Well, we finally arrived at our final destination in Australia. Bittersweet feeling driving into Cairns as we have covered so much ground yet are now closer than ever to the end of the holiday.
We stayed at a campsite about 15 mins from the town center. Convenient enough, it was an easy bus ride into town and a 24 hr ticket only cost $6.
We went into town our second night there. Went to a bar called Shenanigans (which is also the hotel we were going to stay in to sandwich the diving trip.) As we are well into the Lions tour in NZ (the best of Great British rugby vs. best of NZ rugby), we had to watch the game. The Lions lost to the MZ Maori team. We then headed to the Fox and Firkin where there was a toga party going on in full force. As our togas were doubling as bed sheets at the campsite, we missed out on this precious opportunity. But thankfully they let us join the party anyway. After a couple drinks there, we decided to go the slightly more sane place, The Mad Cow. Yes, not only was it mad but it was also a massive meat market, so the place lived up to its name. Would have been a great scene if we were about 15 years younger - but being old and married we didn't last long there. Finally called it a night about midnight and went back to the campsite.
The next day we decided we needed to see a bit more of Cairns so we booked a package tour. This exciting day started with a ride on the Karunda Scenic Railway for 1.5 hrs. It was scenic. In fact when we looked hard enough we did see a water trickle on the mountain. But honestly we've seen almost better on the train from Brighton to London! Then we took the Skyrail over the rainforest. Cool enough, if you like to see the tops of trees. It stopped in 2 places where you could walk to a scenic overlook of the same water trickle. It was cool coming down into Cairns - panoramic view of the whole city.
The last part of the tour was a visit to the Tjabukai Aboriginal Village, where we learned about the heritage and customs of the original inhabitants of the area. It was educational but we could have done it so much better. Started with a film about creation (the Tjabukai believe the world was created from a cassowary egg.) Then we saw a live show where one man played the digeridoo and 5 men sang and danced. They even did the cassowary dance (remind me to show you later.) The grand finale was a song, "Proud to be Aborigine." We then saw a didgeridoo demonstration. Apparently you need lips like McJagger to play them. Lawrence will need a collagen implant to play the one we bought, then... Then we saw an enthralling presentation on the fruits and medicines of the forest. And finally, they took us outside to learn how to throw a boomerang and a spear. We were both lousy at both. Just need practice, I guess.
The last part of the tour was a depressing film about how the Tjabukai were run off their land by the white man. The few who are left today are trying to revitalize their culture and their race by sharing their stories and passing on the language to younger generations..
To top off our fantastic day, we were booked on the 4:30 bus, which never came. We had to wait another hour at the bus stop to get back into town. Oh well, it wasn't a horrible way to pass the day. And we did learn a few things.
We spent the next morning cleaning and scrubbing the inside of Lily as we had to return her to her home. We even treated her to an ultimate car wash seeing she had been part of us for 2 months and 7,360k! But with a tear in our eyes, we pulled ourselves away and got a cab back into town. Probably on her way back down the coast as we speak.
We then met Lawrence's step brother who he had never met before. Robyn and his wife, Sharon, live near Cairns and met us for lunch in town. It was a bit strange at first, but after a couple minutes we were all chatting away as if we had known each other forever. Would have liked to have spent more time with them but they had to work. Gives us another excuse to go back again sometime.
Now homeless, we spent the rest of the day at the lagoon. It looks like a huge swimming pool, the deepest point is 1.5m (4ft). It's a great place to see and be seen and its free, so a popular spot for backpackers. I went to take a picture of the place and when I got back, L had found a friend! It was Roger, the Dutch guy from our Whitsundays trip. It was great to see him as we didn't have a chance to say goodbye to him. Made plans to meet up with him that night at Shenanigans, our new home for the night.
He and a friend met us at 7 and the second State of Origins rugby match was on at 8. So we chatted, watched that game and shared some jugs of VB. This time, New South Wales won the game. We had to be up early the next morning for out diving trip, so I retired up the stairs to bed. L naturally stayed out with the guys til 2. Apparently I missed a wet t-shirt contest at the Woolshed. Darn.
All in all, we really enjoyed Cairns. Lively town, friendly people and plenty to do to pass the day. Though I think we stayed long enough...
