Chris & Allyson vs. Australia (May 2012)
Day Eight: An ATV ride. The Cairns Lagoon. Walking the waterfront. Night Markets.
The Cairns Lagoon.
A skate park in downtown Cairns.
Enjoying a so-so dinner down under.
Knick-knacks at the Cairns Night Markets.
Large reptile warning.
The world's happiest mudskipper.
After seven days of vacationing, we needed a vacation from our vacation. There are limits to how much you can broaden your horizons, push your limits and become a vibrantly actualized version of the best you that you can be.
So on our eighth day in Australia, we abandoned all efforts at personal growth. You don't have to fly halfway around the world and spend a thousand dollars to learn that you and your wife hate paragliding. There's no guilt in doing what you already like -- and my wife likes riding ATVs.
Allyson once rode an ATV while vacationing in Ecuador with her friends. In her adorable way, she never shut up about it. She mentioned it enough that it registered as something that I, as a mildly functional husband, should notice. It was up there in importance with keeping the shower clean and that other thing that might have been a deadly food allergy or something. Who knows? Women, right?
I used my knowledge for Christmas 2010 and bought us a gift certificate for an ATV weekend in West Virginia -- the playground of America's cultural elite. When we cashed it in a few months later, I learned that I like riding ATVs.
We spent five hours riding around in the rain, zipping along old mining roads with a pleasantly grizzled guide. There were hills to climb and four distinct shades of mud to drive through. You haven't truly experienced nature until you drive through it at 25 miles per hour on a death sled with no seatbelts. That night, as we watched a televised Phillies game in our rental cabin, the news broke that Osama bin Laden had been killed. It was the most American day of my life.
Australia is a terrain-filled continent, and it's filled with people who are used to dying outdoors, so they have ATVs. Riding them was the natural activity for us on our last full day in Cairns.
A van picked us up at the Pacific International and whisked us off to a magical time ... in Kuranda, at Blazing Saddles Adventures. Today, that business is situated about 10 minutes from Cairns. But at the time of our visit it was operating on lovely real estate in the mountains. The company offers ATV excursions and horseback riding. Clearly, it was founded by Mel Brooks fans, or by people unaware that a burning crotch is traditionally not a good marketing ploy.
The setup was rustic. The entrance looked like a beat-up ranch, with broken-down cars and mangy dogs running around. The office was a covered pavilion with a bathroom and some picnic tables. They confiscated our cameras, because it's far too dangerous to take pictures while riding an ATV, unless you're a Blazing Saddles employee who can charge $30 for those pictures at the end of the ride.
We had company. An older, dour and very heavy-set couple was there, trying to turn their second honeymoon into the run-up to a first divorce. They had plans to ride the horses, which was very unfortunate for the horses. Our companions for the ATV ride were a young couple that wasn't particularly friendly -- but there's not all that much socializing when you're gunning it through the gates of Hell on a Honda TRX 250. Our guide was an Asian gentleman who spoke very little English -- but ATVs are a universal language.
The memories of the ride are fuzzy now. There were no sharks anywhere on the course, so we didn't pay for the pictures. But a few impressions remain.
The course had jungles and open fields. The fields had termite mounds -- some of them four or five feet high. There was a smattering of mud. There were uneven dirt paths and lots of narrow trails that scraped us up against trees. Allyson had trouble steering her ATV over the rougher parts of the course, but every few minutes we crossed paths with the couple on horseback, and it made us feel better. After the ride, they served hot dogs.
There was no personal growth and nothing uniquely Australian. It was, in short, a perfectly decent morning. The van returned us to Cairns, and we decided to keep our spiritual stagnation going with the least challenging vacation activity: lounging at the pool.
We screwed up by picking an awesome pool. When the good people of Cairns failed to convert their mangrove swamp into a beach, they didn't give up their dream of having a place for topless sunbathing. Instead, they built the Lagoon.
Calling the Lagoon a public pool is like calling World War II a small border dispute. It's a huge basin with a meandering shape, situated along the waterfront. At its deepest the Lagoon is five feet, and it's all saltwater. One end has a small sand beach, other parts are surrounded by grass, and there are giant, water-spouting fish sculptures rising out of the deep end.
And yes, there are some topless sunbathers.
The Lagoon has no lap lanes, so the atmosphere is a bit more recreational than at the public pools we visited in Sydney. Small kids were, in all likelihood, peeing in the pool. The grass was covered with packs of teens trying to discreetly stare at boobs. There were also many beefy people there that were trying to discreetly stare at boobs. There were several women there displaying their boobs, but not discreetly.
I stopped into a shop and bought a beach towel with the Australian flag printed on it, so everyone would think of me as a patriotic local and not a tourist with some lame beach towel. Allyson and I found an empty spot on the sand beach, and we engaged in the time-honored tradition of trying to get skin cancer.
Tanning is my wife's idea of what you do at a pool. We've had several thoughtful debates on the subject. My argument is that a nice sunny day should involve some kind of activity, and that it's erroneous to say you "enjoyed" sleeping in the sun, as you were asleep while you were doing it. Allyson's argument is that I should shut up and go away. Because I love my wife, I sat in the sun with her and read a book for 10 minutes before going for a swim.
Splashing around obliviously by yourself is my idea of what you do at a pool. You get some nice reactions as an isolated 35-year-old man with no muscle tone in a public pool. When people finally notice you, it's to wonder what your creepy motive is for swimming in their vicinity; you can see younger men wondering if they should be viewing you as a cautionary tale or threatening you with violence for swimming near their girlfriends. It was a relaxing half-hour for everyone not made uncomfortable by my presence. I sat under the sculptures and looked at the ocean; I did my attempt at the breast stroke; I forgot that salt water does not have the same chemical properties as SPF 30 sunscreen. Allyson waded in for a minute or two, then got back to the business of self-roasting.
