Playa del Cocos

So here we are, 23 weeks after leaving home, sitting in the Holiday Inn Express at San Jose airport on the eve of our return. It seems like a long time ago that we were sitting in the departure lounge at Gatwick worrying about whether or not we’d be admitted into Mauritius but on the other hand the time has passed very quickly. We’re quite surprised that we managed to keep this blog going all of that time but, in doing so, we’ve succeeded in creating a permanent record of our big adventure which we can refer to in future years when we’ll only be able to look back on this sort of thing! Also Google analytics tell us that we have 53 people in 14 countries, (OK some of that’s spam!) who regularly log on to read it so we hope that some of you have enjoyed at least some of the waffle.

We’ve spent the last 12 days by the sea at Playa del Cocos, in the north-west of Costa Rica where the climate can only be described as very hot and arid. Most days the mercury was around 35 degrees Celsius, enough to keep us sheltering indoors for

Jan with Beni, the dive instructor at Rocket Frog divers

Jan with Beni, the dive instructor at Rocket Frog divers

much of the time with the air conditioning on. We did manage to fit in 4 days of diving whilst we were there, during which Jan successfully undertook the PADI Advanced Open Water certificate. We didn’t pick the best time of year for diving here, the visibility wasn’t fantastic and the water temperature was around 22 degrees – so it was not dissimilar from diving Swanage Bay in the summertime! With the main exception being the marine life; we managed to see a few Manta Rays and some reef sharks as well as multiple devil rays, a few

On the way to the Catalina Islands

On the way to the Catalina Islands

massive Moray eels and amazing shoals of smaller fish. Unfortunately on the 1st dive Ian’s underwater camera housing, rated to 40 metres,  flooded, destroying his Canon compact, adding another casualty to the technology toll on this trip; iPad lost in Sydney, Canon battery charger lost somewhere on the east coast of Australia, external hard drive dropped and damaged on-board the Great Barrier reef dive boat and now, the trusty underwater camera! (The very next day an American diver with a similar Canon housing suffered exactly the same fate, not that it helped any, but there’s a lesson in there somewhere, even if Nauticam is 4 times more expensive than Canon’s attempt at underwater housings!)

Over the 12 days in Coco we changed accommodation twice, the first time because we arrived a few days earlier than planned and the second because we stayed a day longer so we had to fit something around the AirBnB that we’d booked. The first place, Marina Lofts was like something out of a north-American soap opera; it was a home from home for retired Canadians, escaping the winter. They pretty much took over the place, sitting in and around the pool chatting in loud voices, playing card games and generally having a great time. Every morning the waste bins around the pool were full of beer cans and empty Bourbon bottles.

Playa del Coco sunset

Playa del Coco sunset

After our 3 nights there it was time to move to our AirBnB and this move was quiteentertaining; on arrival we couldn’t get the air-con to stay on, it kept tripping out and then we noticed that the fridge wasn’t working. Whilst playing around Ian noticed that moving the fridge plug to another socket caused the air con to switch on and then, bizarrely, turning the cold water tap on made the fridge work! The place had definite wiring issues and, to her credit, Olga the Russian landlady, didn’t hesitate to move us to another and better apartment, up on the hill behind the town where we spent the rest of the week mainly chilling and enjoying the swimming pool which we had all to ourselves. Other highlights of our time there included watching the pelicans feeding off the beach in the evenings and also the magnificent sunsets every night. (Unfortunately we can’t

Watered down cocktails

Watered down cocktails

include the nightly happy hours that all the bars offer as a highlight as the cocktails were very much watered down!) We didn’t stray very far but ironically when we did, moving to our accommodation for the final night at neighbouring Playa Hermoza we found another little slice of paradise. The beach was beautiful (yet another one), lined with cafes and restaurants and mostly quiet. At night we found a very laid back Chilean restaurant where we ate out under the stars listening to their chill-music with the temperature still hovering around 30 degrees at 10pm. Whilst enjoying the ambience we did register the fact that it will be quite some time before we’ll be doing something like that again!

So today we retraced our steps to Liberia airport where we got the little Cessna for a bumpy flight back to San Jose. The Holiday Inn Express is convenient for the airport, we couldn’t face the stress of hauling ourselves in and out of the city centre with the manic traffic. The downside of course is that its wasteland out here; our main choice for eating is the Denny’s American Diner across the parking lot. Still only one more night, I’m sure we’ll survive. Tomorrow morning the flip-flops will be going back in the suitcases and the socks and jumpers will be fished out. Our flight leaves at 14:05 for the first, 4 ½ hour leg to Atlanta where after a couple of hours lay-over we catch the flight to Heathrow.

Back to the real world!

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La Fortuna and Quepos

We arrived at La Fortuna late afternoon, after the 5 hour mini-bus ride up from Pavona dock and the driver dropped us right outside the car rental office. Our AirBnB, Cabinitas de Sammy, was about 30 minutes drive away from town, up near Arenal Lake so we’d hired a little 4WD car for the 3 days of our stay, which we collected with minimum fuss. By the time we’d had coffee and then bought some supplies darkness had fallen, which added to the “fun” of trying to find our little place on the dark mountain road. Actually Google Maps led us straight there with no drama until we came upon a security gate-post, apparently in the middle of nowhere. (We later learned that there was a tourist attraction further up the hill). The security guard helpfully turned us back saying our house wasn’t there however, after double checking Google Maps, Ian persisted and in the end the guard got on the phone and hey presto, it turned out our house WAS inside the gate after all, 50 metres down the track.

Las Cabinitas de SammyHaving negotiated that particular hurdle, we soon found our place, all lit up on the hillside with Julio, the caretaker, waiting to meet us and show us round. To say we were impressed by the place would be an understatement; compared to the “cabinas” that we’d been renting so far this house seemed huge and we couldn’t believe that we had it all to ourselves. The centre piece was the long terrace running the whole length of the front of the

The lovely terrace at Cabanitas de Sammy

The lovely terrace at Cabanitas de Sammy

house screened from the elements by sliding glass doors. With comfortable chairs and fantastic views, this became the place where we spent a lot of our time over the following 3 nights and 2 days. The other highlight of the house was Pinto, the resident cat, who enjoyed the competition between Jan and Mary over who could spoil him the most.

It rained a lot whist we were there, not ALL the time but well over half of it and when it rained it really rained – heavier than we’ve ever known. This didn’t really bother us as much as it could have done as we were enjoying the relative comfort and luxury of our accommodation. We never actually saw the Arenal volcano due to the cloud cover; had the weather been clear we’d have had a grandstand view from our terrace. At over 1650 metres above sea level it’s the youngest active volcano in Costa Rica. It last erupted in 1968, destroying the town of Tabacon, just down the road from our

Swimming at the bottom of La Fortuna waterfall and praying for no flash floods

Swimming at the bottom of La Fortuna waterfall and praying for no flash floods

house and now the site of one of the largest hot springs in the area. For many years it was a huge tourist draw until it became dormant again in 2010. The area is still a big tourist attraction with lots of hot springs around and many adventure activities on offer – canyoning, white-water rafting, canoe excursions, etc. Hampered by the rain we did none of the above, content to sit on the terrace and observe the wildlife, read, relax, etc. We did manage a couple of trips into La Fortuna for more provisions and gift shopping and a trip to the famous La Fortuna waterfall, a very touristy spot just outside town.

On our last morning in the area we dropped the car off nice and early at the rental office and were picked up by the trusty Interbus shuttle service for the longish haul down to Quepos and its neighbouring Manuel Antonio National Park. We’d originally intended to avoid this area due to its reputation of being very busy and touristy but after several days of rain and high humidity we fancied the chance to dry ourselves and our clothes out, (our boots were still wet from our trek in Cahuita National Park). Also this was going to be Mary’s last three nights in Costa Rica so we had to finish up within easy striking distance of San Jose airport. It was Saturday

The Capucins don't mind the tourists at Manuel Antonio

The Capucins don’t mind the tourists at Manuel Antonio

afternoon when we arrived there and, with the realisation that Manuel Antonio National Park is closed on Mondays our visit had to be the following day. So having checked into our accommodation (back to the old cabinas again) we set off into Quepos to arrange ourselves a guide and figure out how to get the local bus service from Quepos out to the park, a distance of 7km.

Manuel Antonio lived up to its reputation, it was much much busier than the other two parks had been, almost bordering on

Squirrel Monkeys at Manuel Antonio

Squirrel Monkeys at Manuel Antonio

being a zoo. Also whilst everyone was getting excited about seeing a sloth we found ourselves being a bit blasé – 2-toed, 3-toed – we’ve seen them all! We did complete our set of Costa Rican monkeys by seeing the squirrel monkey but that was about it. Most of everything else we’d seen at some point on our previous travels and the racoons and white-faced Capucins were in no way phased by the hoards of tourists crowding around taking pictures of them.

