This is going to be a several part post, because three weeks of independent travel doesn’t just fit into one or two posts, and that’s exactly how I spent the last three weeks, backpacking the east coast of Australia by bus and boat. I started at the northern end of the coast in Cairns, famous for waterfalls, Cape Tribulation, and great snorkeling/scuba diving areas of the Great Barrier Reef. Unfortunately I was rather time crunched, and only had time to snorkel the reef. I had to miss out on the waterfalls and everything else the Cairns area of tropical northern Australia has to offer, but I plan to go back someday and cover the things that I missed. Only once though: I realized early on in my travels that there is always something you will wish you’d done or had time to do. No matter how long you stay in a place, a city, or a country, you’re always going to feel that you missed things. There are just too many cool things to do in too many places. So, for this trip I did what I could, I made my way down the coast, staying two nights at a time in most places, one full day for activities in each place, nearly two if I was lucky, and for me for this trip that was enough.
The hostel was its own experience. I’d never stayed in a share room with strangers before, and the first people I met coming in weren’t exactly welcoming. I wondered the first night if I’d made a mistake, if I should have just stayed around Melbourne and done short trips alone or with my friends who were still in the area. I slept pretty badly too, partly because of the weird environment and indifferent or unwelcoming strangers, partly because I was terrified about missing something. I’d booked through a booking agent, who had made a schedule for me and signed me up for everything in advance, so there was no room for error. If I missed a tour or activity that was it, I’d missed it. There was no time to go back, and if I missed a bus it could put me an entire day off, costing me at least one activity and even making going to a town pointless. I’m not exactly a morning person, and most of my activities and busses left at 8 am each day, with some starting as early as 6:30, so I was really anxious about missing something. This made for some fitful nights of sleep my first few days out, especially in Cairns. In some ways this was good though, it made sure I woke up in time for my activities, even if I was a bit tired. No one travels to be well rested.
So Cairns was the reef, and this little trip was when I realized that there were problems with booking through a booking agent. They’d put me on the cheapest boat available, which was fine in that the reef is the reef, but this boat was old and the water was a bit rough that day, so most passengers got sick (myself included, but less so than most). And the spots we saw on the reef, I later learned, were not as good as the areas people who paid a bit more got to see. But because I’d booked through an agent I had no idea what I was getting, they’d just given me the cheapest options available. It was still an incredible experience though. I rented a GoPro, but unfortunately, I don’t have a card reader, so I can’t post any pictures until I get back to the states. The colors were amazing though, we could just float over the reefs, close enough to touch them if I’d stretched my arm out far enough, and the fish didn’t care. They just kept swimming, avoiding anyone who accidentally kicked out with ease.
Because the sites we were at weren’t that great, we could also see some of the damage the reef has suffered. We saw broken and bleached corals that had fallen off the shelf onto the ocean floor a few yards below, and large stretches where fish didn’t bother to go anymore. But the surviving reef was beautiful, and honestly hard to take in. When they called us in for the last time I felt like I’d barely started exploring it.
From Cairns, I took a Premier bus (cheaper version of a Greyhound) south along the coast to Townsville, where I caught a ferry to Magnetic Island, named, apparently, because Captain Cook incorrectly thought the island messed with his compass. I could have stayed on this island for a week easily. Not only was the hostel there my favorite from my whole trip, but the island was ideal for just exploring and seeing wildlife. I only had one full day there, but I walked miles across the island and saw loads of lizards, wild wallabies, and wild koalas, and I only made it over one side of the island. Given more time I might have been able to spot eagles and sea life.
My next stop was Airlie beach to see the Whitsundays, a series of islands off the coast of mainland Australia. Given another chance I would do a two or three day tour to have a chance to see manta rays, dolphins, and even whales at the right time of year. But again, I was pressed for time, so I did a one day tour, and it was still amazing. Whitehaven beach was incredible, and no matter how many photos I took I knew I’d never manage to capture it the way it seems in reality. I had a great time there though, despite the massive sunburn I discovered when I got back. The only down side to this stop was Airlie beach itself. There really wasn’t anything to do there, and I wound up having to kill an entire day there waiting on an evening bus to my next stop. A day off wound up being pretty nice though, after going all out for nearly a week, an easy day to just walk around was a good break.