The big question in Cairns, Queensland

Last night Steve and I landed back in Melbourne after 11 days in Japan for sightseeing around the Rugby World Cup (COYBIG!) and while I have a lot to say about that (I promise, everyone who has asked for recommendations, I have heaps to provide!) I also haven’t even written about our last trip yet. And, well, it was kind of a big deal, so I don’t want to just let it pass by.

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So here’s the story about my trip to Queensland with my now-fiancé:

Unlike New Zealand, we didn’t have too many must-see places when we arrived in Australia. We were hoping to go to Uluru, which we unfortunately won’t have time to do, we figured we should see Sydney, and after conversations with Ozzies while hiking the Milford Track we were sure we wanted to visit Tasmania. But the biggest thing on our small Australia bucket list was to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef, so at the end of August we headed up to Cairns.

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We booked a day on the reef through Reef Daytripper, with snorkeling and an introductory scuba dive, at the recommendation of my best friend, but first we had two days to spend exploring the region. We had hired a car so we headed out to the Atherton Tablelands to chase waterfalls. There are dozens! August is winter in the southern hemisphere, but Queensland is so tropical that the weather was a balmy 28C/83F. It was a bit rainy on the first day, but as it cleared up in the evening I suggested that we get up early to watch the sunrise since we were on the east coast. I was surprised that not only was Steve on board with the idea despite our 4am wakeup to catch our flight that morning, but he said he already had a place in mind.

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The place involved another 4am alarm and a bleary-eyed run through the McDonald’s drive-thru for surprisingly decent coffee, then a 40 minute drive back inland to a parking lot where a number of vans were waiting, “Hot Air Balloon Cairns” emblazoned on their sides. By this point, I had a pretty good idea what was coming (aside from a trip in a hot air balloon), and yet, as we soared over the Tablelands, I was still surprised when Steve pulled out a ring. We left the ground as boyfriend and girlfriend, and returned to it as fiancé and fiancée.

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The hot air balloon itself was also a really cool experience. Because the balloon moves at the same speed as the wind, it’s still and quiet when you’re up there, and although the conductor (driver? pilot?) has control over the height of the balloon, where it goes is somewhat beholden to the direction the wind is blowing. It’s peaceful, but also thrilling. On the ground, the van chased us to an empty field where we eventually landed with a gentle bump.

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But our adventures were far from over! After a day spent celebrating our engagement, hiking, and having a few beers at a local brewery (and an amazing dinner at Salt House, another recommendation of my BFF’s), we had to get ready for something almost as (or-maybe-equally-or-maybe-even-more) exciting as the proposal: the Great Barrier Reef. Another early morning (although later than 4am) saw us arriving at the pier and meeting the international crew of the Reef Daytripper boat. It was one of the smaller ships at the marina, but it meant there were only a max of 20 passengers, which was nice. Steve and I also happened to be the only ones who had signed up for the intro scuba dive.

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We started with half an hour or so of snorkeling and then were called back to the boat by the dive instructor, who took us through the safety training. Then we were strapped into our gear and stepped off the side of the boat to practice clearing our masks and regulators before we were allowed to descend a rope to the bottom of the ocean. I was pleasantly surprised how quickly I took to it. Although my first instinct when I couldn’t remember a step in one of the safety tests was to come to the surface, I realised that wouldn’t be effective when I was further down, so I stayed calm and tried again. Once we were on the ocean floor, about 7 metres deep, I was allowed to move slightly away from the instructor (although still very close by) and admire the fish swimming by. It was an incredible experience, and I’m already thinking ahead to getting my Open Water certification when we are in Indonesia or Thailand at the end of the year.

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Snorkeling was pretty amazing as well. Although we unfortunately didn’t see any sharks or sea turtles, we did see tons of colourful fish, electric blue starfish, giant clams, and even an intimidating barracuda. At the end of the day, we relaxed on the trip back (Steve more relaxed than me, as I felt nauseous and had to sit outside so I wouldn’t get sick), buzzing from our time out on the reef. When we got to the marina, we hopped back in our rental car and drove to Port Douglas, about an hour north of Cairns.

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From Port Douglas, we continued north to Cape Tribulation over the course of a day. This involved a ferry crossing (only a few minutes, but you can’t get there without it), plenty of stops to go walking in the rainforest, a cassowary sighting (and baby cassowary sighting!) and a delicious ice cream factory that makes all its flavours out of local fruits. We came back the next day, although we stayed on the south side of the ferry, and took a boat tour along the river with Solar Whisper. This recommendation from a Dutch couple we met on the GBR boat turned out to be a great one, and we saw several crocodiles and snakes. We also visited Mossman Gorge and then made our way back down to Cairns.

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On our final day in Cairns, we took it easy. There’s a village in the mountains called Kuranda, and while it’s reachable by car the best way to visit is to ride up on a historic railway train and down on a cable car for views across far north Queensland. We even booked the cable car that featured a glass bottom so that we could look down into the rainforest below. In the evening, we returned our rental car and grabbed a shuttle back to the airport for our flight to Melbourne. Overall, it was a packed and wonderful trip, and best of all it opened the door to a whole world of new adventures to come.

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