Steve Irwinning!

It was a bit of a special weekend in Brisbane, and it’s been pure coincidence that I ended up here while so much was going on. Ok, I say pure coincidence, at least it was a week ago when I found out and then made my arrangements to be here. Not that I was bothered about world leaders gathering for the G20 summit (more about that later), I just wanted to make sure I went to Australia Zoo on International Steve Irwin day.

Every year on 15th November, although I have no idea why this day in particular, Australia Zoo celebrates the life of Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin even more than it already does, with special events and stalls designed to raise money and awareness for the Wildlife Warriors campaign. I myself am currently sporting a special limited edition green “Crikey” wrist band to show my support.

Australian royalty.

Australian royalty.

Face painting and caricatures aside, for me the real bonus was seeing the world-famous crocodile show being performed by none other than the Irwin family themselves, Terri, Bindi, and Robert, along with best mate Wes. I should also point out that just prior to the show, Steve Irwin day at the zoo was in fact officially opened by John Edward, friend of Steve’s, and psychic medium. Despite being as close to Steve as he could get both spiritually (on stage with his loved ones) and physically (Steve is buried in a private part of the zoo), he somewhat sensibly didn’t try to send Steve himself an invitation.

I was working in WHSmiths when Steve Irwin was killed, and as a fan of his series I spent the day reading the headlines and stories of the newspapers with as much interest as sadness. One particular quote I remember, which sums up not just Steve but his relationship with those he was close to, was from a friend who said something along the lines of “well he wasn’t going to die in his sleep, was he.” Certainly can’t argue with that, and it was for that passion and, somewhat ironically his lust for life, that I admired him.

His death was about the last I heard of the Irwins, and as much as Terri was often seen with Steve in his TV shows, I knew hardly anything about Bindi and Robert, and was interested to see how much they had followed in their father’s footsteps. Something which as it turns out, is rather a lot.

Their names and images are plastered about the Zoo, and alongside their own book, DVD, and clothes ranges (Terri also has her own brand of Terri’s Cougar Wear 😉 ), it is obvious they have been brought up being no strangers to the spotlight; they were both as equally at ease with the audience of the Crocoseum as they were with the crocodiles inside it.

Like father, like son.

Like father, like son.

The last time I saw Robert was when Steve received much criticism for feeding a crocodile with his then one month old son in his arms. This weekend I saw that same child now just shy of his 11th Birthday in the very same arena feeding that very same crocodile. A big salt water (estuarine) crocodile called Monty. Although best mate Wes kept a tight grip on the back of his shirt, it was obvious that Robert knew what he was doing, likewise with Bindi feeding him from the small balcony set up to display his great leaping ability. The main attractions though (ie. The even more really dangerous stuff), including jumping in the water to illustrate the death roll and enticing Monty back to his cage, was left to Wes.

Behind the jokes and the daredevil acts though, there was a serious side to the display, namely showing just how dangerous these beasts can be. It is amazing how still the water appears when they’re gliding through it, and how quickly they can snap out of it on to the shoreline. It all leaves you with a feeling of wonder as to why people would risk getting anywhere near them in the wild.

The more active animals were definately on display.

The more active animals were definitely on display.

As for the rest of the Zoo itself, it’s smaller than you might imagine considering it’s reputation, but no less impressive for it. Unfortunately on a day which gets even Australians complaining about the heat, it seems that the favourite activity of several animals is to hide way in the shade, which isn’t so impressive but you can hardly blame them. I caught only a quick glimpse of a Tasmanian devil, but luckily there were a fair amount of zoo keepers parading animals for all the guests to enjoy, and to be distracted by when the Irwin’s are out in the zoo itself. Not that it worked the whole time, and all credit to Bindi, she hardly seemed fazed when people started shouting for a wave.

It is hardly surprising that on a day when it wasn’t just the children playing in the sprinklers, the Africa enclosure was perhaps the most active. They weren’t moving a great deal, but at least the giraffes and zebras were standing up, which is more than I can say for some others. Most active aside from the tigers at least, who also had their own show, and happily played with a zoo keeper whilst her colleague told us all about them and the sheer drastic levels of how endangered they are.

They really are just big cats.

They really are just big cats.

