So after a great week in Perth with the Deans we now found ourselves in tropical Cairns in far north Queensland. Cairns turned out to be one of those places that was nothing like I’d thought it would be. I knew it was the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and that it was a city, so I was expecting high rises lining a sandy beach with crystal clear water. Not quite, it’s just a big town really with a wild west country gold rush feel to it. The coastline is covered in estuarine mud and lined with mangroves and unless salt water crocs and box jellyfish don’t scare you, the only swimming you’d do here is in the public ‘lagoon’, a freshwater swimming pool on the esplanade. I was a little surprised.
In a stroke of luck our hostel got us a cheap last minute deal on a two day/one night live aboard dive trip with the Cairns Dive Centre. We’d be able to use those hard earned PADI licenses out in the wild now, so we booked on and found ourselves up at the crack of dawn on a shuttle boat heading out to the Great Barrier Reef. We transferred onto the Kangaroo Explorer dive boat and before we knew it were performing our buddy checks and leaping off the side hoping we’d remembered how to set up our gear properly. Our first dive was with a guide who monitored our abilities so as to check we really were qualified divers. The visibility was pretty poor so I remember surfacing and feeling a little disappointed with the reef. After a cup of tea and a slice of cake we were back in the water for dive number two at a different dive site called 360, and this time on our own, just the two of us. I wondered if we’d find the boat again after 40 minutes under, but sure enough we did. Both of us were buzzing after swimming along a huge drop off in clear water surrounded by beautiful bright fish and coral. We’d been able to swim faster at our own pace this time covering a greater distance rather than being held back by someone else in a group. We’d seen a sleeping turtle and a huge ray at least a metre across buried in the sand, we now understood why this place is so famous.
Back on the boat we ate a delicious beef stew and then nervously awaited sunset, we would be doing a night dive that evening. As darkness fell we found ourselves squeezing back into our wetsuits and peering nervously over the back of the boat into the dark water, we were going to be getting in that! Both equipped with torches and thankfully accompanied by a guide, we stepped out into the water and started our descent. Initially we were scanning the water with our torches like maniacs, slowly we both relaxed and began to enjoy this crazy experience. It’s really peaceful down there at night, a completely different set of fish are out, most of them predators and mainly big red bass. They followed us as we swam using our torchlight to help them hunt, I realised this after shining my light on a small fish which a bass promptly ate. The thought of sharks were never far from the back of my mind, I kept glancing over my shoulder into the darkness behind me hoping not to see Jaws, but thankfully he never appeared. His little brother did though apparently just as I was getting back on the boat, I was kicking myself that I didn’t see the white tipped reef shark. After a quick shower we both stood out on the top deck of the boat in the cool evening air looking up at the beautiful stars with no bright lights to spoil the view. The Milky Way was so clear and bright running across the sky, an incredible sight.
The next day we did three more dives in different sites and were lucky enough to see 5 or 6 turtles close up and also a few of the white tipped reef sharks I mentioned earlier. They were very wary and wouldn’t let us get too close to them so we watched them from afar, if they swam away you’d lost them, you couldn’t keep up with them. We ended up buying a DVD of our last dive to remember our time onboard, we’d enjoyed it so much. We sat watching Finding Nemo on the shuttle boat back to Cairns both feeling pretty tired and keen to shower the unmistakable niff of well used wetsuit from our bodies.
Back on land, we were now on the hunt for a campervan to buy to take us down the east coast. After a few days of hunting we’d only found a few for sale and none of which looked like they’d make it to the supermarket, let alone Sydney. The reality of the situation become apparent, we had eight weeks left and would waste a week getting a van, on reaching Sydney how long would it take to sell? Time we didn’t have if we were to see all that we wanted to in Australia. We decided we’d rent one instead, we wouldn’t be able to make money back like we would if selling our own van, but it would be more likely to actually work! After getting different quotes from various companies, the only one our budget would stretch to was with Hippie Camper, and yes, sure enough their vans are all covered in bright coloured flowers, great! It took me a while to come to terms with it, but I soon realised that once I was inside the bloody thing it could be painted with anything for all I cared, as I would no longer be able to see it.
