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Balancing the Ledger of Life in TNQ

16 Dec

Life to me now seems a constant process of addition and subtraction.

By way of example, this past month we lost a loved one to cancer. My sister-in-law’s removal from us was 18 months in the making but the inevitability of death doesn’t make it any easier. Then on our return to Brisbane we were shocked by the near death experience of a close friend. Happily he is expected to recover well but it could so easily have gone the other way.

Lesser losses include my relative immobility for a month due to a broken foot, having another skin cancer chopped out (shin this time) and the failure of the promised delivery of our house in time for the year end family holiday. All of which when combined with the particular stresses of two swift passages across multiple time zones left this traveller depleted and crabby. I was in no mood to deal with earth movers, builders and town planners, that would be project manager Stuart’s lot (Gypsy Hill update).

It was time to consciously move my life to the credit side of the ledger.

I needed unconditional love, warmth and beauty. I needed a week in Tropical North Queensland.

Solar-powered Aussie that I am, I find the intense heat of Cairns invigorates me, even in mid-summer. I sweat, I detox, I don’t drink alcohol, I sleep well. First stop is a reunion with my sister, Jo, to catch up on six months of conversation.

Next I drive south to Gordonvale and my niece, Jess’ farm. The Pyramid’s familiar green cone is the cue for me to take a deep breath in then breathe out accumulated tension. Emerald canefields relax my mind and by the time I pull into her property and honk the horn I’m feeling fifty per cent better.

Instantly four kids on bikes and toy tractors leap off and run to me for squishy, sweaty hugs and sticky kisses. All but the youngest, a toddler, remember me from my time with them in July (once two-year-old T has removed my sunglasses to make sure it’s Aunty Sha-win). Then a surprise, there’s a tiny, new puppy, a soft, brown ball with tiny sharp teeth. I get an even bigger hug from Jess and we launch straight into a mile a minute conversational catch up while the kids run happily amok.

After a sleepover at the farm I’m ready for some quality time solo in Cairns. For five nights I have a studio apartment walking distance from the city centre. Glenda, the manager (who keeps a pet lorikeet, as you do in Cairns), received my suitcase. It was misplaced for four days by Qantas and Emirates somewhere between Heathrow and Brisbane. Oh joy of joys – clean clothes!

In my street, Lake Street, I identify a yoga studio with a great value introductory offer, a shiatsu masseur and a foot spa, all necessary for my program of what’s now termed ‘self care’, but used to be called pampering. Bring it on!

I once heard a local describe Cairns as halfway between Hawaii and Bali and I agree. It’s good value by Australian standards, with a relaxed, tropical holiday vibe, and excellent spas, salons, and vegan and vegetarian cafes and restaurants.

And whoever runs the show they’re continuing to invest in infrastructure and services with water coolers on the street and solar powered trash compacting bins. I’m conflicted about Cairns’ brand new aquarium, but I suppose if it takes the pressure off the reef from hordes of ignorant day trippers I can almost tolerate the animal exploitation involved.

My days revolve around yoga classes, therapies, walking, swimming, meeting up with Jo and Jess, her husband Justin and the kids. Princess B is turning five this week and I’m invited to her party down the creek. Watermelon, BBQ, swimming and jumping off a log into the water followed by as much Smartie-covered chocolate and vanilla birthday cake as you can eat is a kid’s dream come true. The adults have a pretty good time too.

On my final day I jump on a fast boat out to Green Island. In all my trips to TNQ I’ve never been. Heaving boatloads of daytrippers arrive every half hour. Jungle-covered, reef-ringed Green Island is being loved to death by tourists who have absolutely no clue about respecting flora and fauna. I saw a woman spitting into the bushes and snorkelers thrashing about on fragile corals.

But I’d booked a snorkel trip from a boat and luckily got the first time slot. With only four snorkelers and six novice divers on my boat we motor to a coral bommie just offshore. I’m enjoying observing colourful fish, soft corals and purple and emerald-lipped clams, when I raise my head to check my position and see the deckie pointing to the water near me and hear him shout, ‘turtle’. Sure enough a large green turtle is swimming slowly a few metres away. He/she seems unperturbed by the presence of people at first, but after a while appears to tire of the divers approaching closely, followed by the underwater photographer. It seems like the aim is to get a shot of each person very close to or even touching the turtle. That’s me below, hovering at a respectful distance. Eventually fed up the turtle dives to the bottom and wedges itself under a coral shelf as though hiding.

It’s not long before another turtle friend appears to take over tourism Queensland duties! A ‘two turtle day’ is a good day on the Reef.

Maddening crowds aside I have a lovely time at Green Island and doze off on the bumpy boat trip back.

