Mirambling Muses: Cairns, Australia

I had so much fun in Cairns that I wanted to share my favorite cheap, free, local, sustainable, inspirational and/or must-not-miss things to do there. It's incredibly tourist and backpacker friendly, boasting tons of hostels, rentals & hotels and there is free community wifi in several spots throughout the city. The main part of town is relatively compact and easy to walk to all of the locations listed below. Oh and one last tip: the locals drop the i and the r pronounce it like cans

7. Snoogie's Vegan/Vegetarian Restaurant 

This gem is a bit hard to find, tucked away in the Main Street Arcade (82 Lake Street) a bit north of Gilligan's. I found out about it myself after chatting up a local shop owner after lusting after her lunch. It's pretty much the most affordable and delicious healthy food and juice bar you'll find in Cairns. I really wish I'd discovered it sooner because this was my favorite food place. And I'm not alone; it's ranked #1 out of 381 restaurants in Cairns based on its 42 glowing reviews on Trip Advisor

6. Cairns Regional Gallery

An eclectic Art Gallery with a variety of exhibitions where you can escape the sun or the rain and see lots of work from Aussie artists. Admission is only $5 per adult and they're open 7 days a week. Or just visit the shop which offers a unique collection of design, crafts and jewelry by local and national artisans. You'll find much better souvenirs and gifts than the generic, tacky tourist shops you'll find everywhere else. 

Image Source: Trip Advisor

Image Source: Trip Advisor

5. The Night Market

Located 71-75 on the Esplanade, the quirky Night Market is not to be missed! There is a self-serve food court serving up a variety of Asian favorites, hair and nail services, lots of souvenir shops and the famous $15 massages. You can find everything from locally crafted clothing & jewelry to custom airbrushed hats to postcards to kangaroo scrotum keychains. Shops are open 5-11 PM, Food Court from 10 AM - 11 PM and Massages from 12 noon - 11 PM. 

Note: I do not endorse the sale nor purchase of these. I just needed pictorial proof of their absurd existence. 

Note: I do not endorse the sale nor purchase of these. I just needed pictorial proof of their absurd existence. 

4. The Esplanade

A super fun and free place to hang out, situated along 2.5 km of the Cairns coast. The lagoon is a free, public swimming pool, there's a boardwalk for exercise and/or people watching, plenty of open grassy areas and playgrounds and free community wifi. I often saw street performers and lots of people relaxing with a book or enjoying a picnic. If there are any events or festivals going on, they'll most likely be here. There are some free Active LIving classes you can take advantage of as well. I participated in yoga on Fridays at 6:30 AM. 

The Lagoon

The Lagoon

3. Graff Alley

The largest concentration of Street Art I could find in Cairns. Located off of Grafton Street almost across from Gilligan's (the biggest and most infamous hostel in the city). Amongst all the murals, there's also a rather popular coffee shop called Caffeind and the Alleyway Paint & Skate shop. 

2. Rusty's Markets

Great place to buy local groceries or grab a bit to eat. I found all kinds of foreign fruits I can't get back home and I found the stall owners are really friendly. There's also a fresh juice bar and reflexology & thai massage as well as jewelry and clothing for sale. However, it's only open on the weekends; Friday & Saturday 5 AM - 6 PM and Sunday 5 AM - 3 PM. (Also located just past Gilligan's on Grafton Street.) 

1. The Great Barrier Reef

The harbor is packed with boats that will take you to see and snorkel the Great Barrier Reef. I can recommend Passions of Paradise ($159/adult + $10 reef tax) since that's the eco-certified boat that took me out to discover their natural treasures. But there are other sustainable options like the Reef Daytripper ($124/adult + $15 reef tax) and Ocean Free Green Island & Reef Pinnacle Tour ($190/adult includes reef tax). There's a full list of options on the Cairns Visitor Centre website


Random Road Trip (Bush Week)

Monday was going to be a laid-back, relaxing day. Until I found out about Bush Week. What is this Bush Week Festival, you ask? Well according to the website, it’s a week long celebration of art, music and lifestyle that happens only once every other year at a camp site in the rainforest in far north Queensland. In reality, it was more of a mud-covered hippie fest. But more about that later. 

