ROCKHAMPTON & AGNES WATER, AUSTRALIA

ROCKHAMPTON & AGNES WATER, AUSTRALIA

One thing you find out pretty quickly when driving the whole east coast of Australia is that you will not be able to visit everywhere you want to, even in a five week tour. We were beginning to get a little sick of stopping in places just for one night, and our prolonged time in Airlie Beach had been so relaxing that we decided to be economical with our stops.

At Rockhampton we arrived late and camped illegally again, terrified we would be found, but the desperation not to spend $30 on a site for just a few hours fuelled our criminal activity.

Rockhampton
Near to our illegal camping spot at Rockhampton

 

We wouldn’t have stopped there if it wasn’t for someone we had met telling us that there was a free zoo there. Anything free is a must-do in Australia, especially coming from London where entrance to ZSL is around £30. The zoo and attached botanic gardens were beautiful, although we didn’t see many Aussie creatures. The heat was too much for many of the marsupials, who were snoozing out of sight.

An emu at Rockhampton Zoo
An emu at Rockhampton Zoo

 

From there we travelled down to a place called Agnes Water, where we had been told there was the cheapest surf school in Australia, around £10 for a three hour group session. Upon arrival we booked this immediately to avoid missing out on a space.

Agnes Water was a pretty laid back place, even for east coast Australia. We ended up staying in a place called Cool Bananas hostel. Yep. After being decorated with the mandatory Cool Bananas wristband, we parked our little van up round the back, feeling relieved that we didn’t have to live in constant fear of being turfed out witha $300 fine in the middle of the night – unless we did something really bad.

Get your car and your dog washed in the same place
A place we saw on the way to Agnes Water. In Australia apparently it is common to get your car and your dog washed in the same place…

Arriving at 10am outside the surf shop the next day for our (well, my) first foray into the world of rips, spray and waves, we joined the crowd of about 30 other English and German yoof and were shortly greeted by the founder of Reef 2 Beach surfschool. Mid fifties, this guy’s walnut skin, permanently attached black-out glasses, silver earrings, straggly beard and string vest clinging to his beer belly told stories of a life lived on the beach. Every sentence was punctuated by ‘aright guys?’. Every. Single. Sentence. I wondered if he knew he was doing it. I was interested to learn that my name, along with all the other girls there would be changed to ‘Babe’, and the guys were all renamed ‘Bro’ for the duration of the lesson.  Rules were explained like a school trip he’d headed 19,000 times before, and warnings dished out to make us feel like we’d already done wrong. We have found that often outdoorsy activities are run by slightly aloof, know-it-all guides, with a bit of a ‘seen-it-all’, ‘can’t-be-arsed’ attitude. They know their world, their town and their job inside out, and are rather indifferent to the tourists they meet on a daily basis. I always wonder if these types would be so smug at 7:30 on a steel-grey January morning in Streatham trying to board a heaving Southern service to London Victoria; i.e. coping with real life.

Spider v2 extreme

No pictures of the surf school sadly (as even a Go Pro would probably not survive an inaugural surfing expedition), but I will try and paint an accurate picture here. We were ordered down to the beach carrying surfboards between two of us and ordered to line them up on the sand, with their fins facing up upon pain of death. We then had a little lesson on dry land, which was quite difficult when the sand was lava-hot. I thought them teaching us to stand properly on the board was quite funny, as surely nobody stands up in their first lesson! Then, like being marched to our deaths we waded cautiously into the sea one by one carrying the boards by our sides, which is easier said than done. Even though we had the baby lightweight fibreglass boards, if you weren’t holding the damn thing in the correct orientation, one wave could bat it into the person behind you, potentially decapitating them.  A lot of the time we spent queuing for the three instructors was passed apologising for bruising each other.

I couldn’t believe it when, of the first three first-timer Babes and Bros to have a go, two actually stood up and sailed gracefully into the shallows, jumping neatly off by the shoreline. Great, this won’t be so difficult! Finally reaching the front of the queue, the instructor pushed me off as a wave came up behind me (‘Go for it Babe!’), and I was filled with confidence. When he shouted ‘Up now Babe!’, I tried to remember and put in place the steps we had gone through on the beach.  Hands back to level with chest, elbows bent, push up to belly, jump up and land in the middle of the board on both feet with the right slightly ahead and pointing forward, and the left facing slightly out, bend both knees and balance with arms out, all whilst looking at a point in the distance. Do you think it went well for me?

