But for me, Cairns is by far my favourite. Why? Because Cairns has heaps of carnage!
Ultimately, this boils down to the fact it signals the start or finish of the east coast trail for many backpackers. It’s either the first place you set foot on Aussie soil or the last place before heading home or elsewhere on your travels. For these reasons alone, there’s bound to be heaps of goon-related antics – as people are either flush with freshly-liberated bank accounts or eating quickly into credit card debt, trying to make the most of their last days Down Under. Either way, it’s a recipe for sweet, sweet carnage!
I have no real idea why I decided to start my trip in Cairns, it was a sporadic choice, but I’m glad I did. It was a great introduction to Australia.
I’m going to start with the drinking and partying side of things, because over the seven weeks I spent in the jewel of northern Queensland, drinking was my main pastime. Like any major city, Cairns has a great nightlife and there is a range of places to dance away the humid nights.
The Woolshed (aka the Wooly) is probably one of the most infamous places to hit. Much like Byron Bay’s Cheeky Monkey’s, abundant drinks offers and table dancing are the order of the night – although the low beamed ceilings can sometimes leave you with a few more bruises than you anticipated collecting!
Another one of my favorite haunts – The Rhino bar (which was serving up $1 roo, croc and emu burgers alongside $5 all you can drink hours and 50 cent-a-schooner keg parties when I was there) – was an equally messy option! Gilligan’s also remains a solid option – even more so if you choose to lay your head down in the hostel it’s built within. What more could a hormone-filled backpacker want than a range of in-house discounts and a 2,000 person capacity club? If ever there was a place to make a bad decision, then Gilligan’s certainly tick the boxes.
There’s heaps of other pubs/clubs/casinos to enjoy too – booking yourself on the ‘Ultimate Party Bus’ will help you sample a great cross section of the Cairns nightlife on the cheap.
However, Cairns can offset the balance of carnage and also has a few things up its sleeve to cure a hangover and keep you amused until the inevitable box of goon is opened mid-afternoon. Here’s my pick of the bunch.
Crystal Cascades – one of the places which was most recommended to me by an ex-Cairns local. A short drive from the town centre, this river network is full of plunge pools and waterfalls accompanied by free BBQ stations – a perfect day out for on the cheap.
Skydiving – for me, Cairns, or at least just down the road, was my favourite place to skydive. A day trip down to Mission Beach means you can land on the sand and take in the view of the awesomely blue ocean that laps up onto it. Adrenalin and relaxation combined.
The Lagoon – if you’re a little short on cash or simply fancy a lazy day, the lagoon pools on the Cairns Esplanade are the place to go. A magnet for hazy travellers topping up their tans, reading a book or simply spending a day doing nothing, it’s a great place to while away some time. And the best bit? It’s completely free!
Classes – throughout the year, Cairns funds a broad range of free and subsidised activities throughout the town – just keep an eye up on the display boards dotted around. I enjoyed some casual yoga classes whilst I was there, a great way to start the day.
Cape Tribulation – not really a Cairns based activity but a great little trip from the city if you have a couple of days to spare. Head up to where the rainforest meets the reef, taking in the relaxing Mossman Gorge and some saltwater crocs along the way. And don’t forget to check out Port Douglas for a barra and chips.
There’s been one glaring omission from my Cairns banter so far, but I thought it deserves a stand out section of its own, simply due to the fact that it’s Cairns biggest pull on the backpacker trail, and indeed one of Australia’s most prized possessions – the Great Barrier Reef.
Yup, Cairns is probably the most renowned access point to the GBR in Australia and the bulk of its tourist dollars are generated through it.
If you’re up this end of Australia (or in Oz full stop for that matter), no trip would be complete without exploring the vast expanse of coral reef that dominates the ocean in this World Heritage-listed site.
And there’s a few different ways to get involved in finding Nemo too. For those on a tight budget, a day trip snorkelling is a great way to get a taster, or for those who fancy a bit more depth to their visit, a taster day of scuba diving isn’t going to break the bank either. There are numerous companies and boats who will happily take you there for around $120. For those who have planned ahead a bit more, are feeling a bit more flush or who want to pack out their CV with some more shiny bits of paper, you can go all out and do a PADI dive course which allows you to hire kit and dive all over the globe.
I went one better and did the liveaboard option – same qualification but with heaps more dives (including some night ones) whilst living on the dive boat. Plus, you generally get to visit more pristine sections of the reef. It’s far from slumming it – these boats are floating hotels, but it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made while travelling. If you are looking for a new career or a backpacking job, you could take the course right through to instructor level (although your wallet will take a hit), or you can earn free dives simply by volunteering on the boat.
And if you’re über keen and fancy a big cash splurge, why not check out a trip to the infamous ‘Cod Hole’ – a truly memorable and unique diving experience on some beautifully pristine dive sites on the Outer Reef. Whatever you choose to do, the barrier reef is one of those bucket list items that needs to be ticked off. And swimming amongst the shoals of fish, cruising alongside some turtles or meeting an inquisitive Maori wrasse is the essence of travelling Australia. And once back on dry land, it’ll be time to dust of your drinking hat for some goon times!
No matter if you start or finish in Cairns, make sure you budget enough time to fully appreciate it. I’ve met far too many people who regretted not putting enough time aside for Cairns or who had already booked a ticket straight out of there.
For one thing you need to make sure you have enough time to dive (you can’t fly within 24 hours) and more importantly, like any major place – the longer you spend there, the more you’ll get out of it. It’s also a great place to sweat out the ‘winter’ period while places like Melbourne and Sydney get hit by the cold weather – just try and avoid the cyclone season.
Overall, Cairns left me with a whole host of great friends and great memories – tales of our goon-related carnage followed us down the coast; from stripping Jesus night, indecent swimming pool antics and penthouse fire escape confusion through to a certain Welshman ending up with 12 stitches in his man parts – it was goon times all round! Indeed, I liked it so much I’m heading back there to finish my Oz trip soon!
Photos: Getty, Tourism Australia