Postcard from Cairns and The Great Barrier Reef

21 Dec

Cairns smells like South East Asia, especially our home of four years, Malaysia. At dusk scented white and red Frangipani flowers mingle with the aroma of coconut curries wafting from restaurants and a salt sea tang blows in off the high tide. I love it!

I resign myself to being bathed in sweat, it’s midsummer in the tropics after all, and enjoy my perambulations around this flat city. Each time I visit Cairns I notice improvements, especially on the seafront, where the Esplanade boardwalk with its BBQs, playgrounds and infinity swimming lagoon mixes and equalizes locals and travellers.

Walking beneath majestic, old palms and lush trees hung with epiphytes I wonder how many cyclones they’ve withstood. Weeping figs shade the paths and sidewalks and grow in nature strips down the centre of the main streets. I count six barefoot men in the first hour. Queensland’s casual dress code is thongs (flip flops), shorts and Tshirt, but in Cairns they dispense with thongs!

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Tourism drives the Cairns economy and numbers are good but the pace of life remains leisurely and people have time for a yarn. I note two new five star hotels with their restaurants and bars on the waterfront. Backpacker accommodation is also thriving but the local newspaper reports young overseas travellers are finding tours and food prices expensive.

I’ve come to see my sister Jo who has lived here most of her adult life. When I left Australia at 20 Jo was only 14. I missed seeing her grow into a woman and the landmark events of her life (as was the case with my other three sisters who were and still are scattered to four corners of Australia). If I’m lucky I now see Jo briefly once a year. It’s not enough. Family becomes more important, not less, over time. Now Jo is ‘Nanny’ twice over with the birth of daughter Jess’ second baby girl last week. If I’m very lucky I might get to see Jess and her two precious girls, Eva 13 months and baby Isabelle.

It also helps that Jo lives in one of the most beautiful places in the world and I could do with some R and R after Deception Bay and an ultimately futile house hunt. The bonus is that Jo is an awesome hair stylist and my mullet has reached the public embarrassment stage. I resemble a refugee from ‘That Seventies Show’.

I hadn’t made any plans for this trip beyond booking an apartment within easy walk of the Esplanade as Jo works full-time and Jess was still in hospital post caesar section when I arrived. Scanning the activities on offer I settled on the river tubing excursion. Floating down a tropical stream over shallow rapids for a couple of hours sounds divine. Sadly the lack of rainfall this summer put paid to that. Until the region receives much needed rain tubing is off.

Next option is a visit to the largest living organism in the world, the Great Barrier Reef. I’ve snorkelled the reef a couple of times before but it’s been a few years. I selected one of the smaller boats that visits both the outer and inner reef. With just 40 people on board getting everyone equipped and in and out of the water is faster. The catamaran Seastar’s crew are all under thirty and totally committed to ensuring we have a wonderful experience. Detailed briefings throughout the day are delivered with larrikin good humour by dive master Anthony wearing his Santa’s helper hat.

Tea, coffee and muffins are on offer during the one hour cruise to the first stop, Michaelmas Cay. A small elipse of pristine white sand, the cay is a bird and marine life sanctuary. Within 15 minutes we’re all in the water. Most people snorkel but a few take the introductory dive and two Brazilians disappear in the zodiac dinghy – must be seasoned divers. Everyone wears an obligatory stinger suit in case we brush up against dangerous jelly fish. None seen all day.

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As I don’t have a snorkelling buddy (required for safety) I join the snorkel tour off the boat led by Johan from Gothenburg, Sweden. I follow his flourescent yellow vest across the sea floor as he points out features of the many types of coral and helps us spot fish. So much variety and so colourful, a psychedelic experience. My favourites are the giant clams with their purple, aquamarine and emerald lips and the parrot fish munching away on the coral. It’s noisy down there!

Ninety minutes later time to climb back on board. Buffet lunch is served as we steam forty minutes to the next mooring spot, Hastings Reef. We repeat the routine of the last snorkel tour, this time trying to spot green turtles that make Hastings their home. One was sighted there but I missed it.

