Australia - Cairns
Trip Start Dec 05, 2005
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With the rigmarole of getting to Cairns laying ahead of us we got up at 7:45 in order to pack and catch the 9:15 bus before getting the 9:45 ferry and reading our books at the bus depot waiting for the 11:15 Greyhound to Cairns.
We were finally deposited in Cairns at 5:10pm where we hoped to jump straight onto Gilligan's (the hostel we had booked for that evening) shuttle bus; sadly Gilligan's evidently feel they are too big to operate like any other normal hostel and decline to provide a shuttle bus pick up, or friendly enthusiastic reception staff.
Although advertised as a hostel, Gilligan's actually looks, operates and is priced very much like a hotel...along with the lack of humour, personality and humility that that incorporates; After having to wait and pay for a taxi to the hostel, the receptionist was too busy playing with her stapler to notice Verdi stood waiting to check in, loaded up with luggage - not a good start.
Luckily for Gilligan's, Verdi was too tired to complain and the ever cheerful Erica and Karen appeared in reception to greet us just at the right moment - a welcome relief, even more so as they offered to help carry our bags up to our room. Another saving grace for Gilligan's was that the room (PIC) was superb - modern, clean, well equipped (although we were paying for it at $88 (36 GBP) a night for a double en suite room).
We caught up with Karen and Erica briefly before arranging to meet back in the bar within a couple of hours to meet the rest of the gang and head out for the much anticipated 'Team Fraser' curry.
Relaxed, showered and refreshed we made our way down to the bar to meet up with everyone else and catch-up on what they had been doing for the last few days, which mainly amounted to shopping, sunbathing and drinking. We had to concede that they hadn't missed much on Magnetic Island.
A couple of drinks later and we called via another bar to grab some BYO (bring your own) drinks before invading the Taj curry house around the corner from Gilligan's (PICS). The poor waiter looked unprepared and slightly daunted as we hauled up a table for 8 in the middle of the otherwise deserted restaurant.
Much banter, beer and baji's later and our 'Team Fraser' juggernaut vacated the Taj with a table of empty bottles, spilled curry and frazzled staff in its wake. Rallied by the stomach lining curry we stopped back at Gilligan's for another couple of drinks before moving on to the infamous 'Woolshed' where every day is the weekend. The Rough Guide to Australia says 'no visit to Cairns is complete without a visit to and drunken night in the Woolshed'.
Our 'Woolshed' initiation over we made like a couple of oldies, bid farewell to the younger members of 'Team Fraser' and headed back to Gilligan's and our much needed bed at 1:00am.
Having only booked one night in Gilligan's ($88 a night is a bit rich for lowly backpackers!) we had to get up at 8:30 to pack and check out at 10:00am. Thankfully our next abode was to be in a much more customer friendly family run hostel called 'Tropic Days' and they were sending their mini-bus to collect us at 10:45am - just enough time to grab a hearty breakfast at Gilligan's bistro.
At $48 a night for a double room, Tropic Days was a rustic, homely (PIC) and welcomed respite from the more commercial and expensive Gilligan's. The only downside to the place being that it was a good 30 minute walk out of town (yet again!) BUT they did offer a regular FREE mini-bus service into and out of town. Now that's what we call service.
Having checked in, dumped our bags and been introduced to 'Chili Pepper' - the owners resident muttly (PICS) we caught the all important FREE mini-bus into town to have a wander and search out more brochures on hire cars and trips Verdi's folks might be interested in.
While in town we stocked up on some essentials, attended the obligatory internet session and grabbed some grub before heading back to Tropic Days in time for their 'Pizza night' - all you can eat pizza and beer for $7 each. Bargain.
Fresh air, food, beer and late nights make for tired backpackers so after some more planning for the rest of our stay in Cairns we hit the sack at 11:30pm.
With it being the first day of our diving course we were up, ready and slightly apprehensive when the CDC (company we were learning to dive with) driver collected us at 9:00am to take us to the office and then on to the classroom and pool (PIC). The first half of the day passed in a blur of mandatory paperwork, registering, meeting our group (of 12) and tutorial videos.
At lunch time we were required to complete a medical to ensure we were fit (nobody mentioned mentally so!?) before we were allowed to continue with the course. Miraculously with all her various ailments, historic operations and general sickly demeanor (still had the remnants of a cold) Verdi still passed - no bribery required.
The afternoon was a much more memorable affair as we had to complete a swim test (6 laps of the pool and treading water for 10 mins) before we were introduced to our equipment (PIC) for the first time. We quickly learned to assemble and don the suits, tanks, weight belts etcetera before entering the pool all kitted up, for the first time.
It was not to be the end of our 'first times' as the first requirement was to put the regulators in our mouths and sit on the bottom of the pool with our eyes open - historically something Verdi had staunchly declined to do! Figuring this might not be the time to start debating the merits of opening your eyes under water with the instructor, Verdi overcame her innate (and rational) hatred of opening her eyes under water and got on with the job at hand (what a hero!).
