Monday, August 16, 2010

Cairns & The Great Barrier Reef – Monday, August 9th thru Friday August 13th

Note: Posting this entry a little late. Internet access in Australia has not been that reliabe. You pretty much have to pay as you go or if it is free it is slow and locked down preventing you from doing basic things I've used some old school tricks to do some of the most basic tasks. Oh well...

Anyway, here is my entry for our trip to Cairns.............

I figured I would start my Cairns blog entry since we have a little downtime while we do laundry. It is Tuesday 10th as I begin this entry. I'll also be writing this offline since internet access isn't free here (here is Dreamtime Traveler's Rest hostel in Cairns).

The journey up to Cairns was relatively uneventful. We left our couch surf host David around 11:20 am Monday morning to drive back to the airport. It took a good 40 minutes including a quick stop for gas. Gas was about $1.19 AUD per litter. We purchased 25.6 liters or 6.77 gallons so the price per gallon came out to about $4.50 AUD or $4.10 USD a gallon. I was actually expecting it to be worse but we had a pretty fuel efficient car. I think it was Toyota Corolla. I also I am not sure how heavily they tax their auto fuel. I know the US has one of the lowest rates of tax on auto fuel in the world. Also as in Europe you mostly see small fuel efficient passenger cars and few SUVs. Two other quick interesting things about driving in Australia is that they have variable speed limits on the interstate and no billboard signs that we saw.

Once we arrived at the airport we noticed a few things that are different than flying in the states. First of all we arrived three hours before our flight was due to depart. This was because our rental car had to be back by noon and our flight wasn't until 3:40 pm. The interesting thing is that you cannot check in for your flight until two hours before departure so we had to wait for a little bit before actually checking in. The check in process through security is even more interesting. We didn't have to show identification one time. At the check in kiosk Alethea had a printed piece of paper with our flight itinerary and a bar code on it. She scanned the bar code and it printed out our tickets. When we dropped our baggage off the desk agent didn't check for any identification. We then proceeded to the security screening area. We didn't have to take off our shoes, belts, jackets, cell phones, or anything except take our laptops out of our backpacks. We didn't even present our boarding pass or any type of ID as we passed through the metal detector. Security did have question about a water purification filter in my backpack though. It didn't really dawn on us until a little later that we went through security without showing ID once. I told Alethea bin Laden could have gotten on the flight using our names. The rest of the journey up to Cairns went just fine except our plane was about 20 minutes later leaving. They also board planes a little differently too. Rows 1-15 board through the front while the rest board through the back of the plane at the same time so there is no boarding by zones. The flight itself was about 3 hours. We spent Monday evening settling in.

We started out Tuesday by sleeping in then doing laundry. After laundry we walked around Cairns for a little bit. We also were on a mini quest to find some free wi-fi internet access since we had done some research about this area but it was stored online. We tried a few spots including a McDonalds and the Cairns public library. At the library we noticed in our town map we got at the hostel that there was free internet access at the brewery that was only about 5 blocks away. How could we resist plus it was overcast, raining, and almost 5 pm? We hiked over to the brewery and ordered our beers. We eventually got online after they plugged the power up to their wireless router. Anyway, we hung out of the brewery for just one round while we got caught up on email and trip research. On the way back we picked up some noodle bowl dishes from a Chinese place before heading home. We turned in rather early because we had be at the check in at terminal for our snorkeling trip the next morning by 8 am plus we had to walk to get there. The hostel offered a free ride down to the terminal only if you booked through them but we booked at another place downtown that ended up giving us both 10% discounts that we probably wouldn't have received at the hostel. It was only about a 20 minute walk.

