Blissed out down under: this once-in-a-lifetime voyage conjures magic and joy.
They say it’s the journey, not the destination.
Today, I take the journey, a clear day and, yes, I can see forever — the intense aquamarines, lush greens and deep blues that mix and mingle to afford a view nonpareil from a prop plane, all 14 seats of it, cruising at 10,000 feet. Even the pilot marvels; the visibility is the best he has seen in months. This is the edge of Queensland, the coastline of Capt. Cook, where he ran aground near the Endeavour River and where he first encountered the kangaroo. It’s the home of the Great Barrier Reef, and this part of the coast is where two world heritage sites converge — reef with rainforest, the Daintree to be exact. So, you see, for me, it’s also the destination, Australia, the only place on earth where this convergence occurs. But this is not the only thing unique to this continent.
Today, I swam in the Pacific.
And yet, this is not the ocean that most of us, here in the Great White North, know; the cold, steely domain of the salmon and the orca. This is the south, where you can feel the more peaceful origins of its name. The sunlight catches the waves, sparkling on their tops like diamonds, an unstudied dance with the azure and crystal and blue. I laugh out loud, at the sight of it.
The breeze tempers the heat; it’s April here, somewhere between late summer and early autumn, and I’m standing on the beach at Lizard Island. It is practically deserted (the hotel houses only about 80 guests at full capacity). The resort, which takes its name from the island and national park in which it is located, is a relaxed retreat, rooms are more like chic studio apartments that come straight out of Architectural Digest. Cosmopolitan touches aside, there is a rustic charm, nevertheless; mosquito coils live happily in the cupboard next to the high-end toiletries; the privacy button is a wooden slat outside your door you slide to the left to “turn on” and the only place with viable Wi-Fi is the guest lounge next to the pool.
Here, on Lizard Island, the miracles that my human eyes are feasting on right now, gorging on light, on shadow, on colour, where ocean blue meets golden beach meets tropical jungle greens. It’s delicious, almost overwhelming, and the quiet for a harried city type is a near cacophony of nature: you hear the wings of bugs beating, even over the screeching of gulls and calls of other birds and the gentle lapping of the waves onto the beach. If I could put it into words, well, you still wouldn’t quite see it; it’s like a desert island but where there’s a great resto that serves dessert.
My swim morphs into a guided snorkel. You can scuba dive here, too, out to the reef for an eye-popping display of the undersea world. Floating, face down, my mask giving my eyes clarity, I spy an angel, a devil, a shark, a clown. Underwater, the life aquatic’s silence is only counterbalanced by the roar of technicolour that is this national marine park’s flora, fauna, fish. Corals spike, curve and undulate like a free-form garden swaying in a soft breeze; a rainbow, in stark contrast to the bleached-out reef on which they squat. My first glimpse of the Great Barrier Reef. Magic.
This is, I find, a place of milestones. At breakfast, the table next to mine is a group celebrating a 65th birthday. They strike up a conversation, about learning to play the banjo, of all things, and all the films in which the instrument was used; Deliverance, Warren Beatty’s Bonnie and Clyde and Paint Your Wagon all come up and, then, one of the women says, “I’d always wished I’d learned to play the piano, but my fingers are too short.” She looked at one of her table mates and noticed her long, delicate hands. “You should learn,” she said, pointing to her digits. “You’ve got piano fingers.” To which her friend replied, “Oh, I’m too old.” She looked back at her flatly. “You’re never too old.”
I laugh, out loud: music to my ears. Sort of like Lizard Island. A place like this never gets old.
Today, I heard a kookaburra laugh.
Today, I walked through fire and then went on a walkabout in the rainforest.
A tree house – and not your old backyard tree fort, mind you – is seemingly suspended in mid-canopy; below, a river rushes, tumbling babblingly over the rocks it has honed to a smooth patina over the some 300 million years of its existence. Longevity of a different kind.
At Silky Oaks Lodge, the rainforest is the star attraction; if you saw the film Avatar, you’d know a little about what I’m going to describe next. You arrive, and the first thing you think is I am in a forest on Avatar’s Pandora. I laugh out loud, along with the kookaburra, at the sight of it. It’s said that James Cameron took, in part, the Daintree region as inspiration for his otherworldly location; yet here it is, right here on Mother Earth. Just like that imaginary planet, ancient trees pierce the sky, overgrown vines languidly drape, mammoth leaves fall or provide umbrella-like shade – yet there’s a hammock suspended on my timber tree house’s balcony, bringing me back to reality and suggesting a civilized afternoon siesta in the making. Just down the road is the Mossman Gorge Centre, a one-year-young indigenous culture complex, which takes people into the rainforest with guides and hosts who know their native lore — they are living native lore. Rodney, our guide, is an ex-Queensland cop who quit the race to get back to his roots. Mum was indigenous; Dad, a mix of Irish, Scottish; he’s an all-round Heinz 57. He welcomes us by walking us through the smoke of a campfire, a sort of cleansing/smudging that is said to purify us — and keep the mosquitoes at bay — before walking into this natural miracle of a forest.
Wherever you are, the river provides a soundtrack of forward movement — powerful enough to have fortified the old mill here; gentle enough to pool into picture-perfect swimming holes for a cool dip on a hot day. The creek that feeds into the Mossman River still provides drinking water for the surrounding area; yes, it’s still clean enough.
Back at Silky Oaks, the resident platypus makes a rare appearance at riverside. He’s sunning himself on this fine fall day and pays no mind to the voices that float down from our manmade tree-house perch. Here, there are small but luxurious pleasures: a sky-grazing open-sided restaurant with killer views and a kitchen that knows its way around complexity of flavours yet the simplicity of beautiful presentation and how to champion local bounty; a wine list that rivals the best in a big city; the lodge is Wi-Fi–enabled, and there’s a deep-blue pool that’s been modelled to look like a natural pond. Dutch expat Paul Van Min and his wife, Barbara, took over the property four years ago as a semi-retirement project and since, it has brought a sophistication to the area for which it’s been added to the Luxury Lodges of Australia portfolio. “This is a couples resort,” he says, “a place for our guests to reconnect, empty nesters whose children have flown; people with the time to appreciate what this place is.”
And people who love to laugh out loud.