Personal Comfort Zone Began With ‘Croc Spotting’ on the Coral Sea

Posted By Mike Padgett

Oct. 30, 2009

CAIRNS, Australia – Searching for crocodiles at sunset and staying alert for a dangerous bird as tall as a man topped my list of wanderings in northeastern Australia.

Those first steps into a rejuvenating comfort zone occurred three years ago. That was when, after 30 years as a newspaper reporter, an opportunity to unplug the deadline clock presented itself. It was time to leave the main drag. Enjoy slow dances and the scenic back roads. Release the gypsy.

Writing news stories about business, the economy and crime are important. They can help readers in their daily lives. But equally important, and better for the soul, are stories about inspirational people who make a difference.

Some of the people we pass on the sidewalks every day have fascinating tales worth telling. They could be a hot dog vendor, a homeless musician, the pretzel man, soldiers returning from combat, parents of autistic children, or a doctor searching for a cancer cure. Their stories show the resiliency and the depths of the human spirit.

My first back road away from newspapers took me to Australia three years ago. The realization of life after 30 years in newspapers began taking shape while I was in the Rattle N’ Hum Bar and Grill in Cairns, Queensland, in northeastern Australia.

This city is a backpacker’s paradise. The music of many languages fills the air. No distracting e-mails for me. No worrying about those stories I’d have to write the day I returned to my desk.

Aussie pub popular

The Rattle N’ Hum is an Aussie pub on The Esplanade, a main street in Cairns. The restaurant is a laid back eatery popular among locals and tourists alike. Rock ‘n’ roll played in the background. On the menu were pizza, burgers, steak, lamb, chicken, fish and chips, calamari and barramundi.

I wasn’t interested in dining alfresco, so I sat inside. I had a view across the sidewalk, the street and the city park next to the bay. Beyond were the Coral Sea, the Great Barrier Reef and the Pacific Ocean.

I found the Rattle N’ Hum during our first trip to Australia. Most mornings, I was up early to watch sunrise from our hotel balcony. The air was clear. The bay turned silver from the low angle of the sun’s rays darting through the clouds.

On the street below our balcony, a block to the east, the roundabout intersection was empty at sunrise. Australians drive on the left side of the road. But rather than rent a car and focus on remembering to stay on the left side of the road, I’ll use the bus system and taxis. I’d rather soak in the scenery and talk with the drivers and passengers. If we would listen to each other, would we need so many politicians?

‘Croc spotting’

Our first night in Cairns, before dinner, friends took us croc spotting along the beach. Except for the yellow sign warning us to stay out of the water, we returned from our beach hike with empty cameras. But a walk with friends at sunset on the Coral Sea beach, more than 7,500 miles from home in Arizona, was refreshing.

A few days later, I did see several crocodiles. I accepted a ride-along invitation from an American friend who rented a car. My wife had a schedule that day, so I was on my own. My gracious friend with wheels picked me up at the hotel, and we headed west from Cairns on the Captain Cook Highway.

We stopped at Port Douglas for breakfast, where we also walked through the local arts and crafts show near the beach. After that, we returned to the highway and headed for Cape Tribulation, where the pavement ends and the dirt track begins. Our trip included a 10-minute ferry crossing at the Daintree River.

During our drive to Cape Tribulation, we stopped and joined other visitors for a walk through the rainforest to the beach. We learned about the Southern Cassowary, a large flightless bird related to ostriches and emus. It grows to 60 to 70 inches tall. If cornered, the shy bird can use its sharp toes for defense.

Returning from Cape Tribulation, we stopped for a local riverboat tour. The guide steered the boat across the river, where we saw a crocodile partly hidden in the vegetation. I couldn’t estimate its size. But it clearly was large enough to be dangerous.

The guide steered us a place upriver from the dock. In a calm backwater, he pointed out some tiny crocodiles floating on leaves and vines in the water. They were only a few inches long, bug-eyed and tiny versions of what they will become.

Cairns was home base

Cairns became the base from which my wife and I toured the region. We boarded a catamaran for a daylong visit to diving platforms anchored at the edge of the Great Barrier Reef a few miles offshore.