I can just squeeze in another full body massage before I fly south. Prone on the massage table I review my ledger one more time. Accounting was one of my least favourite subjects, but I get a warm glow remembering all the happy memories I’ve made and stored in credit. In addition I have a stronger, sleeker, more supple body thanks to seven hours of yoga classes, nutritious food and no grog!

As ever I find myself plotting my return to TNQ before before I have even left. I hope you find a way to balance the books as 2017 comes to a close. It’s been a hell of a year!

(Photo credit for snorkeling and underwater photos to

An Evolving Love Affair: Tropical North Queensland Campervan Trip

17 Jul

I have a great affection for Tropical North Queensland that grows with each experience of this unique part of Australia.

Three more visits over the past year have moved it into my top ten places on the planet. Having a sister and niece living here gave me a taste of the insider’s TNQ, but even without the family connection it would have wormed its way into my heart.

This time I organised a two-week winter campervan trip out of Cairns with my two young Melbourne nieces.  This was our three metre high four-berth apartment on wheels.

For the second week my sister, their mum, joined us.

What happens on the road stays on the road, but I think they’ll agree it was pretty special. We sampled life with four kids (five years and under) with my niece and husband on their sugar cane farm, took a day trip with them on their speed boat to Fitzroy Island, hiked and swam at beautiful Behana Gorge, lounged on deserted white sands at Ella Bay, surfed Four Mile Beach, Port Douglas, and spotted salt water crocodiles on The Inlet and The Daintree River. 

We didn’t see an actual cassowary in the wild, but the girls had a great day on Agincourt Reef with their mum and spotted nemo, marlin and a moray eel.

Fitzroy Island

Spotted from the speedboat at The Inlet, Cairns.

Behana Gorge

Four-Mile Beach, Port Douglas

There’s a 3.5 metre croc in the centre of this photo taken on Daintree River.

A day on the southern Atherton Tableland reconnected me to mountain wilderness, ancient trees and the pristine waters of the  crater lakes.

The 500-year-old curtain fig tree called Cathedral Fig. A apt spot to reflect on our puny human lifespan.

Bottom breathing saw backed turtle.

After the Melburnians returned home to work and school I spent a lazy weekend walking and swimming at The Esplanade, eating delicious vegan food, and learning about the diversity of Indigenous art at the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair.

With my sister Jo walking The Esplanade.

Mozaic sculpture by Dominic John.

Seu Reef Garden by Torres Strait artists from Erub Arts. An abandoned, deadly fishing net, twine, felt and other materials evoke their beautiful reef teeming with marine life and remind us how precious this natural capital is. If you love it you have to look after it.

Historic Art School above and Flying Monkey Cafe below.

More than ever I’m committed to putting my political weight behind efforts to preserve the natural environment here in the north. We can’t stop cyclones but there’s a heck of a lot we can do, sometimes by ensuring we do nothing.


Whether it’s stopping the Adani mine: 

preventing quarrying at Behana Gorge,  


beating back the planned mega resort and casino ‘Aquis’ at Yorkey’s Knob:  


or minimising manmade damage to The Great Barrier Reef:


community lobbying can work.


One thing I know for sure, politicians are shackled to a short-term view shaped by their own re-election interests, while the natural world operates on its own cycle understood best by the traditional custodians of this country.

Postcard from Cairns and The Great Barrier Reef

21 Dec

Cairns smells like South East Asia, especially our home of four years, Malaysia. At dusk scented white and red Frangipani flowers mingle with the aroma of coconut curries wafting from restaurants and a salt sea tang blows in off the high tide. I love it!

I resign myself to being bathed in sweat, it’s midsummer in the tropics after all, and enjoy my perambulations around this flat city. Each time I visit Cairns I notice improvements, especially on the seafront, where the Esplanade boardwalk with its BBQs, playgrounds and infinity swimming lagoon mixes and equalizes locals and travellers.

Walking beneath majestic, old palms and lush trees hung with epiphytes I wonder how many cyclones they’ve withstood. Weeping figs shade the paths and sidewalks and grow in nature strips down the centre of the main streets. I count six barefoot men in the first hour. Queensland’s casual dress code is thongs (flip flops), shorts and Tshirt, but in Cairns they dispense with thongs!








Tourism drives the Cairns economy and numbers are good but the pace of life remains leisurely and people have time for a yarn. I note two new five star hotels with their restaurants and bars on the waterfront. Backpacker accommodation is also thriving but the local newspaper reports young overseas travellers are finding tours and food prices expensive.

