THE QUEEN OF HEARTS

Shubh-yatra.in

, Travel

Fly over a heart-shaped reef, cuddle some friendly koalas and marvel at a 600-million-year-old tree in Queensland, Australia, as the region gears up to host the Commonwealth Games, says Shrabasti Mallik

The air tank I secured over my scuba gear weighed heavy on my small frame, but my instructor reassured me that I wouldn’t feel the weight underwater. He continued to explain the science behind it, but all my ears could hear was the sound of the water, lapping on the sides of the boat. I was about to tick scuba diving off my adventure bucket list and I could not have asked for a better place to do so than the Cod Hole Dive Site in Cairns, located in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, Australia.

Following my instructor, I soon found myself in the company of a group of potato cod (Epinephelus tukula) fish. With an average weight of 100 kg, these native Australian fish looked a tad scary with their spotted frames and rugged features, but once they began nibbling food from my hands, I reconsidered my first impression of them. They didn’t seem to mind my presence, apart from some occasional prodding and nudging, urging me to pet them, which I gladly did.

The potato cod is part of the vast array of marine life you will encounter up close and personal at the Great Barrier Reef. You can spot over 30 species of whale and dolphin, 1,625 species of fish, 33 species of shark and ray, and 600 types of hard and soft corals. It is genuinely one experience that should not be missed. At Daintree, the world’s oldest tropical rainforest located a two-hour drive north of Cairns, I was transported to a magical land. Such is the beauty of the landscape that it is believed to have inspired the 2009 Hollywood movie Avatar, directed by James Cameron. Here, standing beneath the sprawling branches of a 600-millionyear- old zamia fern, with an underground trunk system that evolved in defence against dinosaurs, I recalled how Sir David Attenborough had described the forest as ‘the most extraordinary place on Earth.’ I explored the diversity of the flora and fauna here on a boat ride along the 140-km-long Daintree river, one of the longest on Australia’s east coast.

One of my earliest memories associated with Australia is Steve Irwin, whom the world lovingly called the “crocodile hunter”. As a child, he fascinated me with his fearlessness beside these ferocious reptiles, the way they listened when he spoke to them, and how he could get on their backs and feed them with his bare hands. His life’s mission was to raise awareness about animals and to tell the world that like humans, animals, too, need love and care. He had set up the Australia Zoo in Queensland with a vision to make it one of the biggest and best wildlife conservation facilities in the world, and this was where I made friends with Snow, a resident koala bear.

She shook my hands while studying my face, as if contemplating whether or not to trust me. She leaned over from her eucalyptus branch, one limb at a time, and a few seconds later, had me in a warm, cuddly embrace. Here I also met Kato, the friendly 14-year-old wombat. It was some time before I realised that his sole aim was to get his paws on the corn cob in my hands! There was also Alima, a 15-yearold albino Burmese python. His beautiful scales are various shades of cream and bright yellow, instead of the regular brown, making him a real standout.

The zoo, currently run by Irwin’s family – his wife Terry, daughter Bindi and son Robert – along with a team of passionate conservationists, is home to over 1,200 inhabitants, including wombats, snakes, tigers, ring-tailed lemurs, kangaroos, giant Aldabran tortoises, macaws, boa constrictors and more. A real crowd-puller here, however, is the Crocoseum, letting thousands of visitors observe crocodiles in clear water ponds.

My love for wildlife then took me to Eungella National Park, one of Queensland’s most ecologically diverse parks, located in the state’s Mackay Region. The parkland is home to a number of unusual plants and animals, including the Eungella dayfrog, Mackay tulip oak, Eungella spiny cray and Eungella honeyeater. I took a stroll down the banks of the Broken River here, spotting a few floating platypuses along the way.

The next stop on my itinerary was the Whitsundays, comprising 74 islands sitting pretty in the Great Barrier Reef. Aboard a glass-bottomed boat, I set sail along the breathtaking reefs and islands while being acutely aware of the throbbing marine ecosystem underneath. I island-hopped my way from Hamilton Island to Daydream Island, and finally to Hayman Island. I was told that Whitehaven Beach, one of the region’s most popular, is located here.

But the short helicopter ride that I took over the iconic Heart Reef (a reef shaped like a heart) was the highlight of my visit to this stunning archipelago.

It was then at Lake Moogerah that I caught one of the most spectacular sunsets of my life. I have never seen the horizon change so many colours within such a short span of time. From deep blue to peach to crimson – nature did have its own grand way of bringing the curtains down on the day. Here, standing beneath the stars, I closed my journal on my first whirlwind tour of Queensland.

With inputs from www.australia.com and www.queensland.com

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