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Australia & New Zealand – Days 3 & 4: Cairns & The Great Barrier Reef

The past few days have been legendary. We arrived into Cairns airport from Sydney just after 9:00 AM, dropped our bags at our hotel in downtown Cairns & hopped in an Uber to go to the Kuranda Skyrail, a cable car that travels above a rainforest and provides sweeping views of not only the landscape but of the forest below. I had prebooked tickets and elected to upgrade our journey to the Diamond View, which meant that we had a glass bottom in our gondola to look at the trees below.

After picking up our tickets at the box office, we headed to the boarding area where we waited a few minutes for our special gondola with a glass bottom, which was set for about every 10 gondolas. Once we boarded, we were shot above the rainforest and immediately enjoyed the view!

After about 10 minutes, we descended back below the trees to our first of two stops along the way to our final destination, Kuranda. Immediately after getting off the gondola, we were immersed in the rainforest and all the sounds of nature and wildlife associated with it. While not as remote as the part of the Amazon rainforest I visited when I was in Peru, it definitely had some of the same vibes.

After a quick walk around the boardwalk installed raised off the ground and a group shot with a beautiful vista in the background, we boarded another gondola to head to our next stop. This time, the views were even more spectacular than the first portion of the ride as we descended into a valley.

We got back off the gondola and were able to see the waterfall and stream that we had seen from the Skyrail closer. The water was utilized in the early 1900’s when a power plant was constructed along the river.

After the waterfall, we boarded the Skyrail for one last time to our final destination, Kuranda.

Upon arriving into Kuranda, a small touristy town set in the rainforest, we walked along their main street for a bit and grabbed I grabbed a smoothie before we decided to head into the Kuranda Koala Gardens, where we had the opportunity to see some animals native to Australia in an up close setting. First, I got into a staring contest with a koala (I won’t tell you who won).

Then, I saw a wombat for the first time in my life (I think).

I then got into a hopping contest with one of the baby joey kangaroos & am happy to say I won, much to the disappointment of the joey.

After beating an animal half my size at his own game, we headed into the Kuranda Bird Sanctuary where I am happy to say I avoided having bird poop land on me despite the hundreds of birds flying above our heads. The sanctuary was a great opportunity to see some of the most colorful birds I’ve ever seen!

We then walked back towards where we arrived in Kuranda where we boarded a train back to Cairns on the Kuranda Scenic Railway, which was built in the early 1900’s as a way to shuttle people and goods from Cairns to Kuranda. Built by hand, there were 16 tunnels and over 2km of bridges along the 2 hour route. It was pretty cool to travel at ground level past some of the things we had crossed over just a few hours earlier.

Upon arriving into Cairns Railway Station, we walked about 15 minutes to our hotel, checked in and relaxed for about 45 minutes before getting picked up for our evening activity, the Tjapukai Culture Park. After welcome appetizers including emu and a dinner buffet where we tried meats like crocodile & kangaroo in addition to other more generic food, we had about an hour and a half of a variety of shows that gave us a brief look into Aboriginal culture. The first item we learned about was the didgeridoo, an Aboriginal musical instrument. Made out of thin tree stumps which were hollowed out by termites, the didgeridoo is one of the most unique instruments I have ever heard. The Aboriginal leading the evening, showed us the intricacies of playing the instrument and the various sounds it can make. It cannot be played like a trumpet, but the sound comes from blowing into it with lip vibrations and the use of your tongue to make the distinct sounds. At one point, the person made it sound as if a kangaroo was hopping right in front of us. It was a truly impressive show.

We then went outside and surrounded a circular stage where we learned about the traditional fire dance. It was explained to us that this group of Aboriginals, the Tjapukai, is made up of two groups – wet and dry. When it comes time to for an arranged marriage, usually arranged by the grandmother, someone from the wet group is matched with someone from the dry group. They then divided our group into wet and dry sections and painted our faces the colors of our respective tribes. After this, we learned a few chants – the first one to get the fire going & the second to encourage the fire to rise. They showed us how to make the fire by hand, even soliciting the help of two people from our group, who would have been hopeless if they ever needed to start a fire. After about 5 minutes, the Aboriginals stepped in and did it for them. The ceremony completed with them throwing the fire far away into something resulting in a large ball of fire in the distance.

The evening concluded with a dance show where we learned a bit more about how they hunt & saw some of their traditional dances.

After the show, we took a picture with all of the performers before heading back to the hotel. It was great to learn about the culture of the first inhabitants of Australia.

The following morning, we walked to the pier for a day on the Great Barrier Reef! I booked us on a daylong tour with a company called Sunlover which took us on a two hour boat ride to a pontoon they set up on the outer reef. The ride was quite rocky and, while myself & my family were fine, a lot of people threw up due to seasickness. This must be a common occurrence because the crew was walking around with sickness bags and had gloves on to confiscate them once they were used. Once we made it out to the pontoon, there were a lot of activities for everyone to do, both includes in the base cost for the day & additional cost.

Some of the activities with an additional cost were scuba diving, which my brother did, and a helicopter ride over the Great Barrier Reef which I did. I didn’t have my GoPro or camera with me for the helicopter ride (someone on the ride with me said they will send me their pictures, which was so nice of them! I will update this post once I receive them). It was my first helicopter ride ever & I am so happy I did it. The 15 minute ride was stunning and gave me an appreciation for the Great Barrier Reef that I never would have been able to get by staying at sea level. We saw a school of dolphins and a few sea turtles, unfortunately I don’t think I saw Crush from Finding Nemo.

After the helicopter ride, I had a quick lunch at the included buffet before we began to take advantage of the included activities. The first thing we did was snorkeling which was the experience of a lifetime! I’ve done it a few times in Vietnam, Egypt & Hawaii, but nothing compares with the Great Barrier Reef. Fish were in abundance and swam right past you!

After about 20 minutes of snorkeling, we got back on the boat to get dressed. Another free activity was a semi-submursable submarine. We boarded what looked like a small boat & went down a set of stairs to a two sided narrow galley with stools and windows on either side. Then, the driver began to move the boat and got us within inches of the coral. It really gave me an appreciation for the diversity of the coral and how it is literally a different world down there. Unfortunately, the pictures don’t do it justice.

We then went on a glass bottom boat to see the reef from above. Unfortunately, it was low tide so we couldn’t drive over the coral, but the boat captain did a great job navigating around the perimeter of the reef which gave us a great view of what was below. We learned that the majority of coral is grey & saw a piece of coral that is over 1,000 years old!

After we boarded the pontoon again, I went down to the underwater observatory where it was fish feeding time. We saw an abundance of fish right in front of our eyes.

After that, it was time to board the speed boat & head back to shore where we grabbed an early dinner at a seafood restaurant and headed to bed. The following morning we had a 6:45 AM flight out of Cairns to Uluru. I will leave you with this picture I took out of the window of the plane.

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