Our guided tour, courtesy of Edgar, was short at 2 ½ hours after which we enjoyed

Mary met her match with Edgar

Mary met her match with Edgar

an hour or so on one of the two magnificent beaches that the park has to offer before making our way back to the town, stopping for lunch along the way. We were all very tired and dehydrated by the end of the days outing and could barely summon the energy that evening for our walk back into Quepos Marina for our evening meal. However, fortified by our pizza, we were glad we’d made the effort as, on the way back, we were treated to a performance by a local percussion band practising for an upcoming festival. The spectacle and the rhythms generated by this large group of young, energetic people was a welcome diversion for a half hour or so.

Osprey at Quepos

Osprey at Quepos

For our final day we decided to round off our “Costa Rica Nature Watch” experience with a tour of the mangroves. William, our guide, was born and bred in the region and lived in a small house on the edge of the mangroves with his family. He was passionate about his subject and this passion was conveyed throughout our little boat trip with him. Not for William the feeding the monkeys gimmicks, his tours were strictly about the environment and its protection. It was a very relaxed afternoon, in the company of an American family from Pennsylvania and culminating back at his house with a home cooked, (by his wife), meal of Casados. One of the highlights of the tour was our sighting of an Osprey. This particularly resonated since these birds have been nesting in the Scottish Highlands since the mid-70s amid tight security and this was the first time we’d seen one “in the flesh”.

So that was it for Mary; the next day Interbus was back in the morning for a

Bye bye Mary!

Bye bye Mary!

relatively short ride to the airport. Mary met up with her travelling companion from the outward leg and they happily went off to the gate, swapping stories about their respective travels, leaving us to find our way back into San Jose for our final night in the sanctuary of the good old Hostel Urbano, where we’d left some stuff during our travels around the country.

We now had 12 days left in Costa Rica, the last 12 days of our big adventure, and we intended to spend them up on the north-west coast where the weather was reputed to be warm and the beaches lovely. We’d also booked to do some diving up there at a place called Playa Ocotal with an outfit called Rocket Frog Divers who, among other sites visit the famous Bat and Catalina Islands. Whilst diving with them we also signed Jan up to do the PADI Advanced Open Water course, so we had lots still to look forward to.

Sansa Regional Airways

Sansa Regional Airways

The day after Mary had left we were back out at the airport again where we caught a 12-seater single-engined Cessna for the 50-minute flight to Liberia up in the north of the country. We’d also treated ourselves to a hire car for the rest of our stay so transferring to our accommodation in Playas del Coco was straightforward. We were glad that the car had air-conditioning as arrival here was even hotter than Quepos with the temperature well into the mid-30s. So now we had almost two-weeks of relaxation to look forward to, preparing ourselves for the return to the real world.

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Tortuguero

Sunday morning we were picked up bright and early by our mini-bus shuttle and we retraced our route back up the highway to Limon. The countryside all looked very different this time, in the sunshine as opposed to the pouring rain of a few days ago, much less forbidding than before. Our shuttle threaded its way through the streets of Limon, where a number of container ships sat out in the bay, to the smaller neighbouring port of Moin, from where we were to catch the small passenger boat to Tortuguero. We arrived in Moin just in time to see the massed start of a mountain bike race and, despite his background in the sport, Ian felt no empathy with the pack setting off in the extreme heat and humidity.

The African Queen

The African Queen

There are only two ways of getting to Tortuguero, by air or by boat and there are two water-routes, one from Moin and one from Pavona, further north and to the west of Tortuguero. The Lonely Planet guidebook says that if you fly you’d be missing out on half of the fun of getting there – and they’re not wrong. Arriving at the dock you couldn’t help but think of all the old films and novels about the Amazon, or even the African Queen! There were about 20 seats in the boat, covered by a canopy to protect us from the sun and the

Intrepid African Queens

Intrepid African Queens

driver sat up the front – as did Mary who was determined to bag the best seat to ensure she got the best shots! What a driver he was too with the most amazing eyesight and every now and again he’d bring the boat to a halt whilst he pointed out a sloth in a tree or a crocodile or cayman sunning itself on the mud-banks. At one point an enormous crocodile swam past us, going in the opposite direction – it must have been 2.5 to 3 metres long.

Sloth on the riverbank

Sloth on the riverbank

The Tortuguero waterway is a mixture of rivers and man-made canals, constructed in the 70s to make it easier for water-craft to reach the village. It runs parallel to the Caribbean coast, only a few hundred metres to the west, for all of the 80km between Moin and Tortuguero. It took our boat 4 hours to make the trip, including all of the impromptu stops to allow us to photograph the wildlife. Before we’d even reached Tortuguero we felt that we’d already seen lots of wildlife and between us had taken hundreds of photographs.

The dock at Tortuguero village isn’t so much a dock, more a mud-bank upon which

Tortuguero boat dock

Tortuguero boat dock

the boats beach themselves leaving the passengers to get off at the front as best as they can with their luggage. We were surprised to be met by a guide, Roberto, who shouldered Jan’s suitcase and marched us across the village to our accommodation for the next 3 nights – Hotel Icaco. It soon became clear why he was so keen to look after us; after we’d all been allocated our rooms he gathered us and the other newly arrived guests around a table in the open air dining area and proceeded

Hotel Icaco

Hotel Icaco

to sell us his guiding services. Three tours were on offer; an early morning canoe trip on the river, an afternoon trek in the National Park and a night hike around the village. We knew that we weren’t obliged to sign-up with him and that we could shop around the village before committing, but we managed to negotiate with him such that he would only take the three of us on the tours (except for the night hike). Our decision turned out to be a good one as it turns out his grandfather had helped Dr Archie Carr set up the Tortuguero National Park back in 1975. Needless to say he was an excellent guide and, during the 5 hours that we spent in his company we saw most of the wildlife you could reasonable hope to see in the park.

Tortuguero village is built on a very narrow spit of land between the Caribbean Sea

Tortuguero village

Tortuguero village

on the east and the Tortuguero river on the west. The distance across the village, between the beach and the riverbank, can’t be more than 200 or 300 metres and it all sits right on sea level – it didn’t take much imagination to visualise the whole place underwater. Many but not all of the houses are on stilts and there’s a lot of standing water around.

Tortuguero beach has long been famous for its nesting turtles; when Christoper

Tortuguero Beach

Tortuguero Beach

Colombus landed near Limon in 1502 he reported seeing thousands of sea turtles filling the waters off the coast “in such vast numbers that they covered the sea.” But by the 1950s the turtles were in danger following centuries of being caught and exported for their meat – and the turtle soup trade. Thanks mainly to the efforts in the late 50s and 60s of Dr Archie Carr, an American scientist, the area has undergone a transition to the conservation area that it now is. The 22 mile-long Tortuguero beach is the most important nesting site of the endangered green turtle in the Western Hemisphere with giant Leatherback, Hawksbill, and Loggerhead turtles also nesting here. The green turtle population is believed to have come perilously close to extinction in the 1960s when nearly every female turtle arriving to nest in Tortuguero was taken for

Tortuguero tourism

Tortuguero tourism

the export market for turtle soup. Nowadays the Sea Turtle Conservation centre in the village is an important research centre for monitoring and protecting the turtles and the village is a magnet for tourists during the nesting season. The literature would have you believe that the local economy has successfully transitioned from one based on the turtle trade to one based on tourism. We didn’t scratch the surface of that one, the place looked pretty poor to us but then I guess it’s all relative.

Logging was also tried for a couple of decades in the 50s and 60s before the same pressures that halted the turtle trade also brought it to an end – that and the shaky economics of the business in the first place. The legacy of this industry can be seen in the main “street” of Tortuguero, where the remains of the machinery from the logging mills lie rusting and moss-covered. (The main street is really just a footpath, there’s no motorised traffic here expect for the quad-bike which is driven by the local policeman.)

Tortuguero Beach

Tortuguero Beach

Our time here passed very quickly as we’ve come to expect after our great Aussie road trip – the 3 night and 2-day formula allows you to experience a place but never really get to know it. Our first full day was spent lazing around, walking along the beach and then going on our night hike. Once again, very frustratingly, despite the heat and the abundance of water, there was nowhere to swim. The beach was plagued by strong rip-currents and, should you follow the advice and allow them to carry you out to sea, (rather than fighting them), the bull sharks were waiting. On the other side the river was full of crocodiles – so we

White-throated Capuchins at Tortuguero National Park - we think they must have seen a snake or a croc

White-throated Capuchins at Tortuguero National Park – we think they must have seen a snake or a croc

got hot! On our second and final day we were up early for the 6am start of the canoe trip and 2 hours of enjoyable wildlife photography in the company of Roberto. He was true to his word and found us a wide variety of fauna to photograph, all along the banks of the river and the canals. From Howler monkeys and white-faced Capuchins having their breakfast to Caymans sunbathing in the shallows to many types of birds, we had a photographic feast.(Too many to include here but see the gallery.)

