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Ecotourism adventures abound in northern Australia's Queensland

CAPE TRIBULATION, Australia—It might have been the primeval forest noises. Or perhaps it was the tree-climbing kangaroos. It also could have been the cassowary, a flightless bird as tall as a grown man.

As we hiked out of one of the world's oldest rainforests, our older daughter put into words what we'd been sensing for several days.

"I feel like I'm visiting Jurassic Park," she said.

The northeast region of Australia—far northern Queensland—comprises an extraordinary variety of habitats. Over a few days, you can snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, hike through rainforest and visit the nearby tablelands rimming the dry Outback.

My family lives in Beijing, where the weather is chilly in winter, so the idea of a year-end holiday to sunny Australia seemed comforting: no struggles with a foreign language, a chance to visit some Australian friends, and plenty of familiar stores and food.

What we didn't fully expect was the stunning diversity of environments we'd see in northern Queensland, and the never-seen-before wildlife. The vacation began on the right foot with a few days in Sydney, where we soaked up the city's hilly charm, cruising in the harbor and walking the coastal trail south of Bondi Beach.

Then it was on to encounters with red-legged pademelons, bandicoots, Papuan frogmouths, assassin bugs and even a Wompoo fruit-dove, with its hallucinogenic colors.

The domestic flight landed in Cairns (pronounced "cans" in the local inflection), where you can rent a car, take a deep breath and drive north. A bright yellow dashboard sticker reminded us that the Australians drive, like the British, on the left side of the road.

Driving was a breeze. Using the turn signals was another matter. I repeatedly activated the windshield wipers when I meant to turn, drawing howls from the girls, aged 15 and 9.

An hour's drive north of Cairns is Port Douglas, a resort town that was our temporary base for explorations. To the west, cloud-shrouded mountains loomed; to the east, we gazed on the Coral Sea and the longest barrier reef in the world.

The vacation was loosely planned, and we made quick alterations. Australia was a little pricier than we expected on a $350-a-day budget for our family of four, so instead of eating out constantly we made use of the kitchenette in our rental unit. To our delight, we found that many hotels offered "self-contained units" with kitchens. Nearly all offered communal areas with facilities to barbecue, a national pastime.

Australia's northern beaches are awash in "stingers"—jellyfish—during the summer months, so the next day we headed north to Mossman River Gorge, a rainforest park. The girls delighted in the swinging bridge over a creek that cascaded over boulders, and the tangle of vines and giant ferns amid lush trees.

Walking around the Port Douglas marina in the evening, we made reservations to board the Aristocat, a double-decker catamaran, for a snorkeling visit to the outer reef, a highlight of any trip to Australia.

Among the 60 or 70 visitors the next day was a large contingent of young Japanese divers, and a smattering of Europeans and North Americans. We all donned stinger suits—lighter than wetsuits—to neutralize any encounters with jellyfish, and slid into the water.

Below were giant clams, sea cucumbers, white-tipped reef sharks, barracuda, butterfly fish and a rainbow array of other tropical fish and coral polyps.

As often happens, our girls enjoyed the wondrous sea life but they were equally amused by the sideshows on the boat: the handful of retching, seasick passengers and the group cheers that the Japanese divers gave before entering the water.

Without knowing much about the interior high plateau, known locally as the tablelands, we piled into the car the next day and climbed a thousand feet through the rainforest and into dry rolling plains and farmland. Huge termite mounds poked out of the earth. Pioneering towns with names such as Mareeba and Yungaburra dotted the map. At a fruit stand, we bought mangoes after considering the litchi nuts, passion fruit and other tropical delights.

Late that afternoon, after we'd found a simple rental cabin, my wife exclaimed as we drove along a country road: "Stop! There's a cassowary!"

Sure enough, one of the huge birds emerged from woods at the shoulder of the road. A cousin of the ostrich, the cassowary has a bulbous helmet on its head and a long blue neck, and sometimes stands more than 6 feet tall. It can be aggressive. Signs in national parks warn that the birds' sharp, powerful talons can do terrible damage to a man with a single kick to the abdomen.

Days later we learned that Australia's endangered cassowary population is only around 1,500. Wild dogs, the loss of its habitat and speeding cars have taken a toll.