With the dastardly 'eyes open under water' malarkey over with we breezed through some more skills with relative ease e.g. removing and retrieving the regulator and BC. This only worked to lull Verdi into a false sense of security (and ability) as the next 'skill' was to flood the mask and then clear it while under water followed by taking the mask off swapping it with your partners and then swapping back again...all with the goddamn 'eyes open under water' AGAIN. With Andrew's encouragement, much trepidation, some mild panic and a mass of tangled hair, Verdi managed to complete the debatable 'skill' to Nikki's (the tutors) satisfaction and the trauma was over for the day.
Some faffing with our buoyancy, practicing descending, (albeit only down to 4 metres - deepest section of the practice pool) and equalising later and we had completed our first days diving training. Unfortunately the day wasn't entirely over as we had 'homework' to do - two exceedingly long chapters to read and answer questions on before the following days classroom session and exam.
The 'homework' would not have been a problem had we gone straight back to the hostel showered, ate and got on with it like all good students do...however, we are long past being good students and instead being the social bunnies we are, splashed about in the hostel pool for a while before showering, heading out to the Woolshed to use our FREE meal voucher from Tropic days (cracking meal and cracking value) and then meeting up with the rest of Team Fraser at Gilligan's again for a couple of drinks. This is not nearly quite as rebellious as we would make it seem - it was actually Dave and Pete's last night in Oz before heading to New Zealand so we merely popped by for some farewell drinks...until 10:30.
Back at the room the days activities (traumatic 'eyes open under water' stunts) had taken their toll as we fought like babies to keep our eyes open to read the two unending chapters that lay before us. Eventually resorting to skim reading the chapters for the answers of the questions, we finally admitted defeat at 1:00am figuring we would have time at lunch the following day to finish them off.
As if a day of lessons, exams and potential 'eyes open under water' sessions laid before us was not enough to tempt us away from diving we also had to be up at 6:30am to be collected by the CDC driver at 7:15. Who said diving was fun!?!
Entrenched back in the classroom we endured some more tutorials, review of the homework (luckily our professions had taught us to 'bluff' pretty well) and watched some more cheesy videos before heading back out to our equipment and the pool.
In the pool we practiced our 'giant step' entry, buoyancy, emergency procedures at depth(including damn mask removals!) and first aid for which Andrew was routinely selected as Nikki's 'dummy'...Verdi said nothing.
The pool session passed smoothly and saw everyone pass that section of the course before we headed back into the classroom for some more reading and the final exam at the end of the day. The exam was not particularly taxing and everyone passed, Andrew and Verdi both with 100% (swots till the end)...we were all heading for the open seas!!
Stopping briefly back at CDC's shop to complete some more paperwork and formalities they also took their opportunity to try the hard sell on their snorkel equipment. Even though the equipment was provided on board as part of the course they tried to extol the virtues of owning your own kit...God loves a trier! We sat there and smirked smugly as the staff demonstrated the 'excellent masks at a mere $110 each' - We had bought our entire set (mask, snorkel, fins & bag) in Byron Bay for an evidently bargainuss $63 each. Two Dutch guys in our group fell for the pitch and ended up spending about $400 each.
Obviously natural water babies we headed for the pool back at Tropic Days while the laundry was on and then spent some time booking our accommodation for the night we were due to return from the boat after the diving. We still had a hostel voucher from Wicked for booking all our trips with them so we managed to book a double room in 'Serpents youth hostel' for free. Showered and organsied we then arranged for a free pick-up to go and see the much acclaimed 'Reef teach' in town at 6:30.
Reef teach is a unique educational centre that conducts a 2 hour live presentation about the Great Barrier Reef so you can be more informed and aware of your surroundings when diving. It is owned, managed and operated by the eccentric Paddy Colwell, a crazy and intoxicatingly enthusiastic Irish Marine Biologist, Dive instructor and teacher. His knowledge of, passion for and devotion to the Great Barrier Reef is unparalleled...as is his 'unusual' presentation style. Paddy energetically spent the entire two hours ducking, diving and dancing around the stage quite literally throwing himself into his work and all the while dragging the awe inspired audience along for the ride. Breathtaking.
Tired from just watching Paddy we wearily made our way to the Woolshed for some more free grub (great meal again - to be recommended) and then back to our room to pack for the boat over the next couple of days and then bed at midnight.
A similarly early start awaited us with the need to check out of Tropic Days and lug all of our belongings to the CDC shop where we would be storing them whilst on the live-aboard boat. We were only able to take a day pack with us onto the boat but we were now used to packing the bare essentials after having to do the same for Fraser Island and the Whitsunday's.
After carrying out some last minute paperwork duties we were taken down to the pier and boarded the Sunkist - the Tender boat that took us out to our live-aboard boat - the Kangaroo Explorer.
