Australia Part 2: Big Bag of Cairns with the lads

If you asked me two years ago if at this point I would have visited Australia twice, I would have thought you were insane and that was just a pipe dream. For many people, going to Australia is a once in a lifetime trip, if that. I’m lucky to have been there twice.

Just before my husband, Eoin, started his PhD, he told me that there is a chance we could go to Australia (again – although at this point I think we were still debating on where to go for the honeymoon: either Japan or Australia) because the “Olympics of Microscopy” (as Eoin and his coworkers call it), International Microscopy Congress (IMC) will be in Sydney in 2018.

Whenever my husband is going to a conference, I get to tag along because it’s not that much more money if I go, we get to spend time together, it breaks up the routine, and I’m the boss on holidays – I plan everything, I do the research, I do the photography, and I helped Eoin pack.

Also, in the future you’re going to get a bunch of interesting blog posts about vegan food, beautiful scenery, and what there is to do in places – most of these will be in Europe. What’s not to like?

My husband said it himself, when I left for Melbourne while he was at IMC, he felt lost and unsure what to do, he still had a good time though.

You can read my first round of Australian Adventures here: Sydney, Byron Bay, Melbourne. I highly recommend it.

Keep reading if you want the real tea on Cairns, figuratively and literally:

Is this National Lampoon’s Vacation?

Spending about 24 hours on planes isn’t new to us. We survived before and we survived this time. My best advice is get to the airport early, pack light and smart, and relax – you’re not at work or school.

The pessimist in me would say a lot went wrong this trip, but realistically, it wasn’t so bad, I just tend to focus on the negatives a lot.

It seems like there’s always some sort of hiccup getting to Australia, although we get there on time in the end. Although we don’t have a large sample size, this is our second trip there.

First time, we missed our connection in Helsinki and we ended up going to Sydney via the beautiful Singapore Airport (most bougie, fancy airport imo).

This time we sat around for a long time at Heathrow. Had we known we would have been sitting around here for a while, we could have gone to the city and taken a couple touristy pictures, even though we’ve been to London before.

A nice layover idea if you don’t have much time is Kew Gardens, which is not far from the airport. Or go see a museum, best part, it’s free. My favourites are the V&A and Natural History Museum.

Heathrow is decent as far as food options go, with plenty of stuff for vegans and vegetarians. We were getting hungry and bored so we decided to go to Wagamama, which recently brought in some new vegan options, which are proudly indicated on the menu. Eoin wasn’t too hungry and I didn’t want to feel like a glutton and eat way too much food, so we ordered tea for the two of us, gyozas as an appetiser, and a seitan katsu curry as the main course. The seitan katsu curry comes with salad and some rice. My husband liked the seitan, but was in the mood for rice.

Another option was Pret a Manger, which has a nice selection of vegan and vegetarian sandwiches, salads, porridge, and fruit cups. The annoying thing was the sandwiches weren’t individually labelled and the veggie stuff wasn’t on its own shelf or labelled with a green sticker or something.

I’ve had an awkward moment at the airport before where my sleep deprived self accidentally grabbed a chicken sandwich (which I was able to return and change for a veggie one) and I didn’t want to have another mix up. I was also in the mood for hot food.

The reason for the flight delay was the pilot got injured and they had to find a replacement. As well, there were issues with the in flight entertainment system. We were worried that the flight would be cancelled altogether, but the delay was only 2 hours, which meant we would not be venturing into Hong Kong on a long layover. We were unlucky enough to have problems with our in flight entertainment, so we were kind of bored on the long flight from London to Hong Kong.

The flight left Hong Kong on time, but Eoin and I were not seated together because I couldn’t check in at the same time as he did for whatever reason and the seat next to his wasn’t available. The in flight entertainment on this flight was also not working well. Am I cursed?

Day 1: Beach and Esplanade

Eoin has family in Cairns and they picked us up from the airport. I had no idea what day of the week it was. You lose two days travelling from Europe to Australia, so we left on a Friday and arrived on a Sunday.

