WKND Travel: Best of Cairns, Australia
Why Cairns in Australia is for those who love all things bountiful
Nonagenarian naturalist and renowned television presenter Sir David Attenborough has broadcasted several exhilarating programs on nature and wildlife, but many of his fans mark the 2016 series on the Great Barrier Reef as the most enthralling work of his life. With this documentary, he brought to the homes of millions worldwide the secrets of a natural wonder, which spreads along Australia’s top northeastern coastline.
There are some fascinating barrier reefs in various parts of the world, the ones in Belize, Mexico, Indonesia and Maldives are pretty well known. However, nothing beats the Aussie version which covers an area of 344,400 square kilometres — approximately the same size as Italy or Japan. The only living thing on earth visible from space, this natural creation stretches to 2,300 km, has 3,000 individual reef and coral cays, and hundreds of picturesque tropical islands — some sewed with beautiful sun-soaked, golden beaches. Most significantly, this big blue is home to the greatest variety of oceanic species — fish, turtles, sharks, stingrays, whales, dolphins and many more — not to be found clustered on such a huge scale in any one location elsewhere in this planet. It’s a place that not only generates superlatives but exceeds them and that’s why it’s ‘great’ like the Great Wall of China.
In his documentary, Attenborough indicated the reef to be in grave danger because of the perils of climate change. Scientists agree with his concern, hence cutting edge research is in progress to protect this magical sanctuary from the damaging effects arising from increased water temperature and acidic reactions. The good news is that hardly anything adverse is noticeable to the eyes of a commoner, so the Great Barrier Reef continues to be ranked high in the bucket list of world travellers, drawing over two million visitors annually. As a result, Cairns — the getaway city to this UNESCO World Heritage site — stood as one of Australia’s most visited destinations until Covid-19 hit the scene.
Scuba diving and snorkelling are the best options to explore the underwater life. There are several operators in Cairns offering boat trips to nearby islands for a dip into the water, full or half-day outings to the Green Island, Frankland Island and Fitzroy Island are some of the popular options. Whoever has embarked on these, claims it to be an experience of a lifetime, to stay underwater and spend time amidst colour in the company of schools of fish, turtles, sea horses and sometimes sharks and stingrays. It’s like unfolding a mystery, discovering a secret and accepting a challenge to find the mischievous orange clownfish immortalised by Disney’s Finding Nemo. A newer option for non-swimmers is the helmet-diving where, instead of swimming, it’s possible to walk on the ocean floor, by encasing the head inside a helmet connected to the surface by an air-hose. However, glass bottom and semi-submersible boat tours are available for those who prefer to stay dry but are still keen to sample some charming aspects of the rich ecosystem. And if you have no desire for going near the water, a visit to the Cairns Aquarium provides a great exhibition of the Great Barrier Reef and its residents, while a scenic helicopter sojourn offers an uninterrupted top view of the reef that extends many kilometres away from the coastline.
The region around Cairns is also the meeting point of the reef with an expansive tropical rainforest, listed by World Heritage as a living museum of 900,000 square hectares of flora and fauna, with some pockets of vegetation believed to be over 150 million years old.
The vastness and intrinsic beauty of this rain-infused forestry is best sensed while gliding metres above the pristine canopy in one of the glass-covered gondolas of Skyrail, a safe and reliable cableway system from where nothing other than an undulating panorama of mist-shrouded green welcome eyes.
The Skyrail loops in the air for 7.5km from Cairns up to Kuranda a quaint mountain village at 300m above sea level, both ways. There are two stations in between, at Red Peaks and Byron Falls — for passengers to breathe the rain-infused fresh air and see the forest floor space, thickly carpeted with pines, eucalyptus, banyans, vines and ferns of many kinds and to hear the sounds of a gushing waterfall and singing of unknown avian species.
An alternative way of travelling between Cairns and Kuranda is the popular Kuranda Scenic Railway — one of the world’s most panoramic journeys — that meanders through the rainforest providing passengers breathtaking scenery and numerous photo opportunities, while winding its way through 15 hand-made tunnels and 37 bridges.
“Our land abounds in nature’s gifts of beauty rich and rare” is a line from the Australian national anthem. It’s not difficult to appreciate its essence when visiting Cairns, to witness these two magical natural treasures of the land.