Wilson Ring, The Associated Press, October 29, 2015
CAIRNS, Australia (AP) — It can be hard to hear an Australian accent while walking along the waterfront esplanade in the far northern city of Cairns on the Pacific.
Tourists from across the globe flock to Cairns (pronounced Kanz) for easy access to the Great Barrier Reef and some of the world's most spectacular scuba diving, with plenty of less-crowded but picturesque beach towns nearby.
I went to Australia with my wife after my daughter finished a semester abroad on the Cairns campus of James Cook University. I knew about the Great Barrier Reef but quickly learned that Queensland, the state that covers the northeast of Australia, is a lot more than beaches, scuba diving and quaint waterfront restaurants.
GREAT BARRIER REEF
Boats chug out of the Cairns harbor carrying scuba divers and snorkelers to the reefs, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) offshore. Many boats carry visitors out to the reef and back the same day, but we spent two nights and three days on the Reef Encounter, a 100-foot (30-meter) catamaran. The vessel usually stays on the reef, moving between dive spots, with tourists, supplies and the crew arriving and departing on daily shuttles.
Many of the crew members on the boats are from other countries, taking advantage of an Australian labor shortage that led to a special temporary work visa program.
The first day we were on the boat, 9,500 miles (15,000 kilometers) from our Vermont home, we met two recent graduates of the University of Vermont, both of whom had set out to travel the Pacific separately and decided to meet in Cairns to go diving. They both ended up working there.
In most places the reef is shallow enough to be enjoyed while snorkeling, but the crew can offer on-the-spot training to uncertified divers and then accompany them on shallow dives.
DAINTREE NATIONAL PARK AND INLAND QUEENSLAND
It should be obvious to anyone who looks at a map, but traveling in Australia adds the exclamation point to the reality that the country is huge. The land mass is about the equivalent size of the continental United States with a population of about 24 million, about 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) from the east to west coasts and 2,290 miles (3,685 kilometers) from its most northerly to its most southerly points.
I was fascinated by the flora and fauna, not to mention the ever-present signs on the Queensland beaches warning about crocodiles or marine stingers, a term that describes a variety of venomous jellyfish. There were ever-present bottles of vinegar left at many beaches to counteract the sting along with instructions to seek medical attention.
Then there are the endangered cassowaries, flightless birds related to the emu, with brilliantly colored blue necks, heads with red wattles and black bodies. They are known for their unpredictability and their ability to eviscerate threats, thanks to their razor-sharp, three-toed claws.
To the north of Cairns is the Daintree National Park, some say the oldest rainforest — at 250 million years — in the world. Keep going and you hit an area called the Far North, ending at Cape York, the northernmost point of the Australian mainland and just over 90 miles (145 kilometers) from Papua New Guinea. The area is sparsely populated but it is popular with tourists, who fill the roads with campervans — what Americans call RVs.
"There are options for accommodation but usually people will camp and 4WD camper trailers are all the rage this year," said Marion Esser, who runs the Cow Bay Homestay, a bed and breakfast at the edge of the Daintree Rainforest. "Then most people would be fishing on the way, lots of rivers and coast on either side of the peninsula."
It was by the side of a road in park that we happened upon a cassowary. It was one of an estimated 4,400 of the protected bird left in what is known as the "wet tropics," a 2.2 million-acre area of coastal northern Queensland.
Away from the coast, there are also wallabies, small cuddly cousins of the kangaroo. At the Granite Gorge Nature Park outside the town of Mareeba, about an hour west of Cairns, wallabies will sit on your lap while you feed them.
The kangaroos that help give Australia its identity are as common as deer in parts of the U.S. At one point I had to slam the brakes of our rented van to avoid a kangaroo standing in the middle of the road while we drove through a vast field of sugarcane. We stopped in time, but Australian roadsides are littered with kangaroo carcasses.
THE ROADS SOUTH
We hired our campervan in Cairns, promising to return it in Melbourne almost two weeks later. Adjusting to driving on the left wasn't as hard as I feared and the drive showed us the country you can't see from an airplane.
The trip, about the equivalent of driving from New York to Key West, Florida, mostly on well-maintained two-lane highways, showed the changing geography of Australia from seemingly endless fields of sugarcane in the far north that give way to tropical cattle country before that gives way to vast sheep and cattle farms, called stations.
Australia is paradise for road campers. Not only are campgrounds that would be familiar to Americans plentiful, but most towns have free designated camping areas where RVs can stay for free. They always have toilet facilities, some offer showers and other amenities.
The population centers in Australia are on the southeast coast. Once we reached Melbourne we turned in our campervan and hopped the flight home, an unforgettable family adventure of a lifetime.
This article was written by Wilson Ring from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.