A reef encounter with some wonders of nature

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 June, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 June, 1993, 12:00am

WAY up north in Australia's Sunshine State there is a remarkable 3,000-souls town called Port Douglas.

It is where the reef meets the rain-forest. Where elevating beer-drinking-Aussie-good-times to a ''savoir vivre'' with a natural difference is the locals' credo. Where they tell you to have breakfast with the birds and lunch with the fish.

Listen to a multitude of birds' voices, cascading water, foliage moving in a gentle breeze. Magic sounds of the rain-forest, a live symphony, not a New Age relaxation CD.

Its tranquilising effect on a new arrival is instant. In very low gear I stroll through a paradise of lush rain-forest plants, lakes and waterfalls. Some 65 species of rain-forest creatures fly free, live and breed under the sun-drenched canopy of the Rain-forest Habitat in Port Douglas (a world first in concept and Queensland Tourist Award winner).

I admire clouds of psychedelic butterflies, duck from screeching parrots darting over me in provocative low approach and watch delicate honey-eaters. Eye to upside-down eye I even find myself wishing good night to a flying fox dangling from a branch over the walkway.

Then popping champagne corks remind me why I am here. You don't have to be a bird-watcher and don't need to bring food.

Underneath lush greenery, a sumptuous buffet is laid out on a rustic wooden table. Khaki-clad waitresses serve champagne and coffee.

At the sanctuary, they do serve another type of breakfast consisting of larvae, worms and other wrigglies. Strictly from a separate kitchen, the waitress swears, and for two-legged customers of the feathery variety. Breakfast with the birds is a totally civilised affair.

The real thing, the spectacular World Heritage status rain-forest in the Daintree and cape Tribulation area, is only up the road but definitely deserves more time than a pre-breakfast wander.

But in Port Douglas, you simply don't rush and we did have lunch with the fish lined up.

The setting for it is the amazing Great Barrier Reef. The largest system of coral reefs in the world. Covering an area larger than Great Britain and about half the size of Texas.

It stretches for more than 2,000 kilometres along the Queensland coast and consists of more than 2,500 individual reefs and islands.

The range of people aboard is almost as dazzling as the kaleidoscope of creatures down below. Regardless of nationalities and age groups, everybody adjusts to sea breeze, azure skies and intensely turquoise ocean with total ease.

Within 90 minutes of leaving the Port Douglas marina we have reached the mooring platform on Agincourt reef, right on the edge of the continental shelf.

Within seconds of anchoring, I have taken the plunge with mask, snorkel and flippers. (So have dozens of others but there's plenty of ocean). Head down, we all bob along on the same wavelength.

Immersed in the biggest aquamarine ink pot imaginable, I'm gawking at what seems like a moving gallery of pre-school kids' drawings.

Hilariously marked clown trigger fish, beaked blue box fish and the dragon-like silvery puffer fish aren't vain, they are brightly coloured to warn predators of the toxins they can produce.

Swarms of tiny angelfish in brilliant shades of blue, green and yellow, arranged in spots, strips and bands are perhaps the most beautiful reef dwellers. An underwater fashion parade with vibrating colours and fantastic designs that have inspired countless dresses on-shore.

Angelfish aren't just beautiful, they are very territorial (but harmless) and even rush at intruding divers.

Giant turquoise and blue marked reef wrasses are a different kettle of fish. A particularly greedy one, a good three quarters of a metre long, shoots through when scraps arrive from the platform to lure fish in front of the underwater observatory.

Swarms of hungry fish working up to a feeding frenzy and unsuspecting snorkellers suddenly mix in a splash and a whirl, no doubt to the greatest amusement of the dry-feet crowd flattening their noses on the glass inside the observatory.

I turn around on my fins and swim off to a more tranquil part of the reef where a school of rainbow parrot fish is peacefully grazing over corals. Head down tail up they gently swing in the current.

Even more relaxed and completely synchronised is a school of junior barracuda. Some sort of underwater group dynamics, they almost form a solid mass of stationary bodies. Discoveries wherever you turn, a world of wonders.

There are some 360 different sorts of coral on Agincourt alone. Disk and leaf corals. Solid braincorals, hive coral. It's fun to make up your own names. The antlers of some deer . . . you guessed it, staghorn coral! It's a fantastic experience and good for the soul. Back on the platform a German tourist takes great delight in hand-feeding a giant reef wrasse with prawn shells from his lunch plate. The lifeguard cautions: ''Watch your fingers, he can't tell the difference.'' Welcome back to childhood. It happens to everyone. In the submarine, a semi-submersible boat, the cries of amazement of a little girl are no different from those of four grown-ups underwater for the first time.

The voice of the skipper reminds us of the real world. As we motor perilously close through a channel of two towering bomboras, solitary blocks of coral, he tells us how Captain Cook got shipwrecked not far from here.

At least good old James wasn't forced to look at the block of coral he was running into from a glass hull. Of course, we didn't collide with the bombora at all. Just the idea . . .

Having conquered fears of the deep, coming to grips with fear of flying is next. An optional extra, mind you. Who could possibly be afraid of a fairy-tale ride in a candy-coated bubble? Take off from a floating heli-pad in a bubblegum-pink chopper to buzz off into azure nirvana. It's mind-blowing and rounds off a perfect play-day in paradise.

For those who think they can't spare a day, there's always the magic rain-forest CD. Good news, there's one with ocean sounds, too.