I ended up with sand in almost every orifice, and water in the ones it missed. Choking and spluttering I thought this was it; they would have to call an ambulance. Surely there was some sort of mistake, and something was drastically wrong with my board or, perhaps, the sea. Dragging myself up, choking on briney water, all whilst trying to tug on the cord attached to my foot to prevent the board from escaping and decapitating a child, I heard an exhilarated ‘Wooohooo!’ and saw the two guys who had set off with me gliding past, fist pumping… standing of course.

Fast-forward an hour and a half, and I STILL hadn’t stood up, and now comprised around 40% seawater. Yet I was not disheartened, even though the others (including Dan) were now making standing look easy, and beginning to actually ride waves in style. One of the younger instructors (to whom I was assigned the monika ‘Darlin’’) told me not to ‘over-think it’. So upon his advice I didn’t think about it at all, and forgot to try and stand up. You’ll be glad to hear that eventually I did manage one little, wobbly crouch-stand, for around 3.5 seconds, before falling off spectacularly and bruising my arse again, on my penultimate turn. Victory was so sweet.

I maintain that I am not good at surfing for two reasons: 1) I think too hard about things, and 2) I have the coordination of a newborn foal whose legs are twice as long as normal. Needless to say, I probably won’t be surfing again, but for £10, I’m glad I found out relatively cheaply that we are not suited.

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At our hostel, Cool Bananas
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Dan dozing at Cool Bananas
Australian products...
Australian product names….

The rest of our time in Agnes Water was spent trying to ease our aching, bruised bodies into compliance. One of the evenings we went with a girl from the hostel to the beach at sunset to do some ‘new moon manifestations’. I think she was the first of many hippies we may meet on this trip.  She told us that she believes the moon influences our moods, as the moon controls the tides, i.e. most of the water on earth, and us being 80% water then we must be subject to some superhuman energy. I have of course heard all of this before , but it was fun to go along with believing it whilst sat watching the sun going down with a cold beer or two. It was a way of reflecting on the previous month, and making a resolution for the next. Mine was to be brave and try new things, as well as enjoy the moment rather than wishing it away to the next exciting adventure. We’ll see how that pans out.

Surfer at Agnes Water

 

 

 

 

MISSION BEACH TO THE WHITSUNDAYS, AUSTRALIA

MISSION BEACH TO THE WHITSUNDAYS, AUSTRALIA

Driving south through northern Queensland  in our little air-conditioned Japanese people carrier-turned-campervan  we observed that between the rainforest, the landscape was very British, with rolling green hills and fields of crops blowing gently in the breeze.

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However, stepping out of the van one realised that the green was not the shorn blades of grass we were used to but some wider-leafed, waxier tropical version, the crops almost all sugar cane and coffee, and the elegant trees a species unknown to us with pale, plain bark and huge fern-like leaves. Not to mention the wall of damp heat which hit you as you vacated the vehicle. This was definitely not Albion.

Doing what we do best - stopping at McD for free wifi
Dan doing what he does best – using the free WiFi in MacDonalds whilst sipping a coffee.

We told Mr SatNav to take us to Mission Beach, the next backpacker’s haven. Upon arriving we noted that the place was completely dead, as every other tourist destination we had visited had been. The miles of golden sand were deserted when we arrived early afternoon. Engaging our impeccable planning nous, we decided to head to the tourist centre to find out what the heck we could do in such a quiet town. Luckily for us, the centre was being manned (and womanned) by a very kind and knowledgeable senior couple (who looked very fit!), who told us exactly what we could do, and where we could get away with a bit of bylaw-breaking free roadside camping. For a country which survives on tourism based on campervans, Australia is pretty hostile towards free campers, with signs everywhere saying ‘NO CAMPING, HEAVY FINES APPLY’, making many of our nights’ stays a little on edge to say the least.  Said lovely couple also directed us to a place little-known to tourists called ‘Alligator’s Nest.’ At this point I have to highlight, that although Oz is full of alligators, Alligator’s Nest is just a name, and none of these many-toothed reptiles actually reside here. In actual fact it was the the local boy scout group which met at the site who called themselves The Alligators, giving it its name.

