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Published: September 26th 2009
"Ladies and gentlemen: welcome to paradise I mean Cairns"
- pilot of Jet Airways Flight JQ 58 from Darwin to Cairns.
I know what the pilot meant as I peered out of the window; from the air this place is
paradise, with an glimpses of the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest reef, bigger than the UK and the only living thing visible from the Moon! I’ll add loads of various facts of the bloody thing later because it’s one of those things that you are sort of ‘required’ to do if you are a sensible breathing living human being. Apparently.
Arriving at Cairns airport (at something like 8 am) I telephoned the Bohemia Central hostel to arrange a pick-up - the driver was on his way. However, twenty minute later and I’m still waiting outside the airport building. It must be the ‘early morning thing’ I thought to myself, but I rang the hostel and she thought he must have gone to the international terminal instead. About ten minutes later and he finally turned up in the white van and off we went back to the hostel. Damn near causing an accident by driving into a round-about
when a car was rounding it.
I showered up and put my stuff in the luggage room, for some reason I wasn’t tired despite having about 3 hours sleep and travelling since about 4am. The girl at reception was very pleasant though so that made it easier. In fact she revealed that there was a note left on my reservation saying that she should be nice to me as I was a cool guy! Finally, recognition!
I couldn’t check in till the afternoon so I went out and walked around Cairns for a bit. Immediately I could tell it was bigger than Darwin and with much more of a city feel about it (cafe’s and services etc - and lots of backpacker hostels around).
It was terrific weather, hot with the bluest of skies and it’s at times like this that you appreciate travelling and not having to work. Then, I found Cairns’ outdoor lagoon - a man-made piece of water by the bay, with a beach and lots of palm trees potted about. There were even BBQ facilities and food preparation tables with sinks and all. This was clearly a popular place with backpackers - who
Vessels in Cairns Harbour
Dutch East India Company - the VOC - in harbour at Cairns
all seemed to be laying about the grass, tanned, board shorts, shades, tattoos etcetera. You get the picture.
Searching for a good time y’all
I needed to check internet so I went to my old friend McDonalds to get my free wireless internet, but soon gave up with its slowness after too many backpackers turned up too. I wasn’t exactly sure what my plan was in Cairns - I knew there was the Great Barrier Reef, but the damned thing was so big the options seemed equally as big.
So I went into the Tourism Tropical North Queensland’s Gateway Discovery Centre
- yeh, try asking for directions to that. It was housed in a lovely old building, a former bank with wood floor boards and high ceilings. I was daunted by the endless brochures and leaflets offering scuba diving, over night scuba trips, cruises to the reef, sailing, sky diving, bungee jumping; you name it they had it. I wasn’t really interested in the sky diving, it was about 200 quid and the bungee seemed a bit pointless and well a backpacker cliché (although the operator AJ Hackett practically invented it with a jump from the Eiffel Tower
back in the 1990s.) What trips suited my budget and time? Would they be able to help me or would it be an unthinking point-and-buy because the choices were too many? With some relief I didn’t have to fret or deal with some uninformed numpty but the manager of the place who as part of her job had already tried most of what was on offer. Nice job!
I’d previously done some white water rafting on the Colorado River (out of season and tame) and the The Soča (in Slovene) or Isonzo (in Italian) - (cool) but this was going another stage further. The nearby Tully River is considered to be one of the best places in Australasia for rafting, (Class III to IV in rafting terminology) it wasn’t the ultimate time to be doing it (when the river rises dramatically after the rains) but it was still very very
good. So when I saw a brochure called Extreme White Water Rafting
- considered dangerous but recommended by the manager I went with that. I was also soon booked on a one day 3 for the price of 2 dive trip out onto Agincourt Reef, which is out on
the outer reef. I had an exciting few days ahead.
Scuba Diving off the Great Barrier Reef
The two hour boat trip over to the reef was pretty choppy - the high winds made the classy catamaran roll up through the breaks. We were given sea sickness tablets, which were basically tablets of ginger - my own preferred anti motion sickness remedy. But I found myself having to focus pretty hard on the horizon to prevent me from puking my guts up. Along the way we were at least distracted by sightings of a few humpback whales
and their pups that were making their way to warmer waters from the Antarctic Sea.
