We’ve been sailing the Great Barrier Reef for the past two days, with an 18-hour stop in Cairns (pronounced CANS) – the letters I & R silent. I always thought the Great Barrier Reef was an isolated reef but in actuality, the reef sprawls over 1,000 miles along the coast of Queensland. It is not a single entity, but rather more than 2,500 separate reefs with 30,000+ species. A special “reef pilot” has been sailing with us for obvious safety reasons, as the underwater landscape ebbs & flows in multiple directions. Water depth here is less than 100 feet. Another surprise for us – a large portion of the reef is bordered on either side by uninhabited islands, some quite tall – some of them a mere city block with a few trees - the scenery has been very beautiful. If I had to draw a comparison, it’s like sailing the intercoastal waterways of Alaska (with sprawling hills & mountains on both sides of the ship) but tropical in nature. So tropical in fact, that a few minutes outdoors and you’re dripping! We’re also in the middle of the cyclone season – it typically rains quite hard every 2-3 hours. After the rain, the sun comes out, heats the atmosphere, and the cycle repeats itself. We’ve enjoyed the rain, as well as the thunder & lightening – a real treat when you’re from Arizona! Cairns, Australia is a beautiful city/port on the northeastern coast. Population is approximately 150,000 – I would compare the city to West Palm Beach or Ft. Lauderdale, without tall buildings. Another difference - flat as a pancake, with tall, lush mountains behind. The Foreshore Promenade is built on pilings above the shoreside mud flats, & the boardwalk is lined with restaurants & hotels. There’s one large casino in the center of town. The city is extremely clean & well-cared for. The people – AGAIN - absolutely fantastic! We’ve yet to meet anyone in Australia who was less than cordial – we love it! There are several points of interest in Cairns, including the Wildlife Noctarium and the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary. Many local artists play didgeridoo’s…and yes, I had to buy one! It’s small enough to pack in a large suitcase, and I look forward to learning how to play it once home. They say it takes a lot more power than bagpipes – will be fun just trying, even if I don’t get the hang of it. Son Chris will probably pick it up and play immediately! There are numerous beaches in Cairns, but all totally void of people between January & April. The “box jellyfish” prevail during this time period – their bodies are the size of a fist with tentacles between 10 & 20 feet. We were warned they can kill between 2 – 7 minutes after being stung. The local residents are highly respectful of these creatures as several lives are lost each year. Apparently, those who commit suicide use the Box Jellyfish instead of a gun – far less intrusive but still relatively quick. When near the ocean, we were obviously VERY careful everyplace we walked, and during our sail-in you could see them floating on the top of the water. To compensate, the city has built a huge swimming pool adjacent to the beach, free to the public 24-hours/day, & it was packed with both locals & tourists. We passed the reef where Steve Irwin lost his life – you recall he was speared by a large stingray. The reef was pointed out just offshore from our ship. People in Cairns still speak very fondly of Steve as he frequented the area for many years doing research projects. We spent the majority of our day about 60 miles north of Cairns at a crocodile& wildlife preserve, just outside Port Douglas - another small, yet very modern community. On our way to & from Port Douglas, we saw hundreds of wild kangaroos roaming the pastures, as free as cattle roam back home – incredible sight! We attended a crocodile “feeding” – the menu consisted of whole chickens – they don’t chew but rather inhale them! Koalas were at the preserve as well, & Cheryl and I were able to cuddle one little guy and have our picture taken. They sleep 23 hours each day, so we were fortunate to be at the park during their waking hour. To limit the stress on the Koalas & provide enough time for them to eat, the government allows human handling of them only 30 minutes per day. The rangers are required to keep a checklist on each Koala so the time can be monitored & recorded. On our way back to the ship, our tour guide pointed out a grouping of large trees located in the center of Cairns (city square) – suspended from trees were what appeared to be large clumps of fruit but in reality, they were bats – HUGE bats! Apparently, they spend their day sleeping at city square and at sunset, they instinctively take-off to feed all night. We were advised to return at sunset to witness the spectacle…and we did. Now…we’ve all seen a large flock of birds flying before, and that’s what we expected. We arrived back at city square just before sunset, about 6 blocks from the ship. We decided to take an umbrella as the skys were once again threatening with heavy rain – & sure enough, it came down in sheets! We were totally soaked despite the umbrella but it didn’t bother us – it actually felt very nice. We saw one bat take off from the trees and begin circling…then two, three – suddenly the trees just exploded with high-pitched squeals and the sky was black with bats – thousands of them!!! Again, these were HUGE bats with wingspans of 2 -3 feet – it was like something you’d see out of Gotham City in a Batman movie – unreal!! Cheryl wanted a closer look, so we walked across the street. The bats were then directly overhead and even though the rained had stopped, I kept my large umbrella open to protect my head – it didn’t bother Cheryl! She was preoccupied taking pictures, though it was nearly dark by then. We emerged from city square on the opposite side of the street – I folded my umbrella thinking we were out of range from any danger when suddenly, I felt several large “raindrops” on my blue shirt – or so I thought. These weren’t raindrops at all – YOU GUESSED - it was bat crap!! Of all the people surrounding city square, it had to be me! I immediately found the nearest gutter in the street filled with water and began washing my hands & rinsing the shirt as we still had shopping to do that evening. As clean as I could manage, we then went to the local supermarket to pick up some toiletries. We ran into several fellow passengers who, of course, had to ask…”what happened to you?” It was a good laugh for everyone, but my priority was to return to the ship and get in the shower! What wonderful memories we will have of Australia – particularly, the genuinely kind, caring people. I so wish I could say the same for my country, but I honestly cannot. The residents of Australia, for reasons unknown to me at the moment, have a much greater respect for each other, their environment, and their country than certainly any place I’ve visited. So now we sail to Indonesia, the first stop 2,000 miles to our northwest…Komodo Island, & the dragons! Weather forecast for the next few days at sea is good – rainy, but relatively calm. Komodo Island is reportedly quite hot – we’ve been told to take ice packs with us to stay cool – that there is very little commercial development – that the island belongs to the dragons who run loose, & that you must be part of an organized tour & accompanied by armed guards everyplace you go for protection. Very much looking forward to this experience!! I’m just glad to hear they don’t fly!