Finally able to leave the Philippines, we boarded our flight a little concerned about our bags which had been checked in all the way to Cairns despite us being on two different airlines. The airport was exceptionally dull with almost nothing at all to do or eat so we were thrilled to be on our way. A quick stop in a very new and nice airport in Papua New Guinea (we didn’t leave the airport, but the country looks amazing if you can still face it after reading the UK foreign office information about it!) and we were on our way to Australia at long last.
We arrived to successfully find our bags before passing the customs officials who were very studiously making sure we had nothing that might be against customs laws. We did actually have some nuts and a deep fried pork thing from the Philippines which were easily disposed of in one of the bins they have for such items before we were allowed in. Annoyingly, it was all automated and we didn’t get a stamp in our passports!
We checked in to our hostel & realised quickly how much worse Australian hostels are than those in Asia – in Aus you have to make your own bed & the hostels are mainly full of “staff” who are travellers doing 3 hours work a day in exchange for free accommodation, of whom 90% are completely useless. On top of that you have to pay about 6 times as much for the pleasure! That said, if we were here for longer it does look like a great way to travel around the country while spending a bit of time everywhere you go.
We then had a little walk around town and along the coastal boardwalk which was nice and had lots of information about the local wildlife. Cairns is all about activities and there are travel agents on pretty well every street. They are all super pushy which was quite a change from Asia where people would sell you things by being incredibly helpful – just trying to find out about what happened on the diving trips we were looking at was surprisingly difficult as these guys were selling so hard.
We knew we wanted to buy a bus ticket for our transport around this giant country so went to the Greyhound office to sort that out. As it happened they had a special offer on so instead of the ticket that only allows you to travel in one direction (North or South) that we had planned on buying, we instead got one that let us go wherever we wanted, whenever we wanted for a month. We also booked a couple of tours for later in the trip – for the Whitsundays and Fraser Island.
The main reason for visiting Cairns was to dive on the Great Barrier Reef and there are loads of options for boats. It was all very different to the diving we had done before though as the smallest boat here carried up to 60 people! That was 4 times the size of the boat we had been on in Indonesia. The largest ones went up to around 200, which is massive. We ended up on the small one after a few different places had recommended it, but the weather was pretty grim. The boat was good, with good food, but they kept the air conditioning on constantly and it was a cold wet day so wasn’t all that nice.
The diving itself was good – there weren’t any of the turtles, sharks or other big names because the weather had been keeping them away but that allowed loads of the little critters out which were really fun to find and get a close look at. Between the first and second dives of the day there was a massive monsoon shower and we all decided it was much more pleasant – and at 29 degrees, warmer – in the water rather than on the boat, so we hopped straight back in as fast as we could. Overall it was a good day’s diving, but the reef had nothing on Indonesia which made us realise how lucky we had been to have such a good time there.
We had planned on leaving Cairns at this point, but it turns out Northern Queensland where Cairns is located has a tropical climate different to the rest of the country and we were smack in the middle of the worst wet season they had suffered in 100 years. This meant that not only was it raining heavily for most of the time we were in Cairns, but the road south had been closed due to flooding in a town called Townsville which had cut off both of the 2 roads that connect the north and south. Our bus therefore wasn’t running, so we stuck around an extra day to see if the water levels subsided.
We spent our day renting a car and driving up into the mountains nearby. The road was tight and windy, and I managed to make Claire feel a little car sick early
on (Claire: ‘not something anyone managed to do in Asia….rally driver Andy!’) so we took it nice and slowly. When we were up in he hills we stopped for a tea in a lovely little place on a (very flooded) lake which use to be the crater of a volcano, it would have fit in nicely somewhere in the lake district back home.
After that, we visited a the largest fig tree in Australia and a freshwater lake that the locals swim in (regardless of the resident crocodile), where we had a monsoon shower that soaked us through in the space of about 3 steps, it was so heavy! Then we had a look at some waterfalls, including the Peter Andre/Herbal Essences one, which was pretty cool.
The highlight though, was a little nature trail and information centre. We started in the information centre and spoke to the ladies running it who were very proud of all on show in a way that people who don’t get many visitors often are. After learning about the volcanic history of the area (I realised then that I really knew nothing about this place – the monsoons, volcanoes and mountains had all been surprises to me) reading up on some of the local wildlife, we set off on the little 1km nature trail.
Expecting very little based on our experiences of such things at home, we were greeted by a sign that warned us of dangerous leaves which could cause pain for 3 months if they touched your skin. Genuinely everything in Australia is trying to kill you! We had only flip flops on, so started walking very carefully so as to not touch any leaves with our feet. The sign had failed to show what the killer leaves looked like!
As we walked strangely along the path, we saw some tortoises in the river and a big lizard nearby. Claire then managed to spot something furry in the trees and we stood watching for a while. We were hoping it was a tree kangaroo, but some Australians came past and very diplomatically informed us that they looked quite a lot like possums. Having never seen them either, we were still happy.
The path threw up little else but just as we were about to reach the road we spotted something staring back at us. With no idea what it was we took some photos and wandered back to the info centre. The ladies were interested but gave us a ‘yeah, right’ look when we said we thought we’d maybe seen a tree ‘roo. Apparently lots of people mistake the possums for tree ‘roos. I showed them all of our photos and one of them suddenly got excited – turns out we had indeed spotted a ‘roo. “You’re very lucky, nobody ever sees them” she said, despite most of the visitor centre being dedicated to them!
The following morning we went to the bus office for an update, which was not good news. Buses were cancelled for 3 more days, but they didn’t realistically expect them to run until the following week. We were not staying in Cairns that long, it really isn’t a very exciting town outside of the activities, so stumped up for an expensive flight to Brisbane that evening. At this point we were very glad of our upgraded bus tickets as it allowed us to fly south, over the flooding then get a (20 hour!) bus back up north to just under the flooding where we had a boat trip to the Whitsundays booked. As painful as the journey was, it was better than sitting on our hands in Cairns. The roads didn’t open for another 2 weeks in the end, so it was definitely the right decision!