The journey to the Kangaroo Explorer took around an hour and a half and the sea became more and more choppy as we progressed (PIC). Despite having taken a powerful sea-sickness tablet before departure, Andrew still managed to spend the latter part of the journey huffing and puffing on the open part of the boat - it was only lucky timing that saved him from feeding the fish with his breakfast - we arrived at the main boat just in time!
The Kangaroo Explorer is a large catamaran which sleeps around 50 people and moves from reef to reef each day to give the live-aboard divers some variation in diving environments. As our group boarded the boat, leaving the one-day divers aboard the Sunkist, we walked past a group of divers preparing for their dive - it was slightly overwhelming to think that we would shortly be doing exactly the same thing, plunging into the deep blue sea and hoping our equipment would all be working properly!
The Kangaroo Explorer was surprisingly comfortable and well equipped, with a large 'saloon' dining room, a top sun-deck and a library (PIC) where the on-board videographer also plies his trade. The cabins are also pretty decent (PICS) with enough space to move around and an en-suite bathroom for the essential post-dive shower.
Once we were checked into our cabin we had lunch and were then donning our stinger suits and snorkeling gear ready for our first training dive. It is a mandatory requirement of the SSI course that you do an open water snorkel dive before the scuba, so we jumped in and swam around the 'Three Sisters' reef for a while to satisfy this requirement. The snorkeling was actually really amazing with deep drop-offs, a steep imposing wall of coral and thousands of tropical fish swimming within touching distance. Thanks to Reef Teach we were also able to identify a lot of the marine life we saw, this made the experience a lot more rewarding and enjoyable.
Once the snorkeling was over it was time to get down to the real reason for coming out to sea, the scuba diving. We clambered into our kit and did the last minute 'buddy checks' before leaping into the open water. Our pool training prepared us well for the first dive and after a slow descent (largely due to Verdi's persistent problems with equalising - damn cold!) to 13m we performed a variety of skills that were becoming second nature after the repeated practices the previous days. There was little to see in the area we trained but it did give us a chance to experience neutral buoyancy with a lot more ease than in the freshwater training pool.
Back on the boat we had time for quick briefing over tea and delicious 'boat-made' muffins and were soon throwing our kit back on for dive number 2. The Kangaroo Explorer had moved to another reef, known as the 'Club 10' reef, which although not as spectacular as the three sisters was sufficient for us to continue our training dives.
With a smoother descent and more skills to be completed we spent the majority of our time at about 12m below sea level, knelt on the sandy sea-bed. Simon the videographer had accompanied us on this dive and while we were waiting for others to do their skills he approached us with a giant 'Pineapple Sea Cucumber' which in turn we posed with in front of the video camera. During our short swim around after the skills we saw a huge giant clam, about 4ft x 2ft, and a shovel-nosed stingray, among other stunning marine life.
Again returning to the boat after 30 minutes under water we showered and got ready for dinner. Two of our group members, Americans Blake and Amy, decided to do the optional ($85) night dive (we would be doing ours free of charge the following night), so we all watched them leap into the black water - joking all the while that they should watch out for sharks, who are apparently much more likely to be spotted during the night. It actually seemed pretty daunting to be doing a night dive after just 2 short training dives - we were glad we had another 3 dives before our night dive.
With very little to do on the boat other than eat and dive, we chatted to the rest of our group for a while before disappearing to our cabin at 11pm, in preparation for the early start and 'first-light' dive in the morning.
Our alarm rang out minutes before the crew banged on our door (5:30am!) to wake us up for the dawn dive. Staggering out of bed we put on our cold, wet bathers and trudged like zombies out to the deck where we prepared ourselves for our 3rd training dive. We were still at the Club 10 reef and as the sun emerged and the sea turned from black to aquamarine we could tell that it was perfect diving conditions.
This was our deepest dive so far, and the maximum allowable depth for our level of qualification; 18m. We tried a somersault entry, the only ones in our group to do so and it was actually pretty easy, and much more fun! We did our first 'free' descent, without holding onto a line from the boat to the bottom. It went really smoothly and as we started the descent a couple of inquisitive green turtles swam right up to Andrew - evidently his shaved head mistaking him as a member of their family!
Again we completed a variety of skills and had a general tour around the area. Despite the excellent water visibility, there was little to see in the area we were training.
Breakfast welcomed us back onto the boat and we barely had time to finish it before donning our kit again for the 8:00am training dive; the last training dive before our certification.
Simon the Videographer joined us again for this dive and filmed most of the footage that would eventually end up on our diving DVD. We all wrote a message on a board that was filmed / acted out; Andrews was "Oops - I just trod on Nemo" at which point Simon placed a toy nemo under Andrews knee and he squashed it. Verdi's message said "Shark - what shark?" as Simon swam a toy shark in from the opposite direction that Verdi was facing - the routine was then repeated with a "Nemo - what Nemo?" theme. As Rob Brydon would say - 'Just a bit of fun'.
