Chilling by the lagoon in Cairns

Our first day in Cairns we mostly relaxed because we’d arrived late the night before. We walked down to the Lagoon, a nice swimming area by the ocean. It was nice and hot so we sat with our feet in the lagoon for a while, then walked along the Esplanade, made up of mangroves and mudflats, checking out the egrets and pelicans along the shore and the crabs and mudskippers in the sand below.

The next day we joined a two day tour (basically a day tour broken in half) to Cape Tribulation. We drove along the gorgeous drive from Cairns to Port Douglas along the coast, then onwards toward Daintree National Park. We stopped at a wildlife park where we were able to see a variety of native fauna, including many birds, reptiles, crocodiles, kangaroos and my personal favorite, the cassowary.

Then we drove to a nice lookout over the rainforest, though it was a bit cloudy, then did a rainforest walk and looked at some of the flora. After that the daytrippers were dropped off at the beach for lunch (by then it was raining so they had to go to a sheltered picnic area) and we were taken to our accommodation, Cape Tribulation Beach House.

Our own private beach

We ran to our room through the pouring rain and decided we should just throw on our bathing suits and go down to the beach anyways. Best choice ever. There was no one there at all. The rain wasn’t too hard so it didn’t really bother us, and the ocean was warm which was awesome. We just ran all over the beach, ducking under the trees (the rainforest comes right down to the beach in Cape Tribulation, the Daintree is the only place in the world where two world heritage sites meet — the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef) and exploring how far the beach went (it was huge!). I felt like I was in some kind of movie, it was the perfect idyllic paradise, like we were stranded on some gorgeous beach in the middle of nowhere. I honestly couldn’t get over how amazing it was. And with the fog and light rain it actually looked even more picturesque. I finally couldn’t resist going and grabbing my camera (Oscar fashioned a little raincoat for it out of a plastic bag) and taking some photos.

Gorgeous beach in Cape Trib

After more than an hour on the beach we were soaked but feeling really awesome. We met one of our dorm-mates in the main area and had a couple beers and played Trivial Pursuit (the Australian version, circa 1983 — we didn’t do very well!)

The next morning I got up early and went back down to the beach. Again I had it completely to myself, and with the sun shining it was impossibly gorgeous. In areas of the beach, trees grew out of the sand, steeped in water at high tide. Palm trees and big shady trees hung over the beach, providing shelter from sun or rain. I could barely drag myself away from the beach to go meet Oscar for breakfast (included in our stay was a full breakfast of bacon, eggs and toast or yogurt and fruit).

We checked out and stored our bags at reception, then went back to the beach, walking around the cape and to the end where there were some trails to a lookout and to another beach, Myall Beach. This beach was also gorgeous and empty, but it was starting to look like rain so we didn’t stay long. On the walk back we saw two Lace Monitors, lizards that are supposedly just one step down from Komodo Dragons! They can be very aggressive, so we kept our distance and admired them from afar.

Lace Monitor

After lunch and a game of Scrabble, we rejoined our tour and headed off on a crocodile cruise on the Daintree River. The river was beautiful, reminding me of the Amazon (though less muddy). We weren’t able to see any big crocs on the cruise, but we did see two young ones (one about 2 years old and one about 3 years old). We also saw a couple frogs.

Then we were back on the long, windy road, first to Port Douglas where we had a quick drive around tour (including seeing the holiday homes of Bill Clinton and Jackie Chan), then stopped at another scenic lookout before heading back to Cairns.

The next morning we were up early again for our trip out to the Great Barrier Reef. The company had a deal where you could try an introductory scuba dive for just $20 extra. Even though I was scared to death of the idea of scuba diving, I decided I had to at least give it a try.

Cruising the Great Barrier Reef

When we got out to the first reef (I already forget the name), we went immediately out to snorkel, but were called back in for our dive before we got very far. They suited us up with weight belts and a huge, heavy tank. I could barely stand with the weight! Then we (a group of four) hopped in the water and were lowered slowly down a ladder about a meter. At first I was OK, and we all went through our first “skill” we had to perform – looking up and blowing out our nose to clear out our masks. But then I started to feel panicky. The waves were strong, pushing and pulling us from the boat. I felt like my mask kept going back and forth from my face. And even though they’d warned us, the fact that I kept blowing bubbles in my face was freaking me out. I started to panic about leaving the boat and going deeper, so I signaled a thumb up that I wanted to go to the surface.

I went back up and the dive master on the boat talked me into going back down and trying again. But when I got back down it was my turn to perform the second task, where you had to take the regulator out of your mouth, breath some bubbles in the water, than put it back in your mouth. I tried it once and the dive master told me to try again. The second time I started to panic and couldn’t get the regulator back in my mouth and then just panicked and went back to the surface. After that I decided I’d tried but I knew I couldn’t go back down. At least I tried it.

Cairns waterfront

I got my gear off and waited for Oscar and the group to come back. The dive was supposed to be 20 minutes, but after about 10 I saw Oscar and the divemaster swimming back. Going down, Oscar had reached a point where he couldn’t equalize and he felt his eardrum pop. They went back up, equalized and he was fine, but when they went back down to the same depth he had the same problem, and felt a rush of air through his eardrum. So that was enough diving for him. (We went to the medical center the next day and found he had blown a small hole in his eardrum and they gave him some antibiotics and decongestant).

After that we needed a break from the water and went up on top deck to work on our tans. After lunch we went to the next reef, Hastings Reef, where I decided to go snorkeling again. However, the waves were so huge that it really wasn’t very pleasant so I didn’t stay out long. There were some nice fish around and the coral was huge and plentiful, though not particularly colorful. It was OK, but after my third time snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef I can’t help but feel it just doesn’t live up to the hype. I’ve seen much better snorkeling, especially in Southeast Asia.

Lastly we did a glass bottom boat tour as it was being offered free of charge. It was informative, but again we saw few fish and not a lot of impressive coral, and the waves made it pretty uncomfortable. By the ride back to Cairns, half the boat was laying around ill, and I was starting to feel a little less-than-hot myself (thankfully I felt perfectly fine for the whole rest of the trip, even with people throwing up all over the place).

Sunset in the Far North

Back in Cairns we had one more day to relax before our late night flight back to Melbourne. The day started off raining so we went to see Eat Pray Love, then we just wandered a bit around Cairns killing time. I would definitely say that if I were to go back to the north I would spend my time in Cape Tribulation and further north (Cooktown, etc.). It would be awesome to go all the way up to the tip, Cape York, but the trip is long, difficult and expensive (and would most likely have been impossible at the time we were there, given all the rain they were having, even though the rainy season isn’t supposed to start until December).

Accommodation:

Cairns City Backpackers – $15/night for 6 bed dorm – Friendly place, but a lot of extra charges (internet, storage, etc.) and no breakfast that I could see. A bit out of town, too. Though Cairns is small so that’s not saying too much. They can get you 10% off most tours and the owner is quite nice. The only downside is that pretty much everything is outside so if you want to hang out at night you have to bear the mosquitoes.

Cape Tribulation Beach House – not sure how much a night as we had it included in the tour but I think it’s something like $25 for a 5 bed dorm – This place was AWESOME. Right in the rainforest and a second from a totally empty but gorgeous beach, it doesn’t get much better than this. Their main cafe/hangout area is nice and they have a lot of board games to keep you busy in your downtime. A really good breakfast is also included.

This is a side trip that is part of a larger series. Read the rest of the Epic Aussie Road Trip series.