Monday, July 30

Port Douglas love affair

There’s something magical about Port Douglas.  I can’t quite put my finger on it.  It is the wonderfully warm and sunny weather, even in the depth of winter?  Is it the casual, friendly life style the locals enjoy?  Or is it the comfortable blend of quality venues and affordable alternatives offering an atmosphere more refined than your average package tour destination?  Regardless, I find myself falling in love with Port Douglas each time I visit (and secretly grateful that more Australians havee yet to discovered its seductive charm). 

I first visited the town in 1993, spending several days relaxing with my parents.  I returned again in 2002 to hang out for a week with a friend.  Garry and I made our first visit together three years later.  We cashed in credit card loyalty points for weekend at the gloriously opulent Sheraton Mirage.  Last month we visited again, joining family and friends for the wedding of Garry’s younger brother.  I’ll then be back in later in the year to witness a solar eclipse sweep through the area shortly after dawn on November 14.

Port Douglas is located 70km north of Cairns in Far North Queensland.  It sits on a short coastal headland framed by a sweeping beach to the east and sheltered mangrove harbour to the west.  It offers one of the shortest transits to the Great Barrier Reef, making it a popular launching point for divers and snorkelers.  Garry’s brother, David, works as dive boat guide and runs his own diving accessories store  in the town.

We had a wonderful time last month enjoying the wedding festivities.  David and his fiancĂ©e, Katie, were married just offshore on the deck of the same dive boat on which they first met three years ago.  It was a truly romantic moment witnessing their vows as the sun began slowing sinking on the horizon.  An informal reception was later held at the popular Courthouse Hotel.

With the wedding ceremonies completed, Garry and I hired a car and headed north for a day.  We crossed the Daintree river by ferry and drove up to Cape Tribulation.  I’d not been up this way since 1993. At the time, getting to the Cape involved a bone-jarring journey on a four-wheel drive track through steamy tropical rainforest.  Today, the same journey is made on a smooth sealed road.  However, the Cape appears to have retained its rustic, eco-friendly, ”away from the crowd” atmosphere.

Last time Garry I came up this way we only drove as far as the Daintree River itself.  On that occasion we joined one of the popular crocodile-spotting tours, as well as stopping off for a tour of the Mosman Sugar Mill.  This trip the sugar cane was still in the field, in full flower, but clearly approaching harvest time.  The sugar industry's prominent role in my local ecomony was clearly evident as field after field of cane lined the road north.

After crossing Daintree by ferry we made our first stop at Waluwurrigga, also known as Alexandra Point lookout.  The view from the summit of this mountain pass is stunning.  Travelers are treated to a breath-taking view over the mouth of the meandering Daintree River and along the wild, curving coastline.   Our next stop was Coconut Beach, an enormous expanse of white sand sweeping along the coast for miles.  Sadly, our uninterrupted view was spoilt by a distant couple walking the surf line.  I couldn’t help comparing this vast empty expanse of sand with that of the cluttered, heavily-developed beaches of the Mediterranean coast.

The beach population more doubled at Myall Beach, just east of Cape Tribulation.  However, a handful of people still left us feeling alone and at peace.  Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said of Cape Tribulation itself. We arrived shortly before a busload of tourists swept across its tidal reaches.  Despite their noisy presence, I can honestly say that this is still one the prettiest beaches in Australia.  There’s something wonderfully unforgettable about its verdant tropical rainforest sweeping down from cloud-shrouded mountain to the beach’s very edge.

While the empty beaches were manna for the soul, the day’s highlight came during our return home.  Incredibly, we rounded a corner and came face to face with a Cassowary shepherding two juvenile birds across the road.  It was a magic moment; right up there with a Moose family we’d once encountered crossing the road in Alaska.


Our final day in town was actually spent just north of Cairns.  Garry and I spent a relaxing afternoon taking the Skyrail cable car over the Macalister Range to Kuranda village.  It’s an awe-inspiring 7.5km ride gliding over the canopy of pristine tropical rainforest.  Your journey begins by rising over the winding local highway as increasingly spectacular views of Cairns and the tropical coast unfold in front of you.  Two interim stops then break up the remaining ride.  First, Red Peak Station where a boardwalk takes you past soaring Kauri trees and then a stop opposite the imposing Barron Falls. 

During our ride we arrived in time to see the famous Kuranda railway pull up on the opposite side of the Barron River gorge.  The train stops here on every journey to give its passengers time to step out and view the falls at close range.  I’ve taken this journey several times and still recall how inspiring the view is from this vantage point.  We enjoyed a late lunch at Kuranda, with much of the town to ourselves, as the last train back to Cairns had already departed.  Before long it was time for us to retrace our steps along the Skyrail and on to the airport for our flight home. 

