Australian Wonder
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, March 1997

If I won an all expenses paid trip to a typical beach resort, I probably wouldn't go. It's not that I don't care about the ocean. I've explored and photographed my share of wild coasts around the world, including five trips to the Galapagos Islands and visits to more than a dozen Caribbean islands. It's simply that my vision of paradise clashes with forced inactivity. Slowly roasting at the beach more closely matches my mental image of the opposite eternal realm.

Thus when Barbara and I discussed ending our travels in Australia with a week's visit to the Great Barrier Reef, I wanted to avoid being stuck on some desert island where our only options to solar barbecue sessions would be eating or passing time in some air-conditioned, high-rise prison. We found what we were looking for on Dunk Island, three miles offshore from Crocodile Dundee country in north Queensland.

Yes, there is a long white beach with palms and turquoise waters, but without any Miami high-rises in sight. The low-profile resort tucked back into the tropical rainforest is surrounded by more options for outdoor photography than we could manage in our week. Although circled by coral reefs and beaches, the island itself is bedrock that tops out with a 1000-foot hill at the end of a nature trail. A longer loop trail traverses six miles around the island.

I used the trails every morning for exercise as well as for photographing the striking and approachable bird life. The island has no native land predators except snakes. One memorable evening, I walked around for hours with the resort's naturalist, James Rainger, who sensed just where to point his spotlight on perched birds, cane toads, and strange little rodents called Banfields that are one of Australia's few non-marsupial mammals.

We reached the Barrier Reef itself by a daily 50-minute boat ride from the island. One look over the side at wilder colors of untouched coral than I'd seen anywhere else in the world with large schools of fish all around convinced me that I should bag my snorkeling gear and learn to scuba dive.

When I came up from my first dive, the instructor commented that I seemed more comfortable underwater than the others. "Why is that?" I asked. "Because you were always taking pictures instead of checking your equipment, like everyone else does the first time."

The point-and-shoot underwater camera that I had brought along produced great moody silhouettes, but none of the vivid colors of purple and yellow coral and iridescent fish that I had seen with my eyes. I kicked myself for not borrowing the Nikonos V with 15mm lens and TTL strobe that I had used with great success in the Galapagos. Although I definitely need to return with a better camera for underwater images as vivid as I've made snorkeling elsewhere, I was able to get plenty good coverage for a short photo essay to sell to magazines. Pictures taken with a regular camera from the upper deck of the boat looking down at snorkelers amidst hundreds of fish definitely tell the story.

After a number of days on Dunk Island, we decided to spend a night on the mainland to get magic hour pictures of the island from four miles away, as well as to explore some of the legendary Australian outback and visit the South Johnson Crocodile Farm, where huge problem crocs from the wild are held for captive breeding. The lush landscape reminded Barbara of how her native Hawaii looked when she was a child. Small villages and large sugar cane plantations set below hillsides blanketed by virgin rainforest made us both feel as if the clock had been turned back half a century. With foresight, the most scenic areas have already been set aside as national parks.

Australian tourism has a special knack for blending the nostalgia of laid-back times that are long gone in most of America with modern convenience. In big towns as well as small we never received a room key without a relaxed personal chat with the desk clerk that often led us to great photo opportunities.

In general, the Aussies offer far more practical accommodations for active outdoor photographers than what we have in the States. Among my pet peeves in the American West are bed and breakfast inns, which are no more than a creaky bed for me. Breakfast and coffee are always served after I'm long gone to get dawn photographs; not a problem in Australia. Every hotel or motel room we stayed in had a mini-kitchen complete with virtually instant 240-volt teapot, tea and coffee, fresh milk, and just enough plates and utensils to turn a take-out meal into a pleasant dining experience.

Australian travel costs are generally a bit higher than in the States, but with more variation. Shopping around goes a long way if you're on a budget. Near the Great Barrier Reef, you can spend $1500 a day at an exclusive island resort or $100 for a great four-star hotel on the mainland coast. When we return to the reef, as we surely will, we plan to split our time between the island and the mainland, only minutes apart by scheduled water taxi.

Galen’s columns are reproduced on our web site courtesy Outdoor Photographer.
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