I remembered seeing a road sign outside of Noosa stating Cairns was a staggering 1600kms (994 miles) away, and now, nearly 10 days later, I was finally traversing the final kilometres to complete the distance. Queensland is huge, and with Western Australia being closer to Asia than it is to it’s own country’s capital, some appreciation can be given for the size of the country as a whole. My Greyhound bus pass had seen me follow the Queensland coast north, and the final hours of driving were ticking away. We stopped briefly in Cardwell which had a beautiful view across to Hinchinbrook Island, and made a detour off the highway to Mission Beach which seemed to be a popular place. Then finally we were nearing the end of the Bruce Highway as it wound its way into the outskirts of Cairns in Tropical North Queensland.
Apart from Hervey Bay, which I had arrived in in the pitch darkness, every other place I’d visited in Queensland thus far I had loved from the moment of arriving. But Cairns from the beginning was completely underwhelming, a criss-crossing grid pattern of soulless streets and absent character. I trundled from the bus station to my hostel, and was quick to dump my stuff and get out to make the most of my time there. I had the afternoon to explore, and so I cut my way back through the main streets towards the esplanade. As I wandered the streets I was touted repeatedly from the doorway of a multitude of travel agents, and it seemed that Cairns’ main thoroughfare was filled with nothing more than souvenir shops and travel agents. The gateway city to the Great Barrier Reef and the rainforests to the north, it felt like Cairns’ sole purpose was to sell you a trip to get away from Cairns. It was as if the city itself knew how soulless it was, and it just wanted you to leave.
I found myself at the Esplanade Lagoon which was being well used in the intense heat that day. I’m confident that Cairns gets much hotter than it was when I was there in August, but I was really struggling each day in the tropics, and there was only hotter weather to come for me as my Australian adventure continued. At the far end of the lagoon was the seawall, and beyond it, unlike every place I’d been so far, there was no beach, only a tidal mudflat that looked not just unsightly but also perfect crocodile territory. There was, despite this, plenty of bird life milling around, and I watched as a white heron skillfully speared a fish in the shallows. Looking at the map of the city on my phone, I decided to walk to the Botanic Gardens, a place I try to visit in any city I go to. It meant a long walk along the esplanade which allowed a good bit of bird watching. Eventually, a narrow strip of sandy beach appeared, and next to it a sign warning not to venture down to the water due to crocodiles in the area. I kept walking north but Cairns was failing to grow on me.
It took over an hour to walk to the Botanic Gardens, through the outskirts of the city and away from the tourist-driven city centre. Down a long avenue, the trees were thick either side and paths disappeared into them at varying intervals. It was overcast here but I was parched, and had to make a stop at the cafe in the visitors centre for water before proceeding. The Botanic Gardens are one of a few gardens next to each other that provides some green space within the city. It was my first introduction to the local rainforest as boardwalks took me through thick vegetation of vines and strangler trees. In the undergrowth, there was a constant scurrying of birds digging around the leaf litter.
At the bottom end of the gardens was the centenary lake, a large dark-water lake that felt like it could hide all sorts of mysterious creatures within. Like the mudflats at the esplanade, there was plenty of bird life here and it felt more like a city park with traffic driving by and the airplanes taking off from the nearby airport. After weaving in and out of the waterways, I made my way back to the esplanade for the long walk back to the city centre. It was evening now and the locals had come out after work and were out walking dogs and catching up with friends.
There was a winter festival taking place in the city so near the Lagoon there was a stage set up with performers playing. It was near the main strip of eateries so there was a lot of people about. The music wasn’t to my taste so I didn’t hang around for long. Instead, I wandered into the night market hoping for something that I didn’t get. Having previously been to the Queen Victoria night market in Melbourne, I was hoping for something similar, but the food hall looked like what you’d find in a mall, and the shops were all souvenir shops.
Out the far side, I took a few turns to reach the Cairns City Council building which was lit up in a Vivid Sydney-esque manner with changing light patterns to the sound of music. It was a nice idea and looked good, but the effect was slightly lost when it was only on one building in the whole city. I stayed with the gathered crowd for a while, watching it go through the full cycle before my stomach dragged me away. I’d read a recommendation for a burger joint near the hostel and wasn’t disappointed. In fact Jimmy’s Burger & Co. was probably Cairns’ only redeeming feature of my whole stay there, which doesn’t really say a lot for the place.
The next morning I had just a short walk round the corner to the train station where I was to be collected for a ride out of the city for one of the day trips away on offer. I was frustrated with Cairns once more to find nowhere in the vicinity open for breakfast. Everywhere opened at 9am which seemed incredible, and I was starving by the time I eventually reached somewhere to eat. The trips away from Cairns were very much the city’s saving grace. I spent a spectacular day away in the rainforest, followed by an average evening back in the city. Then I spent 2 days at sea out on the Great Barrier Reef.
On my return to the same hostel as my first few nights I was amused to find one of my roommates had been the same as one I’d had in Hervey Bay the week before so we caught up on each other’s trips since we’d last seen each other. When I’d originally booked my time in Cairns, I was worried I wasn’t going to have enough time there. In reality, I was more than ready to leave, having wished I’d booked the morning flight out instead of the lunchtime flight. I spent my last morning killing time at the mall before being picked up finally to head out to the airport. The shuttle bus driver asked me how I’d liked Cairns, and I found myself wording my answer carefully so as not to offend him. In truth, I really didn’t like Cairns, and in fact I was completely underwhelmed by it. It’s definitely one of those places who’s existence is built around getting away from it, and thus it has no character. It was a shame that this was my ending impression of Queensland, a state who’s coastline had beguiled me for days now. But it was time to move on, and take in a part of Australia that I had been eager to visit for some time.