MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “Cairns”

The Great Barrier Reef

Below the waves of the sparkling Coral Sea, stretching for 2300 km (1400 miles), the submarine landscape of the World’s largest coral reef system lies steadfast yet ever changing, off the coast of Australia’s Queensland. Over 2,900 reefs and 900 islands make it the biggest structure made out of living organisms, and unsurprisingly it is visible from space. For many visitors to Australia, a trip to the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is a given, but for me, it had taken 5 years and multiple visits to this vast country to come even close. I love being by the sea, and I love the creatures that dwell in the oceans, but getting into the open water and exploring them in person is not a natural activity for me. So suffice to say, I’ve never really been fussed about going to the GBR, but now, working my way as I had up the Queensland coast, it seemed only sensible to reach Cairns and see what all the fuss was about.

The health of the GBR has been a hot topic of late, with reports of invading species such as the Crown of Thorns starfish decimating reefs, pollution changing the fragile water quality and of most note, the devastation of climate-induced coral bleaching. Like many ecosystems, those of coral reefs are a fragile sort, with many creatures and plant life living in symbiosis with each other. In other words, the presence of one organism is crucial to the presence of another. Coral by nature is colourless. It is the algae that colonise their tissues that give coral their fabulous and ranging colours. But rather than being a parasite, these algae are the life source for the coral. Without the algae, the coral fade to white, and eventually they starve and die. As sea temperatures rise, or pollution alters the water quality, the algae are the first to suffer, the coral following suit. My first experience of the GBR was in its southern reefs off the Whitsundays. The snorkelling conditions had been magical, but the coral bleaching was very much in evidence across the whole reef. The reef floor was littered with a graveyard of white coral, and there was more white coral than coloured coral in large sections of the reef. It was sobering and a little disheartening to see. I was intrigued to see how the northern reefs were coping.

After an enjoyable day up in Kuranda, the next morning I had an early rise to meet my pick-up to drive me to the Cairns marina where I was to board my transport for the day. There is an unbelievable amount of choice when it comes to getting out to the reef, from day trips to overnighters, helicopters to boats, diving to snorkelling. It is almost overwhelming. I had booked myself on an overnight reef experience, involving a boat trip out to a moored mini-cruiser which would take me around a selection of reefs over the course of about 30 hours. Most of the people on the boat were just going out for the day, but those of us with a special ticket, got sent up to the wheelhouse where a bacon & egg roll and a platter of fresh fruit awaited us for breakfast. I love spending boat journeys out on deck watching the world go by as the wind whips my hair into the biggest tangle of knotted curls, so I was a little irked that we were confined to the cabin for a while as introductions, formalities, paperwork and liability forms were sorted: an inconvenient necessity that I was glad to get over with. It was a sunny day, and the loungers on the top deck were the perfect spot to soak up the rays as Cairns disappeared behind us, eventually disappearing out of view.

 

It took some time for the Reef Experience boat to finally reach the Reef Encounter, the floating ‘hotel’ that was to be my base till the following afternoon. The small group of us changed vessels, whilst the many day trippers moored a little way away. For my first experience of a floating ‘hotel’, the Reef Encounter was easy to like. Stepping into the lounge area which appeared both dated but yet retro, the crew were welcoming, smiling and eager to get us settled and into the water. We were shown to our rooms and I was delighted to discover that my twin-share cabin was all mine, and after living in backpacker dorms since I’d left Noosa behind, this was the most amazing news I could have been given. Better still, unlike some of the others, my room was upstairs so I had a sea view and looking out the large windows, I spied the Saxon Reef.

