Australian Adventures: Rainforests and Rapids and Leeches, Oh My!

Monday, June 15 /// Ballooning

I woke up around 3 AM to get ready for my first ever hot air balloon ride. I took my backpack containing essentials like my gopro, rain jacket and neck pillow.

The rigmarole of getting there and back took longer than the actual ride itself. When I got picked up in a large can around 4:15 AM, there was already a handful of people on board and we went to another hotel after that to pick up a big group of Chinese tourists. The 45 minute ride was pitch black and we stopped for one last potty break before arriving at the launch site. It was still very dark but you could just barely decipher the outline of the deflated balloon on the ground and the trucks and people surrounding it. 

Admittedly it was a "do it once" kind of activity but now I can say I've experienced it. The captain was super friendly and informative and it was neat to see the sun rise from the same sky it would be rising into. The only drawback was the group of Chinese tourists that were a little too fond of their selfie sticks. 

So how sustainable was this trip? Well sharing one large van definitely uses less fuel than everyone driving there individually so that’s a plus. The balloon runs on liquid propane/butane (or LPG here in Australia). This is a byproduct of processing natural gas and refining oil, which would otherwise be discarded. According to exceptionalenergy.com, LPG is one of the cleanest conventional fuels available. It is non-toxic and has no impact on soil, water and underground aquifers. It also helps to improve the quality of indoor and outdoor air, as it produces substantially less particulate matter and NOX than diesel, oil, wood or coal.

It also releases much fewer carbon emissions than gasoline/petrol. I asked the pilot and he estimated that we used about 120 liters of the stuff during our 30 minute flight. According to ecoscore.com, 1 liter = 16.6 g of CO2/km so that’s 1,992 g/1.9 kg/km total CO2 emissions. A minuscule amount, really. For comparison, a liter of petrol/gasoline is about 24 g/CO2/km so 120 liters burned of that is 2,880g or 2.8 kgCO2/km, about 45% more.  

Obviously, the way to have the least impact is to just travel by foot or bike within a small radius of wherever you are staying, but you have to be realistic. People travel to experience new places and activities they can’t experience at home so it’s good to at least try and make them a bit more aware of the impact they’re having and inform them of better choices that are still stimulating and fun. 

I got back to Calypso around 8:30 AM, took an hour nap, then finished packing up. And the honeymoon was officially over. I checked out of my single room and into a four bed share which was half the cost and more efficient. It was 10 AM and there were two girls occupying the two bottom bunks and their shit looked like it had exploded everywhere else and there was a stale, unpleasant, unwashed-everything smell. I barely had any floor space to walk let alone set my bags down and they had makeup and hair products all over both of the top bunks. I wanted to just grab everything that was in my way and throw it on the floor to physically vent my initial frustration but instead I gathered it up and piled it on top of some other pile of their crap. Never before have I stayed in a shared hostel room that was so disheveled. 

So after making up my top bunk and considering my options, I went back to the front desk and asked if there were any other rooms available. I’m so glad I did because they ended up moving me to the largest four person shared room available. And the people were more welcoming and well-kempt. I moved my sheets and my bag so everyone wins; I get a new room and they get to keep living in their own filth. The only catch was, the desk didn’t have enough keys for it, so they had to have a few more made so I should be able to access my room by the afternoon. (And I did.) 

Tuesday June 17 /// Tully River Rafting

It was another early morning as I got picked up from Calypso at 6:30 AM to start my rafting adventure. The van picked up a few more people then dropped us at the Raging Thunder tour headquarters to check in and fill up the coach bus waiting outside. During these travels, I met and Irish guy named Neil and an Aussie named Aaron who were both in the area to compete in the Half Ironman on Sunday and were getting another adrenaline fix on the Extreme Rafting Tour after a well-earned day of rest. Our tall, lanky host named Tim was great and kept us all well-informed and entertained for the duration of the drive to the Tully River, which is actually a World Heritage site. During the rest stop, I asked Tim if it was too late to switch from the regular rafting trip to the Extreme trip and he said all those boats were full. Oh well, I tried. 

