The next portion of our Australia trip took us into the tropical northern part of the country, visiting the tourist mecca known as Cairns. Pronounced locally as "cans" (like tin cans or soup cans), Cairns was a sleepy village known mostly for sugar cane production until the last decades of the 20th century, when the presence of tropical rainforests and the Great Barrier Reef combined to transform the small city into an international tourist destination. Modern visitors to Cairns inevitably head out onto the water to experience the reef in some form, whether diving or snorkeling or simply soaking up the bright sunshine. We were visiting Cairns during the winter season, which is typically one of the best times to arrive due to cooler temperatures and much less rainfall. Cairns sits at roughly the same latitude as Jamaica (in the Southern Hemisphere instead of the Northern) and has a similar tropical climate and weather patterns. This visit to Cairns would prove to be a memorable trip for a number of reasons, both expected and unexpected.
We flew from Brisbane to Cairns on a Wednesday evening, arriving after sunset in the moderately sized Cairns airport. One thing that's hard to put into words is the sheer size of Australia as a country; we had been driving around Brisbane earlier that day and saw road signs for Cairns stating that the latter city was 1680 kilometers away (about 1050 miles). Any thought of driving from Brisbane up the coast to Cairns had gone out the window at that point, although of course we had already booked plane tickets well in advance. We stayed at a place named Kookas Bed and Breakfast in Cairns, located in the Edge Hill neighborhood a couple miles away from the center of the city. The older couple who ran this B&B were incredibly kind to us, setting out the pictured elaborate breakfast each morning that featured some of the local tropical fruits. Kookas Bed and Breakfast was also situated on top of a steep hill, and therefore served up views looking out over the tropical landscape as we dined on our early morning meal. We would highly recommend this place to anyone else interested in visiting Cairns; just make sure to have a rental car since the B&B was about a 10 minute drive from the downtown.
Cairns is a small city with roughly 150,000 people living in the surrounding area. It definitely had the vibe of a beachfront town as we drove into the small downtown for the first time, reminiscent to me of the summers that I had spent in Ocean City, Maryland growing up. The tourism industry in Cairns only started to take off in the 1980s after the current airport was built, and this is a place still in the process of inventing itself as investment money continues to pour in. Tourism from China in particular has been exploding in recent years, and we spotted dual language English + Chinese signs on an increasing number of businesses in Cairns. These particular pictures were taken along the waterfront, where the unfortunately named Chinaman Creek empties into the harbor. There was a walking path here that we followed as it curved along the water's edge.
Our walk took us past the Reef Fleet Terminal, which was empty here in midmorning with the tour boats having already departed earlier in the day. We'd be returning to this same spot the next morning for our own trip out to the Great Barrier Reef. Around the corner the walking path continued along the oceanfront proper, home to plenty of hotels and resorts that looked out over the water. Off in the distance beyond the city limits, we could see the rainforest-coated slopes of hills that ran down to the water's edge. It was a beautiful morning with temperatures hovering around 75 Fahrenheit / 25 Celsius and there were a good number of people out and about enjoying the day. I should also mention that Cairns has a ton of different tropical birds to spot; neither of us are big on bird watching, but Liz liked this one particular bird and took a whole bunch of pictures of him. We'd be looking to spot more wildlife of a different kind later in the day.
The focal point of downtown Cairns is the swimming pool located on the Esplanade. Constructed in 2003 as part of a wider redevelopment effort of the downtown, the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon has a choice location overlooking the waters of the harbor right next to shopping and restaurants in the downtown. The actual harbor itself in Cairns is pretty muddy and doesn't make for a great swimming environment, and as a result the lagoon is the best place to cool off. We stopped for a few minutes to dangle our toes in the water and enjoy the lovely weather before continuing onwards. (Liz picked up a hat at the Esplanade to block out the sun and took a few selfies to show it off!)
If you were wondering why visitors swim in the lagoon and not in the ocean at Cairns, well, this is why. At low tide the waters recede to reveal a series of unattractive mud flats, great for the birds who root around for stranded critters but not so great for swimming. There were dozens of these large pelican-like birds on display as well as the more common seagulls; we stopped to check them out for a little bit before heading on.
