The Great Barrier Reef and Atherton Tablelands – Cairns, Queensland, Australia

cairns_great_barrier_reef

A red eye flight brought us from Perth in the southwestern corner of Australia, to Cairns all the way on the other side in the northwestern corner.

We were completely exhausted from the overnight flight and three hour time change, and since our hostel wouldn’t let us check in for a few more hours, we decided to get a few winks in the airport terminal. Luckily, we scored some nice flat benches next to an unused baggage carousel and got a couple hours of mostly-uninterrupted sleep.

Erik having a nap at the Cairns airport.Erik having a nap at the Cairns airport.
Erik having a nap at the Cairns airport.04-Oct-2011 03:26
 

Cairns is in northern tropical Queensland, and we immediately noticed the difference in climate. It was only early Spring and in Perth we had grown accustomed to chilly temperatures, but here in Cairns it was boiling hot and humid as soon as the sun rose.

Luckily, our hostel, Travellers Oasis, had both a swimming pool and air conditioning. We checked in, chilled out, and explored the town.

The pool at Travellers Oasis.The pool at Travellers Oasis.
The pool at Travellers Oasis.07-Oct-2011 14:48
 

Cairns has the feel of a honkeytonk oceanside tourist town – a little gritty, a little tired, a little sleazy. It has a reputation as a party playground, attracting punters to its cheap bars with drink specials, bikini contests, and foam parties.

Cheap booze fuels nonstop partying in Cairns.Cheap booze fuels nonstop partying in Cairns.
Cheap booze fuels nonstop partying in Cairns.04-Oct-2011 18:57
 

As you can imagine, it’s extremely popular with backpackers, especially the annoying just-out-of-college-drunk-every-night gap year variety. While we may be a little too old (and sober) to fit that demographic group, we still enjoyed the party-hard vibe and especially the low prices – a rarity in this country. A favorite backpacker haunt is The Woolshed, a large bar in the center of town that serves cheap backpacker meals each night, followed by drinking, entertaining contests and events. Surprisngly, the meals were pretty good and very filling. We dropped in a few times for food and drinks, but left before it got too messy.

A cheap and hearty meal from The Woolshed.A cheap and hearty meal from The Woolshed.
A cheap and hearty meal from The Woolshed.04-Oct-2011 17:41
 

The odd thing about Cairns is that even though it sits next to the ocean, there is no decent beach in town. Luckily, city officials have created a free saltwater “lagoon”, which overlooks the ocean, giving you the opportunity to have a dip and get some relief from the intense tropical heat. As we would find out during our travels around Australia, these lagoons are popular in many localities, even when there are beaches due to the dangerous jellyfish which are often found in Queensland waters. Not to mention the sharks!

Cairn's free saltwater lagoon provides a much welcome relief from the heat.Cairn's free saltwater lagoon provides a much welcome relief from the heat.
Cairn's free saltwater lagoon provides a much welcome relief from the heat.07-Oct-2011 13:56
 

We had heard good things about the nearby Atherton Tablelands, and booked a tour with Captain Matty’s Barefoot Tours for a daytrip to check out the natural attractions in this cooler, higher altitude area southwest of Cairns.

Captain Matty's funky bus.Captain Matty's funky bus.
Captain Matty's funky bus.06-Oct-2011 08:02
 

We saw a couple neat waterfalls (including one that is was possible to travel down like a large waterslide), but didn’t find it as spectacular as we had hoped. Coupled with the high cost and Matty’s corny jokes, we wished we had chosen a different activity for the day.

The Millaa Millaa Waterfalls in the Atherton Tablelands. A famous Herbal Essence shampoo commercial was filmed here.The Millaa Millaa Waterfalls in the Atherton Tablelands. A famous Herbal Essence shampoo commercial was filmed here.
The Millaa Millaa Waterfalls in the Atherton Tablelands. A famous Herbal Essence shampoo commercial was filmed here.06-Oct-2011 12:11
 

Of course, the real reason anyone comes to Cairns is for the nearby Great Barrier Reef. This huge coral reef system (the longest in the world) is over 1,000 miles long and is so big it can clearly be seen from outer space. The reef sits a good distance offshore, and can only be accessed by boat or by visiting one of the small islands that lie on it. Cairns is one of the most popular access points, allowing quick 1-hour speedboat trips for divers and snorkelers.

Following the advice of our hostel, we booked on the Silversea catamaran for a daytrip out to the reef. They are supposed to have one of the faster boats allowing visitors to get out to the further, more pristine outer reef. We were dropped off at the departure pier early for the trip out, and immediately realized it was probably going to suck. The place was a hive of activity, with busloads of tourists piling in to the airport-terminal-like building, checking in with one of the dozens of operators. Obviously, these trips to the Great Barrier Reef are a huge moneymaking operation and part of a well-oiled machine. The entire day we felt like we were just another number going through all the motions, filing on the huge boat, going through the safety briefings, and getting offered additional tourist souvenirs and photos. The entire experience is like going to Disneyworld, with the shameless commericialism destroying any magic of this iconic natural attraction.

A couple of the huge boats which take tourists to the Great Barrier Reef.A couple of the huge boats which take tourists to the Great Barrier Reef.
A couple of the huge boats which take tourists to the Great Barrier Reef.07-Oct-2011 05:01
 

The boat brought us to three sites all within a few hundred meters of each other for diving and snorkeling. We were lucky that the water was crystal clear (easily 30 meter visibility in all directions) and the seas were completely flat. Since it’s far out in the open ocean, many visitors to the Great Barrier Reef are not as lucky and find themselves leaning over the railing on a heavily pitching deck, busy feeding the fish.

The clear and calm conditions on the day we visited the Great Barrier Reef.The clear and calm conditions on the day we visited the Great Barrier Reef.
The clear and calm conditions on the day we visited the Great Barrier Reef.07-Oct-2011 10:48
 

So, what was it like underwater? I’d love to say it was the most amazing, vibrant, alive marine environment I’ve ever seen. Sadly, that’s not the case. Perhaps it’s due to the locations Silversea brought us or the fact that I’d recently dived the stunning Navy Pier in Exmouth, Western Australia. Whatever it was, neither one of us was blown away. The conditions were fantastic, and it really was as easy as jumping in a big, warm, swimming pool, but the thousands of daily visitors have probably scared away all the interesting underwater life!

Erik diving the Great Barrier Reef.Erik diving the Great Barrier Reef.
Erik diving the Great Barrier Reef.
 

So, we left Cairns a little disappointed, but excited to continue our Australia adventure. We had one month to make it 2,700km (1,700 miles) down the East Coast to Sydney and decided to purchase a Greyhound bus pass, which would allow us to make as many stops as we wished. Our first destination: Airlie Beach and the Whitsunday Islands!

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