Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Cairns, Queensland, Australia

Posted on December 3rd, 2004


I killed an entire day taking the 12 hour bus from Mackay to Cairns. I knew that with my limited tour time and all the distance I that needed to cover that I should have opted for an overnight bus, but I had only just recently gotten over my assortment of sleep related deficits and I was not prepared to knock myself back into sleep deprived misery with a scant 45 minutes of sleep on a night bus.

A young English woman in Mackay had turned me onto a new, quiet hostel in Cairns called Dreamtime. The wonderfully nice and helpful staff picked me up at the bus station, which was a godsend after that bus ride, and had me checked in and ready to conquer the Friday night Cairns city scene in minutes. A minute later I realized that 12 hours of sitting on a bus had predictably sucked every last bit of energy out of me and I was not fit for even a single cider. I snarfed down what was left of my bus food stash, steered clear of the hostel mates who were getting warmed up for a big night out and went to bed early.

Cairns is the height of tourist inundated, soulless destinations. The reason Cairns is particularly entrenched in tourism is that it is within striking distance of a dozen wildly popular, natural tourist attractions, the granddaddy being the Great Barrier Reef. Nearly every single conspicuous business front in the city somehow supports the tourist industry and they are all adorned with huge colorful signs trumpeting their offers. However, in a grand and pleasant departure from most tourist bathed destinations, there aren’t people hassling you every few feet on the street, handing you brochures, grabbing your arm and pulling you into their shops or grifting you through a complicated scam. The Aussies want your business, but they are content to let you find your own way into their establishments, which almost makes up for the eyesore of business fronts wallpapered with screaming promotions.

I spent my first day in Cairns, walking around, sweating profusely in the tropical heat and arranging a Reef expedition, in addition to putting all the transportation pieces into place to get my fanny through the rest of my east coast journey. Greyhound Australia has a hop-on-hop-off arrangement for the entire country. My particular ticket would take me the nearly 2,200 miles from Cairns to Melbourne, allowing me to stop and go and stay as much as I pleased. The only restriction was that I had to keep on a southerly course, no backtracking north. The grand total for this arrangement was an amazingly cheap US$190. Considering I had shelled out US$77 just to get from Mackay to Cairns, this was the deal of the century. Part of the reason for this miracle of budget travel was that I received a huge discount due to my other acquisition of the day, the VIP Backpackers card. This US$27 card, valid for one year, gives the holder discounts on transportation, services and accommodations in a dizzying list of countries all over the world. The card practically paid for itself with the discount I got on the bus ticket purchase alone. All these details had me glowing with happiness and admiration at the wonderful convenience and affordability that is traveling through Australia.

Cairns had a slightly different air to it. That being the whiff of sex and the shameless application of sex to further business. The first and slightly more understand exposure I got to this mindset was the woman working the room at the Crown Hotel pub. I only got a fleeting glance at this spectacle as I walked past the giant front windows, but the woman seemed to be mingling and attempting to sell something to the patrons while clad only in a one-piece lingerie garment that was just a remarkably high cut thong on the bottom and a virtually see-though lace bodice on top. Mind you, this wasn’t in a dark club, during peak time on a weekend night. This was going on in the broad daylight of 2:00 on a Saturday afternoon. Not even 20 minutes later, as I was cutting through the mall, I saw a Christmas display with a live Santa Claus and his marvelously live harem of women dressed in nylon thin, form-fitting spandex that left very little to the imagination. You could easily make out the size and contour of each girl’s nipples (they had the mall air conditioning system cranked up to ‘11’) and determine which ones were wearing thongs and which ones had decided to go commando. Again, this was a Saturday afternoon. The mall was crawling with impressionable little kids and peer-pressure prone teenaged girls that were already wearing markedly less than what would be acceptable in the U.S., which of course isn’t saying a hell of a lot. Still, Cairns is certainly in touch with the sex factor and not ashamed of it. I still haven’t decided if that’s a good or bad thing.

Bike shorts! Aw!

On that note, I can’t go on without mentioning a fashion trend that has Australian women by the short hairs. That is, what little short hairs they have left after they wax themselves sufficiently to safely leave the house in some of these outfits. Primarily, it appears that everyone over the age of 12 can’t be seen in public without wearing an alarmingly low-ridding skirt that only just covers the entirety of their asses. I’m told these are called “belt skirts” as they are scarcely wider than a 1980s, Madonna-esque belt. The most popular short skirt sub-genre are the loose, flowing miniskirts. This attire provided no shortage of entertainment throughout Oz, particularly while the wind was blowing, which was all the time. Women often had to walk down the street using both hands to keep their tiny skirts from flying up. Of course at some point or another the need to swat away a lip-shitting Aussie fly would arise and when this happened in concert with a good solid gust of wind, it was to the benefit of all us guys. Let the record show that whoever started the loose, flowing, miniskirt trend (undoubtedly a guy) gets full kudos from our entire gender. Additionally the Aussies have a refreshingly strong affinity for cleavage displays that commence pretty much as soon as one has cleavage to expose. All around, the Aussie women are second only to the Romanians in the unabashed sex-factor in their choice of attire. The only thing that puts the Romanians ahead is that they would wear the tiny skirts with a thong and they would be braless in a threadbare, next-to-see-through shirt.