When we got there, I was able to cover my bikinied body in a long sleeved thermal top and attached my gopro to my helmet. I was in boat 2 of 6 in the front, right position along with a skinny Japanese guy front right, a German couple behind us, a Japanese girl and Irish girl in the back and our guide Daz bringing up the rear. 

Daz told us that the rainforest through which we were rafting was the oldest in the world at 110 million years old. No wonder it reminded me of Jurassic Park and more recently, Jurassic World. The fast moving water was also some of the purest and cleanest in the world as there was no industry or farming nearby to taint it. The German guy and I used our hands to take a few gulps and it was incredibly refreshing. 

The first bit of the river was pretty easy to navigate, until we slammed head on into a giant rock and the reverb knocked me off the side of the raft. The current dragged me under the raft and then I dropped slightly under water before coming up for air again. I opened my eyes to see the guide on the nearby safety boat throwing a rope to me,which I grabbed, flipped over onto my back and pulled it over my shoulder like they instructed in the safety video we watched on the bus earlier. The group of American retirees occupying that boat grabbed me and pulled me aboard to safety. I’m sure all this happened in a matter of 5 seconds but it seemed much longer. 

I insisted I was fine, except for a large bump on my right shin that I’m sure would turn into a purple and green bruise later. Daz climbed back along the rocky shore to retrieve me and I climbed back over the rocks to my raft. At some point during the pandemonium, my paddle got loose and floated downstream much farther than I did, so Daz handed me the little Japanese girl’s paddle since I was in front and said we would replace her paddle really soon, which we did after a handful more rapids and catching up with another boat. The group of boats kind of leap frogs for the first few rapids and each one takes turns being first, last and/or on safety duty. 

After several more kilometers, all six boats stopped for lunch, which consisted of buns, burgers (including meatless patties for us veggos) and lots of fixin’s. I piled caramelized onions, lettuce, tomato and coleslaw on top of mine along with ketchup (called tomato sauce here). Then Daz handed me a slice of beetroot saying it wasn’t an official Aussie burger without this critical ingredient. It tasted surprisingly good and I relished every bite because I knew I’d need more energy to get through the next 10 kilometers. There was so much lush, virid landscape on either side and every so often, an electric blue butterfly would flutter by. Everyone made it safely to the end of the trip where our bus was waiting for us.

I was so prepared for this trip that I packed everything... except a change of clothes, so I had to sit in my wet shorts and vibrams for the duration of the nearly 2 hour return trip. Along the way, we stopped at a small pub in Feluga, where I met up with my Extreme Rafting friends and another Aussie named Kendall, who was  also a Half Iron finisher. Once back in Cairns, the four of us decided to meet up later for dinner and drinks. We went to the Bavarian Beer House located near the Esplanade. About the only thing on the menu I could eat was a cheesy pasta called Käzespätzle (I have to say I was very pleased with my correct pronunciation of this) and a drink that I dubbed Beerjuice, which was a blend of a Hefeweizen and Mango and Banana juice, because I hate the taste of real beer. Of course I got some flack from the guys both for being vegetarian and for my wimpy beer, but ask me if I care. (I don’t.) 

Skydiving and bungee jumping and really popular here but you definitely get the most adrenaline for your money with this trip. Not to mention, it's incredibly sustainable as long as we take back everything that we brought with us. Along with the glow worm caves in Waitomo, New Zealand, this is one of my favorite travel experiences. 

Wednesday, June 18 /// Tablelands

Today was the last of my three day excursion binge. I took a $99 day trip with a company called On The Wallaby where a tour guide drove a busfull of backpackers around the tropical Tablelands located on the small mountains that rise up and cast a shadow over the coastal areas of Cairns. We made several stops to marvel at natural wonders like the Cathedral Fig Tree (inspiration for the mother tree in Avatar), Lake Barrine, Lake Eacham, the Millaa Millaa Waterfalls, the Dinner Falls and Yungaburra. I met my Canadian counterpart, Devon, on the bus and we hiked together for most of the day. We seriously could have been separated at birth; we both just quit our corporate jobs, love cats, yoga, healthy eating, wine, etc.  

