26. Australian Road trip: Cairns - tropical playground
Cairns - Tropical metropolis that is one of THE destinations in Australia
First Impressions of a Tropical Metropolis
Houses dot the lower reaches of the mountainside as we roll through the outer suburbs of Cairns along a congested, dual carriageway. Supermarkets, car yards, garages, factory workshops, shopping malls and a million tacky signs fight for attention along the roadside. Traffic lights turn red at every intersection, the rain tumbles from the sky in bursts, then stops while the air steams and the stream of traffic splashes and sprays through puddles and ponds on the road surface. The high rises ahead seem to get no closer as we battle toward the city centre.
“Cairns has changed” – I may sound like a master of understatement and cliché, but it is more than just change caused by growth. Some places don’t lose their soul when they change, they just get bigger and older. In this case, I can’t recognise the Cairns that I last visited in 1982 at all as we drive up and down the grid of streets in the centre. They are still broad boulevards but the architecture has been altered irrevocably. Gone, it seems, are most of the elegant colonial hotels that used to grace nearly every corner, with their high verandahs and tall, shuttered windows. Many streets appear to be either pedestrianised or choked with traffic and where I hope to see a familiar strip of funky old pubs called the Barbary Coast, I see nothing but high-rise condos, and modern complexes. What bits of old Cairns that still exist are buried beneath an eyesore of signage, posters, banners and neon.
After half an hour of driving around the city streets I establish, with some certainty, that the tropical town I lived in for three months back in 1982 is no more. It is now the playground of backpackers, property speculators and a good portion of the population of Japan. Even the iconic Marlin Jetty has been consumed in the bristling chaos of the harbour marina, its original charm and purpose overtaken by time and the demands of mass tourism.
I suppose I am being unfair to the Cairns. After all, it has always been an anarchic, opportunistic type of place inhabited by fishermen, freaks, Islanders, bikers, farmers, cowboys, gold miners and adventurers. It was a tropical frontier town, now it is a tropical metropolis - a Universal City – like New York or Las Vegas insofar as it draws people from all over the world to its wonky, unpredictable orbit. Truth be told, if I were younger, I would love it here, as I did in ‘82.
10 things to do in Cairns - it's never boring
Cairns lies at the centre of a vast area of great natural beauty and of scientific and environmental importance. It is a region of incredible fertility and a playground for people from all walks of life. With Cairns as a base, you can snorkel or dive on the Great Barrier Reef; sail wherever you want on tropical seas; fish for barramundi or marlin; explore rainforests; visit crocodile farms or view the giant reptiles in the wild on the banks of broad, mangrove-lined rivers. You can ride a skytrain above the forest canopy to the mountain top town of Kuranda, or make the same journey past crashing waterfalls in a train. You can swim in cool mountain streams, and on the other side of the mountains, visit the timeless outback. This is why we all come to Cairns. Then there is the harbourside swimming lagoon, the pubs, nightclubs and the Casinos. Cairns has it all.
Meet the Gekkos
My friend Geoff lives at Machan’s Beach, the first of Cairn’s Northern Beaches, located at the mouth of the Barron River, just behind the airport. It is a quiet, residential suburb, not nearly as trendy as its sister beaches further north - Holloway’s Beach, Yorkey’s Knob, Trinity Beach, Kewarra Beach and Clifton Beach – Geoff has lived in the tropics for many years and is completely acclimatised. He doesn’t seem to be affected by the overwhelming heat and is unfazed by the mozzies, whereas I have slap-and-splatter marks all over me. Geoff’s four year old son is also here and he too is immune to the mozzies and the heat, climbing all over the place without even wearing a t-shirt.
Geoff shares his house with another family, the Gekkos. While we humans carry on with our day-to-day life, the Gekkos carry on with theirs, which is lived mostly upside down on the ceiling, or at 90° on the wall. The little lizards eat moths and insects, so they hang out near light fittings where the moths tend to congregate. They stalk the insects then, as fast as lightning, they attack and you have this little gekko with a moth the size of a light aircraft in its mouth. Gekkos are loud too. They make a chuk-chuk-chuk sound, bit like that Skippy the Bush Kangaroo – remember him?
I love gekkos. They are so small and fragile, with a face like E.T. They also have sex upside down on the ceiling. I have witnessed this. Every now and then one will lose its suction and fall to the floor. Funny. Like cats, they turn as they fall, land on their feet and run like hell to the nearest vertical surface, up which they scurry to the relative, but topsy turvy, sanctuary of the ceiling.
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There is only so long one can sit around drinking beer and watching gekkos getting it on. I have another old friend that lives in up in mountain town of Kuranda, so promising Geoff that we will return in a few days, we head off up the mountain.
Kuranda is a bustling, picture-postcard town high up on the plateau, at the edge of the Atherton Tablelands. The road up is long and steep and there are times when I doubt Winnie will make it. But I am not the naïve driver I was when we climbed Dorrigo Mountain many moons ago. We are now very chilled out, and definitely going troppo in the sweaty heat of the wet season - if Winnie wants to go up the mountain at 2 miles per hour then that’s OK with us.
