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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!