Alligator’s nest was one of those places we then went on to recommend to absolutely everyone travelling north (see note in previous post on ‘must-see places’). Two freshwater streams which ran directly from the top of the rainforest covered mountain met here, creating a cool, dappled pool lined with sand and inhabited by shy silvery fish and not much else. The locals we met there (there was not a tourist in sight!) proudly enthused about its drinkable qualities. One bronzed, hairy-chested middle-aged guy we met there mused that being from London we must spend too much time in front of a screen, and ‘not experiencing the real world!’. Any rebuttal dreamed up on the spot felt trite – he was actually right. This scene nature had accidentally created was so perfect I felt like I was in a Timotei advert, and we did indeed try to recreate the famous hair flicking scene (although I think that was Herbal Essences). Unfortunately all our photos were taken on a disposable film camera, so we have no images to put up here, apologies.

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Here is a photo I have stolen from Wikipedia which does not do Alligator’s Nest justice at all.

Further down the coast we stopped at the small residential town of Bowen, which had been recommended to us by our taxi driver back in Cairns. Continuing the theme, we felt like the only backpackers in Bowen. The town itself is flat, in fact fairly boring. But the beaches there are really something incredible. The friendly Yorkshire chap who greeted us at the tourist information centre assured us that Horseshoe Bay was named as number 15 out of all Australia’s beaches, which Dan did not find that impressive until I reminded him there were over 36,000km of coastline in Australia. As it was so hot, we decided to head over and enjoy lazing in the shade there.  We again decided to risk free camping, but picked the wrong spot, and were moved on at 3am by a man whose job it was specifically to find free campers and fine them. Luckily for us he decided to let us go, which meant a long drive to the middle of nowhere to sleep for the rest of the night. Again we didn’t really take any photos for some reason. Don’t worry, the next bit makes up for it.

A typical campervan meal!
A typical campervan meal

The next big destination for backpackers was Airlie Beach. This is the jumping off point for all of the tours to the famous Whitsunday islands. Having had our sleep interrupted, and not having showered for a good few days, we took the decision to pay $35 for a site in a holiday park here, which is how we ended up at Seabreeze, with a load of other campers. The site itself was good, and we finally had some power so we could use the laptop, and all the WiFi we could consume. Clearly we were coping with being off the grid extremely well. We ended up staying in Airlie a few nights, and (almost embarrassingly for people meant to be experiencing the world) spent most of our time reading by the pool, keeping out of the tropical sun.

Airlie beach campsite
The pool at our campsite

Airlie Beach

We met an old guy next door to us, who practically lived at the holiday park for the summer. He was an ex-mango farmer, who liked to feed the kookaburras at the site and had his own pot garden (a garden made up of plant containers to be crystal clear.) He was a really amiable chap who liked to chat and we made friends with him, asking after his garden and the birds when we came and went. It was during one of these exchanges he mentioned in frustration that there were ‘so many queers’ visiting Queensland now, and that the indigenous folk ‘have had everything handed to them on a plate’. This felt so bizarrely at odds with any kind of experience we would have with anyone back home, even with people from older generations. From this point we noticed a few more similar comments mainly being made by older white Aussies living outside the big cities, particularly about Aboriginal people. We’ve come to realise the reality that there is a huge gulf between our (sheltered, but worldly) Londoner views and those of some Australian folk. I was quite shocked to hear that gay marriage is not legal in Australia yet, which feels a long way behind the rest of the developed world.

An actual kookaburra on our van!
Spot the kookaburra on our van
Airlie Beach (2)
Airlie Beach

The pleasant walk into Airlie Beach proper took around forty minutes, and skirted the harbour and several expensive brasseries, as well as multi-million pound properties which overlooked the incredible seascape.

Airlie Beach (3)Airlie Beach (4)

Once you had passed this however, you arrived in the centre of backpacker heaven – the first town of its type we had visited. Youth travel agencies dominated the high street, along with bars and clubs pumping out crowd-pleasing dance tunes at 5pm, inviting in the punters with alcopop deals. As we trailed behind yet another 19 –year-old backpacker who was meandering amongst the tacky gift shops and pizza bars Dan whispered ‘Is it a rule that if you are a girl you must have long dirty-blonde hair to come here?’ As we are practically OAPs in the backpacker world, and we didn’t have money to burn having spent it all on the campsite, deciding to give partying a miss, and headed back for an early night to prepare for the next day’s visit to the chiefly uninhabited Whitsundays, which was the reason we were in Airlie Beach anyway of course.