These are a few of the pictures that we took while wandering around in the downtown portion of Cairns. As mentioned before, the familiar trappings of a beach town were present in the form of lots of restaurants and shops, many of them hawking different kinds of vacation-oriented goods. Unlike many of the other beach towns that I've visited, Cairns had a fully tropical environment serving as the backdrop, with palm trees everywhere and huge, drooping mangroves dominating the city parks. We kept seeing tropical birds fly past overhead and stopped to check out the other flying inhabitants of the city:
The bats! Cairns has a colony of several hundred fruit bats that live in the downtown next to the library and we were easily able to spot them from the ground. The bats spend the daytime hours nesting in the tree branches, then come out at night to fly around the city feeding on different kinds of fruits and insects. They were quite loud as they chittered at one another, and the residents of Cairns mostly seem to regard the bats as annoying pests that get in the way. Liz absolutely loves bats and thinks that they're adorable; I'm a bit more equivocal but I loved to see her enthusiasm, and it was genuinely interesting to come across so many bats out in the wild. We occasionally see bats outdoors near our house, but only at night and never in big colonies like this. We were clearly visiting a very different climate.
After spending the morning exploring Cairns, we hopped back into our rental car and headed off into the countryside. We drove south out of the city and followed the roads as they headed inland from the coast, winding upwards over the hills into the region known as the Atherton Tableland. This is the higher ground overlooking the coastal lowlands, a drier region where the rainforests start to give way to more open grasslands and farming country. Getting up to the top of the Tableland was no easy task, requiring us to drive along a long winding road as it slowly gained elevation and ascended to the top of the hills. It took close to two hours before we made it to our next destination and were able to stop for lunch.
We had driven up to the Atherton Tablelands to see different kinds of wildlife, and our first stop was at the Australian Platypus Park near the tiny town of Minbun. This out of the way location had a surprisingly nice lunch menu for us to sample, along with its main draw of featuring platypus viewing in the wild. The platypus is one of the quintessential Australian animals, a bizarre creature that looks like a cross between an otter and a duck. They are one of the very few mammals that lays eggs and the males have a venomous stinger on their back legs that can cause severe pain to humans if pricked. Very, very strange animals. We learned at this stop that the platypus apparently like it when people make noise, and therefore you should not be quiet when trying to see them, and that they hate the appearance of umbrellas since they look like large birds. This was not exactly what we were expecting. The Platypus Park takes visitors to a large pond where a group of platypus make their nests. It wasn't easy to spot the animals but occasionally they would pop up to the surface to take a breath of air, and we were able to snap a few quick pictures.
These were some of the best images that we were able to get, which isn't saying all that much. The platypus have a wriggling motion that they use when swimming, a lot of twisting back and forth that makes them look a bit like fuzzy eels as they slide through the water. We would see them appear on the surface of the water and disappear again in the blink of an eye. Their dark fur blended in well with their surroundings, especially when they swam among some of the reeds and lillypads in the shallower portions of the pond. Overall, while it wouldn't have been worthwhile to drive up to the Atherton Tablelands just to see the platypus, since we were coming to this region anyway it made for a nice stop. It was entertaining to see the platypus in their natural habitat even if the creatures were pretty shy.
The main reason why we had driven inland was to visit Togla Bat Hospital, a sanctuary for the flying creatures located just outside the town of Atherton. Liz enjoys watching different animal rescue videos on YouTube and she had been following a number of different bat groups in Australia, one of which was this facility at Togla. We made reservations well in advance for their afternoon tour group, and she was extremely excited to see the hospital in person. Togla Bat Hospital takes care of hundreds of bats annually, which unfortunately suffer from both human habitation in the region and a series of debilitating diseases. The bat population of northern Queensland has been falling precipitously over the last few decades and several of the species are approaching endangered status. We arrived in plenty of time to explore the various education materials present at the hospital, and to take part in the tour scheduled for that afternoon.
Our tour guide started out by demonstrating how the staff nurses the young bats by using a bottle with an eye dropper attached. Unfortunately there are always dozens of orphaned baby bats each year, who have lost their mothers for one reason or another, and the staff has to nurse them using this method to keep them from dying. The bats are swaddled in little blankets to keep them warm, designed to replicate the feeling of the mother bats wrapping them in their wings. (Liz calls this process "bat burritos" and it does look like a sandwich wrapping.) Bat bodies are designed to be gripping something with their legs at all times, usually a tree branch or something similar, and therefore the little bat babies are given a soft pillow to grasp and then swaddled in their wrappings. The bats are disgustingly cute at this age and their faces can look surprisingly dog-like, albeit with a different type of eyes. This was a good choice to start the tour, as it immediately grabbed the attention of the children that were part of our small group.
