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Things to do in Cairns
Cairns has a population of 120,000 that swells to 160,000 in July and August when the Northern Hemisphere has its summer and Northern Queensland has its dry season. At 8 am that first morning as we looked out of Cairns International Airport, it was obvious that March was not dry season! Our flight from Heathrow took 24 hours and with a 10-hour time difference, our bodies still thought it was 10pm. My husband, a pilot and seasoned traveller, was determined that we shouldn’t nap when we reached to our hotel, but instead keep going through the day and have an early night. That way we would adjust more quickly to the time difference, and be ready for our early-morning pick up for a rainforest tour the next day.
A Taste of Paradise (unless you are Captain Cook, that is: read on to find out why.)
Cairns Historical Society Museum
I’ve never been anywhere quite like Cairns Historical Society Museum. At the entrance an elderly man greeted us, and then guided us around the entire museum (it wasn’t big). He explained some of the history of Aboriginal tribes of the area, including their struggles to protect their lands against European and Chinese setters. He showed us their weapons, including the stick hunters use to launch their spears and their clever basket traps used for catching fish. He showed us photos of early settlers with giant pineapples, which were a major crop before farmers found sugar cane grew more readily.
This museum is not precious with their exhibits. Our guide handed us a shark’s jawbones, a crocodile’s head and a sawfish’s teeth. Then he took our photos. Since we’d had around 3 hours sleep over 2 nights, the jawbones and crocodile hide look better in the photos than we do. But our younger daughter is a whizz at sleeping on planes and managed to come up pretty when the rest of us looked pretty awful, so she has volunteered to guide you through some of the museum exhibits. That’s her in the shark’s mouth, in the dentist’s chair, and in the “Link Trainer.” Well, her father is a pilot, so what do you expect? The Link trainer is a wooden airplane simulator, and our girls left the museum with a certificate each, stating they are qualified Link Trainer Pilots!
After we left the museum, my husband went to get us a mobile phone and buy some food, while the girls and I headed back to the hotel. They were instantly drawn to a water dispenser and filled their bottles while I went to the office to confirm details of our rainforest tour in the morning. When I came back the girls were nowhere to be seen. I turned the corner and found them both slumped on a sofa sound asleep! Okay, so maybe our daughter isn’t such a whizz at sleeping on planes after all. And staying up as long as we could turned out to mean about 4 o’ clock. I shook my sleeping beauties awake, herded them back to the room where within minutes they were asleep again, waking around 3 am.
So that’s one way to (almost) get over jetlag. We were all up and ready at reception for our pickup at 6.45 am. (Did I mention Australians do things early?)
The Beautiful Cassowary on Video
The Daintree Rainforest
Since by now I’ve used the word ‘rainforest’ a few times, you will either be thinking this writer is crazy, or you know more about Australia than I did until a few days before we booked our trip. We hear so much about the destruction of the Brazilian and Indonesian rainforests that those of Northern Queensland get overlooked, although they are among the oldest on earth. These tropical rainforests once covered Australia, but now stretch for only 1000th of its landmass – which is still over 500 kilometers. 80% of its flowers grow nowhere else, and the forests are home a total of over 3000 plant species, including 37% of Australia’s conifers.
They are also home to the cassowary, the beautiful flightless bird in the video above. Our tour guide did his best to find a cassowary for us but all we saw were the cassowary plums, poisonous to most animals, but safe for cassowaries. They swallow the plums whole and pass them almost intact, so spreading seeds around the forest. This strange eating habit makes the cassowary vital to the rainforest’s ecosystem, and our guide enthusiastically showed us cassowary dung. Whoever thought dung could be pretty! Cassowaries are endangered, with only around 1500 of them left in the Australian rainforest, and they can also be dangerous. They have injured people and one death is attributed to this beautiful bird. One more cassowary fact – females grow bigger than males and roam around the forests mating, laying eggs and then leaving Daddy to bring up the kids!
As well as showing us poo, our guide took us above the rainforest on a specially constructed walkway where he showed us a gap in the forest canopy. Thirty years previously a cyclone (the Southern Hemisphere's hurricane) ripped the tops off trees and toppled others. But, he explained that this was not a disaster, simply part of the life cycle of the rainforest. The gap in the canopy let light into the affected areas, stimulating new growth.
We had morning coffee in the Daintree Rainforest Discovery Centre, where we shared a pavilion with the spider below. Unlike the famous Redback and Funnel Web spiders, the massive Golden Orb spider is harmless – unless you are a fly that is!
A Golden Orb female spider. To see more photographs of the Daintree Rainforest, click on the thumbnails.Click thumbnail to view full-size
Cape Tribulation, Mount Sorrow and Weary Bay
Our tour of the rainforest continued on to Cape Tribulation, or to give it its Aboriginal name: Kurangee.