Toucan at Tortuguero National Park

Toucan at Tortuguero National Park

After a short rest for lunch it was time for our guided trek in the park, again with Roberto, where for two hours we added a few more species to our collection, this time Spider Monkeys and the so far, (to us anyway) elusive Toucan. So at the end of this afternoon, as well as being hot and tired, we felt well satisfied with our guided experience in the National Park. We consumed a lot of beer that night!

The next day we had another early start to catch the boat to Pavona and this was a very different trip from the one on the way in. It was only one hour as opposed to four but this time on a much narrower waterway, against a very strong current and with many bends in the river. The boat driver skilfully manouvered the boat round

Pavona Dock

Pavona Dock

the bends whilst we were imagining the flat bottom boat capsizing and tipping us into the fast-flowing water along with the crocodiles! However our fears were groundless; it’s a very busy route and clearly the most popular one in and out of Tortuguero. The “dock” at Pavona was heaving with boats and people, going in both directions, and the car park at the top of the bank was full of coaches of all shapes and sizes, depositing and collecting passengers. There was even a large restaurant and gift shop to help us while away the hour and a half until our minibus finally arrived to take us on the onward journey up to La Fortuna and the Arenal volcano.

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Cahuita

Our friend Mary arrived safe and sound on Wednesday evening at the Hostel

Ready to leave Hostel Urbano

Ready to leave Hostel Urbano

Urbano, more than 3 hours after touching down at the airport – due to the insane traffic around San Jose – ready for a drink, something to eat and an early night, strictly in that order. So the next morning our expanded group of intrepid travellers was ready to leave San Jose and the sanctuary of Hostel Urbano and head out to explore some more of Costa Rica.

Our first destination was Cahuita and its national park, at the southern end of Costa Rica’s 125-mile long Caribbean coastline and just a few miles north of the border with Panama. The day started out wet, grey and miserable as our shuttle bus threaded its way across the city centre and out of San Jose through the appalling traffic. Despite the creativity of our driver, leaving the highway at every opportunity for the bumpy little rat-runs on the side roads, it took almost 2 hours to clear the city. The landscape was mountainous at first – San Jose is situated in a natural bowl in Costa Rica’s central highlands and both times we’ve left the city, the last time on the pan-America Highway headed south and this time headed east towards Limon, the road has climbed over a mountain range. Along the way torrents of water cascaded down at the sides of the road and we crossed a number of very large, swollen rivers. Sometime after our 20 minute food stop we descended to the flatlands near the coast and the landscape changed dramatically. The most striking feature here was the many, many hectares of banana plantations with all of the bananas shrouded in their blue plastic insect-proof bags. As we approaching Limon we passed numerous heavily-guarded container depots with the names Geest, Chiquita, Del Monte, Dole and Maersk all prominent.

Limon is Costa Rica’s main port on the Caribbean coast and came into operation in

Bananas for export

Bananas for export

the late 1800s following the completion of a railway linking the town to San Jose. At the time coffee was Costa Rica’s main export and the only sea port back then was at Puntarenas, on the Pacific Coast. The problem with this setup was that the main markets for the coffee were in Europe so in the 1870s, the Costa Rican government contracted with U.S. businessman Minor C. Keith to build the railway. Most Afro-Costa Ricans, who today make up about 3% of the country’s population, descend from the Jamaican immigrants who worked on the construction of that railway. Also, in exchange for completing the railway, the Costa Rican government granted Keith large tracts of land and a lease on the train route, which he used to produce bananas and export them to the United States. As a result, bananas came to rival coffee as the principal Costa Rican export, while foreign-owned corporations began to hold a major role in the national economy – hence the Geests, Chiquitas, etc. This heritage is still plain to see today on the Caribbean coast in the culture and lifestyle which has much more in common with Jamaica than with the Spanish roots of the other bits of Costa Rica that we’ve seen so far.

After the banana plantations the second most striking feature of this region was the amount of water everywhere – not surprising given how much was falling from the sky – swollen, fast-flowing rivers and houses on stilts surrounded by swamplands; there seemed to be water everywhere! Then a little way after Limon the Caribbean came into view on our left and it wasn’t the Caribbean as we (think) we know it, with the powerful surf crashing on the long beach next to the road and the water very brown with all of the silt carried down by the rivers. The beaches were mainly of black sand with lots of natural debris, both on the beach and floating in the sea– fallen trees, logs, etc. Our impression was that life on this flat land was a bit precarious with the swamps and crocodiles on one side and the wild sea on the other!

Piscina Natural

Piscina Natural

We finally arrived at our base for the following three nights, Piscina Natural just to the north of Cahuita village and to a warm welcome by Patty, from Colorado and one of the co-owners of this charming little guest house. Just after we got there the rain finally stopped and we were treated to a tour of Piscina Natural’s, wonderful gardens and their resident wildlife by Patty, all to the backdrop of the Caribbean crashing against the coral, just a few metres away from us. Over the rest of that day and the whole of the following one we didn’t feel the need to stray far from these gardens and in fact the intermittent torrential rain didn’t encourage us to go far. In any case Mary was like a kid in a sweet shop, disappearing for hours at end around the gardens with her camera. To be fair, there was a great deal to see in that small plot of land; we were treated to a sloth at breakfast time then spent many leisurely hours taking photographs of the flora and fauna – poison dart frogs, crabs, Iguana, etc, etc. Apart from that it was very restful sitting in the rocking chairs in the open-sided lounge area, watching the waves crash on the rocks at the bottom of the garden.

We did venture out on the first afternoon for the 30 minute walk into the village centre where we needed to buy some food for that evening. Cahuita has a definite Caribbean feel about it with a variety of wooden buildings in all states of repair. It has a surprising amount of eating places and bars and it was to one of these

Mary sings the blues

Mary sings the blues

watering holes that we gravitated after we’d visited the bank and bought our provisions for the night. There was a guy playing guitar on the terrace and, before we knew it, Mary was up there “on stage” with him performing an impromptu and heavily improvised blues number, to rapturous applause from ourselves and all of the other drinkers. The guitarist certainly seemed to appreciate the additional “spice” that Mary brought to his act but he still wanted us to put money in his hat before we left to go home!

Hinge and Bracket take a holiday

Hinge and Bracket take a holiday

Our final day in Cahuita was scheduled to be a walk through the national park, starting at the entrance in the village and ending 10 km away at the other end where the bus takes you back to the village. Our taxi dropped us at the park entrance nice and early, just after the gates opened at 0600 and the Ranger at the entrance, who informed us that the Rio Perezoso river crossing was passable and we should be able to complete the whole trail. Jan and Mary weren’t really tuned in at that point nor had they paid much attention to the guidebook, otherwise they may not have had such a pleasant surprise a mile or so into the walk!

All was well at first as we walked on a firm sandy path next to the beach, taking ourCrossing the Creek time to look for any signs of wildlife. We did see a Toucan in the early stages, high up and far away and also a number of interesting looking seabirds and we ambled along, taking our time and also taking lots of photographs. Then came the rivercrossing – it would have been a dreaded river-crossing if Mary and Jan had known it was coming! Coming upon it suddenly did take us aback somewhat; it was about 40 metres wide, reasonably fast flowing and, watching another couple cross it in front of us, about thigh deep. There followed a few moments of panic until we all realised that, unless we wanted to cut the walk short, we were going across. Ian did

It's hard to remember you were sent to drain the swamp when you're up to your ass in alligators!

It’s hard to remember you were sent to drain the swamp when you’re up to your ass in alligators!

an initial reconnaissance with his backpack then came back to make a special crossing with Mary’s camera bag and its valuable contents. Then it was back twice, for the girls and, just as he was about to put his boots back on, Mary announced that she’s left her trouser bottoms behind on the far side! So throwing aside any thoughts of snakes or crocodiles back Ian went to look for them. He’d just about stepped ashore on the other bank when Mary realised that she had them with her after all – good job Ian’s the patient sort!

Fairly soon after we’d dried off our feet and put our boots back on the path deteriorated to the point that we were walking ankle deep in swampy ground. After

Butterfly having a drink at Cahuita National Park

Butterfly having a drink at Cahuita National Park

initially trying to keep our boots dry by sticking to the edges we eventually gave up and just walked through it. The concentration required to stay upright through these stretches – not to mention the noise we were making – weren’t conducive to wildlife spotting so our “finds” were limited to some evil looking spiders and some gorgeous Blue Morpho butterflies. We were even given the opportunity to get some close-ups of one drinking from a piece of hanging fruit that it had landed on.

