We have had such an exciting few days and I don’t know where to start with this update so bear with me if I come across a tad excitable. (Reader warning: It is a long update this time as we have had a couple of jaunts so make sure you have a few minutes.)
The Great Barrier Reef
Whilst in Cairns, we knew we wanted to get out to see the reef so dropped into the Cairns Tourist Information Centre to see Katie (who is our host’s neighbour). There are so many dive and cruise operators and booking agents to choose from it is a total minefield and you could easily end up spending a whole chunk of money on a trip that doesn’t suit your ability or what type of day you want. (If you ever visit Cairns, be warned, a lot of the booking agents use the “i” information sign which we associate with pukker state funded tourist information offices. That is not the case here, any Tom, Dick, Harry, Sheila or Bruce can use them and they are usually staffed by backpackers with little local knowledge.) All the dive operators should have licences to dive in certain locations around the reef. Some companies only have one licence so you get taken to the same location as everyone else and it can be a bit hectic. Some of them also have a very bad ratio of crew to divers. The advantage is though that some of these have pontoons which you can spend time on and enjoy a semi-submersible or flat bottom boat trips.
However, according to Katie we are independent travellers not so much tourists and she didn’t think this was our thing. Loving Katie already……. She recommended a company that has licences to dive/snorkel in 16 inner reef locations and the decision of where is made on the day, depending on the weather and sea conditions. Advice on sea sickness tablets varies massively but we decided that as it was too special a day to get spoilt so we would get some as a preventative measure. After a quick trip to the chemist for these (which were brilliant) we were good to go the following day.
It was an early start to get across town to the jetty for 7.30am, especially as I set the alarm wrong and we had 10 mins to get to the bus stop. Eeek. The number of boats preparing for the off was staggering but once out a sea we hardly saw them again. Great Barrier Reef.
We left the coast behind and headed out the 35 km or so to Hastings Reef. The crew were so friendly and helpful. There were 54 of us on a boat that can take 120 and there was a ratio of 5:1 divers to crew so plenty of time for everyone to get kitted out and get safety briefings, etc. We ranged from fully certified divers, a couple of non-swimmers and a few groups of chinese passengers who looked like they had never seen water and spent most of the day with a sick bag on their laps. (I think they had been sold the trip but some of the unscrupulous “i” imposters.)
Once at Hastings Reef, the crew sprung into action getting each group of differing abilities into the water. They were super organised. All the equipment was good quality and looked new – I was even offered a prescription mask as they clocked that I wore glasses. It could have been mayhem with wet suits, fins, snorkels, tanks, swimming aids all being fitted but they had such a good system and before long we were ready to leave the dive deck.
Our crew member was Michelle, and she was brilliant and so patient. She had a life ring with her which she attached the two non-swimmers to in life-jackets and towed them round the reef. She guided us snorkelers into what is called the Fish Bowl in the middle of the reef. Some of Hastings Reef is very shallow so we followed her lead through the deeper water into the centre of the reef. After this initial bit of guidance, so we didn’t end up damaging the reef with the massive fins, we were free to go where we pleased. The wet suits kept us quite buoyant but because I was unsure how tiring it would be they gave me a noodle (one of those foam tube things). This soon got ditched because it was more in my way than anything.
The coral was stunning. So many colours shapes and forms, all within arms reach. I was a bit worried I wouldn’t be able to see well because of being short-sighted but everything was so clear and overwhelming. Michelle was calling out things she had spotted and we managed to see so much. There were a couple of 100 year old giant clams that looked like they could eat your leg. An epaulette shark did a few pass-bys, there was a very friendly turtle and lounging under the boat was a barrcuda hiding under our boat. Numerous clownfish (aka Nemo)and Wally (which is a giant Maori Wrasse.) It was simply stunning and I kept smiling – not a good idea when you need to keep your lips tightly fitted around your snorkel!! Although Michelle advised us to keep in pairs, it was hard to tell who was where in the ocean. I am sure I nearly held hands with another 50 something silver haired snorkeler so I suppose that means that Jon was doing the same with some 20 year old surf babe! Worth a try. We did manage to link up for a photo.
