I arrived in Cairns at 8:15pm and, after collecting my bags, made my way to outside the airport to be picked up by my airport shuttle bus as arranged through my hostel. I felt pretty emotional and didn’t really know why – perhaps having felt really at pace in the Outback and being sad to leave, not really knowing what my plan was when I got to Cairns, and being in a completely new continent after becoming settled backpacking in another. Asia had become really familiar and comfortable, with the locals so warm and welcoming, feeling in time with the pace and in the flow of travelling. Then I arrived in Cairns with no clue if where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do and being overwhelmed by all the options and how far apart (and expensive!) everything was. Plus I then arrived at Waterfront Backpackers, which was run by Australians and working-abroad Brits in their early 20s with my dorm room many filled with these Brits in their 20s on a working holiday visa whom are more interested in getting drunk and having their experience than they are with doing their job and helping you out – worlds away from the attitude if most of the Asian hostels I stayed in and not ideal when you’re already feeling a bit lost. For 17 AUD each night (only if you book online otherwise it’s 21 AUD, so you’re looking at between 10 and 12 quid per night).
Whilst in the midst of my mild panic/emotional breakdown I took myself off to explore Cairns a little bit more, walking along the Esplanade that lines the coast to make it to the Botanic Gardens – about 45 minutes to get there on foot I passed joggers and dog-walkers along the peaceful esplanade, was hit by views of the mountains and met a fellow traveller in the way also searching for the gardens. The gardens have a few different sections and there are also a few “hikes” you can do through a slightly jungly area that have lookouts along the way. We decided to do the Red Walk that was supposed to take one hour but took us about 30 minutes an offered a lovely view of….the airport. Not quite satisfied we started the Blue Walk (supposedly this takes 3-4 hours to complete and I wasn’t wearing appropriate shoes) to see if the first lookout offered anything more spectacular – unfortunately it was a slightly boarder view of the airport do we headed back down and parted ways, with me wandering through the a Rainforest Boardwalk to lead me back out of the park.
Walking back along the Esplanade I was calmed by the slow pace and wandered further along to the “lagoon”; a slightly fancy term for a swimming pool that is positioned within the grass near to the coast, filled with sunbathers cooling off and kids playing. It would be a nice way to laze away an afternoon if you have time in Cairns and, with groups of rope doing yoga on the grass and people sat on the ledge overlooking the bay, it’s quite a chilled-out and easy place to be.
Sat on the ledge myself, watching the sun break through the clouds before it set, I was approached by a 24 year old Korean who apologised for taking my photo without my permission and asked if I wanted him to send it to me. We then spent the next hour chatting and taking in the fires, before I walked along the Marina to Salt House for a glass of wonderfully refreshing rose moscato to watch the harbour with.
Around 8pm I then went to meet a group of people I had got in touch with via a Cairns Backpacker group on Facebook. Following my meltdown, subsequent conversation with one of my best mates currently living in Sydney (cheers for the pep talk, Nat) and reminding myself of my travelling mantra (or mantras – Say Yes, and Jump Right In) I decided to try to find people to travel the east coast with in a car or camper. I joined them at one of the many self BBQs lining the esplanade (and found in many places in Australia) to cook a meal together and to get to know each other before leaving Cairns the following evening for the start of our road trip (although they had already done Cape Tribulation together, which I had planned on doing but decided to sacrifice for the sake of joining a group I really liked who were doing the route I was planning on in the timeframe I wanted – sometimes you just have to go with what feels right).
The following morning I woke up around 6am to check out of my hostel before heading to E Finger at the Marina for a 7:30am start to my Sunkist day trip with Cairns Dive Centre out to the Great Barrier Reef. As I have already done diving on my travels, plus two lots of snorkelling, I had been unsure as to whether to pay to do it again, especially when it was much more expensive than Thailand, but everyone kept saying “yes, but, it’s the Great Barrier Reef!” and, reminding myself of my mantra and not to let money stop me experiencing things, I decided to just go for it. It took about 2 hours to get to the diving spot at Thetford Reefs, stopping at Fitzroy Island in the way for a drop-off/pick-up, on a boat with a small upper deck to take in the views.
Once at the spot we were split up based on whether we were diving or only snorkelling (and if we were certified divers) and giving our dive briefing by our instructor – it was pretty shambolic and if I hadn’t done it before I would have been utterly confused and anxious about getting in the water. Once in, however, he was much more attentive and reassuring, and the water was so SO blue and clear that it was easy to get lost in the experience. Annoyingly my right ear kept playing up so I was forever ascending in order to equalise my ears and stop the pain, plus we were only out for 20 minutes (compared to my 40 minute intro dive in Koh Tao, Thailand) so it was over pretty quickly for me. At $150 (£90) it was at the cheaper end of the many tours on offer but it was still a bit disappointing.
After a lunch of pasta and salad I ventured out for some snorkelling, taking off my wet suit and feeling more free to explore on my own. The best of the reef is actually quite close to the surface so I much preferred what I witnessed while snorkelling compared to diving (plus I was out for an hour and was able to take my time); it’s hard to describe the incredible colours of the reef and how beautiful it looks with the sun piercing through the blue water, but you can definitely tell why it was given its name. Plus, much to my delight, I managed to spit a sea turtle just hanging out at the bottom of the ocean; I was able to watch him for 5 minutes and even attempt to swim down to him, but he soon paddled off. As I was slowly heading back towards the boat, enjoying my last few minutes snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef, a few people snorkelled past me and I caught two of them reach out, mid-swim, to hold hands as they took in the sea world below. It pulled at my heart and took my breath away – a simple, tender act of two people sharing something special together. I sometimes forget how love and relationships – in all its various forms – is the ultimate for me and I felt touched witnessing this moment.
Back on the boat I sat back on the top deck to enjoy the views of the oceans and surrounding islands as we headed back to the mainland. Once back on shore, and after collecting my bags from my hostel plus making a flash-dash trip to K Mart to pick up a $10 (£6) inflatable mattress, I met up with my travelling crew – Tiia (Finland), Matthieu and Umbi (Italy), Rasmus and Toby (Denmark). Toby and Rasmus would travel in the car, which they convert into a bed at night, whilst Matthieu, Umbi, Tiia and I would travel in the camper (with all the amenities including a “kitchen” in the boot), where Matthieu and Umbi would convert into a bed for sleeping at night whilst Tiia and I would sleep in a tent. After hostel-hopping and constantly meeting new people for so long but ultimately moving on my own, I was actually really excited to be travelling the east coast in such a different way with the same group of people and bring able to really rough it and let go of any remaining vanity about the way I look or smell!
People don’t tend to rave about Cairns, most preferring Port Douglas as a place to stay whilst you explore the surrounding areas, and there isn’t heaps to actually DO there (but there is the party lifestyle if that’s what you’re after), but it’s got a slow pace and a relaxed vibe that I quite enjoyed. However I didn’t have any issues with leaving, setting off in our vehicles at 6:30pm to head to Rotary Park in Babinda to set up camp for the night.