One of the great things about Australia is no matter what season there is usually a nice climate somewhere in the country. While some regions melt under a relentless, summer sun that turns everything into a baked, red dessert, other parts are a perfect 28 degrees. During winter, while the rain and wind make the morning commuters blue, Northern Queensland is a pleasant 26 degrees.
I figured before leaving Indonesia, where even the water was 28 degrees, that flying south to Sydney was going to be a bad idea. It isn't that Sydney is cold and miserable, but compared to Indonesia it was going to be cold and miserable. So while standing in the line for the departure lounge in Denpasar I booked a flight to Cairns.
Cairns is much like many other towns though populated with an interesting mix of locals, international and national tourists, and dirty, old backpackers. During the day, the town can be almost sleepy, with a relaxed beachside atmosphere. At night, the place comes alive in the bars and pubs almost every night of the week.
The town itself can be beautiful and also ugly. Walking along the boardwalk on warm autumn evenings when the lights shine over the waters and live music from buskers fills the air, it is nothing short of romantic. During the day, when the lagoon is filled with screaming children and low tide reveals a beach of mud and silt, it is anything but romantic and you can understand why crocodiles like hanging out here.
However, Cairns is a great place to base yourself while you're exploring the region. I initially stayed for two days in a disappointing "resort" that reminded me of those motels in movies where dirty cops find dead hookers, although after driving an hour up to Port Douglas I discovered all the accommodation was twice as expensive, so drove back to Cairns and found a cool and comfortable hostel called the Dreamtime Traveller's Rest and made day trips from there.
Scattered throughout Cairns city centre, nestled between hostels and bars, are shops selling tickets to all the tourist attractions available, mostly based around the Great Barrier Reef and trips into the Daintree Rainforest. Dive shops and boat rides, snorkelling and island tours, bush walks and animal parks.
The people in Cairns are a varied mix. I have never seen as many aboriginals in any part of Australia I had been to, which I rather enjoyed. I also saw large herds of the Common Australian Bogan, wandering around pleasantly drunk and making passing remarks to everyone they met. I enjoyed them as well.
Great Barrier Reef
If you are going to Cairns, or Port Douglas, you are likely going to see the Great Barrier Reef. The reef is one of the Natural Wonders of the World and you will hear all sorts of interesting facts about it during your visit to Cairns. Some may even be true.
Unfortunately, due to changes in the water and the climate, the Great Barrier Reef is under serious threat and large sections of it have been reported as damaged, bleached or dead. On the positive side, the Australian Government appears to be doing something about it. At least they're doing enough to appease the UN, however they are still being heavily scrutinised, as they should be.
Dive trips out to the reef run continuously and you're sure to find something that matches your abilities regardless of your experience in the water. Introductory dives are offered by a number of companies as well as different experiences, such as the Scubadoo which I chuckled about every time I saw it advertised. Its like a weird underwater scooter that reminds me of the shit they came up with for cartoons in the 80s.
Just follow the rules for being around coral reefs. Don't touch them; especially don't stand on them. If you can, avoid sunscreen; instead wear a shirt. If you're a totally uncoordinated idiot, maybe don't go.
If you have a fear of sharks, crocodiles or water in general, and diving and snorkelling aren't your thing then Green Island offers a convenient way to get out to the Reef without needing to get wet.
A 45 minute ferry ride from Cairns pier, Green Island is a small island formed of coral and sand. There is a resort on the island and several food stalls, as well as a crocodile park, which is home to Cassius. Cassius is considered to be the largest saltwater crocodile in captivity, however this has been contested of course. Regardless, Cassius is big. Definitely big enough to do the job of eating anything he encountered including dogs, pigs, bikes and boats.
Green Island is small enough to walk around in under an hour, so getting away from the other tourists can be almost impossible. If you're trying to find a private moment with a pretty German girl for example, you will probably find a tourist with a camera watching you every time.
An hour drive up the coast is the town of Port Douglas. This beautiful town sits at the northern end of Four Mile Beach and is home to a couple of streets filled with cafes, restaurants and stores. The port itself is a sheltered inlet on the northern side.
