Most weekends here, Saturday is like a weekday, filled with classes and field exercises, and Sunday is our only free day of the week, which most people spend lazily lounging around the Centre, reading books, listening to their iPods, and watching the rain. This weekend, we were tipped off on an Australian Soccer preseason game being played in Cairns, featuring two of the top teams in the league, and so we made plans with the staff to skip out early on Saturday and spend that night and all of Sunday in Cairns instead of at the Centre. Probably glad to get those troublesome kids off their hands, the staff agreed, transportation was arranged, and by Saturday afternoon we were off into the city, for the first time all semester.
Even Saturday morning was a bit of a break from class. The day started with community service work, as we helped TREAT (Trees for the Evelyn and Atherton Tablelands (we’re on the Atherton Tablelands, I have no idea where the Evelyn Tablelands are, sorry Evelyn!)) plant rainforest tree seedlings on an abandoned farm on the banks of the Barron River. Trowels in hand, we removed saplings from their pots and carefully planted them along the existing rainforest edge. Our little group of 16, including a one-armed kid (dislocated elbow from frisbee two weeks ago, not a fun thing to watch), with the help of a handful of regular TREAT volunteers, managed to plant over 2000 trees in just over two hours’ time. We were rewarded with an incredible barbeque at the planting’s end, I drank a lime-flavored drink that looked like mouthwash but tasted like lime brilliance, and we headed off to the Yungaburra Markets, a monthly event where vendors from all over the region gather to sell their goods. We had been regaled with tales involving firebreathers and jugglers performing amongst booths filled with inventive crafts and fresh fruits, but instead we arrived at a nearly desolate field populated by a handful of small gift sellers. The only substantive purchase made was a VHS copy of Biodome, if that says anything at all about what was available. How disappointing, but we were assured that this was not normal, and vowed to return next month. Afterwards, I followed a few of the girls into a nifty-looking shop in downtown Yungaburra, which turned out to be an unfathomable mistake as the girls spent the next hour trying on skirts, asking for my wholly uneducated opinion on them. I emerged completely shell-shocked and shaken to the bone, and we drove back to the Centre for a short afternoon of lectures before we finally loaded up the vans and headed into Cairns.
Cairns is the one large city in our area; it’s large enough to have a busy international airport, to give you a rough idea of its size. If you plan on ever visiting the Great Barrier Reef, you’ll ultimately come to Cairns, as it’s the gateway to the Reef which everybody comes through. Because of that, it’s a really touristy city, there’s Tourist Information Booths on nearly every block in addition to the dense concentration of Outdooring and Diving stores. To us though, it was civilization, and a chance to escape the increasingly suffocating boundaries of our relatively remote Centre.
We stayed at Gilligan’s Backpackers, a hostel in downtown Cairns, and though I’ve never stayed at a hostel before, you really don’t need to have any points of reference to tell that Gilligan’s was an incredibly nice hostel. It didn’t feel like a hostel at all, it felt more like a luxury 4-star hotel for young, attractive people. Instead of a ballroom, there was a nightclub attached to the hostel, and instead of fine dining, there was a retro bar and casual restaurant where I munched on Fish and Chips while watching rugby on a massive wall-sized television. But we didn’t stay at Gilligan’s for long, we dropped off our stuff and hailed a taxi to get to the football game.
