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Wonders Down Under

AUSTRALIA: Above the reef and in the rain forest of Queensland, gem-hued sea life, turquoise waters and jewel-toned butterflies beckon.

January 20, 2002|JERRY V. HAINES

CAIRNS, Australia — Wish you were here. The weather's fine. Tomorrow it will be partly fine, but it's expected to become fine and humid.

"Fine," I deduce from the Australian weather reports, is the equivalent of what we Americans call "fair." I thought I knew how to speak Australian; I've seen the Crocodile Dundee movies and eaten at Outback Steakhouse. But when I greeted our hotel desk clerk with "G'dye, mite," he merely paused, swallowed and said, "Sorry, not even close."

Still, I was better than fine, because I was doing essentially two vacations in one--reef and rain forest--and I was doing it in a place that, although tropical and exotic, is reminiscent of a Robert Young and Donna Reed America.

My wife, Janice, and I were here in August as part of a two-week, three-city package that also took us to Sydney and Brisbane. I don't think I would have selected four days in Cairns had we not purchased a package that included it. But we soon were glad we had come.

To imagine where Cairns is, think of a map of the United States flipped over so that Maine is in the south. The upside-down "Florida" is the Cape York Peninsula of Queensland, and Cairns is about where you would put Orlando.

"Cairns" isn't pronounced the way it looks, of course, this being Australia. The way Queenslanders say it, you don't hear the "r." But it is English. You don't need Berlitz lessons to visit Australia. And that's the appeal of the country: comfortable and strange at the same time.

Many guidebooks relegate Cairns, a town of 100,000, to that awkward category of "not very interesting, but a good jumping-off point for places that are." Nevertheless, it is one of the major tourist destinations in Australia, attracting 1.5 million visitors annually.

You may not have heard much about it because you have heard instead of what it's close to: the Great Barrier Reef.

Cairns can't claim all of the reef. It extends 1,250 miles from the Tropic of Capricorn to New Guinea, and it has an area about equal to Arizona's. It's not just a big, long undersea wall either; it's actually more than 2,000 reefs and islands, all formed from the skeletons of coral polyps.

But the reef snuggles in close to the coast--as close as 20 miles--near Cairns, whose international airport distributes divers, snorkelers and honeymooners to small resort communities that in turn put them aboard boats with a magnum of sunscreen and ship them out to the reef. A good many of the visitors are Aussies, who in August come north where it's warmer. (The seasons are opposite from those in the U.S.; when it's summer in the U.S., it's winter Down Under.)

We boarded a catamaran near Port Douglas, 30 miles north of Cairns. The hourlong bus trip to the port had been a bit of a trial for me: The Australians apparently share the British love for highway roundabouts, and I concluded that they deliberately tried to make us carsick so seasickness would seem a blessing. In its defense, the road was curved beguilingly along the water, permitting "ooh"-worthy views of the Coral Sea and the beaches south of Port Douglas.

I was surprised at the size of the catamaran. I was expecting something with room for six people and a beer cooler. Instead, the fleet of five catamarans operated by Quicksilver Connections could be the navy of a small nation. The vessels, about 115 feet long, can haul 300 to 400 passengers, and, powered by water-jet engines, they thrust through the water at speeds of up to 40 knots (about 46 mph).

It took 90 minutes to reach the Great Barrier Reef, but the trip was smooth. The catamarans are called "Wave Piercers," designed to go through the waves rather than over them. So the boat trip was less bumpy than the bus trip, and although seasickness medication was available, neither Janice nor I needed it, and I don't think anyone else did either.

Our base for the next few hours was the Agincourt Reef Platform. On approach, it resembled a giant card table set up in the middle of the ocean. How were we all going to fit on that?

It's bigger than it appears, though--about 160 by 75 feet and 230 tons--and can accommodate all the passengers who arrive by Wave Piercer.

The relatively tame water in which the platform rests is a pale, transparent green, but not far away it turns Ty-D-Bol blue. There was a line of real waves out there, foaming white where they collide with the coral barrier. On the other side the bottom reportedly drops down more than a mile.

You don't have to know how to swim to appreciate the reef; instead, you have only to descend the stairs into the "basement." The lower level of the platform has underwater windows that allowed us to see the coral formations, the inquisitive fish looking at the inquisitive people and the kicking legs of dozens of snorkelers.

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