We got to their house and we walked around the beach and went swimming in the pool because swimming at the beach is a bit dangerous due to crocodiles in the water. We got to see Eoin’s family’s dog and cat. The dog, Dobby, is an energetic Chihuahua who loves to jump up and down and the cat is really adorable.

Like in Byron Bay, the beaches in and near Cairns are out of this world and you have some great views of the hills. The beach was really calm and tranquil.

In the afternoon, we got to our Airbnb and took a much-needed nap. In the evening, we went to the town and took pictures of the sunset on the Esplanade.

The Esplanade is a beautiful gathering place in Cairns that offers a lot to locals and tourists alike. Free fitness classes, fitness equipment, playgrounds, barbecues, a pool called The Lagoon, and a nice boardwalk for walking can be found here.

There was a Japanese Bon Dance Festival at Fogarty Park hosted by the Japanese Society. The Bon, or Obon, is a Buddhist tradition that honours the ancestors’ spirits, a family reunion of sorts. At the festival, people did a folk dance in a circle to drumming and wore kimonos. The dance welcomes the spirits of the dead. Really interesting stuff.

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For dinner, we went to the very familiar Nando’s. The menu in Australia is a bit pared down compared to their counterparts in the States and the British Isles, but there’s the veggie burger. This was Eoin’s first visit to Nando’s as a vegetarian and he liked the veggie burger well enough.

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The next two days were going to be intense because we had two all day tours back to back so we needed some sleep.

Day 2: Finding Nemo at the Great Barrier Reef (well not really)

This was the most adventurous day of all. Bright and early, we woke up and took a boat to the Great Barrier Reef. The nice thing about day tours in Cairns is that tour companies pick you up and drop you off at your accommodation. Really handy when you’re going to be active all day.

As we all know, the Great Barrier Reef is in danger because of climate change. Experts have said that we’ve gotten to a point where the Reef is dying and too far gone, unsalvageable. Many patches of the reef are dead and bleached. Since 2016, half of the coral in the Great Barrier Reef died.

About the Reef

The reason coral reefs are a beautiful rainbow of colours is because of the symbiotic relationship between the algae and the coral. The algae are the coral’s food. Because of pollution, overexposure to sunlight, extreme low tides, and rising temperatures, the algae cannot handle it and they leave the coral’s tissue, therefore leaving it bleached and dead.

Just off the coast of Queensland is the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, where people fish, swim, ride boats, and do research. The government are in charge of protecting this natural wonder of the world and World Heritage site. Indigenous Australians also have a connection to this environment, with 70 Traditional Owner groups who have had connections to the area for over 60,000 years. In 1975, the government created the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park through the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act.

The Great Barrier Reef is not just one reef. To put things in perspective, here are some facts and figures:

  • The Great Barrier Reef is made up of 3,000 coral reefs and hundreds of islands, covering 344,400km2 in area and ranging between 60 and 250km in width. To put it in perspective, the area of the Great Barrier Reef is about the size of Italy or Japan.
  • It stretches for over 2,300 kilometres (1,400 miles)
  • It makes up about 10% of the world’s coral reef ecosystems (other smaller coral reefs can be found in Saudi Arabia, The Maldives, Fiji, The Philippines, Indonesia, Mexico, Belize, Madagascar, and Florida)
  • It contributes more than $5.6 billion (Australian) to the national economy and creates 70,000 jobs
  • It extends over 14 degrees of latitude
  • The Reef is biodiverse. 600 types of soft and hard corals are found here
  • Beyond Nemo and Dory: 1,625 types of fish are found here
  • 133 varieties of sharks and rays are found here
  • There are 70 bioregions in the Great Barrier Reef with 30 of them being reef bioregions and the remaining 40 being non-reefal
  • You can see it from outer space
  • It’s the world’s largest structure made by living organisms.

(Source: Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority – Reef Facts)

You don’t have to be in Australia to help protect the Great Barrier Reef. There are many things you can do to help the environment like reducing consumption of animal products, not littering, consuming more mindfully, reducing electricity usage (don’t leave lights on, switch to LEDs), stop using single use plastic (like carrier bags, straws, and coffee cups), buy food from bulk bins and bring your own containers and bags (Whole Foods is great for this), using renewable energy, and taking more eco friendly forms of transport (public transport, carpool, or walking/cycling).

