Tuesday, November 21, 2006


After getting back from Cape Tribulation I had 6 days in Cairns. This was not something I wanted to do but I got back from Cape Tribulation on a Sunday and the bus I was booked on to Alice Springs only leaves on Saturdays so I was kind of stuck. That said at the time I booked the trip I though I was going to be stuck somewhere in North Queensland or the Northern Territories then Cairns was probably the best place.

Cairns is a nice enough big town. I know its a city but it has more of a country town feel than a big city. This is nothing like Sydney or Brisbane. Cairns seems to have been built up mostly based mostly on tourism with people coming up from the south or others flying in to the airport to start their journey in Australia. Cairns as a destination felt pretty special, not because it was someplace special or a world wide destination like Sydney or Uluru, but because for 5 weeks I had been travelling "to Cairns". It felt like a bit of an achievement to reach it, even though the journey was broken up with stays in lots of other places, as anyone who has read the rest of this blog for the last 6 weeks will know. Cairns has a mix of new and old buildings. There is a lot of new development but it has kept some of the old buildings for character. I really liked the old structures as they were generally 2 stories and very wide which gave them a low profile. I imagined that they were crouching down to get away from the sun and heat.

One of the main things for backpackers to do in Cairns is either take a trip up to Cape Tribulation or, for the real adventurers, go all the way up to Cape York. Cape Trib is a 3 day trip, which I did. Cape York, I found out from a girl on the bus to Alice who did that trip, is a 6 day trip by bus. Now I would have liked to do both but it would have meant spending another week around Cairns and really cut short my visits to other places on the way back to Sydney.

When not travelling or getting up at 5am to catch a bus, most backpackers could be found at night in Cairns' many pubs and clubs, most seem to pass through PJ O'Briens and The Woolshed at least once a night. For some reason pub hopping seemed to be a popular thing in Cairns so any night out meant visits to 2 or 3 pubs and probably started and finished in The Woolshed, so its actually pretty easy to meet up with people, just check the regular haunts and if they aren't there now, they will be later.

During the day there was only a few things to do in Cairns. There is the lagoon where many people spend the day sun baking. This is a man made, free, open air swimming pool beside the sea. You cant swim in the sea because the stingers will get you and the water is a funny brown colour anyway. There are lots of shops and malls as well so it was a good place to grab some souvenirs, which I sent home in a package. I also visited the museum which has a nice small town feel and is focused on very local issues. The old gent behind the counter seemed very surprised to have a visitor, and even more surprised that I was a backpacker, he was very helpful, pointing out things of interest and offering to rewind a video display so I could watch from the beginning. The museum also had an interesting display of very old photographs taken in traditional aborigine communities with spears, swords and shields on display. Warfare was not something I had really thought of when it came to aborigine history but it is clear the weapons were not meant for hunting. They may have been ceremonial but it was a new twist.

I also met my first group of aborigines on a pub crawl in Cairns. There was a hen party with us. While most were what I guess would be called half-caste there were some pure aborigines in the group as well. When word got around that there was an aborigine hen party coming the rest of the us were concerned. None of the backpackers seemed to know what to expect having only heard bits and pieces about aborigines from tour drivers and those organising the trip seemed concerned. I drew the conclusion that they were worried in the way a pub crawl operator in Ireland would be concerned if told 30 travellers had booked on. In the end there was nothing to worry about. As hen parties go it seemed very tame. Sure there was laughing and joking and general good spirited behaviour but there was no trouble, no fights and no arguments. In fact if you go to Temple Bar in Dublin on a Saturday night you will meet several hen parties that cause more concern than this group.

After 6 days I was glad to get out of Cairns. I'd pretty much run out of things to do, and had exhausted the backpacker menu options in PJ's. Still if, for some reason, I ever visit Australia again I'll have to see Darwin and Perth, which I will miss this trip, I would probably start in Cairns for a few days and then head across the North to Darwin.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Next Leg

I start the next leg of my journey tomorrow morning, at 5:55am. Getting the Oz Adventure bus down to Alice Springs. This one is a little rougher than the East coast because we will be staying in tents. It should be fun but it means I will probably be out of contact for a few days since my mobile phone wont get signal apart from when we pass through towns. Talk to you all soon.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Cape Tribulation

Last weekend I went up to Cape Tribulation for a few days. Cape Trib is the most northerly part of my journey around Australia. The tourism officials like to boast that it's "where the rainforest meets the reef", which it is. The Daintree Rainforest is on one side of the beach while the Great Barrier Reef is just a little bit off shore and if you stand on a lookout you can see both at the same time.