I had nothing else planned for my last week in Cairns except a day snorkeling on the GBR (Great Barrier Reef), which was completely flexible. Once I found out about the festival, I decided I had to go. I was kind of annoyed because the site was just above Cape Tribulation, where I had just spent the previous weekend and returned from there on a tour bus just the previous night. 

TRAVEL TIP #2: ALWAYS GOOGLE FESTIVALS AND EVENTS FOR PLACES YOU ARE VISITING BEFORE YOU GET THERE. 

Common sense, really. And I usually take my own advice. That’s how I found out about the Auckland Arts Festival and Pasifika Festival that I experienced in New Zealand a few months ago. Not sure why I didn’t do it this time because I could have planned way better. But I digress. 

I first checked out the bus schedule and there was no easy way to get there. So I ended up renting a car from a place around the corner from my hostel. I talked to a few other friends at Calypso whose eyes lit up and said they were super were interested in going, but when it came time to actually buy the tickets, they flaked out on me. (It was probably for the best though because I ended up sleeping in the backseat of my car for two nights. I have no idea where they would have slept.) I conquered my irrational fear of driving on the left and went to Cairns Central to buy some groceries for the trip. I packed up most of my stuff and set my alarm for 5 AM because I wanted to get an early start the next morning. 

Keep an eye out for the Roos! 

Keep an eye out for the Roos! 

Tuesday was the only time I’ve slept through my alarm so I got a bit of a later start and finally got on the road close to 7 AM. I had printed out directions, but I pretty much only took two and a half roads to get where I was going: Route 1 up to Mareeba and then Route 81 up to Rossville and the rainforest. It took about 300 km (186 miles) and nearly 5 hours to get there. It was raining at first, which made the winding road out of Cairns and through the Tablelands a bit treacherous but once I got on the wide open highways, all I had to worry about was avoiding cows and kangaroos. I could drive for miles without seeing another car on the road. There were caution signs everywhere and I saw about a dozen dead roos and whatever the Aussie equivalent of a possum is on the side of the road, but also saw a couple live kangaroos as well. One was perked up on the side of the road, seemingly waiting to cross once the cars were clear, and another, riskier roo hopped across the road between my car and a truck coming from the opposite direction and made it across just in time.

The roads were smooth and paved the entire way, until the last terrifying 3 km where I was basically off-roading on a wet, muddy and bumpy dirt road. I had to drive over rocks and creeks and avoid fallen limbs and stray rocks in the road and was scared my little Hyundai wouldn’t make it but it did because I was driving as slow as possible. I parked on a grassy spot not to far from the “road” or the entrance which decreased my chances of getting stuck in mud and increased my chances of an easy exit three days later. 

I ate a quick lunch in my car then went out in the rain to make friends. I met a friendly group a few meters away. One of them was painted white and purple and was mumbling about mushrooms. I chatted with the group for a while then followed the signs to a tent where I could get a hair wrap. The girl I met there, Ashley, was a festival regular and a super sweet hippie type with dreads and pixie point bangs. She wrapped a section of my hair in blue yarn and string and I picked a silver Om charm and two small feathers to fasten to the end. She also happily did a French braid which rippled along my crown and cascaded down the right side of my face. 

Ready for a purple party. 

Ready for a purple party. 

It was raining intermittently all day but you could still hear the reggae over the precipitous wind. When it finally let up for a while, I was able to make it back to my car, eat some dinner and go to bed after listening to some music, which had transitioned to dubstep (I think). 

The next day I decided to walk to the waterfall rumored to be in the area. I met another lone traveler along the way and we Hobbit-hiked it (barefoot) to the waterfall, which was a way farther and more arduous journey than I ever expected. It took over an hour to get there, traversing thick mud, slopes, tree branches and slippery rocks so there was no way I wasn’t jumping in for a swim after all that. The water was cold and I was more than a little paranoid about crocs, even though there were no warning signs. I put my clothes and jacket back on which I had stashed under my umbrella to keep dry then we started the same unruly trail back to the camp. It would not stop raining but there was one bright spot when my new friend found a $20 note on the ground, which we used to buy a well-deserved lunch from one of the food tents. 

