B: A three-hour flight north from Melbourne took us from a wet and windy winter to the hot and humid temps of the wet tropics in Cairns. Even though we arrived after sunset, the air was thick and it felt like I was back in Florida. We set up camp in a hostel in the middle of town, right on the Esplanade across from the popular lagoon where everyone stops for a swim. Cairns doesn’t have any beaches because of the crocs; a new danger to us in Queensland, and one of many we’d soon learn about.
Cairns itself is a small city, but quite commercial. It’s filled with tacky souvenir shops, boisterous hostels, and travel booking agencies for the many excursions in the area. Vacationing families splurge on nightly dinners near the neon-lit Esplanade while the young international crowd gets primped for a night of debauchery. The vibe reminded us a lot of Waikiki in Honolulu, as did the scenery of rolling green mountains flowing into the sea. The city council also offers free fitness classes in the park, different each night, and there are exercise machines in the park along the boardwalk, which we took advantage of one night with a bouldering class. One oddity was the overwhelming presence of flying fox bats dangling from the trees during the day and swooping and screeching through the streets at dusk (covering cars and streets with green guano along the way!).
All of our energy was focused on finding a car those first few days. We checked out a couple of backpacker station wagons, but either the mileage or the price was too high (or both!). Fortunately, on our third day we met a nice local man (Michael) selling a 1997 Mitsubishi Magna with only 147,000 kms. It had the Road Worthy Certificate (required in Queensland) and the price was right. It hasn’t been used as a backpacker car, so we had to buy the customary camping gear usually included with many used cars, but it’s worth it for a car in good condition with low kms. We jumped on this quality ride and became new homeowners within five days of landing in Cairns. Meet Maggie! Unfortunately, we parked her under bat-infested tree the first night and discovered her shiny silver had turned a mucus green…
G: The day after we secured the car, we celebrated with a trip to the Great Barrier Reef. We boarded at 8am and cruised for 90 minutes before reaching the first stop, Saxon Reef. The water was frigid and visibility was decent. While Blake geared up for a dive, I grabbed a noodle and went for a snorkel with my underwater camera. Much to my dismay, I failed to put sunscreen on my back and got scorched; a price I’d pay for the next week. 😦 Fortunately though, the sights beneath the surface were like swimming in an aquarium; electric-colored fish of all sizes, intricate and diverse coral, and clams almost a meter in length!
B: The dive was pretty amazing as well. I got to see larger coral structures and different kinds of fish at the greater depth. I was a little disappointed that we had to swim with linked arms though since I’m not certified, something that wasn’t necessary when I dove in Indonesia. We also only got to a depth of about 8m, but in Indonesia we went to 15m. Still, it was awesome to experience the underwater world of the Great Barrier Reef in 3D.
G: Once Blake resurfaced, we had a buffet lunch on board before sailing to the next destination, Hastings Reef. As soon as we anchored, there were large fish, about a meter in length, clustering around the back of the boat in crystal clear water. We wanted to dive right in with mask and snorkel, but we had to stay dry and board a smaller boat that took us to a launch pad for a Helicopter ride.
B: Bummer, right?!
G: Indeed we splurged, but how often will we be at the Great Barrier Reef?! As we climbed higher over the sea, the large reef up close became small shapes of golden land, smooth in the middle and textured on the outer edges as it kissed the turquoise water. The scattered array of organic structures expanded for miles beneath our window.
After our ride, we came back to snorkel at Hastings where the visibility was much clearer and the underwater world more interesting. We saw a turtle and heaps more coral and fish, including Barracuda and Nemo. 🙂 (we found him!) Later, Blake even spotted a white-tipped reef shark! On the way back to shore, we enjoyed some local entertainment and dried out on the sun deck after a memorable day at one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
Now we’re ready to explore this big beautiful country with Maggie!