Tour Review: Solar Whisper (Daintree River, Queensland, Australia)

If visiting the world heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest in Queensland, Australia, a riverboat tour is a must. With their solar-powered vessel, Solar Whisper offer the true eco-tour option. Even if not visiting the Daintree, their Facebook page is well worth a Like both for the amazing photography and to keep up to date on the “Days of the Daintree,” a tabloid-style narrative about the escapades of the river’s resident wildlife (particularly the crocodiles, many of whom are named after Royals).

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Up close and personal with Kate the crocodile

Having been on a Daintree river cruise with a different company 2 years ago, the absence of harsh engine noise was notable, and allowed one to actually hear the rainforest birdsong as we glided through the mangroves.

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I imagine the local wildlife prefers it as well, as we saw considerably more than on the other tour I went on, including 2 White-Lipped Treefrogs, a colony of threatened Spectacled Flying Foxes, several birds, and (despite being the low season for sightings) 2 crocodiles. None of the wildlife seemed perturbed by our presence.

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A sleepy White-Lipped Treefrog that just kept sleeping

David’s narrative was interesting, educational, and humorous all at once. It is obvious he is genuinely passionate about his work, and knowledgeable about the wildlife he is able to share with others through these tours.

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A “2016 model”, as David put it

Solar Whisper is notable in that they are bat-friendly, highlighting the importance of these threatened “lycra-clad teddy bears of the sky” (as their Facebook aptly describes them) to rainforest health, in a region that far too often demonises them.

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A python resting in a tree that also contained bats…

As a bonus, the man at the front desk, Martin, was extremely knowledgeable about Australia’s bird-life.  He provided some useful tips that helped me add a few new ones to my Life List.

All in all, Solar Whisper is a must-do.  Very highly recommended.

Travel Tips: The Backpacker (and how to avoid them)

Many species have been misrepresented over the years. The killer whale’s Latin name roughly means “Demon from the Depths of Hell”, and they were used as target practice until Moby Doll showed us otherwise. Wolves have been mercilessly hunted to extinction in some regions because they too were viewed as monsters. The thylacine was hunted to complete extinction on account of its alleged habit of eating chickens (even though this famous photo is believed by some to have been staged).

There is one subspecies I have personally lived among that I believe has an inaccurate reputation, and that is the backpacker. Often presented as an adventurous young person heroically traveling the world in search of new experiences, carrying only what they can put on their backs, backpackers are in fact noisy codependent alcoholics with short attention spans and little interest in anything that doesn’t satisfy their need to disturb everyone else around them.

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To the backpacker, sitting quietly engaging in any solo activity such as reading a book is seen as a cry for help. Backpackers cannot fathom why anyone would want to be by themselves, let alone be QUIET! I came to suspect that the reason they are so noisy is to alert other backpackers to their presence to ensure they do not accidentally find themselves alone.

More times than I can count, backpackers would hear of my adventures with an expression somewhere between awe and disbelief, replying with some variation of “Oooh, I would love to go there but I have nobody to go with!” Many did not seem to understand my words when I suggested they go by themselves. As such, many spent their entire time abroad in the hostel, never venturing further than the nearest source of food, usually a pub where other backpackers were sure to be found.

Why someone would pay thousands of dollars to travel overseas just so they can sit around getting drunk is beyond me.

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On those rare times the backpacker does venture forth to see the sights, they are incapable of enjoying anything that they can’t get drunk with, take a good selfie with, or build a fire in. Ancient rainforest? Great place to sing crappy pop songs at the top of their lungs (I guess it was too quiet). National park with spectacular cliffside formations? “What do you mean I can’t build a fire here? This is boring!” Beautiful waterfall? “Time to get naked and ruin its natural beauty for everyone else!”

MIllaa Millaa Falls, taken while on tour with On The Wallaby (NOT recommended -- review forthcoming)

MIllaa Millaa Falls, taken while on tour with On The Wallaby (NOT recommended — review forthcoming)

Case in point: a natural cave had been “enhanced” with steps and seating carved into the rock.  My friend pondered why, so I explained how backpackers can’t enjoy anything natural without the aforementioned conditions. With eerily perfect timing a large group of German backpackers carrying a portable barbecue and several coolers came noisily up the steps, announcing their presence to everyone within a 10km radius.

So if you plan on traveling on a budget, take heed! Pay the extra few dollars for a proper tour that you are confident is not aimed at backpackers (watch this blog for reviews!), especially if you hope to see some nature on it. Consider alternatives to the hostel scene, such as AirBNB. If you must stay in a hostel, check reviews on tripadvisor for ones that backpackers claim “lacks atmosphere” or “is full of old people”, and make sure there is not an attached pub or you’ll never have a second alone to pee or get a wink of sleep in preparation for your own adventures… which is just how the backpackers prefer it.

Tour Review: Dolphin Explorer

Official Tour Site

Where: Port Adelaide, South Australia
Cost: $8/adult, $6/child
Who is it for?: Hungry people, gawkers, children, anyone who is happy with a fleeting glimpse of a dolphin
Who is it not for?: Serious nature lovers and photographers.

Despite the abundance of dolphins in the Port River, including a population known to do “tricks”, there isn’t really anything available for whale or dolphin watching right out of Adelaide itself (although there are options further south at Victor Harbor), so the Dolphin Explorer pretty much has the local monopoly.  My expectations were low as locals had created the impression that it was more of a floating restaurant and/or party boat where seeing dolphins was incidental, but for a mere $8 I gave it a go anyway.

The scenery left something to be desired.

The scenery often left something to be desired.

Floating restaurant aside, the Dolphin Explorer is more of a river cruise than a wildlife tour.  Although you will most likely see cetaceans (a rarity among tours I have discovered — more on that in the future), the boat does not slow down or turn around when dolphins are sighted, so all you get are fleeting glimpses of the animals unless you’re lucky enough to be standing in one of the front corners should a dolphin decide to bow-ride (tip: stand in a front corner).

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The bird life was decent, with abundant cormorants (including the slightly less-common Black Faced Cormorant) and terns.

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The majority of people on the boat seemed satisfied with the tour, but as a serious nature lover and photographer I felt it could have been better.  Every other cetacean-watching tour I have been on had more maneuverable vessels that would at least slow down to better watch the animals in the unlikely event some actually showed up.  That said, for the price, the Dolphin Explorer does provide an affordable outing for everyone, especially families.  At least you actually see dolphins, so don’t write it off, but don’t go out of your way or expect too much either.

If you are a photographer: due to the nature of this tour, bring a very long telephoto.  I had my 80-400 and found myself wishing I had my 150-600 instead.

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UPDATE:  I went on several more tours, both with this operator and their competitor.  Ultimately, duds.  Dolphins were so far away only I made them out through my (this time) 600mm lens.  Most people were too busy stuffing their faces and drinking to care the one time one did come close.  Still do not recommend, unless you’re only there for the food.