Three days with the Disappearing Reef
It’s not that I don’t like the ocean; quite the opposite, in fact. I love it! It’s mysterious, beautiful, and romantic. The idea of setting sail, leaving all your worries on the shore behind you, earning new wrinkles as you squint into the sun, is more than a little alluring. What’s that in the distance? Maybe a boat, or an island, maybe your new future. I mean, fuck, that sounds great. But – it’s also an immutable menace: poisoned water teeming with dangerous alien lifeforms. I did a rough calculation of the avaible data and here are the results:
-Creatures in the ocean that want to kill or eat you out of sport or hunger: 52%
-Creatures in the ocean that will maim or harm you accidently: 28%
-Creatures that will observe your suffering with absolute indifference : 20%
-Bonus – how long I can vomit underwater: undetermined, but at least 45 minutes.
But, sigh, no trip to Australia can be considered complete without a visit to the Great Barrier Reef. Which is why I’m in Cairns; it’s a primary launching point for many who seek to explore the reef and the rainforest that lies inland. Buckle up, it’s gonna be a wet ride.
Day One: Bats, Waffles and Swimming
In a lot of ways, Cairns reminds me a great deal of Orlando, Florida. The weather is hot, swampy and sticky. Tourism is the juggernaut that powers the local economy, and while every service one would want can be found here, it also has a bit of a warn look about it that’s no doubt brought about by the hundreds of thousands of tourists that visit every year. Still, it’s pleasant enough, and despite the tropical heat, quite walkable, so get up early and head out to breakfast at The Lillipad Cafe. Shoppers will want to head over to the Cairns Railway Station, the largest shopping center in the city. Make sure you apply lots of sunblock, as the UV index seems to be permanently set to FRY here. Try an upscale lunch at the The Salt House, then take the Esplanade to the free pool near the marina, or take a lazy 25 minute walk to the Cairns Botanical Garden. Hit the Night Market for dinner and dessert.
If you’re out around sunset, it’s all about the bats. I don’t know how I missed reading about them beforehand, but you can’t miss them at sunset. A huge colony makes their home in the center of the city, hanging from the giant fig trees alongside the Cairns public library just off the esplande. You can hear them near sunset, chirping and squeaking, getting in some morning preening before they take to the sky to look for breakfast.
These are not like the tiny bats you might find in your attic at home. No, these are massive creatures with a wingspan of over a meter and an odd, furry, fox-like head. Did I get on the wrong flight and land at the Island of Dr. Moreau? They are Australia’s largest bat and seeing thousands of them take to the sky at dusk can only be described as a beautiful nightmare. There’s signage at the base of the colony of trees trying to convince people to call them sky foxes, which seems awfully euphemistic to me. I keep imagining a tech-savvy bat calling up the Cairns Tourism board and having a conversation like this:
Bat “…yeah hi, this is, um, Bob, and I’m an, um, biologist, and I want to inform you that it’s no longer proper to call the bats living downtown bats anymore.”
Tourism Guy “What’s this now?”
Bat “…yeah, you see, they are called sky foxes now, not bats, or blood seeking snake birds, or anything else like that.”
Tourism Guy “Are you sure? I mean, they have giant bat wings, they hang upside down and sleep nocturnally, they produce guano, …”
Bat “yes, yes, look, I don’t have all day. I’m just telling you how it’s going to be from now okay? Do I have to get your boss involved? I would hate to have to go over your head *stifles squeaky laughter* about this.”
Tourism Guy “No, no, that won’t be necessary. I’ll have the new signage made right away.”
Bat “Excellent, and don’t forget to state clearly that they only eat fruit and nectar and they absolutely do not carry away small pets or children. Got it?”
