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The Great Barrier Reef

Cairns, Australia
Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Sunlander - Brisbane to Cairns

We are really glad that we visited Brisbane again as it was just as lovely as we remembered, however we were more than happy to leave our hostel behind. After a few days of listening to the silly announcements from the 'cool' dudes on reception and trying and failing to ignore the noisy bar area below our room, we were more than happy to take advantage of the free ride to the station :-)

We arrived at the station with plenty of time to spare before we had to climb on board the Sunlander train to Cairns. We knew that once we were on the train it would be a gruelling 30 hours before we got off again so we made the most of our freedom and stretched our legs. What we did find amusing was the other passengers all scurrying around with their bags in a race to be the first to their seat. We know from personal experience that those same people will be just as desperate to get off.

The Sunlander will be our last train journey in Australia and like all the others it is a mammoth trek and shows how big the country is. If we counted the hours from the start of the Indian Pacific journey from Perth right through to our last journey on board the Sunlander to Cairns, we will have spent longer on the trains in Australia than we did on the Tran-Siberian from Moscow to Beijing! How crazy is that?

We feel so lucky to have had the time to travel by train and although we could have flown and spent longer in each place, we are so glad that we took the time to see Australia's outback and beautiful countryside from the comfort of our reclining chairs on the train. We would have missed out on so much if we had flown. Not only have we met some lovely people whilst we've trundled along, we have also made some great memories along the way too and we wouldn't have changed it for the world!

We left Brisbane at 13.00 setting off bang on time and settled in for the long journey along with some colourful characters on the train. We had some great conversations with some of the other passengers however one or two of these passengers even gave Sonya a run or her money and even worse on some occasions they wouldn't shut up! We have found it quite amazing how fast the time flies during the day and before we knew it we were climbing into our trusty sleeping bags. It's also strange how quickly you get used to the motion of the train, so when it became stationary for quite a long time in the middle of the night we woke up and it transpired that we were stuck behind a broken down freight train! Not the best news but we couldn't do anything about it so we went back to sleep. It was only when we woke up in the morning that we realised, we were now running 3 hours late, D'oh!

The rest of the journey went pretty quickly and we'd love to say that it was a smooth ride too but unfortunately it wasn't as the driver was shocking and really needed some L plates! We did make up some time and finally arrived in Cairns at 20.45 only 1½ hours late.

Finding our hostel couldn't have been easier as it was directly across the road from the station. We arrived at Travellers Oasis and a member of staff introduced herself and warmly welcomed us to the hostel before showing us to our room and giving us a bit of a tour on the way. The whole place was so tranquil and when we saw our big comfy bed it looked so inviting after our tiring journey so it wasn't long before we decided to hit the sack.

Day 1 - Cairns

After a great night's sleep we got up bright and early and decided to have a proper nosey around the place and we weren't disappointed. If we are being totally honest Travellers Oasis is the best hostel we have stayed in and calling it a hostel does not do it justice. It has great facilities including two kitchens, loads of outdoor seating areas with a barbecue, a cosy living room with TV, plenty of bathrooms and a swimming pool. For the first time on this trip we have found somewhere that feels like home :-) the peace and quiet was lovely and all we could hear were the birds tweeting in the trees around us. It was lush!

We decided to book our reef tour through the hostel and spent the rest of the day chilling out and unpacking. One more bonus to this hostel is its great location as it's just across the road from the train station which backs onto Cairns Central shopping centre. The views from the roof top of this shopping centre are out of this world with big green mountains and bright blue skies. Let's just say Ross got a big pat on the back for booking this hostel as it was through his hard work that we found this little slice of paradise.

Day 2 - The Great Barrier Reef

The next day we were up at the crack of dawn to get ready for our trip out on the reef and we were so excited because we loved it the last time we were here. Our lift arrived and we were dropped off at the jetty, where we joined a massive queue that seemed to be a mile long. Luckily for us it went down quickly and we were soon piling onto the big fancy catamaran. We were impressed by the boat and also the amount of staff on board and after a few introductions and a cup of tea we on our way to the outer reef. It took us a good hour and a half to get there which gave us a good amount of time to find a pair of fins that fitted, sort out our masks and hire a wet suit for Sonya. Although the water was a reasonable 24 degrees she didn't want to take the chance of being cold and as the sun was shining she didn't want to get burnt, as she has an awful habit of sticking her bum out of the water and on more than one occasion she has been caught out by the sun which was not a pleasant experience :-)

Site 1 - Michaelmas Cay

Just as we were all lining up to get into the water Ross saw a huge turtle coming up for air and he managed to point it out to Sonya before it went back down again. She had to practically jump above everyone else's heads to catch a glimpse but she got there in the end :-) When we finally got into the water we were excited to see quite a few turtles at the bottom and we just stared in wonder as these beautiful creatures glided through the water with such grace. We carried on snorkelling until we came across the wonderful corals that stretched across a wide open space and it was amazing to see all of the different types of coral breathing and moving about. It actually felt like we were being watched.

Before we left the boat a member off staff pointed out a long stretch of beach and told us that it was a bird conservation area and that we had to stay within the roped area or we would be fined a whopping $7,500 per person! We decided it wasn't worth the risk as we can't afford that amount of cash so we stayed well clear of the island altogether. Instead we looked at all the fish and coral and then headed back to the boat to grab a wet suit for Ross who had started to feel the chill and he wasn't the only one either as more and more people piled onto the boat shaking from the cold. We got back in the water for some more snorkelling and Ross was lucky enough to come across another huge turtle coming up for some air and he managed to swim behind it for quite some time. The turtle was well aware of Ross's presence and kept looking back at him as though to say 'come on then human, keep up!' To say that it has been a lifelong ambition for Ross to swim with a turtle would be an understatement, so to get this chance was amazing and it was an awesome experience. After this we jumped back on board just in time for lunch and Ross couldn't stop smiling!

