Cairns, total solar eclipse and Great Barrier Reef

My timing for Cairns was only partially based on the solar eclipse. It just happened to fit in with my travel plans. So when I started looking for accommodations in Port Douglas in mid-September, I quickly discovered that everything was sold out or very expensive. I searched everywhere but it was the same story, finally went on Price Line and got a very sweet deal in the heart of Cairns. My find was Hides Hotel a double room with shared bathroom $70/night. The bathroom and showers were next door. Refrigerator in my room and breakfast included. Refrigerator in rooms seem to be pretty standard.

I had no idea what a big thing a total eclipse is. I met some Swedish people who had started planning as far back as 12 years ago, though it seemed that the majority had made their bookings 2 years ago. The area was expecting somewhere between 30-50.000 visitors. Every night the supermarkets were sold out, which made the headlines of the local paper, and I could confirm. It was a really big deal, but there was not a T-shirt to be had to commemorate the moment.

Since I was going snorkeling later that day I choose to watch it from the Esplanade, this is the street winding along the ocean since Cairns has no beach, but a manmade lagoon. It is 6 am and already quite crowded. 6.30 am a big black cloud obscures the sun and it is still there at 6.45 when the eclipse happens. The sky got darker until it looked like late dusk, all the birds disappeared, a few minutes later it started to get light again and the sun appeared. With my special glasses I could see the moon covering the sun or at least part of it and slowly it moved across the sun until it had disappeared. Quite the accidental experience to be had by me, then again, life often is made up of accidental experiences.

The previous two days I had spent on tours, Monday it was Daintree Rainforest, a river tour and Cape Tribunal. It was a perfect day slightly overcast and not too hot. Saw a crocodile in the river and some incredible mangroves. The Rainforest was teeming with birds and some quite incredible trees and vines. Saw the Orange-footed Scrubfowl , Lots of signs warning of Cassowarys but none sighted. It was a very rewarding day, despite the bug museum where you could see thousands of insects collected by this one man.

I wish I had been a better tourist or preparer because I agreed to take the cable car up and historic train down from Kuranda the following day. After having been in the rain forest for almost an entire day I didn’t need to ride on top of the canopy to arrive in a total tourist trap of a town. The train down was probably very interesting if you like old railways and trains, it was quite impressive actually when you consider the conditions that the men had to work under. Don’t know if it was worth taking an organized tour, especially since all that happens is the bus takes you to the cable car and picks you up at the train station. I am sure that you can have the same experience by purchasing your own tickets.

I don’t know what Cairns is like on non-eclipse occasions but it is a very touristy beach town with lots of travel agents, souvenir shops and backpacker hostels. It is also very clean, early mornings the streets are swept with automatic street sweepers, the sidewalks are pressure washed where necessary and you just don’t see any litter despite the hundreds of tourists of all ages.

Most days have had very early starts so at this point I am in bed very early am too tired to go out for dinner, buy some pate, local Brie and wine at the supermarket and picnic in my room.

When I booked my snorkeling trip I knew that I did not want a large boat with a pontoon and gift shop, and my instincts were correct. A smaller boat that anchors at the outer reefs makes for a so much more intimate experience. This was confirmed by one of the crewmembers who referred to the pontoons as snorkel factories. The smaller operators switch between reefs depending on conditions. It is also important to find out weather conditions. If it is very windy it is hard to snorkel, and horrible on the boat if you are prone to seasickness.

After the eclipse I make my way down to the pier for my first snorkel tour on The Great Barrier Reef, with Ocean Quest cost $140. I have never seen colored coral in the ocean usually it is grey, brown and beige, at our first reef I saw blue, pink and yellow corals and of course a lot of fish. Even saw a shark. What a thrill to be in a place I have only dreamt about. I was so pleased with my experience, that I booked a trip for the second day. This one was on the Odyssey a slightly smaller and older boat but the price was right $89 including lunch, plus wine and cheese for the trip back. If you like me, only snorkel and don't dive it was perfect. Wetsuits and dives were extra, whereas on Ocean Quest they were included with one dive. After I filled out the forms I was asked if taking of my medications would impede me in any way and I said jokingly “No, not at all but make sure you have the number to the flying doctors in case” little did I know that it was almost needed as I slipped on the wet sun deck and landed on my left new knee and twisted my ankle. Talk about being scared, I was so frightened that I had damaged my knee. Sat with an icepack and managed to go snorkeling at the second reef.

Our first reef was a disappointment all grey and very few fish then after lunch we arrived at Hastings Reef. O.M.G. I have never seen anything like it the most amazing corals, fish and giant clams. At times the reef was so close under me that I was afraid of touching it, but fortunately never did. I had brought a disposable camera, the pictures are not great. The colors of the corals, seeing the fish munching on it as well as smaller fish in real Technicolor and up close is an experience I would love for everyone to have.

My last day in Cairns, had planned to go to the botanical garden before my flight to Sydney tonight. It is the first really sunny and very hot day, my ankle is aching and it is too hot to walk, so I am sitting at a café writing Left that afternoon for Sydney where it was pouring with rain.

When I checked in I found out that Delta in its infinite wisdom had booked me Sydney-Los Angels-Atlanta-New York with a 12 hour layover in Atlanta. Fortunately I was able to get a direct flight but had to hang around for 6 hours. Great, let me go to the Delta lounge except I had left my Amex card at home. Fortunately there was a kind gentleman who let me in on his card. Uneventful flight home and now I am left with lots of good memories of Australia.