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Migration of the Grey Nomads

Migration of the Grey Nomads
 
 

THE BEST way to see Australia is to explore the countryside one day at a time in the luxury of a campervan. You settle somewhere, then when you have explored the area, pack up and move onto the next area. Unfortunately this form of travel does take a long time, only suiting those who are not committed to full-time work.

About half an hour after leaving Cairns, we turned off the main road and headed towards the beach into Palm Cove. The road followed the gentle slope downhill all the way to the beach before abruptly turning into a coconut palm avenue beside the beach separated only by a row of coconut palms.

Looking though the silhouetted coconut palms I could see moderate waves breaking from the swell generated by the prevailing south east trade winds under the sepia sun still low in the sky. The rays of sunlight highlighted the golden sand. It was a most tranquil paradise here, the sort of place you would want to retire.

Tropical trees
Tropical trees

The coconut palms stood in a couple of small parks along the strip of the road between the road and the beach. On the other side of the road stood a row of hotels rising several storeys into to the tops of the palm trees. They stood almost hidden blended in amongst the creeping foliage of the giant strangler fig palms. We stopped at two of these hotels to pick up more people for the tour.

Once they were picked up we continued our way along the avenue, before turning left along towards the main road. At the corner there was a camping ground with a lot of house trucks parked in the dark shady spaces in between a maze of strangler fig trees. Greg explained these vans belonged to grey nomads. They were mostly people who had recently retired and were celebrating their retirement by spending two or three years travelling around Australia. I personally know a couple of grey nomads. Obviously there were a lot of them travelling up here at this time of year enjoying the excellent winter climate, escaping the coldness of the southern half of the country.

In many ways the grey nomads are like backpackers, migrating with the weather. Very few people I know like winter. Most people would do anything to get away from the polar winters. That was part of my reason for moving to Australia. The climate in Brisbane is so much better than that of anywhere in New Zealand, but sadly I have acclimatised and find the winters there too cold. Obviously I was now in the perfect place for winter, but I have heard the summers here are fiercely hot and monsoonal. It seems if you want the best of both worlds then you need to migrate.

The birds have got the migration thing right. They travel great distances around the world to experience summer all year round. Greg mentioned this area was a major bird migration route with birds travelling from Siberia and other parts of Asia down through here on their way to southern parts of Australia and some onto New Zealand. The birds like the dry temperate summers, so their migration would go from mild temperate areas ending their summers, through a tropical area at the end of their rainy season, then into another tropical area in the middle of their dry season finally down to the temperate zone for their spring.

We were still in the Palm Grove area. As expected the houses around this area were huge. This was the rich end of town. Greg said no bus drivers live here, giving a hint that he was on the minimum wage afflicting most people who worked in the tourism industry.

It was not long before we reached the end of the residential area as the mountain range came right to the waters’ edge. For a few kilometres we went around the edge of a moderate bluff passing small exposed rocky beaches with a small swell breaking on them. The forest came right down to the edge of the beach, but this wasn’t the rainforest we had seen around Cairns. Instead the forest was more like the semi-arid forests found around the coast around Brisbane’s offshore islands.

Greg explained the rainfall in this area was a lot less than that of Cairns, hence the different forest type. I looked in amongst the scrubby trees and saw scattered cycads growing in amongst them. They were the long stays of the forest, just like the grass trees of the scrubby gum forests around Brisbane. Greg mentioned these cycads were very old growing at less than a centimetre per year. Some of them stood a couple of metres high.

Cycads are a remnant from before the dinosaur era. Like much of the vegetation around here and down the Australian East Coast, it is all a remnant of Gondwanaland and as we were to find out today, these are amongst the oldest forest areas in the world. This was the first cycad forest I had ever seen. Cycads have been around for about 280 million years since the early Permian at a time even before Pangaea started breaking apart into today’s continents. The cycads have survived some of the most massive extinction events in Earth’s history. They grow native in most tropical and subtropical areas of the world.

Mountain seen from Mossman
Mountain seen from Mossman

Greg then went on to explain all the mountains here were made from granite which had extruded up out of the Earth’s mantle about two hundred million years ago in a huge batholith that created what is now the whole of Australia’s Great Dividing Range. The cycads have been around here for longer than the mountains.

Now that we were around the headland we were now entering a bay around twelve kilometres wide reminding us very much of the South Island West Coast. The mountains swept around the bay like a huge bowl. At the end of the bay we followed the road winding over the steep bluffs before heading down the other side where some large sand banks jutted out into the sea. They seemed very out of place there, but with the shelter of the reef unseen offshore, it was sheltered enough for these sandbanks to form.

The mountains on the other side of the bay we were crossing were shorter, but more distinct and rugged. The land in between was flat floodplain that as expected had been cleared for farming. Once we were off the headland we were immediately in a large coconut plantation.

The sky had been perfectly clear until now, but there were some unusual flat pancake clouds above the middle of the small plain. As soon as we started coming under the shadow of the cloud we started entering a residential area, the outskirts of Port Douglas.

The bus turned right and followed a long sweeping road past several large resorts. We stopped at one of them and picked a few people up before heading into the middle of the town to a couple of small hotels to pick up our final passengers. The town centre was colonial with a lot of fairly old buildings standing no more than three storeys high – four at the very most. Medium sized gnarly trees lined either side of the road standing on small landscaped islands covered in bark mulching and surrounded by small round boulders.

With everyone now on board the completely full bus left Port Douglas to officially commence the tour. We returned along the road back towards the main highway as Greg told the story of how entrepreneur Christopher Skase was responsible for a lot of the resort development in this area. He had borrowed a lot of money to develop some of the resorts. Then he used that money to borrow more money. He then borrowed money on money borrowed on money borrowed on money borrowed on his small initial deposit.

Then he went broke and escaped to the United States and then to Europe to evade capture. A lot of people had lost a lot of money here thanks to Mr Skase. That was a long time ago though, and the story seems to have been largely forgotten here. He died a few years ago with justice never having been done.

Once back on the highway we travelled between large fields of sugar cane. The plants grow to three or four metres high and have a small tuft of white flowers on top when they are ready for harvest. Some of the fields we passed were in the middle of being harvested. Greg explained the sugar cane is a variety of grass.

Cloud was now beginning to build over the mountains. It was sunny where we were, but the south easterly trade winds were creating the orographic rainfall effect I was very familiar with in New Zealand. The humid air coming off the warm Coral Sea was being forced up the thousand metre high slopes of the mountain range to the tablelands beyond. In rising the air would be forced to cool by up to six degrees raising the humidity and therefore creating cloud.

Quarter of an hour past Port Douglas we reached the next town Mossman. This primarily functions as a sugar milling town. We stopped at a small park for a toilet stop. The bus was parked under an avenue of very fascinating hundred year old tropical trees with huge wide branches draped in all kinds of epiphytes. The trees themselves didn’t seem to have many leaves on them, emphasising their almost black branches scribbling in wavy lines high into the air overhead. Perhaps they lose their leaves for the dry season.

I went for a short walk into the park, from where I could see the granite mountains of the Great Dividing Range providing a serene backdrop to the sleepy town. The mountains run along the entire East Coast of Australia from Cape York about five hundred kilometres to the north all the way down to the Southern Ocean near Melbourne about 3000 kilometres to the south. Here the mountains were covered in dense forest. This was my first glimpse of the legendary Daintree Rainforest.

Greg told us Mossman was the northern coastal limit of the grey nomads. From here on the road was too rugged for campervans. This was where the real adventure begins.

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24 July 2012

 

Daintree Nat Park

Australia

 

16°40'S
145°30'E
0 - 80m ASL

 

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