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Cairns & The Great Barrier Reef

We arrived in Cairns on an overnight flight from Bali, it wasn’t exactly what springs to mind when you think of a long-haul overnight flight, no movies and leg room here. The experience of flying overnight (but only four and a half hours) with Jetstar is similar to if you decided to cram yourself in to a box that was just a little bit too small to be able to move in any meaningful way whilst air hostesses walk past regularly, with disgusting unaffordable food, looking like they’d breathe fire if you so much as politely requested the £45 sandwich that was made three weeks ago.

We arrived to cold and rain in Cairns, not exactly what we imagined of the tropical Queensland coast, but the bad weather would only last for the day, we called an Uber, which turned out to be a huge pickup-truck, so exactly what you picture of Queensland, and were soon picking our car up that we would use for the next two and a half weeks over 3,000 km.

We went and did a little shopping, dropped our things at the hostel and immediately set off driving, we didn’t know where we were driving to yet, but we just wanted to drive. It’d been over six months since we could be in control of our own transport, no more day-long arguments with taxi drivers and boat-men for us now! We drove about an hour up the coast to Palm Cove, a lovely small seaside town all built-in one long row along the beach side, it was perfect, other than the thunder and rain that was belting down. We sat and watched the waves crash in to shore for a while before heading back to Cairns without even leaving the car.

The next day we drove north again, but this time further on to Port Douglas, this town is a little bit busier and larger than Palm Cove, but still nice enough to be an appealing seaside town, we were starting to love Queensland already. We made a flask of tea, and walked down to the beach where it seemed the majority of the population within a 100km radius were all also doing their own thing, picnics on the beach, some surfing, some playing with bats and balls. It’s the kind of beach lifestyle that everybody in England enjoys, but whereas we only get about four days per year of sunshine, these people get about 330 days per year of it, and still don’t tire of it, its great!

In the afternoon, we went to Mossman Gorge, in the lower Daintree Rainforest, this whole part of the coast is called the Wet Tropics, it’s abundance of flora and fauna means the whole coast-line is a UNESCO world heritage site. There are only thirteen sites in the world that meet all of UNESCO’s criteria for being true world heritage sights, and two of them, the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics were right in front of us.

We did the walk through the rainforest, crossing bridges, looking for giant lizards and spiders, and walking alongside creeks bursting with water from the recent rains, it was stunning. It had happened already, we’d been in Australia less than 36 hours and we’d fell in love with it already.

On the way back to the car, we came across a crowd of people looking at something in the bushes, we all know what everybody thinks of when they think of Australia, the deadly animals, and this looked like something that could kill thirty men, a huge hunstman spider, apparently these aren’t poisonous and actually eat the smaller, more deadly spiders, but if it was large enough to attract the Australian’s attentions then it was clearly not seen everyday.

The next day we headed inland a little to a small town called Kuranda, and to the tropical fruit wineries, we only stopped by a couple, and whilst the wine is interesting in a novel way, it’s not actually that drinkable, too sweet, and quite expensive (more than good wine), we still bought a bottle anyway though. A mango sparkling wine which lasted another two weeks before we drank it because after we had bought it neither of us actually fancied drinking sweet fruit wine that much 🙂

The only reason we had hung around in the area around Cairns for so long was that we had booked to do a Great Barrier Reef boat trip, and the days we had wanted weren’t available so we had to wait a couple of days until they had availability. For anybody reading this thinking that you would love to do a snorkelling, or diving trip out to the great barrier reef, be prepared to take out a loan from a hedge-fund or sell several vital organs, because that’s how much these tours cost.

Hopefully the money goes to preservation and conservation of the reef, but our eyes watered when we had to hand over $410 for us both to go on a boat out in to the ocean for a few hours. As it turned out, of course, it was more than worth it, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sea the Great Barrier Reef, while it is still there, because as the news reports regularly, it is at serious risk from global warming, and may not survive this century.

The day began with us boarding a boat that was very nice to look at but when they said we would have 75 people on board we both looked at each other wondering if there was a secret lounge area underneath that we were missing, it actually didn’t feel over-crowded but you certainly aren’t stretching out on deck chairs.

We arrived to the first reef location after about thirty minutes of motoring straight out in to the nothing-ness of the sea, we both kind of expected to see more, maybe some small islands that were just tipping out of the water or maybe a sign or a flag or something saying you were here, but no, it just appeared to be a vast expanse of ocean. The sun had hidden behind the clouds, so the water didn’t look particularly clear and no fish could be seen yet.

Obviously as soon as we put on our snorkels and fins (and wet-suits because the water was cold) and dived in to the water, the whole perception changed, the water was teeming with sea-life, huge groups of fish, a million different species of marine life all swimming around seeming as interested in us as we were in them. A Barracuda swam around the boat regularly and came within touching distance at times, maybe I should clarify, this wasn’t the kind of Barracuda that would end up on your plate, this fish was at least six-feet long and as wide as my leg. It seemed when your snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef, all the fish have been on steroids.

We got on a smaller glass-bottom boat and did a small circle of the reef at this area, crystal clear waters with an abundance of coral and sea life, unfortunately there was a lot of bleaching of the coral, but we were told this was due to a particularly hot summer and was much worse several months ago, but the reef is starting to recover. The amazing thing about coral, is that when the water gets too hot, the coral bleaches, but doesn’t just die, it turns its systems off until the temperatures drop to a point where it can thrive again then comes back to life, astonishing.

The next stop wasn’t far from the first but was very different in terms of underwater views. The water was shallower with small crops of coral dotted throughout the sand, there was a small sand island, about 10 metres long, that you could snorkel to and stand out in the open ocean thirty miles from land. We swam out through the coral crops for about an hour and a half until we were so cold we had started to turn blue, but the sea life we swam with was incredible, Blue-Spotted Stingrays, giant Red Snappers, Barracudas, huge Parrot Fish and a million more. It was the best snorkelling experience of our lives and incredible to see such an amazing part of nature.

Cairns town doesn’t have much at all other than being the place to do Reef tours from, but the sea front esplanade by the boat docks is stunning, a huge lagoon has been built to provide a swimming pool about one hundred metres long right on the sea front, theres waters fountains in it for the kids to play in. The entire area is surrounded by grass and parklands and picnic areas. There’s free changing rooms and bathrooms, the whole lagoon and area is free to use, there’s even lockers you can use to keep your things in and lifeguards on duty.

We were starting to see the advantages of living in a place where even winter temperatures aren’t usually below 20 degrees and generally closer to 30. Everybody lives their life outdoors, in parks, in free lagoons, or on the beaches. A quite stunning part of the world. Every time we got in the car we would pass by dozens of free picnic areas with startlingly new gas BBQs there for the public to use. For the first week of being in Australia, we didn’t eat in a restaurant or eat inside at all, not once. Every lunch we shopped at supermarkets and stopped by picnic areas by various beaches or rainforests, and had a picnic in the sunshine, and let me repeat, this is WINTER.

Now, Cairns was finished, we had to be in the Gold Coast in 13 days, and that’s over 2,000km away, time to hit the road because we were going to drive all the way there, but more to come on that later…

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