Being only five hours away on a direct flight from Auckland, I am surprised more people don’t or haven’t visited Cairns and the surrounding Tropical north Queensland across the ditch. Having lived in Queensland for four years in my early 20’s, I fell in love with the place and realised how lucky we were as Kiwis to have such easy access to the warmth, sunshine and more importantly – the Great Barrier reef. It’s been over a few years since I lived and worked there, and I felt it was time to go back and visit my old haunts (particularly the Reef of course) after hearing how El Nino, flooding and the dreaded Crown of thorns seastar (COTS) had started to decimate the coral.
I flew Phillipine airlines direct into Cairns on a Monday night. The flight left at 6.15pm, quite a respectable time to depart, and landed in Cairns a little after 930pm that night. Definitely an airline I would put on par with Jetstar or Virgin (no frills) but for a short flight I had everything I needed despite the smaller seat space.
I stayed one night in Cairns, or rather nearby Kuranda with a friend before picking up my Apex rental car the next morning for the journey up to Cape tribulation. I had time pressure to make it up to the Jungle in time for an afternoon reef tour onboard “Ocean safari” http://www.oceansafari.com.au/
Funnily enough that one night in Cairns I happened to bump into a friend I’d met in Mexico last year, Tam. She had just finished an incredible trip in Indonesia studying Manta rays and we took the chance to catch up over dinner at the Cairns Marina. Her trip sounds incredible and is one I hope to do one day – check Tams story out here http://travelswithtam.com/a-funny-thing-happened-when-i-arrived-in-cairns/
I had been recommended Apex by a friend and found they had the cheapest car rental deals http://www.apexrentacar.com.au/RentalCarLocations/cairns-airport-rental-cars-branch.aspx I managed to get a zippy little automatic Hyundai accent for $41 per day and unlimited kilometres. I left Cairns pretty much bang on 9am, expecting to be in Cape tribulation not later than 11.30am, giving me plenty of time to grab a coffee and check in for my reef trip. Well, I forgot about the ferry crossing required to get across the Daintree river en route to Cape trib, and the fact that school holidays meant there was a huge line of cars waiting to get onboard too. An hour after meeting the end of the snaking line, I was on the ferry about to drive off the ramp and into the thick lush Daintree rainforest, worrying that I would miss the 12.30pm departure of the boat.
Luck was on my side that day, and just as I pulled into the carpark of Turtle rock café (Ocean safaris base) had a quick catch up with the Operations manager Ollie (an old friend from my time in the Whitsundays) and joined the group of 25 snorkelers heading down to the beach with an enthusiastic snorkel guide – Kane. Kane is a true blue Jungle boy, or ‘Mowgli’ as I know him. Having grown up in the Rainforest, Kano, like most locals in the area, lives in an open house where Bats, Snakes and native Rats often cruise in and out of. In a town with no mains power source, running water or cell phone reception, Cape trib takes a unique type of person to live there. No power means no air con and in that humid hot rainforest, this means having windows with no glass panes and open areas where breeze (and animals) can come in.
In my years of living in the Jungle, Kano would often walk to my place for our weekly curry night, collecting wild grown produce as he went. We would add things to the curry like lemongrass growing on the side of the road, to wild basil and kaffir lime. He knows the trees like he knows his family, and is so in tune with the Jungle – I wasn’t surprised to hear that when emergency services tried to find three backpackers that went missing up Mt. Sorrow last year (a day hike up a steep mountain), Kano went in and found them within a few hours. I was so glad when I showed up to Ocean safari that day (frazzled and worried I’d miss my only opportunity to head out) that it was Kano there guiding the group.
Walking to where the boat launches from the main centre of town, firstly through the lowland Rainforest and then swampy mangroves, is a great way to appreciate the magnificent UNESCO wet tropics world heritage site – one of the few places in the world where “The Rainforest meets the Reef”. After the boardwalk where you can see mudskippers under your feet and stingrays warming themselves in the shallows, you burst out of the greenery and onto long stretching Myall beach with the Cape (the namesake of the town) jutting out proudly to the North. Being a nice calm day, the boat came in close to the shore and down went the boarding steps as the group excitedly removed their shoes and boarded the 12.5m bright yellow RIB that was to take us the 9.5miles out to Mackay reef.