Despite having a huge harbor, Cairns does not have a serviceable beach. Years of dredging the harbor to allow larger ships to pass into port have bogarted what little beach they once had. There are still beach-like areas along the harbor esplanade, but when the tide goes out, the entire beachfront turns into a giant, sprawling mud puddle (see top of page) that could probably swallow a fleet of oil tankers. Well, a tourism hot-spot certainly can’t go without a place for children to frolic and Germans to sun their ample bare bosoms, so Cairns has put together a picturesque, 4,000 square meter salt water swimming lagoon. Leading away from the central lagoon, the harbor esplanade stretches nearly the length of the city’s waterfront and is dotted with play grounds, exercise stations and mini-water park fountains for children and adults alike to crash through for heat relief. Every few hundred meters there are large, smartly designed kiosks that have poster-sized information displays, detailing points about Cairns’ history, culture, climate and native Aboriginal tribes. Each kiosk also has an interactive touch-screen information station where you can learn even more about Cairns’ numerous attractions. Though after a walk down Sheilds Street or past the business side of the esplanade, there is very little more to be learned about Cairns’ enticements that you haven’t already priced at three different shops.

At this early point in my travels, Cairns had by far the largest Aboriginal population I had seen in Australia. Through reading and second had information, I had developed a vague personal stereotype about the urban Aboriginal residents being in a state of perpetual social disadvantage and alienation, with widespread poverty and alcoholism. While this element was definitely present, Cairns also seemed to have a strong Aboriginal population that had managed to adjust to the requirements of an urban existence and had succeeded in making comfortable, normal lives for themselves. Well dressed teenaged girls loitered at the mall on weekends and interacted freely with their European counterparts, snappy looking professionals walked to and from work with a distinctly savvy air and I witnessed no palpable discrimination. Though it was hard not to notice that a surprising proportion of the people doing grunt work at the mall and the majority of the, er, “street eccentrics” were Aboriginal. This hit rather close to home as Minneapolis has similar issues with it’s Native American population. While this subject had the potential to keep me inordinately preoccupied and possibly ranting here at debilitating lengths, I chose the path of least discord and journalistic responsibility and let the issue go. My feelings were that excessive time spent on this subject would derail my primary goals (travel, drinking cider and staring at cleavage) and unnecessarily bring down the mood of this travelogue while getting bogged down in issues that my attempts at profound scribblings couldn’t scratch or affect. I elected to simply keep tabs on the situation through social observation and comment where appropriate.

On my second day in Cairns, I took my full-day Great Barrier Reef tour with Down Under Dive Tours (Sorry, no pictures! Too much water flying around to safely bring out the very expensive digital camera). The US$62 tour included the boat transfer to two different Reef sites, morning and afternoon tea, a huge lunch, a free intro SCUBA dive and the musical stylings of the ship’s cook for the journey home. On the day before my reef tour, I was regaled by several hostel mates about the rough seas of the previous week. Every single Reef excursion ended in most if not all of the boat’s passengers leaning over the side, puking up three days worth of Thai food. I have never had serious problems with movement related sickness, but I imagined that when surrounded by 49 wretching people, I would undoubtedly suffer from a sympathy vomit or two myself. Just to drive this possibility home, the first thing out of the mouth of the crew during our boat orientation was the fact that complimentary seasick pills were available and we should all take them. The young, sun-drenched crew member went on to entertain us with a possibly fictitious story from a few days earlier where one woman in the corner of the interior, air conditioned lower cabin lost her lunch and it started a gagging chain reaction that swept the entire cabin, clockwise, like dominoes. The few people who were able to lurch out to the back deck and puke over the side of the boat sparked a group puke by the smokers and sunbathers that weren’t privy to the regurgitation circle going on inside. Despite this vivid tale, only one person, an already green looking Croatian woman, took the pills. Ultimately, I’m happy to report that our journey was puke-free. The day of our tour was enriched by the best weather I had seen since my first few days in Sydney. No storms, no rain and little wind. There was still enough wave-fueled boat jerking going on to keep us dancing into each other, but it was all contently free of any food reviews.

We arrived at Hastings Reef first, where I took my SCUBA intro lesson. I had briefly intended to start a SCUBA certification in Oz before I was told I could get a full open-water certification in Thailand for a fraction of the price. I told my dive instructor upfront about my plans to certify in Thailand, but she nevertheless did her very best to bait me into buying a last second 30 minute dive plan right up until she sent me floating back up to the boat.

The free intro was surprisingly simple and succeeded in ridding me of any SCUBA apprehensions I had, which were admittedly few. Before we were allowed anywhere near the equipment, we learned a variety of SCUBA underwater sign language, the ins and outs of clearing your face mask and re-breather, and that reef sharks almost never eat you. Finally we were kitted up and went below the boat to spend 10 minutes underwater doing confidence building exercises. After all this, my instructor gave me one last, non-verbal enticement to continue on with the dive (she flashed me, just kidding), but I declined and she reluctantly filled my vest’s air chamber and sent me popping like a cork to the surface. I was relived of my dive equipment and I immediately headed out to snorkel and ogle the Reef.