We were taken next by our guide to several different caged areas where different types of bats were either recovering from injuries or growing up with the expectation of being released into the wild. The bats pictured here were officially spectacled flying foxes, named for the eyeglasses-like fur pattern surrounding their eyes. There were several dozen of them living in a large caged area of their own, hanging upside down from an iron mesh of thin bars. Our guide mentioned that the biggest expense for Togla Bat Hospital is fresh fruit, which the bats go through in large quantities each day. They were happily munching away on apples and bananas, biting off small chunks and then eating them in their little paws. Bats have the reputation of being creepy due to their nocturnal nature and the weird-looking way that their legs bend backwards, but they really can be quite cute when viewed in person. A lot of these bats were adorably dopey and goofy-looking. We were able to get within a foot or two of the bats so long as we didn't try to reach out and touch them. We also learned an important fact about working with bats: look out if they flip rightside up because that's a signal that they're about to release their waste. Bats are clean creatures and they make sure to flip vertically before loosing their droppings, giving plenty of time to clear out of the way.
Here are a few more views of the largest bat enclosure. The creatures look a little bit like a bundle of hanging fruits when they're clumped together in a group, all of them dangling together from the netting that hung from the roof of the cage. When they weren't feeding on the fruit, the bats were spending most of their time sleeping - they are nocturnal creatures after all. Towards the end of the tour, our guide stretched out the wings of one of the little red flying foxes, demonstrating that they were close to a full meter in size. This was also the best view that we had of the incredible fingers on these bats, which stretch out to an enormous length and provide the anchorage for the skin that creates their wings. This was a great stop for anyone who likes bats and we would highly recommend Togla Bat Hospital to visitors. It's a good haul from Cairns but the staff does an excellent job and kids would almost certainly enjoy the visit.
Just in case you weren't tired of bats yet, the staff at Togla mentioned where we could find a nearby colony of bats out in the wild. They live on a series of trees overlooking the road heading north out of Atherton, and sure enough, when we drove over there we found hundreds of bats overhead. This wasn't a particularly great spot to view the bats because we were literally on the side of the road with cars driving past us, but there were indeed tons of the same types of bats that we had just seen inside enclosures out here in the wild. We were mostly happy with ourselves for succeeding in the detective work of finding the bat colony, and didn't stay long due to the need to make the long drive back to Cairns.
We made it back to Cairns in the evening and walked around the downtown for a little bit in the cool night air. Bats were still on our mind and the colony in Cairns was out in force, easily visible throughout the city as they flew around catching insects. Although they were hard to capture on film due to the dark conditions, you can spot some of them flying in the night sky above the TGI Fridays advertisement in the first picture. The main place that we were keen to explore was the night market, a series of shops that only opened up for business in the evening hours. We ate dinner in the food court of the market and both picked up some Australia souvenirs from the vendors. Afterwards we walked past the quiet swimming pool at the Esplanade lagoon and headed over to the harbor to get a drink.
Hemingway's Brewery had a choice spot not far from the reef fleet terminal and we closed out the day by getting a drink inside. By a total coincidence this was the first day of the Ashes, the test cricket series played between England and Australia every two years, and we were catching the live start of the first match as it took place in England. What a strange experience to be watching a huge cricket series between England and Australia, while in Australia, with the games taking place in England! We only watched the first few overs before heading out since we had to wake up early the next day. Australia was almost comically inept during these first few overs so I was a bit surprised to discover that they won the first test easily by 251 runs over the next few days. It was a good lesson about not drawing any conclusions from the first 30 minutes of a five day test match.