I may have misled some people with information about this game, and part of it is due to my own misunderstanding: we were not going to watch a rugby game, or a soccer game, or an American football game, we were here to watch Australian football, a unique sport endemic to this continent which is best described as a cross between soccer and rugby. Instead of carrying the ball in for a score like American football and rugby, teams tried to kick the ball between goalposts like in soccer. Or at least, that’s as far as we could tell. None of us knew the rules as the taxi rolled up to the stadium, and as we bought our tickets for the uncovered, outdoor spectator area, it started to rain. By the time we found an open place to stand on the hill, it was pouring, driving rain. And it didn’t let up. We got absolutely soaked. My rain jacket was overwhelmed and even my t-shirt underneath got waterlogged. My khaki shorts got totally saturated, and even my boxers were dripping wet and soaked with rain. At times, it was raining so hard that we couldn’t even see the players on the field. It was pretty much a stereotypical Idiot Male scenario; men drinking beer and disregarding the pouring rain to watch guys on the field throw a ball around and then smash everyone into the ground. It was a total blast. At halftime too, a bunch of little kids were brought on to play some Australian soccer, and we all jokingly picked our Fantasy Stars of the Game as the uncoordinated schoolkids bumbled around in the rain. After they were done, some of the guys ran down to the field to high five their fantasy stars, and then the rest of the kids too. Hilarious. I don’t even know who won the game, we couldn’t see the important part of the scoreboard and didn’t really know the rules anyway, but we wooped and hollered and had a great time anyways. After the game, most of the group went clubbing, but instead I went to bed. Srsly, can you see me in a dance club? Ever? If I had to choose between clubbing, or helping girls shop for skirts, I’d probably…throw spears at Woolly Mammoths and watch football. And that was Saturday.
On Sunday, I didn’t feel like wandering around the city with bitter, hungover college kids, so I got suckered into joining a group of girls to ride the Skyrail into Kuranda. The Skyrail turned out to be a cablecar ride over the canopy of a rainforest, and it was one of the most touristy attractions I’ve ever seen. Fortunately, everyone else realized this too, and we spent most of the ride mocking the tourist brochures with our now superior knowledge of rainforest ecology. Near the end of the ride, we stopped over at an overlook to see Barron Falls, a very impressive waterfall that was swollen way past its usual capacity by the wet season that we’re in. The Skyrail journey ended in Kuranda, a town which seemed to be populated entirely by tourists or tourist shopowners, I’m not sure if it has any permanent residents otherwise. How absurd.
I soon found out that the whole reason the girls were here was because an Animal Park in Kuranda allowed you to hold a Koala, and so the girls were just OMG KOALAS and Blaine and I were suddenly trapped. We got to the park, and spent some time looking at kangaroos, wallabies, monitor lizards, and some other things, but then as we got closer to the Koala enclosure and the girls saw the Koalas for the first time, they started squealing, I just about lost my hearing, and wanted to blow up the sun. The girls paid another fifteen dollars to have their pictures taken while holding the Koalas, and as they posed with the Koalas and the other girls squealed even higher, I was crossing my fingers for apocalypse. By the end, I’d gotten dragged into a group photo with the Koalas, which I hope to never lay my eyes upon ever, and Blaine and I finally escaped the Koala enclosure. Oh well, I guess that was their payback for the Australian Soccer game, well-deserved then. Which ultimately means that I’d rather stand in the pouring rain for three hours watching a sport that I don’t even understand, rather than hold a koala? Amazing.
We rode the Skyrail back to Cairns, and headed for the famous Esplanade, a street along the beachside with tons of shops, restaurants, and a saltwater swimming lagoon. But once I got to the Esplanade, I saw something that I hadn’t seen in more than a year, and missed sorely: the ocean at low tide. Exposed mudflats. Shorebird habitat. Crunchtime.
Lauren and Blaine and I, the three birders, spent two hours on the Esplanade, and only covered 100 meters of its length, a frighteningly slow pace. The reason: in those two hours, we found almost 25 new species of birds for our lists, probably the highest density of new birds we’ve had all semester. I doubt that the Esplanade is an especially great birding spot in the grand scheme of it all, but since none of us had been to the Australian coast before, all of these birds were new for us. Even the abundant gulls flying around were a new species, the Silver Gull. The evening closed with massive flocks of Pied Imperial-Pigeons wheeling over the city, another exciting new species for us, and we hopped back into the vans. Before we even knew it, we were back home at the Centre.
In two weeks, we’ve got our mid-semester Spring Break, and I have no idea what I’ll be doing. Since I don’t want to go horseback riding for five days, or spend ten hours driving stick shift on the left side of the road down to the reportedly ‘totally sick’ Whitsunday Islands like other members of the group, I may be stuck with the Koala girls again. Hopefully, no more Koala-holding or skirt-shopping will happen, but even with those nightmare occurences, it was still a fun weekend. Rehab is going well thus far.