I went there with a company called Jungle Tours and they basically just bring you up to Cape Tribulation on day one and home again on your last day. Any trips you do while in Cape Trib are up to you and with different companies. That said the journey up to Cape Trib is about 2 1/2 hours driving but the bus takes all day because the bus does stop at several places including a zoo, Mossman gorge, a beach, a lookout from which the guide pointed out the reef on which Steve Irwin was killed (the bus always stopped there for the overall view not just the morbid reef).

I booked this trip when I was in Brisbane and at the time I wanted to go to the most northerly hostel even though it was quieter and most backpackers went to one called PKs which is in the center of what passes for a village. The hostel I was in is called The Cape Trib Beachhouse. On the way to Cape Tribulation I kind of regretted my choice since I knew several people staying in PKs. That said after seeing both I am glad I was in the Beachhouse. PKs is in the Rainforest but compared to the Beachhouse it's the center of town.

The Beachhouse is a 40 minute walk north from PKs. Walk along the tarmac road through town until it becomes a dirt and gravel road and then keep walking for another 30 minutes. It really was in the rainforest and each hut was surrounded on 3 sides by trees, so close you could almost touch them if you opened a window. In front of each hut was a path which cut through the rainforest and at one stage was blocked by a large snake which decided to relax across the path soaking up the heat. No one dared step over it, but eventually it got tired of the attention and moved into the bush.

At the same time don't misunderstand me, this was not exactly roughing it. Each hut had aircon and was pretty comfortable. There was a bar and a bistro but we didn't stay up late since it was pretty quiet. There was also internet access, of a fashion, which did seem a little unreliable and seemed to be down more than it was up.

However I didn't come to Cape Tribulation for the accommodation. One of the reasons I was there was to go horse riding through the rainforest and onto the beach. The company, Cape Trib Horse Rides, that does this had been recommended to me back in Ireland so I thought I'd give it a go. It was a fun activity if a little easy for anyone who could horse ride since the horses were used to the tracks and routines and did everything automatically. You could spend the whole trek with the reins hooked onto the saddle. This was a little disappointing but the trip was still well worth it as we walked, trotted and cantered around the forest and the open tracks. It may seem strange to trot and canter without real control of the reins but again the horses started and stopped as soon as the lead horse did so it was safe and fun.

The next day I went out on the boat called the Rum Runner. Well actually the Rum Runner IX. What happened to the first 8 is not exactly clear, I assume they are either retired somewhere or still running trips on other days or from other beaches. This is a dive boat but I didn't do an dive just snorkeling. I do think the snorkelers got to see more since the divers were out in deeper water with less coral while the snorkelers were right on top of the reef. We went to two reefs, one before lunch, one after and the second reef was truly amazing with crystal clear water and a huge amount of coral. Strangely there were fewer fish than on the Whitsundays but there were still lots of colourful exotic fish to be seen.

When I wasn't on an organised trip I went for a couple of walks and hired a bike to go up to lookouts and along the beach, though the heat and humidity were high so I limited the amount of walking around I did. After the day on the Rum Runner I headed back to Cairns where I am now and will be here until Saturday morning when I head down to Alice Springs.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Mission Beach and Snake Bites

For my last stop before traveling on to Cairns and finishing the first leg of my Australia trip I spent 4 nights in a little place called Mission Beach. Mission Beach is a small little town on the coast. In many ways it is similar to Magnetic Island in that it is small, things are spaced out with 15 or 20 minute walks everywhere and there isn't a lot to do if you haven't booked a tour or an activity.

