Thursday, January 08, 2009

Going into the Big City - Cairns

We ventured into Cairns today getting the bus at the correct time, but not sure which direction we needed. Apparently we did not realize what an adventure it would be, so we each stood on one side of the road to flag down anything that came. Since I was on a bend, I could only hear large motor noises and tried flagging down a couple of trucks before realizing they were not buses.

When we finally had a bus arrive, for the first twenty minutes, there were only three of us on it. Traveling through the suburbs, it is strip mall after strip mall, but once we reached a highway, the highways were beautifully manicured; I could easily have felt like I was in Hawaii. The hills and mountains in the background filled with trees, foliage and lush flowers planted along the way, was really lovely scenery. It was in the 90s today with equally high humidity, so the mist was playing off the tips of the mountain tops. Our journey lasted forty-five minutes before we arrived at our destination.

Cairns immediately reminded me of an East coast city, circa 1970s. Only a couple of buildings look like they were built long ago, while the others look like they were built without the aid of an architect's imagination. There is not much of a city there; the streets were fairly empty of tourists. The central business district is just about three long streets made up of restaurants, souvenir shops, cafés, and of course, hotels and one casino. Here and there is a mall or shopping plaza interspersed with the other stores. We walked up one street and down the other, checking out everything, lest we miss some hidden treasure.

Stopping for a coffee, we thought we had picked a prime location with outside seating. However, when we asked for an ashtray for the outside table we were informed that there is no smoking outside anywhere in Queensland. Queensland, the state we are currently in restricts smoking within four meters of the opening of any food serving establishment. Perhaps this is the reason why there are so few people eating in these places. Making it stricter, you cannot smoke in any area that is covered either, which includes awnings; most of the stores have metal awnings that span the entire block. In order to smoke, you have to stand in the curb and on a corner like a pariah. This explained the congregation of people at the curbs and corners of the streets, puffing away until they finished and then went back to the store or restaurant they came from.

One section of the business district has all of the Asian oriented stores and businesses that range from travel agents to souvenir shops that specifically cater to the Japanese and Korean tourists with all of their signs in both languages. Business must be poor is the city. There were a number of empty store fronts with for sale or for rent signs posted in windows.

As we walked the streets, we saw this fascinating tree that had hundreds of branches coming from the trunk rooting into the ground. We found it was a type of fig tree called a strangler fig. A sign on the tree caught my attention and thinking it was an explanation of the tree, it was a request to inform the authorities if anyone spots a flying fox bat baby that has fallen to the ground. Included in the warning was not to touch it as they carry a virus fatal to humans. When I looked up, there were hundreds of bats hanging in the tree. All of the squawking we assumed was coming from birds was in actuality coming from the bats hanging around. Although daylight, they were busy flying around, spreading their wings, and most likely fighting for territory. We thought better of staying under the tree for too long fearing bat pooh bombs.

Our host had suggested we walk toward where the beach should be, but explained that Cairns does not have a beach, but a mud land. With the waters out, there is very little sand, but a large mud area, so the city built a pool for the locals to swim. It is splendidly designed so that it starts as a fountain working its way into a full fledged pool. Boasting a full 43,000 square feet, each area of this salt water pool is clearly marked with the depth and one point is deep enough to dive into. Huge starfish sculptures elevated into the air on poles are fountains pouring water into the pools. There is park area all around for sunbathing, plus ingeniously, the city installed permanent grills, in series of three that can be started with the push of a button, so people can barbecue and then eat at the picnic tables spread through the area. It is so completely user friendly, but no smoking anywhere in the area.

Cairns may be small and the area may seem like one suburban resort after another, but this area is the only place in the world where two World Heritage sites are side by side: the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics Rainforest. The rainforest in Daintree is 110 million years old.

We were told by our host that if we were too hot, we should check out the air conditioned mall to cool off. Malls are malls anywhere in the world, same same, but different. We did however stop into a grocery store to buy a roasted chicken and some salads for our dinner, before catching the bus back to where we are staying. When we boarded the bus, I asked the driver if he would warn us when he was approaching Gannett Road and Bondi Court. He said “Do you see this blank look on my face? I have no idea where you are talking about.” If we were not positive it was the right bus, I would have been concerned. There was no reason to even pay attention until after forty-five minutes had passed and by that time, there were only three of us on the bus anyway. When we told the driver we thought we were close, he drove slower so that we could identify the stop. Our stop is the only one not marked with a sign. It is only a utility post that identifies it as a place to hail buses. One thing I have to say is the bus drivers are terrific and helpful. They will do anything possible to be of assistance and none of the other passengers seem to mind being held up while the driver is helping others.

After a shower, we jumped into the pool to cool off. After reading some e-mails, we chowed down on our dinner while the two Argentinians ordered take-out and the Brit had gone into town. The hosts went out for dinner, so it was cozy. Our chicken and salads were exceptionally good, one salads was an antipasto, which I had doubts about when ordering. It was memory shattering, bringing me back to my childhood. Now I wish we had bought a larger container. What a treat to jump back in the pool to cool off before going to bed.

I have come to grips with appreciating where we were staying. The host Andrew is beyond accommodating and the other guests are really a treat to spend a few hours with in the evening. The one clincher is there is WiFi here. If I had to hunt around for it, it would have been murder. Oh and the pool calls with invitations to jump in regularly.

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