We’d earlier been briefed by our English dive master, recapping on safety, assigning our ‘dive buddy’ and what kind of places we’d be diving at. However, by the time the Catamaran stopped at Agincourt Reef
I was not
in the mood for putting on a tight wet suit, oxygen tank and respirator for some underwater adventure. I felt rough as a dog at sea but I laboured through the nausea and we went a diving.
The Great Barrier Reef is almost a bit too much;
how can you properly appreciate a place that has 1500 species of fish, 400 types of coral, 6 types of turtle, and so on? It’s overwhelming and I certainly couldn’t. But I had a try.
On my first dive (lasting about 40 minutes) I was cold and was only warmed up by the occasional rush of warm water or the sun shining through. I was also battling with a 16 year old German lad out on the reef on his own, who wanted to take a fucking picture of everything, regardless of who he clumsily banged into.
However, I did get some exhilaration by the two sea turtles swimming right by us, the reef sharks that laid low on the sandy floor and were so shy that they scarpered when we got near. Or the ugly as hell stone fish, the butterfly stingrays and a plethora of exotic and bright fish that I can’t really be bothered listing. After each and every dive some
people usually go through a reef fish book and write down what they’d seen. I have no fucking interest in that.
I was more interested in the story of the scuba diving couple
who had disappeared a couple of years previous on this exact reef. The scuba boat had apparently not taken a proper roll call for passengers and they returned to land without this couple - leaving them stranded. The company only realised a few days later what had happened but they were never seen again and this caused a big scandal of course as well as endless speculation on their fate (sharks to drowning to suicide). Interestingly enough, when the police later searched their hotel room they found the husband’s journal. In the most recent journal entry he outlined that he had been feeling depressed and he had wanted to go out in style! The reef is wonderous indeed.
I got back to Cairns later in the day, having done three dives on the reef and I was satisfied - but still wanted to shove that German boy into the water.
Rafting old boy?
The next morning I had an early start; at 7.00am a coach from the rafting company’s picked me up from the hostel and then picked up a further 30-40 from other hostels.
During the two hour journey to Tully we all signed some insurance
claim wavers basically saying ‘you’re aware you may die on this trip and that we are no liable in anyway what so ever’. Does anyone ever not sign these forms? It made me think because this extreme rafting is dangerous, I mean dangerous as in you could die. The rapid scale is rated from 1-6, with 6 being so difficult it is almost impossible to raft. This river was Grade 4 rapids and listed as 'moderate technical rapids with the need to hold on at times, and definite continuous need to manoeuvre rafts'.
There was no mucking about though, once at Tully town were split into two groups: wanky-easy white water rafting group and hardcore-death wish idiot group. Then on a separate bus further up the Tully River we had to choose another group of five for each boat. Most people were in groups on the bus but there was the odd number like me who was alone. Luckily we were told to give on board introductions about ourselves and we quickly established who fellow compatriots were. So my boat consisted of three other Brits and one Irish fella.
Again no dicking about and we got our helmets,
En route to Tully...
paddles and life jackets on as soon as we jumped off the bus. We then walked down to the river being introduced to our instructor a black fella called Chaise - top bloke- and jumped into the first raft down river.
Now bearing in mind the dangerousness of this river and the amount of deaths that have occurred (very recently in fact - in Feb two Koreans fell out and got trapped under a boulder) you'd think people would have considered the risks involved and asked themselves if they could do it. Apparently not.
