Thursday 29 June 2017

Delights Down Under in the great outdoors

Australia is everything you could wish for with its exotic rainforests, beautiful blue lagoons, coral reefs and fantastic wildlife adventures, says Eleanor Goggin

Eleanor Goggin

Back in my day, when you did your leaving cert you got your dainty little bottom straight to university or into a 'pensionable and permanent position'. There was no such thing as a gap year and the joys of backpacking around Australia or other far flung destinations.

And Australia was my big regret. I always had a vision of myself in little shorts and a bikini top cracking open a tinny and cooking a barbie, having just had an activity packed day. The bit about the bikini top and little shorts will remain a dream, as I wouldn't want to upset people at this stage of my life, but the rest of it recently became a reality. I went Down Under.

I flew to Sydney and on to Cairns with Qantas and, given that flying is not my favourite pastime and we were going to be up in the air for some considerable time, I was reassured by the presence of experienced-looking cabin crew. The up-to-the-minute films and extensive menu kept me suitably occupied as two of my favourite pastimes are sitting and eating. Our destination was the Barrier Reef, followed by the Daintree rainforest, the oldest rainforest in the world .

We travelled from Cairns on to the beautiful town of Port Douglas with its colonial- style buildings and new marina. MacCrossan Street, which is the main thoroughfare, is dotted with atmospheric pubs and quirky little shops and restaurants.

Our accommodation was the Sea Temple Resort and Spa, where the balcony on my apartment led, by means of a spiral staircase, to a rooftop of my very own, equipped with a hot tub, sun loungers and a barbecue. Hedonism at its best.

Tired after the long journey, what better way to chill out than a sailing trip from the marina with Steve and Catrina from Sailaway Cruises, who indulged us with copious glasses of champagne and canapes.

I went to bed that night filled with a mixture of excitement and trepidation and it was nothing to do with the opposite sex. Just my pure raw fear of water. I'm fine in the bath, it's just the thought of being out of my depth terrifies me. So when we left the marina in Port Douglas the following morning on a snorkelling and scuba-diving trip, I was in such a state that I found myself having a rush of blood to the head and volunteering for the scuba diving.

Thankfully, because of my blood pressure medication, those in charge wouldn't allow me take part. There is a God.

But I did attempt the snorkelling, and I must say the rainbow of underwater colours was amazing. Parrot fish, fusiliers, which are tiny little bright blue fish, and the Finding Nemo fish were there in abundance. A day out on the water with the very helpful staff from HABA, who didn't fall around the place laughing at me and my moments of panic, is a must when on the Barrier Reef and the photo taken of me from underwater will be framed and hung in my bathroom forever more.

The next day was a calmer experience for me, and one I loved. We visited the home of Linc and Brandon Walker, Aboriginal brothers who proudly shared their heritage and their damper bread with us. We waded, waist-deep through mangroves, trying our luck with various-sized spears to catch fish and learning the many uses for bush tucker and natural medicines. I even ate a green ant. My bravery knows no bounds.

We also visited the Niau waterfalls, a fabulous beauty spot.

Just north of Port Douglas is Daintree National Park, an area of lush rainforest. Here we based ourselves in Daintree Eco Lodge, a small, multi-award-winning, family-run business that prides itself on its close relationship with the Aboriginal community. Run by Terry and Cathy Maloney, of Irish descent, it consists of 15 houses built on stilts, designed to a luxurious standard. The motto here is 'clients arrive as guests and leave as friends'. My balcony looked out on to mini waterfalls and greenery like I had never seen before. I had the honour of two bush turkeys coming into my hallway to welcome me on my arrival. Each bedroom provides an array of natural products from the spa for use during your stay.

The restaurant is on a decking area overlooking the river and Kelvin, the waiter, provided a very personalised service and became a great old buddy, even ensuring my 'smoking' chair was placed outside for me each morning.

Here we sampled locally caught barramundi, seasoned with native bush herbs, wrapped in paperbark, kangaroo and smoked crocodile. Kelda is one of Terry and Cathy's three daughters and works in the spa, where they use natural ingredients from the rainforest and my treatment was genuinely a wonderful experience. Warm oil and sea salt for exfoliation and then I was wrapped in warm mud, with a ceiling shower while I was still lying on the wooden, leaf-shaped bed. This was followed by a tough massage which eased all the aches and pains of the previous activity-filled days. Bliss.

Juan is the activities manager and is very enthusiastic about his guided Aboriginal rainforest walk to explain and share his indigenous heritage. Not so long ago, Aborigines were not recognised as citizens and were not counted in the census. They believe that the land owns us as opposed to us owning the land and the rainforest is like a pharmacy for them, a cure for everything from mosquito bites to chest infections. We wandered with him to the waterfall area which is reserved exclusively for women and Juan had to stay back as we girls ventured forth.

Juan is also proud of his art and treated us to an aboriginal art workshop in the lodge, which kept us occupied like kids for hours. Another item for my bathroom wall: a childlike attempt at a cassowary.

Australia is all I thought it would be and more. The people are wonderful, the atmosphere is relaxed and the scenery is breathtaking. It's too late for regrets about my backpacking days. I'm just glad I got there eventually.

Getting there

Qantas operate 28 flights a week from London Heathrow via the Far East to Australia. Fares with Quantas from Dublin to Cairns return start from €663 plus taxes.

For more information visit www.qantas.com. www.australia.com

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