We were up early the next day to catch our tour boat out to the Great Barrier Reef. We were traveling with a group called Silver Swift which would be taking us to some of the outer portions of the reef, places further away from the largest tours where it would be less crowded. On the map that I included above, Silver Swift was taking us out to Thetford Reef and Flynn Reef on the eastern side of the picture. The weather wasn't as pleasant on this day as it had been the day before, overcast and chilly along with windy conditions out on the ocean. We heard that there were going to be significant waves on the trip out to the reef, with swells as large as 3 meters / 10 feet in size. I knew from past experiences on boats that I should take whatever anti-seasickness pills were available, and I loaded up on as many preventive measures as possible against what looked to be a rough trip.
These were some of the pictures of Cairns as our boat left the harbor and headed out onto the open sea. The trip started out pleasantly enough, with a group orientation for anyone who would be scuba diving for the first time, explaining the importance of relieving pressure while diving to avoid serious injury to the lungs. Once the boat made it out of the harbor, however, the engines were turned on in full and the trip became very rough indeed. Everyone on board was tossed up and down as the Silver Swift cut through the waves at a speed of roughly 40 miles per hour, a speed that it needed to take to make it all the way to the outer reef in timely fashion. This was not a pleasant experience and almost everyone on the boat came down with seasickness. I managed to keep my food down but had to spend an hour in the open air staring out the back end of the boat at the horizon, drinking ice water, while covered in a clammy sweat. Not fun at all. If you're wondering why we don't have any other pictures from the trip heading out to the reef, that's why.
Fortunately the conditions were much better once we actually made it out to the reef itself. Although it was still windy and somewhat chilly outside of the water, it felt fantastic inside the water itself thanks to the wetsuits that had been provided as part of the tour. We were visiting three different locations and we would be snorkeling at the first two; I would be diving at the third location, and Liz very much also wanted to dive but didn't feel well enough to try it. These pictures demonstrate what conditions looked like above the waterline for the snorkelers. The ocean water was almost stunningly blue and even from the boat it was possible to see the mounds of coral just underneath the water. The one downside here was the choppy conditions, with the wind whipping up waves at the surface and making for some difficult swimming. This was not a place for the faint of heart or an inexperienced swimmer.
We had picked up a special plastic covering to take our camera into the water and these were some of the images that I captured while snorkeling. It was very difficult to focus the camera while snorkeling up at the surface of the water and most of the pictures had to be deleted since they came out as blurry messes, but a handful of these came out well enough to be included here. The underwater vistas were absolutely stunning, with colorful tropical fish everywhere and mounds of coral as far as the eye could see. It was immensely fun to swim back and forth between different strands of coral and see what new sights lurked around each corner. I've always loved swimming and this was a true delight, much like being inside an aquarium of exotic sealife. If it only it had been a little bit warmer and a little bit less rough this would have been even better.
Lunch was served on the boat but I wasn't feeling confident enough in my stomach to try eating any of it. Afterwards, we traveled to the final of the three dive sites for the day and I had a chance to suit up in full scuba gear. I had never been formally diving before and I didn't have any kind of certification for scuba. Fortunately the reef tours don't require diving certification to do one of their introductory dives, which take place with an instructor and don't do anything particularly dangerous. We went over the basic details for about the tenth time (hold your nose and blow out air to equalize pressure while descending, never hold your breath or stop breathing normally) and splashed into the water while wearing the full suit. The guide made certain that I could remove the breathing tube and replace it while underwater in the event of an emergency, and with that we were off.
Swimming underwater with the full scuba gear was a much better experience than the snorkeling. There was no need to worry about bobbing up and down with the waves on the surface, making for a much smoother experience, and it was possible to get much closer to the coral without needing to be tethered to the air above. I've always loved the sensation of swimming underwater because it feels so much like flying, and the diving gear allowed me to enjoy that uninterrupted for long minutes on end. There was only one other introductory diver with me on this trip, and the two of us followed our guide in circles through the coral field taking in the amazing scenery along the way. It was an easy dive that never went below about 8 meters / 25 feet of depth and lasted for a relaxing half hour's duration. Obviously there was no way to take pictures during this dive and the only images that I have came from on the boat and from the official photographer who snapped me in scuba gear. This is something that I would definitely do again, hopefully with Liz able to join me next time.
