Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Australia Day 9--Kuranda Koala Gardens, Skyrail & Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park

Australia series

Australia Day 1--Qantas flight 8 DFW-BNE (Dallas to Brisbane)
Australia Day 2--Flight to Sydney, the Westin Sydney hotel & sightseeing
Australia Days 3/4--Hunter Valley & the Blue Mountains
Australia Day 5--Sydney sightseeing and Manly Beach
Australia Day 6--Paddy's Market, Bondi to Coogee Walk & Darling Harbour
Australia Day 7--Sydney to Cairns, Holiday Inn Cairns & the Cairns Esplanade
Australia Day 8--The Great Barrier Reef
Australia Day 9--Kuranda Koala Gardens, Skyrail & Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park
Australia Day 10--Daintree Rainforest & Cape Tribulation
Australia Day 11--Going home, Part 1, Cairns to Brisbane
Australia Day 11--Going home, Part 2, Brisbane to Honolulu  

Kuranda Koala Gardens

Another thing I was super excited to do in Australia was "cuddle" a koala. And just my luck, Queensland is one of the few places in the world it is legal to do so

In doing my research, I found the Kuranda Koala Gardens had koalas (and other animals) and it seemed reasonably priced at $17 AUD for admission, and an additional $18 to cuddle a koala and get a souvenir photo. Cairns Tropical Zoo is another place with the cuddle a koala offering, but admission is more expensive (presumably because they have more animals). Ultimately, I decided to go to Kuranda because of the lower cost and other attractions in the area.

Kuranda is a small town in the rainforest located 25 kilometers northwest of Cairns. There are quite a few tourist attractions, including the Koala Gardens, Butterfly Sanctuary, Birdworld, lots of little markets, Scenic Railway and Skyrail Cableway. There are packages and such that make it easy for a tourist to have a fun-filled day, but I again decided it'd be best to DIY our itinerary for a lower price.

Getting there: I found two local bus companies, Trans North and John's Kuranda Bus. The website lists TransNorth as $6.50 AUD from Cairns to Kuranda. I couldn't find a current price online for John's, but I figured it was similarly priced. Both picked up from the same Orchid Plaza location in Cairns about 10 minutes apart, so we headed to the bus stop for an 8:30-ish pickup, and figured we'd get on whichever came first. Turns out John's bus came first and it was only $5. I love those little "wins."

John's Kuranda Bus

After a couple stops, we were right outside Kuranda Koala Gardens just in time for their 9 am opening. We were the first people in the park and basically had it to ourselves for most of our visit. The souvenir photos began at 9:30, so we had 30 minutes to walk around.

Map of Kuranda Koala Gardens

This was a small "zoo," if you could even call it that. Thirty minutes was more than enough time to walk around and see everything. There were crocodiles, lizards, kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, koalas and snakes.

Freshwater crocodiles





Snake (thankfully behind glass!)


The kangaroos and wallabies were in a big enclosure. There was a bucket of food nearby and you could just walk in and feed them. My cousin and I were too timid at first to just waltz into the enclosure, especially since there were no employees around. As we were finishing our koala pictures, another visitor went in with the kangaroos, fed them and took some "selfies." After watching her, we felt confident the kangaroos were tame and went on in. It was a great experience!

Feeding a kangaroo
 And speaking of our koala pictures, this was also a great experience. I got to hold a koala named Princess. She was very cute and cuddly. Her claws were very sharp and I could feel them in my shoulder. I went first, then my cousin, then we took a picture together. It was nice that even though you get a souvenir photo, they let you take pictures with your own camera(s).

My souvenir koala photo

The rules regarding koala handling seemed very strict, so I didn't feel like the koalas were being mistreated. Apparently, each koala can only "work" 30 minutes a day. And here's a fun fact: while many people call them koala bears, they are not actually "bears." The bear reference came from their teddy bear resemblance, but in actuality, koalas are marsupials. That's right, the same as kangaroos. Female koalas have pouches where they keep their babies, known as joeys.

Skyrail Rainforest Cableway

After leaving the Koala Gardens, we walked around the various marketplaces and window-shopped, as we headed through town to the next activity on our agenda: the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway.

One of the many markets

This was another adventurous activity for me, being that I'm not a big fan of heights. The Skyrail goes high above the rainforest from Kuranda to Smithfield (near Cairns) and vice versa. While round-trips are available, I decided we should just take it one-way, then visit the neighboring Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park and take a public bus back to Cairns.

