My name is Craig, and I’m a science geek.
Why is this relevant? Well, because I’m on the East Coast of Australia, and whilst normally my life these days makes limited use of my biology degree, here it’s coming in to its own.
Australia’s East Coast is enormous, but also ripe for adventure. For me this was going to be just under three weeks starting in Cairns, close(ish) to the northern tip of Queensland, and ending with a few days in Sydney before bidding Australia goodbye. This meant buses, boats and aeroplanes, brilliant beaches and crashing waves, and most importantly to me some pretty epic wildlife.
Leaving the unrelenting heat of the Red Centre, I hopped on a plane and found myself landing back in the Tropics – last seen through the guise of Kuala Lumpur. The sun was a bit cooler – maybe only mid 30s – but in Cairns (or Cans, as the locals say) you’re in a city stuck between the rainforest and the sea; humidity reigns supreme!
Cairns was a gold rush city – that’s really why it become more than a fishing village. From its location in Northern Queensland ships could be loaded with gold, bound for destinations around the globe; today it is the reverse, with people flocking here from across the globe using Cairns as the gateway to The Great Barrier Reef.
There are a few hipster cafes hiding down alleyways (and actually pretty good ones at that), but surf and dive shops, bars, bistros and ice cream parlours are Cairns’ mainstays. It really is a tourist town – there seems very little else here – but it suited my purposes well: I was here to see a reef I’ve heard about all my life.
It’s worth the early start (I’m not a morning person by any measure) and the slight polava I had in the online checkin – I avoided the enormous tourist queues, skipping straight to the front to sign my life away and pick up a boarding pass. There are many options to see the reef, but for me a day trip on a medium-sized boat that offered plenty of snorkelling time (I wasn’t allowed to dive for medical reasons, and being a biologist I am all too familiar with the potentially gruesome consequences to ignore warnings) was the ideal trip.
Without a doubt, my highlight was the turtles. The elegance as the glide through the water is mesmerising and they are totally chill about their surroundings – it doesn’t matter if it’s a coral wall, a shoal of fish or a bunch of annoying humans. I could happily look for them and follow along behind all day.
But the Great Barrier Reef is SO much more. I wish I had an underwater camera to show you what it’s really like. The coral spreads out below you, the colours a dazzling selection that covers every base of the rainbow and beyond – there are even some which are vivid blue. Some are deep, others just below the surface (others that you suddenly realise are not as far down as you thought and you need to be really careful not to damage!); the one thing they all have in common is that they’re utterly fascinating. I studied the reef back in uni, have seen countless photos and watched countless films, but it truly is the case that seeing it in person utterly surpasses them all – even when your primary reference point for all things reef is Finding Nemo, not all that education.
There is nothing like the Great Barrier Reef, and it saddens me that it could well disappear not that far in to the future. Whether it’s through coral bleaching (chemicals washing off the land, essentially, which has already destroyed parts), tourists taking bits home, sea temperature rises or other environmental changes that damage these fragile and very slow growing creatures – yes creatures, corals are not plants – losing the Great Barrier Reef and all the creatures that rely on this ecosystem would be an utter tragedy. It may sound a bit extreme, but having seen it in front of my very eyes and knowing it may not survive for future generations is a hugely sobering thought about mankind’s impact on the planet.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but my life is tough. Like really tough. Nowhere is this truer than when I was down at Airlie Beach. This picturesque little town (below) is where I set off for a couple of days sailing out to the picture postcard Whitsunday islands. Two days of sailing – under the power of actual sales – snorkelling amongst reefs and more turtles, sandy beaches and laying back on deck enjoying the weather. The Whitsundays are, essentially, the souther edge of the Great Barrier Reef, and their beaches are made from coral sand so white it’s hard to look at without sunglasses (and requires a strange dance to get over it towards the welcoming waters). Apparently it’s also where they’ve filmed chunks of Pirates of the Caribbean – it’s not hard to see why.
The biggest delight here – like up in Cairns – is the joy that is the stinger suit. Why? Because Australia – everything here is out to kill you.
The beaches that have their arms open to welcome you have a deadly secret at this time of year – box jellyfish. At about the size of your thumb they may sound harmless, but if they sting your bare skin (especially near organs like your heart) your chances of survival are slim. And so this season’s ‘must have’ is the stinger suit. It’s like a wetsuit in may respects, but somehow despite being slightly thinner they are much harder to put on and even more attractive to behold. Tragically there is no photographic evidence I wore one. I think it’s for the best really.
If the natural beauty below the water is the highlight of Cairns, then here it is above the water that grabs equal attention. I loved the turtles and all the little sharks we saw, but the brilliant beaches and breathtaking sunsets which made my time sailing. Sadly we had to come back to port and more traveling, but I had the best time and definitely reminded now of how much I like being on the water as well as in it.
The final tale in this stretch is Brisbane. Weirdly a travel guide to Brisbane was one of the first pieces of real work I ever did working in marketing – despite never having been there – and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was surprisingly accurate and captured this sleepy city well.
I was here briefly – all of 48 hours – but it was time to get a feel for the city. It’s a provincial capital all over, a bit sleepy but making an effort to push its culture and make the most of its outdoors. I could have spent longer trailing along the river, sitting in its bars on the old wharf area, the same in its cultural quarter and parks, but I think my brief visit was a pleasant taster and respite from the constant ‘doing things’ of the East Coast. Now it was on to the action packed Gold Coast to surf in Byron Bay and discover what Sydney has in store.