After 15 hours of travel and a tumultuously turbulent flight from Hong Kong, we arrived in sunny Cairns early in the morning, eager to continue our trip in the place where it was cut short last time. Walking through the airport was like déjà vu with the memories of our last encounter here still firmly in our minds, we arrived at the baggage carousel tired and fed up. Our baggage didn’t arrive. Holly, myself and a handful of other disgruntled Virgin customers waited at the desk while the dim witted staff member filled out our baggage forms. “I can see your bags at Sydney” she shot at us, without any apology. Holly was past the point of caring about anything and just stood blankly staring at the Virgin Hostess. After what seemed like an eternity to complete a poxy questionnaire and identify which bags ours resembled from the chart of 100 variations, we were onour way. Once again the racist cash machines seemed to take a disliking to our English cards, so we jumped in a cab, penniless, and headed for our hotel.
We would be spending 22 days in a campervan and had decided to spend one last night in a hotel in Cairns. After checking in to our nice big apartment, we headed out in the same sweaty clothes we had spent the last 30 hours in. Although we had been here before, briefly, this was our first time into the town centre. I was delighted to find it only a short walk away and very easy to get around. We walked along the Esplanade at the sea front and grinned in awe at the views along the peer. Sea stretching out to the horizon, with gorgeous green hills at one end, separating the ocean from sky. The heat and the slight breeze perfect for a stroll.
As continuous bursts of joggers and power walkers whizzed past us, and the outdoor gyms filled up, fitness is something these Aussies take seriously. We, however, are in no mood for anything remotely strenuous, unless its eating and drinking too much, which, I’m sure, this place caters for too. After buying some $5 flip flops I left Holly sitting on a bench while I sought out a tattoo shop I had been in touch with about getting my Granddad’s name tattooed having missed my chance in Hong Kong. When I came back I found she had fell asleep with the exhaustion from the flights so we went to The Lagoon, a public swimming pool at the end of the sea front walk, where Holly could nap on the grass in peace.
We walked back home along the peer and the relaxation of this town took over us, and we both felt instantly chilled, welcomed and ready to adventure.
Hooray, baggage had arrived. But only one. Fuck. Guess who’s was missing? Yes, it was mine. However, I am glad in a way as Holly without hers would have given me a constant earful and panic would have ensued. So after wearing the same shirt for now 30 hours through 2 different countries, 3 airports, 2 cities, 1 town and a sweaty sea front walk in the sun, it was time I retired said shirt and opted for my emergency hoody. Dressed to impress, we headed to a local eatery where a single portion looked like it could feed a few families. We dined on what we imagined would be our last meal cooked for us for some time as the trepidation of campervan life crept in to our thoughts and conversation.
Still no baggage that night and after falling asleep in the hotel lobby waiting for my bag so I could brush my teeth, I called it a night at 10.30.
The next morning I excitedly headed off to collect the camper, a brief but hot walk in the morning sun. My bag had arrived and having had the chance to wash and change my clothes I felt like a new man, and soon I would have my new toy.
Looking at my future house to be on wheels, I was impressed with the strategic layout and could see myself perfectly content in here for months. Daydreams turned to nightmares as I imagined Holly in here. I climbed aboard and headed off, captain of my ship, no directions, no map, no sat nav necessary to get back to the hotel. I am a man with my home on my back, Kerouac didn’t need them, and I certainly won’t. After one wrong turn within the first 300m I was on a one way road back to the airport. Shit. A necessary detour, I convinced myself, to get used to the driving.
We checked out immediately, said goodbye to luxuries such as more than one pillow, a proper mattress and space to stand up, and headed off for Port Douglas. Our duet renditions of Spice Girls songs were only interrupted by a brief stop at Trinity Beach and at Rex’s Point where the breathtaking views down the coast had me dreaming of paradise. Turquoise sea and white sands hardly touched. Pure beauty. Each new place and view with it’s own unique character and beauty.
At Port Douglas we went back to a campsite we had last time been turned away from last time because of our oversized and ostentatious camper. This time, in our modest abode on wheels we gained access. After a brief tour we parked up for our first day and night as happy campers. Throughout the site every single person we passed said hello, the friendliness of this place already busting at the seams.