Site 2 - Paradise Reef

After lunch we moved onto the second location and we were soon back in the water exploring the colourful corals and massive fish that swam far more elegantly than us with our big fins on. Although we had an amazing time, we have to admit our first experience of seeing the reef eight years ago, still stands out as a far better experience for us. When we booked the tour they told us that the best place to visit is the outer reef but based on our experiences we have to disagree. On our last visit we went to the inner reef and it was far more colourful and had a lot more varieties of fish to see. We don't know if this was because of the time of year as we went at the beginning of October but we both remember swimming above the colourful corals and then staring in wonder as the corals suddenly dropped away into a huge abyss that was teeming with life and it simply took our breath away. The little fishes that filled the space were out of this world and it looked just like a scene from the Disney Movie, Little Mermaid. We've heard people say that you never forget the first time you see The Great Barrier Reef and at this moment we couldn't agree more.

Although our first experience of seeing this wonderful place will always be a special moment for us we still had an amazing time on this tour. We can honestly say that we are glad we have visited both the inner and outer reefs as we would have always wondered what the difference was and now we can walk away with no regrets. The staff was more than happy to chat away with us and help with any problems we had and it was easy to see why they love their job so much. On the way back the skipper turned off the engines to reduce their carbon foot print (or save a few $'s) and to our utter delight we sailed back, which was an awesome experience and a great way to end the day.

Trips to the reef vary considerably in price depending if you visit the inner or outer reefs and the number of diving/snorkelling sites you visit. The more sites you visit the more expensive the trip as the ship has to be faster and is usually newer. We opted for Passions of Paradise a mid-price trip after recommendations from the hostel. Passions is one of only a few locally owned boats in Cairns and the staff were so enthusiastic without going overboard (no pun intended) we are so glad we chose Passions.

Day 3 - Planning Day!

We decided to have a sorting out day today and methodically went through all of our stuff to see what we could throw away and send home as we were hoping to get rid of a few extra KG before we board our flight to New Zealand. We have now finished with our underwater camera and snorkel stuff so those went first, along with a few other bits and pieces. In the end we managed to get rid of 5kg of stuff! Plus a bag full of clothes we don't want any more. :-) We have also been beavering away on our post New Zealand plans so it won't be long before everything is finalised.

Day 4 - Horse Riding

Horse ride number 6. With Ross wanting to ride in as many countries as possible he left it to the last day in Australia to get saddled up. He opted for a 3 hour rainforest tour in nearby Kuranda. For once his demands for a decent horse were met but unfortunately this time the terrain wasn't the best. The rain forest itself was great to see and ride through but there were only a few places to trot or canter. It was another good ride but hopefully in New Zealand both the horse and terrain will for once work out and a good ride will actually be a great ride.

Our departing thoughts

Australia is gigantic and although we missed out some areas including Uluru (Ayers Rock), the Northern Territory and Tasmania, we did manage to see all the main cities. 4 weeks is the absolute minimum time we would recommend to do as much as we did. Although we have no regrets in taking the train, unless you really want to go by land (as we did) we wouldn't recommend it, unless you have more than 4 weeks to visit as around 7 days of our time was spent travelling!

Although Australia is massive we have never visited a country before where the cost of living varies so much from one end to the other, admittedly the width of Australia is like comparing the UK to Russia but it was still strange that Western Australia can be so much more expensive than the East Coast.

Why is Australia so American? We noticed too many similarities to mention them all but we really don't understand why Australian's speak American English. They pronounce many words (not all) in the same way the Americans do, how did that happen? Also what happened to the word 'Peppers' capsicum is a type of pepper not the name of the vegetable! Just try asking for Peppers in Subways and see what response you get.

Out of all the countries we have visited so far, Australia is the only one we could imagine living in. Forgetting the major cities, we both fell in love with the beaches of Western Australia and the chilled out vibes that radiate out of Cairns. Both places felt like a home away from home and we could definitely imagine living so close to the beautiful coast. Don't worry Mum it's not going to happen anytime soon, we couldn't afford a condo in Thailand so we definitely can't afford anything in Australia. Although we have heard lots of reports in the news that the mining boom is going into decline which could impact on the wider economy we hope that it doesn't affect this great country.

Another country and yet more strange practices and another currency rant, the good old £ is so easy! Australia ditched 1 and 2 cents a few years ago but shops still sell stuff that do not end in a 5 or 0, so everything has to be rounded up or down. But when paying by card you often pay the actual amount without rounding, but not always. Why can't it just be the same everywhere you go? 50 cent coins are huge and were probably a car wheel in a previous life just with the edges rounded off, and then there is the $2 coin which is smaller than a $1 coin, why? It will be nice to get to a country where the currency makes sense but if the last few places are anything to go by it might be England before that happens.

For all its quirks we will miss Australia, it's just a shame it's so far away from home to visit more often. Who knows when, but we are sure there will be a next time, so until then 'G'day Oz'

Ta Ta for now

Team Chip

Hostel Review

We stayed at The Travellers Oasis in a double private with shared bathroom. Describing Oasis as a hostel does not do the place justice. It is by far the best hostel we have ever stayed in and compares to many guesthouses we stayed in during Asia. The hostel is in a fantastic location across the road from the train station which backs onto Cairns Central shopping centre, which has just about everything you could need or want. Oasis has great common areas, 2 kitchen areas, communal BBQ, spotless bathrooms, a swimming pool and homely TV room. This is the first place we have stayed in on our entire journey that has felt like home. Combined with amazingly knowledgeable and friendly staff Oasis is a top stay. If we ever come back to Cairns we wouldn't look anywhere else.

Our very first 9.0/10

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