Dan found his perfect headwear in Airlie Beach
Dan annoyed that I wouldn’t allow this purchase

The tour we took far outdid the coral reef tour we had done in Cairns, the main reason being that we were put on a speedboat, rather than a rolling old vessel, which meant Dan didn’t feel ill the entire day. Any worries about this particular partly-inflatable boat were put to rest after the skipper reassured us it was originally designed as a lifeboat before being put into use as a tourist craft.

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‘Allo!

The snorkelling we did in the reefs around the Whitsundays far surpassed that by Cairns (although we have met people who had the opposite experience). After the snorkelling we were taken to one of the islands (which I have forgotten the name of) to go on a walk to a lookout over the famous white sands of the Whitehaven beach.

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The white sands of the islands
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Looks a bit dull, but the camera couldn’t capture the bright colours underwater
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Nemo not as camera-ready as Pixar would have you believe

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Toddy our tour guide told us that there is no freshwater source on any of the many islands except one, and that the indigenous people living on the islands would sail and row back to mainland Australia where they would collect fresh drinking water every few days. Standing there amongst the selfie-stick jungle in the 30 degree heat I couldn’t imagine anything worse, even in this veritable paradise.

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All that white sand and tropical sun was incoveniently blinding

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Viewing points are interesting places. Obviously the view is usually incredible, and there to be gawked-upon and appreciated. But tourist-watching is far, far more entertaining. The lengths people go to to get a good selfie. The battling for space at the well-worn points where one can achieve the perfect vista. The automatic, unthinking raising of the horizontal phone screen as soon as the viewer lays eyes upon the spectacle. This ‘not living in the moment but living through your phone screen’ is the latest thing to be derided, ironically, on social media. And observing all of this can make one feel incredibly smug and holier-than-thou, except for one thing. I am also guilty of all the things above.

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More tourists at another viewpoint

After selfiegeddon, we hopped across the channel between the islands to Whitehaven beach where we burned our feet on the silica sand (good for cleaning teeth and silver jewellery according to our tour guide, who then proceeded to demonstrate with his own pearly-whites. He didn’t mention how it would work on silver teeth), ate our lunch and snorkelled a little more in the clear, shallow waters by the boat.

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Dan is the first to admit goggles are not his best look

The ride back was my favourite part of the entire day, which is perhaps unusual for someone who has just visited ‘paradise on earth’. Tim the skipper rode some extremely choppy waves in a manner akin to Jeremy Clarkson test driving a supercar. It was the most fun we’d had in a long time.

Dan on the speedboat to Whitsundays
Clutching on to the side

Although nobody fell off, Toddy told us about a girl who was once sitting on the edge of the boat, had her bikini top fly off. The act of covering her modesty meant letting go of the rope handles with both hands, meaning she flew backwards off the boat itself. The boat of course went back to collect her, luckily unhurt, but now sans bikini bottom from the impact of hitting the water at high speed. Apparently they had to make all the other tourists look away as she made her undignified way back into the vessel totally nude. I. Would. Rather. Drown.

Airlie beach ticked off we headed further down the coast, full of happy memories (yes, cliché) and ready to laze by some more pools in between exciting tours.

 

 

ATHERTON TABLELANDS, AUSTRALIA

ATHERTON TABLELANDS, AUSTRALIA

The thing about planning your daily destinations and activities whilst travelling (which is really the only way you can do it when you’re away for a year like us), is that you rely heavily on the Internet for recommendations. This is troublesome because the Internet (or more accurately the millenial behind the computer screen) so often lies and exaggerates, or polishes metaphorical turds so as to give the consumer an impression of a pristine lifestyle or place which actually doesn’t exist. Pinterest is a good example: on Pinterest you could take a Google image of an industrial estate in Slough, tart it up using Lark, Juno or Slumber, add a radial tilt-shift and present it as ‘Three days in Berkshire, Incredible Must-See Sights’, and it would be pinned 1.2 million times by Chinese tourists planning their UK visit. We all know by now that we’re being sold a lie, but it is difficult to discern sometimes between the actual ‘must-see’ places, and those which should really be labelled as ‘must-not-waste-petrol-driving-to-see’ places. This is why whenever we meet travellers coming in the opposite direction (Melbourne-Cairns) we interrogate them on their finds. Some of the younger ones have no doubt been fairly intimidated by our relentless questioning. Saying all of this, however, the Atherton Tablelands (‘the bread basket’ of Australia) was an area we visited after discovering an interesting and detailed blog post about one woman’s trip there, and what she enjoyed doing and seeing. I would say this was one of those times the Internet came up trumps.

