I consider myself a seasoned traveller, always exploring Australia’s lesser-known destinations. But in trying to stay away from the hotspots, I’m finding that I am missing out on so much. While up on Queensland’s far north coast, it was a random decision to explore the popular city of Cairns, but one I’m glad I made. Using the CamperMate app, I headed to the Cairns First City Caravilla Park for a few days.
From the first contact with Mark at reception, we were made to feel extremely welcome and received a plethora of information on where to discover little gems around town, the best eating spots, walking trails, markets and tours. The park is set on several stunning acres allowing for huge sites sheltered by massive rain trees covered in orchids and ferns.
There’s plenty of shade no matter what side you camp on, and with immaculate amenities, it’s a very well-kept park. Wandering around we sighted several pairs of curlews which Mark says have made the park their home, coming back year after year. The caravilla park is only a five minute drive into the heart of Cairns, but there are plenty of eateries, shopping centres and essential services closer still.
Captain Cook sailed passed Cairns back in 1770 as he headed north exploring our eastern coastline but it wasn’t officially discovered for another 100 years when he named it Trinity Bay, then later on in 1876 it was re-named Cairns. Local Aboriginal People lived and survived in this area for decades before white man landed, and the first Europeans certainly had their work cut out for them with dense vegetation and the extreme temperature variation each season. It wasn’t long before gold was found in the region and the hoards came to look for their fortune.
For a long time Cairns was just a swampy area that was hard to develop, so a small settlement called Smithfield was established to the north. But in 1877 when a massive flood destroyed the whole town, settlers eventually saw potential at Cairns. The next 50 years saw a mixture of good and bad luck, with population growth and new industries followed by severe cyclones that would knock the town around.
Turn the clock to 1923 and Cairns was officially a city. A new and innovative hydro-scheme was built up in the hinterland using the water flow from the Baron River, and naval and air force bases were established along with plenty of other infrastructure. Unfortunately over the next 15 years, six cyclones hit the area causing differing degrees of damage – but there’s no doubt this is one resilient city that bounces back time and time again.
From the start I was blown away by just how big Cairns is. With dozens of outer suburbs and an estimated 150,000 people, it’s actually Queensland’s fifth largest city. Taking advantage of the array of brochures that Mark gave to me, I headed straight to the esplanade along the city’s coastline. The council’s grand vision for the esplanade has created a stunning wharf-like feel that extends for miles around the bay, and it is here that both locals and visitors can enjoy eateries, walkways, parks for the kids, and a massive manmade ‘beach’ in the parklands. Complete with pure white sand and stunningly clear water of various depths, even the little ones can enjoy a paddle here. This safe swimming haven was created to compensate for the mud flats that line Cairns’ shores, and protect against the nasty creatures that live in the waters off the coast throughout the seasons.
It’s pretty well known that Cairns is extremely close to the Great Barrier Reef – a huge playground for visitors wanting to snorkel, dive, fish, fly overhead, or enjoy a day trip on one of the many boats that frequent the islands offshore daily. You can even hire a jet ski for a croc spotting tour if you’re that way inclined. The closest and most popular islands are Green Island and Fitzroy, where a 45 minute stint on a cruise boat will have you on an island before you can change into swimmers. But for the land-lovers I found that some of the most stunning beaches are only a 20-minute drive north at Palm Cove, where idyllic coconut trees lean out over white sands, and crowds mingle along roads lined with boutique shops.
Cairns is also famous for its night markets down by the water’s edge and amazing fruit and vegetable markets. The stunning botanical gardens were established back in 1886 and now claim an estimated 10,000 different species of plants, as well as a huge area dedicated to the local Aboriginal People who use different plants for medicines and ceremonies. The city itself has a mixture of old and new buildings, including nine heritage-listed buildings such as the Cairns custom house built in 1936, several hotels that are 100 years old, a courthouse, churches and even a Steamship building that has been restored to its former glory.
One of the highlights in the Cairns region is taking a trip on the now world famous Kuranda Railway. Built back in 1890 initially to link Cairns port with the tablelands, it was a massive engineering feat at the time to connect the coast to Kuranda over 34km.
Today it’s a two hour trip to the top where journey takes in 15 hand cut tunnels, some 35 bridges, a host of cuttings, the amazing Baron Falls, and all while having stunning views of the coastline and some of the most prehistoric rainforest that you’ll ever see. Commentary along the way highlights the history, points of interest and amazing facts, and there’s even a photo stop at Baron Falls.
Kuranda awaits at the end of the line, a pleasant hinterland town where the temperature is normally a few degrees cooler. The town is now focused on the general tourist dollar but with several pubs and rainforest walks, it is easy to sit back and relax. You don’t have to return by train (although you can if you’re a dedicated train buff) because part of a customisable package is a return ride in the sky-car. This totally mind-blowing experience sees you sitting in a gondola above the rainforest for a stunning 7km ride back to the bottom.
The ride is nothing short of breathtaking, giving you a variety of views of the Baron River, the rainforest, islands offshore, right down to sugar cane paddocks across the plains towards Cairns. Along the way you can disembark and take a walk into the forest that served as inspiration for the movie Avatar, strolling among 400 year old pines and taking pics from viewing platforms towards Baron Falls. Words cannot describe the day that can be had on this world-class attraction.
Cairns is the kind of place where a week is just not enough. There are military museums, cultural theme parks, tourist drives into the World Heritage Wet Tropic Rainforest, jungle tours, scenic flights, and hiking, 4WD, and boating tours into the rainforest. There is something for everyone in Cairns regardless of budget or your sense of adventure.