Sabbatical Days 344 and 345: The Great Barrier Reef and Waterfall Loop

The end of sabbatical draws closer every day like an approaching cargo ship on the horizon, packed with dogs and friends and family and good Mexican food, and also a whole lotta slap-ya-in-the-face reality. But until that ship arrives, we are happily enjoying every moment of every day.

Our last two days in Cairns qualify as two of the very best days in our entire yearlong sabbatical adventure. In some ways, our whole trip to Australia was leading up to the Great Barrier Reef. After spending a few days in Sydney, we had dedicated two solid weeks to making the drive north, some 3,400 kilometers, to Cairns just so we could snorkel at this natural wonder before it disappears at the hands of humans just like us. Ironic.

I must say that the attention to the environment in Australia was actually reassuring. Perhaps the reef will make an amazing comeback, but if not I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to see it with my own eyes.

The Reef

We chose a full day snorkeling excursion on Compass Cruises. I picked it because according to fellow blogging budget travelers it was cheap ($115 each), fun, and served good food for lunch and wine on the way back to shore. If the weather was in our favor, we might even get to go “boom netting,” which is when they drop a giant net off the back of the boat and drag you along at ridiculously increasing speeds to see who lasts the longest, or who survives.

Australia is like that, land of the fittest. Who can come here and outlast the dangers that lurk everywhere? Who will be brave enough to risk life and limb for bragging rights? Who will swim with the crocs, bathe with the swimming snakes, elude the stingers, drive through the cyclones and cross the never ending desert to tell the tale? I am certain that travel insurance companies love Australia. I should have probably checked on our policy before coming here.

The GBR was fantastic. No killer sharks (only non-killer) or crocodiles here. And we got these snazzy stinger suits for the price of admission on our snorkel tour to protect us from the jellyfish. The box jelly lives around here and is the deadliest creature on earth. Of course it is.

Side note: wearing a onesie in public (or really at all), ranks right up there with being attacked by a crocodile or being forced to watch The Matrix in terms of how I want to spend a day. However, I was so excited by this adventure, I hardly noticed after the first few moments of horror. After all, there were 79 other people looking equally ridiculous.

We didn’t pay extra for the underwater camera, but I did my best with my little iPhone in a waterproof pouch. The conditions were not ideal (sadly, we would not be boomnetting in the way home). The water not the best in terms of visibility, and the ocean was pretty rough that day with some huge swells, but it was astonishing for us landlocked mates just the same.

This giant clam was as big as a human!

These pictures don’t come anywhere close to the swoon-inducing reality of the Great Barrier Reef. For that I apologize. You will just have to go see it yourself. Or Google it. Imagine a gazillion more colors, and fish that looked like space aliens, and gently swaying coral everywhere. It was an underwater rainbow come to life and surrounding us in every direction. Some fish were tiny, just a few inches or less, and others were as long as my arm. Even the fish that looked “plain” were actually beautifully shimmering jewels of the sea when the light struck just right.

My favorite fish was about 8 inches long, a solo swimmer (most seemed to swim in pairs or schools), with an electric green body and dark purple stripes, with what resembled tribal art tattoos in bright pink all over a shocking turquoise head. I mean come on! I stalked that little fish for half an hour. My other favorite was another lone swimmer that looked like a miniature sawed off swordfish. Trent saw a sea turtle and a sleeping black tip reef shark! What a day! Surely nothing could be better. And we managed not to lose ourselves adrift in the open sea like some unlucky tourists have been known to do. Just another way to die in Australia averted.

Since he didn’t have a camera, Trent relied on memory and a sketch on a barf bag to get confirmation from the crew that he indeed saw a black tipped reef shark.

The Waterfall Loop

After the brilliance of the GBR the day before, we didn’t have big plans for our last day in Cairns. While I finished a late breakfast of banana walnut pancakes and a flat white at Helga’s Pancake House, Trent decided to go next door to a tour agent to investigate last-minute half-day tours. Because why not?

The cool thing about a long vacation like ours is that you don’t feel compelled to fill every waking moment with something exciting. Some days in fact you have to use for recovery. This was not to be one of those days, however. Trent came back with a plan and a rental car. Yahoo! As I said, as the end of sabbatical closes in, there is a little more motivation to keep fanning the flame of adventure.

We spent the day toodling around Far North Queensland, the Tablelands (we think named for their higher altitude?), and what I call the Waterfall Loop.

It was the best day ever.

Swim in a rocky river? Check.

Babinda Boulders

Babinda Boulders

The Babinda Boulders were an unexpected surprise because we also found a serene place to swim. Even the light rain coming down didn’t deter us, although the freezing water almost kept us (well, me anyway) from taking the plunge.

Ride a waterfall rock slide? Check.

Josephine Falls Rock slide, meJosephine Falls rock slide #2, Trent

This rock slide was the absolute pinnacle of joy for Trent. He rode down four times and probably could have kept going. Most people came and went after one slide down because the water was so cold and the current so strong. It took great effort to swim against the current, climb up the rocks, and then not drown or be rushed down river to the waiting boulders after the second of exhilaration sliding down. On his last attempt, which I did not capture on video, he let the water carry him from further up, and he lost control and almost crashed into the rocks along the far side. Somehow, he was able to swing his legs around and avert the disaster that I had just witnessed another swimmer suffer. Adrenaline pumping moments for both of us!

Bathe under a private waterfall? Check.

Millaa Millaa FallsMillaa Milla Falls

There were signs warning us away from these Falls because the pathway leading to them was unsteady after recent rains. That didn’t stop us and it meant we had this place to ourselves for a while.

These Falls are famous in Australia as the tallest single cascade in Queensland (maybe in all of Australia). You see them in shampoo commercials and ads all over. And they were frigid!

Dip our feet in a volcanic crater lake at sunset? Check.

Lake Barrine, volcanic crater lake

The water in Lake Barrine was warm, especially compared to the freezing waters of the other rivers and falls that day. We arrived too late to swim, but we did dip in our feet.

Walk through the rainforest? Check.

Twin kauri trees, kings of the rainforestCurtain Fig Tree

Did I mention this was one of our favorite days???? We were reminded how much we love the freedom of doing things on our own, at our own pace. Tours are great too, but nothing quite beats the explorer-like feeling you get out there on your own, discovering what magnificent things the world has to offer up to you and you alone.

Next stop: Overnight in Sydney and then on to Bangkok for the Thai New Year and the Water Festival!

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