This beautiful beach was named by Captain Cook when his ship ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef and almost sank. He also named nearby Mount Sorrow and Weary Bay. So you can tell he had a great time there!
Okay, maybe he didn’t, but we did. With palm trees behind us and the wooded headlands to each side, the beach truly felt close to paradise. The only downside is that from October to June the waters off Northern Queensland are home to large Box Jellyfish. Their stings are not only painful, but can be lethal. Much as we would have loved a dip in the ocean or a paddle along the shoreline we contented ourselves with a walk along the beach and our daughters enjoyed making giant ‘bird tracks’ in the sand.
From Cape Tribulation we headed for a barbecue lunch, which catered well for us vegetarians, and where we sampled delicious fruits of the rainforest including rambutan, starfruit, star apples, the heavenly dragon fruit or pitahaya, and the very smelly, but surprisingly tasty durian fruit.
The tour included a trip along the Daintree river, which included our only sighting of wild crocodiles during our trip to Australia. A mother and baby crocs rested among the mangroves on the river’s edge. Our effervescent guide regaled us with tales of human carelessness that led to crocodile feasts. His view was that as long as you are sensible you are safe, unlike the man who’d been drinking and then paddled up the Daintree River in a canoe with a lump of meat trailing behind, hoping to catch a crocodile. Instead the crocodile caught him.
Our final stop on the tour was to the rapids at Mossman Gorge, before heading back to Cairns. Although we missed the cassowary, wildlife was abundant both in the forest and along the roadways. Wallabies played in fields along the road, kookaburras laughed on the high telephone wires, bush turkeys scarpered across the road, sulphur crested cockatoos took off en masse at sunset, ospreys and fruit bats hung about in trees.
By the time we arrived, happy but weary, back at our hotel, the wind was rising steadily and people were speaking about a category 4 cyclone that was offshore and heading towards Northern Queensland. And we had a trip to the Great Barrier Reef booked for the next day.
Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation
Cyclone Ului and The Barrier Reef
Did we get our Reef trip or did we end up huddling in a hotel room while storms blasted palm trees to the ground? While I leave you wondering, let’s talk about the weather. The rainforest is so called because it rains! A lot.
To qualify as a tropical rainforest the area must be in the tropics and must get at least 1.3 meters of annual rainfall. North Queensland’s rainforest can get up to 3 meters of rain in a year, and more than half of that falls between December to March. July and August are the driest months, with under 30 mm of rain. They are also among the coolest, although the average high only varies by around 6°c, with July the coolest at 25.7°c and December and January reaching 31.4°c. February is the wettest month with statistics for Cairns airport showing an average of 455mm of rain for that month. March - when we visited - isn’t far behind with 425mm.
The people of Northern Queensland see a lot of flooding and build their houses on stilts as a result – the style is known as The Queenslander because they are so typical of the area. Our driver guide was as obsessed with the weather as we British are and delighted in telling us about floods of 2 meters in depth.
The “Queenslander” - a typical house
Because the rain fell in very heavy bursts, we still saw plenty of sun, even with a cyclone hovering. Cyclones are common off Northern Queensland, although many die out before they reach land. The storm that was brewing as we toured the rainforest was Cyclone Ului, one of the fastest intensifying tropical storms on record. Our guide predicted that our trip to the Reef could well be cancelled. He also warned that if even it was safe to sail there was a good chance that the sea state would mean visibility would be too poor. Either way we didn’t hold out much hope, especially when we woke early the next morning to the sound of heavy rain battering against our window.
But a few hours later we were bumping through waves heading for Michaelmas Cay and eating the ginger pills the cheerful crew provided to ward of sea-sickness. The pills worked for some people, but not everyone.
As we neared the reef the waters became calmer, and the crew gave instructions for suiting up. The only sharks around were small and safe reef sharks, and Box jellyfish that hang around the coastal waters don’t come out as far as the reef. Nevertheless, all tour companies provide customers with “stinger suits.” These are full body suits, covering legs and arms, which protect from sunburn as well as any other jellyfish. We suited up and we hopped onto the little boat heading for the island. Part of Michaelmas Cay is a bird sanctuary and swimmers must avoid that part, but the birds weren’t shy about popping over to see us.
After a short snorkeling lesson for our kids, we headed for the reef. Well, three of us did. When a fish glided beneath our younger daughter she headed back to the island, deciding fish were scary and sand was safer. Actually, that morning there almost as much sand in the sea and we peered at fish or coral through a murky haze. My husband and I both had memories of snorkeling in clear blue waters off the Maldives and Turkey, so we weren’t impressed right then. Our elder daughter, with no preconceptions, thought everything she saw was simply amazing. After a lunch back onboard ship, the tide had risen, the sand had settled and the afternoon’s snorkeling was clearer. A giant clam became our elder daughter’s new best friend, and I saw my old best friends the beautiful striped angelfish. Our younger daughter even managed to get over her fear of fish enough to take some of the photos below.