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A cup of tea and some cake kept up the blood sugar levels on the return trip. I napped on deck then started looking for dolphins. After twenty minutes concentrated effort I spotted a black fin and body arcing through the waves far in the distance. It proved to be the lone dolphin of the day.

To my untrained eye the reefs we visited seem to be in fair health. They have an abundance of varied corals and fish and the coral spawned the day before, an event that usually only happens once a year. Each day tripper to the reef pays a $15 reef tax which goes towards reef protection and research. Certainly the Great Barrier Reef is under threat on multiple fronts: illegal fishing, especially the nets that snag and break delicate corals, silt and fertilizer run off, the Crown of Thorns Star Fish (happily we didn’t see any of them) and rising seawater temperatures are all taking a toll.

I fervently hope future generations are able to enjoy the uniquely beautiful Great Barrier Reef as I have. It truly is one of the wonders of the world.

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Besides enjoying some excellent meals with Jo (Mondo restaurant on the waterfront was the best), a visit to the Art Gallery to view the visiting exhibition, Goya’s series of 80 captioned satirical etchings entitled ‘Los Caprichos’, and a little shopping I just chillaxed.

On the morning of my last day Jo called to invite me to accompany her to collect Jess and the girls. Jess was having air conditioning installed in her home in the cane fields of Gordonvale 40 minutes south of Cairns so Jo offered to drive Jess and babies to the shops while the workmen sawed and hammered in the 34 degree Celsius heat.

There is no sweeter thing than a newborn baby, except possibly a bubbly, happy, singing and dancing toddler who seems to have an on/off switch with no whinging or crying in between.

I found I was a bit rusty at baby wrangling but we had an enjoyable outing and even managed lunch in a cafe without mishap. Now I’m on the red eye Virgin flight back to Brisbane watching the densely forested coastline of Tropical North Queensland recede and disappear into cloud outside my window. Can’t say when I’ll be back but I hope it’s soon.

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This the last post for 2012. Thank you for reading. I hope you all have a safe, happy and relaxed year end break. Cheers to 2013 and more travel adventures for everyone!

Photo note: Underwater image provided with the permission of Seastar Cruises.

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7 Responses to “Postcard from Cairns and The Great Barrier Reef”

  1. sgulikers December 21, 2012 at 5:18 am #

    Feliz Navidad to you and yours. See you dancing in the new year. S

    Sent from my iPhone

    • Sharon Tickle December 21, 2012 at 5:31 am #

      For sure Suzanne, hope to see you at Chica’s workshop! Sxx

  2. Linda December 21, 2012 at 7:34 am #

    We were on the reef last year!!! Spent Xmas and New Year in Sydney with friends. My email address is below if you want to get in touch. Meanwhile, have a lovely holidays!!! x

  3. Linda Haggarty December 21, 2012 at 9:17 am #

    Hi Sharon

    Trying to make contact, not sure if this will do it!!!

    Linda

    Haggarty linda_haggarty@btinternet.com

  4. Michelle Noble December 22, 2012 at 6:16 pm #

    Hi there globe trotters. It’s surreal to see all that blue sky, sea and sunshine when we are bathed in snow, snow, snow. Great start to our winter season but we will miss you and Stu. Happy memories of Cairns when we visited way back in 1991 – sadly after hurricane Joy had just hit that coast so our scuba diving in the Whitsundays not quite as picturesque as yours!
    Anyway, hope you have a wonderful Christmas and great New Year. Who knows what 2013 will bring…..
    Love and best wishes from us both, Michelle and Bryan xx

    • Sharon Tickle January 1, 2013 at 1:15 am #

      Happy New Year Michelle and Bryan!

      We see you have lots of snow so hope the season has started well for you. We will be back in the Three Valleys in mid-Feb so will try to get over your way to say g’day!

      Wishing you both all the best.

      Sharon and Stuart

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