And that’s what Steve Irwin day is all about. It’s about the things that he himself was passionate about, not just saving wildlife and saving species from extinction, but educating others so that they can join in the fight as well. It was the statistic that there are 1,500 less tigers in the wild than seats in the crocoseum that really surprises the most, and leaves most experts wondering if there will actually be any tigers left in the wild at all by 2020.

And then whilst swimming in his pool, Clarence the Sumatran tiger did a big poo right in front of the glass for everyone to laugh at. He obviously knows how to entertain an audience as well.

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It’s worth waiting around Four

To help break up my time waiting for something which I had assumed would be sorted for me (it seems that both red tape and my incorrect assumptions are the same the world over), when my initial week in Cairns was over I decided to spend a few days in Port Douglas; a small town just to the north, and travelling to which involves one of the nicest coastal drives in all Australia. Not having seen much of the country so far I decided to give the local bus driver the benefit of the doubt when he proclaimed this, and I was not disappointed. Besides, even if he was just being biased, then I could easily live with this stunning view being mediocre in comparison to even better ones yet to come.

Scenic drive over with, the town itself was also well worth seeing. Although the Port O’Call hostel was about 20 minutes out of the main town, a 20 minute walk along Four Mile Beach just wasn’t long enough in my opinion. But then when a beach is this exotic, four miles isn’t anywhere near long enough either. There’s probably not many people who can claim to have walked in a straight line from Australian coast to Australian coast either, especially in a single day, but thanks to Port Douglas being situated on a small peninsula, it is something that technically I can say I’ve done.

Native to Australia, obviously Cassowaries can kill you as well.

Native to Australia, Cassowaries can of course kill you.

One of many towns on the Great Barrier Reef coastline it also offers snorkeling and diving trips, but the main attraction unique to Port Douglas is most likely the Wildlife Habitat. An open plan animal park in which the dangerous animals, such as the cassowary, are fenced off, but everything else is open plan. You’re free to wander through at your own pace, birds flying freely over your head, and wallabies scratching at your pockets in search of the $2 bag of roo food they can no doubt smell. This can be bought from the entrance desk or cafe, and can be used to hand feed all manner of animals in the grasslands. Most popularly kangaroos and wallabies as the name would suggest, but also the ducks and geese, many of them wild, who have learnt the easiest way to get an easy meal.

In fact rather than animals escaping, it seems that species entering the Habitat’s three different environments, grasslands, wetlands, and rainforest, are the bigger problem. On a guided tour we were told of eels that are able to swim into the Habitat’s waterways, and apparently it’s the unpaid interns’ job to catch them and feed them to the crocodiles also living there. They have both fresh water and estuarine varieties (the latter more commonly but inaccurately known as salt water crocs), although these were most definitely wanted and fenced off inhabitants.

Judging from the lack of signage around it, I’m also guessing the rather large tent spider nest was also an unplanned addition. A presumption that was added to when I saw a similar nest, what I can only describe as a cloud of webstrings with no less than a dozen occupants, situated quite happily in a bush located between someone’s front garden and the pavement. I never did check if they were venomous though.

What $18?

What $18?

The Habitat is also one of several places (but only in Queensland) to offer holding a koala opportunity, but for $18, I was more than content to ask a passing stranger to take a photo of me hand feeding a kangaroo. It’s cheaper, to me at least it’s just as Australian, and according to another backpacker at the hostel afterwards, koalas have sharp claws and smell.

The ticket I was given in exchange for my entrance fee was also valid for four days, although the fact that the “four” was written in pen over the top of the printed “two”, leads me to assume this was an off-season special. Not in any rush to head back to Cairns, and quite content where I was, I extended my stay, and took full advantage of the even more extra days on my habitat ticket. After this second visit I walked the long way back to the hostel, again taking a relaxing stroll along Four Mile beach.

To say this was the most tropical beach I have ever experienced is somewhat of an understatement. On one side you have the clear waters of not just the Pacific Ocean, but also the Barrier Reef, and on the other you have dense foliage of palm trees. I’ve been to beaches in Florida and even Kenya, but the one advantage Four Mile has over all of these, is that the only thing it was lacking was other people.

Still should have been longer.

Still should have been longer.

Every now and then there was a couple taking a similar stroll in the opposite direction, and sunbathers dotted around every couple of hundred metres or so, but that was about it. Most people stuck to the north end between the main high street and swimming area, but other than that, almost nothing. Certainly nothing even close to the built up-ness you might expect, and which somewhat spoiled other beaches I’ve been to. Until the day I die I can only hope that Butlins never discover it.

