On January 2nd, I arrived to Cairns, the final stop on my East Coast itinerary and about as north as I would be heading in Queensland.
I was booked for 3 nights at, surprise, the party hostel called Gilligans. Looking back, I’m happy that the travel angency, Peterpan’s, gave me a nice mix of “party” and more subdued places to stay and excursions; I think it all played out pretty well. It was a big deal for me to give up the control of planning my own trip, and I am really glad that I went to them for assistance in planning everything for me, there were definite benefits.
Anyways, I arrived via my final Greyhound booking relatively late, and found some food before getting into my room and settling in for the night. As I was showering and getting ready for bed, there were about 10 people in my room playing loud music and pregaming (the bar was literally just downstairs in the hostel, but that is besides the point). Generally, this type of atmosphere would tend to cause me great stress and anxiety, but I was really proud at how I addressed the situation. I let it happen long enough to be fair and then stood my ground! Turns out, none of them were even staying in our room? I laughed about this with the one guy, Frank, who actually did have a bed in our room and was just as confused as how the party had ended up there. Frank is from Italy, and he turned out to be a funny character in my time in Cairns. We had some laughs from our balcony and within hours he was calling me “Grandma”.
The next morning I was up early for my day excursion on the Great Barrier Reef! I was booked with a boat called Passions of Paradise for 1 day of snorkeling and an introductory scuba dive. I arrived at the marina for the 8:00 am departure, and was psyched that the sun was shining and the water was flat. Apparently, the weather in Cairns for the past 3 weeks had been horrible, and this was the first clear day the crew had seen. My good luck streak continued :). I had a few familiar faces on my boat too, some girls from my Whitsundays boat, which was a nice surprise! Mostly though, I spent the day solo, soaking up the entire experience.
On our way out to the reef, those of us participating in the intro scuba dive had a safety briefing to talk about the logistics of how everything would work. I learned some of the basic skills they would need us to demonstrate once we got in the water, and they gave us some information about the reef, what to expect, etc. I was placed in “Dive Group 3” so when we arrived to our first stop, I was able to spend about 30-45 minutes snorkeling before my dive would take place. One of the most interesting things I learned about the reef in our initial discussion was how many people often express disappointment when they don’t see the “Nemos” or sharks and turtles right away, or they make comments about the reef looking “dead”. Apparently, clownfish and sea turtles are actually pretty rare, and it depends on where you are on the reef for your chances of a spotting to be high/low. Additionally, the color of the reef is directly affected by the water and light. The further down you go, the less saturated and bright the colors are because… science.
Even armed with this information, my first look underwater was pure joy. I was snorkeling on the freaking Great Barrier Reef!!!! You can see this thing from space!!! I didn’t even notice the colors being “muted” and was in absolute wonder of the amount of life that exists just below the surface. I saw hundreds of different fish right away, some colored with neon yellow, blue and pink stripes. I saw a royal blue starfish and coral of all shapes and sizes. It was mesmorizing and one of the most intricate things I’ve ever seen. Mostly, I was humbled by the nature at work and how small of a piece I was witnessing. After a while I got out (and was admittedly pretty cold) and waited for my dive group to be called.
Soon enough, they were grouping us off 4 divers per instructor and we were getting strapped into all of the gear, which is really heavy! I held my mask and regulator tight as I jumped in and was immediately overwhelemed with sensation. The water just next to the boat was super choppy, I had all this unfamiliar and heavy gear wearing me down, and I was breathing with my face underneath it all. Very very strange initial feelings! I think my confidence as a swimmer helped with all of this; I can’t imagine being uncomfotable in the water on top of all these extra things going on. I was paired with an instructor named Kirsty, and she had us all in line, holding onto a rope before she helped deflate our vests and our heads sank underwater. She then went down the line and we demonstrated the skills taught in the briefing: emptying water from our face masks, removing and re-inserting the mouth regulator, etc. After a thumbs up to each of us, she turned around and had us grab her arms, 2 on each side. We then started kicking downwards. Once again my senses were in overload, I was trying to remember to equalize my ears, breath regularly, kick, and obviously look around at everything around me! It probably took me about 15 minutes before I actually did look around and take in my surroundings, but once that clicked I entered an entirely new world. My adrenaline was pumping as we explored more of the reef and I got more used to the entire experience. We ended up being underwater at around 8 meters (~26 feet) for around 45 minutes. When we got back onto the boat I was absolutely buzzing!! No questions asked, I signed up for the opportunity to do a second dive that afternoon.
