Therefore, after checking and cross checking the road conditions to Townsville I booked accommodation there. The room in Cloncurry had been comfortable, but, in all these small towns the accommodation is over-priced – a matter of supply and demand, I presume. As the reception of the hotel wasn’t yet open I decided to leave the key in the room. As I got out of the room I was greeted by that omnipresent Australian, the fly! They are everywhere; it is said that flies are present wherever there is rotten stuff – it was either the country or me! I recalled the chat I had with the young Manager of the hotel. I shared with him my observation that an overwhelming number of Australians are left handed. Very quick was his response - it is because the right hand is busy with thwacking flies!!
The fuel station in Cloncurry was overflowing with cars and people, out for the long weekend. Boats of all shapes and sizes, cycles, pets and giggling children signaled the holiday mood. And there was a fair bit of traffic heading in the direction of Townsville, and that further settled my mind about the road condition. There are markers on the road side at intermittent intervals indicating if the road ahead is clear or otherwise. I drove 400 km through in one stretch to Hughendon. It was a pleasant drive with greenery all around and small hills. The early settlers in Queensland came here for farming. I understand that people from Punjab own vast tracts of land in Queensland, which they use for farming.
Yesterday I had reserved my hotel in Townsville through booking.com, where I had specifically requested for free parking. Very soon I had a call from the hotel mentioning that the hotel parking slots are charged at AUD 10 per night, but free parking slots are available in places nearby to the hotel after 5 pm. The lady chuckled when I asked her if overnight street parking is safe. I didn’t understand what that chuckle meant, but was reassured when she said, “See you tomorrow”.
In the short time that I would be in the city I had to be choosy about what to do. One of the must do things that kept popping up in the searches for Townsville is a visit to the Reef HQ. The timing of the center suited me fine as it would be open up to 5 pm, which meant that I would be eligible for free street parking after that. I reached the Reef HQ at a half past 3 and took the AUD 28 ticket. The lady at the counter asked me if I am eligible for any concession. I told her that I am not as old as I look, to which her repartee was, “I wanted to know if you have a Student Concession”!
The Reef HQ is a fantastic effort. I understood that it was the vision and effort of one man, Dr Greame Kelleher the former Chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, whose primary objective was to bring the wonderful marine life on to land, make it more visible to a larger number and sensitise people about the ecosystem. The center was opened in 1987 and is the largest living coral reef aquarium anywhere in the world. The humongous aquarium holds 2.5 lakh liters of water and has over 130 coral species and 120 fish species. A pneumatic wave machine creates water motion inside the aquarium and much of it is open to the outside weather, thereby receiving sunlight, moonlight, precipitation just like the normal coral reefs do. I was absolutely bowled over. The beautiful colors of the fish, living corals and anemones kept me captivated. Large groupers, sharks, tiny fish – all lived together in harmony; something that humans are unable to manage. We have a lot to learn from these environments. Poignant messages were everywhere about global warming and what it did to the reefs.
The Madison Plaza Hotel is almost in the heart of the city; just a km away from the Reef HQ. A young girl was at the reception. Once the formalities were completed I asked her where free parking could be found. She pointed to a few streets nearby as well as the police station opposite the hotel. When this was going on a lady, who apparently worked in the hotel, came over and told me that she has parked her car on the same street as the hotel and said that she was vacating that right then. I reversed the car and occupied that slot. That was so very convenient; the slot was opposite the police station and hopefully the officers will keep watch!
The room was very comfortable and I settled in quickly. Once all that was taken care of and the sun had gone down a bit I ventured out for a short walk. The streets were deserted. Edwin and Shyju had told me in Darwin that even restaurants and bars would be closed in Australia on Good Friday. They hastened to add that it had nothing to do with religion; it was just that they chilled out for the busy weekend ahead. That was absolutely true. I hardly saw ten people in the one hour walk and most of them were in an Indian restaurant, “The Jewel of India”, which was one of the few restaurants open in the city. I walked down the main street, Flinders St – name is everywhere – where a few buildings that dated back to the second half of the 19th century were in excellent state of preservation. The Marina was gorgeous; the city’s skyline and the mountain in the background gives the place a postcard appearance. The Strand is another feature of the city, which affords good views of the Port and the Magnetic Island.
Back in the room I was only on to one thing - plan for the next day. Mercifully, I found that the road closure on Bruce Highway had been lifted. This meant that I had only 350 km to Cairns; the diversion would have meant over 300 km. I also got a got deal in Caravella Backpackers located in the Esplanade of the city. After all the work was done I ‘feasted’ on baked beans and croissant and washed it down with a can of Bundaberg Rum and Cola. Just a few days more for the expedition to end in Sydney on 5th of April.