Sporting Life

 

Golfing Where the Rainforest Meets the Reef
By Toby Saltzman

Golfing in Port Douglas where
the rainforest meets the reef.

The Australian rainforest dawns in full glory. Steamy green and fragrant. The first rays of light stir the birds and beast into an exhilarating crescendo of chirps, cackles, buzzes, screeches, and percussive quacks.

Standing on the 10th tee at the Sheraton Mirage Golf Course in Tropical North Queensland, I'm intoxicated by a world drenched in emerald green, framed by misty black mountains in the distance, thick rainforest on the right, tall gum trees fringing ocean reefs on the left, and a rainbow arching above. A trio of bright larakeets flits precariously low over a crocodile sunbathing in a nearby billabong - that's Aussie for "pond". The hysterical cackle of a kookaburra snaps me back to reality.

Hit a ball into the estuarine river
and it's lost to the crocodiles.
Teeing off here is anything but a mirage. This course and its surrounding rainforest are the closest mainland point to the Great Barrier Reef. It may not be the country's most challenging course, but it reflects Australia's pristine environment, the only place on the planet where rare and diverse ecosystems meet: the Daintree / Cape Tribulation Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. Both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Playing here is the ultimate eco-golfing experience Down Under. For those with little time to explore, golfing here offers a fine chance to see Australia's primeval nature.

Mangrove marshes in the estuarine river
provide rich nutrients for birds and fish.

The raves begin with my arrival in Sydney, which proves as stunning as its reputation. The sophisticated harbor city known for its Opera House, galleries, eateries, and lively historic "Rocks" quarter, is inviting with its friendly locals. But once I wander in the glassy pavilions of Sydney's Botanical Garden, among incredibly ancient and exotic plant species, I know I must venture farther into this fragile rim of the world where the rainforest thrives alongside the reef.

After hopping an early flight north to Cairns, a limo whisks me up to Port Douglas. The century-old harbor-cum-gateway to Tropical North Queensland is a busy hub for rainforest safaris, sailing and diving excursions to the reef. The Sheraton Mirage Resort turns out to be a grand complex of low-rise units clustered around man-made lagoons and gardens teeming with rainforest flora and birds. After checking out my suite, complete with balcony, cushy furnishings and whirlpool, I call Michael Evans, the golf pro.

The luxurious Sheraton Mirage Resort
is a grand complex of low-rise units
overlooking a man-made lagoon.

"Let's tee off at dawn. You'll love it," he says. "Dawn?"
After dashing about Sydney, barely sleeping, jet-lag has set in. Never mind. A cool swim and decadent room service on my balcony overlooking the lagoon lulls me into slumber before the 7:00 a.m. tee-off on the 10th tee.

"The back nine is best at dawn. Birds fly out early. When it heats up, they duck under cool mangroves in the river," says Michael.

Huge fan palms fringe the edge
of the golf course fairway.

Just then a crocodile slithers his head out of the billabong and yawns. Instead of saying what I feel - he'd make gorgeous boots or a bag - I ask, "Is he dangerous?" "Hasn't gobbled a golfer yet. Just don't chase balls in his water. Salties - like this estuarine or salt-water marsh croc - eat people. Freshies - fresh-water crocs - eat fish." Enough said.

Aiming for the mountains, I drive my ball straight down the fairway, avoiding bunkers on the left and Saltie on the right. This par-5 ends in a fairly flat, slippery green. In the cart, Mike describes this course, designed by five-times British Open champion, Peter Thomson and his partner, Mike Wolveridge. The front "reef nine" overlooks the Coral Sea, while the back "mountain nine" takes in the mountains and rainforest.

From Cape Tribulation, visitors have a view
of the rainforest meeting the ocean reef.

"It's great for all levels. Ladies' holes are teed 30 to 70 meters shorter than the men's. Unless you hook or slice, chances are you'll play the fairways. But test the wind on every hole. And lay up shots to play smart.

"People love this resort for the nature, wildlife. The big boys of the touring pros stay here - Curtis Strange, Greg Norman, Jack Nicklaus," he says, adding a celebrity list that includes US President Clinton, Jimmy Connors the tennis champ, and producer George Stevens, who stayed here with Woody Harrelson, Sean Penn, George Cluny and Nick Nolte while filming The Thin Red Line. "They couldn't get enough of this course at dawn."

Hitch-hiking a ride on the roof
of our van in the rainforest.

The 11th is a dog leg left, while the 12th is dubbed "the beach hole" with one of the world's longest bunkers running 121 meters down the left side of the fairway. The 13th intimidates, yet thrills, with a tee-off over water onto an island green. On the 14th, a long par-5, a deceptive wind yanks my ball into trouble.

Now for a divine Australian hole with quintessential rainforest scenery and strategy dilemma. The 15th, a par-3, has water, crossed by a wooden bridge, circling an island green. Hit a short right, your ball drowns. Hook left, you're buried in rough behind coconut palms. Overshoot the green, you're in mangrove marsh. And ignore the birds - black and white magpie mudlarks, feathery plumed cockatoos, and rainbow larakeets defy concentration in this mini version of Daintree's landscape.

Aboriginal drawings found on
stone in the rainforest.

More distractions. The 16th is the longest hole on the course, fringed with fat clusters of pompom grass, but it gives women a tee advantage past water, but a daunting river around the green on the left.