 

The days were divided around a schedule: early morning snorkel or dive, then breakfast; morning snorkel or dive; mid-morning snorkel then lunch; afternoon snorkel or dive; mid-afternoon snorkel or dive then afternoon tea; night-time dive then dinner; and amongst all this water activity, the boat would move between reefs offering 3 separate locations over two days and the opportunity to learn to dive or gain further dive certification. I’ve done a lot of adrenalin activities in my time but diving has never been something I’ve been interested in. I have a fear of drowning and so the thought of being deep under the water and having to rely on a breathing apparatus doesn’t fill me with much excitement. I was one of only 3 people on the boat who wouldn’t be diving, and as the water activities went on over the 2 days, I began to realise that perhaps the experience was lost on me a little. Undeterred, I was aware that I would likely only visit the GBR once, and I was determined to make the most of it.

Briefings and welcomes over, I got kitted up in a wetsuit and got into the water for the morning snorkel session. Straight away the difference between Saxon Reef and Hardy Reef in the Whitsundays was obvious: there was next to no coral bleaching to be seen. The fish life was incredible and plentiful and excitedly on my first trip out I saw an eel. The water may have been calmer at Hardy Reef, but here the ecosystem seemed so much healthier. I stayed in the Coral Sea for about an hour, bobbing around watching life go on below me before coming out for lunch. The chef on board was incredible and I tucked into the first of many incredibly delicious meals. By the time of the afternoon snorkel, I was surprised to see a swell had appeared and the sea conditions were suddenly quite different to the morning. Still at Saxon Reef, I made a point of exploring different areas than I had on the morning snorkel and I found massive shoals at the fringes of the reef. In fact I got so distracted by them that I got whistled at for having strayed out of the snorkelling zone.

 

The top deck of the Reef Encounter offered the perfect sunbathing zone, and armed with a book from the library in the lounge, I pretended to read in between getting to know my fellow passengers and soaking up the sun. The boat had a bit of a rigmarole to go through to leave its anchorage and move on to a new spot. We anchored at Norman Reef offering a change of scene for the next water session. Here though, things were very different. The reef was not right next to the boat but a bit of a swim away, and the sea was quite choppy now. The sun was still shining but the sea did not look in the least bit inviting. I was nervous before even getting in the water, and one of my companions on the boat who was also a little nervous asked to buddy with me so that we could keep an eye out for each other. Unfortunately for her, I turned out to be the worst snorkelling buddy ever.

 

As fine as I am in the swimming pool, being in the open ocean can be a bit hit and miss for me. If conditions are calm and there is something to grab my attention, I can overcome any fear I have and push it to one side. A couple of years prior I had a panic attack whilst snorkelling in the open ocean off the Galapagos Islands. The sea conditions there had also been choppy and my guide at the time had thought the sensible thing for me to do to stop panicking was to stick my head under water and look below me. Little did he know that the sight of a deep oceanic abyss with no bottom in sight would be the catalyst for my fight or flight mechanism kicking in. It had taken all the resilience I could muster to stay in the water that day and complete the snorkel.

So now in the Coral Sea, I wasn’t far from the boat when I started to have water splash into my snorkel, sending me into a bit of a choking fit. My buddy suggested I alter my swimming technique which worked for her but didn’t work for me, and as she swam ahead of me oblivious, the choppy water repeatedly splashed into my snorkel, and as I failed miserably to clear it, I began to swallow water which sent me into a blind panic. Now, part of our welcome briefing had included a run down of emergency signals to give if you get into trouble, but it is incredible how even when I was struggling to clear my throat and breathe properly without taking on more water, the underlying thought process going through my head at the time was that I didn’t want the embarrassment of being a bother to the crew and so I stubbornly didn’t call attention to myself and just allowed myself an attempt at drowning in silence. Wearing large flippers generally makes treading water a relatively easy experience, but in full blown panic mode they weren’t quite enough and for one brief moment, I felt myself slipping under the surface and it finally dawned on me that I would actually drown if I didn’t get my act together. It was a terrifying experience, and my heart was thudding up into my mouth by the time I reached the steps at the back of the boat. When I signed myself back on board, I’d been out in the water for just 5 minutes and when asked why I’d come back in so soon, I was still too embarrassed to admit what had actually happened.