However Mission Beach, for me, was the total opposite of Magnetic Island. It was really enjoyable to spend the day sitting by the pool in Scottys hostel and then at night just sit at tables outside with a few drinks, playing cards or just talking. In an earlier post I mentioned how the people in a hostel can make or break a place. The crew in the hostel were really cool. It was a mix of people I have spent 5 weeks meeting as we all travel up the East coast and people fresh out of Cairns and on their first stop off on the journey down. That made for a nice friendly atmosphere and everyone just relaxed and got on. Also, finding out most of the people there thought I was 24 made me particularly happy (I'm 31 :-))

However I didn't plan my stop in Mission Beach just for some time to relax. This was where I had decided I would do my skydive. Mission has rainforest all the way down to white sandy beaches, on which you land, and an amazing view of the Great Barrier Reef from 14000 feet. This was the place everyone recommended as the best place on the East coast for skydiving. I have to say I didn't quite know what to expect though I was more worried that I would freeze and refuse to get out of the plane than that anything would go wrong during the jump itself. In the end I didn't have to worry about getting out of the plane as it was a tandem jump and I really didn't get much of a say in when we left the plane. My jump master was Ivan and I had signed up for a DVD which included a second jumper called Dan filming me during free fall. It was amazing fun. Once we jumped out I had a 60 second free fall during which I shouted myself hoarse. Dan came in and out with the camera and I was amazed at how easy it is for skydivers to link up while in free fall. After the 60 seconds Dan waved to me and I was puzzled for a second until Ivan pulled the cord, the parachute deployed and I found myself getting dragged to what seemed a sudden halt. The view from the parachute was amazing, the sea, the reef, the rainforest. I could see dolphins and sea turtles as we approached the beach. It was great. I was on an adrenaline high for about 2 hours when I got back to the hostel, much to the amusement of the others as I was basically bouncing off the walls.

I spent the rest of the 4 days just relaxing, grabbing the bus into the small town area and markets, or jumping into the pool to cool off. Others went for whitewater rafting, apparently some of the best whitewater in Australia is just a short drive from Mission. I didn't particularly want to do this so I decided to skip it though those who did go said it was great fun. There are also trips organised to Dunk Island but I don't know anyone who went there.

An interesting thing about Mission Beach and the surrounding area is that in March of this year they got hit very hard by Cyclone Larry which was as powerful as Hurricane Katrina but got none of the same media coverage. Larry flattened parts of the rainforest and while it is still an amazing sight from the air apparently it has not returned to its same beauty. Driving along the roads the damage is still clear to be seen with huge numbers of trees uprooted and lying where they fell as well as damaged signposts and buildings. For the most part the damage now is repaired or hidden but you can still glimpse traces of how powerful nature can be. There was serious concern at the time about the damage that could have been done to the cassowary population of the rainforest. Cassowary's are the third largest bird in the world, look a bit like emus with blue heads, and are apparently the most dangerous bird in the world as they are aggressive can eviscerate people with hooks on their feet. Basically imagine a dinosaur with feathers. Pretty to look at with their bright blue heads but deadly dangerous. They are native to the area and a pair walked right past the hostel I was staying in and down a path towards the shops. This sent people scurrying to a safe distance and to get cameras.

After Mission Beach I hopped on the Oz Experience Bus and headed to Cairns. Cairns is the last destination on the Oz Experience East Coast Bruce pass. The drive to Cairns is just 2 hours from Mission but it took us all day as we stopped at a crocodile farm where we could get really close to crocodiles being fed and for those who wanted to, get bitten by a snake. Bit strange but they let people get bitten by a carpet python which is non toxic but can still draw blood. I decided to not stick my arm into a snake cage, but several others went for it. After the croc farm we went to Millaa Milla Falls and Lake Eacham where we stopped for a few hours for lunch and swimming.

I'm in Cairns now and I head to Cape Tribulation tomorrow morning. That will pretty much end my East coast travels. On the 18th I leave Cairns and head overland to Alice Springs and eventually back around to Sydney on December 10th.

Photos, Lots of Photos

Since I decided to create backup DVDs and send copies of all my photos home I have abandoned the idea of using flickr as a true backup for my photos. That means I can now upload them at a smaller size. That speeds the process up a lot so I'm just going to throw up as many photographs as possible.

I'm still using flickr as a backup of low quality copies (a friend of mine lost all her photos from Australia so I'm paranoid) so sorry if it's a bit of a jumble and if many of them are crap. I hope there are some good ones in there but until Christmas I'm not going to get time to sort them out.