Our Adventure

Eoin and I are different in our swimming abilities. He is not a strong swimmer and I am pretty good, grew up swimming every summer and even was on a community swim team when I was 11.

When planning our holiday, I wanted to make sure we went with a Reef tour that would cater well to all abilities. I went with Reef Experience for that reason and because they were pretty much all inclusive: equipment, breakfast and lunch, and reef tax included. You can even try scuba diving. My husband was a bit nervous about trying snorkelling for the first time, but the staff were very supportive and helpful and encouraged him to go snorkelling. There really is no point in going on this tour if you’re not going to snorkel. You’re going to miss out on the entire reef.

On our way to the Reef, a marine biologist gave a presentation telling us interesting facts about the reef and the organisms that live in it. A few things he said I found interesting like marine biologists not being creative with names and just naming animals whatever they looked like, that we’re not likely to come across sharks, turtles are really fast swimmers, Clownfish change sex (yes guys, animals can be trans too!)

With all the shark talk, I had that Baby Shark song stuck in my head and started singing it. As well, my husband and I were quoting Finding Nemo ad nauseum, but I’m sure the crew were used to it.

My husband and I both decided to wear life jackets and it gave us peace of mind. Swimming in the middle of the ocean, where you can’t stand, is way different from swimming near the shore or in a pool. I chose to go with a life jacket because I didn’t want to drown and because I didn’t want to accidentally step on the coral and do decades or centuries worth of damage.

There are shallow parts of the reef and it’s so cool to see it all up close and in your face. It’s like being in Finding Nemo. I got some good pictures with a camera I rented from them. If you are taking a GoPro into the water with you, make sure it’s in waterproof housing of course, and get a red gel filter so the colours of the reef are more vivid.

When you look through your goggles and see the reef for yourself, the warmer colours are more muted, but your brain compensates for this. So why is it so monochrome with a camera? This website provides a good explanation of this. It’s all about wavelengths and the water absorbing them. Red starts to disappear at 15 feet deep, orange at 25 feet, yellow at 35-45 feet, and green at 70-75 feet, considering both horizontal and vertical distance.

I gave scuba diving a try, but realised pretty quickly that it wasn’t for me because I get panic attacks. Snorkelling was fine and it was a lot of fun. It was not my first time snorkelling because I did it before in the Caribbean.

Snorkelling is fun, just make sure that your snorkel equipment works well. My snorkel kept leaking and I tasted salt water a few times, blech! Once I got over those hiccups, it was good and I got some good pictures of the reef. Sadly, I didn’t find Nemo, Dory, or Crush. Still, I loved living in my childhood and feeling like I was in Spongebob and Finding Nemo.

Here are some pictures I took (sorry, they’re not my usual good quality pictures, it’s hard to take pictures when you can barely see the screen):

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We also got to do a glass bottom boat tour, which was pretty cool and we got to see parts of the reef we weren’t allowed to swim to (for safety reasons, you can only swim in a designated area where the “lifeguard” can watch). We saw clams, starfish, and sharp drop offs.

The downside is that if you do the glass bottom boat tour, it really cuts into your snorkel time and the staff didn’t make this clear. Playing Monday morning quarterback, I would have definitely done more snorkelling. Still, this wasn’t a waste of time.

Day 3: Taking the Captain Cook Highway to the Rainforest

Another early day, we got up for our tour to the Daintree Rainforest. When planning, I decided to go with Billy Tea Safaris. The reason I picked them over other tours was because some of the other tours catered to young gap year travellers (I’m still young but not that young) and because many tours to the Daintree stop at one of those depressing roadside zoos that keep koalas and kangaroos in poor conditions – they look so deprived. I wanted to pick a tour that was eco conscious and I’m glad I picked this tour.