Sheepishly I hung around the lower deck for a while watching the others in the water, before grabbing myself a calming cup of tea and retreating to the sundeck to take stock of what had just happened. Afternoon tea came and went, and as the evening wore on, a few of us headed to the hot tub at the bow of the boat. What more could you ask for on a floating ‘hotel’ but a hot tub. It was a little cramped with us all in it, but it was just what I needed at the end of the day, and it was a great place to get to know the others on board. Dinner was a social affair with crew and passengers eating together. Everyone had such incredible stories to share and even the Captain who was a Kiwi, joined our table, and once again the food was delicious. By the time bedtime came around, there was a gentle rocking and rolling to send me off to sleep.

 

It felt amazing waking up in the morning after a blissful night’s sleep on an exceptionally comfortable bed. I’d requested a wake-up call for the early morning snorkel but decided to skip it, moored as we were still at Norman Reef. During breakfast, we raised anchor once more and moved on to another reef, known as Fingers. It was actually still part of the large Norman Reef but not only was the reef right next to the boat here, the positioning of our mooring relative to the wind direction meant the sea wasn’t looking quite so unappealing. We spotted two turtles at the surface as we anchored and this was encouragement enough to get back in the water. The conditions were not how I would have liked them to be, but I did my very best to quell the fear of drowning, and focused on the amazing reef below me.

 

From a snorkellers perspective, as amazing as the reef life was, I had been surprised at how drab a lot of the reef looked. A lot of the coral is a range of browns with the odd splash of purple or pink for good measure. I know that with depth, the colour spectrum becomes limited, so I wasn’t sure if this depth was dulling the colours, in which case diving the reef would be a much better visual experience, or if the reef actually was just this dull and every photo I’ve ever seen is heavily photoshopped. Perhaps the change in sea conditions favours the more drab-coloured algae. Either way, the fish life was probably the best of any snorkel experience I’ve ever had, but I felt that perhaps the coral wasn’t. Maybe my memory was tricking me, but I felt that the coral in Fiji had been rather more colourful than what I was looking at here.

 

Following a spot of sunbathing and more turtle spotting at the surface, I was surprised to see that a tidal change by the time of the mid-morning snorkel meant that the coral was suddenly much closer to look at, and in places I had to try very hard not to be bashed against it in the choppy surface waves. I was finally relaxing into the snorkel again, and I spotted a cuttlefish which I watched for some time until the strong current made me aware that I had a bit of work to do to get back to the boat. It was easy to dry off between snorkels by heading to the top deck to sunbathe for a bit, and I was quite dry by the time lunchtime came around. By now I’d got to know the other passengers reasonably well. Some of them would be leaving with me that afternoon, whereas a few others were working on their diving certification so were staying another night. One guy had been on board for a week and had dived at every single dive site that the boat was allowed to visit.

 

Finally it was time for the last snorkel, and the wind had picked up once more creating the undesired surface chop. I sought out the cuttlefish again, watching it dart around the seabed, then I watched the divers exploring below me before being mesmerised by some large fish that were hanging out under the boat. I was both sad to get out of the water and glad all at the same time. Snorkelling the GBR had been a mental challenge, one that nearly got the better of me. I think had the water been as calm as it had been at Hardy Reef, the experience would have been utterly amazing, but there was part of me that was always fighting off the fear, and so the experience was a little tainted.

 

I showered, gathered my stuff together and transferred back to the Reef Experience which had by now berthed right next to the Reef Encounter. We were again ushered into the wheelhouse where we were plied with wine, cheese and crackers, and feeling like I was at a VIP party with those that I had gotten to know over the previous day, I was quick to get just a little bit tipsy. The trip back to Cairns was a very different experience than the one out had been. The wind and chop meant that we were buffeted the whole way with a cross wind and waves that pushed us from the side, such that we rocked and rolled and dropped over rising crests. I thanked my trusty stomach for holding firm, and embraced the experience, knowing that I had experienced the roughest boat trip of my life between Isabella Island and Santa Cruz in the Galapagos Islands, and therefore nothing could ever be as bad as that.