The best way to view the photos is by viewing the Set for a particular location.

Uploaded now are all the following
  • Australia Zoo

  • Rainbow Beach

  • Fraser Island

  • Whitsunday Islands

  • Magnetic Island

  • Mission Beach

  • Croc Farm and Lake Eacham
  • Reorg of Australia set to create Barrington set and remove photos in other sets

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Where are all the Photos?

As some people may have noticed I've stopped uploading photographs to flickr. Hopefully this is only temporary and I hope to get going again once I get to Cairns. The problem is that since leaving Brisbane the internet connections have gotten progressively slower and it now takes several minutes to upload a single photograph. As you can imagine this gets a bit tedious and expensive. Also I have over 3GB of photographs now so the idea of using flickr as a backup just wont work. Instead I'm going to burn them to DVD and send home a package of stuff from Cairns. I'll just select the best photographs and upload those anyway, no point in uploading everything if I have backups elsewhere.

Magnetic Island and the Missing Full Moon

After a few nights in Airlie Beach I moved on to Magnetic Island, known to people as Maggie. Magnetic Island is a World Heritage site that doesn't even bother advertising the fact, apart from a little sign at the ferry terminal. As the Oz Experience driver said when I asked her about this "They are a little free with the World Heritage title these days".

Magnetic is a pretty enough little island. The name comes from Captain Cook, as do many of the names along the east coast, who thought the island was interfering with his compass as he sailed past. No one has found that strange phenomenon since and the island is not magnetic.

Made mostly of granite the island was a major coastal fortress protecting the shipping access to Townsville during the World War II. I did the Fort Walk up to the remains of these fortifications which are now in a national park. The views from the top are pretty impressive and with an abundance of granite rocks for improvised defensive positions as well as the camouflaged official positions you can see how this little island could have become one of the famous battle grounds of the war had the Japanese ever managed to invade Australia. The national park is also full of wild koalas which can be seen just sitting trees while you walk along the paths. Of course being Australia it is also full of snakes, especially death adders and signs along the paths warn people to watch their step. As well as bush walking I went for a sea kayak.

The island itself is also pretty spaced out. There are around 2000 residents and they seem to be evenly scattered over the non park part of the island. There are little clusters of shops 10 to 15 minutes walk apart which makes it a little awkward for backpackers. A local bus service does exist but the buses are infrequent and some backpackers just hire little cars called mokes which look like toughened up golf buggies.

I don't know why I didn't like the place, but I didn't. Not that I disliked it, I just didn't like it. The hostel I was staying in was called Base and while it was beautifully situated right on the beach, surrounded by palm trees and with pretty good dorms and lockers in the dorms it just didn't catch my interest. Others will love Magnetic, I just didn't care at all about it. But it wasn't just me who didn't take to the place, most of the north bound backpackers I spoke to were unimpressed as well. I think we had seen places like Byron Bay, Fraser Island and Airlie Beach and just found Magnetic Island lacked anything special that we hadn't seen elsewhere. For the South bounders this was one of their first stops and they seemed to love it. So I guess its all matter of perspective. Personally I'd rather have spent 2 more nights in Airlie and then I would have headed to Magnetic Island for the Full Moon party. But then those that did that were even more disappointed than I was.

Once a month Base host a Full Moon party, obviously an attempt to create a party similar to that in Koh Phangan. I have not been to the one in Koh Phangan but those that had say it is one of the great parties of the world and the hype it gets made many of us look forward to the Full Moon party on Magnetic which while we expected it to be smaller we assumed, based on all the signs around travel agent windows in Airlie, that it would be a pretty cool night with thousands of people arriving from all around Queensland.