I ate a quick lunch on the boat, which was surprisingly really really good, and before we knew it they were announcing that we had arrived to our afternoon reef destination. I decided to skip out on a second snorkel as I needed some time to warm back up before the next dive. Less people had signed up for round two, so we were soon back on deck getting geared up. I was with a different instructor this time, and he had us link arms in a chain rather than hold onto him directly. We also didn’t have to go through the whole skill demonstration piece, so we had more time in the water. I was definitely more confident and had more capacity to look around on this go! With more space around me, I studied the fish and the coral and felt so much more natural. We even saw some Nemos! On the way back, one of the instructors gave us more information about the reef ecosystem and all the fish we had likely seen that day. I was still super amped and pretty inspired to work on getting a scuba certification at some point in the near future. It’s quite expensive to do here in Australia, so I might work on saving up for it :). Overall, great experience.
That night I went out at Gilligan’s with some new people in my room and also met up with a girl from my Fraser tour, Lauren, who was also with a new group of people. Worth reflecting on what a tool Instagram has been while traveling. With almost everyone I’ve met, we exchange Instagram contacts so that we can follow each others’ travels. It’s actually amazing how many people I’ve seen a second/third time because of this! It’s like there are no rules, and when you find someone in the same place as you there is no hesitation to say hey! I’m here! Let’s meet up! Anyways, that night was pretty fun! I met a lot of new people and had some fun dancing and drinking free champagne for “Ladies Night”. I also met another American named Lisa who has turned out to be a really nice new friend. She had the big set up in NYC and decided to leave it behind for extensive long term travel. It’s easy to connect with someone over such a similar “home” life and I admire her a lot! Thinking back to that night, I also had a funny social experience. Gilligan’s is known for their nightly events, and that night happened to be a provocative stage dance competition if you know what I mean. In the midst of that craziness happening, I was engaged in a really good conversation with a guy from Sweden about books, solo travel/self discovery and introversion hahaha. I’ve continued to get such a kick out of the situation, as it really just shows that people can be in the same place and have such different priorities and personalitites. I can’t remember my friend’s name, but I really enjoyed talking with him and before we all went to bed we thanked each other for such a refreshing and genuine conversation. Stuff like that feels good.
On 1/4 I had a free day, With the sun blissfully shining, I headed down to the lagoon for a day in the water. I met back up with Victoria and a friend of hers and we completely relaxed for the entire day, not kidding. We had lunch in the shade and I worked out the logistics for my plans after Cairns. It was weird to have to think about all of that again! I ended up extending my time in Cairns by a few days to do an extra day of touring.
The following morning I had an early pick up for my final pre-planned excursion to Cape Tribulation, part of the Daintree Rainforest. The overnight tour was with a company called Uncle Brian’s and I really enjoyed the whole experience! Our tour guide was named Brad, a quirky Australian guy and we had a full bus of about 22 people total. I enjoyed the little group of friends I made too, we were an American, English, Swedish, German, Italian and Belgian- an interesting group for sure! Our first stop out of town was at a small campsite/wildlife area where we had some breakfast and took time to explore. We fed the little rock wallabies who were running around and they were sooo cute. We continued on from there further into the rainforest, stopping for a picnic lunch at a beach and then arriving at the site for a crocodile boat tour. I enjoyed the “slower” pace of this first morning; we were all just enjoying the company and the ride through one of the most beautiful parts of the world I’ve seen.
On the hour long river tour, we saw about 5-6 wild saltwater crocs! We ended up seeing the alpha male of the area, a few females and smaller “babies” as well. Apparently in different seasons, you can see 20-30 an hour in the river, scary stuff. Once we crossed the river and rejoined the bus, we really began to get deeper into the rainforest. It felt like we were driving through Jurassic Park! I absolutely loved the atmosphere of the area. The Daintree Rainforest is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the oldest surviving rainforest in the world, which means it basically did not freeze over in the ice age. This also means there are tons of crazy wildlife everywhere, which are pretty much dinosaurs, i.e. the crocs, cassowaries, spiders, snakes, etc. Around dinner time we arrived to our accommodation for the night, a cozy hostel tucked into the forest next to the beach. We went for a sunset walk on the sand and then returned to the hostel for our dinner which was prepared in the onsite restaurant and was really good! I liked the hostel a lot; it had camping style facilities and we enjoyed the bedrooms which had all single beds instead of the bunk beds we are all used to and so it felt like a big sleepover. Once it was dark we all went on a night walk through the rainforest, led by Brad, who pointed out so many crazy spiders, snakes, frogs, right in the surrounding area. I was amazed at the sounds and amount of life that exists in the dark.
