With earthquakes rumbling around the world, tsunamis tearing away towns, birds falling from the sky and fish washing up on shore, people all around the world are experiencing the incredible power and pain of Mother Nature. The Pacific Rim appears particularly volatile following devastating earthquakes in both New Zealand and Japan, the effects of the latter so unbelievable that it is hard for most of us to even fathom. Each successive calamity is so much more disastrous than the last that even the 24-hour news cycle can barely capture all that is occurring worldwide.
Among the countries most severely impacted in the past year is the nation of Australia. No stranger to nature’s harshness, in recent years Australians have endured annual droughts and catastrophic bushfires. Then in late 2010, the rains came. And in the eastern state of Queensland, they just kept coming. Before long, three-quarters of the state had been declared a disaster zone and thousands of people had been evacuated from cities and towns inundated with flooding, including the capital city of Brisbane.
As residents were still reeling from the effects of widespread flooding, even worse news came. Tropical cyclone Yasi was gathering strength in the South Pacific and was headed straight for Queensland. The media was saying that Yasi may be the “state’s worst cyclone in history” and evacuations were ordered up and down the Queensland coast. When the cyclone made landfall in the early hours of February 3, 2011, it had grown into a Category 5 storm with winds up to 180 mph. Though the towns of Mission Beach, Tully and Innisfail suffered the worst damage, larger cities such as Cairns and Townsville escaped the brunt of a storm packing winds stronger than those from Hurricane Katrina.
While Queensland was being battered by some of its worst weather in history, I was preparing for a 10-day trip to this very same place with Seven Natural Wonders, a non-profit group committed to preserving areas of natural beauty by designating them as natural wonders. The trip was being sponsored by Queensland Tourism in order to highlight the region’s vast offerings, both in natural beauty and tourist infrastructure. I was accompanied by fellow Declaration Committee members and Seven Natural Wonders affiliates, including the Director of Wildscreen, the President of the International League of Conservation Photographers, and Co-editor of Go Green Travel Green.
During the first few days of our trip, we would experience the Daintree Rainforest from the comforts of two separate lodges. Our first stop was the Daintree Ecolodge and Spa with its tranquil rainforest setting, friendly staff, and delicious Julaymba Restaurant. It is a small place with lots of personality, just 15 rainforest villas connected by a series of boardwalks high above a running stream. The highlights were the enchanting restaurant with its fine Australian cuisine and contemporary selection of wine and cocktails. But the real reason people visit is the award-winning Spa and Relaxation Centre where guests can receive world-class spa treatments surrounded by the sights and sounds of a World Heritage-listed rainforest area.
Also located in the Daintree Rainforest is the Silky Oaks Lodge and Healing Waters Spa. This “ultimate luxury Daintree eco lodge” blends casual and contemporary design with its 50 tree and river houses set in peaceful surroundings on the banks of the Mossman River. It features an open-sided restaurant and river views that ranks among the best of North Queensland’s dining experiences. There is a unique and inviting pool that mimics the surrounding forest with lush foliage, tumbling waterfalls, and small separate coves. Also, the grounds of the hotel are well-manicured with pebble-stone walkways carrying guests to their rooms through the dripping green of the rainforest.
Our first two nights had their share of both comfort and hardship. The lodges were both beautiful and inviting, but the heat and humidity left our shirts drenched in sweat and our bodies riddled with mosquito bites. The accommodations and meals had been splendid, but we all agreed we were ready to move on from the rainforests and experience the Great Barrier Reef. Yet, Queensland had a different plan for us. The excessive rains during the first two days of our trip had damaged our boat transport and flooded a bridge near Cairns leaving us stuck in traffic for four hours. As time dragged on and we barely moved at all, the day began to unravel. Three full days had passed since we arrived in Australia and the Seven Natural Wonders group had yet to glimpse the reef for which we had come.
The next morning we arrived at Sunlover Cruises for our first trip to the Great Barrier Reef. We were all a bit dismayed to find ourselves aboard a large ship with more than a hundred others, but the opportunity for scuba diving and snorkeling had arrived and we were eager to experience it all. We would only be on the reef for several hours, but in that time I was scheduled to scubadive, snorkel and take a helicopter ride. It took about 1.5 hours to reach the reef and during that time the rain hardly let up. Our boat rocked and swayed in the waves while the crew donned plastic gloves and attended to the sea sick. It was an ominous beginning to the trip, but one that we were still confident to overcome.
As always, I savored the sensation of diving and experiencing the world from once impossible depths. We explored the coral reefs and marveled at underwater wonders, yet the site fell short of what one would expect at the Great Barrier Reef. We saw more fantastic coral, fish and even a giant clam during the guided snorkel trip that followed, helping to redeem my very limited view of the reef thus far. I was eager to see more, but as the rains continued and the clouds refused to yield, our helicopter tour was canceled and our short tour of the Great Barrier Reef had come to an end.
