Everything is racing: my feet, my mind, and my heart. Cairns is my last stop in Australia, and even though my trip has already turned out to be more than I hoped for, I have to keep the momentum going until the very end.
Not a day goes by where I’m not up by 5-6am and out the door to see the city before it comes alive or getting picked up for an excursion. I am working myself into exhaustion. Coupled with my awful diet and dehydration, I’m surprised and thankful I don’t get sick.
Regretfully, however, I barely get in one word with my hostel roommates. A lovely pair of girls from Germany who have come to Australia on a working holiday visa and a snoring straggler who sleeps comfortably in just his boxer briefs and would, I’m sure, sleep completely naked had he not had female company. Anyway, I slip out before they awake each morning and get dropped back off well after they are asleep. My days are, I assure you, nothing short of an adventure.
Jumping Out of a Plane
Bungee jumping off of Macau Tower last year required me to numb my mind. I had no idea what I was doing, and that was a good thing because otherwise I might not have gone through with it. 10 seconds of free fall were broken up into 3 seconds of fear and 7 seconds of “I would totally do this over and over again.” My love of heights, aerial views, panoramas, and being up high is as strong as the worst case of acrophobia. So when it came time to skydive, I didn’t think twice about it. I was excited, eager, you couldn’t stop me.
What better way to kick off my first day in Cairns than consuming adrenaline for breakfast? Forget about the 6:30am wake up call, the sun is up, promising a beautiful day, and I am about to be soaring through the sky from 14,000 feet above sea level. The ride over to the general aviation section of the airport and all the waiting, I don’t care for so much. The safety video that plays is barely audible so I rely on the visuals. Arms crossed, head back, jump, enjoy the views. That’s the jist of it anyway.
Today, we’re jumping over the Esplanade for a special occasion. It would be expert diver, Bob’s, 10,000th jump. I don’t know Bob, but he has a lot of muscles and tattoos and looks like he’s handled more than his fair share of obstacles in life. A day off after hitting his special milestone is well deserved I’m sure. My tandem partner for the jump would be Jacko! He immediately comes across as Bob’s polar opposite. He’s the sort of guy that easily becomes friends with anyone, and it’s clear he wants me to have the best experience.
20 minutes to ascend to 14,000 feet and only 60 seconds to reach the ground. In a group of 8, we are the 5th pair to jump, but before I know it, we are in front of the door then free-falling through frigid cold air. There was no time to panic at the last minute, but I didn’t need to. My mouth has run dry, my cheeks feel like they’re going to rip off of my face, and my arms and legs are covered in goosebumps. Slowly, the city comes back into view below then suddenly, Jacko pulls the trigger and we’re jerked upwards. The parachute shoots open as we drift down, and I soak in every bit of the view because I know I won’t see Cairns in its entirety from this high up again. I can’t speak. The whole morning, the whole experience leaves me speechless.
Breaking the silence, I ask Jacko, “How many times a day do you jump?” “Usually 4-5 times.” I can’t even imagine.
The rest of the day I have to myself to walk around the city and length of the Esplanade to bring myself back down to Earth.
Snorkeling at The Reef
A little boy continues to run up the steps near the bench where I’m sitting and jumping off of them, landing on the floor like he’s a superhero. Surely, the snorkeling would’ve worn him out by now, but I am wrong. He is just one of five rambunctious kids aboard the boat who would surely find a way overboard, if their parents paid less attention to them. This feels more like a party boat than an excursion out to the Great Barrier Reef. People are strewn about, sunbathing on the deck, passed out on benches and the floor, and if I’m not mistaken, one young woman is flirting her way through the male crew members. I am not here to judge, I’m here to swim with fish.
The boat anchors in the middle of nowhere with only 2 other boats and a sandy isle in sight. I tighten my mask, slip on my flippers, and jump feet first into the water. There’s no time to worry about how warm or cold it may be. I came to see some marine life. As I start to swim, my heart is pumping fast. I begin to think maybe humans weren’t meant to mingle with sea life, but on the other hand, “damn, how cool is this!?”Approaching the different reefs, schools of fish start to reveal themselves, and I have to play dead man so I won’t scare them away. There are rainbow fish, tiny fish, stingrays, fish the length of my entire arm, turtles and DORI from Finding Nemo. Once I swim past the reefs, the ocean floor sinks into infinity and all I can see is a blue abyss for miles. It’s disorienting and terrifying but exhilarating all at the same time. When my ears are under water, everything goes quiet, I forget where I am, and the serene, warm current keeps me calm. I could spend all day here, but the allotted two hours is plenty for the salt dries out my skin and my fingers begin to prune.
On the way back to the dock, dolphins bid us farewell with a show. Leaning over the railing, I watch in amazement, and at the same time, I’m well aware of the severe sunburn creeping down my back to my legs. Two sure-tell signs of an amazing day. I should go back inside, but I can’t help but stare and smile.
Getting to Know Cairns
I am tired and burnt to a crisp from snorkeling the day before, but up and at ’em I go because waste a day in this tropical oasis I shall not. At least I get a late start. My 11-hour tour of the city doesn’t leave until 10:30am. To the Esplanade, I walk to meet up with my tour guide for the day, but I am early, in the hopes of scoring some breakfast first. Chocolate bubble tea it is. While I plop myself down at a picnic table and wait, a tall, slender, young man approaches me to ask the time. He isn’t wearing shoes and appears to be either hungover or still drunk. It’s 9:45am. He continues walking to the “herb shop” nearby, and peeks inside hoping someone is there to open the store early. There is not, but he continues to wait anyway. A hopeless end to a hollow drama.
Thirty minutes later, I meet with my guide Quey and his nephew, Jake, but by the end, they both felt like old friends. The day slips away from me as it takes us through the botanical gardens, a hike up Mt Whitfield, a walk through the night market, sampling kangaroo and crocodile, walking along the exterior of The Dome above the casino, a torturous 40 minute massage for my sunburned back, and drinks and tapas at Shangri La hotel.
Quey is careful to incorporate important facts about the city throughout the day, but I’m more curious about his interests, why he moved to Cairns, and first experiences with being a tour guide. That’s how I level the playing field from tour guide–tourist relationship to friendship. I got to meet his wife and son, hear stories about previous customer experiences, and we shared our love of fried food over a fish & chips lunch. The most valuable takeaway, however, was learning that the most stressful thing about living in Cairns is figuring out where to eat, and where to find shade. It really is a “no shirt, no shoes, no problem” kind of world in Cairns, and I can see myself breathing easy here sometime in my life.
My trip ends with a bang, just as I had hoped. I feel like passing out from constantly being on the move. Catch me if you Cairns.