The Atherton Tablelands is a fertile plateau which lies inland from Cairns, and comprises around 32,000km of tropical jungle, mountains, wetlands and savannah. Driving slightly northwest from Cairns we arrived after not too long in the ‘Village in the Rainforest’, Kuranda. Kuranda knows it’s pretty, and has thus monopolised on this by providing several expensive nature-based attractions for visitors, including the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, Birdworld, Koala Gardens, where you can hold said marsupial for $30, and a Skyrail which takes you through the treetops. Asking in the tourist office for free or low-cost activities attracts blank looks.  But as you may have garnered from the name, Kuranda is a village in the rainforest, and we found plenty of nature-based things to do literally just outside it. Anyhow, we’d just seen a load of butterflies at the botanical gardens, and were sure would see a koala or two on the 3000km before we reached Melbourne.

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One of the hottest days so far (36 celcius) at Billabong campsite where we were the only campers
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Monster trucks at Billabong

The free rainforest walk circled the village and allowed us to pass an interesting couple of hours exploring flora and fauna we were most unused to being from London, where the most exciting creature you might come across would be a grey squirrel gnawing at a chicken bone in Brockwell park.

Walking through the rainforest
Rainforest walk
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Rainforest walk by the river

Ear-splitting cicadas, gigantic spiders, stereophonic frogs and boggle-eyed lizards were just some of the animals who dutifully ignored us as we trekked through their forest home on the handily-provided wooden boardwalk.

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Yuck
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Noisy bastards

The walk passed by a free-to-visit bat and flying-fox hospital, which excited me greatly, as the thousands of large bats we had seen every night were a complete novelty. However, when I approached a woman who was sitting on the balcony of what I assumed was the hospital, she told me it wasn’t open with no explanation why. Helpfully, she confirmed the reason later that afternoon when we saw her drinking with some of the locals in Kuranda market. Well, everyone’s allowed a day off I suppose.

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Kuranda is a lovely village to visit for a day or two, and February seems to be a good time to go as it was fantastically quiet tourist-wise. The markets are diverse but quaint, and the hippy stallholders just about authentic enough to make you believe they do only eat the gluten-free vegan produce they are pedalling, once they have parked their 2016 Toyota Landcruiser in the driveway.  A word of warning if you are planning a visit – everything shuts down at 3:30pm. Presumably for the hippies to drive home and eat their vegan produce in enough time.

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Vegan lollies
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Rainforest Minigolf
Make no mistake, these hats are ONLY for girls
Make no mistake, these hats are definitely only 4 girls

After this abrupt end to our time in Kuranda, we drove on to the beautiful Baron Falls nearby, which was equally as quiet as the village –we only saw two other couples there. The falls were epic (not in a child reviewing the Lego Movie way, but actually epic), and the viewing platform had to be quite far from the falls themselves, so as to not get the tourists soaked by the spray.

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Baron Falls

We passed by the Baron Falls Skyrail station and agreed that we were better off exploring the area by car for a lot less money, and unrestricted by timetables.

Kuranda was just the beginning of the glorious tropical bounty of the Tablelands, and as our online friend advised us, there were many other villages, waterfalls and farmlands to visit. The following days were packed with visits to coffee plantations, buying locally grown bananas, mango, papaya and watermelon at roadside stalls, driving through endless sugarcane, stumbling across natural peculiarities like the Curtain Tree Fig, swimming in Lake Tinaroo, shushing one another at platypus viewing areas (sadly no platipuses [platypi?!]), my first magical experience of fireflies dancing by a little creek (they don’t have the word ‘stream’ in Australia), and several more cracking waterfalls which of course Dan had to swim in.

Part of the waterfall circuit 1
Millaa Millaa

Waterfall circuit 2

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Dan doing what he does best on the waterfall circuit
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Curtain Tree Fig.

http://www.cairnsattractions.com.au/explore/getting-back-to-nature/curtain-fig-tree.414.html explains this phenomenon.

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Skybury Coffee Plantation
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Skybury

This part of the trip was quite unlike the sparse and dry image of Australia I had in my mind, and would be worth a whole holiday in itself. We felt a sense of sadness leaving the Tablelands, as there were many other things to see and do which we missed out on, such as the mango winery, the tea plantation and the impressive boulders at Babinda, but we were itching to get on as we had spent four of our forty days there, and had made barely any progress further south.

