The journey from Singapore to Cairns, north-eastern Australia, was awful! We first flew to the Philippines and had a planned 4 hour stop over before another 7 hours to Cairns. We arrived in Manila airport which was the crappiest airport we’ve ever been to (nothing there and a ten minute walk to the toilet!). We were told that our flight had been delayed due to a technical fault and it kept getting pushed back. They finally said our flight was scheduled to depart again four hours late. It was around this time that news reports were emerging about gunfire near Manila airport, then the speaker came on saying “if you have left a small black box, please proceed to terminal 2” which was disconcerting to say the least! When we finally boarded, we could see the resort named on the news on the other side of the run way. Apparently 26 people died in an armed robbery of the casino, awful.
We finally arrived in Cairns, and got a shuttle bus to our hostel. We only booked two nights in a quieter hostel called Traveller’s Oasis (amazing, defo recommend). Obviously, accommodation prices are astronomical compared to our Asia trip but at least they had the first well-equipped kitchen we’ve seen in months and a nearby MASSIVE supermarket called Coles where upon our first visit, we frolicked down the isles in sheer joy. This is the first time we’ve been able to cook for ourselves in 4 months, small pleasures! We spent our first day in Cairns just relaxing and recovering from our exhausting journey. We still managed to venture out at 5pm to see the local fruit bat colony. Every evening at dusk, these enormous fruit bats fly from their tree in the middle of the city to feed. Someone described them to us as flying pugs which we’d agree is a fairly accurate description!
The next day we just spent exploring Cairns. We both said it would be awesome place to live. There’s a lovely area along the beach front with bustling restaurants and bars, a huge, free outdoor pool called the Lagoon and park space full of picnickers, free outdoor barbecues and live bands. We had a lovely gelato in the sun listening to a band. Dave went for a run along the boardwalk whilst I relaxed in the park and watched the huge Australian pelicans. He also went for a swim in the lagoon after which he said was ice cold but still refreshing after the run.
Overall, we have a very vague plan for Australia; we have 5 weeks to get from Cairns to Melbourne and hadn’t booked anything other than the first two nights accommodation. This has been brilliant because as soon as we arrived, we were flooded with recommendations and tips from the friendly staff and other hostel stayers. We knew we intended to take the Grey Hound bus service down the east coast, but so glad we didn’t even book that because we managed to find quite a good discount in town! It also gave us the flexibility to agree to a road trip with Lindsey who we met at the hostel. Lindsey is from Arkansas and carries a deconstructable hoolahoop in her backpack haha, she is also great fun and shares our love of animals. We hired a car for two days with Lindsey as our driver (absolute hero). This was my first ever proper road trip and I loved having the flexibility to jump out anywhere and add to our list of sites, it has definitely inspired me to learn to drive when we get back to the UK next year. We headed up the coast and our first stop was Palm Cove. A beautiful, chilled beachside town that was having a Sunday market. When we pulled up, and a women helped us with parking and told us to grab this free space. She said she was a ‘surfer mom’ which we thought was the coolest thing ever, apparently Australia’s ‘soccer mom’ equivalent. We strolled round the market and pottered round the beach. One stall had this amazing spiralizer type contraption whereby you put a whole potato, spin it and then pull it out like a slinky on a stick to be deep fried into chips; genius and delicious! We headed further north, driving along the scenic Great Barrier Reef drive (Captain cook highway) and stopped at Rex lookout point to survey the open ocean and surrounding beaches.
We stopped in Port Douglas around lunch time. We had a nice walk around the marina and stumbled upon the finish line of a triathlon event on the beach. We had a nice lunch, Lindsey and Dave got the Barramundi fish and chips which is like England’s cod. We also couldn’t resist an ice-cream shop which had 42 flavours so we each got one before heading back to the car and up towards the Daintree rainforest. Daintree is the oldest rainforest in the world!! We all wanted to see a crocodile in the wild so we stopped at Daintree river boat cruises. They were one of the few companies that did just an hour boat tour for $30 as opposed to the big couple hundred dollar package trips. We were SO glad we came. By the time we arrived, it was 3pm which is one of the last tours of the day, the boats normally take around 30 people but there was no-one else so we had our own private tour! Our guide was a guy called Mic who was essentially our very own Steve Irwin. He also had a gorgeous dog (Great Dane and Pitbull mix) called Pig who joined us on the cruise. Mic was so passionate and explained everything to us so well. The banks of the river were lined with Mangroves which were some of the most fascinating plants I’d ever seen. They have a root network that they use to breathe when the tide rises. As for animals, we ended up seeing 4 wild crocodiles!! One was a baby and just sunbathing on a branch. Then we saw his mum lying on the beach further down (crocodiles are solitary animals). His mum was huge and looked so fierce; her serrated teeth came through her mouth up to her nose. We were able to get really close and it was so fascinating. Mic was a fantastic guide but had a great respect for distance and didn’t dare get us any closer. I think he definitely brought home the dangers of these crocodiles to us and how we needed to be really careful. Further down we saw the biggest male croc called scarface (so named because of the battle wounds on his face). He was mostly in the water and it was so fascinating watching him propel himself upriver in a strong current so effortlessly and sneakily! He barely made a ripple. I’d never seen a crocodile’s tail in detail before and it was absolutely mind blowing to see the little hexagonal plates almost like a stegosaurus dinosaur; he just looked so prehistoric! We also saw some amazing birds; 2 striking Azure Kingfishers, an Australian goose perched so high up in a towering tree it looked completely out of place and a Nankeen night-heron. Mic said if we were really lucky we might manage to see a tree snake and low and behold, he managed to spot one! We genuinely have no idea how he saw it from the boat because it was so well camouflaged, but we managed to see a green, yellow and black tree snake curling round branches! Lindsey is on a working visa in Australia and has been here around 4 months so far and she said it was one of her favourite things she has done in Oz! We were all still giddy with excitement after one of the best tours ever!