Playa Vargas

Playa Vargas

Eventually, near the end of our little hike, we came to the swimming and snorkelling areas at Playa Vargas and the ground once again became dry and firm underfoot. Stopping to admire the view we were amazed by the sheer number of hermit crabs that were all around us, even in the trees. Then as we were looking at them, along came a family of Raccoon, which we later learned feed on the crabs and they gave us an amazing photo-opportunity. A bit further on we came to the ranger station at Puerto Vargas and, being a bit tired by now, were happy when the

Racoons at Cahuita National Park

Racoons at Cahuita National Park

friendly ranger offered to call a taxi for us. On the way back we were just telling the taxi driver how disappointed we were not to have seen any monkeys when there was this loud primeval noise to the left of the car and there, in the trees, right next to the road were a troop of howler monkeys. Our final phot-opportunity of the day.

Howler Monkey at Cahuita National Park

Howler Monkey at Cahuita National Park

So ended a reasonable day for wildlife spotting, a good bit of exercise with lots of fun along the way and by the time we got back to Piscina Natural we were ready for a siesta before packing again in preparation for the next leg of our Costa Rican travels – further up the coast to Tortuguero.

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And now to Costa Rica

 Finally we found ourselves in Sydney on the eve of our departure, spending a very pleasant afternoon and evening enjoying the city before turning in early in preparation for our mammoth journey the following day. The flight from Sydney to LA aboard Virgin Australia took almost 13 hours following which, after clearing customs and immigration and changing terminal, we caught an Alaska Airlines flight to San Jose. Of course since we’d crossed the international dateline somewhere above the Pacific, the local time at LA was a few hours behind what it had been when we left Sydney, which was quite weird! It’s probably more a reflection on the state of the US domestic airline business than specifically of Alaska Airlines but it was like flying for 5 hours on Easyjet, absolutely no frills. We didn’t mind having to pay for our food – if only they’d had any! Also you’re

Juan and Claudia two of the awesome staff at Hostel Urbano

Juan and Claudia two of the awesome staff at Hostel Urbano

welcome to use your own tablet/smartphone to access their inflight entertainment system, otherwise you can rent one of their tablets for $10 and then you have to pay for each film you watch. Somehow we survived it though and touched down on time at San Jose where it was all a bit frenetic outside the terminal and we were glad that we’d booked the hostel’s taxi service – the driver was there dutifully waiting for us. As we’d arrived at the beginning of rush hour the traffic into the city was horrendous – as were the driving habits – so by the time we reached the safe haven of Hostel Urbano we didn’t quite know who we were or what time of day it was.

We’d initially planned to spend 3 nights here, recovering from the long haul from Sydney and also firming up our arrangements for our time in Costa Rica. One of the first things we realised when we started looking into transport options was that Bahia Drake – our first planned destination – is more difficult to get to from San Jose than we’d thought, mainly due to the state of the roads down that way. We also found it quite embarrassing and frustrating that we had almost no Spanish between us which made communicating something of a challenge. Whilst we were mulling this over on our first day we had a chance encounter with a lady from London who was working for a local language school – 3 minutes away from the hostel. So before we had time to think twice we cancelled Bahia Drake, enrolled on 5 days of Spanish classes and extended our stay in the hostel – just like that!

We did enjoy our few nights in the hostel Urbano where we had our own private room with ensuite bathroom – although the shower installation was a bit worrying and definitely wouldn’t meet Europan H&S standards. We weren’t quite the only older people staying among the student backpackers, we got chatting to a very nice lady from Boulder Colorado; she runs her own gardening business in the summer and takes off travelling all winter. There was also a brave Canadian lady with three children in tow who had come out here a week ahead of her husband. The beauty of staying here, apart from the fact that it was only $38 per night, was that we were able to find out loads of practical information from all of the other travellers who were coming and going, information which helped us enormously in planning the rest of our time here. We also met some interesting characters, with the award going to the young couple who were on a break from their jobs on a marijuana farm in northern California! At first we thought that they were having us on but the next day we googled it and there is indeed a marijuana-farming industry, operating in a very grey area, (legally speaking), around Mendocina.

The MUSOC bus to San Isidro

The MUSOC bus to San Isidro

The Spanish lessons we booked onto spanned the weekend so, rather than spend the whole weekend in the big, busy, noisy city, we decided to look for something to do out in the country. Jan got busy on the internet and pretty quickly had us booked on a homestay in a little village called St Gerardo, up in the foothills of Cirripo, Costa Rica’s highest mountain. To get there we had to take the public bus from San Jose to a town called San Isidro where we were met and taken the remaining 20km, up the valley, to our hosts place. The public bus service was quite amazing

The pub in St Gerardo

The pub in St Gerardo

really; for about £4 each we had designated seats, our bags were placed in the luggage compartment underneath and we were able to relax and enjoy the 3 hour journey. It wasn’t actually that far but the road out of San Jose twists and winds up over a mountain range, it’s single carriageway and there are lots of lorries clogging up the road.

Our homestay was amazing, we couldn’t believe what we’d stumbled across. Our host,

Bernards Cottage

Bernards Cottage

Bernard, is the gardener at “the Secret Garden”, a beautiful tropical garden right on the edge of town, and we were sharing his cottage for the weekend. Normally his wife would have been there too but she was in San Jose for a family event. Bernard couldn’t have been a better host, cooking our meals and being very patient as we attempted to communicate – he with no English and us with very little Spanish, (we’d only had 2 hours of classes by this time and hadn’t got past Hola, Buenas Dias, Come es usted, etc). On Saturday morning we were up very early as we’d arranged a lift up the valley to the Cloudbridge reserve, 4 km away. We’d briefly considered

Cloudbridge Reserve

Cloudbridge Reserve

walking it but were so glad we hadn’t as we sat in the 4WD It was uphill all the way and uphill there really is uphill, there wasn’t a gradient any less than 15% anywhere on the road. But the scenery was fantastic, although Chirripo itself was obscured by two high mountains in front of it.

Cloudbridge reserve was set up by a South African couple who, back in 2002, had been passing through the valley on their way to climb Chirripo. On the way back they were dismayed at all of the de-forestation that they saw so they bought the tract of land and set about re-planting the trees. Their efforts have been very successful as today you’d have to have a trained eye to realise that you were hiking in a restored area – except for the tell-tale information signs of course. Our Saturday morning hike had us on our feet for almost 5 hours and we got back to our homestay in time for a huge lunch which we followed up with the obligatory siesta. We’d planned to visit the nearby hot springs that afternoon but Ian’s exploratory walk revealed that they were 30 minutes away, up another steep hill and that they closed early. (Never mind we’ll be visiting more hot springs later on this trip.)

The other highlight of the weekend came on Sunday morning, just before we had to depart,

Ginger growing in the Secret Garden

Ginger growing in the Secret Garden

when Bernard gave us a personal tour of the garden proudly showing us the many and varied tropical plants which he carefully looks after. Jan was right at home here and, even with her lack of Spanish, was able to communicate her shared enthusiasm with Bernard. Jan has much more idea about what was growing in the garden and will no doubt be happy to show all the photos she took to anyone who’s interested when we get back.

So that was the weekend. We’re now back in San Jose, language classes all completed and are awaiting the imminent arrival of our friend Mary, prior to setting off to our next destination, Cahuita, tomorrow.

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Tropical North Queensland

The diving adventure marked the end of our east-coast Australian road trip, at least as far as we had planned it. After 12 days on the road, followed by the intensity of the 3-day live-aboard and then Faye’s departure we decided to stay put in Cairns for a couple of days to regroup and decide what to do with our remaining 12 days in Australia . Our first decision was to fly back south to Sydney on the 27th (of January), the day after Australia Day, where we’d spend some days back at Kiama with Ian’s Aunt and Uncle, Agnes and Jimmy. Among other things we needed to re-pack in order to lighten our load for Costa Rica – where we’d be virtually back-packing – so that meant organising the shipment of some of our stuff home from Australia. Flying back on the 27th would leave us about 7 days to explore Cairns, Port Douglas, the Daintree and Cape Tribulation.

Whilst we were in Cairns we decided to take the famous tour by scenic mountain

Cairns Mountain railway

Cairns Mountain railway

railway up to Kuranda, returning by the modern (Skyrail) cable-car. The railway was commissioned in 1882 to secure the supply route up to the mining towns on the plateau, following near famine conditions during the wet-season of that year. Construction began in 1886 and it took 5 years to complete, with 15 tunnels and 37 bridges being built by hand, (pick and shovel), to enable the railway to climb the 328 metres from sea level up to Kuranda. Three million cubic metres of earth had to be excavated during construction and many lives were lost along the way – many of the dead being buried in the old cemetery behind Cairns. You need to travel on it to appreciate just what a feat of engineering it was, (and still is), but

No a/c on these coaches

No a/c on these coaches

choose your season well; it takes 2 hours in old-style carriages without a/c! We found Kuranda quite disappointing but it’s probably not fair to pass judgement on the basis of a 2 – 3 hour visit. It’s famous for its “indigenous galleries” and “hippy markets”, zoo, butterfly farm, etc – we found lots of stalls selling stuff that you don’t need, and lots of indigenous art-work that we couldn’t afford! One exception was the gallery devoted to the work Peter Jarver a landscape photographer, (unfortunately now dead), whose work captured the essence of this great country. Our return was via the Skyrail cable-car taking 30 minutes or so and skimming the rain-forest canopy on its way back down to sea-level. You can get off twice on the way down to admire the views from purpose-built walkways and look-outs. We stopped at the first one but got a bit frustrated by the crowds and the inability to “get in about it all”, plus we then had to queue for some time to get back on the cable car. So we skipped the next stop!

