Northern Queensland – Cairns, Port Douglas and the Great Barrier Reef

I flew into Cairns on a hot and sunny Monday morning, checked into my hostel, and looked forward to a fun-filled day. Unfortunately I was to be a bit disappointed – Cairns isn’t really my kind of town. For some, I’m sure it is a top destination – there are lots of bars, restaurants, a salt-water lagoon – but for a slightly older solo traveller it’s a bit of a dull seaside resort. The only highlight that I found in Cairns itself was an exhibition of Gaudi lithographs. I’m definitely showing my age!
Some readers may be thinking that Cairns is a large resort town on the coast – surely there were some great beaches to go to, maybe some snorkelling? Well, yes and no. When I arrived, the stinger season had just started. Australia is known for its plethora of deadly beasties, and the stingers (jellyfish, to the uninitiated) are a prime example. Box Jellyfish spawn in river estuaries, and then when the first rains of the year arrive the young are washed out to sea and make it too dangerous to swim. In some areas, large floats and hanging nets are put out into the sea to create safe swimming zones, however the ones that I came across were all very shallow and very full. I hadn’t researched this before I arrived, and the sudden realisation that I wouldn’t be able to swim off the beaches was a bit of a shock. As some of the pictures below show, the beaches were stunning, and yet the water was off-limits. Hmph.
The Great Barrier Reef, however, is far enough from the shore to be generally unaffected by the stingers, and so I decided that some diving would be in order. Cairns, being a big resort, did have plenty of dive companies, however after finding one recommended shop fully booked and another very busy, I followed another suggestion and headed north to Port Douglas – about 60km up the coast. This place was a complete change from Cairns – despite being far more of a dedicated resort town, it was almost completely deserted. I suspect that this was due to one of the biggest pulls of the town, a glorious four mile long beach, being restricted to a 40m wide section within a stinger net. The hostel that I’d booked into was also pretty empty – maybe ten people at most – though the local wildlife was plentiful…

Fruit bats at Port douglas Golden Orb spider
Four Mile Beach at Port Douglas IMG_4349

My three dives on the Great Barrier Reef were good, although not entirely what I had expected. I suspect that I’m not the only person who thinks that the GBR would be chock-a-block with dazzling sea life, and spectacular corals. The reality wasn’t quite that – though it was still beautiful. A cyclone two years ago, agricultural run-off, and other human activities have caused a lot of damage to the reef system, as has the Crown Of Thorns starfish. I think that next time, I’ll book on one of the live-aboard boats which head a lot further out into the reef system, away from the coast. On the plus side, I rented a waterproof camera for the day, so actually took some of my own pictures. It was annoyingly tricky to operate properly, and I kept missing good shots, but I hope that practice (and maybe some education) will improve my skills.

Another reef fish Elephant Rock (my name)
White-tip reef shark Me doing the campest OK ever

I had met an Australian at the hostel who was enthusing (amongst other things) about a swimming hole at the nearby Mossman Gorge. This is a well-known local place to visit, and I rented a car for a couple of days with this trip in mind. The site had clearly become a little too popular for its own good, as on the approach, the road was barred by a gate, and we were shepherded into a huge new visitor centre. While I’m sure that the centre would be highly informative about the local area, and probably provided top-notch facilities (including a shuttle bus to cover the 3km to the gorge itself), we decided to ignore it completely and set out on foot. About 1.5km along the road, after an aboriginal village, a track disappears into the forest on the right-hand side of the road. Following this path through the woods led to a stunning section of river – we spent about five hours here, swimming, lounging, eating (and wood-carving, which i just watched).
The following day we headed further north, to Cape Tribulation, the point on the east coast where the paved road runs out, and it becomes a gravel track extending up to the far north. A relaxed pace north meant that we arrived at the Cape when the sun had gone, but various stops en route were stunning, particularly the beaches. No swimming though. Hmph again.

Swimming hole at Mossman Gorge Mossman River
A beach off Daintree

After returning to Cairns, I decided to take one final trip – the Kuranda Scenic Railway and Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. The train ride was… well, scenic. The route was pretty steep and winding, as far as railway tracks go, and there were some great views from the carriage. Curiously, two German tourists in my carriage fell asleep almost the second that the train departed, and only woke when we arrived at Kuranda – I hope they managed to see something on the way back. Kuranda itself was a bit of a tourist trap, replete with a hippy market, lots of souvenir shops, and plenty of other places to exchange money for tat. Perhaps I’m a bit harsh, but the way that the town seemed to function (shoppers delivered by train, told to visit the town, then taken away by cable car) just seemed unpleasantly artificial. I went on a brief tour of Rainforestation, a mini-zoo and DUKW ride which was a few kilometres from Kuranda. This was quite nice, despite the hordes of Chinese tourists (they pushed me, one man spat on my feet, a woman ate with her mouths open right next to my ear – i had a bad time with them). The cable car ride back was the highlight of the trip – particularly because the staff clearly saw the glowing ‘misanthrope’ sign above my head, and ensured i had a car to myself! The views of the rainforest as I floated overhead were stunning – although whenever I moved to take a photo the car rocked alarmingly, possibly a tradeoff for the single-occupancy…

Kuranda train View from Skyrail

I had booked the train from Cairns to Maryborough for the next stage of my trip – a 20 hour journey. Hmmm…

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