 

Twenty-one days prior I had landed in Queensland, and now I was on my last night in the state. I marked the end of the first stage of my great Australian adventure with some ice cream on the esplanade. The next day I was to head to the airport, leaving Queensland behind, and flying deeper into the tropics.

The Village in the Rainforest

If it hadn’t been for 2 incredible excursions over 3 days, I would have really hated Cairns. The city itself was soulless and a real let down after all the beautiful places I’d stopped at on route up the Queensland coast from Broadbeach. After being left with nowhere open to get breakfast before heading off, there was a 30 min drive round various hotels for pick-ups and out of Cairns to the lower station of the Cairns Skyrail. The village of Kuranda is nestled amongst the rainforest outside of Cairns and is perfect for a day trip away from the city. It can be reached either by train from central Cairns, or via a cable car from north of the city, and everywhere you read about Kuranda it is recommended to go there one way and come back the other. I decided to take the cable car there and come back on the train, both of which need to be booked in advance to save disappointment.

 

With no eating allowed on the cable car and a timed slot to ride it, I shovelled a muffin from the cafe into my mouth as fast as I could stomach it. The ride up through the rainforest is estimated to take 90 minutes including a couple of stops on route, so I wasn’t sure when I’d get to eat. I had a mother and daughter in the cable car with me, and from the moment we left the station, we were all in awe looking out of the window. The lower portion of the ride starts the climb up into the trees, with a view over the rolling hillside and out over the coast behind us. From the very beginning, I loved this experience and it was well worth the money.

 

Once up the initial hill, the first stop was Red Peak station at 545m (1788ft), surrounded by rainforest. Here, there was a raised boardwalk taking you through the mid-layer of the canopy. It was short to walk round it on your own, but I opted to wait for the guided tour that ran at regular intervals, which was informative and added a whole new level of interest to the surroundings. Life in the rainforest is all about competition, with the plant life competing against each other for sunlight and nutrients. It is incredible to see the amazing adaptations that some plants have undergone to out-do their neighbour, from growing into them, to literally strangling the life out of them.

 

The next section of the cableway was the longest, and here the line was just above the top of the canopy. It was a stunning sight, with the green of the rainforest disappearing in all directions over the nearby hills. Below us, there was the occasional gap in the foliage allowing an insight into the forest below, and there was a constant thrum of the forest life mixed with the workings of the cableway. The total length of the cableway is 7.5 km (4.6 miles), and there was so much to take in. As we approached the next station, the waterfall that it is named after came into view. I can imagine that after a tropical storm, this cascade would be amazing to view in all its glory, but when I was there, it was a relative trickle compared to some of the photos I had seen of it at its best.

 

The Barron Falls station had a walkway to 3 different lookouts. I could see over to the train line on the far side of the large gorge that I would be taking to go back to Cairns later that evening. Unlike the last station, this one felt busy with each lookout a jostling match for the prime spot to take photos. I took my time but was overall a little unawed with the view. That said, it was still a good opportunity to get out amongst the trees of the rainforest and the depth of the gorge was still impressive.

 

The final section of the cableway cut over some more trees before swinging down over the wide Barron river, over the train line and into the Kuranda cableway station. The main street of Kuranda is just a short uphill walk from the station, and it is full of artisan and craft shops, lending the place a slightly hippy feel. There was some beautiful art here, and had I had my own place and a lot of money, I could have gone to town here. Instead, I had to be satisfied with just ogling at it. I’d been told by the driver of the shuttle bus about mango wine, so when I came across a woman selling the stuff out of a window, I took no persuasion whatsoever to set about sampling the stuff, eventually settling on a bottle of mango sauvignon and a bottle of sparkling mango. It had seemed like a good idea at the time until she handed me the bag containing the two giant export boxes and I realised that not only did I have to carry these for the rest of the day, but I also had to carry them around Australia for the remaining 18 days of my Australian trip.