We wandered to the pool area for a closer look at the amenities. “‘Ot enuf for ya? Am fackin mewtin ‘ere” Hammy, an Essex boy sat up on his sun lounger next to his girlfriend, V. We introduced ourselves and started what we would find to be the universal travellers introduction. Where have you been, where are you going, how long have you been here, how long do you have left. Straight away he invited us for a drink later that evening that we gladly accepted. Friends on our first day camping, aren’t we special.
We headed into the town centre for groceries and lunch, feeling like we knew the place already. We had a picnic and watched the sunset from a spot we had enjoyed in our brief excursion here last time.
We headed back to the campsite but could not find our new friend. We had put it down to it just being a friendly gesture when he sauntered past us at the bar.
“Alright mate, I’m chilling with friends at the tents, just come round”. We followed with drinks in hand, and perhaps a bit too much enthusiasm, to the tents set up. There stood the tents, with entrances facing each other, a tarp overhanging the openings creating a porch effect for a table and chairs full of people. As we were introduced, we caught the names of Irish Ben, Maria, English Ben and French Ben before everyone descended into better conversation than the name game. As it has been when meeting friends in our past travels, you get to know one another before even finding out names, if you ever even do. We squeezed on a chair and the group immediately let us in, involving us straight away. Irish Ben sat, strumming his guitar and wooing the group with his husky voice while Hammy let out a freestyle rap between song chorus’ that Eminem would have been proud of. With the smell of weed wafting through the air, good music and excellent craic, this felt like a place where people could come and stay for months. And they do. We heard tales of those coming for a week and end up staying staying three months and even some who had been living there six months. We came to learn that most of the groups of friends were working in the area and were all living in this glorious commune after sampling its delights in previous years. We had only planned to stay one night in Port Douglas, but we could feel the unstoppable lure of Dougies pulling us in.
“Fancy a boat trip tomorrow?” We were asked. Jesus we had only known these people a few hours and we were making plans. We agreed, half expecting hangovers or memory loss to impede our progress with acquaintance acquisition. As the beer around the tent ran dry, we hit the bar where more people were introduced to us and gleefully regaled their stories of travel. There was no prejudice here. No judgement or funny looks for the newcomers, just unadulterated friendship.
The next day we awoke to the startling adjustment to campervan life, with a hangover. If you can imagine adjusting to living in a box, feeling tired, nauseous, hot and with a headache, your probably half way to how we felt. The standard sunlight and birdsong 6am alarm clock did its job but thankfully we were able to snooze that until about 1pm when we surfaced and headed to the pool, with heavy heads that last night wore the crown. We were pleased to find that we were still going on the boat and that we would be leaving soon. It seemed so accessible that something like this could be done so easily, and cheaply. Why back home do we sit around saying there’s nothing to do? Is there really so little in the North of England? Or are we blind and ignorant to anything that is actually happening around us?
On route to the harbour we stopped for what would be an amazing discovery. Goon. A 5ltr box of wine for about $15. That’s about £2 per litre. God knows what it’s made of but we liked it.
We took turns driving the boat up the river and drinking the Goon straight from the bag, hoping to spot a croc. The surrounding trees sitting in front of green hillside and the sun high and bright in a clear blue sky gave us the perfect backdrop to get to know our new friends better. Ben, Maria, Hammy and V all become comfortable with Holly and me and us with them.
After I expertly parked the boat to rapturous applause from the whole team (or so I imagined) we grabbed a snack and headed to Anzac park for sunset. As we chatted to the warm glow of the sun, the changing colours stirring out emotions, we watched the stars come out in the perfectly clear sky, the Milky Way hanging above us, all hangovers now faded into the night.
We walked back down old railway lines where there was no street lights to be seen, helping to emphasise the beauty of the night sky. Back at camp we found ourselves around the tent centre again with a few beers getting to know more of the group, including Sam and Chelsea who had been travelling quite some time together. “I will give you a list of places to go and see,” said Chelsea offering up some advice. Off she went and donned her head torch to get to work. Expecting a few post it notes of rough scribblings we were overwhelmed and extremely grateful when she presented us with 5 pages of notes on Australia’s East Coast and New Zealand.
The next morning we were over the moon to see Ben and Maria pop round to our van to make sure we hadn’t left without a goodbye. It was sad to be leaving Dougies, even after such a short space of time, you felt a closeness to the people who’s paths you crossed. This was a place where friendships, relationships and lives are formed. Truly unforgettable.
