But first Sydney... we arrived early and checked in to our hotel. Sjoerd has won two nights in Park Hyatt - the most expensive hotel in Sydney (with a photo competition organized by Carlson Wagonlit Travel). This hotel is special due to its location, under the famous bridge with direct views on Sydney's Opera House. Our room had full opera view, and it was certainly a nice way to wake up.
The hotel is situated in The Rocks, the oldest district in Sydney and now a tourist area with many bars, restaurant, art galleries and weekend markets.. After checking in, we started exploring the city, first with a walk around the Opera House (we found it more impressive from a distance) and through the lovely Botanic Gardens, with its resident population of white cockatoos and fruit bats. The kakatoos are very much used to people, and well aware that humans are providers of food...
From the Botanic Gardens, we had great views on the bridge and the harbour.
After a stroll through the CBD (hardly any old buildings unfortunately), we arrived at Darling Harbour where we took a nice boat trip under the bridge back to our hotel. In the evening we went back to Darling Harbour, where you can get a good feel for Sydney's nightlife.
The next day, we went to visit the Koala Sanctuary in Sydney outskirts. It was a great place, with many sleepy koalas (clearly nocturnal animals), kangaroos that enjoyed to be caressed, dingos, cassowaries (large birds with a notoriously bad temper), and many more local species. One sleepy koala was selected for the afternoon show, but he didn't mind as he was treated to fresh young leaves. Koalas used to be hunted for their beautiful fur, and today they're threatened by loss of habitat. In addition, they're very fussy eaters who rather starve than switch to a different type of eucalyptus leave for dinner... The Sanctuary was instrumental in preserving the species back in the 1920's, and the third-generation owners continue to educate visitors on the need for preservation. The kangaroos were fantastic as well, you could easily pat them, even the mothers with a baby in their pouch (you could see the long legs sticking out!).
In the afternoon we visited Bondi Beach, which is comparable to Scheveningen in the Netherlands. It was nice, but we found it a bit over-hyped. In the evening, we enjoyed a nice fireworks display above the Opera House, which was a good end of our stay there.
The next day we flew to Cairns, where we checked into a lovely backpacker's hostel - we enjoyed this as much as the 5-star hotel in Sydney because it had charm, a resident cat and dog, and friendly owners. Cairns itself is quite low-key, and people mainly come there to start diving trips. The Tjapukai aboriginal cultural park is well worth a visit - it gives a good understanding of native life and beliefs, and let's you experience their hunting and gathering methods.
We've heard a lot of things abou the Great Barrier Reef - good and bad. We realized that it's important to move away from the coast and far into the reef, as that's where the best sites are. We were curious to see if GBR could match some of the top dive sites in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand... All in all, it did - the coral was less impressive, but the fish were much larger (thanks to restricted fishing in a very large area, allowing the fish to fully grow).
We went with the TAKA liveaboard trip, which is the most well-known operator. We did a total of 10 dives in four days, and we've some fantastic things. The highlight was Cod Hole, where there are a couple of gigantic potato cods (1.5m long) who patiently wait for divers to come and feed them every day (it's a well-regulated activity, with strict limits on how much can be given). It was fascinating to see them from so close... They were literally circling around us! We stayed after the rest of the group left, and we enjoyed their company just by ourselves. You could see that they were smart animals - they knew what was happening, and they seemed to enjoy the attention..
We did nine more dives across the Northern GBR, and we saw white-tip reef sharks, large groupers, a 2 meter long moray Eel during a night dive, a huge turtle of almost 2 meters long, schools of baracudas, schools of trevallies and small yellow fish, and countless small fish - it really felt sometimes like we were in an overpopulated aquarium!
Unfortunately, all good things come to an end, and after four days we were back in Cairns.
But not worry - we rented a car the same day and left straightaway for Cape Tribulation, a national parl nortb of Cairns (described as a place where "the jungle meets the sea"). The coastal drive was very nice, with sweeping views across the coast line, followed by a drive through dense jungle forest. We found a great place for the night at Cape Trib Farm Stay, where they served a huge breakfast with fresh fruits from their orchard.
The next morning we made a long walk on the beach and checked the Cape Trib view point. We were surprised to see that nobody was swimming, but this is understandable - the waters are full of box jellyfish, which can kill you in 15 seconds! We also visited the Bat House, a wonderful volunteer initiative to restore the bat population and regrow the rainforest that were cleared before people knew the consequences of this. It's well worth a visit.
We drove back through the jungle road, where you see constant warning signs for crossing cassowaries. There are only 1,000+ left in the wild, and you don't want to kill one by speeding!
In the afternoon, we did a boat trip on Daintree river, to spot crocodiles. And to our delight, we did see Scar Face, the master crocodile of the estuary. Even the boat captain was excited to see him again. It was at least 7m long, and very impressive even if most of its body was below water. It was the dominant male of the river, and certainly removed our desire to go for a swim! We've also seen baby crocs, snakes and birds, and it was nice to see them all thriving in the wild.
By late afternoon we arrived in Mossman, where we checked into a B&B with truly spectacular views on the jungle and distant hills. After a great breakfast (giant croissants with passion fruit jam...), we made a long walk through Mossman Gorge. It's a significant site for aboriginals, and there was a aboriginal community near the entrance. We wished we had more time, so we could have taken a tour by a local guide.
It was a great way to discover this part of Australia... We'll be back one day to explore the northern and western parts of the country as well.
For more pictures, click here.