Cairns has a dirty secret – it faces a bay of mud. A disappointment for some visitors, this is a major attraction for many others, writes Bridget Martin
"There’s no beach!" It’s a common complaint by tourists on their first visit to Cairns, in Far North Queensland. "It’s all mud!"
Aerial photos, taken at high tide and used widely to publicise the city in tourist brochures show a town facing the sea and an arc of what looks like sand. Expectations, honed by visits to the likes of Miami or the Gold Coast, automatically interpret – a beach.
In fact, beyond a narrow sandy fringe, Trinity Bay is all mud.
But then there are the thousands of visitors who come to Cairns specifically for the mud.
Admittedly the majority are feathered visitors - migratory wading birds for whom the mud flats of Trinity Bay are a welcome stop on their extraordinary journeys. After breeding in the far north of the northern hemisphere – Siberia, northern China and Alaska – they flee before the approach of the northern winter, flying up to 12,000 self-fuelled kilometres in order to experience a life of perpetual summer.
Godwits and whimbrels, tattlers and turnstones, sandpipers and knots, they arrive in Cairns between September and November. Some keep going, making their way to more southerly feeding grounds but many stay put on the mud flats until March.
And what attracts the birds also attracts the bird-watchers.
"It’s wonderful," enthused a visiting Irishman, his binoculars trained on the muddy expanse. "We are just a couple of kilometres from an international airport, a stone’s throw from a major city and … there is all this!"
Noticing his seriously large binoculars, I had stopped to point out a beach stone-curlew, chasing a crab over the mud. Knowing it to be an endangered (resident) bird – there are thought to be just a few thousand left – I wanted to make sure he didn’t miss it. However, he had already spotted it and was beside himself with delight.
"I’ve been looking for these all up the coast," he said. "I’ve been wandering around on beaches at night because they are supposed to be nocturnal, they are supposed to be shy – and here is one, right out there, in broad daylight!"
Bird-watchers know about the Cairns Esplanade. They appear in flocks, pairs or as individuals, with sturdy binoculars and massive telescopes on tripods trained on the mud. It is the easiest place in Australia to watch waders. At high tide the birds are corralled by the water towards the shoreline. What could be easier than to settle down on a bench, under a tree, train your binoculars on the clustered flocks and tick them off in the bird book?
Nonetheless, wading birds are not everyone’s cup of tea. Their non-breeding plumage, reserved for their southern holiday destinations, is almost uniformly brown and they are notoriously difficult to identify.
But there are birds on the Esplanade for all tastes. A group of pelicans, present for most of the year, steals the show with a bit of synchronised fishing at high tide. Cruising forward as a flotilla, the birds suddenly, in unison, plunge their enormous bills into the water, trapping confused prey. At low tide they gather on the mud, throwing back their heads and rattling the extraordinary pink flesh of their bills.
Back on the grassy foreshore, flocks of rainbow lorikeets stop the tourists in their tracks as they flock, screeching, arguing and chattering. Even those with a complete lack of interest in birds are dazzled by the gaudy colours and sheer quantity of these parrots.
Rainbow lorikeets have their devotees in the bird world too. For two years running, a pair of peregrine falcons with an eye for a view has nested on the window ledge of the $1000-a-night penthouse suite on the 11th floor of the nearby Matson Resort. Dinner for both parents and chicks is just a swoop away, as evidenced by the mounds of rainbow-coloured feathers on a nearby ledge.
Debate periodically rages about the Esplanade beach. Older residents swear there was a beach there in their youth but the sand, which they remember, disappeared under grass when the foreshore parkland was extended.
Even then, it was just a strip, one of a series of parallel sand ridges built up by wind and waves over the last 4,000 years or so on top of a muddy substrate. Interspersed with swamps, it was on these ridges that the streets of Cairns were built.
Eager to provide for tourist expectations, the Cairns City Council periodically arranges for truckloads of sand to be deposited on the shoreline giving the impression, at least at high tide, that there is a beach.Eager to provide for tourist expectations, the Cairns City Council periodically arranges for truckloads of sand to be deposited on the shoreline giving the impression, at least at high tide, that there is a beach.
Even the mudflats themselves are manipulated; council workers remove the mangrove seedlings which establish themselves on the mud. Otherwise nature would take over and a mangrove forest would obscure views of sea – and all that marvellous mud.
IF YOU GO
Qantas and Virgin fly into Cairns. The city centre and Esplanade are a 15-minute drive from the airport.
The Esplanade runs from the centre of the city north for 2.4km. The term refers to both the road running parallel to the sea and to the grassy foreshore with its walking/cycle track. At the southern end, there is a sandy, swimming lagoon with free entry, an amphitheatre and boardwalk. There are also picnic tables, public barbecues, playgrounds, a skateboard ramp, tennis courts and, in front of the hospital, a favourite kite-flying venue.
The best bird-watching area is opposite the end of Florence St to opposite Minnie St. Best time is before high tide. October is one of the best months.
There are several good beaches to the north. Hop on a Sunbus at the terminus on Lake St, next to the City Place. Ellis Beach is the furthest, but the most natural of the beaches, backed by forested slopes.
© S. B. Martin. All rights reserved.