To get there, you take the scenic Captain Cook Highway, which goes from Cairns to Port Douglas. The drive is rather long, with the tour guide driving hundreds of kilometres all in a day. Imagine, driving a tour bus for 6 or 7 hours and having to give commentary and keep energy. I certainly can’t do that.

Much of the time, you see the coast, but even when you’re not seeing the coast, you’re never far away from it. You also see a lot of sugarcane fields, with trains that transport the sugarcane.

Because it was not the peak season, the tour group were rather small with 11 people in the safari looking van. Our tour guide was really nice and has decades of experience doing tours and told some interesting stories. Can’t remember many of them because it was a long day.

Our first stop was at the Daintree River for tea, biscuits (for the non vegans), and a crocodile viewing cruise. This was the first time we tried the local Daintree tea, which has a bit of a sweet taste to it. So nice that we decided to buy some. A cute dog named Eugene greeted us as we left the unique safari looking 4WD tour bus.

On this crocodile cruise, you are guaranteed to see crocodiles. In the river, there is a big crocodile named Scarface and he’s the king of the river. So keep your arms inside the boat if you want to get off the boat in one piece. We were really lucky and got to see Scarface open his mouth. We also got to see some young crocodiles.

After that, we stopped at a viewing point in the Alexandra Range, where you can see the Coral Sea and the rainforest. Beautiful blues and greens. After that, we had a nice and easy walk on an elevated boardwalk through a small part of the rainforest. Not too bad.

Cassowaries live here, but we didn’t see them. However, we did get to see their food and the seeds they eat are huge. These big, deadly birds are in the same family as emus and ostriches. The female cassowaries are about 76kg and the male cassowaries are about 55kg. They can grow up to 2 metres tall. Either way, they weigh more than me. Not going to mess with them, as they are the deadliest bird. Seriously, Australian wildlife doesn’t mess around. In the rainforest, we saw ferns, palm trees, vines, some birds, and a little stream.

After that, it was time for some lunch and we were getting really hungry, so we went to Lync Haven, which has a restaurant, accommodation, and a wildlife sanctuary. Greeting us was a cassowary statue about the same height as my husband (who is 6’ tall).

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This wasn’t just any ordinary lunch, we got to hang out with some wallabies and feed them sweet potato beforehand. They were so adorable and it was such an amazing experience.

As for the food, Lync Haven caters to all dietary requirements. If you’re vegan, vegetarian, gluten free, etc, there’s something for you. There are salads, veggie burgers, and toast with Vegemite (still not sure what I think about Vegemite, it’s interesting, but I’ll stick to peanut butter and chocolate tahini spread). Of course, for the omnivores there was steak.

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The nice thing about the food is that the vegetarian version was vegan by default and you could add lacto/ovo vegetarian stuff to it if you wanted. That’s how it should be done. Before lunch, the tour guide asked people what they wanted. When he mentioned the vegetarian option, two non-vegetarians actually preferred the veggie burger to the steak. That really shows that good veggie options have crossover appeal. Every little bit helps.

The next stop was Emmagen Creek via the Bloomfield Track. Not all the tours go here because it’s a four-wheel-drive road and it’s pretty narrow. This means that it won’t be crowded like a lot of the other stops in the Daintree.

As can be expected, dirt is all over the vehicle and ends up on the trees. Since this was a small group tour, almost everyone got the chance to sit in the front seat, which was really nice – perfect for taking pictures and video. Eoin and I got to sit in the front seat on the way to Cape Tribulation.

On the way to the creek, I saw a hippie van with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon painted on it. Sadly, we were going through the Bloomfield Track really quickly so I couldn’t get a picture of it. The tour guide did mention that the Daintree attracted many hippies in the 70s who wanted to live off the grid.

At Emmagen Creek, we had the opportunity to swim without large crowds. Warning: the rocks are really slippy. If you have swimming shoes, wear those. The water is cool and refreshing, really nice on a warm day. After a short swim, we had some snacks: local fruit and damper – a scone like pastry enjoyed with golden syrup with some Billy Tea.

