Cairns, Australia (Jan 2016)

Like New Zealand, Australia was high up on our list of places that we wanted to visit. We had heard and read good things, and figured that since we were going to be right next door in New Zealand, Australia would be a perfect fit for our second stop. We were wrong. Australia is massive. It’s not just a country, it’s a continent. It’s almost the size of the U.S., and most of the cities are on the coasts, hours apart from each other. Seeing just a single region would take a few weeks, and a proper tour of the country would take months. On top of that, it’s quite expensive (we’re ready for third world prices already!).

With that said, most flights out of New Zealand stop over in Australia to connect with the rest of the world, so this gave us the opportunity to turn an inevitable layover in an Australian city into a multi-day stop. If we had to pick just one thing to see in Australia, without a second thought, it would be the Great Barrier Reef. It’s the largest living organism-structure in the world, spanning about the length of the East Coast; it’s so big, it’s visible from space. It’s existence is constantly being affected, so we should see it when we can. We were keen to try out scuba diving, and what better place to do than there? And so our journey took us to Cairns, in the state of Queensland, one of the major bases to see the Great Barrier Reef.

After being on the go every day in New Zealand, our time in Cairns was a much needed change of pace. We gave ourselves a whole week in one town, with our primary mode of transportation being our feet. We learned that we were visiting during the wet season, so the hot, tropical weather that Cairns enjoys most of the year was hot, tropical and really humid. Like, Key West in July and you’re wearing a sweater that you can’t take off humid. We quickly fell into our Nicaragua routine of a morning workout or errand running, pool for most of the afternoon, trip planning, then venturing out into the city once the sun goes down and things cool off (although they never really cool off). We could always tell when it was time to head out by the birds and flying foxes (mega bats, a.k.a. very large bats). Around sunset each night, the birds, mostly small colorful parrot-like birds, would head back to their nests, and they would make their presence known with very loud calls, their screams filling the air. At the same time, the thousands of bats that call Cairns home would emerge from the trees, take over the skies, and fill the air with their own big bat screeches. It’s a sight to be both seen and heard: the sky is full of bats, flying and swooping down, while the birds compete with the bats to see who can make the most noise.

We decided to spend two full days out exploring the Great Barrier Reef. There are a plethora of ways to see the reef, with options ranging from snorkeling day trips to 5-6 night scuba certification cruises, and everything in between. We found a company that offered two day trips, both with small groups (some tours took up to 450 people!) and both completely different experiences; different locations, different boats and different crowds. The first trip was on a large catamaran that they called the “big cat,” with about 65 hungover twenty-somethings, an Asian family, some retirees from the U.S., and us. We felt old and judgmental. The “kids” slept most of the hourlong ride to and from the reef, while we joked about them with the retirees. At the end of the day, the staff handed out free admission to one of the night clubs in town. They didn’t even try to give us tickets…but that’s ok, it didn’t open until after our bedtime. On this trip, we tried a 25 minute scuba dive, and then got in about 5-6 hours of snorkeling. The locations this boat went to were awesome! The waters were shallow, so the snorkeling was just as good as the scuba diving. The biodiversity in the reef is astounding. It’s home to colorful coral and grass, green sea turtles, stingrays, jellyfish, sea cucumbers, giant clams, fish of all shapes and sizes (sharks, giant groupers, trout, barracudas, and clownfish to name a few) and so much more! It’s so beautiful that you just want to reach out and touch it…but then they remind you that this is Australia, and if it looks beautiful, it will most likely kill you. We spent so much time snorkeling that we ended the day with some serious sunburn on the back sides of our bodies!

The second trip was on a sailboat with a group of about 25. This trip was more relaxing and laid back; more space on the boat, good music, a better mix of people, and free wine on the trip back! Our skipper sailed the boat out to the reef by standing on a platform, looking out the top of the boat, while steering with his feet. He fancied a break so he asked for volunteers. Kevin was the only one interested. For the next 30 minutes, Kevin steered the ship, also with his feet, making his way towards some island in the distance which he totally couldn’t see, because he wasn’t wearing his glasses. Alas, we made it. The snorkeling here was also great, but different. The current and waves were strong that day, and the water was much deeper with the reefs more spread out, so it wasn’t as easy to move around as the first trip, but the sights were just as awesome. After lunch, we stopped off at an island to relax on the beach before heading back out for more snorkeling. We got smart on this trip; we wore wetsuits! Yes, they protected us from jellyfish, but they also protected us from getting more sunburn.

We weren’t sure what to expect in Cairns, but we found our time there to be very fun and relaxing. The heat and humidity were oppressive, but it didn’t prevent us from getting into a good routine of running along the esplanade almost every day (even Christine!), eating heaps of fresh fruit, and cooling off at night with much-needed beers. For the record, Fosters was nowhere to be found. The city has an eclectic, laid back vibe…kind of like a mix of Key West and Ocean City MD, but with the Great Barrier Reef in its backyard! And the reef itself is amazing. On the way back in from our second trip out there, we had a “wow” moment. We looked around, realized where we were and what we were doing, and realized how grateful we are to be doing this trip. Don’t get us wrong, we’re grateful for every day and every experience, but there are some moments that put it all into perspective. That moment was one of them!

Pictures of the Great Barrier Reef just don’t do it justice, but waterproof phone bags happened to be on our pack lists for the trip, so we took our phones out with us and had some fun while exploring the reef. Here are some of our favorites!