Finding paradise in Cairns, Australia

Finding paradise in Cairns, Australia

by Doug Johnson
Stripes Guam archives

One of the top unchecked items on my bucket had always been to go to Australia. Since my friends always told me it takes almost a gazillion hours from the States, I decided to take advantage of my time on Guam and visit Cairns, only four and a half hours away.

United Airlines flies from Guam to Cairns every Thursday and Sunday, so some friends and I left Guam on a Thursday evening and arrived at Cairns Airport just after midnight. Once we arrived and cleared customs we grabbed one of their taxis for the short 15-minute ride downtown.

Cairns taxis are actually 10-passenger buses and can swallow all the surfboards, camera gear and man toys you can throw at them. The city of Cairns is stretched out like a lazy sunbather along the coast and the neighboring marina estuary with a beautifully crafted wooden boardwalk that runs the length of the esplanade, with higher-end restaurants at the marina and more casual dining downtown.

The local’s love of location is readily evident by all the morning joggers along the boardwalk and an unbelievably pristine public infinity pool on the water where the locals go for a swim before breakfast. The street facing the esplanade has casual restaurants and coffee shops from early morning and lively drinking holes and live houses that wake up starting late afternoon and go strong into the early morning hours. Shorts and zoris are the standard dress code and the town has a serious laid back vibe that goes great with the locals love for cold beer and prawns. Prawns Down Under mean shrimp.

Barron River rafting

Cairns is powered by hydroelectricity from a dam high above the nearby Barron River, so one of the first things we wanted to do was some white water river rafting. Raging Thunder adventures picked us up in their van for the short 30-minute hop from Cairns to the start point on the Barron River.

After arriving and receiving our safety briefing, we were split into teams of six and started down the river. Before hitting the white stuff, we were given survival instructions for paddling, proper abandon-ship protocol (float with your legs above the water to better skirt underwater rocks) and most importantly, paddle splashing 101 for attacking neighboring rafts that came close enough for a broadside.

The gorge is lined with sheer rock faces and thick forest growth almost too beautiful to be true and reminiscent of a Disney flume ride. The river has 13 rapids ranging from easy to some with moderate drop offs. As we approached the nefarious Rooster Tail rapids, our guides yelled at us to paddle hard and hang on for our lives.

Our short paddle training session paid off as we approached the rocky flume and the guide yelled “paddles up,” just as we plunged over the falls into the frothy mist below and into calmer waters. After exiting the final and aptly named “hells gate” falls and a series of heavy water fights with other boats, we entered the wide Lake Placid section of the river and glided gently to the exit point where we helped load the rafts and took a short break before our shuttle took us back to Cairns soaking wet but exhilarated.

Cairns Zoom Experience

Next on our list was, of course, Koalas. Going to Australia made seeing the little marsupial buggers mandatory, so we decided to visit the downtown Cairns Zoom Experience. Located in a big glass dome on top of the giant Reef Casino downtown, it was just a short walk from the esplanade area.

After entering the casino and going to the top via elevator, we were met by our guide who then took us on a walkway tour through the rooftop jungle where we met JoJo the Cockatoo, Wally the Wallaby, a huge freshwater croc, frogmouth birds, kookaburras, and pythons  among many other animals. The hiking path gradually changes to planks suspended by cables that go high into the trees, so we gathered at the zip line launch area with the rangers and got clipped in to our harnesses for the climb up.

Once secured, we began our ascent up through the trees, getting an ever higher bird’s-eye view of the forest canopy and the shrinking jungle below. The path soon changed to a combination of challenging rope climbs, zip lines, and even a path made of suspended beer barrels. After reaching the top of the huge glass dome, the rangers clipped us to an outside cable and we exited the top of the dome through a hatch and onto a narrow walkway that circled the outside of the tower.

Even though we were secured to the outside of the building by harness, there was no restraints or rails which gave us an unparalleled view of Cairns City, The Coral Sea and local mountain ranges. After our return to the inside of the dome, we headed over to the 50-foot power jump platform, where we would jump from the top of the dome freefalling to the bottom.