We had thought of hiring an underwater camera but decided against it as we wanted the freedom to move around and enjoy the moment without being hindered by equipment. We were in this location for about 2 hours and snorkeled most of the time. Just before we left, another dive boat arrived. Everyone was piled on the back trying to get in the water. It looked frantic and they didn’t seems to have snorkels, wet suits, or lookouts on the boat. So gald we were on our boat where we were eating lunch which was a help yourself buffet. Cold meats, salad, quiche, bread, pasta, etc We certainly didn’t go hungry or thirsty the whole trip. There was help yourself tea, coffee and water all day. Fruit slices in the morning. Lunch and then cake in the afternoon. They also operated an honesty box for fizzy drinks, crisps, etc
After lunch we headed off to our second location at Saxon Reef and a location called Coral Gardens. The coral was different again but equally as stunning. I think this site was less visited so it was a matter of looking more closely in the nooks and crannies for the shy wildlife. We were in the water about another hour at this site. Despite starting to feel weary, all too soon it was time to head back to the boat and cruise our way back to Cairns.
The whole day was something we will never ever forget and has reinforced in us the importance to have this adventure while we can still give the younger travellers a run for their money (most of them were deep asleep on the way back.) Such good value too. $200 dollars each – about £100 each. Tempting to do another day and an introductory dive but we decided that we would leave the perfect memories we already had alone. Thank you to our fantastic crew and the invitation to join you in the evening for drinks aboard another vessel in the harbour.
Kuranda Scenic Railway
Whilst with Katie in the Tourist Information office, we booked up for another trip. It was something we couldn’t do by public transport and looked like a good day out. We gave ourselves a rest day after the reef then headed off to Cairns Central Railway Station for a 9am departure on the Kuranda Scenic Railway. The Cairns-Kuranda Railway was built in the pioneering days between 1882 and 1891 to transport gold diggers and their supplies up into the rainforest of North Queensland. It was built by mostly Irish and Italian workers and, once you encounter the landscape, it is a massive feat of engineering. The track rises 328 metres above sea level over the 23 miles, 2.3 million tons of earth and rock was removed by hand. It has 15 hand dug tunnels, 37 bridges and a couple of 180 degree turns.
We took our seats in the last of the 14 wooden carriages dating back to the early 1900s and waited for the two 1720 class locomotives to haul us up through the rainforest. Along the way there were commentaries about certain locations and set backs that the engineers and workmen encountered. Apart from the difficulty of working in such an extreme geological location the problems of heat, malaria and snake bites took it’s toll.
In a couple of locations it was explained that there were hotels and even a brewery clinging to the side of the mountain which seemed crazy as the track only just seemed to perch on the edge. About a third of the way up we encountered the Horseshoe Bend. As we were the last carriage we could easily see the two locomotives well ahead of us on the curve set against the back drop of the rainforest.
On the last section we stopped for 10 minutes at Barron Falls Station. Barron Falls is a huge waterfall which looks a bit tame at this time of year but in the wet season the water thunders over it.
After our one and a half hour journey we arrived at Kuranda Station and headed up into the village for a couple of hours before our trip back down. We had decided to do the return trip by Skyrail Cablecar over the rainforest.
Kuranda, although having a fabulous history, was basically a tourist town now. There is a Butterfly Sanctuary and Birdworld and every type of food outlet you could imagine. Being “independent travellers” we ate our sandwiches and headed for the rainforest but not before Jon gave me a tune on the old Joanna in the market.
We found a walk through the rainforest – the first stretch was called Jum Rum Walk and that led onto the Jungle Walk and finally the River Walk. All of which would take about an hour and lead us to the Skyrail Station. It was a lovely walk – away from all the hub bub of Kuranda. Even though there were probably a few thousand people lunching and visiting the town that day we only saw about 6 on the walk. We came across a lovely creek which was a perfect place to listen to the sounds of the forest before we got close to the town again and the aboriginal DJ whooping up the crowd near the longest water slide I have ever seen.
We arrived at the Skyrail station and boarded our cable car.
It was a bit of an overcast day but the views were still great. We swooped over the rainforest canopy. There were two stops. Barron Falls – on the opposite side of the valley from where we had stopped on the train. We were much nearer and got a really good view from the viewing platform.
The final viewing station was at the top of Red Peak where we stretched our legs and once again admired views of the variety of trees and birds.
After leaving the Red Peak stop, the cable car heads down the mountain and there are stunning views of the coast and Cairns. It took around an hour for the return journey but it went really quickly. Every now and then you got a sneaky peak of the Kuranda Train on the other side of the valley and once again could appreciate what a massive engineering accomplishment it was. My Dad would have loved to see it – although he would say they probably didn’t do it right! Another great day out and the weary independent travellers headed home.
So all in all a fantastic couple of days that will never be forgotten and we feel pretty smug about our adventures.
However, I cannot sign off without a mention of Teddy, our hosts dog. We had a couple of comments about Jon’s exploits of trying to rescue the neighbours dog from the road because he thought it was Teddy. Although they look very similar, there is only one Teddy and here he is……
24.9 – 26.9.2015