happy people. There are mountains with rain forest nearby. The Atherton Table Lands are just an hour away and then the outback begins from there. Great variation in habitats all within easy reach. There is a cadre of birders that gathers every evening along the city’s lovely waterfront to look at Bar-tailed Godwits, Great Knots, Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, Grey-tailed Tattlers and Eastern Curlews (what a bill!). The shorebird scene is just great and draws a late afternoon crowed each day. The two Johns (Steele and ??) are there most every day along with a scattering of people from around the world. One night there were people from Michigan and the other night there were Pennsylvanians there. 
There are not many places where you can watch birds on a mudflat and have a view of a tropical forest and mangrove swamp and watch thousands of Flying Foxes head off for an evening of feeding, have a choice of 100 places to eat and enjoy a balmy evening along the shore. Late yesterday I was watching Eastern Curlews, Great Knots, Sharp-tailed Sandpipers and turned inland to have Bush Stone Curlews and thousands of Grey-faced Flying Foxes departing for the evening. All of this in a clean (well the FFoxes do make a mess every here and there) city with a great climate and nice people. Every day at every hour here is a walking group or jogging group or dance group exercising somewhere in the copious parkland around town. It gives the place a lively and vibrant feel.

The Great Barrier Reef is just a stone’s throw out to sea – or a rocket shot out to sea (it is very long). Oh, did you know that 95% of the energy and food that corals utilize is provided by algae that has become incorporated within the animals? These zoozanthelle photosynthesize using the waste products from the cell (nitrates, phosphates, and carbon dioxide) to undergo their plant life activities. thus the corals are somewhat like a closed system where everything is recycled. Our cells utilize incorporated bacteria (mictochondria) in much the same way; excepting they produce RNA and oversee most cell metabolism.

Anyway, the Great Barrier Reef is in warm shallow water and simply chock full of stuff to ogle. There are almost 3000 separate coral reefs over 1700 miles of coast line running from New Guinea down past Brisbane. We headed out on a big catamaran for Michelmas Cay, a two-hour ride from Cairns. The catamaran runs on two inboard engines and carries about 140 people and a crew of 14 or so. It puts up a sail on most trips but the engines do most of the work. We are out there for four hours and snorkel on a lovely section of reef. Once the Ocean Spirit reaches its mooring and we can depart for shore in a tender or take a ride on a semi-submersible glass-walled boat. The boat ride shows coral heads, lots of fish, and usually a Green Turtle or two. We hire on a marine biologist for the day. Dave O’Brien is very personable, charming, and great with people in the water. Once on shore (on the cay) you are in the middle of Sooty Tern and Brown Noddy colony numbering about 10,000. The people are restricted to a small section of beach and the birds are everywhere. There are also a few brown Boobies and Crested and Lesser Crested Terns on the coral island. We had a Bridled Tern and a few Ruddy Turnstones as well.

There are diving opportunities though snorkeling is really all you need to do. There are many acres of coral here with some sandy bottom. There are a hundred kinds of fish and perhaps 30 kinds of coral, both hard and soft. The key is coral sand and has some grasses. It is still growing and in the 3rd stage of development (sediment buildup, island appearance, low vegetation, shrubs and trees).

The coral is varied and nice, the fishes are spectacular, and the birds on shore are captivating – but the Giant Clams are the most amazing part of the reef. They boggle the mind. The one shown above is more than three feet from end to end and stands (?) almost 28 inches high. The siphon is easily large enough to insert your fist.

The first day we take the travelers up the mountains on a smallish train. It is an hour’s ride and the scenery is lovely. There are 18 bridges and 24 tunnels as you climb to Kuranda. The descent is later made in gondolas on the world’s longest cable ride. That is even more spectacular. Once up there you can shop, eat or walk the forest trails, I do the later. Last time I had a Victoria’s Riflebird and this time I had a snake. Each outing is different but there are always wet forest plants and birds. The gondola has two stops on it and you can get out and walk around a bit. One stop has a walkway and naturalists to show people the forest life. They mostly talk of plants especially the great Kauri Pine that grows at this stop.

Cairns has a rainy spell in January, February and March. They can get hurricanes (monsoons) at that time and lots of rainfall. This year there has been rain off and on all through September and October. They are saying that Alice Springs and the Great red Center has also had rain. Maybe there will be some flowers and singing birds in the Outback.
The Tjapukai aborigines were the people of this forest and coastal area. They were rather well off as they had the ocean and rivers as well as forest from which to get food. There was no unified aboriginal culture either regionally or nationwide; there were about 260 languages throughout Australia and most groups have their own history and traditions. They were not united and from most records they were not very friendly toward each other. We went to the Tjapukai cultural center and had a history play, some dance and language shows, and a display of how to make and play a diidgeredoo and what tropical forest plants were edible or useable. It is a brief intro to a people who bear no resemblance to the aboriginals we see in Alice Springs. There is a difference in look, skin color, and attitude. It is a nice presentation and he group always seems to enjoy it.

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