Saturday, October 6, 2012

From Cove to cave in Australia

From Cove to cave in Australia 

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Location : Queensland, Australia
Laviinia Dhanagunan

Source :New Straits Times,18 August 2011

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  • A family of emus pleasantly surprises us during our ride on the converted truck
It may have been tiring - tough even - but LAVIINIA DHANAGUNAN finds it a day to remember at Mareeba Wetlands and Trezkinn Cave in Queensland.

OUR day-long trip to Chillagoe in Queensland, Australia, starts with a quick breakfast in our hotel at Palm Cove before we meet our guide from Billy Tea Safaris.

What´s meant to be a quick coffee turns into a leisurely breakfast.

Later, we´re bundled into our unique transport for the day: It looks like a converted truck with seating space for 12 people.

It is a custom-built 4WD which the local tour operator uses for personalised tours.

Our bespectacled guide proves to be a treasure trove of information about the Outback as the day progresses.

The 450km trip to the small country town of Chillagoe traverses vast, green land and rugged terrain.

You may be tempted to catch a snooze on the road trip. However, keeping awake is worth the effort as we catch sight of animals and birds in their natural environment.

We get a glimpse of a wedge-tailed eagle perched on the branch of an iron-bark tree. This brown bird of prey, also the largest species in the category, looks down regally from its spot on the tree which, despite its name, is a member of the eucalyptus family.

About an hour later, we reach Mareeba Wetlands.

Nature´s treat

The Mareeba Tropical Savanna and Wetland Reserve, opened to the public in September 1999, is teeming with flora and fauna - making it a favourite haunt of birdwatchers especially in spring.

The 2,000-hectare tourist attraction, formerly a stock reserve for Cape York cattle owners, is a hive of activity in July and August due to avid birdwatchers.

One can expect to see 60 species in a day - more if one spends the night as many species are regular visitors and breeders. The best way to experience the attraction is to stay in one of its campsites, Jabiru Camp.

Unfortunately, we only manage to catch sight of one of the 204 species of birds said to call this 12-year-old establishment home. It´s probably because we spend less than an hour here.

Sporting a fleshy red wattle at the top of its head, the comb-crested jacana wades idyllically away from our boat as we cruise around Lily Lagoon.

The biggest of eight lagoons in the reserve, Lily Lagoon is so called for the pale pink and white lotus flowers on its surface.

Bladderwort, freshwater tortoise, file snake, black bream catfish, barramundi and sarratoga also call this freshwater haven home.

One thing to note while travelling in tropical North Queensland is that you really feel the kiss of heat on your skin.

So bring lots of protection from the sun such as sunscreen, a wide hat, polarised sunglasses or thin, long-sleeved T-shirts.

Pit-stop in Almaden

The trip resumes with a bumpy 5km ride down a dirt access road out of the entrance to Mareeba before we get back onto tarred road.

We make a quick pit-stop for lunch at Almaden, a picturesque country town which is a testimony to rural life.

I count maybe five houses before we reach the town centre, a single street with a post office, a visitor centre, a hotel and a pub.

It gets even more quaint when we step into the pub for our lunch. Sitting in single file at the bar, we sip sodas while waiting for our burgers to come off the grill.

And what a burger! The mere sight of the delicious looking chargrilled beef patty is enough to get the gastric juices going.

Each juicy bite is a discovery, thanks to the unique addition of a slice of beetroot to the usual suspects of slightly caramelised onions, lettuce and tomato slices.

We must have consumed more than 500 calories in that one sitting but it´s pub grub that worth every morsel. No wonder the walls have numerous scrawls of satisfied customers from all over the world.

Burning it up

Our fears of over-eating, however, are worked out of the system, literally, when we get to Trezkinn Cave, the only limestone cave open to visitors at this time, just after the rainy season.

Trezkinn Cave, discovered in the 1950s, boasts spectacular formations and is one of two venues lit up by electric lighting.

It is one of 600 to 700 limestone caves found in Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park and only guided tours are allowed.

The mere 100m ascent to the mouth of the cave sees us working up a sweat.

We inch our way down the steep stairwell leading to its base, taking care to step firmly as each step is wet with drops of water.

In front of me is a woman who´s afraid of being in confined spaces but she bravely makes it through each harrowing moment. Perhaps, in her mind, it´s worth all that effort to see stalactite and stalagmite formations throughout the 15-minute walk round the base of the cave.

Trezkinn Cave has soft lights lighting up the walkway and the details of the formations can be gaped at from a viewing area.

It´s quite interesting to see how rainwater influences the formation of flowstones within the cave and how something natural such as bat droppings can disfigure a stalagmite formation.

Back to Palm Cove

For the trip back to Palm Cove, we wind through Mac Allister Range, with a quick stop at Skybury coffee plantation.

For a coffee lover like me, this is the ultimate treat รข€” especially after a tiring day.

However, a strict schedule leaves me with no option other than a quick run-around inside and looking longingly out the windows at the plantation.

That day goes down as one to remember.

The writer´s trip to Cairns is courtesy of Tourism Australia.

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