Colin the Cos was too big to fit in the fridge so had to ride shotgun with the aircon.
Colin the Cos who had to ride shotgun with the aircon on, as the fridge in the van was full
Dinner by the roadside
Dinner by the roadside – rebellious roadside camping
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An interesting town mascot
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And the real thing…

The Tablelands felt like quite a grown-up destination; we certainly didn’t see any other campervanners there, only retired Australians (did I mention how fit they all are?!) and the endless literature was pretty much only written in Comic Sans – clearly not written by or for those under 30. It was time to leave the breadbasket and return to backpacker land. We were hungry to see some beaches, and the next stretch of coast was meant to be one of the most beautiful. Happily there were still some tropical fruit stalls on the way…

FIRST STOP: CAIRNS, AUSTRALIA

FIRST STOP: CAIRNS, AUSTRALIA

So after three long flights, we found ourselves in Cairns, N. Queensland, Australia.  Although the flights were indeed long (the longest 14 hours), it seemed strange to have ‘only just’ left the U.K, and now be on the other side of the world, stepping out of the airport into a wall of oppressive tropical heat after leaving a two degree London. The plan was to stay at a hotel for the first few days before picking up our campervan and driving down the coast.

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Mandatory arriving in country on plane photo. You’re welcome
Our hotel
Our first hotel before picking up the van – the Bohemia Resort in Cairns

Having slept for much of the journey, we didn’t feel tired when we got to our (basic, but clean) hotel at 11pm, and were too excited (and jetlagged) to sleep, so we decided to take the mile or so walk into the centre of town. It was eerily quiet but for the chorus of frogs, bats and birds; we saw more wildlife in the couple of hours we were out than we had all year in London. In fact, a sign by the water said to watch out for saltwater alligators on the mud flats, which seemed totally at odds with the calm, civilised edifices lining the esplanade opposite. We hardly saw anyone else on our midnight stroll, which we thought was strange for a Friday night, apart from a few amiable Aussie teenagers falling out of clubs. The general feeling of central Cairns at night was a bit like a quieter Cardiff town centre had been picked up and plonked somewhere hot. In a good way.

In the morning we headed into the centre again after a chat with the nice Aussie lady at the hotel reception. She said her only memory of London was fracturing her nose on a double-decker bus in the seventies. Needless to say, she hasn’t been back.

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Our view from a supermarket carpark was rudely interrupted

It was still extremely quiet in the city. The thing about Cairns is it doesn’t actually have a sandy beach. Until not too long ago, the esplanade “didn’t meet the images of paradise envisaged when departing the airplane at Cairns International Airport.” (Do I have to reference here, like we had to upon pain of death in university? I got this quote from a website about Cairns if you really want to know). So in 2003, the local council redeveloped the foreshore and built a free-to-access lagoon where up to a thousand tourists and locals alike can swim and sunbathe (or ‘sunbake’ in Aussie English) against the backdrop of tropical rainforest-covered mountains, without the threat of said alligators. Along with the free pool, there were

  • free (clean) showersand loos
  • a free skatebowl
  • free Wi-Fi
  • free fitness equipment all along the esplanade (which were all in use after the heat of the day had died down)
  • a good band playing with a proper set-up for free
  • several free gas barbeques dotted around the grass surrounding the lagoon
  • free fitness classes every morning by the lagoon.

We mused that if this was in central London, the pool would by now be a dumping ground for shopping trolleys, or it would be something you read about in Time Out on the train home from work and briefly consider going on the weekend, but silently and sadly acknowledge that it would definitely be saturated with tourists by 8am. However, even though we went on a hot Saturday morning, getting a spot by the pool was easy, and it didn’t feel congested.

The lagoon, Cairns
The lagoon late morning on a Saturday

There were all types of people at the pool – local white and indigenous kids with their parents, tourists mainly from Europe or China, and a lot of fit-looking older folk (there are a lot of those in this country!). Thankfully, most Australians don’t seem to have found out about ‘hover-parenting’ yet; we saw five- and six-year-olds in the pool who didn’t make contact with their parents for hours at a time, (although they were in their eye-line most of the time) which was somewhat refreshing for someone who has worked in London schools. The lagoon was the highlight of our time in Cairns, and we got a lot out of it.