And now the moment we had been waiting for... Diving the Great Barrier Reef!
4 days, 3 nights on the Reef Encounter. 14 dives. Bliss.
The trip didn't start off as we had thought. We boarded a boat called Compass which transferred us to the Reef Encounter (RE). This boat had seen better days. Rusty, peeling paint and very noisy, it was not a pleasant 2 hours. But we got fitted for fins and wetsuits and pretty much slept the whole way there.
Arrived on the RE and we were pleasantly surprised. They took our bags, checked us in and showed us to our rooms. We had booked a bunk share - but somehow we got upgraded to a stateroom! Bonus! Our own room with double bed and ensuite shower - with hot water and no time limit for showers!!! We liked it already!
This boat was like a cruise ship compared to the smaller boat we were on for the liveaboard in the Similan Islands. Large inside dining area and a lounge with tv and DVD player.
The routine was similar to the other trip:
6am - wakeup (ouch!)
6:30 - dive 1
8:30 - dive 2
10:30 - dive 3
11:45 - lunch
1:30 - dive 4
3:30 - dive 5
5:45 - dinner
7:00 - dive 6 (night dive)
In the course of 4 days, we were allowed to dive 4 of the 6 dives per day and went to 4 different dive sites. It's difficult to explain the underwater experience in words. But it was absolutely awesome. We have to admit we were a bit disappointed with the Reef itself as a lot of the coral was dead and not nearly as colorful as we had imagined. But the fish made up for it. We swam with quite a few turtles, white tip reef sharks, sting rays, barracudas - the usual. The highlight was a school of giant buffalo parrot fish which had huge white dentures they used to bite on the coral. We also met a giant Maori wrasse called Frank. Overall we had great visibility and the current was not too strong, so the diving was most excellent. Except for the very last day...
We were the only passengers on a 4 day trip. So, the third day, 12 people left and only 6 new people got on. We already knew the crew, so after the night dive we had a couple drinks with them at the bar. We were joined by Tony (the 35 yr old Captain), Warren (the chef), Luke (the Purser) and a couple dive masters. Wasn't long before the guitars came out and we were singing "The Land Down Under" and all our other favorite Aussie tunes. Nice, mellow night -- until the fishing started...
Then things went quiet and all of the other passengers had gone to bed. L and I were about to do the same until we discovered all of the crew were out fishing with hand lines off the bow. They invited us to join them. L took a line and we must've spent a couple hours talking and fishing, my plastic wine glass never empty. With 5 lines in the water and no bites, Cpt. Tony asked me if I thought he should move the boat to a new location so they could catch fish. Of course! Sure those sleeping passengers won't even notice!
Move the boat he did and it was very loud. During the trip, L and I moved up to the Cpt's cabin where he showed us how easy it was to drive a boat. L sat in the Cpt chair and experienced driving first hand (I watched on in drunken admiration.) As I recall Tony told me I could wake up early and drive the boat to the morning dive site! Yeah right, but I was determined.
Dropped anchor at the next location (even louder). After another hour or so fishing with no luck, L and I retired for the evening. This was about 2:30 am. I don't remember telling the dive master not to wake us for the 6am dive but just as well. I don't think we would've been in any shape to swim for 40 mins. Needless to say, I never got to drive the boat either.
We did get up for about 7:30, in time for the second dive, which was awesome. We dove with a group this time, L and I stayed behind at the back of the pack. We saw a white tip reef shark who apparently really liked only us. He kept circling around us and under us for the better part of a half hour! I thought that was bizarre, L admitted he was a bit scared. Only to find out later that the reason he liked us was that L had stepped on some bait the night before and not properly rinsed his feet. He smelled lunch and was looking for it. Good thing for us he was vegetarian...
We got in 2 more (shark-free) dives before the trip ended. Another magic trip - the four days went by way too quickly. And we were sad because we have no idea when we'll be able to dive again. Anyone wanting to join us on our next holiday (wherever that might be) is more than welcome to join us...
Back on land again, we spent another night at Shenanigans, where a band played til midnight. The fact that our room faced directly onto the stage didn't bother us. We fell asleep early and easily. ready for our early flight the next morning.