We hopped back in the car for the ferry crossing ($26 return) over the river into the Daintree rainforest (there’s a road through its entirety). It was getting quite late so we only stopped to do one walk in the rainforest at the Marrdja Boardwalk. We chose this one because it’s a good place to try and see an endangered Cassowary. Unfortunately we didn’t spot one even though we were walking around at dusk/the dark which is their main feeding time. They are the biggest land animals in Australia and are only found in wet tropic environments (the big birds with blue/red necks and horn-like thing on the head). We drove up to our final stop to spend the night at Cape Tribulation. The lady at reception kindly warned Lindsey and I of a huge spider hanging over the last cubicle of the female showers (obviously the first thing I did was to go and see it – see photo below). We went for a lovely dinner at the Beach hut though it was a scary walk in the dark.
The next day, we had initially planned to get up to see the sunrise but it hammered it down with rain all through the night and was still going when we woke up at 6 so we decided to bail. Instead we set off around half 7 and went down the road to Kulki lookout point on Cape Tribulation beach. Their infamous slogan is: “Where the Rainforest meets the Great Barrier Reef”. I think someone told us it is the only place in the world where two separate world heritage sites touch. It was very surreal standing on this beautiful sandy beach, when its’ edges were lined with mangroves and we were surrounded by a dense rainforest. We didn’t spend too long on the beach or go near the mangroves because we’d been warned crocs were sited on the beach only last week! Oh and in the car park, we saw our first Brush turkeys who have strange bushy tails.
Our next stop was Mossman Gorge. We were three mid-twenties adults who all didn’t actually know what the geographic definition of a Gorge actually was so we weren’t totally sure what to expect (its essentially a river carved through the mountains.) It was interesting to see a place with such significance to Aboriginals but perhaps the least engaging of all our adventures in Queensland so far. We did a walk/hike around the Gorge crossing the bounciest bridge of all time, it was literally like a trampoline. An unexpected highlight was when a little leech jumped on Lindsey’s leg; none of us had seen a leech before so it was quite exciting. It hadn’t bitten Lindsey and she wasn’t freaking out so I’m not a total prat for calling it exciting. It was quite hard to get off but in the end Dave and I managed to get it off with a team effort with leaves from different angles.
After the Gorge, it was a hefty drive back down past Cairns, on towards Atherton where we stopped for lunch. We went to a cafe that was closing but they suggested Mos cafe for food round the corner. If they hadn’t recommended it, we probably wouldn’t have gone because it was hidden away and didn’t look like much from the outside. But oh my, the toasties and cakes we got were divine. We were running out of time a little bit at this point (we needed to be at the platypus watching place for dusk), and though there is a big loop of around 10 waterfalls, we had to cut it down to just the closest one. We were on the way there when we saw a sign for the Curtain Fig Tree which we’d seen on a few maps. We decided to add in the extra stop (road trip flexibility is the coolest). This one tree has earned itself national park status and to be fair, I can see why. I often find that I overlook plants and trees in favour of more exciting wild animals but North Queensland definitely put me to shame for doing that. We were blown away with the mangroves I mentioned earlier and there were also these incredible ferns that grow themselves into suspending hanging baskets. The 500 year old Curtain Fig Tree was absolutely spectacular, it was gigantic and its’ roots had formed a giant 50m curtain. We drove on to our selected nearby waterfall called Malanda Falls. It wasn’t huge but still a lovely site. It would be amazing in summertime because they’ve built a little swimming pool basin around the falls.