We flew Jetstar home.  It the first Jetstar flight for both of us.  We were pleasantly surprised by the experience.  At check-in we were reseated in an exit row, with nobody occupying the middle seat.  As a result, we enjoyed plenty of leg and elbow room all the way home.  Even Garry had to admit our inaugural Jetstar experience had proven far better than the ugly Easyjet frat house jaunt we’d expected.

Friday, July 27

Canyonland & Arches National Park

Over the years I’ve been a regular visitor to the USA.  Much of my time is spent in its major cities on business.  As result, I’ve pretty much seen their popular tourist attractions, often more than once.  These days I combat sight-seeing fatigue by planning exotic out-of-town excursions.  In recent times this has included side trips to Memphis, Niagara Falls and Mount Rushmore.

In May, while in San Francisco, I added Utah’s spectacular Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park to the list .  If I’m honest, I have to admit that I stumbled across this location by accident.  While researching travel options I googled Rainbow Bridge, the famous natural stone arch in Glen Canyon, Utah.  Unfortunately, you can only access the arch by boat or by hiking through the Navajo mountains.  It was clear I’d need more than a weekend to fly in and out; and still see anything. 

By chance my research uncovered the Arches National Park near Moab, Utah. Rather than one spectacular natural arch, this park contains literally thousands of them, including several arches as dramatic as Rainbow Bridge. In fact, one of these arches – the Delicate Arch – appears in silhouette on Utah's vehicle license plates. Even better, I could spend an entire weekend in Utah by taking advantage of suitably scheduled flights via nearby Grand Junction, Colorado.

The weekend got off to a memorable start. I hired a car at Grand Junction and made my way towards Moab along scenic Route 128. This highway follows the Colorado River through stunning red rock canyons for almost 50kms. As you round each corner, the view grows steadily more and more spectacular. Needless to say I stopped numerous times. Sadly, my photos don't do justice to the incredible scenery I witnessed. 

Upon reaching Moab, rather than driving into town, I continued west for another 50kms into Canyonlands National Park. This arid park is centered around several deep river canyons, framed by a spectacular mesa plateau appropriately called the "Inland in the Sky".

The mesa is amazing. It’s literally a broad island of rock rising more than 500 metres above the surrounding area. Getting there is half the fun. You take a road past plunging canyons, along narrow ridges and on to a 1,500 metre high panoramic ridge. It’s hard to describe the vast expanse the stretches out before you at the end of the road. Words are simply not enough. Try to imagine mile after mile of deep shadows, soaring red stone pillars and meandering canyons; softened by an arid haze of dust.

Perhaps the park’s most memorable sight was the Shafer Trail. This is a narrow 4-wheel drive road descending from the Island in the Sky via a series of hair raising switchback curves. i watched many vechiles take the plunge; slowly. The road was built in the 1950s by an uranium ore mining company. Its mine, along with other human industry in the area, stopped once the National Park was established. However, decades later, the fragile landscape remains scarred by their dirt trails.
Sunday dawned bright and sunny. It was going to be another hot day in the desert. My first destination was Hole n’’ the Rock. Located about 20kms south of Moab, it’s one of the kitschiest roadside attractions you’ll ever see. The “hole” is a 5,000 square foot home carved into the base of a roadside rock. It was built in the 1950s by Albert and Gladys Christensen. For years they operated a simple roadside diner from their rock-hewn front room before converting it to a gift shop that's still there today. Albert and Gladys died many years ago. However, they’ve stayed close to home as both are buried in a small alcove carved nearby.

I spent the rest of my day touring Arches National Park. The park bills itself as the world’s largest concentration of natural stone arches. The description proved apt. Its most spectacular arches are accessible via short walks from paved roads that cut through the centre of the park. With so many options to choose from I mapped out a list of five arches. However I soon found myself stopping to marvel at many other surprising sights.

Access to the park involves winding up a series of hairpin turns that take on up onto a broad plateau. From here the view spreads out across arid grassland toward the snow-capped La Sal Mountains. My first stop on the map is one I almost ignored; Park Avenue. The name didn’t sound all that inviting. However, on whim I pulled over and hiked to its popular outlook.
I’m glad I did. Park Avenue is narrow canyon that opens out onto a backdrop of rock towers you’d find gracing any classic Hollywood western. In fact, when I later posted photos on Facebook, at least one friend thought I’d been to Monument Valley where several John Wayne movies were shot.