When pool time was over, we decided to cover the waterfront. I had jogged along the boardwalk earlier in the week, but Allyson wanted the chance to see it in the daylight, and I wanted to see it while not smelling quite so bad.
There's a skate park, where you can watch Australian teens develop the crippling joint injuries that will plague them the rest of their lives. There's "Muddy's Playground," an area for younger kids built around a giant mudskipper statue -- which means there might be "Ren and Stimpy" fans in Cairns.
And there's a small, natural beach area jutting into the water. It's fringed with mud, and if you curiously test the mud with your sandal to see how firm it is, you'll go in up to your ankle. Also, it's the kind of mud that looks like it was dredged out of a septic tank. We (meaning I) had a very nice time hopping around Muddy's playground looking for a place to rinse, so that I would no longer look like the victim of a practical joke played by an elephant trainer.
For a few minutes, we looked out at the mud flats to watch the birds gathered there. I then watched a few minutes more, hoping that a crocodile might pop out of the muck like Rambo and rip a pelican in half. It didn't happen, but a man can dream.
To round out our low-effort day, we had dinner at Kani's, a restaurant on the main drag about two blocks from our hotel. We sat at a sidewalk table and watched the people go by, on their way to restaurants that required more effort. I had the tourism sampler, which consisted of emu, kangaroo and croc.
Now, I have eaten at literally tens of Australian restaurants. I am here to tell you: Don't go to Australia for the food. Your meals will be fine, but there won't be anything magically Australian about what you're eating. The Fodor's Guide tries to trick you with its chapter on "Modern Oz" cuisine, but you're smarter than that -- it's Asian fusion with a huge markup. Australians have studied fine dining and decided that their contribution will be very slow service.
Your best bet for an authentic Aussie food experience is outside of a restaurant -- you need to meet someone with access to a barbie and enough beer to make you chunder. But it takes time to cultivate those relationships. If you're a tourist on the go, just order the tourism sampler and be at peace with yourself. Emus, kangaroos and crocodiles are some the few indigenous species that aren't poisonous or endangered. The taste and texture are nothing spectacular, but at the end of the day you can say you consumed three of the national symbols of the country you visited. If you're a high roller, go off-menu and ask about koala steaks and cassowary egg omelets. You might get arrested, but spending a night in jail is about as Australian as you can get.
We finished dinner with the knowledge that it was our last night in Cairns, and that we hadn't yet availed ourselves of one of the city's greatest treasures.
Cairns is designed as a venus flytrap that eats money. You buzz in on a plane, attracted by the Great Barrier Reef, and soon you're drowning in the restaurants, ATV tours and souvenir shops that dissolve your retirement savings. But why wouldn't you walk into the trap? What do you want at the end of your life, quiet years glaring at a spouse who has nothing to say to you, or a comfy pair of Australian-made Ugg boots that you can wear to the Waffle House job you took to pay for your medicine? Them boots is comfy.
And you can buy them at the Night Markets, a shopping arcade in the middle of a city block. We came in through the most regal of all its entrances: the slightly dirty, late-night all-Asian food court. It's like the Brandenburg Gate, but with a greasy tile floor and more egg rolls.
There's an official story behind the creation of the Night Markets, but the logic is self-evident. During the day, you're outside of the city, doing outdoorsy excursions and living life like a 1980s Juicy Fruit commercial -- i.e., to the fullest. You don't have time to load up on souvenirs, and after paying for those excursions you aren't in the mood to buy junk at the sites of said excursions. But if there's a store in the city, you can go shop there! And if it's open until very late, there's a good chance you'll be drunk by the time you go there, so you're way more likely to buy stuff! Everybody wins!
As to the shopping experience: It's like the bazaar in "Casablanca," only no one is wearing a suit. And there's probably less haggling. The same number of Germans, though.
There are plenty of T-shirt stalls, and about 50 places to buy chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. But you can also get some more-intriguing souvenirs, like jewelry or high-end kangaroo leather or many of the "authentic aborigine" crafts that are propping up the white guilt sector of Australia's economy. In every stall, there's a helpful proprietor who will answer your questions, while also giving you the stink eye to see if you're a shoplifter or a drunk who's about to knock over their floor display of boomerangs.
When it comes to souvenirs, I go for refrigerator magnets, and Allyson is thrilled that our freezer door looks like a traveling salesman's suitcase. This time, I went for something different. There were some very cool pieces of metalwork in a few of the shops, and I was particularly drawn to one with some Australian flair. It was a Ned Kelly beer bottle caddy.
Ned is either a folk hero or a terrorist, depending on who you ask. What's indisputable is that he robbed banks and murdered people, then tried to take on gun-toting cops while wearing a homemade suit of armor. It wasn't the best plan in the world, and we honor its failure through beer-based art. More on him later.
The only non-charming part of the Night Markets was the massage pavilion, where scads of independent contractors try to lure you in for a rubdown. Call me old-fashioned, but I find it off-putting when a gang of Asians tries to touch me in exchange for money. I don't mind an aggressive sales pitch when I'm buying a $5 baseball hat from a hot dog vendor on my way home from a Nationals game, but massage seems like it should be more intimate. We walked past quickly with our heads down -- the same thing you do in Washington when you see a 20-year-old on the sidewalk who's holding a clipboard and trying to make eye contact.
A trip to Melbourne was ahead, so we were in bed at the Pacific International before too late in the evening. It was sad that our vacation from our vacation was over, but that's the cruel reality of vacations from your vacation. The respite is temporary. The day after they end, you have to suck it up, store the memories away and get back to the ugly business of being on vacation.