A bunch of us woke early the next morning to watch the sunrise at the beach. It was pretty, minus the mosquitoes that ate us alive haha. After breakfast we got back on the road, making a few more pit stops in the rainforest at different lookouts and at a small hidden place to go for a swim! The small trail led down to a river and area with a rope swing, totally submerged in the trees. It felt surreal to be swimming in such a prehistoric place, and you can really feel the ancient energy of the land here. On our way out we stopped at a locally owned ice cream shop that creates flavors from their fruit orchard. We had the cup with 4 flavors of the day: jackfruit, wattleseed, passionfruit and soursop. I’d never heard of a few of those and it was so fresh and fruity. Our final stop of the afternoon was in Port Douglas, a really cute coastal vacation town. We broke off to have lunch on our own, so our small group found a place on the main street and then took a walk up to an overlook of the main beach. From this view we saw some wildlife, including sea turtles! This was my first turtle sighting and we were so pumped. I wouldn’t have minded spending more time in Port Douglas, but as the afternoon wore on we needed to keep moving back to Cairns. Overall had a great little trip, loved all of the local knowledge and information from Brad, and really enjoyed the conversation and time spent with the friends I made.
That night, I checked into a new hostel with Victoria, where I’d spend my last 2 nights in Cairns. I met up with her and 2 other girls, Sam and Claire, for a picnic dinner at the lagoon and had a pretty early night. The next morning, the 4 of us were back together for my actual last excursion: a day exploring the waterfalls of the Atherton Tablelands! Our tourguide, Bruce, was hilarious and kept us entertained the entire day with funny questions and comments. The tablelands area is inland/south of Cairns so the area was totally new to me. We had a bunch of stops over the day: the “avatar” tree, a crystal clear blue lake in a volcanic crater, a small waterfall in another volcanic crater park, Millaa Millaa Falls (the famous herbal essences commercial waterfall), and Josephine Falls where we were able to go down a little rock slide! It’s hard to describe the beauty of these places; everything just feels so old and untouched in this area of the world and I especially love being able to swim in the freshwater which feels so cleansing. Worth noting the extreme power of the Millaa Millaa Falls, I swam up/under it and was blown away by the force of nature. The drive back to Cairns was pleasant; we drove through land filled with farms: bananas, sugarcane, tea, mango.. so awesome and pure. It was a great day.
Victoria and I had dinner together that night and got packed up; we both had 6:00 am flights out of Cairns the next morning, her to Bali and me back to Noosa via Brisbane. We took the shuttle to the airport and enjoyed a last cup of coffee before going our separate ways. She is a lifelong friend!
I officially arrived back to Noosa on 1/8, which I am considering my “second chapter” of this journey. I’ll go into everything I’ve been doing here in my next post, but wanted to wrap up my reflections on the East Coast tour! It was more than I could have ever imagined, with plenty of emotional ups and downs, new people, unexpected places, laughs, moments in time for which I am forever grateful. Australia is a beautiful place, and I am thankful each day that I wake up here. Here are some final thoughts that have crossed my mind over the weeks, that have brought me satisfaction:
- There is no beauty standard! It is easy to turn into a dirtbag real quick while traveling, and I love the fact that makeup and clean hair are not a requirement for going out in public. I probably wash my hair 2x/week and so many showers have been in the ocean or lakes. No shame there.
- So far, what I’ve packed and carried with me has been perfect. There is really nothing I feel as though I’m missing and it’s actually awesome to only be responsible for what I can carry. Wearing the same clothes almost every day is easy.
- I am thankful for every day of sunshine here. So many people have expereienced hiccups in travel plans due to inclimate weather, and I can’t believe how lucky I was with my weather while traveling north during the start of the wet season. Not a single issue, and having the sun on my face every day has been so rejuvinating for my body.
- I am also thankful for my physical health. The amount of scratches, bites, bumps, bruises and random issues that come up every day are endless, but at the end of the day I’ve walked and climbed and taken myself everywhere I need and want to go without any trouble. I am very fortunate for that ability.
- The people you meet along the way really make the experience of traveling so much more fulfilling. Whether it’s a single meeting/conversation or a friend that you spend a few days with, it’s crazy to look back and see how many people have impacted my time so far. I still have and need my times of solidtude, but I’ve really enjoyed the social aspect of traveling too.