 Cathedral Fig Tree

Cathedral Fig Tree

Anyways, we had the opportunity to swim in the lagoons created by the falls, but after being cold and wet on the bus the day before, I decided I didn’t want to get soaked. Instead I hiked along the rocks piled up behind the falls and got soaked anyways. Lesson learned: you will get wet if you walk under a waterfall. 

I was pleasantly surprised again by lunch, which was a Subway-style assemble your own sandwich station. I geeked out over the reusable plates, cups and containers and our guide Lawrence told us all the vegetables came from local farms. Even the water was in a big cooler, to which we had the option of adding a concentrated, fruity cordial flavor. The only waste was really the plastic bags that the buns came in as all the dishes would get washed later by employees at the On the Wallaby lodge in Yungaburra. 

The only thing that sucked (literally) was the affinity that leeches seemed to for me. I didn’t even know leeches were a thing around here and I can’t remember ever being bitten by one before, ever. I found the first one when I was on the bus and felt something wet inside my shirt near the top of my ribs on the right side. When I lifted it up to investigate, a slimy, black little leech fell off and started squirming on the seat. I, and everyone in my general vicinity, were horrified. I had the leech latch onto a pen then flicked it out an open window. Then there was the bleeding to deal with. It just wouldn’t stop and no one on the bus had bandaids so I help a napkin over the open wound until we reached our next destination. Once arrived, I went into a changing room to strip down and check and didn’t find anymore little bloodsuckers. 

 Millaa Millaa Falls

Millaa Millaa Falls

But then, once on the trails at Dinner Falls, I felt something wet on the inside of my thigh  and I rolled up my right pants leg and flicked off another leech. This one appeared to have made three attempts before deciding to latch on. It left a more sizable wound on my leg that would not stop gushing. I found a secluded area and pulled my pants down completely to be certain there were no more and ended up MacGyvering a makeshift tourniquet out of a make-up remover wipe and an elastic headband that I’d been wearing wrapped around my wrist as a bracelet (I knew those bands would come in handy!) I’m more annoyed than anything that I was such a leech magnet because I was the only one dressed in proper hiking attire: pants, long sleeved shirt and boots (whereas most people were in shorts, t-shirts and flip flops) and I have no idea how they wiggled their way inside my clothes. 

 Volcanic crater

Volcanic crater

It was a lot for one day, so I recommend this trip for backpackers and travelers who are short on time or budget in Cairns. And bonus points for the super sustainable lunch! 

Once back in the city, Devon and I went to our respective hostels and cleaned up before meeting up again. I got a veggo burger and chips and we bought a couple bottles of wine and hung out at her hostel for the night. 

Thursday, June 19

Today I recharged everything, including myself. I charged my computer and all my gopro batteries. After three days of Aussie Adventuring, it was nice to sleep in, spend some time on the interwebs and do laundry. For some reason, it’s incredibly expensive to clean your clothes here as it cost me $10 AUD per load; $4 per wash, $4 per dry and $2 for powdered detergent. 

Later that afternoon I met Devon down at the Esplanade for some sunset yoga. We got a lot of various looks from passersby ranging from admiration to confusion to envy but it’s all good. We had a lot of fun posing for pictures with the sun as it sank down below the horizon before heading to the (mostly Asian) Night Market. If you’re ever in Cairns, the Night Market is not to be missed!

We each got 40 minute Chinese massages for $15 each and they sell a huge variety of jewelry, souvenirs and packaged foods. I bought a really cool tank top designed by a local artist and Devon bought some loose lemon ginger tea. Then we some relatively cheap but yummy Chinese food in the food court before heading back to her hostel to crack open the last bottle of wine. Then I walked back to my home base and finished packing before bed. I seriously cannot think of a more perfect evening.