And it’s not just the view, but also the general atmosphere of the place. Walking along I could only hear two things: the gentle waves lapping at my bare feet as I was walking, and the tropical James Bond motif that popped into my head. The one from You Only Live Twice that Robbie Williams stole for Millennium.

In fact I have to say that beach was rather inspiring in terms of songs just singing themselves in my head, as the first day I arrived it had been R.E.M.’s Living Well Is The Best Revenge. Can’t disagree with that at all.

… and (lack of) exercise

My one night in Brisbane was merely a stopover before starting my proper journey along Australia’s East coast in Cairns; I figured I’d begin in the north and make my way down towards Sydney and Melbourne where I would catch up with some friends over here. This time of year I’d also be enjoying the sun, but keeping one step ahead of it as it got hotter and brighter. Although I was heading south for the winter as far as not being in Britain was concerned, I also wanted to make sure I wouldn’t overdo it in the Australian summer. As much as this plan is still pretty much in tact, and although I had booked a full week in Cairns to begin with, my southbound plans took a while longer to get off the ground than I had expected.

I booked a package deal which included membership to Job Search Australia along with several other benefits, one of which was an Australian bank account. Arriving at the Calypso, the Base associated hostel in Cairns, early on a friday evening meant I had the weekend to relax after my flights, which I thoroughly took advantage of. I went to the Job Search desk early monday morning, where my induction to the world of job seeking in Australia was unhindered by the Labour Day public holiday. Thanks to things like data protection however, I had to sort out my bank account myself, although was told how to do this. Thanks to the holiday, I also had to wait until the next day to sort this out.

Tuesday morning though I went to the Cairns branch of the Commonwealth bank, and also opened a savings, and superannuation accounts alongside the general current account into which I deposited my travellers cheques. Old fashioned I know, but online transfers weren’t really the thing last time I went travelling, and at least the cheques didn’t come with transfer and/or currency conversion fees. But one thing they did come with, was a three business day clearing period, and I was also told my debit card would take seven to 10 days to arrive. Despite this however, I’d done more to plan for a pension in a long weekend in Australia than I had in 29 years back in Britain. As much as I had to wait to get to the money in this account, I did still have a British debit card, and also an STA travel card, so wasn’t completely without access to any money, just limited as to how much I could spend. Time to get comfy, and enjoy Cairns for a while.

Cairns Lagoon.

Cairns Lagoon.

In Down Under, Bill Bryson describes Cairns as having a “devotion to the tourist dollar”, which is pretty accurate. “Every second business offered reef cruises or snorkeling expeditions, and most of the rest sold T-shirts and postcards” sums up the centre almost perfectly, although whether they are merely a new addition or Bryson chose not to mention them, there are also a number of adult shops and dancing establishments. I saw one particular climbing frame and slide in the street just in front of a store with a large “erotica” advertisement, and thought about taking a photo of this strange juxtaposition. Aussie laid back nature notwithstanding, getting noticed with a camera in a children’s play area before my trip even began probably wasn’t worth the risk though, and so I decided against it.

Having to survive on my own rather limited supply of tourist dollars, I instead spent my time in Cairns doing not much other than relaxing in the hostel, chilling by the lagoon, and dining on $5 pizzas from the Pizza Hut across the road. Needless to say, it probably wasn’t the best week in terms of working on my beach body, but then it’s not like I had one to begin with anyway.

Notice the tape round his mouth. And the blood.

Notice the tape round his mouth. And the blood.

The Calypso, like many hostels over here, has its own swimming pool, and also arranged different activities and entertainment during the evenings. These included bar pong tournaments and lizard, snake, & crocodile handling, all of which were in the open air bar/communal area which was also just a great place to meet and chat with other backpackers. Although this technically included people from all over the world, I think everyone except one girl from Canada was from Europe, and 90% of which came from either Britain or Germany. Not that I minded, as despite everyone’s ability to speak great English, it also gave me a rare opportunity to practice and show off my A level German.

For a city (not much more than a town really, just the biggest place for hundreds of miles) famous for its opportunities to do everything from riding classic steam trains to skydiving, there are certainly worse places to spend a week doing next to nothing.