Above the tropic of Capricorn in Queensland: Cairns, Magnetic Island and around
by MagdaDH_AlexH on October 3, 2010
Cairns, being the major tourist destination for package tourists from Europe and Asia as well as a frequent final or starting point on backpacker internaries, abounds in places to eat and drink. Anybody willing to do a spot of self catering, or even just looking to buy some fruit for a picnic or a snack, should make their way to Rusty’s Market. The market is a covered area taking up almost a whole block between Grafton and Sheridan streets on the edge of the main centre of Cairns. It operates from early morning (5am or 6am) on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays until the closing time at 6pm (Fri), 3pm (Sat) or 2pm (Sun). The market has over 180 stalls offering mostly fruit and vegetables, but also flowers, bric-a-brac, fast and street food, spices, deli products, body care and even massage and other hands-on therapies stalls. But the main attraction remain the fruit and vegetable stalls. It's at the market that one realises the reality of the tropics: trays and bowls of all kinds of exotic fruit, in glorious colour, fill the air with sweet and intoxicating scents. Mangoes, pineapples, papayas and melons; dragon fruits and custard apples are all very reasonably priced, fresh and mostly local. Sweet potatoes, peppers and carrots, Chinese cabbage, pak choi and sweet basil, galangal, coriander and ginger invite images of fragrant curries and flavour-loaded salads. On the other hand, many temperate climate staples are very expensive: those on the budget should avoid cauliflowers and cherries which need to be transported from far away!
We needed to hire a car for a few days while staying near Cairns as we needed it to get to our host family's place as well as for some local touring. Cairns is chock-a-block with car hire companies, from the big national and international chains to local outfits. The prices offered by local companies are very comparable, with most offering the smallest car with no a/c for about 35 AUD per day and the small economy ones with a/c for about 50-55 AUD per day. We were looking, as usual, for a bargain, and after a positive experience hiring a car from a company called (NOT a nomen omen in that case) rent-a-wreck in Canada, we looked forward to hiring one from Cairns Older Car Hire, who offered "backpacker" cars for 29 AUD per day. Initially, it all looked fine and professional and we were even picked up for free from the town centre (their depot is near the airport, about 10 minutes' drive from the Esplanade). However, on arrival, and when we could have a better look at a car offered to us, we decided that there one should take economy only so far. Now, we are not particularly fussy. We drove old cars in the UK for years (and by old, I mean cars well over 10 years old), we hired from the aforementioned rent-a-wreck and we also rented an older (about 8 years old) car in New Zealand later on. So we don't expect shiny, new vehicles with all mod cons. But what Older Car Hire was offering was a Ford Laser that was not just past its youth, but a real old banger. I don't know much about cars, so I can't judge its age accurately, but it seemed to be pushing twenty years old and with over 30,000km on the clock and noticeable rust all over the bodywork it didn't look particularly reliable at all. Considering the fact that Australia doesn't have a MOT as we know it and the fact that the legal blurb made a lot of references to "having regard to it's [vehicle's] age" (yes, that's the punctuation in the original) we became rather dubious about the whole enterprise. Add to the fact that the excess on that thing was supposed to be 1,000 AUD (I am not sure about car prices in Australia, but the whole car was surely worth much less than that) we decided to pass. The people at the Older Car Hire didn't really like it: they were rather brusque and rude, tried to manipulate us or threaten into actually going through with the transaction and when asked about another, newer car, were not very forthcoming (the cheapest other option they had was 65 AUD per day, and as such much more expensive to what competition offered). We walked out in a huff, and rented a newish Hyundai Getz down the road for 50 AUD per day. All in all, not recommended, although maybe worth considering if you are looking for a long-term hire and are working on an extremely limited budget. For us, the risk of a breakdown and doubts about safety were not worth the price reduction for the few days we needed the car.
