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Finding Nemo in Cairns

There are days that you know you’ll remember for the rest of your life. Days that will stick out in your memory forever when you look back on adventures you had or experiences you made. I was lucky enough to have just a few of these magical moments in Cairns. For the first week of mid-semester break my two flatmates and I traveled 3 hours by plane up North to the Australian state of Queensland. We were looking forward to spending 5 days swimming, exploring, snorkeling, and just soaking in the warm, tropical weather. It’s been quite windy and rainy in Adelaide lately, and we were dying for some Australian sun. Cairns gave us all that we asked for.

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The heat was immediate when we got off the plane. It was 85°F and sunny. As we drove into the city, we passed by lush, green mountains and tons of palm trees. I felt like I had landed in paradise. It was immediate to me that the city itself was definitely more touristy and laid back than Adelaide. There were hostels everywhere you looked surrounded by restaurants, cafes, stores, and clubs. We arrived at our hostel and before we could even but our bags down were asked if we wanted to join an Australian barbecue happening that night. Now an Australian barbecue does not mean burgers and hot dogs, but rather kangaroo, emu, and crocodile. I was definitely a bit hesitant to try some kangaroo considering that not too long ago I was feeding one from the palm of my hands. However, I had to convince myself that “when in Rome” I’d have to give it a try. That night we arrived at the BBQ with many other people from the hostel in an outdoor area complete with picnic tables, hammocks, and good company. I discovered that crocodile tastes pretty much like chicken, emu like lamb, and kangaroo like really rare steak. They also served barramunda, an Australian fish that was incredibly delicious. Turns out I had a bit of an appetite for the crocodile, definitely my favorite (although I’m now wondering if it was just that I felt the least bad eating it). After everyone’s belly was full, our Australian host whipped out some didgeridoos to give us all a lesson. He was a hilarious guy and quite the talented didgeridoo player. He had five “didgeridoos” with him, and after teaching us all the basic lip movements, much to our amusement, he decided we’d have a little competition. I say five “didgeridoos” because only three of them were actual ones. He told us that a pipe from a hardware store as long as it was about the right length and width would give you the same sound, or the tube of a vacuum cleaner, if you’re really broke. Somehow when he played even that it still sounded pretty good. My friend Tanner and my flatmate Chelsea were both called up to perform. Though none of the contestants sounded quite like the Australian, it was hilarious to see everyone give it their best shot. For my first night in Cairns, I felt like I was given such an authentic, Australian experience. I couldn’t wait for what else our trip had in store.

 

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Day 2 was the day that I know I will never forget for the rest of my life. If I had to rate the top five days of my life, this made that list quite easily. We got on a boat that morning to head out for diving and snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef. To say I was excited would be an understatement. I’d never dove before and the tour we were on allowed beginners to do an introductory dive without being certified. I was ecstatic but also a bit nervous. We got our lesson on diving on the way to the first reef, all the do’s and don’ts. It was a lot to take in, especially when we were told that the group I was in would be the first to go. We got out on deck and were loaded up with all the equipment. I was helped into the water as I could barely even stand with the huge oxygen tank on my back, and luckily the water was wonderfully warm. I slipped my goggles on, took a deep breath, and prepared myself to go under. I dove under and clung to the railing of the boat where my instructor was waiting. We had to perform two tests for her to assure her that we could continue to go deeper. The first was showing that we could get water out of our goggles if need be and the second showing that we could take out our mouthpiece and put it back in in case it fell out. I did both and then as my instructor moved on to the next person in our group, all I kept telling myself was to breath. I had barely even looked around at that point. The constant bobbing of the boat while I was hanging on the bar made the deep breathing a little more difficult, but once the instructor took us off of the bar and I turned around to see the reef for the first time I forgot all about breathing. I could see the ocean floor and all its life in front of me crystal clearly. Our instructor had the four of us in our group link arms with her and we began to dive. I started to panic a bit again but as I continued to look around I realized there was no way I wanted to bail on this experience. We continued diving deeper and more life began to sprout before my eyes. Fish of every color swam around us. My eyes grew wide as tried to follow each flash of color. I could reach out and touch the coral which was so intricate and detailed. It varied from columns to fields to jagged pieces and more.

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In complete honesty it wasn’t as colorful as I imagined it to be. I think movies like Finding Nemo definitely play up the brightness, but it was still absolutely beautiful. It also hit me how much of an impact coral bleaching really is having on the reef due to global warming. Again, I felt inspired to be in the field of work I’m studying, protecting and conserving wildlife around us. We continued our dive and it was hard to pretend like I wasn’t a mermaid. I almost forgot I wasn’t supposed to be smiling as my mouthpiece nearly fell out. I truly felt like I was the little mermaid and in that moment couldn’t understand why Ariel would ever want to leave the sea. Sadly, our dive did come to an end, but I still had a ton of snorkeling to do. As fun as diving was, snorkeling allowed for a lot more individual freedom and movement. After the first reef site was finished and we had eaten lunch, the second reef was mine to explore for two hours. We saw a shark, a giant clam, and tons of new fish. I didn’t get out of the water until they called us in and even then I probably could have spent hours more swimming around. A top five day for sure.