As I was at the head of the line, I was nominated first to go. I gamely got clipped in and looked 50 feet below at Wally the croc ooking up at me before taking a “leap” of faith. I took a deep breath and took a wide stride and before I knew it, I was at the bottom and not at the bottom of the croc’s stomach. After congratulatory hi-5’s, we gathered our things and left for our next Cairns adventure.

Cruising the Barrier Reef

Next stop was the Cairns ferry terminal - also a short walk from our downtown hotel - to check in with Passions of Paradise Great Barrier Reef adventures for a trip out to the Barrier Reef. After boarding Passion’s huge single-masted catamaran with all the other passengers, we were soon underway and out into the open channel of the Coral Sea headed for the Great Barrier Reef.

There was no way I was going to miss the chance to dive, so I spent most of the two-hour outbound journey filling out forms and getting fitted with my scuba gear for the dive. The huge catamaran was fitted with all amenities inside, including a full galley and sitting areas in addition to a spacious bow area where passengers could stretch out under the hot tropical sun.

As we approached the Barrier Reef atoll, the water gradually changed to a deeper azure color as a reflection of the blue sky and we anchored for our dive briefing. The area around the Barrier Reef is shallow, averaging 25 feet or less and punctuated with heads of coral and white patches of sand.

After our precheck, we jumped in and went straight to the bottom and fanned out to check out the hard and soft corals and colorful tropical fish swimming about. Many of the fish were familiar from Guam’s reefs, but there were also many other unfamiliar faces.

After an hour, we slowly returned to the surface for our safety stop and returned to the boat for a shared group lunch under the piercingly blue sky. After a leisurely break, we suited up again and splashed back into the azure blue and headed in the opposite direction. This time I stumbled upon a sleeping turtle under an outcrop of coral that stared at me but showed absolutely no signs of fear. I understood why some say a turtle’s eyes are windows of the sea.

After a brief paddle, we swam into a herd of white jellies that slowly undulated with the current. Fearing at first that they were the deadly Australian box jellies, our guide put our fears to rest by gently grabbing one and giving it a kiss to show they were completely harmless. We made our way back to the catamaran and reluctantly climbed back out from innerspace and dried off for the journey back to land.

The two hour sail back to Cairns Marina flew by as the crew collected our dive gear and served cold fruit platters and drinks to slake our thirsts. The sun on the water was like a blast furnace, so a good boonie hat and polarized sunglasses were vital. We glided back to the Cairns Marina at dusk, just in time to grab some cold Victoria Bitters in downtown Cairns.

Cairns Skyrail

Next on our list was the famous mining town of Kuranda - The village in the rainforest. A short 20-minute drive from Cairns brought us to the modern Skyrail terminal, where we boarded the skyway cars for the 380-meter climb to the village.

The cableway cars each hold six people and as we slowly and silently were whisked up the mountain, the distance between us and the ground below steadily increased until we were floating hundreds of feet above the forest below.

After a brief stop to change cables, we arrived at the top station of Kuranda and got out to explore the area. The picturesque village of Kuranda is just above the station or a short 10 minute walk and looks pretty much like it probably did originally in the 1800’s - a quiet mining town or the set to a John Wayne movie with low wooden shops, restaurants, hotels and bars on both sides of the street.

As a vestige of its mining past, most shops sold opals set in jewelry or raw in boxes along with the obligatory crocodile souvenirs. The town of Kuranda is reachable by cableway, train and also car, so while it is isolated, it is not cut off from Cairns. Kuranda is famous for its large purple butterfly’s, so I visited the butterfly zoo before heading back down the mountain. This time stopped at the halfway station and hiked to the lookout point for a bird’s eye view of the top of massive Barron Falls, which was also the starting point of our Barron rafting trip.

As we glided back down the mountain towards Kuranda Station, we were treated to a spectacular view of the rainforest below spreading out onto the alluvial Queensland plains all the way to Cairns and the sea. A perfect and fitting end to a fantastic trip.

Special thanks to:
Raging Thunder Adventures/Barron rafting
Mantra Group Hotels
Cairns Mackay Airport
Passions of Paradise diving
Capta Group Cairns Zoom
Skyrail Rainforest Cableway
United Airlines

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