 

Undeterred and a little tipsy on the mango wine in the heat, I kept going round the shops, eyeing up the various food options to choose from. Everywhere was busy, and I was looking for something unusual. Inside the Rainforest Market I found a creperie that made savoury crepes and settled on one of the many choices to have for a much-needed meal. Afterwards, across the road there was another market, the Heritage Market, out the back of which I stumbled across a plane wreck being swallowed by the jungle. The sign next to it explained that it had been staged, but it looked like a genuine plane wreck, and reminded me of the movie Crocodile Dundee. Peering inside it, the vegetation is doing a good job of claiming the wreckage as its own, and just shows how nature will always adapt to its surroundings, even when a man-made structure is dumped within it.

 

Australia is famous for its large proportion of the world’s most venomous creatures, and in Kuranda there is a Venom Zoo. I passed it by on my way to a walking track that would lead me through the rainforest of Jumrum Creek Conservation Park. I was totally in love with the rainforest here. I secretly hoped to stumble across a Cassowary, one of Australia’s large flightless birds. This was the part of the country where they could be found, but unfortunately they are an endangered species, so it would be pure luck if I saw one. Following a boardwalk, even though the streets of Kuranda were never far away, the vegetation was so dense that I felt like I was deep within the rainforest. An avid bird watcher, there was plenty of life flitting and singing amongst the trees to keep me occupied, and I took my time meandering down to the bank of the Barron river.

 

When I’d left the skyrail station behind on arrival, I had seen a sign advertising a river cruise. I hadn’t been going to bother, but now, realising I had enough time, I followed the river walkway upriver, under the cableway and round the bend till I found myself at the small boat tied up on the bank. There was just a small group of us on board, and amusingly a pair of swallows had built a nest amongst the lifejackets that hung from the boat’s roof. The birds flitted around the boat and above our head as we both idled at the bank of the river and cruised slowly along the water.

 

On the opposite bank of the river we passed the still form of a freshwater crocodile that was sunning itself on a rock. Much smaller than their saltwater equivalents, the locals deem these guys safe enough to get in the water with, the boat driver telling us that the locals swim in the river here amongst them. They might be small, but they still have a good set of teeth on them, so I’m not sure how comfortable I would have been with swimming there. In a little bay just past the croc, was a plethora of turtles. Initially hidden but coming to the surface in a feeding frenzy, there were also a lot of decent sized fish here, and we idled for a while near the bank watching the turtles and fish in the murky water.

 

We could see a good way down the river from here, and it was a pleasant cruise downstream and underneath the cableway. We spied two more crocodiles and more turtles, and the driver told us about a male cassowary that was sitting on its nest just a short walk into the bush. I would have loved to have gone to see it, but this was when they were at their most dangerous, the male being very defensive when they are brooding. Between the changing view of the rainforest as we drifted along the river, the flitting of the birds around us and the crocodile spotting, it turned out to be a very enjoyable spur-of-the-moment addition to the day’s excursion.

 

By the time we returned to the river bank to disembark, it was time to make the short walk to the train station to board the scenic rail back to Cairns. Unlike the Skyrail, the train was packed, and although I was lucky enough to get a window seat, the windows were compact and awkward to look out of. I also was hemmed in by young children who wouldn’t sit still, and the general vibe from several of the people around me was one of disappointment. I could hear people grumbling about how cramped the train was, and how poor their view was, which considering it was supposed to be a scenic train ride, was a little disheartening.

 

Despite this there were some incredible views where gaps in the vegetation allowed. We stopped at the Barron Falls lookout which provided a view of the falls from the opposite side of the gorge to the cableway. Overall, it was a downhill meander, in and out of the bush, and eventually crossing the flat plain back to Cairns. The whole journey took around an hour, and although it was nice to have done both journeys, the Skyrail was by far the better experience. It had been an incredible day, and I was a little sad to be back in the banality of Cairns. Thankfully I had another excursion away from the city lined up for the next morning.

Underwhelmed

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.

 

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