As for many people, the Great Barrier Reef was an almost mythical destination on my travel wishlist, and one that I didn’t think we would manage to do. The distance and the expense seemed overwhelming. But eventually we just decided, as with this whole Australia trip, that life is too short to put off your dreams, and you should just go for them, before you regret not doing it. This has been the principle behind my thinking ever since we retired in 2011, and so you can imagine our excitement when we boarded a plane from Brisbane to Cairns to realize this dream.
The flight from Brisbane to Cairns was longer than from Melbourne to Sydney, at 2 and a half hours. Unfortunately it was at night, so we didn’t get to see Cairns from above (we did when we flew out at the end of the trip). We arrived at Cairns at 7.30pm and quickly got our stuff (airport is tiny) and headed off by taxi to the Cairns City Palms Motel, where we were spending our first 3 nights. It was nice and clean and had all the things you need, but we particularly appreciated the friendly staff, and the breakfast room which supplied free juice and hot and cold drinks throughout the day, as well as home made pastries. The first day we just explored the Cairns Esplanade, and went to check on our car rental from Europcar. There was some kind of festival going on right on the Esplanade, and they were handing out free sausages, water bottles and other goodies, so that was fun. Then we set up the trip to the Reef for the following day. (Booking through our motel got us a 10% discount.) From the myriad tour companies available we chose Reef Magic which had been recommended to us by my cousin Yehudit. ( $215 AUD pp) The main pull for me about this company was that all the activities were included in the main price (glass-bottom boat, submersible boat, lots of snorkelling, buffet lunch) but also because the company has a pontoon, from which you do the snorkelling and diving, not from the boat itself. The boat takes you out to the reef, and stays there,and you have a good 5 hours or so of activities. You can snorkel the whole time or you can try all the other activities as many times as you wish. It was all well organized and the buffet was great. Everything was enjoyable and we had a great, memorable day despite me having a sore throat (so I limited my snorkeling time) and D had an aching shoulder but also enjoyed his time at the Reef immensely. WE decided not to do the optional helicopter ride, as this was really expensive. WE were satisfied with the things that we did, and it was certainly a memorable day. I don’t however have any photos of that day as I left my phone in the safe of the motel. D has a few but we were too busy having fun to take many pictures. It is possible to hire an underwater camera for the dive but we didn’t bother. You can look at the photos on the company website.
After 3 days in Cairns we picked up our rental car and drove up to our Airbnb at Clifton Beach. This one was a real winner. I wanted to finish up our trip on a quiet beach, in a place with our own entrance and private space. We had had enough of expensive restaurants and wanted to go to a supermarket and cook a bit. We also wanted to chill out a little since we were tired of moving around so much over 6 weeks. So I got really lucky with Gav and Juliana’s place which was all of these and more. We had a private apartment at the back of their house complete with swimmng pool , barbeque area, patio for breakfast and all this 2 minutes walk from Clifton Beach. (It also came equipped with Dobby the extremely enthusiastic bouncy dog) If you want to rent their place you can use this link.
Clifton village also has a nice little shopping centre, with Coles supermarket and a few restaurants, and an awesome little sushi stand. And Clifton is 10 minutes drive from Palm Cove which turned out to be even more fun. From Clifton it was a short drive to the Smithfield terminal of the Kuranda Sky rail, a cable car that takes you up into the treetops of the Kuranda National Park. So all in all the location was fabulous.
Many people do the trip in the Kuranda Rainforest by travelling one way by Skyrail and back by the Kuranda Scenic Railway, but since this finishes up in Cairns it was no use to us. I investigated other options but with only one car the only way was to take the Skyrail both up and down. The trip is 7.5 km and is truly wonderful. WE enjoyed it immensely.
On the way back down, our gondola was shared by a Park Ranger (originally from China) who pointed out various birds and trees.
There are two stops on the way up and down where you can get off and walk along a walkway and photograph the view. Most people stop about 15 minutes at each stop. At the top there is Kuranda Village where you can stay and buy tourist rubbish in the market or eat something at the many restaurants. It was a very enjoyable trip.
The next day we drove from Clifton up The Captain Cook Highway to Mossman Gorge, another of Yehudit’s wonderful recommendations. Mossman is part of the Rainforest, and has a lovely gorge and lots of walking trails you can follow through the forest. You can take swimming gear and swim in the rock pools if you like, too. We were even lucky enough to see a little snake.
From there we drove on to Daintree village, on the Daintree river, where we stopped off to eat a sandwich. (no swimming in the river, it is full of crocs) .
Daintree village is very cute, with a couple of restaurants and artists’ galleries and suchlike. From there we drove on in the direction of Cape Tribulation. The first thing I was not aware of was that to get to Cape Tribulation we had to cross the river by car ferry. This cost an exorbitant $26 return. I thought that we didn’t need to go back that way (to drive back to Clifton village) but the ticket girl assured me that there was no other way to get back. So we forked out and drove onto the ferry, which takes 5 minutes to cross the river and holds a maximum of 40 vehicles but on most crossings has only a few cars on it. The next thing was that although on the google maps the distance between Daintree and Cape Tribulation is about 50km , the road takes you through the rainforest and is very windy, with no wifi most of the way. We eventually reached Cape Tribulation, which was worth the effort as you will see in the pictures. It was a pretty deserted, beautiful stretch of beach. You can’t really swim there, (jellyfish, strong undercurrent, possibly sharks etc ) but it is wonderful.
On our way back to our airbnb we had intended to stop off at the supermarket and get some stuff for dinner, but as Google Maps kindly informed me that the supermarket would be closed by the time we got there, we decided to check out Palm Cove for dinner. There were supposed to be several restaurants there along the Esplanade. And as we drove into Palm Cove we discovered that a big festival was going on there – fireworks and the number of parked cars and the fact that the Esplanade itself was blocked off for cars confirmed this fact. It was an event called the Palm Cove Reef Feast. And it was great fun. The whole esplanade was full of food stands, performers of all kinds and people having fun! These are the kind of chance encounters that always make the trip memorable, I think. We enjoyed various foods and saw a fire juggling act. Anyway the festival was continuing the next day too, so we came back the next day and saw some fantastic musicians from Melanesia called Melanfunk Collective. The lead singer was actually in a Jazz band first and then told us she would be performing later in the second ensemble, so we watched both.
And the wonderful finale to our trip involved the father of our lovely host Juliana, whom we met over a drink at the airbnb. He is a fascinating chap called Karl, who is a retired pilot but still flies over the Great Barrier Reef in his own company Sea Eagle Adventures.
Karl has just bought a farm on the mountain past Kuranda Village. He described the farm to us and asked if we would like to visit him there, which we did. It was a fantastic day out and Karl is a really amazing bloke.
Our tour ended with a running gag. Everywhere we had seen warning signs about Kangaroos on the road, and all we had managed to see were the signs and a couple of dead kangaroos by the roadside. We also saw warning signs about emus and koalas and wombats on the roads, and never saw any of these either. We joked that we would sue the Australian government. So eventually, after a couple of tipoffs we went to Kewarra beach and right there behind the bowling club saw scores of kangaroos! A fitting end to our amazing trip.