We then did a mask removal skill, with a twist. We had a pair of sunglasses which we put on instead of the mask and posed for a picture. An alternative that some other group members did was to remove their regulator (mouthpiece) and take a drink out of an empty can of beer. 'Just a bit of fun'
The final bit of 'tomfoolery' performed for the camera was a group dance, namely 'Saturday Night' and 'Oops upside your head'. If you don't know what they are then its too long winded to explain - sorry. It seemed to turn out quite well on the DVD so if you are ever lucky enough to see the DVD then you can judge for yourselves. Again 'Just a bit of fun'.
Back on dry land (well, dry boat) we filled out our dive logs and were presented with our certified open water diver cards - we could now dive without a guide down to a depth of 18m.
The rest of our group had only booked a 4 day dive course so they were due to leave at around 2pm. That meant that they had one more 'fun' dive before they left, at 11am. We had an additional day on the boat so we would be doing a further 5 dives over the next 24 hours. This meant that we couldn't dive at 11am due to the amount of nitrogen that would be in our blood. Instead we decided to do some snorkeling at the current reef, Thetford.
Snorkeling Thetford was a pretty surreal experience as the sea was full of jellyfish, and we had to swim right through them. We had our stinger suits on, and apparently they were pretty harmless ones, but it still felt pretty strange when our hands hit them as we navigated our way through the stinger minefield. We saw loads of marine life during the snorkeling dive and wondered why were even bothering with diving - the snorkeling we had done up until this point had produced a much wider variety of marine life than anything we had seen during scuba.
After lunch we were all invited up to the library to watch our DVD. Our dance, as anticipated looked awful, but the whole thing was quite well put together and we opted to buy one, if only because it would be the only photographic record of our training. It was sent back to the UK for the folks to watch and it is too big to put onto this site so you may have to wait till we get back if you want to see us making fools out of ourselves!
Around 2pm we said goodbye to the rest of our group and sat in on a tutorial about taking underwater photos. We then hired an underwater digital camera which we could take with us on a few 'fun' dives, all the best pictures are here to view, so enjoy. Our first fun dive was at Millin Reef at a location called 'the whale'. We opted to take a dive instructor down with us as a guide, just as a bit of a back up for our first certified dive, especially as we would probably be paying more attention to where we were pointing the camera than anything else.
The guide, it turned out, was crap. He didn't show us anything we couldn't have found by ourselves, especially in the poor visibility of the location, and you don't get lost because you basically follow the reef around in a big circle. A waste of money (luckily it turned out that we only paid about half as much as we should have, so that numbed the pain!).
After filling in our dive log and having dinner we got ready for our night dive. After a briefing on how to communicate in the dark; i.e. with torches and slightly different hand signals, we somersaulted into the pitch black water. We had to have a guide with us for the night dive and we were glad of this. It just enabled us to think more about what we were seeing rather than where we were heading. Again we didn't really see that much, apart from a giant cuttlefish which was quite amazing and apparently quite rare. We were still wondering why we had bothered with the expense of scuba when snorkeling seemed to show us more.
Disillusioned and tired from our 5 dives we clambered into bed at 9:30 - it would be another early start in the morning.
Day 7 - Valentines Day
Deja vu struck as we pulled ourselves out of bed at exactly the same time as the previous day. Another 6:00am dive awaited. We hadn't had chance to buy Valentines cards for each other so a kiss and 'Happy Valentines Day' had to suffice!
The Kangaroo Explorer had returned to the Three Sisters reef location after our night dive only 10 hours earlier. This was a top diving location so we were glad that our recreational dives would be at a reef with good photo opportunities. We were joined by Monika, a German lady who was studying in Oz and had come to Cairns for a brief diving trip. As we splashed down into the water, with another somersault entry, we were disappointed to see that the sea was quite murky - it looked like visibility might be poor yet again.
As we approached our deepest depth, 20.3m (Oops - 2m over the allowed depth!), the visibility improved and we were greeted by a stunning array of fish, including barracuda and our very first shark sighting, a white-tip reef shark - which approached us and got within 3-4m. They are actually really beautiful and graceful creatures and we didn't feel an ounce of fear as we quietly watched it swim around and then serenely glide away. In fact, Andrew even tried swimming after it in order to get a better picture!
This dive turned out to be the best scuba dive we had had thus far, completely dismissing all of our concerns about scuba being a waste of money.
We had to check out of our rooms after breakfast and stored our bags on the sun deck while we got ready for the second of the days dives. Monika joined us again as we descended to around 18m (You are not allowed to reverse profile i.e go lower than your previous dive), and toured around another section of the Three Sisters. Immediately after descent we spotted another white-tip reef shark feeding on the sea bed and approached it for a better look. It stayed still, posing for photos and only shot off after we had turned our attention to something else. The 2nd sister had a stunning 'swim-through' with amazing fish and coral coating both sides.
On returning to the surface we had to negotiate a number of small jellyfish and a mass of jellyfish larvae, strings of eggs which looked more like necklaces than little stinger babies.