As we climb higher the view of the coastal flats unfolds below us. The Coral Sea sparkles and the whole place is just so magical and beautiful, despite the monstrous cityscape and the overindulgent lifestyle led by many people down there. The road eventually levels out and we notice a marked drop in temperature and lower humidity as we are now over 1000 feet above sea level.
Michael has lived in Kuranda for decades and like Geoff, has acclimatised himself to the tropics, though his lovely home can be hermetically sealed and air conditioned, allowing him to shut out entirely the heat, the wet and the insect life that abounds in the jungle that surrounds his property.
Michael and his wife Ruth lead a relaxed lifestyle, working the local craft markets selling various products including Emu Oil and Indonesian shell jewellery which they bulk buy in person, from Bali every year. Markets are their game and they are good at it. Kuranda itself is famous for two things - its picturesque, tropical railway station and its market. The Old Market, which I first encountered in 1982, was a ramshackle, hippie affair that wound around a maze of trails in the rainforest. That market is now mostly derelict (at the time of writing), though the few stalls that remain remind you of how funky it once was. The new market is for the most part sterile and functional though there is an amazing array of goods on offer.
My favourite North Queensland craft is the art of tanning and stuffing cane toads. The Queenslanders have turned the pests into wallets, hash pipes, key chains and stubby holders You can even buy little outfits for them and dress them up, or buy toads done in the likeness of figures from history. You can also buy crocodile products as well as the ubiquitous sheep skin, kangaroo skin, boomerangs and didgeridoos.
We see our first large aboriginal population of the entire trip, right here in Kuranda. This encounter leaves us feeling uncomfortable, mainly with ourselves, at the way a kind of unwitting racism manifests itself. The aboriginals of Australia, the original inhabitants of this land, are everywhere in Kuranda, yet it is as if they are invisible when it comes to interaction with the drifting shoals of tourists and assorted whitefellas. The irony is that Aboriginal craft shops selling didgereedos and dot paintings are everywhere and the occasional Aboriginal artist you may come across in some of the classier art galleries is treated with what feels like a sort of patronising respect. Many of the street aborigines on the other hand, often appear drunk and aggressive towards each other as they wander around the busy tourist-filled streets shouting, fighting and swearing. Despite their clamour, no one seems to take any notice of them whatsoever. In the eyes of the whitefellas, the blackfellas, it appears, are indeed invisible. But really, what do we know? (More on this uneasy relationship in later Hubs.)
Meanwhile we spend two pleasant and civilised nights with Mike and Ruth, sitting around their table on the verandah, chatting about the past, present and future while the rain tumbles down, relieved occasionally by blazing sun or quiet, humid stillness, especially after dark. We get to eat some nice food too as Michael used to be a chef in Sydney.
Sunday they work the popular Mareeba Market and leave the house very early leaving us to sleep in. After a lazy lie in, we decide to drive to Mareeba to see the market, then, rather than return to Cairns straight away, to head north to Cooktown for a couple of days, taking advantage of the newly opened tar-sealed road that allows non 4x4 vehicles access to this remote northern town.
On the road to Mareeba we are caught up in a tailback caused by a terrible accident involving several drunk youths and an oncoming pensioner. There are now probably a hundred or more vehicles in the traffic queue, and the police have taped off the area about half a kilometre from the accident. After an hour or so I walk up the road to the police cordon, partly out of boredom, but also out of morbid curiousity. Various bits of gossip circulate amongst the crowd of onlookers, namely that at least five people have been killed. It is a chilling sight to see, with the bush all around and in the distance an overturned car on the road, shimmering in the heat, and the back end of another jutting up out of a ditch, and all these people standing around, silent, or talking in hushed voices, like a murmur of ghosts.
Amazingly, It appears that no one was killed in the accident after all - so much for rumour. I have to run back to Winnie because the police suddenly open the road and let the traffic pass. By the time I arrive puffing and panting back at our truck, it is the only vehicle remaining, parked ridiculously where I left it, in the middle of the road with Sheila inside, obliviously reading a book.
Mareeba is an important town high up on the Atherton Tableland, at the edge of the outback. It is a cattle town where stockmen drive their herds in from the out-lying stations and beyond. Up here the dusty roads and yellowed grass fields make it feel like we are back in the hot dry tropics we encountered around Rockhampton. Mareeba market is not as good as we expected but we are over three hours late because of the accident so most of the produce, all of the good crafts and half the people have already left. We still manage to buy some Atherton Tableland Skyberry coffee, some pineapple wine and a pair of Crocs. The Crocs are a new type of rubber sandal that fits into the thong/beach footwear market. Michael swears by them as the perfect tropical footwear. At 3pm we say our goodbyes to Michael and Ruth and head out on the dusty road to Cooktown, almost 300kms to the north.
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