Four Mile Beach is a smooth arc of golden sand you can walk along for hours. However do not be fooled. There are nasties in the water. Along with larger things that can eat you, there are small things that can sting you causing you a great deal of pain. This is so common there are vinegar stations set up along the beach entrances. Don't bother peeing on jellyfish stings, use vinegar which will actually do something useful.
If you are driving north, then definitely stop in to Port Douglas and have lunch on the beach or the park beside the port on the northern side of the headland. Then take a drive up to the lookout at the top of the hill for a great view of Four Mile Beach.
Captain James Cook, during his journey up the coast of Australia, scraped the ship Endeavour against a section of shallows, so he headed into deeper water. Later that night, the ship ran aground on a reef. He called the point Cape Tribulation because "here begun all our troubles".
Cape Tribulation has some spectacular beaches to wander along, perfect for a midday picnic of old bread, melted cheese and cherry tomatoes. When you're on a budget, you eat what you have in the fridge and make the best of it. If you're with the right person, it wont matter.
North of Cape Tribulation is a dirt road recommended for four wheeled drive vehicles only. Figuring the sign people were probably being a little dramatic, I drove down this road in my bright green Holden Spark, a car resembling a sewing machine more than a truck. While I was forced to turn back once I drove the car into a pothole the size of Tasmania, there are beautiful beaches to see further up this coast and four wheeled drive tour operators willing to take you there.
From Cairns, there is a nice loop that takes you past a number of beautiful waterfalls which you can do in a day if you start early enough and don't mind driving.
The highly recommended Josephine Falls I have renamed to Leech Falls. As I walked back towards the car from seeing this rather average waterfall, I discovered a leech had grown fat on my blood while it nestled between my toes. Little asshole! I tried to remember if I had ever been leeched before and whether my face was going to puff up like a balloon. Having no recollection of ever puffing up like a balloon, I figured I would be alright. I made a mental note to never go back to Josephine Falls, and continued on.
Back on the road, I saw a sign for a place that definitely required further investigation on our waterfalls tour, despite not technically being a waterfall. I admit to being somewhat disappointed to discover Golden Hole was just a large swimming hole.
Ellinjaa Falls are a beautiful series of falls that cascaded over lava formations from above. They looked and sounded exactly how waterfalls should look and sound. And, as an added bonus, I didn't notice anything feasting on me while I enjoyed it; a welcome change.
Zillie Falls would have been one of my favourites. Unfortunately, the day on which I was driving around looking at waterfalls also happened to be one of the days it was raining and the path to the bottom of the cliffs was ankle deep in mud and water. From the top though, they look spectacular.
Millaa Millaa Falls were some of the beautiful falls you see in movies. The water fell from above in a perfect arc into a pool amid tropical ferns and trees. Tourist buses arrived, bringing loads of tourists all eager to take their photo on the viewing platform before running down and jumping in. It looked somewhat inviting and I may have been tempted if the weather were a little less average.
Next on the loop are Emerald Creek and Davies Creek Falls. I didn't make it to these, but I have seen photos and they look equally impressive. Instead I went home and the following day went north to Barron Falls.
Barron Falls were easily my favourite. These falls are kick ass and were completely and totally better than I was expecting. In fact I only stopped at Barron Falls because I was trying to find food and got lost so I had to pretend I was planning on going here all along. If you are here, especially during the rains, then definitely go and see them.
Mungalli Creek Dairy
Along the falls tour you will likely get hungry. If you are in the area, you should go and check out Mungalli Creek Dairy. This is a small cafe that sits in front of a local cheese producer. They do some delicious cheese platters for two, and great coffee. I would highly recommend!!
Kuranda is a small region north of Cairns. I mention Kuranda in particular because there is a lot to do here, especially if you have a young family and you want to entertain them enough so they'll stop hitting each other.
There is a butterfly sanctuary, a birdworld, a koala park and a cableway that runs through the rainforest including going over Barron Falls. If that doesn't shut them up, then maybe take them for a swim in the ocean, ignoring the crocodile signs.
Northern Queensland has a huge amount to do for all kinds of budgets. If you hit it at the right time of the year, the weather is perfect. Even if you want to avoid spending a fortune on diving the Great Barrier Reef, there is still a lot to see and do.
If you get the chance to explore Northern Queensland, you should do it.