The 17th is the toughest hole. I aim for distant pandanus palms, over high mangroves to a hidden narrow fairway pitched between mangroves on the left and water on the right. On the 18th, a par three, looks are deceiving. The green is entirely cloistered by fluffy bunkers. The front nine is less overwhelming than the back and certainly lighter on my score.

Early the next morning, I join Reinald, a ranger, in a sturdy four-wheel drive on an expedition north to Daintree, the world's oldest rainforest, at 120 million years. Looking up, we trace the split personality of the sky. On our right, bright sunshine illuminates the ocean. On our left, dark clouds cushion the mountains. "That's the usual scene," says Reinald, decked out in an Akubra hat and safari gear. "We never say winter or summer. We say wet season or dry. With 200 inches (500 cm) of rain a year, it's always cloudy over the mountains."

Brilliant larakeet

Ribboned with rivers and sandy beaches, Tropical North Queensland during the summer, we learn, has a come-hither seduction fraught with deadly traps. Killer jellyfish stingers hover in the surf while crocodiles lurch in the shadows of riverside marshes.

Miles later, while rolling through densely shaded wilderness on rugged trails, Reinald shouts: "Hang on to your seats!" We hit a wild, roller-coaster course, climbing ochre hills, rounding steep cliffs, slicing through exotic brush, bouncing over rocky streams. Stopping on a high mountain lookout to view the distant reef in the ocean below, we taste the sweet rain-forest air: rich, fresh and moist.

Hayman Island boasts one of the
world's biggest swimming pools.

We follow the enchanting Maardja Walk and marvel at a ribbonwood tree, the earth's most primitive flowering species. A spectacular menagerie of rare, towering mangroves thrives in the secret seclusion of glassy, estuarine streams. At Daintree River, we duck into a flat-bottomed skiff to cruise an ancient mangrove forest that hugs the sea's edge. Daintree river is the most biologically diverse river in the world, with 200 species of fish, 70 species of crustaceans, 30 species of mangroves.

Lizard Island -- famed for snorkeling,
scuba diving, and gourmet cuisine -- caters
to royalty and international celebrities.
While learning how mangroves seed and form aerial roots in muddy, saline waters, nature's spell is snapped by the slap of a crocodile's tail. "Fingers out of the water!" shouts Reinald. No one needs to ask why.

Later on, while we are picnicking, I spot aboriginal paintings on two rocks and a tree. I'm twisting king prawns from their shells when, from the bush, emerge two dogs and a man. He's Jackie Bill, an aborigine from Oodja-Oodja village who is going fishing in the falls.

Smitten with rain forest euphoria, we go "troppo", as the Aussies say. Throwing caution to the crocodiles, we jump fully-clothed into the foamy river. On the way back, we stop at the Daintree Ice Cream Co., a shack in a clearing, for scrumptious madacamia nut-wattleseed ice cream. Then I move on for a couple of days at Silky Oaks. An intimate resort of wooden chalets, it's tucked into the lush foliage edging Mossman Gorge, a World Heritage site near Daintree.At this unique resort, where food and wine is sublime, nature reigns. The resident naturalist guides a bush-walk through the gorge. Shaded by towering trees with buttressed trunks, it's a haven for rare lizards and platypus.

An aboriginal Australian
plays the didgeridoo.

At dawn, I fly off to Hayman Island. The play of light on the waves below is mesmerizing. Kaleidoscopic hues of turquoise and aquamarine fire a lacy underwater tapestry that fringes the coast as far as I can see. This is the Great Barrier Reef, the earth's largest living entity and the only living feature visible from the moon. A spectacular maze of coral reefs and islands stretching 2,000 kilometers along the continental shelf of Queensland's coast, it biologically supports the most diverse ecosystem.

Right on the reef, Hayman Island is one of the world's dreamiest resorts. Besides swimming in it's mammoth pool and tasting exquisite food, I learn to putt on thick grass, and to play "Hayman golf" on the ocean floor at low tide. One morning, I'm loading my underwater camera for a snorkeling expedition when the captain says: "As we say here in Oz: if you get out to the reef, you've got a lucky 'one off' day." Indeed. No photos can duplicate the beauty of the reefs. You must see it to believe it.

The Tjapukai dancers play
didgeridoos, perform ritual dances
and rub twigs into flames.

A couple of days later I fly to Lizard Island. The word "sensational" barely describes this secluded, scrubby isle overrun with harmless lizards, where a single resort of verandahed cottages attracts international royalty and celebrities. Divers love its waters, deemed the best in the world with 100-ft clarity, and it accesses a World Heritage site called "Cod Hole", inhabited by giant black and white spotted groupers called "potato cods", and a myriad of rare sea life.

Back in Cairns, I watch spellbound as Australia's indigenous Tjapukai entertainers play didgeridoos, perform ritual dances and rub twigs into flames. Between golfing in and exploring the coast where the rainforest meets the reef, I figure I've had a lucky "one off trip".

Details:
Packing Tips for Tropical North Queensland: take light layers of clothes, waterproof top, long pants, sturdy hiking shoes, snorkelling gear, waterproof camera. Most golf clubs offer rentals. The sun is powerful: wear sunglasses, sunscreen and cap. Rainforest insects can be voracious: wear insect repellent.
Australia Tourist Commission: 1-800-DOWN UNDER
Website: www.australia.com

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