Wednesday was our big trip out to the Great Barrier Reef. I'll touch on some of the particulars about the trip but to do it just I'd recommend looking at the picture album on the right side of the blog itself or here ( Our trip was an all day trip that included breakfast, lunch, & three stops to dive or snorkel. The base cost per person was $162 per person if all you did was snorkel. Alethea received a 10% discount for being a member of the Youth Hostel Association. The person we booked with also gave me a 10% too so the total was $147 person. It was a splurge activity. During our travels we will occasionally splurge a little bit for one of these once in a lifetime type activities. The next one probably will not occur for a few more weeks until we hit New Zealand where we might skydive. We've both skydived twice before and really enjoy it. Anyway, we checked in at 8 am, departed at 8:30 am, and returned at 4:20 pm. Each stop for snorkeling lasted a little over a hour. The boat had enough for 80 passengers but only carried 68. No I didn't count them. After each stop they did a headcount check so we didn't leave anyone behind and I overheard them give the number. It was pretty much split 50/50 between snorkelers and divers. It took 1.5 hours to get to the spots we stopped. Between stops it only took about 10 minutes to reach the next stop. I believe all stops were at Flynn's Reef which is pretty far out and further out than where most boats go. It was on the edge of the continental shelf where it drops off to the deep water. We both decided to wear both stinger suites and wet suites due to the conditions at our snorkeling locations. The stinger suites are as you guessed it for jelly fish stings. The lifeguard mentioned that they had some passengers stung 4 days prior. The water temp was 25 C (I believe that is 75 F) which is a little cool for us so we also put wet suites on over our stinger suites. Both suites costs us an extra $6 per person which wasn't bad. All three of the stops had great views of fish and coral. Some people saw turtles. I didn't. Some also saw reef sharks which are common and supposedly harmless. I thought I saw one from a distance but wasn't 100% sure. I heard some of the divers say they saw some on more than one stop so I am sure they were around. I would say the only variables that could have been a little better was that it was overcast with no sun and the first place we stopped at was pretty rough. It was definitely the roughest waters I have snorkeled in. All previous snorkeling for me had been done close to shore and not in the open ocean. There were quite a few snorkelers that were snorkeling for the first time. I definitely would not have enjoyed the first stop if that was my first time. I was getting thrown around and water was splashing in my air tube from the waves. The water was calmer at our next two stops and some of the coral was even exposed above the water on the third stop. The depths varied varied a little between locations. They were were around 25-30 feet where the coral wasn't present. I am glad it was a little deeper which allowed for better viewing without having to worry about being carried into the coral. One other note on the rough seas is that multiple passengers became sick on the trip out with some even getting sick to their stomach. Alethea didn't to well on the way out but did better on the way back. I was just fine and actually thought it was pretty neat although it made drinking coffee a little interesting. All in all I thought it was very good trip and I'm glad we did it. It was definitely the best snorkeling and the most fish I've scene. We finished the day off by redeeming a coupon for a large pizza from Dominos for $6 (total was $6.95 with tax). One funny thing that happened was that when we asked for the red pepper packets to put on our pizza they looked at us like we were crazy. In Australia they call it chilli flakes and they put on your pizza there as a topping verses dispensing it in the packets.

Thursday was a day filled with a lot less activities. We considered renting a car and driving along the coast up to Port Douglas and beyond. However, it was going to cost at least $50 for the rental car plus probably $20 for the gas and then other expenses. We decided instead to stay in Cairns. The weather was much better with the highs in the low 80's and sunny skies. We walked down the boardwalk and on the beach for a couple hours around mid-day. It is a long beach. It is probably 2 miles long. The not so pretty part is that starting around mid-day is low tide so the shoreline begins to recede and in Cairns it receded a few hundred meters exposing mud flats. We did see a lot birds and lizard like creatures. There were signs warning of crocodiles in the area but we didn't see any which actually kind of disappointed me a little bit. We then backtracked the path we took down to the beach and spent a little bit of time at McDonald's using their free wi-fi before walking a little further out to the marina and then back to our hostel. We stopped on the way back to buy a cheap bottle of wine and some basic supplies. Alethea cooked dinner. We've pretty much decided that we need to cook as much as possible to stretch our money to last as long as possible in expensive countries such as Australia, New Zealand, & Japan.

Friday was a travel day. We had a minor hiccup flying down south to Adelaide. The issue was that when we checked in for our first flight in Cairns the agent tried to charge us for one of our checked bags. We flew on Jet Stat airlines. For this flight which includes a layover in Brisbane we had to call and purchase the ticket over the phone because for multi-stop flights you cannot book online. Apparently the agent we spoke too booked my ticket correctly but not Alethea's so they tried to charge her for her bag. We argued for a little bit and they decided not to charge us for the other bag. We also found out that when we got to Brisbane we had to claim our bags and re-check in for our flight to Adelaide. The rest of the trip was uneventful. It was pretty easy to claim our bags and check-in for our next flight. We get in around 8:30 pm.

Overall our side to trip to Cairns went pretty well. Cairns reminded us of Hawaii somewhat. The beaches that we saw weren't all that great but the main attraction here is the Great Barrier Reef. We enjoyed our trip out to the reef Our next stop is 4 hours to the south down in Adelaide. The weather there is going to quite different. Alethea saw a news report earlier today saying there was a chance for snow even. I believe the highs will be in the 50's. Brrrrr