I’ve come to see my sister Jo who has lived here most of her adult life. When I left Australia at 20 Jo was only 14. I missed seeing her grow into a woman and the landmark events of her life (as was the case with my other three sisters who were and still are scattered to four corners of Australia). If I’m lucky I now see Jo briefly once a year. It’s not enough. Family becomes more important, not less, over time. Now Jo is ‘Nanny’ twice over with the birth of daughter Jess’ second baby girl last week. If I’m very lucky I might get to see Jess and her two precious girls, Eva 13 months and baby Isabelle.

It also helps that Jo lives in one of the most beautiful places in the world and I could do with some R and R after Deception Bay and an ultimately futile house hunt. The bonus is that Jo is an awesome hair stylist and my mullet has reached the public embarrassment stage. I resemble a refugee from ‘That Seventies Show’.

I hadn’t made any plans for this trip beyond booking an apartment within easy walk of the Esplanade as Jo works full-time and Jess was still in hospital post caesar section when I arrived. Scanning the activities on offer I settled on the river tubing excursion. Floating down a tropical stream over shallow rapids for a couple of hours sounds divine. Sadly the lack of rainfall this summer put paid to that. Until the region receives much needed rain tubing is off.

Next option is a visit to the largest living organism in the world, the Great Barrier Reef. I’ve snorkelled the reef a couple of times before but it’s been a few years. I selected one of the smaller boats that visits both the outer and inner reef. With just 40 people on board getting everyone equipped and in and out of the water is faster. The catamaran Seastar’s crew are all under thirty and totally committed to ensuring we have a wonderful experience. Detailed briefings throughout the day are delivered with larrikin good humour by dive master Anthony wearing his Santa’s helper hat.

Tea, coffee and muffins are on offer during the one hour cruise to the first stop, Michaelmas Cay. A small elipse of pristine white sand, the cay is a bird and marine life sanctuary. Within 15 minutes we’re all in the water. Most people snorkel but a few take the introductory dive and two Brazilians disappear in the zodiac dinghy – must be seasoned divers. Everyone wears an obligatory stinger suit in case we brush up against dangerous jelly fish. None seen all day.


As I don’t have a snorkelling buddy (required for safety) I join the snorkel tour off the boat led by Johan from Gothenburg, Sweden. I follow his flourescent yellow vest across the sea floor as he points out features of the many types of coral and helps us spot fish. So much variety and so colourful, a psychedelic experience. My favourites are the giant clams with their purple, aquamarine and emerald lips and the parrot fish munching away on the coral. It’s noisy down there!

Ninety minutes later time to climb back on board. Buffet lunch is served as we steam forty minutes to the next mooring spot, Hastings Reef. We repeat the routine of the last snorkel tour, this time trying to spot green turtles that make Hastings their home. One was sighted there but I missed it.





A cup of tea and some cake kept up the blood sugar levels on the return trip. I napped on deck then started looking for dolphins. After twenty minutes concentrated effort I spotted a black fin and body arcing through the waves far in the distance. It proved to be the lone dolphin of the day.

To my untrained eye the reefs we visited seem to be in fair health. They have an abundance of varied corals and fish and the coral spawned the day before, an event that usually only happens once a year. Each day tripper to the reef pays a $15 reef tax which goes towards reef protection and research. Certainly the Great Barrier Reef is under threat on multiple fronts: illegal fishing, especially the nets that snag and break delicate corals, silt and fertilizer run off, the Crown of Thorns Star Fish (happily we didn’t see any of them) and rising seawater temperatures are all taking a toll.

I fervently hope future generations are able to enjoy the uniquely beautiful Great Barrier Reef as I have. It truly is one of the wonders of the world.



Besides enjoying some excellent meals with Jo (Mondo restaurant on the waterfront was the best), a visit to the Art Gallery to view the visiting exhibition, Goya’s series of 80 captioned satirical etchings entitled ‘Los Caprichos’, and a little shopping I just chillaxed.

On the morning of my last day Jo called to invite me to accompany her to collect Jess and the girls. Jess was having air conditioning installed in her home in the cane fields of Gordonvale 40 minutes south of Cairns so Jo offered to drive Jess and babies to the shops while the workmen sawed and hammered in the 34 degree Celsius heat.

There is no sweeter thing than a newborn baby, except possibly a bubbly, happy, singing and dancing toddler who seems to have an on/off switch with no whinging or crying in between.

I found I was a bit rusty at baby wrangling but we had an enjoyable outing and even managed lunch in a cafe without mishap. Now I’m on the red eye Virgin flight back to Brisbane watching the densely forested coastline of Tropical North Queensland recede and disappear into cloud outside my window. Can’t say when I’ll be back but I hope it’s soon.



This the last post for 2012. Thank you for reading. I hope you all have a safe, happy and relaxed year end break. Cheers to 2013 and more travel adventures for everyone!

Photo note: Underwater image provided with the permission of Seastar Cruises.