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After all that, a day just for some relaxation was desperately needed. Palm Cove beach was just what the doctor ordered. Smooth, tan sand and clear, aquamarine water greeted us. Chelsea and I rented a paddle board to take out into the ocean (a lot harder than it looks) and as we drifted along the waves we even saw a wedding on the beach.

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Lying underneath palm trees and listening to the ocean breeze, I felt completely blissful. It was a good thing we didn’t see the warning signs on the outside of the beach until we got out of the water about jellyfish and crocodiles otherwise I might have never gone in (though don’t worry they had nets up anyway!). When we got back to the city, the four of us explored Cairns night markets, with Asian cuisine and souvenirs shops set up in a pavilion.

Our final day of adventure led us into the rainforests of Cairns. We got on a tour bus with about 10 other people and headed off into the mountains. Our bus driver/tour guide was quite your stereotypical Australian. He was incredibly friendly, funny, and oddly enough throughout the entire trip, even while driving and walking around the rainforest, he never wore shoes. He was extremely knowledgeable about all the areas we went to and the wildlife there. For our first stop we went to Babinda Boulders, which was a river surrounded by huge granite boulders, that had slid down from the mountain, surrounded by rainforest. Our tour guide told us that an Aboriginal legend surrounded the origin story of the giant boulders. This consisted of, of course, an arranged marriage and forbidden love, ultimately ending in the aboriginal woman flinging herself into the river to which the water began to bubble and the giants boulders arose from the water. With an eerie tone, our tour guide told us that her spirit still haunts the river, searching for her lost love. Then he followed it up with the fact that of the 18 people who had been lost to the river in the past 30 years, 17 of them were young men. It was fascinating and fun to hear some local legend associated with the land.

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I felt like I was in a movie as we walked along the rainforest path. We stopped beside a small waterfall that you could slide down. I dipped my toes in as Chelsea and Sydney braved the slide.

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Our next stop was called Josephine Falls at which a lot of movies and apparently even an Herbal Essences commercial had been filmed. It became very obvious why once we arrived. The waterfall was the tallest I had ever seen. I couldn’t wait to jump straight in even thought it was freezing cold. We swam straight out to the fall and sat on the rocks beside it. I tried to soak in the moment as much as I could. For just a few moments I tried to process the fact that I was actually sitting underneath a waterfall in Australia! It’s still so surreal to me that I’m halfway across the world.

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After drying off on the bus, we ended up pulling over before getting to our next stop. Our tour guide noticed a baby python had chosen a little rock formation on the side of the road for its napping spot and took us out of the bus to go see it. For my first snake experience in Australia it was pretty up close and personal. The snake was completely black with cloudy eyes, meaning it was going to shed soon. It was sleeping at first when we first crept up allowing for an awesome photo shoot, until we woke it up.

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We piled back into the bus after it woke up and headed to an environmental park. There was a little center there with information on the history of the wildlife in the area, specifically tree kangaroos. Though, sadly, we did not see any tree kangaroos, we did see a ton of turtles in a small lake at the park. They were everywhere. Our tour guide told us to throw a few rocks into the water to make the turtles draw near because they would think it’s a piece of fruit fallen from a tree. It worked too well and the turtles flocked toward us by the dozen. There were little babies to turtles that were nearly a foot in length.

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Our tour guide had promised us some platypus so we headed for another small river. There must have been about 10 platypus swimming around. You could only see their nose and a little bit of their head when they came up for air and you’d see their tail when they went back under. After the platypus we visited a 500 year old fig tree. As its age would suggest it was unbelievably huge.

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This spot also held two of the largest spiders I’ve seen since being in Australia. They were both about the size of my hand.

Our final stop brought us to a huge lake with clear waters to swim in. Our tour guide told us that supposedly there lives a fresh water crocodile at the bottom of the lake but that it’s as allusive as the Loch Ness monster. I dipped my feer in the water and looked across the misty lake. There were tiny fish that swam around my feet and the bottom of the lake was made up of tiny stones.

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The entire day was really magical. On the ride back home, everyone was lulled to sleep as we headed down the steep mountain we had climbed. The road was incredibly windy and rocked back and forth. The views of the horizon as we headed down the mountain were beautiful; rolling hills and mountains. When we got back to the hostel we were all completely exhausted and napped before grabbing our last meal in Cairns and going to the night markets for souvenirs one last time. Thus ended a very successful trip to Cairns, one that I will never forget.

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