After snorkeling in Maui in 1999, I had become a snorkel junkie. Unfortunately, there are no worthwhile snorkeling opportunities in Minnesota, so I hadn’t snorkeled since. Well, it was just like riding a bike. I torpedoed away from the boat like a greased porpoise and spent hours exploring the Reef, diving, chasing giant fish and fondling sea cucumbers. I was even blessed with the presence of a reef shark that was as long as I was, which we were all told would be an unlikely encounter, what with all the discouraging noise and commotion made by the boat’s engines and the thrashing of the snorkelers. After 20 odd minutes of snorkeling, I realized that I had neglected to don a t-shirt as planned after my SCUBA intro. I meandered back to the boat, retrieved my t-shirt and wore it for the rest of the day. Unfortunately, as I discovered later, with the Australian sun magnified by the sea, 20 unprotected minutes was all it took to leave me badly scorched. Even the parts of me that I had slathered with SPF 30 sun block (twice) were red, though not nearly as red as the parts of my back that had been exposed. Sadly that was just the beginning of my suffering. In the meantime, I had become the plaything of several bluebottle jellyfish. In addition to having a booty that makes the ladies coo, my kickin’ bod apparently also happens to have a catnip-like effect on the blueys. I was stung four times throughout our visit to Hastings Reef. One or two other people were stung once, but those damn blueys were on me like Aussie flies to my bottom lip. And it wasn’t as if I neglected to watch out for the little bastards, I was all eyes particularly after the first round of stings, but those little sea imps are all but invisible. Supposedly blueys can be spotted by the telltale blue tinges in their tiny head and long trailing tails, but being underwater the entire time, I never saw one coming. I only felt their searing caress. To hear Bill Bryson tell about bluey stings, I was expecting profound agony, but these stings were shockingly mild. The first two sings (left should and head) were one right after the other and the burn was so light that I was sure that they hadn’t been jellyfish at all, but instead a different irritation. When I exited the water, the boat crew assured me that they were blueys and treated me with vinegar. Then I went back out and within minutes, I got a very hearty lashing on my right shoulder. This one left a mark. It still wasn’t excruciating pain, but it was definitely uncomfortable. The last sting was the kicker. Right across the lips. Fucking misery. My lips were swollen and raw by the time I got back to the boat. The crew was visibly sympathetic as I had my lips treated with vinegar – FYI, this remedy is almost as unpleasant as a bluey sting itself - which is saying a lot considering the traditionally unsympathetic, tough guy Aussie demeanor. Eventually, we jetted off to the second dive site where there was no jellyfish presence. Or maybe they had all decided to call it a day after wearing themselves out on me at Hastings.

At our second site a helicopter joined us, bringing more divers and offering last minute air tours of the Reef. As much as I would like to get up in a helicopter some day, I passed on this particular opportunity. Not only because of the added expense, but I got the distinct feeling that the experience wasn’t that much of a kick when the pilot came out to do his pitch and seemed to be desperately reaching in his attempts to sell the tour.

The second reef was slightly less amazing, but I still snorkeled for nearly three hours. The mere act of floating freely and spying on another world was attraction enough for me. I paddled around watching colorful fish feed on the Reef, while occasional buzzing over the heads of the SCUBA diver newbies just for yucks. Despite the seemingly light duties of floating around and breathing through a tube for nearly six hours, by the time we wrapped things up and headed back to Cairns, I was pooped. Too pooped to sing “Waltzing Matilda” along with the cook with more than nominal gusto.

Later that night, I discovered that in addition to the sunburn on my back, the sun had penetrated the two applications of SPF 30 on the undersides of my forearms and royally charred them. The upshot of being sunburned in a spot that never gets that kind of exposure is that the burn quickly transforms into a viciously itchy rash. While the sunburn faded after three days, the rash was still tormenting me at the time of writing, five days later.

Cairns has weeks worth of diversions to offer. Rain forest tours, sailing, fishing, (out-of-town) beaches, skydiving, bungee jumping, and multi-day tours into the outback, but I came specifically to snorkel the Reef and once that was accomplished I felt I needed to move on. I quietly realized that I had only five weeks to cover the entire east coast, which was quickly seeming to be not nearly enough. My time constraint complex mushroomed as each time I told fellow travelers about my intended itinerary, they just smiled sympathetically and shook their heads like when someone announces that they want to go over Niagara Falls in a Mickey Mouse costume. Clearly it was going to take everything I had to get down to Melbourne and back to Sydney by Christmas Eve. A lot of wild experiences were going to have to be dropped from the schedule. I consoled myself with the knowledge that any extreme adventures that I might eventually chose to subject myself to would be in great supply and slightly cheaper in both New Zealand and Southeast Asia.

At the urging of Dreamtime’s clerk, I booked a bus ticket to Townsville for the following day, where I would board a ferry to Magnetic Island.

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