The day was rounded off by a very fine dinner in a local Balinese restaurant, (making a pleasant change from the places downtown on “the strip”), with Chris and Betty-Ann, our hosts on their farm down in New South Wales, from way back before Christmas. It was good to catch up with them and learn a bit more about life and business in Tropical Queensland from the point of view of residents, (as opposed to itinerant workers!). We’ve been very grateful to Chris and Betty-Ann for their hospitality during our travels here in Australia and hope that one day we’ll have the opportunity to repay them.

The next day we collected another, smaller, hire car and set out on the 60-odd km drive up to Port Douglas where we’d booked, (via AirBnB), a small condo in the town centre and just a few minutes-walk from the famous 4 mile beach.

4 Mile Beach Port Douglas

4 Mile Beach Port Douglas

We found Port Douglas to be a bit upmarket after Cairns, somewhat less energetic and more akin to Noosa with the designer shops and boutiques – and their prices! Although it has to be said that Port Douglas does have some good old-down to earth bars in among the luxury resorts, including the Iron Bar with its nightly cane toad races. (We didn’t actually watch any so therefore can’t say whether or not we agree with the practice; cane toads may be nasty creatures but it’s not their fault that some mis-guided scientists introduced them to Australia!). Croc warningsWe were also slightly bemused by the Crocodile and stinger warning signs on 4 mile beach and the total absence of people in the water, (except for the stinger net at the town-end of the beach). Having spent the remainder of our arrival day strolling around Port Douglas we then got busy arranging activities for the rest of our stay which went as follows:

On Friday we drove the short distance to Mossman gorge for a hot and steamy walk

Dragon lizard at Mossman Gorge

Dragon lizard at Mossman Gorge

through the rainforest followed by a refreshing dip in the creek – once we’d satisfied ourselves that there was no danger from crocs or anything else that might fancy a taste of us. (We were confident that the large lizard on the river-bank meant us no harm!)

On Sunday we were up at the crack of dawn to drive to Daintree village for an early morning river tour with the

Thornton Peak looming over the  Daintree river - the summit gets 10 metres of rain annually

Thornton Peak looming over the Daintree river – the summit gets 10 metres of rain annually

very knowledgeable Murray Hunt. Departing at 06:30 in the dawn mist over the Daintree river and with only two other people on his boat with us, we were treated to two hours in Murray’s company us he unveiled some of the river life to us. Although, on arrival at the village we’d again been confronted by the ubiquitous crocodile warning signs, Murray explained that we’d be unlikely to see any at this time of year. Which wasn’t to say that they weren’t there, just that due to the warm water temperature they were staying submerged. In fact during the trip we took a detour off the main river into Barratt Creek and, whilst passing a house on the river bank, Murray recounted the

Still waters - and crocodiles - run (45cm) deep at Barratt Creek

Still waters – and crocodiles – run (45cm) deep at Barratt Creek

story of Beryl Wruck, who was taken by a crocodile in December 1985. There had been a pre-Christmas party at the house and, after a few stubbies, a group of guests decided to take a dip in the creek, (why would you DO that?). Beryl lowered herself off the jetty into 45cm of water at which point, according to an eye –witness, there was an “explosion” in the water and Beryl disappeared without a sound – or a trace. After the attack the locals went on a crocodile-shooting spree and 3 weeks later

Frogmouth sitting in a tree above Barratt Creek

Frogmouth sitting in a tree above Barratt Creek

female fore-arm bones and finger nails were found in the belly of a slain crocodile. So no Crocodiles or other reptiles but the bird-life was abundant and we never ceased to be amazed by Murray’s eyesight, pointing out birds that we’d have passed by in blissful ignorance – including a Frogmouth nestled on an old tree and looking for all the world like part of the branch.

After the river tour and following a hearty breakfast at Rob’s Pie Shop back in the

Pristine, deserted beach at Cape Tribulation

Pristine, deserted beach at Cape Tribulation

village, it was off to the Daintree ferry and across the river and up to Cape Tribulation. On the way we passed the most beautiful, deserted and prisitine beaches that we’ve ever seen – these crocs do serve a purpose after all! Whilst at Cape Tribulation beach Jan was lucky enough to spot a Cassowary with two young crossing the trail, a fleeting glimpse and too short for a photograph. We went off in pursuit of it down the same trail but weren’t lucky enough to get another sighting.

End of the great north road

End of the great north road

From Cape Tribulation beach we carried on a bit further north on the dirt track which leads ultimately to Cooktown. Our drive came to an end at Emmagen Creek which can only be crossed in a 4WD vehicle and thus marks the end of the great north road for everybody else. The weird thing here was the busy swimming hole upstream from the river crossing and then, a few metres downstream on the other side, the still waters with the croc warnings. Presumably the crocs couldn’t swim up into the running waters over the ford but this was still too close for comfort as far as we were concerned!

Monday saw us back in Port Douglas and up early for our final Great Barrier Reef adventure, (at least of this trip), this time out to Agincourt Reef on Poseiden, another purpose built dive boat, loaded with day-tripping non divers and snorkelers as well as a small group of certified divers. The trip is described in another posting so not much more to say here – except to comment on the high price of diving out of Port Douglas – the trips are definitely aimed at a different segment of the market from those in Cairns.

Then it was the much anticipated Aussie Day which turned out to be a bit low key in

Aussie Day Port Douglas style

Aussie Day Port Douglas style

Port Douglas. During the day there were some low-key activities in the park by the waterside – children’s rides and games, tug-of-war contests a couple of bands and a beer tent. Owing to the torrential rain that we’d had during the night the humidity level had ratcheted up a few notches and every movement caused us to break out in sweat – and the locals were obviously having the same problem. Right next to the park lay the most beautiful waterfront with a flat-calm, inviting sea but, despite the heat and humidity, there was absolutely nobody in it – these crocs again! We stayed a while then enough was enough and we walked to

Why is there no-one in the water?

Why is there no-one in the water?

the shark/stinger/croc net on 4 mile beach with its lifeguard and sat there in the 29 degree water for a while. That evening we sauntered into town for dinner, expecting fireworks and revelry but, except for the Irish bar, the pubs were deserted by 9:30 pm. So that was Australia Day in Port Douglas. The enforced early night was probably just as well as we had another early start the following day for the start of journey back to Cairns and then our 2 ½ hour flight back to Sydney.

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Great Barrier Reef

And so to Cairns and another “bucket list” moment, the Great Barrier Reef. It felt strange to see the road signs showing less than 100 Km to go – the first sign for Cairns we’d picked up on leaving Manly 12 days ago had said something like 2400 Km.

We didn’t know what to expect with regard to the Reef as we’d heard varying views ranging from hype to gloom, “it’s not that great, it’s being destroyed”, etc, etc.

ScuaPro dive boat, operated by ProDive, Cairns

ScuaPro dive boat, operated by ProDive, Cairns

However in our short diving careers it had become something that we saw as a “must do” so the only way, now that we’d come all the way to Australia, was to find out for ourselves. Whilst on Mauritius we’d chosen a 3-day/2-night live-aboard package on the internet, going with a Cairns-based outfit called ProDive. At the time I’d booked for 1 diver and 2 snorkellers but now of course that had to be changed to 2 divers and 1 snorkeller! Faye was one of a small group of snorkelers but was persuaded to go for a discover scuba session whilst at sea, going in on the 2nd day with an instructor – let’s see if she follows it up and joins the ever expanding Wright family of divers!

Sunset over Cairns

Sunset over Cairns

We’d a tight schedule on arriving at Cairns around midday, having driven up from Townsville that morning. First we had to find a replacement charger for Ian’s underwater camera, (which had joined his iPad by being lost somewhere on the road trip up the east coast), then find the ProDive shop to check-in and get our gear for the following day, after that find our hotel and check-in and finally drop off the hire car, all before 5pm. Having successfully completed all of the above we were able to relax and get to know the town. Our first impressions of Cairns were of a town “on the edge”, full of back-packers and itinerant workers connected to the dive and tourist industries. There are lots of bars, especially along the waterfront and a wide variety of places to stay, backpacker hostels, motels, guest houses, upmarket hotels. The town’s laid out on a grid pattern and appears to be quite modern, although it was actually founded in the gold-rush days as the port for the mining towns up on the Atherton tablelands.