After I finished the dive, we did our best to try and recover a bit for the trip back to land. Liz and I sat out on the front of the boat and soaked up some of the sunshine as we watched the snorkelers finish up at the last dive site. The return voyage turned out to be much better than the trip out; I'm not sure if the conditions were less choppy or if we were simply more used to them by now. We were able to endure them in mere discomfort as opposed to active distress. Unfortunately there was one sad coda to the end of this trip that has to be mentioned: the plastic protector that we used for our camera failed us at the last dive site and it ended up getting flooded with salt water. We were able to recover the images on the camera off the memory card but the camera itself was dead. RIP our expensive camera. In retrospect, we should have used one of our older cameras from home for the snorkeling since it didn't matter if they were ruined. Between the salt water seeping into this camera and accidentally leaving my previous camera on the DC metro, I have not had very good luck with these things. We picked up a cheaper camera to use for the remainder of the trip so that we weren't reduced to just our cell phones, making the best of a bad situation.
For our final day in Cairns, we planned to visit the town of Kuranda, advertised to tourists as the "village in the rainforest". Kuranda can be reached normally by road, but the more interesting route involves taking a cable car system to the village in one direction and then returning back to the starting point on the scenic railway. We booked tickets in advance for both the cable car and the railroad, and arrived early in the morning to catch one of the early gondolas when the place opened. The one thing that was not cooperating was the weather, which had changed from partly cloudy skies on the previous day to a dreary, consistent rain shower. This was a tropical rainforest so the precipitation was hardly unexpected, but this was the dry season and we'd been hoping for better luck. The poor weather would characterize much of what we saw throughout the day in Kuranda.
The steady rain outside left the windows of the cable cars soaking wet and made it a bit difficult to see too much of the rainforest that we were passing below. I was struggling a bit with the new camera as well, trying to figure out how to avoid the autofocus keying in on the raindrops on the windows. When that happened, everything beyond the glass came out as a blurry mess. While this was still a pretty awesome experience, it definitely would have been better under sunny skies. One nice bit of luck was spotting a group of wallabies hopping past in the grasses far below. One of them is visible on the right side of the last picture above if the viewer zooms in a bit.
The first stop on the cable car system was at Red Peak Station. Located high atop one of the hills en route to Kuranda, Red Peak Station was deep within the rainforest and seemingly a long distance away from the urban environment of Cairns. There was a series of walkways at the station that winded through the forest, with the highlight coming in the form of some enormous trees that held up the canopy overhead. I can't recall the exact type of trees that we were experiencing here but the largest of them were supposed to reach a height of 80 meters / 250 feet. The rain was coming down harder here than anywhere else and we were very glad that the staff was handing out free umbrellas to use while exploring the station. I guess that they get this kind of weather often enough to have contingency plans in place for the tourists.
Another 15 minutes of travel took us from Red Peak Station to Barron Falls, the second of the three stops along the way. This was the section of the cable car ride that probably had the best views of the jungle below as we passed through the treetops. Barron Falls was once again kind enough to hand out umbrellas for the rain, and we walked along another boardwalk to a viewing area that overlooked the falls below.
Barron Falls is the name given to this series of cascades, where the water from the Barron River descends from the Atherton Tableland down to the coastal plain surrounding Cairns. Despite the rainfall that we were experiencing, this was still the dry season for the region and Barron Falls was exhibiting only a trickle of the water flow that sometimes takes place. During the rainy season, the water dropping over the falls swells to a massive torrent; here's a picture from Wikipedia of what that can look like. It would mean certain death to try and pass over the falls at that time of year, and visitors have been coming to Kuranda since the 1890s to take in the sight of the falls. Between the falling rain and the misty clouds overhead, we could have been visiting some ancient primeval land that time forgot, a lost world of unknown and dangerous creatures.
A steady rain was still falling when the cable car deposited us in the village of Kuranda itself. Pronounced locally as "Koo-RAN-da" (with the "RAN" part rhyming with "can" and not "ron"), this small town of approximately 3000 people has long been a tourist destination catering to artists and other countercultural figures. We walked past a series of small stores selling artwork or handcrafts as we made our way towards the center of the village. We ducked into one restaurant to get some lunch and escape the rain for a time, with this place being notable for having crocodile fillet on the menu. Liz ordered the crocodile option which came back in sausage form, tasting like an oddly-spiced form of pork. Crocodile is apparently a form of white meat. I had eaten a kangaroo steak the night before (tasting like a gamey form of beef) and I thought that crocodile was a little bit better. Liz disagreed and wasn't much on the crocodile.