Skyrail gondola
Up in the air

The Skyrail's one-way cost was $49 AUD so this was a fairly expensive activity, but I thought it was totally worth it for the 90-minute journey (less time if don't you get off and walk around at the two stops). While it was moderately scary being up so high, the views were mesmerizing. There were two stops, at the Barron Falls and Red Peak, that we got off and walked around to take in the views.
Barron Falls

Red Peak station

Beautiful views at the lookout near Red Peak

Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park

Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park entrance

We arrived at the Smithfield terminal, and by this time it was around 2 pm. This gave us a few hours to visit the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park. I have been intrigued by Australian Aboriginal culture for a long time and thought this would be a good chance to learn more about them. Admission to the park was a bit steep at $40 AUD. I enjoyed the park and all the attractions, especially the dance show. In hindsight, I wish we'd had more time to spend there for that price, but we were able to see most of the major shows and attractions.

Dance show

Dance show

Making fire

Making fire

Talking about how the boomerang is used as a weapon

Playing the didgeridoo
Area where we could try it out for ourselves

There was a stop right outside the Aboriginal park for the public Sunbus 123 that went back to our hotel area. The bus cost $3.90 and took us through more of the Cairns city area, and it was interesting to me to see where the locals live.

We arrived back in Cairns, decided to have dinner at a place called Outback Jacks Bar & Grill, and then pretty much called it a night.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Australia Day 8--The Great Barrier Reef

Australia series

Australia Day 1--Qantas flight 8 DFW-BNE (Dallas to Brisbane)
Australia Day 2--Flight to Sydney, the Westin Sydney hotel & sightseeing
Australia Days 3/4--Hunter Valley & the Blue Mountains
Australia Day 5--Sydney sightseeing and Manly Beach
Australia Day 6--Paddy's Market, Bondi to Coogee Walk & Darling Harbour
Australia Day 7--Sydney to Cairns, Holiday Inn Cairns & the Cairns Esplanade
Australia Day 8--The Great Barrier Reef
Australia Day 9--Kuranda Koala Gardens, Skyrail & Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park
Australia Day 10--Daintree Rainforest & Cape Tribulation 
Australia Day 11--Going home, Part 1, Cairns to Brisbane 
Australia Day 11--Going home, Part 2, Brisbane to Honolulu 

It was finally time for one of the activities I was most excited about! In my pre-trip planning, I found an inexpensive ($99 AUD), bare bones, snorkeling tour of the Great Barrier Reef. I would have been perfectly happy to do this tour, however, after talking it over with my cousin, we decided we were up for something more adventurous (and expensive).

I was tempted to try an introductory scuba dive as no certification is needed, but I was a little freaked out by the idea of the tank & concerned about my underwater swimming ability. Since my cousin is a non-swimmer and I'm not totally confident swimming in open water, ultimately, I thought one of the tours with something called a "helmet dive" would be a good activity that my cousin and I could do together.  

Basically with a helmet dive, they put a giant helmet on your head with tubes coming out the top that enable you to breathe normally. An added bonus is your hair doesn't get wet. No swimming skill is needed because you just walk on an underwater platform. I think the guide said we were 4 meters (about 13 feet) underwater.

I found a tour online going for $320 AUD, in addition to the helmet dive, it included snorkeling, glass bottom boat, semi-submersible boat and lunch. I thought it might be good to compare that with what the hotel tour desk had available. We went down and talked to the lady (wish I had written down her name), and she basically told us about the same tour with a different operator. She said it was normally $340, but they were offering a discount, making it $289

I noticed the tour desk had a 1.5% surcharge for paying with a credit card. I didn't have that much on me in cash, and I don't think my cousin did either, so I told her we'd have to come back later. She was probably afraid we wouldn't come back, so she said she'd drop the surcharge. Score! So we paid and booked our tour for the next day. And in case you're wondering about the conversion rate, $289 AUD worked out to be $270.97 USD on my credit card statement.
I was so excited I could hardly sleep the night before.

Awake to watch the sunrise

We had to be at the Cairns Reef Fleet Terminal by 8:30 am. We woke up, got ready, had a quick breakfast at McDonald's and then walked over to a nearby camera store.