The Great Barrier Reef and Michaelmas CayClick thumbnail to view full-size
Swimming Safety at Beaches Around Cairns
From October to June the waters off Northern Queensland contain dangerous stinging jellyfish, the Box jellyfish. Therefore it is only safe to swim at beaches which have areas which have been cordoned off by stinger nets. These nets prevent large box jellyfish or large areas of their tentacles from getting into the swimming area.
Box jellyfish stings cause strong pain and in severe cases, can be fatal, so avoid them! The Irukandji jellyfish is much smaller than the Box jellyfish, and has a less painful sting, but within 30 minutes of a sting from this one, you will be vomiting, sweating, having back and abdominal pain, and not surprisingly, you will be feeling agitated. So avoid them too!
Beaches in the Cairns area with Stinger Nets are:
Clifton Beach, Ellis Beach, Holloway Beach, Kewarra Beach, Trinity Beach, Palm Cove, and Yorkey’s Knob.
To the North:
At Port Douglas, about 67 kilometers or just over 40 miles north of Cairns:
Four Mile Beach
To the South:
Mission Beach, about 100 miles south of Cairns has stinger nets.
Other Activities in the Cairns Area
The other main attraction in the area is the Kuranda scenic railway. We ran out of time and didn’t get to try it, but everyone we met who had taken this trip thoroughly enjoyed it, though some felt it a bit pricey. Kuranda is a mountain village in the rainforest, with heritage markets selling Aboriginal goods, an Aboriginal Cultural Park and a rainforest national park. The rail journey includes photo stops and narration of the area’s history. As well as the railway, a “Skyrail” cable car operates on the route, and it is possible to go out on one and return the on the other.
As well as the day trip we took to the rainforest, it is also possible to stay there, with accommodation ranging from four star resorts to camping grounds. There are many forest walks, and fishing is popular in the Daintree area.
The Atherton Tableland is a fertile plateau in the Great Dividing Range mountains to the southwest of Cairns. It is an Important Bird Area, with a large population of Sarus Crane.
There are many beaches around Cairns where stinger nets protect swimmers from Box Jellyfish. See the blue box for more details. Cairns also has a free lagoon pool with a lap lane (lane for swimming laps!) This pool is on the seafront near the city center.
Almost all companies who run trips to the Great Barrier Reef offer scuba diving, including tuition. You will need a medical certificate to say you are fit to dive.
We went to the Great Barrier Reef with Ocean Spirit, who also provide diving instructions and who made this video
Where to stay in Cairns
We stayed at Cairns Colonial Club Resort. We booked a family room, rather than a suite, and so were pleasantly surprised to find our room actually consisted of 2 rooms and a bathroom. The hotel also had a Laundromat, which made washing clothes easy. Our rooms were comfortable, the hotel grounds were filled with beautiful tropical plants and the food in the poolside restaurant served plenty of salads and pizzas to suit all our family. Although the hotel is not in the center of Cairns, access to the city was easy as regular shuttle buses run throughout the day, and we didn’t rent a car during our stay in Cairns.
But it was the pools that really made this a hotel our family would love to return to. As well a toddler pool, which our kids had long since outgrown, there were three lagoon style pools to choose between. Our kids opted to flit from pool to pool, giving them all a try. The smallest pool we had to ourselves, the middle pool had a “cave” which they enjoyed and in the biggest pool they met an Australian girl with the same date of birth as our older daughter. That caused a lot of delight and figuring out – the Australian girl was born in the morning, our daughter in the evening, so with the time difference, were they actually born the same day at all?
Where to eat in Cairns
We enjoyed a breakfast at Fusion Organics on Grafton Street, where it corners with Aplin Street. As well as being organic, the food served here caters for a wide variety of allergies.
We ate lunch at the Lilypad restaurant, also on Grafton Street, where the food was good and the servings large.
And Finally, a Warning of What Not To Do
We though it would be fun to see a bit of the Australian coastline, so we arranged a car-rental and booked a hotel in Airlie Beach, with another trip to the Reef, this time near the Whitsunday Islands. It turned out that the road was not along the coastline, and after you’ve seen one sugar plantation you’ve seen them all. We stopped overnight in Townsville, which is an interesting city with an excellent museum and a river filled with beautiful turtles. Airlie Beach, is purely a stopping off point for the Whitsunday Islands and there is nothing to do in the town itself. Those were the words of our hotel receptionist, when we arrived to find everything cancelled and the town battening down as Cyclone Ului had changed course and was heading straight for us.
The next day we were on the phone to Qantas in an attempt to change our flights to Brisbane, but as everyone else had the same idea, flights from the nearby airports were full. We eventually got out, but we had a 4 hour drive back to Townsville to get a flight. Cyclone Ului hit Airlie Beach the next day.