Having filled out our dive logs again, and relaxed for a while with a cup of tea while the boat changed locations, we suited up for the final time - dive number 9. The location was Moore Reef / East Timor and the skipper recommended that we concentrate our dive around one particular large bommy (pillar of coral). There was a great deal of marine life in this area and we even managed to find Nemo hiding amongst some anemones. We stayed down for over 50 minutes, our longest dive of the trip and could have stayed down longer given more air! The return to the boat saw us swimming through yet more jellyfish, one landing in Andrews lap and one trying to hitch a ride on Verdi's tank.
Lunch followed and we spent some time looking through the 220 photos we had taken during our recreational dives; many of which were useless but it did produce a handful of semi-decent ones. There was time for a little sunbathing before the Sunkist arrived to take us back to Cairns. Andrew decided to avoid the sea-sickness feeling by sleeping out on the open deck for the entire journey, even through the rain which persisted for most of the 90 minute trip back. Luckily there were a couple of guys from Fraser on the boat (as part of a day trip) so Verdi was not left deserted.
CDC provided a bus back to their shop where we picked up our luggage and then got dropped off at the 'Nomads Serpents' hostel. The following few hours were spent in the hostel pool (you would have thought we'd had enough water!), and doing a bit of laundry before returning into town (the Woolshed to be precise) for free pizza and beer courtesy of CDC.
Unable to keep our eyes open after an hour there, we said our goodbyes and caught a taxi back to the hostel. The diving, and consecutive early mornings, had really taken it out of us and we were snuggled up and snoozing by 9:30pm.
With nearly 12 hours sleep under our belt and the promise of checking into the luxurious 'Cairns Lakes Resort and Spa' ahead of us, getting up at 8:30 wasn't too much of a chore for once. Having said that, we were both still absolutely knackered and feeling quite groggy from the three days diving especially Verdi who's ears STILL hadn't cleared and who's cold was showing a resilience unknown to man - two weeks and counting.
Packed, ready and checked out by 10:00am we excitedly caught a taxi over to the Lakes resort to check into the apartment before Verdi's parents were due in, later in the evening. Grand plans of lording it over the apartment and resort for a few hours were sadly quickly quashed as the room was not ready. Launching plan B we dumped the bags with the porter (what a novelty), dined at one of the resorts bistro's on a scrumptious breakfast and then caught the mini-bus (not free - not such a good novelty) all the way back into town (10 minute drive away) to meander around the shopping centre and fritter away a few hours until the apartment would be ready.
A wise investment in the much sought-after 'snuggle pillow' later (much to Verdi's delight and Andrew's relief) and we caught the shuttle bus back to the resort to finally check in and check out the apartment (PICS). Not bad. Three bedrooms - check, large modern open plan kitchen, living room (with big TV) and dining area - check, laundry room - check, outside dining area - check, pool outside the door - check, marbled flooring and sleek decor throughout - check....not bad at all, us backpackers could get used to this.
Deciding it might not be the wisest decision of our lives to claim squatters rights on the best room in the apartment (with en-suite, TV and windows looking out over the pool) we dumped our bags in the slightly more modest room next door and gratefully unpacked into a large double wardrobe before heading out to the pool right outside (PIC) - one of several on the complex.
An hour or so of frolicking in the pool later and we headed for the showers to freshen up and make ourselves presentable for Mr & Mrs T. Clean face - check, clean clothes - just about check, bags away - check, kettle ready for cup of tea - check. All just in time as we suddenly heard a key in the lock, turning just in time to see Pam, Ron and Joseph being ushered into the apartment by the porter trailing with their luggage.
The next couple of hours passed in an exuberant whirl of greetings and updates; Verdi's parents had just flown up from Sydney (and had previously been in Hong Kong) so there was plenty to compare and contrast.
Wanting to make the most of their first night in Cairns and get their bearings, we all jumped into a taxi into town to hunt down a decent restaurant. Sadly we were not in a position to recommend anywhere other than the Woolshed. Thinking we would save the glamour of the Woolshed for another night we settled on a quiet Mexican restaurant and caught up further over a good meal and a few drinks.
Failing in our quest to find Verdi's dad somewhere relatively quiet that sold an actual pint, we called it quits and got a taxi back to the apartment before all exhaustedly collapsing into our comfy beds at 12:30.
With plans to sort out a hire car early we got up at 8:00am and spent the next couple of hours on the phone haggling with hire car companies until we found ourselves a good deal - over $100 cheaper than the first scoundrels we tried!.
Having collected the car and the rest of the family we drove into town to introduce the folks to Cairns and have a proper look around. After briefly taking in the harbour and lagoon area, Cairns unfurled the welcome flags in the form of pouring rain as only the Tropics now how to do...well it is the rainy season!
Being Welsh and obviously unused to such miserable weather, we opted to continue the tour of Cairns in the most sensible fashion - from inside the car. Once the rain soaked streets lost their allure, we ventured inside the main shopping centre where we managed to while away a few hours strolling around the shops, playing with toys in the 'Australiana' (native souvenirs) shops and cooing over the puppies in the window of the pet shop. Coffee, a couple of cakes and a quick trip to the supermarket later and we headed back to the apartment.
