This trip was one I had been looking forward to since coming to Australia. The weeks leading up to my trip were filled with almost non stop work shifts to allow for another long stretch of time off work. The other nurses at work were equally as excited as me, joining in counting down the days leading up to when my trip began. Swimming in the Great Barrier Reef was a bucket list item I had made back in my 4th year of university. The idea that I was now boarding a plane to actually swim on the reef was beyond exciting.
I lucked out, having a window seat on the two and a half hour flight to Cairns. Cairns, located in Northern Queensland is a tropical and popular tourist spot due to it’s location close to the reef. I was told prior to booking my trip that Cairns has the most colourful coral sections of the 2300 km long Great Barrier Reef. The views of the reef from above were better than I could have ever imagined! The light and dark blue colours of the ocean matched with the turquoise and greens of the reef made for perfect photos.
I arrived in Cairns in the evening, quickly going to the Esplanade after checking into the popular Gilligan’s hostel where I would spend the next three nights. The esplanade was lite up with lanterns and lights hanging from the trees that surrounded the path running next to the water. The shorelines were lined with sail boats and cruise ships bringing back tourists who had spent the day on the reef. Mountains are covered with lush green grass and trees surrounded the water. The pathway along the esplanade was always filled with tourists walking and running while enjoying the views. Signs along the esplanade featured free events held by the city council each evening. It just happened to be volleyball my first night so after debating in my head for several minutes whether I should join (in my jeans and tank top), I decided to try it out. It turned out to be a weekly beach volleyball camp held by some local middle aged men who loved the sport. Myself and the 20 or so other players were divided into groups on three courts that looked out over the shoreline. After learning some proper techniques for spiking and bumping, I played some games under the stars for two hours with some new friends from Brazil, New Zealand, Italy, and even Vancouver.
The next day I was off to the reef! I barely slept the night before, eagerly looking at my phone all night waiting for the alarm to go off. I boarded the Silverswift boat at 8 am along with about 75 other tourists. Other boats carried upwards of 200 people making for a crowded and less personable trip. I was greeted by the friendly staff including Simon, my extremely good looking scuba instructor. I quickly became friends with Claire, a med student from Scotland. Claire and I became scuba diving and snorkeling partners for the remainder of the trip.
Myself and the other 15 or so brave individuals choosing to scuba dive were briefed on the basics of diving on the way out to the reef. We learned how to breath properly into our oxygen tank, how to change our buoyancy with both our inflatable life jacket and by using different breathing techniques, how to retrieve our mouthpiece and breath without it if we ever lost it underwater, and how to clear water from our goggles. The 1 hour and 20 minute trip out to the reef took just under an hour as the water had minimal waves that day – perfect for visibility under the water and apparently the best weather Cairns had seen in weeks!!
Our day consisted of three different spots on the Flynn Reef, located on the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef. The reefs out on the outer edge are better for viewing the coral and marine life as they have less damage than the inner reefs. Simon took me and three others (Claire, Kathy from the Whitsunday’s and Ian from California) out into the water first. We were exploring the section of the reef called Ski Slopes. My scuba outfit consisted of a wetsuit, inflatable life jacket, oxygen tank with attached mouthpiece, goggles, and flippers for my feet. Once on, the combination of equipment made walking the few meters off the boat into the water a huge challenge. Once in the water I demonstrated the skills I had learned earlier on the boat before descending the 6 meters below to the bottom of the reef. I spent the next 30 minutes exploring the reef and amazing creatures that lived there. The coral was shades of pink, yellow, green and blue and was filled with fish of all shapes and sizes. My favourite was the huge rainbow coloured Parrotfish who could be often seen swimming amongst the small fishes.
Our second stop on the Flynn Reef was Coral Gardens and was my favourite site, mainly for the creatures I found while snorkeling there. Before going in the water, one of the boat crew spotted a turtle swimming above the water, pointing it out to all us amazed tourists on the boat. Knowing turtles were in the nearby water, I spent my time at this site with my eyes peeled, looking for one. As if it were too good to be true, while snorkeling, a turtle swam right towards me. I spent the next few minutes swimming along side the turtle who didn’t seem to mind my company. Surprisingly none of the other tourists snorkeling noticed the turtle as I swam around with it. Once back on the boat I found out that only one other couple had seen a similar turtle, making everyone extremely jealous of my story and pictures. The third stop was also spent snorkeling, seeing many more fish and amazing coral before heading back to Cairns for dinner time. I spent the evening watching the sunset over the esplanade with Claire while sharing stories from our exciting day on the reef.
The next day I rode on the famous Kuranda Railway going high into the lush green mountains up into the small hippy town of Kuranda. The train weaves through the mountains, giving great views of the city of Cairns below and surrounding waterfalls. Once at the top, I spent several hours wandering along the streets of Kuranda, popular for its markets and butterfly sanctuary. The gondola ride over 7km to the bottom of the mountain and back to Cairns was beautiful, seeing thousands of trees, Barron Waterfalls and even the Great Barrier Reef from above. Once back in Cairns I spent the night wandering around the city with Emma and Ellen, two of my hostel roommates from Sweden.
My third and final full day in Cairns was jam packed with a 12 hour day tour to the 140 million year old Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation beach. We had a tour of the famous neighbouring town of Port Douglas, experienced tribal rituals with a local aboriginal guide welcoming us into the Daintree Rainforest, saw amazing views at the Mossman Gorge and Alexandra Lookout, hiked through the World Heritage Forest, and spent time at the breathtaking Cape Tribulation beach. The scenery today was once again amazing with lush green sugar cane fields surrounded by mountains and blue skies. Sugar cane paddocks were very common with harvesting being a source of income for many in the surrounding Cairns communities. I was amazed to learn that 8 tons of sugar cane is needed to equal 1 ton of sugar. Our tour bus even drove along the Captain Cook Highway, running along the beach. This beautiful drive is rated the 4th best drive in Australia and 14th best drive in the world!
Late that night the greyhound bus became my bed as I took a 10 hour bus ride from Cairns to Arlie Beach. Here I would be starting the next leg of this amazing vacation.