It’s the great escape

Joe Dermody visits Cairns, Brisbane and Port Douglas on an adventure holiday in Tropical North Queensland, Australia

As a novice, you are tightly harnessed to an experienced skydiver who is bolted to your back, without room to squeeze so much as a credit card between the two of you.

THERESA raised her gaze from the floor, then briefly shot me one heavenly glance from her world-weary yet enduringly innocent eyes as she placed her warm hand on my shoulder.

For me, it was love at first sight. For Theresa, I’ll never know. My Australian tour of Brisbane, Cairns and Port Douglas in Tropical North Queensland, Australia, was ending that day. Shortly I would be flying home to tell my wife that on my solo journey I had fallen in love ... with a Koala.

A visit to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary is a must on any visit to Brisbane. Getting to hug Theresa is a privilege I will never forget. The sanctuary is also a great family day trip, with petting access to kangaroos, wallabies and farm animals, and with easy viewing of crocodiles, dingos, Tasmanian devils and a fantastic Collie who herds sheep at scheduled intervals.

All that said, for me this magical mid-life tour was all about the packed roster of adventure activities. I can heartily recommend every single activity, regardless of your age, health or phobias.

My biggest fear was the sky dive in Cairns. I have a fear of heights. The sky dive was to come on day three.

First up at 6am on day one was the hot air ballooning trip overlooking the breath-taking Atherton Tablelands. Our pilot, Steve of Raging Thunder Adventures, was a mine of information on the wind-blown nature of hot air ballooning, the flora and fauna of the Tablelands, the early morning kangaroos and the rich mango farms.

Afterwards, as we ate breakfast back at Raging Thunder’s ranch-style base at Portsmith, we also learned of the history of the nearby ghost town of Mulligan Heights, where 60 men died in the collapse of a tin mine, consigning the town to history.

I equally enjoyed my first ride on a horse with Blazing Saddles in Cairns. Our group’s guide, Brett “Sunny” Sundell, got us from a novice standing start to negotiating our way through a wetland forest trail, complete with reversing out of a cul de sac in a creek, with water up to our knees, all without dismounting.

It was exhilarating. Within minutes of mounting, we found ourselves in full City Slicker mode, empowered, all thoughts of snakes and nasty bugs a distant memory.

The hot air ballooning and rainforest horse trek had bolstered my courage for the sky dive. In fact, I was barely giving a thought to the white water raft run in the Barron River rapids, with a group of six novices in a rubber dinghy.

This wasn’t quite as I’d anticipated. Having watched Meryl Streep in The River Wild, I was expecting a solid boat. It was a rubber dinghy. As a rafting novice, I thought my role would be to mind the dog, keep the sandwiches dry and pay heed to gun-toting Kevin Bacon’s every word.

Instead, it was a thrill-ride of a lifetime. At certain junctures, the rubber dinghy crashed into what seemed like eight-feet dips as we descended the river at breakneck speed. Never previously even having held an oar in my life, I was surprisingly calm.

Too calm, perhaps. As we plunged over one particularly deep gully, the River Barron decided to fold the dinghy in two as if the craft was a pancake it was preparing to consume for breakfast.

Despite having my lower lip split open by the helmet of the oarsman in front, I managed to stay in the boat. At the next rapid, I even retrieved one team member who was on the verge of falling in.

And yet, still looming on the schedule was the sky dive. Personally, I am a coward when it comes to danger, and doubly so when it comes to heights. Going on this adventure tour of Oz was all about confronting personal demons.

Then came morning No 3, the sky dive. Out of bed again at 7am. Fear? Tick. Existential anguish? Tick. Regrets? Eh, yes, I’ve had a few. Tick. Thoughts like “In the name of Jesus, what was I thinking when I said yes to a sky dive?” Tick. Tick. Tick. You tick eejit.

I turn 45 next month. Secretly, I had been hoping someone else would stop me doing the sky dive. Nobody did. As I sat in the waiting lounge of the Australian Skydive Company in Cairns I asked the safety expert if I should withdraw on grounds of age or fitness (or the unstated truth, cowardice). She told me that an 86-year-old woman had jumped the previous week. So too had an amputee. No problem. And no excuses.