With the unrelenting rain still pounding on the windows, the folks could not be persuaded to dip their toes in the pool, so we resorted to relaxing in front of the TV while they unpacked - a real hardship.
Feeling brave on our behalf and adventurous on the parents behalf we ventured into town to the Woolshed for dinner, where, to our relief, they were pleasantly surprised by the price, size and quality of the food. The music, venue and clientele on the other hand were not entirely to their taste but we guess that is to be expected with the couple of years age gap.
Suitably fed and watered we all headed over to the Night market to have a mooch around and see what bargains were on offer. Joseph and the folks stocked up on gifts and souvenirs in the form of stubby coolers (insulators for beer cans - v popular over here) and koala shaped chocolates...authentic gifts if ever we saw some.
Dinner settled in our stomachs there was finally room for dessert...we introduced the family to the delights of 'Dippin Dots' - tiny balls of ice-cream (a bit like Calippo shots) where you can mix flavours to create a new one, for example; chocolate, raspberry, marshmallow and peanut combined to make 'Rocky Road' - yum. Expensive novelty but we weren't paying for once so what the hell.
With the night drawing in we headed back to the apartment where Andrew called his folks and we made our way to bed at 12:30.
Wanting to squeeze in a full day trip to Kuranda we got up at 8:00am and started the day by booking a ride on the Minjin swing for later that morning and our rafting on the Tully River (only us and Joseph) for the following day.
The Minjin swing is another A J Hackett contraption (same company that did our tower jump in Macau) where you are harnessed into a giant swing, hauled backwards until your about 40 metres above the forest floor and then pull a release cord that sends you hurtling back towards the ground and in a big arc at speeds of up to 100km an hour, again only for us and Joseph.
With everything booked, breakfast done, bags packed and glorious sunshine awaiting us, we hit the road and made our way to A J Hacketts. There is also a bungy jump there and the first victim was already throwing himself off it as we arrived at 10am. Weight permitting, the Minjin swing can take three people at once...the Woolshed and Dippin Dots had obviously taken their toll as the combined weight of us three was not permitted! Oh the shame.
There is always a silver lining - we were going to have to go two at a time so it meant SOMEONE was going to get to go twice. That 'someone' was not up for debate, Verdi immediately shot her name forward for the double whammy.
Not wanting to waste any time and to give Joseph an opportunity to see what he'd signed up for, we went first. Smelly, soggy body harnesses donned, (they had been soaked in the torrential downpour of the previous day!) we were attached to the cables and soon found ourselves lying prostrate, gripping on to a bar in front of us waiting for the slack to be taken up and the support removed.
There were two big lights in front of us which we were informed would change from red to green when we were at the top - that would be Verdi's cue to yank the release cord and see us hurtle to the ground at 100km/hr. As the cable slowly drew us backwards it quickly became apparent just how high 40 metres was...bloody high. Finally at the top we stared down at the vast drop waiting beneath us and at the grinning, waving crowd that had gathered back at the viewing platform, including Ron with his camcorder and Joseph biting his nails.
The moment was upon us as the light flicked over to green and Verdi unhesitatingly yanked on the cord as instructed. The sudden freefall saw our stomachs left about 5 metres back up above us as we hurtled towards the floor and then up in an arc out over the top of the main building...where the company had humourously (or sickly) put the outline of a splattered person on the roof - we had to laugh. (PICS)
After swinging back and forth in ever decreasing arcs for a few minutes we were finally grabbed and brought to a stop. Grinning from ear to ear Andrew was released from the swing, removed the harness and made his way down to the viewing platform. Like a smooth tag team Andrew and Joseph swapped over all the time leaving Verdi suspended in mid air in the soggy, smelly but increasingly comfortable harness.
The whole process was repeated again only this time Verdi relinquished control of the release cord to Joseph. Interestingly this made it even more exciting for Verdi as she did not know the EXACT moment she was going to drop - much more fun. Joseph evidently enjoyed the ride as much as us; whooping and giggling all the way down. Not a bad way to spend a Friday morning - makes a change from the office.
All feet safely back on terra firma and the video evidence purchased (enthusiastic parents) we thanked the staff and congratulated ourselves on $45 (18GBP) well spent. Pam and Ron adamant that they did not want to have a go or check out the bungy jump, we made our way back to the car and headed for Kuranda National Park.
There is a scenic cable car (Skyrail) in the National Park that takes you up to Kuranda at the top of the mountain. Deciding that the hour and a half duration and 15GBP one way price tag were a bit rich for us, we left Pam and Ron to it while the three of us drove up instead. The drive only took about 25 minutes including a stop at a lookout (PIC) so we were afforded a fair bit of time to stroll around Kuranda's shops and deciding what to do for the rest of the day before we needed to collect the folks.