Atherton Tablelands or Cairns Highlands is the name given to an upland area west of Cairns, a popular destination for a day or weekend trip and one of the many reasons why Cairns is such an attractive base for touring the local area. On a hot day, the cooler and drier uplands (the tablelands are at an altitude of 400 – 1100 metres) provide a welcome respite. The area easily affords a few days of leisurely exploration, especially if you are into bush-walking, but at the minimum there are two circuits around them, each taking a whole day. The northern part covers Kuranda, Atherton and Yungaburra, while the southern part is the so-called waterfall circuit, with Millaa Millaa being the most famous one. We do the Kuranda/Atherton loop on a day that's pleasantly warm but not hot (it's July, meaning Australian winter, and in the tropics, the dry season). The road from Cairns passes the lower station of the Skyrail (a cable car gondola that travels above the treetops to the village of Kuranda) and then climbs quickly and steeply along a series of hairpin bends. We stop at a lookout for a great view of the coastal plain, Cairns and surrounding hills and the continue up to Kuranda. The road takes us through a wooded area of what I suppose is still a rainforest, but a slightly drier one that the sea-level areas. There are signs warning of cassowaries and other wildlife, but we don't see any: no wonder, as the road is rather busy with campervans and tourbuses. Kuranda (a small detour from the main road through the tablelands) is one of the most popular destinations in the Cairns region, partially because it's the terminus to the aforementioned Skyrail and also the Kuranda Scenic Railway, but also because originally it was known for "alternative" arts and crafts community that developed here a while ago as well as it's wonderful setting in the upland rainforest.Nowadays, it's a utterly dreadful tourist trap, entirely manufactured and artificial place consisting mostly of shops (some do sell reasonable crafts and artwork) and several slapdash, purpose-built "attractions" in addition to the Skyrail and the train. We have an ice cream, a play in the play park and escape as soon as possible. A couple of miles from the village lie the Barron Falls, a picturesque cascade via which the Barron River reaches the Cairns coastal plain. The falls are 260m high and can be seen from a board walk lookout, accessible from a car park as well as from a station of the Scenic Railway and the gondolas of the Skyrail. In the wet season the falls are magnificent (or so say people who have seen and photos). Now in July the roaring cascade has turned into more of a trickle, but the rocky gorge itself is pretty impressive, and it's fun to see tiny figures of people climbing the rockside and diving into the waterholes near the base. On the way back, we spot a huge (but apparently harmless), black and yellow spider spinning its web between posts of the boardwalk railing.We then drive through the tablelands proper. The landscape changes from rainforest to that typical Australian semi-arid, scrubby bush over read-brown earth dotted with eucalyptus. It's not an objectively beautiful scenery, but has that unmistakable, iconic almost otherness about it that is so characteristic of Australia. Added attraction here is the appearance of large, irregular, brown blobs of termite mounds – not as big as the ones found in the Northern Territory, but for somebody who has never seen one, pretty impressive.We stop at the roadside store for some fruit and local coffee (a lot of things grows on the tablelands) and then drive on towards and Atherton. There is more farmland, and distant mountains appear in the blueish mist on the horizon. Past Atherton the landscape morphs into a green, rolling hills, fields and pastures eerily reminiscent of English countryside.The day is drawing to a close and we skip some possibly attractive detours and some dubious attractions, but we make a small detour at Yungaburra to see the magnificent Curtain Fig: a five-hundred years old strangler fig, which, through a fluke of fate, grew through two other trees (instead of usual one) and in the process created a surreal and rather scary-looking triangular, living wall of air-roots and branches of immense proportions. A short boardwalk takes visitors through an usual forest surrounding the tree and the around the fig itself.Further along the Gillies highway lie two crater lakes, Eacham and Barrine. We detour to the first of them, and are rewarded by a lovely, crystal clear and mirror-like lake surrounded by rainforest. Too late for swimming, but still well worth for the views and a little walk. Further one, it's just a quick drive down the Gillies Highway back to the main Cook's Highway and Cairns, via a rather hair-raising series of bends.Atherton tablelands are not as amazingly special as they are made out to be (but then, not that many things in Australia seem to be) but they make for a nice day trip from Cairns and particularly in the wet season will offer a nice respite from the sea-level heat. The waterfalls, the termite mounds and the curtain fig are particularly good and if you even have a chance of seeing a cassowary.