Lee Edwards

Lee Edwards

Once we’d accomplished all of our tasks we found ourselves a bar – the Woolshed -where we could meet Lee, one of Ian’s fellow DM trainees from Wraysbury, now travelling around Australia with his girlfriend on 12 month working visas. Lee’s currently employed as an underwater photographer on one of the many dive boats operating out of Cairns (lucky lucky bastard!) and it was good to meet up with him and hear his stories/exchange experiences on our respective Aussie travels. (Ian was left feeling discriminated against because of his age; why can’t over 55s get 12 month working visas he could think of a lot worse things to do than spend a few months working on a dive boat on the Great Barrier Reef!)

We didn’t stay late in the Woolshed, which we later learned is one of the rowdiest bars in town after a certain time at night, (see we’ve got a nose for these sort of things), as we had an early start the next day; 0630 at the dive shop for a mini-bus transfer to the boat for breakfast followed by a briefing as we set sail for the reef and the first of the dive sites. We were initially concerned due to the sheer number of divers, (about 40),

The large group of divers enjoying the GBR

The large group of divers enjoying the GBR

on-board – how busy were these dive sites going to be? However ProDive had the whole operation ticking along like a well-oiled machine which, coupled with the fact that there were a number of different groups, Open Water/Advanced Open Water students, certified divers and snorkelers made the whole thing manageable and we didn’t end up all crowding onto the same dive sites.(Except possibly on the very last dive where the newly qualified Open Water students were let loose.) Over the 3 days at

Stuck behind some newly certified Open Water divers. Doesn't seem like the best environment to be practising your buoyancy control

Stuck behind some newly certified Open Water divers. Doesn’t seem like the best environment to be practising your buoyancy control

sea we had the possibility of doing up to 11 dives, including 2 night dives so it was a very busy trip, during which the ambiance on the boat was excellent thanks to the energy and efforts of the crew. It has to be said that it’s no cushy number being a crew member on one of these boats, they all had to work really hard, ensuring that everybody was out of bed in the mornings, the pre-dive briefings were conducted and everybody was in the water on time. All of this whilst ensuring that 40 tanks were refilled between each dive and sharing the general duties involved in running the boat. Not surprising that nobody had any late nights on board, most people being below decks by 9:30.

The Mushroom, one of the landmarks we used to navigate by on this dive

The Mushroom, one of the landmarks we used to navigate by on this dive

To answer the question about the quality of diving on the reef? On that trip Ian did 11 and Jan 8 dives and then a week later we went out again, this time on a day trip, from Port Douglas where we each did 3 further dives so between us we had 25 dives in the space of a week. As we haven’t experienced a wide range of the world’s dive sites, e.g. Cozumel, Isle Coco (Jurassic Park), etc we haven’t really got a good reference point. However, just taking it as we found it we were over-awed by the sheer size of the reef, the hard and soft Corals were amazing and the marine life abundant including sharks and turtles. On the whole the dive sites were quite shallow which was good as Jan is still restricted to a maximum depth of 18 metres. This wasn’t a limiting factor as there weren’t many sites where you could go deeper and there was plenty to see at shallower depths. Also on the liveaboard the dives were self-guided so it was a good test for Ian, looking after a new diver and having to navigate at the same time. (Some of Ian’s fellow divers at Wraysbury will tell you how good his underwater navigation skills are!).

A Trigger fish - not the one that attacked Ian!

A Trigger fish – not the one that attacked Ian!

One of the highlights of the trip for Jan was seeing Ian being attacked by a Trigger fish as he swam too close to its nest! Ian didn’t see it coming until it was glaring at him from the other side of his mask and darting all around him. These fish have been known to draw blood so Ian did the honourable thing and got the hell out of its way. The little episode taught Jan more about scuba regulators – not only can you breathe through them but you can also laugh your head off at the same time!

The second highlight came on the 2nd dive of the day trip from Port Douglas. We’d just begun descending and were at about 3 – 5 metres when there, right next to us was a 6

No mistaking this one

No mistaking this one

foot, very healthy looking Grey Reef shark. By the time Ian had hit the inflate button on his BCD to stop his descent and unclipped his camera it had swum away. That was the closest we’ll probably ever get to a shark and it was a huge disappointment not to catch it on film – but an amazing experience all the same. We did see quite a few more, (mainly reef), sharks over the course of the dives but none as close up nor as stunning as this one. (The crew later told us that this particular shark was a regular visitor under the boat whenever they moored on that particular part of the reef.)

Needless to say the 3 days of the live-aboard passed extremely quickly and before we knew it we were back in Cairns and meeting up for a post dive beer with our fellow shipmates and dive crew – in the Bavarian Beer bar of all places. Ian and Jan ducked out gracefully before the Steins took effect but Faye soldiered on and stayed with the group as they moved onto the Woolshed, (see above) and eventually made it home sometime in the middle of the night – putting her unsteady progress along the street down to the 3 days spent bobbing around on a boat!

Jan honing her diving skills on the Great Barrier Reef

Jan honing her diving skills on the Great Barrier Reef

So that was it. We weren’t disappointed by our pilgrimage to this wonderful natural environment. Jan’s dive skills improved significantly over the course of the 11 dives that she did, Ian gained more Divemaster experience and we encountered more marine life than you would see in a normal week – even if we didn’t know what most of it was. (What DID we do with our time on Mauritius when we were surrounded by all of these experts!) No room to post pictures of the many species we saw but you can see them on our gallery, here.

Sadly Faye had to leave us the following day and so it was just the two of us again and looking at our final 10 days of the Australian leg of or great adventure. Although we had reached Cairns we weren’t quite at the end of our great Aussie road-trip – Port Douglas, the Daintree and Cape Tribulation still lay ahead.

 

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Fraser Island to Townsville

We were quite sorry to leave Fraser Island, it seemed like at least a week too soon, but we had a schedule to maintain; there was a dive-boat waiting for us in Cairns, it would sail at 0700 on the 16th of January, with or without us and there was still about 15 hours-worth of driving ahead and a couple of places we wanted to visit on the way. The first of these was Capricorn Caves, just north of Rockhampton, in the heart of cattle country and so-named because of their location, basically right on the Tropic of Capricorn. The Lonely Planet guidebook for the East Coast of Australia sees fit to give the caves a feature panel all to themselves and, as they were about the right driving distance from Fraser Island, (5 hours), and Rockhampton itself didn’t sound too exciting, we booked ourselves a small cabin at the caves.

The cabin was brilliant with 2 bedrooms, fully-fitted kitchen, outside decking area, TV and communal BBQ area and the obligatory air-conditioning. We arrived there late in the evening just in time to check in and then get ourselves back down the hill to the busy and friendly local pub for dinner. We later discovered that this pub had originally been built in the late 1800s by the family of John Olsen, the Norwegian who discovered the caves in 1882. Canny person that he was he kept quiet about his discovery until he’d successfully negotiated a lease on the land. Once the ink was dry he opened them as a tourist attraction and the tourists came flooding in to see this natural phenomena. The pub was built on-site to provide accommodation for the visitors and it’s since been moved to its present location, just off the A1, Bruce Highway. The caves themselves are nothing special when you compare them to Cheddar or the ones in Pyrenees but definitely worth a visit if you’re passing by.

On the first night we decided to use our newly purchased, powerful, torch and go for a self-guided nature walk in the grounds. Apart from a few cane toads we didn’t find much until, walking back along the path towards our cabin, something caught our eye on the path ahead. Swinging the torch away from the tress, which we’d been carefully studying, we discovered a medium-sized python lying right on the spot where Faye was about to walk. We of course gave it a wide berth and had a giggle at our – or rather Faye’s – close encounter.

The following day we booked ourselves on two separate tours

All dressed up and nowhere to go!
All dressed up and nowhere to go!

of the caves, the standard family one followed by, for Faye and Ian, the “adventure” one. It was on this latter tour that Ian discovered just how claustrophobic he is; having got all togged up to follow our guide with Faye he baulked at the first tunnel – too tight, too hot, too dark – computer said no!

Our next port of call was Eungella National Park, further north and up in the mountains to the west of Mackay. We’d originally planned to go to Airlie Beach but a leaflet on the counter at Capricorn Caves change our minds, promising the opportunity to see Platypus in their natural setting. The drive there from Capricorn Caves, (again about 5 hours), was an experience in itself. Just north of Rockhampton, at Marlborough, the satnav directed us off the Bruce Highway onto a road which ran parallel but on the

Watch where you walk in the dark

Watch where you walk in the dark

other side of the coastal ranges. Once we’d finished climbing, twisting and winding through the coastal ranges the change in landscape was striking. We found ourselves on a huge, dry, semi-arid plain, stretching westwards for as far as the eye could see, we were in the outback! Back home this would have been classified as a B road, and we soon began to worry about the total lack of, well anything really – would there be any petrol stations? Relief came when we came across the only one on the road at Lotus Creek – a cattle-shed turned into a service station and run by a Scot from Inverurie! This was a welcome relief even though the ham sandwiches were pretty basic and the heat was rather oppressive.