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All the free things you can do at the Esplanade
Dan at the skate bowl
Skate bowl
Dan underwater
The lagoon
People working out at the esplanade
The locals working out at sunset

As we walked home one evening we saw a lady get out of a taxi and hang around to talk to the driver for a bit. We had seen a similar exchange a few minutes before which had been quite heart-warming, as Londoners tend to jump out of their Ubers and scuttle away with as little contact as possible with the driver. I began to reflect on this aloud, but was cut short as we got close enough to hear that this was not the pleasantry I had presumed it was. The woman, who was pretty far gone, was exclaiming ‘Six dollars just to get in a taxi?! I ain’t no dumb pup!’ as she staggered away. I suppose not all the locals are as friendly with one another.

On the Sunday we had booked ourselves onto a reef diving and snorkelling tour, which is one of the ‘must-dos’ in Cairns. The tour demanded a 7am start, which wasn’t difficult for us as we were still so out-of-kilter.

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The crew were very cheerful (they were forced to be with ‘The Best Crew on The Reef!’ emblazoned across their polo shirts), and promised incredible conditions for diving, with a BBQ lunch plus wine, cheese and crackers on the way back to top it off. When we finally arrived at the reef after a three hour trip, Dan was feeling pretty seasick from the old vessel’s rolling about on the waves, it being too hot for him to stand on the deck where it was more stable.

Dan ready to dive at the Great Barrier Reef
Matchy-Matchy

Having never dived before, I was quite nervous, especially as they began to strap weights around my middle! Breathing underwater is one of the most bizarre experiences I have had. As the instructor said when I had a little panic that I couldn’t get enough air, “Yeah it’s totally stupid, breathing underwater is a ridiculous thing to do, and that’s what your body’s telling you right now.”

The dive only lasted 20 minutes, and most of that was me desperately gripping the instructor on one side, and Dan on the other, whilst trying to remember how to clear my mask every other minute, and squinting from the pain of having sunscreen in my right eye. All of this with an over-zealous photographer gliding up to me every 3 minutes and documenting this experience with a behemoth of a camera. I don’t actually remember seeing the coral at all. Needless to say I was quite glad to come to the surface. When we were offered a second dive for another $60 each (On top of the $60 we had already paid for that one, and the $179 we paid for the whole day), I looked at the man like he was mad. I don’t think diving was really for me.

However, after lunch we had the chance to do snorkelling, another new experience for me, but which turned out to be a much more palatable activity. This really was incredible – it was at this point I realised why they say it is a ‘must-do’. I felt like Dory, swimming around, gormlessly pointing at colourful corals and fish which I’d only every seen on telly, with the sun creating beautiful ever-moving dappled leopard print patterns on everything. I kept expecting to hear David Attenborough narrating the experience.

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First snorkel ever
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Go Pro done good
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Dan catching his breath

Back on dry land, I reflected that even if I am not a natural diver, I was glad we ventured out to do the trip, even if the warm wine in a plastic glass, and the one ritz cracker with a cube of cheddar didn’t really live up to our expectations.

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Can you spot us?

On our last day in the city, we picked up the campervan from Travellers Autobarn, and decided to head to the botanical gardens. We hadn’t heard much about it, but it was free, and as everything else was very expensive, we decided we couldn’t really go wrong. In fact were very pleasantly surprised. The gardens were full of plant and insect species we had never seen before, and there was a greenhouse full of huge, gorgeous playful butterflies, who entertained us for ages with their mating dances. For a free attraction, we thought it well worth a day’s visit.

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Our happy little van
Cairns botanical gardens
Say what you see

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Afterwards we went on a rainforest walk behind the gardens, which promised sightings of ossowary, but sadly did not deliver. It did deliver hundreds of hungry mosquitos however, which we ended up fleeing from in a Hunger Games style. Great views of Cairns airport though!

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Me taking pictures of the airport…

One thing which surprised us was that Cairns is a truly tropical city, as it is totally surrounded by rainforest, mountains, and reefs. Cairns is small, and incredibly well-maintained, and in our time there it felt like we had rented it out, as it was so quiet (but not dull). It has a very friendly feel, and was a fantastic place to begin our trip, and we would recommend it highly to anyone who is visiting Oz! As for eating our way around the world, well… Spanish cuisine was the best we could find.

Churros
Cairns Night Market