Pam and Ron's Skyrail over, we all met up and decided that Pam would have a wander around the shops (and a fag break!) while the rest of us did a walk out to Barron falls (PICS) through a section of rainforest and then took in the Venom Zoo - not for the faint hearted as the guide periodically took deadly spiders, scorpions and centipedes out of their containers to show us up close. We were left slightly aghast at one point when he informed us that if bitten by the Tropical funnel web (that we were stood a couple of feet away from) then we would have approximately 10 minutes to live and much of that time would be spent in excruciating agony and writhing convulsions. There is no anti-venom. Great.
Everything in Kuranda starts to close at about 4:30 so we met back up with Pam and made our way back to Cairns to frolic in the pool and introduce Joseph to the joys of snorkeling in preparation for his day trip to the reef.
With the night drawing in we showered and changed ready for dinner which was to be at 'Rattle & Hum's' - a trendy, rustic and somewhat eclectic bar in town. The food was pretty good when we finally got it - it was a Friday night in one of the trendiest bars in town so needless to say it was a bit busy.
After dinner the walk back to the hotel presented some exciting fire-jugglers performing an impromptue act by the waters edge.
Tired from the day's exertions and adventures AND with an early start for rafting the following day, we made our way to bed at 10:30.
'Raging Thunder' the rafting organisers were set to pick us up at 6:40am, necessitating a 6:00am get-up. The coach took us to Tully Railway Station (also strangely used as the Raging Thunder office), a journey taking around an hour and a half, at which point we grabbed a quick breakfast and hired some reef sandals (in Verdi and Josephs case) before switching buses to the 'Extreme Rafting' minibus. The early morning faces said it all - we were shattered (PICS).
Another 30 minute journey and we had reached the top of the Tully River course. We were separated into three groups of 6 people and then taken down to the waters edge for a brief tutorial on what we would be doing and how to react when our raft guide, Sonny (PIC), yelled directions at us (pretty straightforward stuff, paddle forwards, backwards, lean to one side of the boat and 'hold on!').
The main advantages of the extreme rafting over the standard package are twofold. Firstly we had a smaller group; 3 rafts instead of about 10, and this meant that we spent less time waiting for all the other rafts in our group to finish each section before moving onto the next set of rapids. The second benefit is that with this extra time we were able to do additional activities, these will be explained in due course.
Unfortunately there are two companies which run on the Tully River, 'Raging Thunder' and R&R. We were behind the large R&R group during the morning and this meant that we had to keep stopping and waiting for them to finish each section as they would not let us pass. Nevertheless we had good fun negotiating the rapids, passing the time splashing other rafts in our group at every opportunity and jumping overboard for a swim where the water was calmer.
We stopped at the waters edge for a quick lunch; 'Raging Thunder' had a camp set up with a ready-prepared BBQ, and then raced back to our rafts in order to get ahead of the R&R group for the afternoon.
Negotiating more grade 3 & 4 rapids in the afternoon (PIC) was great fun and the added time we saved by being on our own at the front meant that we could really indulge. Our first 'extreme' activity was floating down a set of rapids. We had life jackets on but it still got pretty rough at times, a combination of getting waves over our heads and rocks up our ar@#s. We then took it in turns to slide down a water shute, which proceeded to carry us about 10 foot underwater before dragging us off to the side of the river - slightly scary but great fun. Further down the river, on a particularly rough drop-off we were able to flip our raft over so that everyone was thrown overboard. This would have been great fun apart from the fact that another boat in our group failed in their attempt to flip over and instead rammed into our raft - and Verdi's arm - leaving an immediate nasty bruise and a very unimpressed little lady. Our final 'extreme' activity was a 4.5m rock jump which was also a bit of rush - just a shame we could only do them all once.
Back in the raft our guide Sonny got caught in a current and dragged downstream so we had to paddle down to him at which stage Andrew was left in charge of the raft. Picking Sonny back up he took Andrews seat and left Andrew to continue his position as guide for a further 5 minutes, negotiating a small set of rapids and trying not to get the raft stuck amongst the protruding rocks. Mission completed and suitably impressed with himself, Andrew relinquished the driver's seat to Sonny and we carried on down the river to our destination.
We finished the rafting at around 2:30pm and returned to the Railway Station where we downed a couple of well deserved beers (PICS) and picked out a photo to take as a souvenir.
Soon after we were on the coach back to Cairns, another 90 minute journey during which Verdi and Joseph had no choice but to visit snoozeville (PICS). A shower and change of clothes later and we were ready to feed our faces before slumping into our beds at a relatively early 11:30pm. Joseph had another early morning ahead of him as he, Pam and Ron were going out to the Reef - we on the other hand had a lazy day and plenty of sleep on our agenda.
Our lazy day started just as we had intended - late. We finally arose at 11:30am, tired and aching from the rafting and generally feeling pretty rough. It seemed the weeks of constant touring, sightseeing and other activities had finally caught up with us and our bodies were now saying 'enough is enough'.
