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Student Reflections

A Week in Cairns

Cameron Clark
October 15, 2019
Town on hill rises behind beach in Australia.

Since I arrived in Sydney last July, I’ve been so busy with schoolwork and friends that I’ve hardly had the time to get out of the city. In fact, the first time I left Sydney proper was just last week! Having endured two horrible 13-hour flights and a full-day layover in Honolulu, my family arrived at Sydney airport, as jetlagged as they were excited. For the first few days of their trip, I showed them around Sydney and prepared them with all the Aussie slang they would need for the next leg of our journey. On Sunday, September 29th, we returned to the airport and flew to Cairns – Australia’s tropical jewel of the North, hidden away in the Queensland rainforests.

Immediately upon landing, I realized how incredible Cairns really was. The airport isn’t in the middle of a large city, but rather far from all the hubbub, nestled between the estuary swamps and the mountainous jungles to the west. As you make your way into the city proper, you’ll drive along winding rivers full of exotic tropical fish (and also crocs!), and as you drive through the center you’ll find banana and mango trees, droves of sun-tanned vacationers, and heaps of SCUBA companies. No matter where you go, you’ll be surrounded by natural beauty and opportunities for adventure – and this is why Cairns is such a magical place.

Now, I’ve traveled quite a bit, but I had never been anywhere tropical before, and I’m pleased to say that it was about a gajillion times more colorful than I’d expected. We began our stay by venturing up to Kuranda Village – a cute little town high up in the mountains and deep within the rainforest, just a stone’s throw from Barron Falls National Park. Faced with an abundance of activities to choose from, we started with a 10-kilometer hike through the woods and then through Barron Gorge. As we strode through the woods and crossed lazily-flowing rivers surrounded by lush vegetation, we were joined by a chorus of bird songs and a menagerie of peculiar wildlife. Eventually, we came to a gorgeous (pun intended) view of Barron Falls – a 410-foot tall waterfall which cascades down the mountain into a number of little pools.

Exhausted and very hungry, we returned to Kuranda village for the next activity and a bit of grub. As we walked through the town’s market, we discovered a king’s bounty of food stalls accompanied by plenty of merchants selling handmade goods. Unfortunately, we returned too late to take a river tour and look for crocs, so we headed over to the butterfly sanctuary instead and checked out some critters. Once we had seen enough butterflies, we headed back to our Airbnb for the night to rest up for the next day of excitement.

…And the next day was even better! Waking up bright and early around 7AM, we made our way to the harbor where we found the magnificent vessel, the Reefquest, which would be taking us out onto the Great Barrier Reef shortly. As we boarded, we were introduced to the staff at Diver’s Den, one of many (but probably the best) SCUBA diving companies in Cairns. They welcomed everyone with enthusiasm and an impressive level of energy for that early in the morning. Within a few minutes, we were out on the ocean, headed to the outer reef where many marine wonders awaited us. After a hilarious yet informative safety briefing and an hour or so of boating, we at last came to a stop and began to gear up for our dive.

I had never SCUBA dived before, and my sister had only done it once – in a lake in New Hampshire, so we really had no clue what we were in for. At first, I was a bit nervous. SCUBA equipment is heavy (very heavy) and it feels totally unnatural to breathe underwater without sucking in a gallon of saltwater. As we began our descent into the water, clinging onto our instructor for dear life, we slowly got used to the feeling. What was terrifying at first was now incredibly peaceful and relaxing; in all my life, I don’t know if I’ve ever had such a unique experience. In almost total silence, swimming amongst schools of fish and beautiful corals will make you feel like you’re on another planet entirely.

My fears completely washed away, I opened my eyes all the way and started to really look around, and boy was there a lot to see. On our first dive, we saw probably 90% of the characters from Finding Nemo, among a host of strange clams, anemones, and fish. We were also lucky enough to see a solitary reef shark, gliding through the reef in search of his next meal. In later dives we encountered a school of barracudas, a giant sea slug, a huge sea clam about three feet across, a stingray, and even a green turtle. All of my wildest wishes and dreams had been fulfilled, and by the end of the day, I was feeling totally addicted to SCUBA. I can’t say for sure whether I’ll ever be able to do it again, but I’m certainly going to make the effort.

After a wonderful lunch buffet and a 90-minute ride back to the harbor, my sister and I were ready to pass right out. And so we returned home and prepared ourselves for the next – and last – day of activities.

The following morning we all made our way back to the harbor just after dawn and boarded a ship set for Fitzroy Island, an island off the coast of Cairns which promised adventures in the form of hiking, snorkeling, and a glass-bottom boat tour. Despite a bit of heavy rain, our day at Fitzroy was awesome in every way. We started off with the glass-bottom boat tour, during which we were brought over the nearby reef and presented with an unforgettable top-down view of what must have been hundreds of different species comingling and coexisting in their own tiny little ecosystem. From clownfish to zebrafish and loads of other creatures that I couldn’t possibly name, we really got the full picture.

After we made it back to shore, we decided we ought to do some snorkeling before the rain got too bad. Donning our fins and masks, we walked down the beach to where the turtles were supposed to be and swam out to find them. After searching for fifteen minutes with no luck, I was beginning to give up hope, when I heard my sister shout at me to come over to her. What she had found was not a turtle, but two turtles, swimming together! We followed them for a few minutes until they separated, and then we figured we should probably leave and let them go about their business. Even if we only got to watch them for a few minutes, it was still one of the coolest and most majestic things I’ve ever seen. The only thing I can think of that tops it is watching a humpback whale do a full breach, but even then it’s a close call.

Feeling great about our day so far, we decided to top it off with a bit of a hike. As we ventured into the rainforests of Fitzroy Island, the scenery around us changed rapidly. Suddenly there were no other tourists around, and any sign of an island resort was long gone. We were surrounded only by nature and the sounds that come with it, such as the many love songs of the nearby parrots and the squawks of an angry cockatoo as he attempted to drop berries on our heads. About 1.5km later, we had made it nearly to the summit when the light pitter-patter of rain turned into more of a flood, and we decided to head home. After a bit of food at the local pub, the ferry took us back to Cairns and just like that we were on our way home. Exhausted for the umpteenth time that week, we arrived at our Airbnb and got a good night’s rest for our early flight back to Sydney the next morning.

What I’ve just described is only a fraction of the awesome stuff we did and saw in Cairns. I was expecting it to be a good vacation, but it far exceeded my expectations. To top off the whole experience, all of the locals we met were incredibly friendly and gave us all the tips a foreign tourist could ever want. If you ever find yourself in Australia, or even in a country nearby, I would encourage you to go to Cairns. It’s a beautiful wonderland of a city, with a massive surplus of stuff to do on any given day. Just try to go during the dry season if you don’t want to get poured on!