I hung out with another group for a while which included one of the DJs who would perform that weekend, his petite French wife, a hitchhiker from Canada who did our tarot card readings and a few other characters. They had one of the most spacious and driest spots, with three tarps strewn across some trees and vans. We entertained ourselves there until the rain stopped and we finally saw the sun for the first time in two days, just before it started to set, of course. There was a live Reggae singer on a small stage and people were dancing in the mud. Pretty much everyone, including myself, was barefoot because it was just easier than getting your shoes stuck in the mud. I was a bit surprised to see so many kids there. The older ones were clothed and the younger ones looked feral as they were all running around naked except for the mud splatter that covered them. 

Celebrating that the sun finally made an appearance! 

Celebrating that the sun finally made an appearance! 

I got my feet as clean as I could and curled up in my car for a second night. I left early the next morning and of course the day I leave, everything was bright and sunny. Of course, driving a car by myself was not the most sustainable way to get there and back, but the tree to car ratio along the road was about a bazillion to one so I’m pretty sure most of my CO2 was absorbed. Still, I’ll probably pay to plant an extra tree at the end of my trip.

The main part of the festival took place over the weekend, so I was a bit bummed to have to miss it, but glad to get back to Cairns for a proper, hot shower. I did yoga, enjoyed my long-awaited shower and then visited the night market one last time for some lo mein and a $15 full body massage. 

A Weekend in Cape Tribulation

Friday June 19

So here I am in a cabin surrounded on all sides by rainforest aka Daintree Rainforest & National Park which is a World Heritage Site and part of Cape Tribulation (so named by Captain Cook because of his troubles navigating the reef there). No TV, no internet, no modern distractions except the ones I brought with me. 

Home sweet home - for the weekend, anyways. 

Home sweet home - for the weekend, anyways. 

I arrived by bus around noon after a scenic drive up the Queensland coast from Cairns. The landscape alternated between rocky beaches, rugged mountains and tall, ripe fields of sugarcane. The journey also included a short ferry across croc-infested waters (actually almost all the water up here is full of "snapping handbags" as our driver/guide calls them) and a short walk through a small patch of roadside rainforest complete with tea, coffee and restrooms. I'm at a self-proclaimed "resort" called Ferntree in a 5 person dorm room but there are a few other lodging options in the area. These are the last traces of civilization before you head off into the great green yonder, preferably with 4WD. 

I saw this sign on several occasions. 

I saw this sign on several occasions. 

This place lived up to its name at least at first because I had a few tribulations myself when I checked in. The girls at the desk immediately tried to upsell me on a bunch of overpriced excursions from horseback riding to snorkeling to zip lining but I declined as I think just having the opportunity to stay in a 100 million old rainforest is enough. Next they gave me a key and a map - one of those old-fashioned, rare, genuine paper maps no less - and directed me to room 55. When I walked in, I discovered that all five beds looked occupied so I dropped my rucksack and trekked back to the office to inform them that I was not planning to sleep on the floor. So they moved me next door to cabin 54, which pleased me to see that it was empty upon my arrival so I had my choice of bunk. I chose one right next to the window and made up my new sleeping spot with the linens provided. I did find it necessary to switch blankets with another bunk because the color scheme of mine was just tacky and visually awkward and I don't want to accidentally absorb some bad design vibes via osmosis while I sleep. 

After settling in it was time to find food, which should have been the nearby Cassowary Cafe which was open noon - 2:30 according to my archaic paper map. However when I got there, the lights were off, doors were locked and chairs stacked upside down on top of the tables inside. I can't be 100% certain but I'm pretty sure they were closed. 