A day later at the Granite Gorge, a private nature park with rock outcroppings amid scattered gum trees, we spotted our first rock wallabies, which are smaller than kangaroos but look similar. Our 9-year-old jumped with excitement when given a bag of feed and told she could lure wild wallabies from their shady lairs and hand-feed them. Hours later, sweating profusely in the midday sun, she could barely be pulled away.

A special treat awaited us that night back in the rainforest: a tour with Dr. David Rentz, an entomologist, who led us on a night walk around our cabin grounds in Kuranda. Illuminating his way by headlamp, Rentz pointed out huge nests of orange-footed scrub fowl, glow-in-the-dark fungus and assassin bugs ("They pierce other bugs with that mouth part and suck their juices out"). He also deployed an ultrasonic device that allowed us to listen to insect and bat sounds that usually are beyond the range of human hearing.

"See that?" he asked. Two eyes stared from the brush. "That's a bandicoot."

A marsupial about the size of a possum, the bandicoot scampered off. Moments later, a group of wallabies, known as red-legged pademelons, emerged from the bush.

We meandered a day later to the crocodile-infested Daintree National Park and splurged to stay at the Red Mill House, a bird lovers' bed-and-breakfast with binoculars and bird books scattered on the verandahs. Owners Andrew and Trish Forsyth handed us a bird checklist, and we quickly ticked off rainbow lorikeets, kookaburras, figbirds and gerygones, all hitherto unknown to us. Some 500 species of birds inhabit or migrate through the northwest Queensland region.

At dawn during a boat excursion, we spotted an owl lookalike known as the Papuan Frogmouth, as well as snakes, butterflies and a tiny crocodile. Like most visitors, we were fixated on the crocodiles, staring at TV newscasts and reading aloud newspaper reports of multiple crocodile attacks on humans that occurred during our holiday.

Crocodile meat was on the menu at the Papaya Cafe in the Daintree Village, with this description: "ground crocodile meat and water chestnuts in crisp wonton wrappers, served with chili plum sauce." The waitress told us more about croc meat.

"It's got the texture of pork, the color of fish and the taste of chicken," she said.

We gave it a pass.

The next day, we came across a mountain lookout with a cluster of tourists pointing into a canopy of trees where two tree kangaroos nibbled on leaves. Only later, as other guides came by, did we learn that such a sighting is rare.

We'd come to expect rare things in Australia.

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IF YOU GO:

All figures given are in U.S. dollars.

AIR TRAVEL IN AUSTRALIA: We made domestic travel arrangements through www.flightcentre.com.au, which has cut-rate airfares.

WHERE TO STAY: Australia offers a huge variety of lodging, from ubiquitous and cheap backpacker hostels to hotels, motels and full resorts. We made some arrangements through www.hotel.com.au, which includes reviews of hotels from users. In Port Douglas, we liked the Mango Tree Holiday Apartments (www.mango-tree-port-douglas.com), where we paid about $135 a night for a two-room apartment. In Daintree Village, the Red Mill House (www.redmillhouse.com.au) is a delightful small B&B surrounded by towering trees. We had two adjoining rooms for which we paid $176 per night, including a hearty breakfast. In the tablelands, we found furnished cabins for $70 to $90 a night. They were generally at parks for recreational-vehicle users.

RENTAL CARS: The Cairns airport has a number of rental car companies, including all major global brands. We rented a Toyota Corolla from Hertz with unlimited mileage, negotiating a weekly rate of $232 without a reservation.

TRIPS TO GREAT BARRIER REEF: Port Douglas has a number of companies that offer high-speed catamarans for snorkeling and scuba trips to the outer reefs. We took a trip by Aristocat (www.aristocat.com.au) that cost $391 for two adults and two children, including all snorkeling gear and lunch. Calypso (www.calypsocharters.com.au) and Poseidon (www.poseidon-cruises.com.au) have trips at similar prices.

GUIDED NATURE EXCURSIONS: The highlights of our trip were outings with naturalists. In the Kuranda area, northwest of Port Douglas, Dr. David C. Rentz, an insect expert with a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley, led three of us on a two-hour night hike. Cost: $47. He can be reached at orthop1(at)tpg.com.au. In Daintree Village, we hooked up with Mangrove Adventures, led by Dan Irby, an Oklahoman with long years of experience in Queensland. Irby's Web site is www.mangroveadventures.com.au. He offered us a two-hour boating trip for four people for $156.

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Tim Johnson: tjohnson@mcclatchydc.com

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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