I was over the moon for LSM when he got the gig to cover the Downhill Mountain Bike World Championships in Australia for Wide Open Mag, but I wasn't looking forward to another week on my own. I like my days full of people and plans! My time in Whistler (whilst LSM covered the Canadian leg of the Crankworx bike festival) was largely spent wandering the village, watching Scientology documentaries and missing my top tour guide. This bike race however was in Cairns on the north east coast of Australia and not in a mountain wilderness. Luckily for me, there is a huge amount to do in Cairns for a #solotraveller and I had a very happy first week in Australia!
Cairns is famously the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and to the Daintree rainforest. It's a small town and is very low key, which I much prefer to big cities. I walked everywhere and knew all corners within 2 days. After 2 months on our USA road-trip, it was pretty weird to be back in ‘gap yah’ land. The Cairns backpacker market is huge. So many agencies selling campers and east coast trips and huge party hostels. Lots of cheap and cheerful bars and food joints too and a relaxed, friendly vibe on the streets. We stayed at a hostel called Mad Monkey and I loved it. Pool, terrace, amazing breakfast, huge bar area, clean, bright, modern rooms - all hostels should watch, learn and emulate. I became so enthusiastic I almost joined the “Wet and Wild” Wednesday pub crawl before remembering I was 30, alone and partial to a white wine spritzer. I left the young to their kegs and made a cheese omelette instead. Yolo.
Only a week in and I love the outdoor lifestyle championed in Australia. The Cairns Esplanade runs the length of the town’s coast and anyone and everyone bicycles, dog walks, jogs or strolls along it. It's a flat 2.5km stretch with playgrounds, a volleyball court and lots of BBQ stations all within the park. You can even attend free fitness classes held daily or join a yoga session on the grass. I liked the beachside gym equipment best and spent mornings jogging and people watching. My gym in Leeds looks over the built-up Headrow so it was lovely to waddle along next to the sea on the look out for cockatoos.
It was a surprise to me that many of the beaches around Cairns are unswimmable. The crocodile warning signs are serious stuff (“salties” can grow to 5m long) and were enough to keep me away from the ocean. Along the beaches there's also bottles of vinegar on hand in case you do venture in and get stung by a jellyfish (not for your chips as LSM assumed).
The Lagoon at the top end of the Esplanade is a great solution. A public pool which overlooks the ocean, it has a small man-made sandy beach and lots of grass for sunbathing. More BBQs (anyone can use them), lots of screaming kids having a ball and the sounds of the buskers’ digereedoos floating in from the town. I loved it.
The Botanical Gardens
Only 5km from the centre of town, I walked out to the gardens and had a fun afternoon exploring. You can take a boardwalk through the jungle which is full of palms of every shade of green. On our first day in Cairns LSM spotted a giant, 6 foot long snake (the red belly black!) so I’ll admit I jumped at every rustle of undergrowth. I was so convinced that something was stalking me that I tailed two local women so as not to die alone. The giant spider webs across the pathways also put me on edge but I loved the hundreds of multi-coloured parakeets squawking in the branches and the butterflies. I also spotted a little turtle who’d climbed a tree trunk in the middle of the lake to get some sun. 100% make sure you're home before dark though as the fruit bats are as big as albatrosses. Terrifying.
****Edit: I've since been to the Sydney Botanical Garden which is on another level. Cairns now seems “rustic” and Sydney is “exotic”
On Collins Street (very near the Botanical Gardens) The Tanks Art Centre is both an art and music space with a long list of events. Stupidly I didn't check the schedule before heading out there so didn't get to see any art (there was a gig that night) but it might be one to check out if you're there on an exhibition day.
I also visited the Cairns Art Galley housed in an impressive building on Shields Street. From memory, all the artists were local and working mostly in paint. It's no Tate and the paintings weren't really my thing but I did appreciate Greg Semu’s work “Blood Red” (a series of giant photographs exploring racial violence in Australia).
40 minutes north of Cairns on the public bus (it’s $9 AUS for an all day bus pass which will get you there and back) is Trinity Beach. The beach has giant sea nets and a life guard so a swim isn't out of the question. I managed to wade in to mid-calf but, in my wild imagination, a croc attack seemed imminent and I decided to work harder on my tan and stay on dry land. The little town is charming and the beach itself a quiet stretch with jungle on either side of the ocean. You can also swim at Palm Cove (it's a little further north and more flash).
The Great Barrier Reef
Although I was thriving in Cairns (hot bod and top tan imminent) LSM’s assignment finished in time for us to visit The Great Barrier Reef together. I am so pleased we shared that experience as it was a truly awesome day at a really amazing place.
As to the logistics, in my opinion it’s a bloody minefield choosing a tour operator. Dive or snorkel? Which area? What type of boat? As neither of us are qualified divers we were worried we'd waste time learning the ropes on a introductory dive so decided to snorkel.
The cheaper snorkel trips (circa $90 AUS) take hundreds of tourists on giant boats to sub-standard areas. As this is once in a lifetime stuff, I'd throw as much cash at it as you can. I'd also encourage everyone to pick a responsible operator who is keen to protect the reef. For us, Seastar was a good choice ($210 AUS each). No hidden costs, there were only 20 of us on a small boat, we were fully kitted out with wetsuits and flippers, had underwater photos galore and, fantastically, we visited two different sites. The first was off a protected sand island and the second was at the outer Reef. Both were chock-a-block with tropical fish and gorgeous corals.
((Just to flag, it's pretty hard work swimming against the currents for 90 minutes at a time. I think most average swimmers would struggle at the outer Reef which was rough. We took floats out to be on the safe side. Also, if your prone to motion sickness 100% gobble down all the tablets offered. I didn't and felt seriously nauseous on the return leg.))
The Seastar crew gave us a thirty minute snorkel tour (to point out the main coral types) then we had 1 hour 30 minutes at each site to explore by ourselves. LSM and I were the first in and the last out both times - we loved it that much. Even when his teeth started chattering LSM wouldn't go back to the boat. We found a stingray, giant clams and Nemo but the huge parrot fish were the best. You could actually hear them munching on the coral under the water.
Last thing! It was so cool flying over the Great Barrier Reef on our flight from Cairns to Sydney. If the sun is shining definitely remember to get a seat on the left hand side of the plane, look out the window and gawp.
Very last thing! The documentary ‘Chasing Coral’ is a must-watch for anyone interested in protecting the ocean and I'm ashamed I've only just seen it: www.chasingcoral.com
Covering the Downhill Mountain Bike World Champs was one sweaty, dusty week! I caught the first bus out of Cairns every morning and spent most of the day lying on the snake and spider infested jungle floor getting covered in dust - a glamorous week! Despite this I had a great week, below are my favourite photos from the event.