The Road to Cairns


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Photo: Darren Jew

On your to Cairns, Australia, start in Sydney. Australia’s most populous city is like London on sunshine and happy pills. Run around the city—check out the iconic Opera House, go to Bondi Beach, find a bar. Order a local beer and drink with the Aussies—they are particularly good at having fun. Make friends with locals or fellow travelers; let them take you anywhere and ride it out for as long as it lasts.

Next, rent a car and drive up the eastern coast to Byron Bay, the mystical gateway to Cairns. This will take you two days. Start early on the first day, and stop in the midafternoon. Find accommodations anywhere near the beach. Spend the rest of the afternoon at the ocean behaving like a child—the warm water, the waves and the sun will induce a state of presentness that may feel like a memory you’ve never had.

The next day, continue your drive to Byron Bay, the once-secret hippie town. Byron Bay proper will be filled with tourists, so stay at a bed-and-breakfast outside of town. Cairns is still a ways away, but you will need the medicine of this landscape, this crossroads where rolling green countryside meets the rainforest and the ocean. The next day, get directions to a quiet beach. Go there and observe that you can see no one for miles in each direction.

You can get to Brisbane in two hours. From there, take a cheap, quick flight to Cairns. When you arrive in Cairns, stay at any motel in town for the night. In the morning, take your bags and wait for your ride into the rainforest. Yes, your ride. Before you get to Cairns, find a good hostel to stay at, right on the ocean, one that will pick you up and whisk you away to your hideout in the jungle. Choose a company that offers things to do—walks in the rainforest, night hikes, daylong boat trips to the reef. Here is your trip to Cairns.

Stay in the rainforest, because this is what Cairns has to offer, because it still exists, because it bumps right up against the ocean and because this part of the ocean is home to the Great Barrier Reef. The hostels are self-contained and civilized; there’s food, and the Internet, and some even have pools and private rooms with air conditioning. Stay in the rainforest because you’ll be checking your email at the outdoor café one night and a giant butterfly—bigger than your hand—might perch gently on top of your computer and check you out for a minute.

Everything here is self-sufficient and wild. The trees have arms that can wrap themselves around other plants and consume them. If you go off the beaten path, you can walk into the forest, turn around twice and be instantly lost. You will not be accustomed to the patterns here—the colors, loops and textures will draw you farther in. There are vines that have teeth and will catch you if you brush up against them. There are wild crocodiles. But this is why you’re staying in the safety of the hostel, with guided help.

Take the boat trip that the hostel offers. The smaller and more modest the boat, the better. It takes roughly an hour by boat to get to the Great Barrier Reef. You can’t touch anything on the reef, but you can spend the afternoon snorkeling and taking it all in—you will see the light aqua color of the water against the eastern horizon, the ancient vibrant colors of the coral and strange fish. You’ll witness the perfectly white sandbar in the middle of the ocean that only the sea birds walk on. And you’ll forget where you are—inside one of the mysteries of the world, swimming along a reef so big that it can be seen from outer space. If the captain offers a scuba class for some extra dough, do it. They’ll give you the gear and an introductory dive class right there. Fifteen feet below the surface, your instructor might suddenly pass you a giant sea cucumber. Your hands will instantly, intuitively assess it and gather information.

You’ll thank yourself for choosing the smaller boat when on the ride back to the shore the captain turns off the motor and lets all 10 of you take turns jumping off the roof of the boat and into the water in the late-afternoon sun. You won’t even be cold. You’ll laugh with strangers, eat tuna sandwiches and salty chips, hit land and go back to your room for a shower. You’ll get into bed and sleep very hard—and finally you’ll dream your dreams in the belly of the rainforest, the world reimagined inside of you. 

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