What we planned:
It’s fair to group two days as one, since the object was the same, though the vehicles were different. Day 9 is Easter Sunday, and that is lift-off for our helicopter tour OVER the Great Barrier Reef. Day 10, a big Aussie holiday as well for Easter Monday, is our day to get OUT onto the reef in a boat, something everyone seems to agree is a must do.
We also knew that Sunday morning is Market Day in Port Douglas, where we can see local crafts, artists, and collectors of all things Australian.
What we saw … was incredible!
Without a doubt, booking the heli tour was a brilliant decision. Ryan “collected” us (picked up) at our hotel, dressed in his crisp white shirt, navy blue shorts, and navy blue Crox shoes. He was driving a GBR Helicopter Tours car, and would soon be piloting our aircraft.
It was delightful to learn that we had a three-seater black ‘copter to ourselves for the next hour. After reviewing safety, Ryan asked what we wanted to see. As luck would have it, the sky is an open road with no paved highways to follow. We opted for a second section of waterfalls that might not be on most flights, and a fly-by of Four Mile Beach, our dwelling site for these three nights, which is where the flight began.
Before OUT, we flew UP, toward the mountains of the Daintree Rainforest. The density of the trees resembled green cauliflower, with sprigs of brighter green palm trees peeking out of the canopy. We saw the rushing waters of the Daintree River as we climbed up through the Mossman Gorge, with immense boulders creating rapids and waterfalls for miles. Our climb reached nearly 3000 feet above sea level, and far fewer feet above the trees, before we swung around a mountain peak to locate Stuarts Creek, the sight added at our request for “more waterfalls.”
We swept up the creek (but in a good way), growing closer to rapidly flowing falls about 100 feet tall. Atop the falls was a flat rocky area where, to our surprise and delight, Ryan set the helicopter down for a stop. After perhaps 30 seconds of two persons gurgling, “So cool,” the pilot asked, “Ready to go?” Betsy replied without hesitating, “Not yet; just one more photo.” That task completed, we floated off the rocks and made course toward the waters of the Coral Sea.
Coasting over the coastline a few thousand feet up took us toward another requested destination, the Low Isles. This was a beautiful sight consisting of a small island and a tiny island. The locals and those with sufficient imagination (Betsy) see the shape of the Australian continent in the outline of the former. Anyone (now we include Doug) will know the tiny island by its shining beaches and beaconing white lighthouse. “Pretty as a painting,” we can attest, because that morning we had purchased a small piece by a local artist of this island.
All the while the endless sea lay before us, to our left, and to the right. We continued OVER the various elements of the Great Reef to closely investigate two expansive areas known as Bat Reef and Tongue Reef, dropping our altitude to just a few hundred feet. At this level, we could see manta rays, eagle rays, a couple sharks, and large turtles making their home in the sea.
The expanse of water was the star of the show, with colors of blue I cannot recall seeing previously, as the depths diverged from a few feet on the reefs to hundreds of feet in the spaces between. It was hard to capture this on camera, but we absorbed all the sights, reaching out twenty-five miles from the coast before it was time to motor the rotors back to Port Douglas.
Our observations from above included these bits of which we were not aware:
- The Great Barrier Reef has few lane markings or – uh – navigation aids. The lighthouse we saw was a rarity, and there are no channel markers such as we might see along the Intracoastal Waterway in the States. A ship captain has to be savvy to wind through these waters, and many have failed.
- Most of the reefs remain completely submerged, so though they seem almost to be islands, the vast majority of them are not exposed to the air. Some reefs are made entirely of coral, which only lives under water, and others have become largely sand, like Bat Reef and Tongue Reef.
- The edge of a reef is like a shoreline. Waves pound them like a continental shoreline. Over time, breakers overwashing the reef pulverize some of the coral, creating a sand-like surface.
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The thrill of the Day 9 helicopter excursion was followed on Day 10 by exploration of the reef by boat. Quicksilver Tours placed us in a vessel with hundreds of tourists, where we chose seats at the table of a Chicago couple and two New Zealanders. It was raining – – hard!
The soft and comfortable seats of the inside decks were completely full with everyone aiming to keep dry. Table conversation was fun, until sea sickness began to set in. Two at our table became queasy, and all ’round the ship a well-prepared crew was delivering white bags to passengers in need. We dodged those difficulties with a little help from two friends: drugs and a previous-day passenger staying at our hotel.
Meredith was that friendly hotel acquaintance, explaining she had been queasy on a day when the weather was hospitable, and that she was aided by the drugs available for purchase on-board the Quicksilver vessel. Normally we wouldn’t opt for such measures, but forewarned is forearmed, so we purchased the necessary dosage, as did many others, but perhaps not all. We estimated later that twenty percent of those aboard exhibited sickness, but the day passed without such incident for ourselves.
Venturing forty miles off the coast, we were set free of the ship to explore the reef from a platform half the size of a football field. There we opted to ride a glass-bottom boat that wandered amongst the coral for 20 or 30 minutes, with a guide to point out features beneath and around us. But with the storms continuing most of the day, the water was slightly murky and visibility was not at all the stuff of brochures.
Next was an opportunity to snorkel off the platform, which we did for perhaps an hour. Cloudy, churning water again limited the sights we saw to one large turtle, just a few dozen fish of reasonable size, and what Doug will claim, with significant shadows of doubt, was a small solitary shark. Coral was everywhere below us, and that was the real show.
It was not the experience others have enjoyed on the reef, and we recommend that anyone making this trip take a pass on stormy days. Oh! And book yourself an Australian “helicopta” tour to get a grand exploration of the Great Barrier Reef.
While these two days were all about the water views, we did find time with an early rising Sunday to tour the (flea) market, make small buys, and visit with the locals. It was mentioned earlier that we acquired a small painting of the Low Isles. Another purchase was a toy marsupial crafted from wood. Doug wasn’t thinking of that particular event when the following dinner dialogue ensued about eight hours later.
Betsy: “The wine selections are from all over Australia.”
- Doug: “No drinks for me; I’ve had two (maybe three) glasses of champagne in the last week, and a wonderfully cold Crown Lager with dinner along the Yarra River. That’s far and above my norm.”
Betsy, now sipping on a Forest Hill Chardonnay: “We know the lady being seated for dinner at the table behind you.”
Betsy: “Behind you.”
- “Where did we meet her?,” he asked more clearly.
Betsy: “She sold us the kangaroo.”
- “We bought a kangaroo?,” asked Doug with bewilderment.
Betsy, laughing: “This morning.”
“The toy at the market,” she blurted, now laughing and tearing with the simultaneous pleasures of clarity in her own mind as well as mild delight in Doug’s foggy discomfort.
- …Silence ensued.
We shall neither buy nor adopt a critter on this trip, I assure you!
Photos from the two days: