After my last-minute decision to stop off in Townsville and go looking for koalas on Magnetic Island, it was time to board the northbound Greyhound bus one last time, for the final leg of my journey up the Queensland coast. A couple of hours into the journey, we were firmly into the Far North Queensland region, and we were lucky enough to have a driver who was keen to share details of the history, geography and wildlife of the area as he took us on our way. Stopping in the beautiful beachside town of Cardwell for a refreshment stop, he warned us to stay off the sand, as tempting as a dip of the feet in the waves might be on this already-hot morning, in case Bismarck was hungry for tourists; Bismarck was an 80 year old, 4.5 metre saltwater crocodile who was regularly spotted gliding up and down the shallows. Of course, I spent the whole time there trying to spot him, but he was not making himself known that day (when writing this post, I decided to Google Bismarck, and uncovered the very sad news that earlier this year he was found dead, apparently shot in the head – I sometimes strongly dislike my fellow humans).
Back on the bus, as we passed through Tully and Innisfail, picking up a few backpackers who had mostly likely just finished a gruelling stint on the banana farms up there, our driver announced that we were entering cassowary country. Cassowaries are essentially 6 foot tall, emu-esque flightless birds with bright blue necks which evolved from the species which “filled in the gap” after the dinosaurs became extinct. They can be found along this part of the coast, and up in the Daintree Rainforest, but they are an endangered tropical species threatened by loss of habitat, and conservation efforts are now being made up in this part of Australia. I spent the next part of the journey with my face glued to the window, hoping to spot one peeking out of the bush along the side of the road, but sadly the only one I saw came in the form of the gigantic cassowary statue that sits at the entrance to the town of Mission Beach!
From there it wasn’t much further to Cairns, and I disembarked the Greyhound one final time as it reached the top end of its Queensland route. As usual, I’d elected to stay at the local YHA (deciding against braving the world-famous party hostel/backpacker resort of Gilligans!), where I immediately bumped into a small group of people whom I had already met twice, once on my Fraser Island tour, and then again in Hervey Bay – such is the nature of traversing a popular backpacker route!
Cairns is a small but vibrant city, and one to which I quickly took a liking. It’s very much a backpacker town, hosting those who are starting or ending their East Coast trip, as well as Working Holiday Visa holders searching for or just arrived from rural work; its location makes this part of Queensland eligible for visa extension work for holders of both versions of the visa. The hostels are busy all year round, there are plenty of backpacker travel agencies and, of course, bars lining the streets, and there’s a positive buzz in the sticky-hot tropical air. There isn’t that much to do in the city itself in terms of tourist activities – it’s mostly a starting point for the other attractions around this part of the state, those which I’d come here for myself, but the walk along the esplanade and the harbour was pleasant, especially at dusk when the sun was setting and pelicans crowded the beach, yawning, and there was an artificial lagoon for those who wanted a dip to cool off.
My original plan had been to make my own way up to Port Douglas and then Cape Tribulation by myself on public transport; however, my research, and local advice, proved that options beyond the airport shuttles to Port Douglas were very limited, especially when I only had a few days to play with before I had to leave the country. So I went to the hostel reception and picked up a bunch of leaflets for local tour companies to leaf through. I quickly settled on the offering from Active Tropics Explorer; designed as a day tour from Cairns taking in the Daintree Rainforest area and stopping in Port Douglas on the way back, the daily departures allowed for guests to choose to stay one or more nights in either location, and then re-join the tour the next day. This was perfect for me; I could stay overnight in both Cape Tribulation and Port Douglas to spend some time there by myself, but still be back in Cairns within three days.
It was an early start from Cairns the first morning, with Carlos arriving in the tour minibus to start the rounds of the various hostels in town from around 6.30am. It was a full bus of mostly backpacker-style travellers (including a chap I’d met on the Greyhound between Hervey Bay and Agnes Water – again, people keep popping up on this route!) and everyone was surprisingly chatty for the time of the morning as we headed out of the city and out onto the stunning scenic coastal drive along the Coral Sea, up to Mossman Gorge, the entry point to the Daintree National Park and our first stop of the day.
At the visitors’ centre here we were met by one of the traditional owners of this land, the Kuku Yalanji people. Here I experienced my first “Welcome to Country”, as she performed a smoke ceremony to cleanse us of any evil spirits, and to ensure that the ancestors would recognise us as friendly visitors and thus keep us safe during our journey through the rainforest.
The Mossman River is fast-flowing, cold and clear; the minerals in the water are supposed to be fantastic for the skin and hair. As is often the case, the signs advising against swimming were up; not because of the risk of crocodiles (they are not found in this kind of water), but because of the dangerous currents. Carlos, however, being a born local and, most importantly, also a qualified rapid water lifesaver, was able to guide us to a specific section of river where we could strip down to bathers and brave the freezing streams (it really was bracing!). Please do not take this risk if you are not with someone who knows what they are doing; in his time leading these tours, Carlos had never had any incidents with his own guests, but had saved lives on three different occasions when the people in trouble in the water had simply been extremely lucky that he was there with a group at the same time.
Dried off and most definitely awake, we headed off to our next stop; the Daintree River, where we were taken out on a boat trip to spot some wildlife; this was a very similar experience to the billabong cruise that I took in Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory and just as exciting, with multiple crocodile sightings.
After a drive through the rainforest we arrived at the Cape Tribulation Beach House (which was, at the time, a YHA hostel, but is apparently not any longer) where the day trippers would be getting lunch at the restaurant, and I and a few others who had also selected the overnight option were being dropped off to enjoy 24 hours in Cape Tribulation before re-joining the next day’s tour. I immediately headed down to the sand to take a look around. I had read about Cape Tribulation being the spot where “the Rainforest meets the Reef”, and it was absolutely was; looking down the beach, all I could see was miles of dark green tropical forest spilling directly onto the white sand – no buildings or roads getting in the way. The hostel itself was a series of huts built under the canopy. It was just as pristine and remote as I had hoped. Signs warned of the risk of crocodiles in the ocean, and the hostel staff had warned us upon check-in to stay at least one metre away from the water’s edge at all times, but it was safe enough to wander along the sand and through the trees, and to take a seat away from the waves and enjoy the sun and the tranquillity of the beach. The Daintree Rainforest is the oldest living rainforest in the world – it’s estimated to be around 180 million years old (yes, seriously). This mass of green that I was looking at was there when megafauna roamed this land. As cliched as it sounds, my initial thought was that I felt like I was in Jurassic Park; it honestly wouldn’t have surprised me if something big and prehistoric-looking had come stomping out of the trees and onto the sand! It completely blew my mind that I was looking at something living that was so old, and that, despite all the ways in which we humans have tried to mess up our planet, it is continuing to survive (for now – as with most beautiful natural wonders of our world, it is an endangered habitat, in part because of the endangered status of the cassowaries that I wrote about earlier, who play an essential role in seed dispersal in this rainforest).
There’s no phone signal and only limited, expensive WiFi in this part of Queensland, and so this overnight stop in the Daintree provided a welcome break from the outside world and the sense of being constantly connected. I spent the evening enjoying a few drinks, catching up on some reading, and standing around on the paths which weaved between the hostel buildings, taking in the spectacular patches of stars that were vividly clear in the sky between the thick leaves of the canopy.
There are various activities that can be booked in Cape Tribulation, including Reef trips and underwater safaris, but I was content to spend the next morning in a similar fashion to the previous afternoon, simply enjoying this peaceful spot, before we were collected for the next leg of our tour, this time by Tom. With a full group coming up from Cairns, we actually got a whole bus just for our little set of overnighters, so I grabbed the seat up at the front to get the best views as we drove back down the coast. We stopped for a guided canopy walk with Tom, who told us more about the rainforest. There were signs all around the boardwalk warning visitors that cassowaries, should they encounter any, could be aggressive. By this point I was absolutely desperate to see one in the flesh, but it just wasn’t happening (I had obviously exhausted my wildlife luck with my koala sighting on Magnetic Island!).
One more stop for some ice-cream with a view over the ocean (sorbet for me, of course), and then we were on our way to Port Douglas, via the ferry across the Daintree River. I was dropped off in the late afternoon at the Port Douglas YHA, a lovely lodge with friendly staff and a little outside terrace space for each dorm room, for my 24 hours here.
Port Douglas was a gem. It was one of those places that I couldn’t tell you when or where I had first heard of it, or why it was on my list of spots to visit, but it certainly did not disappoint. Around forty miles north of Cairns, and still within sight of the sprawling rainforest, Port Douglas was originally developed as a high-end resort town offering five-star accommodation only, but after the global recession of 2008 it found itself having to diversify due to dwindling visitor numbers, and now it attracts travellers across the entire spectrum, and seems to have become especially popular with backpackers in recent years, many of whom come to work in its busy hospitality sector. Four Mile Beach is one of the few spots in Far North Queensland where you can actually swim in the ocean, and the familiar red and yellow lifesaver flags of the southern part of the state are all set up here too. The water is warm and the beach is fairly busy.
I started my morning climbing up and walking along the cliff path to take in the spectacular views of the town, bright blue ocean, and the rainforest in the distance, before spending the rest of my day doing a spot of beach-bumming, and wandering around the little independent shops along the high street (I discovered an ice cream shop which offered an impressive selection of vegan sorbet options, but I’m afraid I’ve completely forgotten the name – the sorbet was excellent though).
The day went by all too quickly, and soon Tom turned up again with that day’s tour group to pick me up for the trip back to Cairns. I still had one more thing to do in Cairns, of course; snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef. There were a huge number of boats to choose from for that trip, and so on the drive back down I asked Tom for a recommendation; he suggested Passions of Paradise, one of the few locally-owned Reef tour companies remaining in the city, and one which was very much focused on ecotourism and trying to preserve the environment. This sounded great to me, and so a couple of days later I was up early once again, this time heading to the marina to board my boat.
Passions offer both snorkelling and scuba on their trip, with some great offers for those new to diving who want to have a go; however for some reason diving just doesn’t appeal to me, and I’m happy with my mask and fins. I did however take up the option of hiring an underwater camera this time, having been a little annoyed at myself for not having done this for my snorkelling trip to the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia. It turned out that I probably needed more practice at operating such a device when being bashed around by the current; my videos and photographs do not really do the spectacular underwater scenes enough justice, but I was happy to have some visual souvenirs of my experience!
We stopped at two separate sites for snorkelling and diving, and both were beautiful. As soon as I put my head under the waves, I was in a totally different world, surrounded by weird and wonderful vividly-coloured fish. There certainly was some coral damage visible, but the Reef appeared to me to be much more vibrant and alive than I had perhaps been expecting. While it is clear that it remains a critically endangered habitat, one hopes that the recognition of the problem, and the conservation efforts being made by many different groups, will help to ensure that this spectacular ecosystem continues to survive, and that many more visitors will be able to enjoy the same special experience of seeing it with their own eyes.
And with that, the final chapter of my two years living, working and travelling in Australia had come to an end. The next day I retraced my steps of the past three weeks in the space of two hours, on a flight from Cairns to Brisbane, where I checked into the Brisbane City YHA for one last night, and went for dinner and drinks with a friend in the suburbs in a very ordinary evening, which was also very surreal in the knowledge that the next day I would be boarding a plane out of Australia and leaving my adopted home for good (for now).
I was still, however, in possession of enough funds for a few more weeks of travelling, so, rather than getting on a homeward-bound flight the next morning, I was instead heading in the opposite direction: destination Auckland, for a whirlwind trip around the two islands of New Zealand…
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