It hits you like a slap as soon as you get off the plane – the wet, thick heat that tells you you’re back in the tropics. Brisbane hadn’t exactly been cool – temperatures were forecast to hit 41C the day we left – but there’s nothing quite like humidity to take the weather into oppressive and unbearable.
Cairns was a bit different from the other Australian cities we visited. It’s a lot smaller – only 60,000 people or so – and it shows; the centre’s small and compact and quickly sprawls into multi-level wooden houses and bungalows that looked (to me) like the farmhouses of rural Iowa or (to Loz) the American suburbs. We had the advantage of having a whole house to ourselves – we were using Airbnb again, but the owner was away – but a ceiling fan is not much defence against the steamy, sweaty nights full of a loud and unearthly chorus of frogs.
One other notable thing about Cairns: it was the first place in Australia where we saw Aboriginal people more than very occasionally. One of my reference points for this section of the trip is Bill Bryson’s Down Under, which was written in 2000; Bryson describes Aborigines as existing in a kind of parallel world to other Australians, but what we saw was Aboriginal people just… going about their lives, shopping, working, having a coffee. You don’t have to look far to see that how Australia resolves injustice and racism towards Aboriginal people is still a big problem, but I was actually encouraged to see things not nearly as binary as he’d described. (In other news, I still harbour the hope that I’ll one day get to use my favourite Aussie put-down as collected by Bryson: “Oh, he’s all right in his place – they just haven’t dug it yet”.)
There’s one thing you would have to be crazy to come to Cairns and not do: the Great Barrier Reef. Cairns is crawling with tours, so we booked a mid-priced one to the outer reef and were on our way. The outer reef is more pristine than the closer areas, so we boarded a large catamaran and chugged our way out for ninety minutes. The boat eventually moored at a small floating pontoon in the middle of nowehere with a roped-in snorkelling area, and we were ready to be let loose on the reef.
Launching yourself off the pontoon to snorkel is quite an unsettling experience. You are some way above the bottom, and on top of the uncomfortable feeling of the vacuum between your mask and your face, all you can hear is your own stertorous, Darth-Vader-on-a-treadmill breathing: fshHAHfshHAHfshHAHfshHAH. But once you get that under control, a world of incredible detail and beauty starts to be revealed; coral like petrified forests and giant boulders, huge shoals of tiny fish flickering past your eyes, sunlight filtering down to give an iridescent blue sheen to everything. A shoal of large yellowtails swam directly towards me, barely bothering to flick their tails to swim around me; then, as I paused to watch them, a zebrafish swam past around two inches from my mask. When we got tired of snorkelling, we took the semisubmersible boat and watched green turtles swim through and around the coral canyons.
While Loz was skydiving the next day, I took a day trip to see the rainforests and wetlands of Cape Tribulation and the Daintree River. Our guide, George, was an Aboriginal man whose grandmother was part of the Stolen Generations; as he drove us towards the Cape, he explained the Aboriginal tribal groups which have historically lived in the area, as well as gleefully sharing with us the latest stats on croc and stinger attacks. (January is “stinger season” on the Queensland coast; all beaches are covered with warning signs featuring people ensnared in the long tentacles of the incredibly poisonous box jellyfish. Swimming is not possible except inside small screened pools which should keep the stingers out, because a jellyfish an inch or so long – barely large enough to see – is enough to give you an excruciating painful sting.) We cruised up the Daintree River and spotted two crocs, a pretty good haul; one eighteen-monther of a foot or so long, and a considerably bigger adult female, both resting by the side of the river in preparation for being more active at night. After a walk through the rainforest, we bought some local ice cream and finished the day with a swim in the mossy, bouldery Mossman Gorge. Sadly, we didn’t manage to spot the very rare and rather testy cassowary. I was stupefied with tiredness after two nights of restless sleep, and finished the day by virtually passing out in my plate of fajitas.