What is Billy Tea? Billy Tea is made in a can with a metal handle, called a billy of course. Early Australian settlers used to make tea this way. You put the can over a fire and boil the water. The tea leaves are loose and to make them settle at the bottom, you pull a Pete Townshend and windmill the can. Then you can enjoy your tea.

After that, we made our way back and stopped at Cape Tribulation, named by Captain James Cook in 1770. While making his way there, his ship was damaged and he called this place, Cape Tribulation because that’s where the troubles began. Fun fact: there’s a section of the Endeavour Crater on Mars called Cape Tribulation.

The beach there is stunning and the sand has a shiny silver look to it. Here, the rainforest meets the sea. Stunning!

Our tour guide showed us some katydids with some trippy patterns on them that you can only see with flash photography. You can see the katydid in the collage above.

Our last stop, before making our way back to Cairns is Daintree Ice Cream Company. You won’t find your garden variety flavours there, but rather seasonal fruit flavours. The trademark way to enjoy their ice cream is the sampler cup with four flavours. The good news is they have a sorbet option for vegans. A nice change from the usual chocolate ice cream I get at the ice cream shop.

And it’s time for another comparison to National Lampoon’s Vacation. While making our way back, we did everything right and left on time, but we ran into a traffic jam. Lots of cars were just sitting there and waiting. We found out that the Daintree River Ferry broke down. So we were stuck until it got fixed.

Two choices: wait in the van or walk around. Everyone decided to walk around. We waited for about 2 hours and then finally things got moving. Sadly I got some bug bites, but the positive is that we were able to see the beginning of the sunset in the Daintree. That’s a really special experience.

Day 4: Gardens and Antiques

After two action-packed days of tours, we decided to take the next two days easy and see Cairns. On the first day, we got some lunch at a vegetarian restaurant called Lafew, which we returned to the next day before taking the bus to the botanic gardens. I ordered a raw Pad Thai with a side of gluten free bread with a cashew cheese spread and we had kombucha to drink.

Because Australia was just getting out of winter, there was not a lot of flowers at the Botanic Garden. Still, it was a nice thing to see and it was free. We got to do a rainforest boardwalk, walk through an “evolution garden” that showed the evolution of plants, and see the Chinese Friendship Garden.

After that, we walked back to the Airbnb, but stopped at an antique shop called Crackerbox Palace (oh hey, George Harrison reference!). The shop has some vintage clothing and records. Didn’t buy anything because this trip is making us broke.

For dinner we went to a vegan friendly burger chain called Grill’d. Eoin and I both had vegan cheeseburgers with a side of sweet potato chips. As a drink, we had our favourite, kombucha again. With every order, they give you some bottle caps to put into charity buckets, kind of like Tesco’s community fund tokens.

Grill'd vegan cheeseburger and sweet potato wedges

After that, we went to the night markets and bought some souvenirs and bubble tea. Reminds me a lot of the travel shows I’d watch on Travel Channel and how they’d talk about the night markets in Asia. I really think we need night markets in Ireland because I don’t like how the cities are dead at night (well except for night clubs and pubs, but I don’t have interest in that). The neon sign is such an aesthetic, brings me back to the late 90s and early 2000s.

Cairns Night Markets Neon Sign

Day 5: Museum and Goodbyes

On our last day in Cairns, we went to an art museum and saw some cool art and walked around the city. It was a cloudy day and a bit too cool to go to the lagoon, so we got smoothies instead and walked back to the Airbnb.

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In the Cairns art museum, there was an exhibit on South African and Aboriginal Australian art and it drew some interesting parallels between the two cultures and similar histories of colonisation and disenfranchisement.

Eoin’s family picked a restaurant for dinner that had vegan options. The place has a funny name, Mr Soy Boy (reminds me of a silly Twitter meme). The food there was excellent. I ordered a salad and some tofu Pad Thai, can’t go wrong with that.

At dinner, Eoin’s cousin drew a portrait of us. On our way to and from the restaurant Eoin’s cousin requested that we listen to ABBA, a nice choice.

Shout out to my good friend and Topaz level Patron, Patrick.

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