Our little road eventually twisted and wound its way back through the coastal ranges to re-join the Bruce Highway at Sarina, 245 kilometres after having left it back in Marlborough. The change in landscape was almost immediate, back to fertile land with sugar cane as far as the eye could see. We soon turned westwards up the very wide Pioneer Valley and headed for the mountains – well at, less than 700 metres, hills by

Pioneer Valley

Pioneer Valley

our standards – in the distance. All of the climbing came in the final kilometres, up to over 600 metres, making for some interesting gradients and hairpins on the way up to the village of Eungella perched right on the edge of the escarpment. Driving along the edge of the escarpment for the final few kilometres to the Broken River resort we were treated to some amazing views back down across the valley to the distant sea.

The Broken River resort is an absolute gem of a place; it’s quite small with a number of basic cabins set in parkland by the river. Right next to it are two purpose-built Platypus viewing platforms, one upstream and the other downstream from the road bridge which crosses the river. The grounds of the resort are populated by some noisy

Where's Dame Edna?

Where’s Dame Edna?

Kookaburra and even noisier white cockatoos, (which together make an alarm clock unnecessary) plus some Wallabies and a family of Possums which come to feed on scraps left by the chef. The place has been run for the last 15 years by an English couple who are more than happy to facilitate your wild-life watching and organise a range of walks, (mainly free of charge) for their guests.

Our first attempt to see Platypus, on the evening of our arrival, was unsuccessful so we

Platypus feeding at dawn

Platypus feeding at dawn

were up before dawn the following day and were rewarded with the pay-off we were hoping for – two Platypus feeding in the river, which we watched for a good half hour. Later that day the owner drove us further up country dropping us at the start of a 10Km walk which followed the river through the rain-forest back to the resort. This walk re-enforced two lessons that we’d learned on Fraser Island; most wildlife is nocturnal and when you’re trekking along you make too much noise to have a realistic chance of seeing anything. Out of the three of us it was again Faye who had the closest encounter with nature, this time in the form of leeches!

Frogmouth at Broken River

Frogmouth at Broken River

Our stay was rounded off that evening with another torch-lit nature walk, guided by a local resident, during which we encountered– Frogmouths, bats, Wallabies, Possums and some more of the local Platypus family.

Somehow after all of that activity the previous day we managed to get up early and it was back in the car for another 5 hour drive to Townsville, one step closer to our date with the barrier reef at Cairns. We hadn’t expected much from Townsville and so it easily exceeded these low expectations and

The beautiful lookout at Bowen, on the way to Townsville

The beautiful lookout at Bowen, on the way to Townsville

we spent two pleasant nights in a city centre AirBnB apartment. The city has a seafront walk, the Strand, where a fair proportion of the population turn out in the evening to jog, walk and otherwise enjoy the fresh (but very hot) air. This was our first experience of the dreaded “stingers” and the sea was noticeably empty of swimmers, due to the fear of getting caught up in some of the very dangerous jelly-fish that frequent this area at this time of year. Our one full day in Townsville was divided between scouring the amazing outdoor stores, (think Wickes but full of camping, fishing, hiking gear, etc), shopping for a rucksack for Faye and visiting the impressive Reef HQ aquarium where an informative volunteer guide whetted our appetite for what was awaiting us further north.

And so, after 2 nights it was up again and onwards towards Cairns and our much-awaited date with the Great Barrier Reef.

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Fraser Island

Having reached Noosa and spent most of the two days there in the rain it was, unfortunately, time for Natalie and Thomas to make their way homewards. So we had an early start and then doubled back to Brisbane to drop them at the airport from where we turned around and headed north again, this time for Fraser Island via the ferry from River Heads (near Hervey Bay).

It was a very hot day in contrast to the two previous ones, sadly for Nat and Tom, and it was almost too hot when we arrived at the ferry terminal after about 4 hours of driving. We hadn’t known what to expect from Fraser Island, it had been recommended by a friend but we hadn’t done more research than a cursory glance at the guidebook and we hadn’t even really studied the details of the AirBnB place that we’d rented for three nights. Our trip to River Heads was one of 4 detours we’d take off the A1, Bruce Highway, which otherwise we would stay on for all theFraser Island Dingo Warning 2500 Km from Manly to Cairns (one being for Noosa and the other two coming later on in our road trip). Our first impressions on arriving at River Heads, were of a sleepy town at the ferry crossing with lots of 4WDs around. There was also a somewhat disconcerting sign warning about crocodiles in the estuary and an electronic panel displaying rotating warnings about Dingos.

Fraser Island is the biggest of the many islands off the Queensland coast and, we believe, the biggest sand island in the world. The island has been formed over

Fraser Island Ferry

Fraser Island Ferry

millions of years by sand from the Pacific Ocean and is something like 123 kilometres long by 22 or so wide. It’s pretty much all covered in trees, including large areas of rain forest and, although it has a few settlements, it’s mainly populated by tourists. A shipwreck in 1863 was responsible for changing the fortunes of the island, not necessarily for the better, particularly as far as the indigenous population were concerned. The Stirling Castle, under the command of Captain James Fraser, foundered on the Great Barrier Reef, somewhere to the north and the crew and passengers took to the lifeboats which drifted along, eventually pitching up on Fraser Island. The good captain died, some say at the hands of the local Aboriginal people and his wife, Eliza, and family were then left to live among the locals. Eventually word got out about their situation and they were “rescued” by an escaped convict and ended up in Brisbane. When the authorities found out about this they sent a party to the Island to find out what had become of Captain Fraser and the other missing people. It’s not clear whether they succeeded in this task but they came back with a report identifying significant logging opportunities, triggering a new phase in the island’s life. The island is now, (since 1992), a World Heritage site but the paradox is the large number of red meat-eating Aussies driving their 4WDs all over the island. This was our first exposure to Aussie-style camping, with most of the vehicles laden down with roof racks and many with trailers hauling a huge range of camping gear, everything including the kitchen sink.

Fraser Island CrossingThe ferry trip across the calm waters of the Great Sandy Strait to Kingfisher Eco Resort, where we were staying, took around 40 minutes under bright blue skies with some amazing cloud formations. On arrival we were pleasantly surprised by our rental accommodation – light and spacious with a large external decking area, even a jacuzzi bath and, thankfully, a/c. Although it was self-catering there unfortunately wasn’t much in the way of food to buy from the store in the resort so that part of our budget plan was foiled. Kingfisher Bay Resort itself, although quite large and spread out, is carefully hidden among the trees, and from the ferry, you would be hard-pushed to identify it. The roads within the resort are surfaced but, as soon as you pass through the Dingo fence surrounding it, you’re straight onto the network of sandy

Fraser Island Roads

Fraser Island Roads

trails which criss-cross the island (a legacy of the logging days) and which are only suitable for 4WD vehicles. Although we’d been unsure about whether our upgraded SUV was a 4WD, a quick check underneath whilst waiting for the ferry confirmed the absence of a drive shaft. This was a good check to have made as we’d have been in trouble within minutes of any attempt to drive out of the resort and the rescue truck costs $200 (Aussie) per hour!

Within a few hours of our arrival we realised that 3 nights was not going to be enough. Whilst checking in we filled up more than half of our time by booking Fraser Island Sunset 2ourselves on a Ranger-guided night walk, (the following evening) and then a whole-day tour of the island by guided 4WD coach. (Although there were 4WD vehicles for hire, Ian wasn’t brave enough to go for an introduction to off-road driving in such an unforgiving environment!) On the first night we watched a magnificent sunset from the ferry jetty whilst having a beer followed by some dodgy, pub-style food in the “cheap” restaurant. (The resort had three options – bar food, buffet and “fine dining”).

The first full day on the island started early for Ian and Faye with a 40 minute jog during which they discovered how hilly the island was; after a long pull up a steep

Great Sandy Strait

Great Sandy Strait

sandy track to the southern lookout point (with magnificent views to the west over the Great Sandy Strait), they plunged down the sides of a steep ravine to Dundonga Creek and the start of what should have been a straightforward jog back along the beach to the resort. Unfortunately the tide was in and what was left of the beach was covered for several hundred metres in fallen trees, providing a tough obstacle course on the way back. After breakfast the three of us went for a 10Km walk in the other direction, up through the trees to the Southern lookout, then onwards to eventually arrive at the beach at the dilapidated MacKenzie’s jetty, (another legacy of the logging days) where we tucked into our sandwiches. All the way we’d been

Soldier Crabs

Soldier Crabs

looking out in vain for any signs of the famous Fraser Island Dingoes but in fact, until we got to the beach, we saw precious little wildlife. (We learned later that most of it is nocturnal.) The beach provided us with our first encounters with the local fauna, first with a huge Ray flapping its wings in the shallow waters just off the beach and then with hundreds of tiny soldier crabs covering the sand.