We got on the plane and soared to 14,000ft, the jump height. As luck would have it, my American friend was to be first out of the plane. I was second. When you’re on board this tiny plane, there is so little space there’s just no backing out. There really is nowhere to go but out the jump hatch.

As a novice, you are tightly harnessed to an experienced skydiver who is bolted to your back, without room to squeeze so much as a credit card between the two of you We had reached 14,000ft. The American was in front of me one moment, then he was gone. In two seconds, he and his bolt-on guide had shrunk to a distant black dot. I was next. Oh Jesus. A mild shove from my bolt-on expert and the dive had finally begun. It was about 3.30pm now, and we’d been up since 7am. We were one of six groups diving that day, plus you have to wait for any rain clouds to disappear.

Why? You freefall the first 4,000ft in 60 seconds. Freefalling through rain clouds would probably be like being power-hosed by French military police at a farmer protest.

The 60-second freefall was incredible, a lifetime of fears melted away, ceding the space to a future of endless possibilities. The next 10,000ft was the pay-off, a bird’s eye view of the amazing natural wonders of Tropical North Queensland.

These included the Great Barrier Reef (where we would scuba-dive the next day), the wonderful Daintree National Park (over which we would “jungle surf” on harnesses), the Barron River Gorge National Park (which we viewed from on high in the ‘Sky Rail’), the idyllic peninsula at Port Douglas and so much more.

Queensland is home to rainforests and endless natural wonders, constantly the subject of awe-struck travelogs. It has incredible activities, food, hotels and entertainment for every type of tourist from families to backpackers.

For me this trip was all about the incredible adrenaline rush of an adventure break I wish that I had the chance to enjoy in my twenties.

Back in Brisbane I also enjoyed river kayaking, a harnessed walk above the girdings of the Story Bridge, and my all-too-brief embrace with Theresa, a fitting conclusion to a heavenly holiday.

HOW TO GET THERE

Flights

Emirates flies twice daily from Manchester to Brisbane via Dubai, with connections from Dublin or Cork. Return economy class fares from Cork start from €1,315. For information and reservations see a travel agent or call Emirates: 00 44 844 800 2777.

You can fly with Quantas from Brisbane to Cairns; and a choice of coaches services to Port Douglas.

Where to stay

In Cairns, a night in the Novotel Cairns Oasis Resort will cost you €106, complete with outdoor pool and al fresco dining (novotelcairnsresort.com.au). In Brisbane, the Oaks Festival Towers (theoaksgroup.com.au) is €107. In Port Douglas, A night in the luxurious Peninsula Hotel (peninsulahotel.com.au) starts at €223. All prices quoted are for June single nights; log on for multi-night offers and any special deals that may be on offer.

WHAT TO SEE

What to do and see

Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, Brisbane (www.koala.net), great for family outings. For an insight into authentic aboriginal culture, see Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park (tjapukai.com.au). For hot air ballooning and Barron River white water rafting contact Raging Thunder (ragingthunder.com.au). Try ATV Ride (quad biking) or Horse Riding with Blazing Saddles (www.blazingsaddles.com.au). For sky diving in Cairns, Australian Skydive Company (australianskydivecompany.com.au). Also worth a trip is Daintree Discovery Centre (daintree-rec.com.au), an interpretive facility.

The food

In Brisbane, try Vapiano’s Italian Restaurant (vapiano.com.au). In Cairns, Salthouse Bar and Restaurant (salthouse.com.au). In the rainforest village of Kuranda, visit Frogs Restaurant (frogsrestaurant.com.au). In Port Douglas, try the Peninsula Hotel (peninsulahotel.com.au).

- For a video of this travel piece, see: http://irishexaminer.com/weekend/travel/ Or just: http://exa.mn/8

Picture: Joe Dermody with Theresa the Koala at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, Brisbane, Australia.

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