The trip was fast, a mere 25minutes out to moor up beside beautiful Mackay cay. It didn’t take long for Kano and me to gear up and jump into that azure blue, crystal clear visibility warm water. That desert island you want to be marooned on in your dreams? That’s Mackay cay, and the snorkelling around it (still) is just as incredible as I remember it from a few years ago. Being buddied with Kano was great, as like me he enjoys just relaxing in the water and watching the fishy business carry out below. We saw a juvenile blue spotted lagoon ray enjoying a munch on shellfish as a yellow Boxfish cruised past on his daily errands. A large Green Turtle lazily dozed next to a coral bommie and didn’t mind me ducking down to get a closer look, so close I could’ve stroked him! Keeping my eyes peeled we came across a ‘flying gurnard’ who spread her wings out and put on a show for us, and not long after we spotted the tell-tale black spots of an epaulette shark wrapped amongst a rock as it dug in the sand searching for lunch. To my surprise not one Crown of thorns (COTS) seastar was spotted – despite my practised eagle eye for them. During my time at Oceans, the team and I established a COTS cull program, and Ollie has ensured the legacy has continued on, ensuring it has become bigger and better and quite obviously incredibly effective.
On arrival back to the beach, I was hankering for a feed and was more than impressed with the array of healthy, wholesome food on offer back at Turtle rock café. Gone are the days of roadside cafes only offering dry fat filled pies and fizzy – Turtle rock offered loads of guilt free fillers like hearty servings of corn fritters, smashed avocado on toast and even better – brilliant coffee (a mega bonus in the middle of the Jungle). I almost felt like I was in Ponsonby rubbing shoulders with the Lululemon soy latte vegan warriors with the calibre of the vegetarian, eco-friendly food (and packaging!) on offer. To top the day off, I was chuffed to see Ollie later to debrief the trip, with a hand delivered coconut. Nothing tastes better than coconut water served right to you after a shirtless man chops the top off with a machete!
Now although it may not be the big, luxurious ships that ferry passengers out to Opal reef from Port Douglas, Ocean safari is a zippy, fun and efficient way to get out and experience the Great Barrier Reef in half a day. No one else offers trips from Cape trib, and although for some businesses in this would allow a certain ability to relax and let things slide, Ollie, ensures the Ocean safari outfit does not compromise ANY quality, running a ‘tight ship’ with rave reviews flooding in on the daily. I’m thrilled to see how the team runs the entire trip from start to finish, from the girls checking people in at Turtle rock, through to the guides and Skipper making sure guests are comfortable in the water, and even ensuring they get individual attention so don’t miss out on seeing Turtles, Stingrays and beautiful coral all in one trip.
All in all, heading back to Ocean safari and an old stomping ground was like returning home. The people of Cape trib, the beautiful scenery of that stunning rainforest and the feel of calm it instils, is something I hold dear and will continue to return visit. I hope I can inspire you to do the same…
Good to know
*The ferry is cheaper if you buy a return ticket ($26 at time of writing) and make sure (unlike me) you allow plenty of waiting time – it has a lot of vehicles to ferry back and forth!
*Cape trib is quietly famous for the prehistoric looking Cassowary, a brilliantly coloured bird with the talons of a velociraptor FYI if you see one you are blessed, Respect the moment and don’t ruin it by getting too close and quite literally having your stomach ripped open as they can be fiercely protective of their young
*Ocean safari also offers boutique rainforest accommodation which you can book at Turtle rock café or online http://www.oceansafari.com.au/jungle-lodge/ I highly recommend the bungalows, great for two people with your own verandah for enjoying a bevvy after the salty trip.
*Take a torch – no mains electricity means no street lights. Not only will it help you get around at night in between Jungle lodge and Whet restaurant http://www.whet.net.au/ (my go to in the evenings, they also offer incredible Yoga upstairs every Wednesday night http://www.premashanti.com.au/ it means you have a chance of seeing the night time antics of the Jungle natives like Snakes, possums and even glowing fungi if you time it right.
*Go tech free – no cellphone reception and limited wifi provides the perfect opportunity to sit back and relax, tune out from the world and embrace the moment. Smell the earthy Jungle, feel the salty breeze on Myall beach, take time to meet the locals, perhaps even a Jungle surfer… http://www.junglesurfing.com.au/
If one day out on the Ocean isn’t enough, head out with Pete on a Kayak tour www.capetribpaddletrek.com.au – I can honestly say this was one of the most adventurous activities I had during my time in Cape trib.
There is so much to offer in Cape tribulation, and although people only allow one day to visit, you’d do best to give yourself at least four. I feel I could write tonnes more on Jungle surfing, the Croc tours, Exotic fruit tasting, Campground pizzas, boutique Ice cream, the list goes on!