Step up Daft Irish Fella
(it should be trademarked) by the classic name of Ronan who was with us but didn't join in when we jumped into he river from boulders or swam down river into the 'drowning simulator'. The guide half seriously asked him if he could swim, which got an indignant reply that: 'if I wanted a swim I'd go to the fecking swimming pool!'. We later asked his girlfriend whether he could swim or not, but she didn't seem to know either way. He was a lazy bastard paddling too, it was me and 'Devon Mark' at the front providing the
brawn and our guide at the back taking the piss out the lazy non-swimming extreme white water rafting
What a ride! That whole afternoon was seriously fun, with reverse rides through rapids, jumps off huge stone boulders from 20 feet, even getting out of the rafts and floating down the rapids - named the "drowning simulator" and I certainly copped a fair bit of water going own it. The instructor even made wicked manoeuvres that deliberately made the raft flip us out of the boat. This all went on for some three hours; stopped on the banks for lunch, feeding the friendly fish hat gathered around to be fed. The definite highlight was being slid down a rapid and then being sucked into what felt like an underwater washing machine and then being expelled downstream 15 seconds later. I even had to hold my nose and equalize for that one - scuba style
The river was seriously exhilarating and you could tell you were in the hands of someone who knew the river really well, in fact even bouncing off boulders and also other boats. It’s the only time I’ve used a quintessentially Aussie word since being here,
Equally awesome was the long coach journey back to Cairns where we passed through the very picturesque Atherton Tablelands
- whilst everyone seemed to be snoozing I was watching the sunshine pass through the clouds and directly onto these beautiful mountains.
The only trouble I had before leaving Cairns was with another bloody German, this time somebody I knew. Kathrin had arrived from Darwin a few days after me and had since texted me to ask what I was up to. She seemed a little bit too friendly for my liking, mainly because the night I left Darwin something weird had happened.
Sharing a dorm together, I came back from a shower and the girls mentioned something about a ‘secret’ and whether they should tell me or not. Not knowing what they were talking about and not really bothered about taking the ‘bait’ I went about my business and left the room again. Coming back they’d suddenly decided to tell me their awful secret. Please don’t scoff at this - but apparently they had decided that I was ‘very good looking’, whatever the hell that meant in practical terms. Unimpressed (by such as
obvious observation!) I again left the room limply and nothing else was said. Anyway, back in Cairns and I receive a text from Tine stating that in fact she wasn’t married but that ‘hadn’t been interested anyway’.
Fast forward another day and bloody Kathrin is in town wanting to know which hostel I’m at and itching to meet up with me. What the hell had gotten into these girls? I wondered.
Anyway, I eventually met up with Kathrin who was with a posse of young Germans around the ages of 18-20 - boy do meetings like this make you feel old. We all went for some drinks in a dull ‘Irish pub’ in Cairns - with the more interesting Ashes cricket on the TV of course. Fast forward to the plush Gilligans night club, part of the equally flash-packer joint at Gilligans Hostel. Anyway, a few drinks are being consumed into the night when suddenly some guy comes through the crowd and straight banging into me without so much as a look before continuing along his way.
I shouted back at him and as he turned around I approached to let him know what he’d done. Amazingly, he
actually apologised - which was all I had wanted- but then Kathrin took things in to her own hands and ungainly and dramatically pulled me away towards her. She seemed to think I needed protecting, and protecting by her no less. However, she’d managed to turn a defused situation into one of losing face so I had to angrily let this silly girl know that I didn’t know what she was intending but that I was saying Auf wiedersehen. I left the club there and then, tired of the Germans and their company and later texted Kathrin that at her tender years it was unwise to interfere in an argument between two grown men; it sounded patronising and it was meant to.
The next thing I had to decide was where to go next on my rip. I looked on the map and decided upon the Whitsunday Islands, for a sailing trip. I put up a poster in some hostels that that day looking for rides south but before the end of the day I’d already changed my mind. The Greyhound bus was too expensive and took too long (18 hours overnight on a bus anyone?)
so I settled on the train instead and a train pass that allowed me to stop anywhere going south to Melbourne over a six month period.
The normal train south (as opposed to the only slightly faster yet more expensive tilting train) from Cairns only departed every two days and it left the next morning. So I got up early, leaving the hostel at 7.30am and walked to the station where I got my pass and a reservation for the trip south to Airlie Beach: destination for the Whitsunday Islands. New Aussie word learnt: 'having a fill' - to eat a meal
P.S. Is everyone getting to see the videos okay? If I can get some feedback cheers (I can't see 'em because I'm on some tiny notebook).
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