Mickey D's Australia prices
We had visited the camera store the night before to see what kind of options they had for underwater photography, but decided to think about it overnight. The digital cameras for rent (or hire, as the Aussies call it) were $45. A waterproof case for my Nikon camera was over $100. A waterproof iPhone case was around $35 and disposable cameras were $20-$25. Ultimately, we decided to each purchase a Kodak disposable camera at a cost of $20 each. 

Now we were ready to walk over to the the Reef Fleet Terminal to check in for our tour. After a brief wait, we were boarding the boat, which departed at 9:30 am. It was a large vessel, maybe the biggest I've ever been on, not having cruised before. I'm not sure how many people on were on board, maybe around 100. There were a lot of Japanese and Chinese tourists.

Inside the boat
The boat first made a stop at Fitzroy Island for the folks who were day-tripping there, then continued on to our final destination of Moore Reef.

Fitzroy Island
The company has a large pontoon at Moore Reef. A pontoon is a floating platform, which I think is basically their permanent spot out in the reef. All of the snorkeling, diving, glass bottom boat and semi-submersible rides are done from the pontoon. 

Before departing, I made sure to take the free ginger pills that were available. This was to ward off seasickness. Even if you're the type to never get seasick, I would suggest taking them anyways. There were some rough waters heading out to the reef and I felt very queasy, but luckily my breakfast stayed down. 

During the presentation by one of the staff members on the day's schedule, there was a young man nearby who tossed his cookies. The staff were very prepared for this type of thing, having barf bags on hand and ready to collect full bags from passengers. They also walked around with cups of ice, which they said helped with seasickness. 

Because we were doing the seawalker helmet dive, we had to go over the dive and learn some hand signals to tell the guide that we were okay. We also learned about equalizing our ears (basically what you do on an airplane when your ears pop). 

After about two hours, we arrived at Moore Reef. Our seawalker helmet dive was scheduled for the afternoon, so we had time to do a few other things first. We went on the glass bottom boat tour and the semi-submersible where we got to see the coral and fish, and learn more about the Great Barrier Reef.

Glass bottom boat at Moore Reef

Coral at the Great Barrier Reef

We went quite a distance from the vessel and pontoon
Guide explaining the different fish we saw underwater

After those two activities, we ate lunch.

Buffet lunch

Then it was time to get ready for our dive. We put on our (included) wetsuits, weight belts and swim shoes. We lined up for pictures, then headed down into the water. 

I will admit, I was very nervous. Even though I can swim and this didn't require swimming, the idea of being underwater and not being able to come up for air was nerve-wracking for me. The helmet was large and heavy. Basically, they put it on and just pushed you under. Then there was a staircase to walk down and a platform to stand on and see/touch the fish. We lined up for underwater pictures and then it was over.

We're underwater!
Big fish we could touch
As I was going under, I got some water in my helmet, which caused me to lose focus a bit. Also we were supposed to breathe normally, but it felt funny to me. I was just concentrating on walking and breathing and forgot about equalizing my ears until about 10 minutes had passed. But that also could be because I didn't really feel much pressure on my ears like I do on airplanes. 

Overall, it was a fun experience and I would do it again. Maybe I would even be brave enough to try scuba diving in the future. 

However, the day wasn't over yet. We still had another hour at the pontoon, which was good, since we hadn't snorkeled yet. They had a designated snorkeling enclosure area. Since the water was on the colder side, we decided wetsuits would be good, but had to rent them for $10 since they weren't included for snorkeling. So we put on our wetsuits, fins, mask and life jackets and hopped in. 

I really enjoyed it and time flew by. I got very close to the coral and fish. I swam out a bit from the boat and was just amazed at all of the cool-looking stuff living under the water.

Snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef

Snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef

Snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef
Soon it was time to get back on the boat and head back to Cairns. I decided to buy a souvenir photo for $25.

My souvenir photo
If I had to make one complaint, it would be about the staff member going around giving a hard sell on the guided snorkeling tour. He talked about all the cool stuff we would see with him that we wouldn't see just snorkeling at the pontoon. It sounded good, but it was an extra $40, and I felt like I had paid enough already. It wasn't just the hard sell, but later in the day after he finished his guided tour, he actually came back to me and said how it was so great and I missed it out on it. 

That negative aside, this tour was definitely a worthwhile splurge for me, but who knows when, or if, I'll ever go to the Great Barrier Reef again, and I didn't want to have any regrets.