We headed to Cairns with a plan to meet some of the Dougies gang in Thailand, and the hopes of finding another Dougies on our trip, something we were assured we would not find.
Our return to Cairns saw us turned away from hostels without camp facilities until we found a friendly site that would end up being the setting for our first Aussie Barbie. That night, although I’m ashamed it wasn’t a shrimp, we had steak cooked the real way, outside!
There is something manly about cooking outside. The BBQ wasn’t coals and grill, but a hot plate. The moment was slightly tainted by an Australian fella who seemingly tried to put down everything we said. “You’re going down the east coast? The west is better,” he kindly told us “ending in Sydney? It’s shit, there’s nothing there” what a douche. Ignoring the first impolite Aussie we had came across, we devoured our delicious steak with pride.
We set off early the next morning at 8am for a trip to Kuranda by train. Eagerness was clearly strewn all over my face as I awaiting what I expected to be a Hogwarts Express type steam train. What petered down the tracks was a diesel engine that looked like a big yellow brick. Nevertheless we had been given seats 1 and 2 in carriage 1. Front row seats to the big show! Not quite. Facing backwards away from any windows, our views were partially blocked by a miserable, breast feeding woman and her equally miserable husband and children.
When they ever so kindly shifted out or way some of the views we had on route were spectacular, even more fascinating was the construction method of the whole line, hand digging tonnes of earth for 15 tunnels. After the early start and a disjointed sleep I could feel myself falling asleep. Valiantly fighting the urge for my eyes to slam shut, I was startled by a slap in the face. What was clearly a joke, but in my half asleep daze took as pure and utter hatred and malice, woke me and I snapped at a laughing Holly. Oh shit, wrong move Mr Barnes. My apologies fell on deaf ears as I sought forgiveness, which eventually came as we climbed the mountain. At the charmingly old fashioned station we decided to take the long walk to the village, about 2 miles along the river and through the rainforest.
We meandered through the foreign species of plants and trees reaching to the sky, our necks aching from the constant spinning in all directions to soak up every inch of this foreign land. Now this really felt like we were in the other side of the planet.
At the top of the walk I expected a minuscule village with aborigines walking around scantily clad, performing their traditional daily duties and entertaining us visitors with dances. The town was friendly, with shops on every corner selling souvenirs, food and drinks. Local markets sold hand made jewellery, custom clothes, boomerangs and the occasional kangaroo scrotum bottle opener. The closest we got to an Aborigine was a man playing and teaching didgeridoo in one of the markets. Any Aborigines had been moved away the more popular the town got, according to the local tourist info centre, and it would cost us another day tour and a few hundred bucks to see this.
Commercialisation, seemingly taking away the true beauty and history of this place.
We descended via a sky rail that made me fill my pants a few times. After completing one in Langkawi earlier this year, I was full of confidence until I saw the clear glass bottom. As fear started to transform to wonder, we gazed over the gorgeous rainforest where we had previously hiked that day, contemplating all the life below. A couple of stops on the descent gave us wondrous views of the waterfall and the area of jungle surrounding it, with mountains fading to blue in the distance.
Disappointed to not find the boomerang school we saw from the skyrail, we got on our transfer bus and headed for home.
Back in cairns we split a pizza from a dodgy looking kebab shop and headed to Giligans, recommended by Holly’s sister in law, Emma. Thankfully allowed entry without ID, the bar seems pretty normal like any other, when what seemed like all of a sudden the crowds came. A guy threw up all over the table and when mocked by his friends, picked up and threw the vomit at them. A pub-crawl was then in the offing and selected members were selected to go on stage for drinking games, very club 18-30. The pub-crawl left via bus (how big is this crawl??), and we left only imagining how crazy nights here could become.
With public BBQ’s sprinkled along the beach front, groups of people, families and friends, all gathered for a mid-week dinner and drinks. The laid back life style on show throughout.
Holly tried to get her backpackers head on and saved herself $1 by buying cheap, homebrand sweets instead of Haribo, based on the fact she loves Sainsbury’s own. This proved to be a false economy as they tasted like utter shit.
We would be leaving Cairns again with the feeling we could have stayed so much longer. Trying to balance the trip into not rushing around all day doing site seeing and things with taking you time to soak up the true atmosphere of places was proving difficult already.