Luckily a friendly middle-aged Aussie approached me saying that I looked lost. I said I was starving and my map lied to me and he confirmed that the cafe was only open for breakfast and dinner and had also changed its name to Off the Grid Cafe a few weeks ago. He asked "which of the great 50 states" I was from and I asked him to guess. He supposed California. I corrected him then we chatted for a bit. He was impressed that I was staying for 3 days because apparently most people just spend a single day and night here to cross it off their list. He directed me to walk through the forest to find food at a few other cafes and lodges nearby. 

After enjoying a roasted veggie wrap at the nearby Turtle Rock Cafe, I ended up at the community swimming hole (the safer alternative to the croc-inhabited oceans) with some new friends from Sweden & the Netherlands. I wasn't prepared at all for swimming but I was feeling spontaneous so I went anyways. We walked down the road at least a few kilometers then past a petrol station, across a field, through a small patch of tangled trees before we finally laid eyes upon the crystal clear creek. A handful of kids in their 20s were already congregated in the area, taking turns splashing into the deeper part via the raggedy old rope swing that hung from an even older tree limb. I took off my Birkenstocks and walked barefoot over the smooth yet perilously placed stones scattered across the creek bed. My mind wandered and I thought maybe some cultures might consider this some kind of natural, deep-tissue foot massage. 

The swimming hole

The swimming hole

A few hours later we headed back to our respective lodges and when I re-entered my cabin around 4:30, I found two women asleep on two of the other bunks. One was snoring and one had stinky feet. Or maybe the sounds and smells were emanating from the same one - I don't know and I'm not investigating any further to find out. 

The cafe with an identity crisis that had thwarted me earlier was open for dinner around 6 so I went and was the only one out of a handful of customers that chose to sit outside. I ordered a glass of Chardonnay seeing as my top three wines (Rose, White Zin, Moscato) were unavailable and a Rege's Veges pizza with a circumference bigger than my head. It was very tasty and piled high with a veritable garden of veggies like pumpkin, spinach, tomato, onion and mushroom. The cheesy glue that held everything together was a blend of feta and mozzarella. I could only make it through 3/8 slices so I took the rest back to the fridge in my lodge for safekeeping. I got two more meals out of it the following day for lunch and dinner, which helps justify the $20 price tag. 

I fully intended on meeting up with my new friends again at their place PK's down the road and walked a few hundred meters before my imagination and fear took over. Once the lights from Ferntree had completely faded behind a paved hill, and now it was just me and stars and woods for what seemed like infinity, I panicked. Just my tiny flashlight and I were surely no match for whatever I was sure was lurking in these foreign woods. I was probably close to halfway to my destination but instead of walking, or more likely running, the rest of the way, I turned and walked briskly back to my cabin. Face palm. As I begrudgingly changed into my pajamas, I noticed my right leg now bears the marks of a battle zone with a record 10 bruises and three leech bites. The left leg by comparison has only two bruises and a small scrape on the knee. 

And then, just as the Brazilians (I discovered they were mother/daughter) and I were all in our beds about to go to sleep around 9 PM, we heard the clicking sound of key-in-lock as someone was attempting to open our door. In walked two guys in their twenties and I knew immediately by their accents that they were American. They said hello and immediately invited me and the Brazilian girl to join them for a beach party down the road. And they had a car. Now I had no excuse. I agonized over the decision for a moment then drug myself out of bed and to the bathroom to redo everything I had just undone. I was ready in about 5 minutes and John, Brian and I headed out to the parking lot to their car. Turns out they are finishing up a semester abroad in Sydney and took a side trip to Cape Trib during finals week. We drove a few kilometers north then parked on the side of the dirt road amongst several other cars. We walked down a steep grade in the dark and followed the sounds of music towards the party. There was a live band and a small bar where I ordered a bottle of cider. We followed the younger crowd out to the beach where we found a bonfire and sat around it chatting for a while. Long after I finished my drink, I was starting to get really tired and around 11 PM suggested we go back to Ferntree. They agreed since they needed to drive back to Cairns early and catch a flight back down South. 

Saturday June 20

I fell asleep pretty quickly but found it difficult to wake up the next morning. The Brazilians slept in too, which reinforced my decision to do so. By the time I was pretty much ready to go and the rain had let up enough, it was close to noon. 