In the end the party lacked a few things. Firstly there was no beach. The real Full Moon party is on a beach on the island of Koh Phangan in Thailand. On Magnetic Island security guards prevented people from gaining access to the beach. This meant everyone was confined to the grounds of the hostel itself. Secondly it lacked thousands of people, there was supposed to be 2000 people but I think a more accurate estimate would have been 800 to 1000. If 2000 people had been squashed into the venue then no one would have been able to move, maybe that is why they closed off the beach. Thirdly no cheap alcohol. The hostel had a strictly enforced no bring your own policy with alcohol being confiscated from rooms and guards checking bottles and cans as people returned from their rooms. (I saw a guard checking peoples cans and friends of mine had their wine confiscated when they were in their rooms). The only alcohol that could be consumed had to be bought from the bar which made the night a little expensive for many backpackers but people still bought plenty of drink. Of course the hostel is entitled to make money but sometimes you can push backpackers a little too much. Finally and most importantly for a Full Moon party we were missing a Full Moon. The moon was still a couple of days from being full. The party seems to have just been organised for the closest Friday night. That did provide a few moments of drunken humour for those in attendance as they stared at the sky and realised it wasn't a full moon at all.

Am I glad I went to Magnetic? Well I guess I'd have been curious about the place if I hadn't gone so I'm glad I visited the place, but I do wish I had spent a couple more nights in Airlie Beach instead and just gone to Magnetic for one or at most two nights.

Airlie Beach

Originally I wasn't going to write about Airlie Beach at all. Airlie was one of those jumping off towns to get to the real destination of a leg of my journey. Like Hervey Bay which is where most backpackers stay before going to Fraser Island or Townsville where people stop to get the ferry to Magnetic Island, Airlie Beach is where people stop before going to the Whitsunday Islands. The Oz Experience drivers referred to it as Airlie No Beach since it doesn't have much of a beach and generally gave a bad impression of it. Therefore Airlie didn't feature at all on my list of destinations.

That changed however when I had to spend a few nights there after my Whitsunday trip waiting for the next Oz Experience bus out of town. Airlie is actually a cool little town. There was not much to do during the day except wander around the few shops, lounge by the lagoon, or just chill in the hostel, but at night Airlie turns into a party town for backpackers with several bars and clubs. Beaches was the starting point for most nights out with good, relatively cheap, food, live music and a party atmosphere. After Beaches there are a selection of other bars like Paddy Shenanigans, Mama Africas, Moroccos and several others I cant remember now.

I have also come to the conclusion that what really makes or breaks a town for a backpacker is the hostel they stay in. Many backpackers come away from a town cursing the place, saying it is a total dive and telling people not to stay there but most of their complaints circle around the hostel they stayed in or the people they shared dorms with. If you have a bad experience in a hostel, say it's dirty and bug infested, or the people there are drunk and stoned all night, running around and keeping everyone else awake when you want to sleep then that's what you remember about the town.

In Airlie I stayed in Koalas hostel and while it wasn't the best looking hostel I've been in it was still pretty good but it was the atmosphere and people in the rooms where I was staying that made the experience. Each dorm was a like a self contained, semi-detached lodge, and with not much to do in town people just sat in chairs outside the dorms and chatted. This may seem boring but it was nice to just chill and watch the world go by with other friendly people who were perfectly happy to just chill as well. Of course if you stayed in those same rooms the night after I left there was likely to be a totally different bunch of people there and they could have been complete assholes. That's the backpacker lottery. At the time I was looking forward to moving on to the next destination, Magnetic Island but after a couple of hours on Maggie I was cursing the fact that I hadn't extended my stay at Airlie.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Checking in

I moved on from Magnetic Island today where I had spent the last few days. I'll post about that and Airlie Beach tomorrow, assuming I still around tomorrow ;-)

At 7:30am I'm heading out to throw myself out of a perfectly good airplane and try to land on a beach between a crocodile and snake infested rain forest on one side and a shark, stinger and crocodile infested sea on the other side (yes crocs go into the sea and can be found around beaches in Queensland, who would have guessed). Should be great fun :-) Its a tandem sky dive from 14,000 feet and I signed up to get the DVD and all the extras. I'll have to put together a parcel of stuff to send home when I'm in Cairns.

I also finalised the last couple of legs of my trip this evening. I had already planned as far as Alice Springs but now I have the rest of the route back to Sydney planned and booked. I finally bit the bullet and decided to skip New Zealand. There are just too many things to see and do in Australia. I've decided that I can always take 3 weeks to a month off in a couple of years and see New Zealand properly instead of rushing around Australia and then rushing around New Zealand.
Update: 5-11 I'm back and it was GREAT fun. I now know why people get hooked on skydiving. It was an amazing experience.