I had worked hard in Sydney for four months, saving up money, so I was ecstatic when I finally made it to Cairns. It had been in the back of my mind, teasing me ever since I had first arrived, fresh off the plane in Sydney.

I started my first morning there with a hangover after a night of heavy partying (a Cairns specialty I soon discovered). I went on a guided day-trip to Cape Tribulation, one of the most northern accessible points from Cairns to see the Daintree Rainforest, a World Heritage Site and the oldest rainforest on Earth.

Of course it was… rainy. Heavy rain. Monsoon rain. It was wet season after all, and the rain came along with suffocating summer heat and humidity. Our guide laughed at our droopy faces as we started off on our little hike through the bush. “What were you expecting, anyhow?” he teased with his adorable Australian, in your face, demeanour. But I soon discovered that in the wet season, the rainforest comes alive. There were amazing smells; everything was so fresh, green and lush.

The next day, back in Cairns and back in my hostel on the Esplanade, I signed up for a snorkelling day out on the reef. I had originally booked one of the many simple and cheap backpacker budget boat trips for my day out on the water, but then the company I booked with cancelled my trip for lack of participants. In the process, I was upgraded, free of charge, to a luxury catamaran day out on the reef, including a gourmet buffet lunch, champagne and a band to entertain us while sailing. The trip was worth $300! I thought I had hit the backpacker jackpot!

And then I discovered I had no sea legs. The trip to reach the reef was quite rough, the boat hitting big swells and rocking from side to side, making almost everyone on board sick. I retreated to the deck and tried to lock my eyes on the horizon until the boat reached the reef and I regained the use of all my faculties.

I ventured out to the small island the crew had docked the boat next to in order to join the other passengers in a bit of snorkelling to see the reef. I had tried snorkelling once before while on a short sailing trip a few weeks prior, and even if I am not a very strong swimmer, the experience had gone without a snatch. It had been fantastic, and I already felt like I was a pro. But this time was very different.

My mask kept filling up with water and falling off my face. I barely even made it out to the water, as the waves kept crashing on me and bringing me back, wobbly with my flippers, to the beach. Plus, for safety reasons, the crew had ordered all swimmers to wear protective floater life vests, which were not only very bulky on my petite frame, but also made me spin around and around. After a good hour of fighting the incoming waves, spinning around frantically, swallowing sea water and accumulating sand in every crevice of my body as my butt was dragged time and again all the way back to shore, one of the crew members took pity on me, found me a kid’s size mask (oh the humility!), swam with me out to the reef, away from the break of the waves, and left me out there for a while to explore.

Sadly, the fantasy of snorkelling in skimpy swimwear around colourful fish and corals like you see in all those TV commercials does not take into account that, in the summertime, Australia’stropical waters are home to the dreaded venomous box jellyfish, with its lethal stingers. I didn’t see a box jellyfish (I probably would have had a heart attack if I did, even if I would have been safe in my wetsuit), and while I was anything but graceful, the corals were beautiful and the fish were plentiful.

I ended up staying over a week in Cairns and it’s been the highlight of my time in Australia so far. It was well worth all that hard work and saving in Sydney.