7 Things That Will Blow Your Mind In Far North Queensland
Things are better in the tropics.
Let’s think about some outdated and largely ignorant Australian stereotypes for a minute – Australia is hot all the time. There are sharks and crocodiles and snakes everywhere. All Australians wear akubras and gumboots to work, even if they work in an office. There are beaches and palm trees at the end of every street. Everybody drinks Fosters, surfs, and has barbecues for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Blinky Bill is a national hero (second only to Angus Young).
As an Englishman who moved to Melbourne four years ago, imagine how disappointed I was when I was greeted instead by awesome bars, an incredible live music scene, a moderate climate, a heap of delicious craft beer, an enviable quality of life and all the fried chicken, tacos and burgers I could ask for.
But then, just when I thought Australia would never meet my ignorant postcard-perfect standards, I visited Cairns. Now, Cairns and Far North Queensland still don’t quite bring those stereotypes to life, but for someone who grew up in a tiny English retirement town where the closest thing we had to ‘tropical’ was a Calypso ice-pop flavour, Cairns was pretty damn exciting. Here’s seven things that blew my mind, and will probably do the same to yours.
#1 Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures
First things first, I had never seen a crocodile before. As mentioned above, my hometown was not what you would call one of the world’s premiere crocodile hotspots. So when my girlfriend and I saw that Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures was a short drive from our pad in central Cairns, we couldn’t resist.
We expected to spend a couple of hours looking at the things, but we ended up spending the entire day there. The place, one of north Queensland’s oldest attractions, has over 2,100 metres of boardwalks, from where you can see a lot of crocs. You can take a boat tour around the creek too, which enables some pant-wettingly close-encounters with Australia’s real-life dinosaur population.
Hartley’s was also the first place to breed crocodiles in captivity and their work on croc conservation has garnered interest from all across the globe. Visiting the farm, a crocodile farm, is pretty surreal. And if these guys didn’t farm those guys, wild populations of crocs would be under even more threat from poachers, so Hartley’s is a win all ’round.
#2 A close encounter
At one point during our day at Hartley’s we walked past a giant statue of a croc. The thing was probably five or six metres long, and I knew it was a statue because its bottom jaw was missing, like it had snapped off. Then one of the rangers walked past and said “Oh, you’ve met Billy.” My girlfriend and I looked at each other, and back at the ranger. “Oh sure! Billy! Good one, mate.”
The ranger gave us a perplexed look and walked off. My girlfriend and I looked at each other again, confused. Surely this thing wasn’t alive. It was too big. I stared hard into its enormous eye. Then, after being completely inactive for the entire time we’d be gawking, the thing blinked.
The hairs on my neck stood on end. A chill ran up and down my spine then back again. And my first instinct, even though Billy was in an enclosed area, was to run. But I didn’t. I stood there and gawked a little longer, completely terrified and awed by this insane creature.
#3 Green Island
I’d never been to the Great Barrier Reef before (or any other reef for that matter), so I was teed up for some pretty mind-bending experiences. Once we hit land we started walking around the island’s ‘rainforest boardwalk’. It was nice, but a bit tamer than I expected.
We decided to head back to the beach and get involved in some snorkeling. This is the bit where I lost my mind. I reckon snorkelling is the best activity in the world. We swam with sea turtles, massive rays, hypercoloured fish and more besides. I was more excited to be snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef than I was for House of Cards season three, which is a pretty serious call.
#4 There is no beach in Cairns
Nup. Cairns doesn’t have a beach. So forget those images you have in your head of pearly white sand and completely transparent, warm water. All you’ll get in Cairns is an expansive, muddy shore stretching out from the rather lovely (even though it doesn’t even have a beach) promenade.
So expectant are people of a beach in Cairns, I presume, that the council opted to build a swimming-pool type thing right where the beach should be. This means tourists can head to the beach, be surprised that there isn’t one, then take a dip in the ‘Lagoon’, as it’s affectionately known, instead. At least you know there’s nothing in there that can kill you.
#5 Port Douglas
Port Douglas is really nice. Like, really nice. And it’s only a one hour drive from Cairns along an exceedingly attractive stretch of coastline. It’s got a wonderful market, a pretty main street and is situated on a little peninsula, with a river on one side and an ocean on the other. In short, it’s really good looking and you shouldn’t miss it.
#6 Stingers, sharks and crocs
While on the subject of those Australian stereotypes, there are a few in Cairns. I was surprised that you straight up just can’t swim on some beaches due to the croc and shark risk. I didn’t even know that crocs hung out on beaches.
To help combat all the stuff that can kill (or seriously maim) you, there are swimming nets everywhere so you can still swim in the ocean. Just don’t get too close to the sides of the net during stinger season because they get caught in them and can hurt you pretty badly.
#7 The seafood
For all the stuff in Far North Queensland that can hurt you, there’s a good chunk of stuff that’s exceptionally tasty, too. I’d never even heard of a Moreton Bay bug prior to visiting Cairns, let alone tasted one. But by the time we left I was well and truly besotted. ‘Slipper lobsters’, as they’re also known, look like they’d be at home on the set of Star Trek and taste like prawns on steroids.
The rest of the seafood in Cairns is pretty incredible too. There are plenty of restaurants near the marina where you could spend a month’s wages on dinner, but the Salt House offered up a pretty reasonable and impressive seafood platter for $30AUD. The quality might not be quite on par with the pricier spots, but I tend to prefer my seafood without a side of crippling debt.
(Lead image: Charles Miller/Flickr)