Cairns, the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, is hotter than **** in February. After the mild temperatures throughout New Zealand, it was a sudden shock to wake up to a heat index of 107°F, with humidity similar to that found in a steam room. I absolutely loathed North Carolina’s summer humidity, but this redefined oppressive. I know, I know… summer, tropical rainforest, monsoons – what do you expect, dumbass? But really, it is wicked muggy.
While in Cairns, we spent two nights at the Lilybank, a B&B we stumbled upon online during our brainstorming session at the Auckland library. The small hideaway just north of the airport was such a gem! The spacious bungalow had a beautiful open-air design – wrap-around porches with enormous French doors and windows leading into the plush bedrooms and relaxing lounge spaces, and a partially-open atrium lined with tropical plants and a koi pond, that served as the dining room. Only a curtain of wooden hippy beads with a colorful parrot design separated the eating area from the tropical outdoors, allowing us to share our breakfasts with some special guests – an enormous green tree frog and an adorable little jumping gecko.
Our host, Linda, was a bubbly, animal-loving vegetarian who burned incense in the atrium and kept “no dead animals in the house.” Her furry and feathered friends – Doggles the dog, Puggles the pug, and Rosie the chicken – casually roamed from inside to outside and back again. She was one of the friendliest, warmest, most welcoming people you’ll ever meet, and made you feel like family in an instant. Before breakfast each morning, she’d wake up early and whip up a beautiful homemade quiche, a flaky vegetable pastry, or individual bowls of fresh fruit parfaits with yogurt and granola… to go along with all of the other standard breakfast offerings. Each morning we delighted in breakfast and tea, relaxing with a bird guide and chatting with friendly guests (both human and amphibious). We both tremendously enjoyed our stay at the Lilybank and hope to return when we head back to Cairns in a week.
Just outside of Cairns, we spent some time checking out the northern beaches that lined the coast just north of the city center. Palm Cove was a beautiful little strip of sand with a small fishing pier at one end, and a boardwalk across the way that was lined with small cafes and ice cream parlors. While we enjoyed walking up the beach, we couldn’t do any swimming due to warnings for salt-water crocs and, more so, because of the notorious box jellyfish season. Apparently the jellies prefer the shallow, calm waters of the shore and, at the end of summer, swim into the mouths of rivers and estuaries to breed. Supposedly the marine creatures aren’t present over the reef, so we’re hoping to have some successful snorkels and dives further off the coast.
Since we needed some way to cool off from the suffocating humidity and intense sun, we popped into a little café called Jack and Shanan’s. The food was fantastic, all made with fresh, local ingredients, including the handmade sorbet made with fresh mangoes from the nearby Tablelands. I also had the most amazing smoothie ever – a delicious blend of coconut milk, banana, kale and mango, topped with shredded coconut.
Just down the road, we headed to Yorkey’s Knob, for no other reason than that we liked the name. It was another pristine beach with inviting water, were it not for potentially-deadly stingers. During our brief stop here, we watched a group of red-tailed black cockatoos playfully chase each other through the air and into the trees, collecting large nuts from the branches.
Back in the Cairns city center, we decided to spend an afternoon strolling the Esplanade, a scenic, shorefront boardwalk that’s a great location for watching shorebirds at low tide. We spotted a number of waders, including whimbrel, bar-tailed godwit, pectoral sandpiper, masked lapwing, and greater sand plover. I was particularly amused by the scoop of gigantic Australian pelicans, preening and waddling around awkwardly at the water’s edge. In the trees lining the Esplanade, vibrant rainbow lorakeets chirped and bounded from treetop to treetop.
During our layover in Sydney, I had read that there are huge numbers of fruit bats that dwell in the trees in downtown Cairns, in particular on one street just a block back from the Esplanade. The article shared that the bats become active at dusk, flying all over the trees that lined Abbott Street. This was something we were both super excited to check out. When we headed downtown one mid-afternoon, we heard shrill screeching echoing through the nearby trees. We looked up, expecting to find some type of parrot, but were stunned to see hundreds of enormous bats dangling from the branches. I never imagined they would be this size; I envisioned the small bats in NH that would occasionally buzz our heads during a summer evening stroll around the neighborhood. We learned that these were spectacled flying foxes, a vulnerable species unique to the tropical rainforest regions of northeastern Queensland, and that their impressive wingspan can well exceed one meter. As we examined the trees, we saw many of the eye-catching megabats with their wings wrapped tightly around their furry bodies, struggling for a daytime snooze amid the din from their raucous neighbors. Others were playfully dangling and climbing along the branches, like it was an afternoon at the jungle gym, while still others were clambering around noisily, instigating the closest target.
After standing under the bat-filled trees for a good hour during the daylight, admiring the fuzzy friends and their curious behavior, we returned at dusk to watch them emerge for the evening. When we arrived under the same trees, the screeching we thought previously to be quite loud had now amplified into an earsplitting racket. The trees had come to life with movement as each flying fox prepared to take off for the night. As the sun began to set, a few of the bats began flying wildly about. Then within minutes, as darkness fell, thousands upon thousands of flapping wings saturated the air above us. Watching them fly in all different directions, creating rippling streaks though the sky was completely mesmerizing, and it was incredible to think that the nocturnal creatures performed the same routine every evening, right along the streets of the town center. What we found equally amazing was that so few people stopped to watch the performance. I guess maybe you become accustomed to it, and simply pass it by, if you see it every night. I like to believe that if I had such a spectacle right in my backyard, though, that I’d take just a moment to marvel in the wonder of such special animals.