I enjoyed some amazing walks through both the Dibuji and the Kulki rainforests of the Daintree National Park. They were both walking distance from Ferntree with Dijubi just down the hill and Kulki about 2 km north. There was tons of forest to explore and the greenery gradually transitions onto the beach and the beach becomes the Great Barrier Reef. I saw more kinds of plants than I can count and some pretty weird sand formations on the beach that are apparently made by crabs. 

The sun was going down by the time I finished Kulki but thankfully I ran into a cute, young Aussie couple that offered to give me a ride back to Ferntree. I had some serious Thoreau moments in the woods and wrote down almost everything I was thinking. I was walking pretty much nonstop from noon til sundown which was close to 6 PM since it is winter here at the moment. I did a few sketches in my moleskine and took tons of footage. 

The canopy at Dubuji

The canopy at Dubuji

Kulki National Park - Lookout

Kulki National Park - Lookout

Crab Sand Art at Kulki

Crab Sand Art at Kulki

Once back at the lodge, I noticed I had the place all to myself as no one else had checked in while I was gone. I rested physically and mentally just for a bit before rolling out my mat on the front porch and doing about an hour and a half of yoga. Thanks to the humidity, I got good & sweaty & was ready for a nice hot shower but there was none to be found. It wasn't an ice cold shower but it was definitely below room temperature so I cleaned myself very quickly. I played with my gadgets and listened to the few songs I had on iTunes for a bit before I burrowed into bed. 

Sunday June 21

It was absolutely pouring rain this morning so I took my time getting up and packing. I had to check out of the room at 10 and my bus wouldn't arrive until 12 so I had a couple hours to kill. I walked down to a nearby cafe and had a muffin the was most likely devoid of any nutrition and an overly processed peach tea. One thing I do like about this place is the abundance of recycling receptacles - everywhere recycles here! By the time I finished my "meal" the sky levy had broken again. I waited as long as I could but it didn't let up so I had to walk back to Ferntree in the downpour. I wrapped my rain jacket around my backpack to keep it and all the gadgets inside dry and my umbrella was enough to keep me from getting soaked. So glad I did my exploring yesterday when it was relatively dry! 

I was the last to load the bus and had to take the only remaining seat up front to the left of the driver, which was fine. I never caught his name, but I'm going to name him Mr. Morbid because every story he told us during our return trip to Cairns involved death, dismemberment or despair. Seriously, there was the one about the American couple that was left out on a reef by their tour, never to be seen nor heard from again (presumed to be eaten by sharks), the one about a boy being attacked by a bull shark a few weeks ago, people that died during a heatwave a few years back, a plane crash that happened in the mountains decades ago and was not discovered until the 90's and then my personal favorite, the one about sugarcane farmers putting dynamite in trees full of cockatoos to blow them to keep their crops from becoming bird food. He looked at least part aboriginal and told us several of the old legends that had been passed down to him, most of which involved kidnapping young women, untimely deaths and lost souls forsaken to forever wander the Earth. So, yeah. It was a very interesting trip back.

Our bus stopped a few places along the way back, in between grisly stories, of course. At the Daintree Ice Cream Company which makes exotically flavored ice cream from the fruit that they farm. Today's flavors were Mango, Passionfruit, Jackfruit & Wattleseed, all of which were yummy because my sweet tooth doesn't discriminate. 

I wasn't terribly impressed with our next two stops, which entailed a short boat ride down the Daintree River and a pit stop at the Mossman Gorge. We saw exactly one snake, one and a half crocs (one was a just a foot long juvenile) and one frog on the "cruise". After seeing so many gators and other wildlife every time I've ventured out to the Everglades, the cruise was pretty lackluster. And the mangroves our guide kept gushing about just aren't exotic to me after living in Florida for so long. Later, we had less than an hour at the gorge, which had a bunch of natural elements I already saw on other tours: rainforest, river and a bunch of rocks - although the suspension bridge was pretty cool and reminded me of Costa Rica.  

I arrived back at Calypso later that evening and was beyond grateful to have a hot shower that night.