Our final, most anticipated stop was Yungaburra where we’d been told you could maybe spot a platypus emerging from the river for feeding at dusk. We arrived at the platypus viewing platform and we debated staying put to watch from above at the viewing deck or to follow a path that may or may not have lead us along the river to see a platypus. We opted for the walk; that itself was really nice. We’d seen so many environments in 2 days; beaches, tropical rainforests, a gorge and a waterfall. Yungaburra was different again and it felt more like a country side stroll along the river, Lindsey described it as ‘the Shire’. We walked/tiptoed around in silence for about an hour along the river. Platypus are really elusive creatures that are rare to spot in the wild, and they don’t like noise. We saw a few other platypus watchers, one guy said he’d seen 2. It was getting dark so we decided to head back towards the viewing platform but along the way we bumped in to a guy who we chatted with and turned out he was a local who regularly came to watch the platypuses. He recommended going back the way we’d come but to go even further across a bridge and that’s where he’d seen them the most. We decided to heed his advice and found the spot he’d said. He told us he’d even had a platypus get out the river and come up and stand on his shoe when he had some cheese before. We were sort of getting to the point of giving up when Dave saw one! Lindsey and I were a little bit downstream and were so jealous haha. We waited a little longer and then a little platypus emerged for us too, swimming along silently and then diving back into the reeds 10 second later. It was too dark and he was too quick for us to get a photo/video but we were thrilled to have seen one. I’m not sure if its true but we’ve been told only 3% of Australians have seen a platypus in the wild! We were buzzing and it was pitch black by this point, so we headed back to Cairns taking a different route through mountains. The road we were on was called Gillies highway, and holy crap, it was the most insane road any of us had ever been on (see example GPS screenshot below). Thanks to Lindsey and her great driving we slowly made it through about 20 kilometres of the windiest road you’ve ever encountered; it was literally U-turns one after the other!
After returning the car, we had a relaxing following day. Lindsey and I went to the cinema in the evening to watch Guardians of the Galaxy 2 – so nice to just be normal and watch a film sometimes! We sadly said goodbye to Lindsey as she headed off to the outback. The last thing Dave and I wanted to do in Cairns was visit the Great Barrier Reef. Neither of us had ever dived before but lots of tour companies take you for an introductory dive so we decided to book Ocean Freedom (they were the only company that did 2 people to 1 dive instructor as opposed to 4 to 1). The problem with this time of year is the weather, the day we went there was 15 knots of wind, ideal conditions are only 5 knots. We’d been warned by a lot of people to take sea sickness tablets because the boat to the reef is so choppy. We both took them, but even still, Dave felt really rough. He didn’t actually throw up but he definitely turned a shade of vivid green. When we got to the first site, we were able to go snorkelling. They provided wetsuits (my first time wearing a wetsuit!) because the water was so cold. It was so choppy, it was actually quite scary. We’ve both done quite a lot of snorkelling but never in conditions like this. Waves were crashing over the funnel of the snorkel tube so you had to keep trying to blow it out. Dave really wasn’t a fan of the snorkelling because when he got in the water the mask fell off and it was near impossible to get back on. I saw some fish similar to the species we’d seen in Koh Tao but I got out too because I didn’t want to be in the water alone! From on the boat, we saw a turtle come up for air which was cool too.
Then it was time for us to dive. We got strapped in with the weight belts and air canister and soon we were jumping off the boat in to the water. We had to do 2 practice skills with the instructor when we were in the water and as soon as I put the regulator in my mouth and tried to breathe, I knew instantly I hated it and started to panic. I was panicking so much I couldn’t get any air to come through because I wasn’t breathing properly. The instructor tried to take Dave and I onwards but I was then having a panic attack and kept doing the sign for up to the surface. I don’t think the instructor realised the level of panic that was going on and was trying to mime to me to breathe deeply/ empty my mask of water etc but I wasn’t having it and pushed up to the surface regardless (not what you’re meant to do, I know, but we were only a metre deep at this point). Our instructor passed Dave on to another pair and just stayed with me nearer the surface whilst I was floundering in panic. Overall, I hated it and will not be in any hurry to get a PADI diving license, but I’m still glad I tried! We had lunch on the boat and then took a glass bottom boat to our next snorkelling destination. We saw a few fish and interesting coral (predominantly bright yellow elephant ear coral) from the glass bottom but it was quite murky. We pulled up to a tiny island (like 20 metres squared) in the middle of the ocean which was quite cool. There was another island adjacent and the water was so shallow you could walk between the two islands. We got in the water and snorkelled as a group, at this point I had learned how choppy it was and opted for a life jacket which was helpful because the current was quite strong. We saw more coral this time and a few different fish but they were quite a bit deeper. THEN, a giant sting ray appeared out of nowhere gliding effortlessly past us. We’d never seen anything like that before so that alone made our whole day worth it! We saw him burry himself in sand along the bottom too. Everyone was really excited, even the scuba instructors who said they only tend to get little ones and had never seen one so big! If it wasn’t for the sting ray, we would have said the great barrier reef was very very average (comparing to Koh Tao).
We had a nice chilled day before we left. We loved Cairns though unfortunately it was tainted for me at the very end. As I crossed the road to the bus terminal, a middle aged white man wound down the window of his car and yelled “50 points to kill the terrorist” at me. I was so in shock I just stopped and stared, in hindsight I wish I’d done something but he drove off at speed. The stupidity of some people in this world is so baffling and deeply worrying. I was fuming for the majority of our bus ride.
Anyway, thanks for reading, next time we’ll be about 5 hours South in Townsville and Magnetic Island.
Sophie & Dave