Days later, we climbed aboard the Kuranda Scenic Railway for a ride to Kuranda Village high in the rainforest west of Cairns. We visited many shops that sold the work of local aboriginal artists. I never figured out how to pack a six-foot carved didgeridoo into luggage.

For our return trip down the mountain, we traveled by Skyrail. Our aerial gondola carried us over the tropical canopy of the Barron Gorge National Park. We disembarked at the Skyrail terminal at Caravonica and boarded a bus waiting to return us to our hotel in Cairns.

Next stop: Sydney

Our 10 days in Queensland were nearing an end, so we were anticipating a flight to Sydney, where we were ready to explore for another 10 days. We stayed at the Old Sydney Holiday Inn. The hotel is in The Rocks, one of the city’s historic areas. We were within walking distance of the Sydney Opera House, downtown Sydney and Sydney Cove, where river catamarans and other water craft docked to unload and load commuters and tourists.

From the hotel’s roof, we had views of the bridge, the harbor, the opera house and the city. One Friday afternoon, city workers planted street barricades and vendor tents next to the hotel for the regular weekend street fair called The Rocks Markets. Phoenix, and other U.S. cities, could consider a similar weekend event for downtown.

The hotel at George and Playfair streets has its own restaurant, but we were curious about local eateries. Within walking distance were several, ranging from breakfast and lunch delis and sidewalk bistros, to restaurants in renovated spaces in 100-year-old buildings.

Another day, we joined a bus tour to the Mount Pleasant Winery, where we toured the winery before lunch. Our next stop on the bus tour was the Hunter Valley Gardens, where 12 gardens of flowers, trees and shrubs cover 60 acres.

Later that week, we boarded a bus for a ride to the Blue Mountains, stopping at Featherdale Wildlife Park along the way. The mountains get their name from the haze that often settles over the region.

Sydney walkabouts

Downtown Sydney became one of our favorite walkabouts. We toured the Queen Victoria Building, which is a shopping center created from an 1898 building that – according to its web site – originally “housed a concert hall, coffee shops, showrooms, warehouses and a wide variety of tradespeople.”

The building, an example of Byzantine architecture, has several floors and covers a city block. Designer Pierre Cardin described it as “the most beautiful shopping center in the world.”

We walked to the Sydney Opera House several times, just to admire the architecture and soak in the ocean air. It was on the other side of Sydney Cove from our hotel. Playing at the opera house was “The Pirates of Penzance.” We were within a few days of returning to Arizona, so we thought it was too late to get tickets.

But just in case, we got in line at the ticket counter. Sold out, we heard the clerk say to the couple ahead of us.

As the couple walked away, the clerk answered her ringing phone. And as my wife asked about tickets, the clerk says two reservations had just been canceled. We bought them. The performance, which was memorable, was the following night.

Favorite memories of Australia:

• Getting busted by a beagle at the Sydney International Airport. The dog walked casually among visitors, sniffing luggage for food, which cannot be brought into Australia from other countries. Next to my luggage, the beagle with friendly eyes sat down and looked up at its handler, its cue that I had contraband. I had to surrender raisins and nuts trail mix.

• Rattle N’ Hum Bar and Grill in Cairns.

• Visits to Kuranda, Great Barrier Reef, Cape Tribulation, Blue Mountains, Sydney Opera House, and walking through downtown Sydney and along the waterfront.

• Riding the Kuranda Scenic Railway and the Skyrail in Queensland and a “river cat” (catamaran) in the river in Sydney.

• Writers’ Walk on Circular Quay (the harbor in Sydney), where brass plaques set into the concrete contain the names and quotes of 50 distinguished writers. They include Australians Peter Carey and Miles Franklin, as well as Jack London, Rudyard Kipling, D.H. Lawrence, Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Darwin, Robert Louis Stevenson, and others, and the dates of their visits to Sydney.

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Oct 30th, 2009

2 Comments to 'Personal Comfort Zone Began With ‘Croc Spotting’ on the Coral Sea'

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  1. Carol Romley said,

    Mike, thanks for my trip to Australia. I felt like I was right there with you. Great story!

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