One of the main attractions of coming to Cairns is the Great Barrier Reef. Cairns is where the Reef is relatively close to the shore and even the outer reef is fairly accessible for those wanting a day's diving or snorkelling Still, the outer reef trip involves two hours each way on a boat and will set you back at least 500 AUD for a family of four (or around 200 AUD per adult). An alternative for those who want to either save money or don't feel up to all this time on a boat (or both) is visiting one of the inner reef locations. Green Island is a coral cay located off the coast near Cairns and can be reached in about 45 minutes catamaran ride. The island itself is a resort: you can stay on it, at a price, but you can also just use the facilities, walk in the island's rainforest or simply stay on and swim and snorkel off the beaches. As the Island is a resort, there is no public transport as such to it and it has to be reached by a tour operation. Big Cat Green Island Reef Cruises operates full day and half day trips. The full-day departures are at 9am and 11am, returning at 5pm, while the half-day departures are at 9am and 1pm. The price of the trip is the same regardless of the length of stay on the island and it's 75 AUD per adult, 37.50 AUD per child over 3 years old. A family deal means the second child travels free. The basic price includes travel to the island and a choice of either hire of snorkelling gear or a glass-bottom boat tour. Optional extras include buffet lunch and a semi-submarine tour, hire of flotation vests and Lycra suits for protection against jellyfish and sun, Seawalker Helmet Diving, Introductory and Certified Scuba Diving and even Para-sailing. We went on the 1am whole-day tour with the snorkelling gear hire and in addition to the basic package bought the lunch and a semi-submarine tour. We were not sure whether we should opt for a half day or full day tour, but were very glad that we chose the full day as we could have easily spend another couple of hours on the island, as it was we were in a bit of a rush at the end. It's worth trying to get the 9am departure that gives you five rather than four hours on the island, especially if buying additional activities. The disadvantage is that the early departure is served by the Big Cat – a slower and larger vessel that takes about an hour to reach the island. The 11am departure is served by the smaller and faster Reef Rocket which takes 45 minutes and seemed like a more pleasant boat to take anyway.The whole experience, despite its very commercial character, was rather fun if and when you got into the spirit of things: once you got past the trauma of having your picture with the Rocket's life buoy taken by a grinning guy in a seaman's hat, the boat itself was new, clean and comfortable, with plenty of seating inside and outside. There was also a small bar selling drinks, crisps and similar at not completely unreasonable prices and the snorkelling gear was given out (on a payment of 20 AUD deposit) on board too. During the crossing, a video loop that advertised other tours and activities run on several screens, but it wasn't too invasive. We stayed mostly outside, on the spacious decks, where we could see the receding hills around Cairns and after about 20 minutes, in front of us, the low lying, emerald island. The boat moored by the island jetty and we decided to take our pre-paid lunch first. This was served at the Big Cat vessel, moored at the same jetty, and consisted of an adequate buffet with a selection of cold meats, salads, fruit, rice and similar: very much institutional food, but at the 15 AUD reasonable value in comparison to what one would have to pay in the resort. Another alternative (and probably the best choice for the budget-conscious) would be to bring your own picnic food.After lunch we make our way to land. In addition to the resort (which we didn't really explore apart from a quick dash to the bathrooms and an ice-cream purchase), the island is covered with thick, tropical rainforest which can be easily explored using board-walks laid around it. But we have seen the rainforest before, and will see more (in fact we are staying in the rainforest of sorts at the moment) and the sole purpose of our trip is to have a taste of the Reef. We put on our snorkelling gear (none of us ever swam with flippers, so this part is an interesting exercise with falling over and walking backwards) and after deciding who's going to look after the little one (who, at four, isn't quite ready for the experience) we set off into the sea. The reef is very near the jetty at Green Island, and you only need to walk into the sea by about fifty, maybe hundred yards, to be able to see quite a lot. I have no comparison standard, but as somebody whose only experience of living coral so far was in an aquarium, I am seriously impressed: hooked really. The variety of coral is quite staggering and a little surprising: tree-like, spaghetti like, boulder and brain-like versions are everywhere. Between the corals, masses of fish, from "normal" looking silver ones to the colourful, tropical kinds previously only seen in tanks. On the sandy bottom, occasional giant clam and under the corals, more lurking creatures: we spy a stingray