Casually having breakfast and watching the Winter Olympics we let the rest of the morning pass us by and eventually pushed ourselves to get dressed and take some advantage of the hire car that had been left for us. We drove around Cairns city centre looking for accommodation for the following week - we had already decided that we would spend about 5-7 days doing 'not much' to let our systems catch up with us and recharge our batteries before exploring the northern regions of the tropical Queensland and ultimately flying to Perth.
We narrowed our search to 2 places and went and checked them out in person, bartering for the best price that they could give us. We eventually chose 'Il Palazzo' in the centre of town - its location, comfort and facilities way outdoing the slightly high price tag ($100 (40 GBP) a night).
Back at the Lakes we met up with Pam, Ron and Joseph and chatted about our respective days activities - theirs being far more interesting than ours, before showering and heading out for dinner. We were tempted into going to one restaurant in particular - more because of the name than anything else (PIC), but the largely Italian menu and the price dissuaded us, choosing instead to go for a delicious Thai meal.
Our lazy day concluded with the same theme; another early night - 11:30pm.
Even though Ron had extended our check-out time until midday we still had plenty of packing and other things to sort out so we got up at 8:30 and made a start on gathering all our things that had miraculously managed to be randomly strewn around the entire apartment.
Once Andrew and Ron had returned from dropping off the hire car, Pam and Ron went over to the brasserie to take advantage of their complementary breakfast while the rest of us indulged in one last swim in the pool.
Swimming and breakfast over we frantically finished the packing before heading over to reception to check out and wait for their shuttle bus to the airport. The last five days seemed to have whizzed by in a frenetic blur of sightseeing, dilemmas over restaurants and comfortable surroundings. Before we knew it the shuttle bus was loaded, we had said our goodbyes and the family were waving out of the back window as the bus disappeared out of the complex.
All that was left for us to do was call a taxi and head over to 'Il Palazzo'; a stylish boutique hotel situated in the heart of Cairns (PICS) where we planned to spend a relaxed, lazy week indulging in little more than late mornings, long lunches and hours lazing by either the TV or pool.
Quickly ensconced in our new abode and about to collapse in a self contented heap on the cosy couch, the mobile chirped up and shattered the tranquillity...it was the folks; their flight had been delayed until 7pm so they were jumping in a taxi and on their way over. A good job we had opted for a slightly more spacious and opulent apartment rather than the usual shoddy cramped double room, we thought to ourselves. The indulgent luxuriating would have to wait a little longer.
With an unexpected extra 5 hours to play with Joseph opted to catch-up on his emails and sort out his photo's while Pam & Ron took one last leisurely stroll around town and the marina. In the meantime we stocked up on food supplies for the forthcoming veg-fest.
Meeting back at the ice-cream shop outside the apartment we partook in one last 'family ice-cream' before heading inside. Verdi's parents were able to take advantage of the shower to freshen up before their flight while the rest of us again headed for the pool.
At 5:15pm it was finally time to say goodbye again; the family jumped in a taxi to the airport as this time we waved them off from the balcony outside the apartment. It felt much less hasty than the mornings farewells and, as such, slightly more sombre.
Wanting to start this stay as we intended to go on, we set the pace and theme by heading over to the video store to pick out some DVD's before settling in for a night of fajitas and 'Into the Blue'. Jumping into bed at midnight.
Day 14 - 20
Devoid of any real activities, photos or issues of note and rather than bore you with the minute detail and inanity of our 'lazy days in Cairns', we thought an all encompassing summary of that period would suffice. So here goes...
We routinely surfaced at around 10:30am (admittedly 2:15pm on the first morning after the folks left!) only to laze about on the sofa watching TV or whatever film was being aired before tucking into breakfast at about midday.
The laziness duly continued as we either sunbaked around the pool (weather permitting) or sat reading our books, for the next couple of hours. The obligatory internet stint followed which was a chore at times, but granted, has enabled us to bring the blog site back from the brink of no return, as we had found ourselves 18 days behind.
Next on our 'not so hectic' schedule would be the tumultuous decision of what to have for dinner before settling in for yet more films, Olympics coverage and periodic delving into our chosen novels.
The once book shy Andrew has become a relative prolific reader in this period tearing through such epic tomes as Dan Brown's Angels & Demons and Frank Skinners autobiography. Not to be out done Verdi has ripped through Dan Brown's Da Vinci code and Deception Point along with Air Babylon - a classic by anyone's estimation.
The plethora of films we have enjoyed should not go without mention; classics including; Into the Blue, Red Eye, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Sphere, After the Sunset, and National Treasure to name but a few.
We were certainly kept on our toes throughout the week as the Tropics rainy season lived up to its name and graced us with many a sudden mammoth downpour. On occasion the colossal deluge lasting all day or at the very least the period in which we were going to venture out doors to the pool or the shops. Needless to say more novel perusal or TV inspection ensued.
Shocking as it may seem amidst this flurry of activity we have managed to book our flights to Perth (leaving on the 4th) and achieved our initial goal....to relax.
Where I stayed