The night-time torch-lit nature walk with the rangers was much more productive, and we didn’t even stray far from the resort. First off, in the tiny stream flowing right through the resort, she showed us two eels which lived there, an adult and a juvenile. Then, a few metres further on, and just inches from the path, she pointed

Dingo on 75-mile beach

Dingo on 75-mile beach

out a funnel-web spider, sitting there calmly looking out from its hole in the earth. Apart from that we saw a variety of other nocturnal life, rocket frogs, the hated cane toads, bats and finally fresh dingo tacks on the beach; the ranger explained that this particular Dingo family had their lair just by MacKenzie jetty at the exact spot where we’d unwrapped our sandwiches! (Whilst on the beach we also saw the international space station orbiting above our heads.)

The following day we had the tour of the island by 4WD coach – with our guide and driver, Peter, a very funny and informative man. During the hours we were being driven around the island he entertained us with an endless reel of funny stories interspersed with facts and info about Fraser Island and its flora and fauna. The tour highlighted just how much this is an Island of contrasts; on the east, Pacific-facing side there is one huge long beach, (75 mile beach) which forms the

75 mile beach

75 mile beach

main “highway” complete with 80 KM/hr speed limit and police patrols. This thoroughfare is shared by motorised traffic, surfers, fisherman, wild-campers, light aircraft and dingoes looking for dead stuff washed up on the beach.) This is in total contrast to the western side of the island, (where we were staying), which is sheltered from the Pacific surf and with no roads and consequently no traffic. We arrived at 75-mile beach having first crossed the interior of the island, spending time swimming in Lake MacKenzie, (following in Billy Connolly’s footsteps) and then walking in the rain forest at Central Station. Once on the beach we drove for Fraser Island Shipwreckseveral miles northwards, resisting offers of a “bargain” 15 minute flight over the sea but taking advantage of the to photograph the wreck of the Maheno and also of the opportunity to swim again, this time in Eli Creek, just where it arrives at the beach. So, although we’re normally more into self-guided tours, we came away from this one feeling like it had been the best way to see some of and learn about the island, given the limited time we had there.

That evening, after spending the rest of the afternoon lazing by the resorts swimming pool, we had an attempt at our own night-time walk by torchlight and were successful in finding one of the eels again, more cane toads and this time a bandicoot and an owl as well – but no spider!

Then day three arrived with an enforced leisurely start as our ferry back to the mainland wasn’t until 12 noon, which was just as well as Ian and Faye got lost on their “short jog”, turning it into the longest one of the holiday. On the return ferry trip, perhaps because we’d become more sensitised to or surroundings, we were fortunate enough to see a number of Turtles and a pod of dolphins.

So that was it, back to Hervey Bay and then out to the Bruce Highway and north towards Rockhampton and our next destination – the Capricorn Caves.

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An Aussie Festive Season

Well the festive period has passed in a blur, probably unsurprisingly and the whirlwind pace of life on the Australian leg of our trip shows no sign of slowing down. Natalie has been and gone, having left us at Brisbane along with Thomas and they’re now both safely back in the UK. Sydney has also come and gone and the remaining three of us are currently in Queensland on our journey up the east coast towards Cairns.

The girls arrived as planned within 2 hours of each other on Christmas morning with no delays to speak of and in plenty of time for the traditional Wright family Christmas Day breakfast which included, of course, some Bucks Fizz. The official opening of the presents under the Christmas tree (artificial tree courtesy of our AirBnB host) was followed by a walk along the coastal path from nearby Clovelly Beach to Coogee Beach – a very popular walk on Christmas Day. We had a short time among the throngs on the beach, splashing in the surf, before the Christmas on Coogeereturn walk along the coastal path and home for a barbequed seafood dinner. Coogee Beach and the surrounding picnic areas were absolutely packed and getting busier as the day wore on, with no sign of the no alcohol policy being enforced. A large proportion of the revellers appeared to be from the UK and it was slightly amusing to observe their dismay as they discovered that the convenience stores in Australia don’t sell alcohol; only the Bottle Shops do and none of them were open! Back at our AirBnB the day fizzled out early as we struggled to eat our seafood Christmas dinner with the combined effects of wine and jet lag taking their toll.

Boxing Day began with Natalie, Faye and Ian leaving the other two slumbering whilst they went off in search of coffee then on the way back coming across the beautiful Waverly Cemetery high on the hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Boxing Day lunch consisted of barbequed lobster tails on Clovelly Beach whilst watching the Sydney to Hobart yachts sailing past and then it was back up the steep hill to Randwick for a traditional Christmas turkey dinner followed by the mandatory card games.

Family at Opera HouseThere was no time to rest the following day as we had to vacate our rented home and transfer to our next one, another AirBnB this time across to the north of Sydney in Fairlight, next to Manly. Unfortunately there was no room for all of us in the car due to the large amount of leftover food and booze so the girls travelled there by bus and ferry. We had the luxury of a whole week in this amazing house which was huge with a bedroom for each of us and a den/cinema complex in the basement. The house was at the top of a steep hill and a short walk to the centre of Manly so the rental car had a rest for that week.

Nat and Tom at Manly-12Although we had a whole week there, it disappeared very quickly as we had no trouble filling our days. Needless to say, the famous Manly Beach and its surf culture absorbed much of our time although we limited ourselves to body boards – the waves were a bit too ferocious for beginners like us to try full-size surf boards. Then there was the Manly to Spit Bridge Walk, almost 10km along the coast through some national parklands, with great views of Sydney Harbour and ending up passing some multi-million dollar beach-side homes. The following day we took the ferry into Sydney where we met Ian’s aunt and uncle for lunch and then did the mandatory tourist walk around the famous Sydney landmarks before meeting Natalie’s friend, Belinda, for drinks at the Opera House. Drinks were followed by dinner and more drinks and a late ferry home followed by a trudge up the steep hill from the Manly ferry terminal to our digs.

Manly WharfBefore we knew it New Year’s eve had arrived and with it our much anticipated boat trip out to the harbour for the grandstand view of the famous Sydney fireworks. We had worked out that not everybody on the boat was going to be lucky with that view so, bearing in mind how much we’d paid for our tickets, we determined to be first in the queue to be sure of the pick of the deck spots. The Manly Fast Ferry company had advised us that it was OK to bring our own booze but, at the same time, to be careful of the strict local laws about consumption of alcohol in public places. So there we were, on the quayside at 8pm, nearly 2 hours before departure, with our cool-bags packed with beer, wine and ice, swigging pre-mixed gin & tonic from a lemonade bottle! We weren’t alone in our firework viewing strategy as we were soon joined by an American family also with cool-bags and Sydney Fireworksdrinking wine from disguised containers. Sydney harbour was absolutely packed with boats of all shapes and sizes and our one spent about an hour and a half slowly meandering around the other moored vessels, keeping everybody guessing as to which side of the boat to position themselves on. In the end our choice of deck space was a winner as, when the boat finally came to rest for the start of the fireworks, our corner ended up having the best view of the display. So it was a very happy and slightly tipsy Wright family that ended up back at Manly wharf at around 1 am, drinks in hand only to be accosted by a thin blue line of the Manly police force who were removing drinks from the hands of the returning revellers and pouring them out at their feet. The festivities were well and truly over!

New Year’s Day was pretty much wiped out by the after-effects of the previous night, although we did again manage some beach time. We then had one more day to enjoy the beach before it was time to pack up and get an early night ready for the start of our long road trip up to Cairns. The first segment of this trip was from Sydney to Noosa Heads just north of Brisbane and we broke the journey at Coffs Harbour, a rather non-descript beachside town on the New South Wales coast. The weather had turned by now and most of the journey was undertaken in the rain as was most of our stay at Noosa Heads.

Noosa itself is a chic and very popular seaside/surf town and the rain did abate long enough for us to have a walk in the local national park in an (unsuccessful) attempt to spot Koalas. We were joined for the day by our nephew, Ben and his girlfriend Sarah, both of whom are studying in Brisbane. They joined us back at the AirBnB for a barbeque and ended up staying the night on the sofas – which ended up getting us into trouble with the AirBnB host!

After our very brief visit to Noosa it was time for another early start, back down to Brisbane where we had to leave Natalie and Thomas at the airport for the start of their respective journeys back to England. After saying our goodbyes we turned the car north again towards our next destination – Fraser Island.

Then there were three!

 

 

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