Reefs and Rainforests
Right. It’s “CANS” like beans, not CAIRRRNS. Armed with this information you can saunter with a purpose once ashore. With a jaunty “G’day”, you’ll greet locals accustomed to welcoming those who come by sea. It started long ago when Captain Cook sailed these waters aboard H.M.S. Endeavor on Trinity Sunday, 1770, hence the name Trinity Bay.
And speaking of coming by sea, the Coral Sea to be exact, do you know you’re now closer to Papua New Guinea than to much of the rest of Australia? And, isolated. A somewhat inhospitable terrain forms a natural boundary to this region what with the Tablelands and all. But, more on that later.
A Sleepy Little Backwater Town
Cairns is the capital of the “Far North” or the “Deep North” or the “FNQ--Far North Queensland” with 65,000 year-round residents. It’s a jolly town, blending older stilt houses (built to catch cooling breezes) and holiday bungalows with respectable hotels and eateries. Surrounding the city are rainforests, cattle ranches, sugarcane and pineapple plantations as well as macadamia groves.
Cairns was just a blip on the horizon for eons. Then, someone discovered gold and tin further inland and it grew into a city that serviced these industries. Cane fields were planted, then coffee, and these crops were trained to Cairns for shipment abroad. A community grew though this spot was too far from Australia’s bright lights and biggish cities to be much of a lure. That was until 1980 when an enterprising tourist board identified Cairns as not only a destination in and of itself but more popularly as a jumping off point to the Great Barrier Reef that stretches 1200 miles from Papua New Guinea to the Tropic of Cancer.
Cairns is without great local beaches, so visitors usually pass the day meandering about. Its famous Esplanade lies directly opposite the waterfront from Trinity Bay. Locals recite stories about Wharf Street, at the southern end of the Esplanade, when it was known as the Barbary Coast due to its cast of shady characters and disreputable ruffians. That was in 1876. Today, this promenade is benign, perfect for bird watching (brightly-colored tropical birds perch overhead) or picnicking. But don’t forget that CAN of beans!
The Reef Beckons
Most visitors catamaran to the reef for the day--to snorkel or dive, or do some deep-sea fishing. These waters are labeled “the black marlin capital of the world.” From August to November anglers catch these 1,000-pounders that are buggers to land. Tuna, sailfish and barracuda ply these waters, as well.
The Great Barrier Reef is the “world’s largest living structure” and is bright with color, alive with rainbows of fish, and a visual treat like no other. Don mask and fins for you won’t want to let this rare opportunity pass you by. Not wanting to get wet? You can still enjoy the view aboard a semi-submersible or watch “Finding Nemo” if you’re truly a landlubber.
Butterflies Flutter By
The Atherton Tablelands, a 3,000-foot-high plateau of the Great Dividing Range, are named for John Atherton who built his farm here in 1877. High above the steamy mangrove flats surrounding Cairns, this mountainous area is noted for waterfalls and deep gorges. Toward the end of the 1800s, sugar cane was introduced to these mountains. As mentioned, growers needed to transport their crop to market. So powerful men with picks and shovels cleared rain forests, bridged gorges, penetrated jungles and skirted waterfalls to construct a railway line from the cane fields to the port of Cairns. This project, completed in 1888, took four years.
Ultimately, the line was abandoned when more efficient transportation was available. Today, the former sugarcane train chugs that same 20-mile run through 15 tunnels, across 40 bridges, past waterfalls, a climb of 1,076 feet en route to the town of Kuranda, “Gateway to the Atherton Tablelands.” Some 600 residents, mostly farmers, live there. It’s also home to the Butterfly Sanctuary with more than 1,500 tropical butterflies including the nation’s biggest, the Ulysses Butterfly. The Kuranda Station itself is quite lovely--decorated with tropical plants and hanging ferns.
Docs and Ducks
Other options for visitors to Cairns include the Royal Flying Doctors Service, a service that provides medical care to the remote regions of Australia by visiting homesteads and communities in need. You can stop by their Cairns’ facility, even climb aboard a Queenair aircraft once used by the flying docs.
Or, you can hop aboard a “duck”, an amphibious WWII Army boat that motors along while you search for goannas, turtles, fish and eels. Just don’t say, “quack quack” if you want to keep your dignity in tact.