The sights kept rolling. Balanced Rock was amazing. It’s a fragile stone pillar sculpted by the wind to the point until its upper segment resembles a delicately balanced rugby ball. From here it was on to Double Arch, a soaring pair of natural stone arches that could easily be the work of science fiction writers. Nearby are the equally majestic Turret Arch; and the Windows, two broad arches that sit along each other. I was lucky enough to discover a vantage point that allowed me to see all three arches in a single glance.
The afternoon was spent hiking to several of the park’s less accessible arches. The first was the Delicate Arch, which sits alone on the rim of deep canyon. It takes almost two hours to hike from the road to its base. With time running short, I decided to hike an alternate route to a remote outlook. The route took me along a sloping slick rock ridge on the canyon’s opposite side. Here the Delicate Arch could be seen rising boldly above the skyline.
I finished the day hiking almost 3km to Landscape Arch, the world’s longest natural arch. It’s an incredible sight. The arch is a gravity defying ribbon of rock that stretches more than 306 feet across a rubble-strewn hillside. In 1991 a slab of rock 60 feet long, 11 feet wide and four feet thick fell from its underside, leaving the arch thinner than ever. Prior this fall you could walk under the arch itself. Today, visitors are kept well away.
Close to Landscape Arch are a number of other impressive arches including Skyline Arch, Tunnel Arch and Pine Tree Arch. I was lucky enough to enjoy Pine Tree Arch without a single person in sight for more than 15 minutes. As the sun slowly sunk below the surrounding cliffs I marveled at my luck. It seemed the perfect way to finish a sun-drenched weekend packed with endless postcard perfect vistas.

Sunday, July 22

Gliding to enlightenment

I’ve been visiting Hong Kong regularly for more than a decade.  Over the years, I’ve progressively made the rounds of its popular tourist attractions – with one exception.  For numerous reasons I’d never made it to the giant Tian Tan Buddha sitting above Po Lin Monastery on the southern flank of Lantau Island.   The colossal 34-metre bronze statue was erected in 1993 on small hill overlooking the monastery.  It could only reached by taking ferry to the island, then transferring onto bus that wound its way up a perilously steep hillside.  The trip took an entire day and was best avoided during inclement weather.

In 2006 the monastery was linked to Tung Chung, a township near Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok airport, by a 5.7 km cable car.  This immediately made the trek to Po Lin effortless.  Visitors could now catch a local high-speed train from Central to Tung Chung, transfer to the Ngong Ping 360 cable car and spend 25 minutes gliding comfortably over Lantau Island.  Unfortunately the cable car cannot operate in windy conditions which means seasonal typhoons can shut it down for days at a time.

My next attempt to catch the new cable car was foiled in 2007 when the service was suspended for six months.  Service had been suspended in June after an empty car fell from the cable during an annual brake test.  In 2008, intent on catching the cable car, Garry and I scheduled a quick 12-hour Hong Kong stopover.  However, our plans were foiled once again by Tropical Storm Kammuri as it swept through the area on August 4. 

I’m pleased to report that I finally made it to Po Lin Monastery in June this year.  While returning from work in Beijing I found myself with a few hours to spare in Hong Kong.  The weather was sunny and the air quality, remarkably clear.  I decided to chance it one last time.  I’m glad I did.  I arrived in Tung Chung to find the cable car operating, with only a short queue waiting to board.  Even better, it’s begun operating glass-bottom cabins, called Crystal Cabins, that offer a stomach churning view of the ground below.  Naturally I purchase a ticket for one of these cabins.

I can honestly say the ride was worth every penny.  The cable glides over picturesque Tung Chung Bay, up the steep slopes of Lantau North Country Park before descending a over cascading waterfall to the Ngong Ping terminal.  The views were spectacular.  From the cable’s summit you’re treated to unrivaled views of the airport, the Pearl Delta and Tian Tan Buddha, boldly silhouetted against the skyline.

The colossal Buddha didn’t disappoint either.  It can only be reached by climbing more than 240 steps to circular, granite pedestal.  The statue was constructed from 202 bronze plates clamped onto a steel frame.  This is the same construction method used to create the copper-clad Statue of Liberty in New York.  The entire structure weighs an impressive 250 metric tons.

The Buddha’s right hand is raised, in a gesture associated with removal of affliction.  His left hand rests on his lap in the position of dhana, or contemplative meditation.  Curiously the statue faces north.  All other great Buddha statues elsewhere face south.   A southern aspect symbolizes his historic resolve to resist young maidens sent to tempt him, thereby gain supreme enlightenment.

The day’s only disappointment was Ngong Ping village, a rather crass commercial mall built between the cable car station and the monastery’s main entrance.  The cable car offers a package tour that includes tickets to two attractions in the village.  I tried a short interactive film about the life of Buddha, but passed on a Monkey movie clearly designed to appeal to children. 

The film proved a handy introduction to Buddha and his teachings.  However, the experience is somewhat spoilt by a tacky prayer ritual visitors are encouraged to join at the end of the film.  You’re asked to take an artificial leaf, insert it into a mechanical slot at the base of a large translucent Buddha statue, then watch a glowing green light trace its way up to his head.