Kuranda is known in particular for being a center of aboriginal artwork, and there were half a dozen different stores specializing in different types of native Australian art. We looked over the items on sale and eventually purchased a beautifully decorated boomerang that featured a stylized rendition of kangaroos. (Amusingly this expensive boomerang artwork had a little sign on it stating: "do not throw.") Kuranda's village center had a canopy overhead to keep out the rain, with more craftswork shops underneath advertising their wares. The most interesting store had a Scottish theme that didn't make any particular logical sense to be located in the Australian rainforest but which was fun to explore nonetheless.
Kuranda is also known for its Butterfly Sanctuary, which is supposed to be one of the largest in Australia. We went inside to get out of the rain again and found ourselves staying for a good hour to explore the indoor environment and check out the various colorful butterflies. There were dozens of different varieties of the flying creatures here, softly flittering from flower to flower in search of nectar. One of the butterflies latched onto my jacket and stayed there for a good five minutes until we could pry it loose. This butterfly sanctuary has been present in Kuranda since the 1980s and serves as one of the biggest tourist draws in the town, with tour buses pulling up with their contingent of visitors on a regular basis.
No particular caption for these images, I just figured that I'd show more pictures of the butterflies that we came across during our time in the sanctuary.
After spending a few hours in Kuranda, we were ready to head back to our car via the historic scenic railway. The Kuranda railway was constructed via backbreaking labor over a period of five years between 1886 and 1891. Many lives were lost as 15 hand-made tunnels and 37 bridges were built to climb from sea level up 325 metres to the Atherton Tableland. It's honestly pretty amazing that this railroad could be constructed at all back in the late 19th century. Although it was originally an important transportation link between the coastal areas and the inland tablelands, the Kuranda railway is used today only as a tourist attraction. It takes a little less than two hours to run the 37 kilometers / 23 miles from Kuranda back to Cairns. We were boarding at the Kuranda station which appeared frozen in time at some point in the early 20th century. This legitimately felt like something out of a Kipling novel between the old-fashioned train and the surrounding jungle terrain.
The train was packed full of other tourists, lots of people making the return trip from Kuranda back to their cars along with us in the afternoon. The train stopped shortly after departing the station at Kuranda to give everyone a view of Barron Falls. This was the opposite side of the river from where we'd been earlier, and the platform that we'd accessed via the cable car was just visible over in the distance at the top of the ridge. The view of Barron Falls wasn't as good from this vantage point, and it didn't help that we were competing for the views with several hundred other tourists. The train itself was the more interesting subject on this part of the journey back.
There was no shortage of impressive subjects to view out the window as the rain rolled down towards the coastal plains. We were generally following the course of the Barron River as it wound its way out of the hills, and there were a number of different waterfalls that we passed along the way. One of them was right next to the path of the train at a place called Stoney Creek Falls, a rare place where we were able to see the rest of the train as it snaked its way around a bend in the tracks. At other times we were able to look down into the valley below and spot some of the houses in the town surrounding Freshwater railway station. The weather continued to be bleak with rain sheeting down overhead, and it gave the train ride a somewhat gloomy feeling. This wasn't helped by the recorded announcements coming in over the livespeaker, which kept talking about how many laborers had been killed building the railroad. It was certainly an impressive feat of engineering given the rugged terrain that we were passing through.
And that was more or less how the Kuranda Scenic Railway came to an end. The train wound its way down into the valley below, where we exited at the station and caught a bus ride back to where our car was parked along with dozens of other tourists. (The labeling of where to go after exiting the train wasn't clear at all, bringing back a memory of a similar experience when Liz and I left the historic Flåm railway in Norway several years earlier.) We proceeded to drive in the rain up the coast to Port Douglas, the subject of the next page of this travel report. All in all, we had some magical experiences in Cairns that left memories which will last a lifetime. We enjoyed visiting the city, seeing the platypus and the bats, and the various parts of our reef tour that didn't involve terrible seasickness. It was too bad that the weather hadn't been a bit more cooperative but that's always a possibility when traveling. Next up, we would be continuing our trip through the rainforest portion of Australia's coast in an area significantly more remote than Cairns. The safari portion of our vacation continued onwards.