Queensland – Cairns

Now this is starting to feel like a travel journal! It seems like years ago that I was wading through the snow in Tasmania as I sit beachside in Far North Queensland.
After drying out back in Melbourne from my jaunt to Tasmania I flew north to Cairns, tourist and adventure mecca of Far North Queensland for a dose of the tropics before I leave Australia.

Cairns is a great town to visit although the locals must tire of the transient nature of the hoards of backpackers and better heeled tourists that pack its streets, cafes and bars. Still the energy is high and my own stay there was a highlight of my travels in Australia.

On arriving I checked in at Hostel 89 right on the humming Eslpande and spent a couple of days roaming the streets and trying to absorb the myriad of tours and cafes to sample. A Swiss traveller Johann befriended me and together we took in some great Cairns bar culture including the not-to-be missed Toad Races at Johnnos Blues Bar. We took our hangovers over to Green Island for an afternoon of snorkelling along with what felt like the entire population of a small Japanese city. Despite the overly-commercial nature of the island once in the water it gave a taste of what the Great Barrier Reef is like and I made up my mind to try diving while I was staying in Cairns.

Returning to Cairns we were treated to the opening performances of Festival Cairns a three week performing arts festival that was an excellent addition to my stay here.

I booked a dive course through the hostel reception desk (a move that cut $5 a night off my stays there) and made plans to take the scenic and historic train ride up to the jungle hamlet of Kuranda in the hills above Cairns. There was double motivation for visiting Kuranda, not only is the train ride fantastic even if, like me you don’t usually go for the tourist trap type tours, but there was also a day long reggae festival in a stunning jungle venue ‘the Ampitheatre’.

I shouldn’t rush through the train ride too quick because it was pretty cool. The p.a. along with the historical photographs and brochures on the train give a good overview of the hardship endured by the crews of labourers that spent four long years hewing a short 30-something kilometre length of track switchbacking up the hillside to gain the Atherton Tableland plateau and put Cairns on the map. There are a number of tunnels and lookouts along the way including a spectacluar view over the Barron River Gorge and falls.

Once in Kuranda I checked in at the hostel and wandered over to the Ampitheatre for an awesome day of rockin’ reggae. The music was wicked! even the interval music kept people dancing through the whole day. The only thing wrong was that it had to end all too early.

Still that made the next day easy to handle and I took the SkyRail back down to sea level. The SkyRail is a treetop gondola that parallels th etrain ride over the rainforest. There are a couple of stops enroute allowing you chances to wander the carefully manicured boardwalk trails and read more about the lush forest.

The views of the forest and back in to the Tablelands are better than the train ride but the atmosphere a little less characterful I thought. A real tourist trap if ever there was one, complete with souvenir photos etc.. anyway glad I did it for the perspective on the jungle.

Great Barrier Reef
All the literature in Cairns estolls the virtues of the Great Barrier Reef and there are hundreds of signs and brochures beckoning with cheap day trips, introductory dives, snorkelling, live aboard trips, dive courses and on and on. Having never dived before but being sure that once bitten I would be certain to pursue it I opted for a 5 day Open Water Dive course with one of the bigger companies in town, Pro-Dive.
The first day arrived and I was duly picked up at the appointed time by a smartly turned out instructor and along with a crew of prospective dive-wannabees bused over to the training facility. 2 days of instruction, classroom time, pool time, videos, quizzes and even an exam and we were ready for the best part 3 days on a live aboard boat out on the reef itself.

An early morning pick up and we were out of Cairns harbour by 8 am bound for the reef. We were treated to a sighting of two humpback whales on the way out, an auspicious omen.

Soon we were moored at the first dive site and were briefed on handling our gear for the duration of the trip before suiting up and getting in the water for our first open water training dive. If you haven’t ever dived before there are some exercises which give you a bit to think about like removing and replacing your mask underwater and doing a C.E.S.A. (controlled emergency surface ascent) but none of it is too scary and you realize that you’re very unlikely to ever need most of the emergency procedures if you dive carefully and stay well within your limits.

After the first dive I knew I was hooked! There is just so much to see and I was unbelievably lucky to find a used underwater housing for my little digital camera at a more than affordable price so my dream of exploring underwater photography was about to be realized.

Somewhere on the second day we finished the last of our ‘training dives’ and now as certified Open Water Divers were free to dive unaccompanied by an instructor. That was a cool feeling. Of course no business would be worth its salt if once having trapped and seduced its customers it didn’t offer more and I duly went for the next option taking three more training dives. In fact by the time it was all over I had left my original boat, shelled out of an additional 5 dives, an extra night out and came away from it with my Advanced Open Water cert.

Some of the things we saw included: turtles, reef sharks, crayfish, clown-fish (Nemo and cousins), one guy even saw a hammerhead shark!

And everywhere there was colour, brightly coloured fish and coral, intricate micro-ecosystems within the coral, it just went on and on… coral caves, chasms, shallow coral ampitheatres, deep walls, sting rays gliding over the sandy bottom. Total eye candy.

Photography underwater is certainly a challenge. The colour gets sapped out by the water and of course most of the fish are moving around, as are you. But by getting super close and taking macro shots you can preserve colour and I found some tweaking in PhotoShop afterwards can inject extra life into pictures that at first seem a bit flat.

The diving was exceptional and certainly the highlight of my time in Australia but along with it was the great people I shared the experience with. Everyone to a person on the boat had enthusiasm and an obvious love of what we were all doing. It was infectious.

Cape Tribulation
Ask around in Cairns about where to find the best beaches and the chorus will all echo ‘Cape Trib.’. The promise of empty whitesand beaches drew me further north to the Daintree Forest in search of the remnant of what most of Queensland must have looked like a century or two ago.
There’s no shortage of transport options to get to Cape Tribulation, there are numerous bus companies plying the route. I opted for a package deal which included accommodation at Cape Trib Beach House. You can book as many nights stay as you like and I had two to spare.

Although I’m not a fan of the package tour I have to say that this was tastefully done, I learnt a lot of stuff I wouldn’t have just taking the standard bus service and overall it was superb value for money.

Cape Trib Beach House is the only accommodation in the area actually on the beach. The facility is a number of cabins, some dorm style others individual suites all dotted along a winding track through the forest (read jungle) to the beach. There’s a bar/restaurant in the shady trees which again I thought was good value and I didn’t need to stray much further than the beach right in front of the Beach House.

This was definetely time for some serious relaxing and logging beach time. Sure I walked the beach a few times and went snorkelling once but mostly I read my book and enjoyed a stress-free couple of days soaking up the rays, certain once I reached New Zealand I was in for a weather shock.

All too soon it was time to make the return trip down to Cairns. Two of my friends from the dive trip were on the bus on the way back which was really nice and we had fun on the highlight of the ride – a river cruise on the Daintree River.

There are so many warning signs everywhere around the Daintree and Cape Trib alerting the unwary vistor to the danger of crocodiles I really hoped to see one. Sure enough as with most things in tourist central they pretty much lay it on a plate. The Cape Trib package included an hour cruise on the river and our skipper obliged with several crocodile sightings, the best being the little nasty right there in the photo.

He (or she) was pretty small but the hiss it gave as we drifted by was reassurance enough that you wouldn’t want to tangle with one.

We made two more stops on the way back, one for a half hour walk around Mossman Gorge and then in the village of Port Douglas which was enough time to grab a long overdue coffee and T-shirt before reaching Cairns.

September 15th I flew via Brisbane to Auckland stretching out my ETA visa allowance to within 6 hours of its expiry!