with blue eyes on stalks and what could be (but probably isn't) an octopus.Snorkelling is surprisingly tiring (all that flippering, I suppose) and when time comes for our semi-sub tour I walk on slightly shaky legs.The semi-sub is essentially a boat (which from outside looks more like a pontoon with a superstructure) whose bottom part is immersed quite deeply in water (by my reckoning we are about two meters below). We sit on benches, with panoramic windows on both sides. Apparently, it provides more of a "divers view" while the standard glass bottom boats are more an alternative to snorkelling.The semi-sub tour takes about twenty minutes and is pretty good: the guide is entertaining and knowledgeable, and we see a bigger variety of fish and coral that we have seen snorkelling (though if you are a proficient snorkeller and don't have to supervise a beginner nine year old and non-snorkelling four year old, you'd be probably better just sticking with the snorkelling). There are also, apparently, turtles, but sadly we don't see any at our end of the sub. K is inconsolable (she has a serious obsession with marine turtles) and as we prepare to get off, and the next group (which is smaller and won't take all the spaces) boards, the guides tell us to stay on for another try. Luckily, we manage to see one on this second round, zooming quickly under the boat near the sandy feeding grounds. K is happy, and so are we.As we wait to board the Rocket for the return journey, we see some reef sharks swimming near and under the jetty. I wish we had time for another swim, but it's time to go back. **All in all, our Green Island experience was a happy one. The "tour" aspect of it was quite bearable (although could have been toned down),with no hard sell of extra activities and commercial photos. The beauty of the rain-forest covered coral cay and the attraction and magnificence of the reef (however small a glimpse we had of it) transcend all the tackiness of the tour business. It's not a cheap experience: if you want to do more snorkelling you need to either consider staying somewhere where you can just do it off the beach or maybe even staying in an island resort. As a taster of what the whole thing is about, it worked well, was suitable for our family group and left me wanting more – one day.Recommended as a begging' introduction.
by MagdaDH_AlexH on October 1, 2010
Cairns is one of the most popular destinations in Australia. Located in the northern part of the Queensland coast, very much in the tropics, it's always hot, usually sunny and abounds in the exotic appeal (palms, sea, sun) without the usual health, crime and culture shock hazards of other tropical locations. Safe tropics for Europeans, then, and for Asians probably the nearest place where they can sample the European culture.We spent a week in Cairns, staying in a "granny flat", or a self contained cabin in the garden of our kind hosts' house: the grounds around abound in banana plants, vines and other very tropical trees around us, gekkos on the ceiling and similar; the pool is just across the drive. It's great to be able to stop and rest a bit as we had grown tired of moving every two nights: a week in one place, and without getting into our hosts' way too much is just great. We hired a car for a few days (one has to, occasionally) and also did a few touristy things, which had a net effect of putting us well over budget, but again, some things are touristy for a reason. Cairns itself is a bit strange, a town that originally grew on a gold and mining boom, but since the discovery of the Reef for the tourism industry it has became a bit of a visitors' Mecca. Despite being very much a tourism centre, Cairns doesn't - not quite - feel like a tourist trap. Yes, a tour agent can be seen every two doors on the main drag and every kind of experience is for sale, but it's all rather unhurried, quite friendly and without much of a hard sell.The tourists are as much fun to watch as the wildlife (and there are interesting birds, including egrets and pelicans on the mudflats by the promenade), especially the Japanese who engage in strange, loud, group rituals that are hard to comprehend as much because of the language as the cultural barrier. But Cairns is also the starting and finishing point for many backpackers, and there are hordes of beautiful 20-something things of both sexes sauntering up and down the streets, sitting by their "for sale" campers at the Esplanade carpark and looking down at the family vacationers and packaged tourers alike.Strangely for a popular Queensland coast location, Cairns has no beach (apart form the tiny artificial ones by the town's lido, or The Lagoon on the Esplanade). Instead, it has a muddy inlet, mangrove swamps and lovely semi-circle of curly-haired mountains that surround it. But the real attractions are not in Cairns but around it: the coast, the reef, the rainforest and the hills: the town is a starting point and a base for many day trips into the surrounding countryside, notably the Atherton Tablelands, Daintree rainforest and of course the Great Barrier Reef. Other destinations include Cooktown and for the more intrepid, the Cape York Peninsula.
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