There are qualidays and there are qualidays. One can involve a dull drive to Wagga to hang out in a beige-infested meeting room, the other can take you to Far North Queensland in June. In June. When frostiness infiltrates the Australian Capital Territory with much the same frequency as declarations of mostly sunny skies and twenty-seven degrees in Cairns. Okay, maybe around eighteen degrees at dawn, but pleasant enough to embrace the Esplanade and marvel. I could have turned around there and then and been content with this trip.
However, when in Far North Queensland in June it would be rude not to tack on a few extra days in which shorts and sandals can make a comeback. And so suitably attired, I slowly drove north from Cairns towards Port Douglas, stopping along the way for bouts of note-writing and email attending; coffee and lunch, on beachside benches and surrounded by sand and palm trees. Trinity Beach proved a quiet little delight among Cairns’ Northern Beaches, while Palm Cove turned out to be a popular spot where people come to jaunt in chilled-back decadence. As long as they can find a place to park.
From here the road becomes a scenic gem, hugging the shoreline between the tropical seas and steep-sided rainforest. Sandy coves and mangrove mudflats compete for attention with the jagged green tops marking the northern outpost of the Great Dividing Range, as omnipresent as the prospect of a saltwater crocodile possibly being in that creek you just passed. Let’s not linger long for snapshots.
Nearing Port Douglas, fields of sugar cane squeeze their way into the flatlands between sea and slope. More than human high, much awaits harvest and eventual transformation into cakes which will probably end up in my mouth. Occasionally, narrow gauge cane trains can be sighted fulfilling this prophecy, carriages packed with shredded green stalks, trundling at snail’s pace on the first stages of this complex journey.
Coming here from Canberra is more than about a change in the weather, but a transformation in the very essence of my surroundings. In some ways, driving through this scene feels more of a shock to the system than making the switch from Australia to Europe. A more alien land in the very same country. Not that I’m complaining as this totally tropical vibe sustains through a Port Douglas dusk.
Some interesting facts about Port Douglas that I learned: the original settlement – already dwindling thanks to a railway connection between Cairns and the prosperous tablelands – got practically wiped out in a cyclone in 1911 and was essentially a ghost town until the late 1970s. Then someone saw an opportunity, silver boats quickly whisked people to the Great Barrier Reef and became the omnipresent Quicksilver operation, a resort popped up with the largest pool in the southern hemisphere and became a Sheraton and – from there – the rest was history. Today, the town retains its resort-heavy heritage but seems to have diversified to the extent that it attracts everyone from the scuzziest backpacker to the most ostentatious billionaire boatperson.
Somewhere along the lower end of that continuum I found myself strolling along the main street early on a Saturday heading to Four Mile Beach. You see, while Cairns may have a railway and a fabulous sunrise, it doesn’t have a beach in the centre of town, let alone a stretch of whiteish sand littered with coconuts reaching towards pristine rainforest ranges. Often on a Saturday morning I find myself ticking off a little exercise around the bushland suburbia of Woden; this weekend things were a little different striding along a beach and a climbing up to Flagstaff Hill. Either way, I was suitably self-satisfied.
Self-satisfaction continued with the excitement of finishing off some more work with a coffee and World Cup highlights by lunchtime. I celebrated this fact by booking myself on a late afternoon cruise, in which I was hoping to see a nice sunset but really hoping much, much more to see a croc. Three crocs later, the sunset was pleasant enough but – as was to be the fate for the rest of this trip – no Cairns. But the crocs were beauties, at more than arm’s length.
One final enjoyable aspect of this sunset croc cruise down Dickson Inlet was the complimentary cold beer provided upon departure. A warm breeze, a fading sun, sardonic commentary, three mother fucking crocodiles that would eat your arms off and a Great Northern. Can there be anything more quintessentially Australian? At this rate, I was getting pumped for the Socceroos. Crocs v Frogs, surely no contest.
Pre-game, the one beer lured me to another back at the marina and this was actually far, far better. The rise in small, local breweries is truly one of the blessings of our age, a price worth paying for excessive beardiness and an inevitably jingly jangly smug git with a guitar singing a pared back rendition of something by Bruno Mars. So if you find yourself in Port Douglas, I can recommend the Doug’s Courage at Hemingway’s Brewery, at a safe distance from croc-infested waters and beard-ridden singers.
Sunday came after the frogs somehow defeated the crocs and things were a little subdued in the streets of Port Douglas that morning…I suspect less to do with soccerballing disappointment and more to do with the efforts of Hemingway’s and others. It was eerily quiet as I checked out the weekly Port Douglas markets which were everything I expected, unfortunately. Seriously lacking in terms of food temptation and offering more than enough tie-dyed hippy shit and rainforest possum poo face balm or whatever. I’m full of incredulity, get me out of here.
What better jungle to escape to than that around Mossman Gorge, within the World Heritage Daintree Rainforest. This is special land, iconic even. Southerners shivering in the cold will have a spark ignited in their eyes upon mention of the Daintree. There are more dramatic gorges, there are more scenic forests, there are more powerful rivers. But there probably isn’t a spirit, an essence, an unfathomable sanctity that can make even tie-dyed hippy-shit haters like me get a little carried away. In the Australian soul, the Daintree is up there with Uluru.
I find rainforests a contradiction of exquisite beauty and foreboding dread. They are amazing, living things, jam-packed with anything and everything that can claim a foothold in a spare millimetre of earth or air. Ferns eclipse ferns, trees envelop trees, fungus flourishes among decaying hollows, leaves expand to gargantuan heights. Older than the dinosaurs, unchanged in mass but everchanging in make-up. It’s this density, this proliferation of life that can begin to overwhelm; the moody subdued light, the lack of a sky, the oppressive air, the constant soundtrack of insects waiting to bite you. The competing sound of the Mossman River is a salvation, an opening, a way out. As are its creeks and pools which proffer sublime sanctuary among the jungle.
Leaving the rainforest content, I spent the rest of my time ambling and chilling around Port Douglas and – to be honest – was ready to leave as Monday morning came around. Not because I was desperate to wear four layers of clothing and scrape ice from my car, but I feel I had ‘done’ Port Douglas to death, several times over. It’s not the largest place and time and again I found myself ambling along Four Mile Beach, or heading to the wharf, or seeking out ice cream. Such a challenge to endure!
I took one final coffee and stroll on the beach before embarking on the drive back south, which had a fair share of roadworks interspersed with spectacular scenery. Pausing around Ellis Beach, in this snatch of tropical palm-fringed cliché, it was again hard to fathom that I would be in a different world, in the same country, in a few hours. My poor shorts would be tucked away out of sight again.
This contrast was highlighted by a final, bonus-because-something-else-got-cancelled detour to Cairns Botanic Gardens. Again, so much green, so much life and proliferation of alien, oversized plants, saturated with texture and patterns and colours and shine. It surprised me that I had never been to the excellent botanic gardens here, for such places are a frequent haunt of mine during both holidays and qualidays. Places where you can quickly capture the essence of a region through its unique flora. Places within the middle of a nondescript town or city that can mark it as different, as exotic. And nowhere seems quite as different, as exotic as the warming airs and flourishing lands of Far North Queensland in June.