Tourism Guy “Right, okay, I’ll get right on it”
Day Two: Reef Magic
With my delicate constitution being, well, delicate, I thought it wise to skip any prolonged sailing or reef diving trips and booked a flight out via a helicopter that dropped me off on a semi-permanent pontoon anchored in the reef itself. The flight out was a fantastic highlight of the entire trip, with gorgeous views you wouldn’t ever get from a boat. The reef itself was nice. I did the bare minimum amount of snorkeling, and managed to not vomit in the semi-submersible that totes you around, basically underwater, to different points on the reef. Like fish? There’a lot of them. Like being gently squeezed to death by a wetsuit while SCUBA diving? This is the place for you. It’s a SCUBA diver’s dream come true, but for me it’s a kind of salty nightmare. I managed to keep breakfast down (yay me!), and I did manage to enjoy the time on the reef, but don’t expect any great underwater photos as my eight-year-old underwater camera died about 15 seconds into the snorkel. There are so many ways to explore the reef: from week-long off -shore boat stays, to half-day quick trips. In general though, the further you get away from the shore, the better your marine wildlife will likely be.
Day Three: Koalas, Trains, Sky Rails.
I spent my last day in Kuranda, a small (tourist) village north of the city. I took the train up to the city (and sprung for gold class, a more comfortable train car that comes with a free drink* and snacks along the route. Totally worth it. The train itself is really charming, a vintage throwback to the golden era of train travel, minus the coal-fired engines. Views along the water are pleasant enough, and after a couple of hours, you’re deposited into a Disney-esque village. Like shopping? You can find whatever keepsake you want here, from cheap gifts for the nephews to that one of a kind opal necklace for that Aunt you’re still hoping will add you to her will. There are three main nature parks to visit that are filled with butterflies, birds, crocodiles, kagaroos, and Hazel, my new best friend:
*Turns out, the Gold pass allows you to have unlimited drinks on the train up, so for two hours I tasted Australian sparkling wine. This led me to be more than a little drunk on arrival, though I managed to stumble my way straight to the Koala garden to meet Hazel. No, I didn’t drop her, and she didn’t seem to notice my champagne breath, so overall it was a success.
My advice is to take the Skyrail up, then the train back. There are a few stops and lookout points along the Skyrail route that, by late afternoon, you will be too tired to want to get out and walk and enjoy. There is a shuttle that will pick you up from your hotel or meeting point that’s arranged when you buy your ticket, and it takes about 15-20 minutes to get to the base of the Skyrail. When you get back, try dinner at The Pier Bar, a great casual bar with good food along the Esplanade
Cairns is swarming with wildlife, from dog-sized bats and hungry fish to Swedish backpackers and lady-hunting bogans. No matter what you decide to do here – descend into the silent terror-filled abyss to take blurry blue-green actions shots of fish or sample the night life at any of the dozens of bars near the esplanade – you won’t want for activities. Tired, mildly sunburnt, and a touch hungover, I leave for Sydney just in time for New Year’s. The next blog post will be in 2017. Cheers!
*It’s absolutely critical to book ahead, especially if you are particular about a specific outing
*If you have less than three days, don’t book a car; there’s plenty to do without one.
*If you get in late and are hungry, head over to Pie Face; they are open 24 hours.
How I got there: Melbourne to Cairns $233 Aussie Dollars on Quantas Airline. Notable for having the
most cramped coziest seating arrangements I can recall.
Where I stayed: Ibis Styles. Pleasant hotel near the center of town, roomy but nothing special.
What I did:
Flight to the Reef on GBR helicopters : Very professional and simply an amazing flight. It takes about 45 minutes to reach the reef and is pure magic. Free wifi while you waiting the office. Located on the water near the center of town right next to the marina. Book in advance – like everything else here, things fill up quickly, especially the choice tours and locations.
Reef Magic : Huge pontoon attached to the reef. Eco friendly and involved in local aquatic research, great for a first visit to the reef. They have helmet dives as well as scuba lessons for beginners and tons of activities – as well as a full bar (hallelujiah). You can boat or fly out and back, or do one of each.
Kuranda Village: Take the Skyrail up, then the train back. There are a few stops and lookout points along the Skyrail route that, by late afternoon, you will be too tired to walk and enjoy. Buy the pass for the three main parks and save a couple dollars. They are all well done and nice to visit.