Though the reef trip had fallen short of our expectations, our accommodations continued to impress. The itinerary described our next destination, Fitzroy Island Resort, as an “accessible, affordable 4 star tropical paradise nestled between rainforest and beaches of the calm sheltered waters of the Great Barrier Reef.” I was surprised to find that the resort lived up to its description and more with exquisite accommodation, a delicious and contemporary restaurant, large pool and swim-up bar, indoor theater, arcade and mini supermarket. We borrowed some snorkel gear to explore the surrounding reef where we found vibrant coral and marine life, including small rays, potato cod, and sea turtles. Even more exciting was the Seabob which allowed us to explore the underwater depths behind the power of a torpedo-shaped water sled, mimicking the moves of a dolphin while zipping past marine life above and below the ocean surface. We were served a very delicious and creative 7-course dinner with each dish representing one of the world’s seven natural wonders. It was a creative touch, made even better by the resort owner’s presence at our dinner.
We traveled from Fitzroy Island back to Cairns in the pouring rain and you could feel the mutual disappointment within the group. Among our group were environmentalists, conservationists, wildlife advocates, and nature buffs. We had come from destinations worldwide to experience and promote the Great Barrier Reef, yet bad weather and poor planning had reduced our encounter to three hours on a touristy trip which appeared to provide great financial rewards for the company while lacking proper environmental sensitiveness. It was a rough night in Cairns knowing that half our trip had passed and only one opportunity remained for us to experience the Great Barrier Reef.
We were flown from Cairns to Townsville where a visit was scheduled to the world’s largest living coral reef aquarium, Reef HQ Aquarium. The media was there to greet us and we were filmed admiring the vivid displays of living coral and marine life. The staff at Reef HQ Aquarium was very excited to have us and they gave us a behind-the-scenes look at their facilities, including a breeding program for leopard sharks and a Turtle Hospital which works with rescued sea turtles.
The last stop on our trip was Magnetic Island, a 20 sq mile mountainous island in Cleveland Bay which has basically become a suburb of Townsville with a population of over 2,000 permanent residents. Sunferries operates 19 daily ferry services between Townsville and Magnetic Island making it a long popular holiday destination which caters to all levels of service. Our accommodation, Mantra One Bright Point, was a gorgeous set of apartments complete with full amenities and oceanfront views. It was another case of enjoying lavish accommodation while looking out upon dismal cloud-covered views. We resolved to make the most of it and savor the comforts before venturing 3 hours out to the Great Barrier Reef the following day.
We awoke to pounding surf and whipping winds, as well as the unfortunate call that our scuba diving had been canceled due to the weather. It was no great surprise, but a huge disappointment for us all, with no hope of seeing the reef again on this trip. Our only hope of salvaging the day was a visit to the Bungalow Bay Koala Village where we would have the opportunity to interact with koalas. For a group of wildlife conservationists it was difficult to accept replacing a trip to one of the world’s natural wonders with a visit to a petting zoo. But despite our personal feelings or objections, we made the most of the options available to us and actually enjoyed getting to interact with snakes, spiders, lizards and yes, even a koala.
Through it all, the rain continued to pour and when the trip had nearly drawn to a close, we had yet to see even a sliver of sunshine. Our only constants had been cloud-covered days, ceaseless rain, and the constant interruption that comes with bad weather. We were a dismal group, attempting to appreciate the luxuries afforded us while ignoring the storm clouds constantly brewing overhead. Our friends and families scolded us for not being more appreciative while together it was difficult not to complain.
Then we turned on the television. The news was only a few hours old, but the level of devastation was already clear. The earthquake that had just rattled the world was now wiping out entire towns with unfathomable flood waters in the form of a tsunami. Videos were already showcasing scenes of such incomprehensible destruction that all anyone could do was stare in disbelief. The tsunami warning had been issued to countries worldwide, including Australia, stirring nervous conversations around the room. Suddenly, the dark and dismal sky outside and sound of crashing waves represented a much more unsettling emotion than boredom.
We awoke to find that the dangers had subsided, but the rains had not. Sheets and buckets of rain dumped so mercilessly upon Magnetic Island that we could hardly imagine leaving our rooms. When Charles suggested that we go for a hike, I thought the weather might finally have driven him insane. Nevertheless, we grabbed our rain jackets and headed out in the pouring rain on a trail to Horseshoe Bay. As we followed the trail through the forest with sheets of raining falling on our heads and ankle-deep puddles covering the trail, a certain calmness began to wash us over us. Our trip had been anything but perfect and there had been obstacles and pitfalls along the way. We had endured terrible weather, misguided planning, and miserable luck, but in the face of incredible disaster and loss of life, how could we not feel thankful today? So we embraced the weather and let the rain soak us to the bone. And when alas we reached Horseshoe Bay, we dropped our packs without saying a word and ran full speed into the ocean without removing a stitch of our clothes. We laughed and frolicked in the bay while the rain poured down upon us, and in that moment the struggles of our trip were just a footnote to the joy of being alive and well.