We now had wheels, a bed, a fridge and a hob and could finally get out of Cairns and do some exploring. Our first destination was completely in the wrong direction, but necessary, a lengthy explanation why is coming. Before going travelling I’d got quite interested in the voyages of the explorer Captain Cook after having read his journals. The accounts of Cook and his onboard Biologists Banks and Solander were really fascinating as they described the Aboriginal people and wildlife of Australia for the first time. Ultimately his arrival in the year of 1770 marked an end to the Aboriginal’s culture as they knew it and the start of white settlement, a loved and hated man depending on who you ask. I felt quite excited that I could visit the places he did and bring the history to life.
Cook landed in what he named Botany Bay (he named a hell of a lot of places), just south of Sydney, discovering the east coast of Australia (only the west coast was known of at that point) and sailed north charting the east coast as he went. We would be heading in the opposite direction, following his journey in reverse. So I’m finally getting to the point of why we headed north of Cairns, bear with me. Towards the end of his trip along the coast, his ship HMB the Endeavour struck part of the Great Barrier Reef, nearly wrecking him and his crew in open water far from land. With his skill and probably some luck, and despite the ship taking on water at a horrendous rate, they arrived at what is now today called Cooktown, a sheltered harbour where the ship could be heaved onto its side and repaired. So with the freedom of our flowery van that’s where we were going.
After a diversion via Cape Tribulation in the Daintree rainforest, we parked up for our first spot of illegal street camping (I couldn’t see any ‘no camping’ signs so that made it legal in our eyes :)). With lush wet rainforest behind us and a beautiful empty beach before us, we were in paradise. The forest was full of Cassowaries, large flightless birds with bright blue and red heads and black bodies. We really wanted to see one of these rare creatures but they never appeared, at night though we could hear them calling around our van as we tried to sleep, quite an eerie sound amongst all of all the other weird jungle noises. Sleeping with our side windows open, I was hoping not to see one with its head in the van.
Cooktown was now only 70kms further north of us, if you had a 4×4 that is, so we had to take the 300+km inland route along the Mulligan highway to get there. This journey was through the most remote bush we would encounter in our whole time in Australia. We drove through burnt smouldering forests, still alight in places (bush fires are a huge problem here), we passed hundreds of dead Wallabies and Kangaroos and even feral pigs and dogs that had picked the wrong time to cross the road. Occasionally we saw another vehicle, but otherwise we really were in the middle of nowhere.
Two days later we arrived in Cooktown to sweltering heat. The town itself was pretty small and dead, but the coastline incredibly beautiful. We visited all of the statues and plaques marking where Cook had first come ashore and lazily drove to the top of the grassy hill Cook had climbed in order to survey the coast, and to plot his escape from the reef that currently had him trapped. Besides that, it’s also one of the best panoramic views we saw whilst in Australia, so good that we stood there for probably an hour admiring the scenery. The snaking Endeavour river estuary bounded by mangroves and dunes, the surrounding hills, the pockets of bright green and blue reef spread out over the sea, incredible. We parked for the night by the mouth of the estuary and enjoyed one of the best shows of the stars we’ve seen, along with the sound of the water that was right next to us.
The next morning we sat and admired the same view whilst scoffing a bowl of porridge with honey and a cup of coffee. We’ve eaten the same budget breakfast every day so far in Australia and still aren’t bored of it, it’s become a daily ritual.
With the huge distance to Sydney and the limited time we decided we should now head back south. With hindsight it was a pretty special place up there and we should probably have stayed one more night, oh well! So back down the Mulligan Highway we headed, dodging the many marsupial carcasses as we went. Some 5 hours later we were in lush rainforest descending a huge mountain road into Cairns, right back where we’d started.
Our van had developed a problem along the way, the engine light was on, so we made a brief stop at the Cairns Hippie Camper depot to swap over to a new van. An hour later we were back on the road and ready to head in the same direction we would be travelling in over the next 8 weeks, south.