A Natural Wonder of the World
The Reef, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, is the largest coral reef on the planet, and holds the distinguished honour of being the only living thing visible from space. It comprises over 3000 individual reef systems, coral cays and islands. The Marine Park stretches up along the Eastern Queensland coast from near the coastal town of Bundaberg, up past the tip of Cape York. The reef, between 15 kilometres and 150 kilometres off shore and around 65 Km wide in some parts, is a gathering of brilliant, vivid coral providing divers with the most spectacular underwater experience imaginable.
Discover our packages: Cairns & The Great Barrier Reef, Australia (3 Nights)
Gateway to the Reef
The city of Cairns is the international gateway to get you to the Reef. You can connect from the main entry points into Australia – Sydney or Perth on Qantas as the National Carrier, or you can fly via the Far East as an alternative. Cathay Pacific for example offers flights four times a week direct from Hong Kong into Perth. There is a wide range of accommodation available in Cairns, and you’ll definitely find something in your price range. From B&B’s to hotels and luxury resorts, it’s all available. If you’re feeling adventurous you can hire a car, the roads are wide and although busy at times, would offer a very similar driving experience to here in SA.
Rainforests and Railways
Aside from the obvious highlight of any trip to this part of Australia, your
time on the Reef, you are surrounded by over 900,000 hectares of lush Rainforests, and the chance to experience some of this beauty shouldn’t be passed up. Stretching for over 500 kilometres along Tropical North Queensland’s coastline, these rainforests are the oldest continually surviving rainforests on earth and once covered the entire Australian continent. A definite highlight from Cairns is the SkyRail Rainforest Cableway, and although I personally am terrified of heights, this is a real not-to-be-missed experience. Your journey begins at the Smithfield Terminal which is just a 15 minute drive north of Cairns city.
The 90 minute journey is mostly in a cable-car literally metres above the canopy of these amazing giant trees. You travel a distance of 7.5km with two stops along the way to immerse yourself in the tropical rainforest and all it has on offer. At the Red Peak station you walk along a 175 metre boardwalk which gives you access to the forest from ground level. You can meander along at your own pace, or walk with a guide giving you a rundown on what you’re seeing as you go. We certainly felt rather insignificant standing below the majestic and mammoth trees, truly an awe inspiring experience. The second walkway at Barron Falls Station leads you through the rainforest to three separate lookout points providing breath-taking views of the Gorge and Falls. This journey ends in Kuranda, a quaint town, somewhat reminiscent of some of the Karoo ‘dorps’, but with its very own distinct personality.
Rainforestation Nature Park
Our time in Kuranda was spent at the Rainforestation Nature Park, kind of an ‘experience Australia in a nutshell’ type of experience, which is pretty much what you get as a tourist in Kuranda. In one place we went on an Army Duck Rainforest tour, got to see an Aboriginal Cultural show and had our genuine Australian animal experience in that we got to get up close and personal with Koala, Kangeroos and other native Australian species. It gives you just enough of an ‘authentic’ experience to tick it off your list. Here you can have the obligatory photo taken holding a koala, although they seem to have better regulated working hours and conditions than most humans, and the photographic evidence doesn’t come cheap. For those with limited time and budget, it’s a concise slice of Australian heritage and authenticity.
Other popular wildlife experiences available in Kuranda are visits to the Kuranda Koala Gardens and Birdworld. All family-friendly fun offerings. Something a little less typical is a visit to the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary. A living showcase of more than 1500 varieties of butterfly it’s a window into a world not often seen. Other popular wildlife experiences on offer in Kuranda are visits to the Kuranda Koala Gardens and Birdworld.
Moving approximately 70 km further north from Cairns is the smaller town of Port Douglas. With a definite resort feel to it, you escape the city vibe completely, but yet are close enough that should you feel like some action it is accessible. With a permanent population of 3,205 in a 2011 census, you can understand its appeal (although this does sometimes double over peak tourist season May – September). From here you have access to two World Heritage Sites – the Great Barrier Reef, and the Daintree Rainforest, as well as Cape Tribulation. It is the perfect place to base yourself if you want to experience a time out surrounded by nature.
The Great Barrier Reef Experience
For most people, the Great Barrier Reef experience happens under fairly commercialised and controlled circumstances. The Reef is heavily protected, part of a Marine Park, and you can’t just hop in a boat, and head off for a day at the Reef.
There are a number of tour operators that will take gladly take your money, and as with any travel related purchase I’d always advise – do your research, make sure you know what you’re getting, what is included in the price, what isn’t and so on. From a day trip to overnight cruises, there is something to suit every person and every pocket.
My personal Reef experience was through Quicksilver and included being picked up from our hotel and transferred to and from the Port Douglas harbour. We were taken by Catamaran out to the Agincourt area of the Outer Reef. If you think of the Reef as a band running down the right hand side of Australia, the Outer Reef is the unprotected side of the Reef, facing the open ocean, and right on the edge of the Continental shelf. Here the marine life is abundant, and these ribbon reefs are recognised as the most pristine eco-systems in the reef’s environment. The Catamaran cruise is in itself part of the experience. Super luxurious and comfortable, the trip out to Agincourt Reef takes about 90 minutes one way, but you’re oblivious to the time passing as the ocean views seem to hypnotise you and before you know it you’ve arrived.
Your home for the day is a floating platform, well actually a double-storey floating platform 47.5m in length and 23.4m wide, equipped with pretty much every facility you’d need to enjoy your first exposure to the Great Barrier Reef and probably a few you hadn’t thought of. Undercover tables and seating ensure plenty of shade, fresh water showers, change rooms and toilets are all easily accessible. There are Introductory Dive and Snorkel Pools and Snorkelling platforms for those who want to go into the water, and semi-submersibles and an underwater Observatory for those who don’t. Lycra suits and snorkelling gear are included in the days charge. A Sundeck and Licenced Bar, offered some of the best buffet food I’ve ever had!
The sea life is abundant, colourful, and right there in front of you. The Great Barrier Reef in person is just as amazing as it looks in glossy magazine pictures, and it definitely does live up to all expectations. My only criticism is that the day passes way too fast. You tend to lose track of time, all worries and concerns seem to slip away as you’re experiencing this tiny slice of paradise literally in the middle of nowhere.
The Ultimate Postcard
Oh, and just when you thought you’d seen it all, for a special souvenir, you can even send a postcard postmarked with the world’s only Great Barrier Reef stamp, from the only post box on the Great Barrier Reef! What I found really impressive was the specially designed water powered lift allowing guests confined to wheelchairs easy access into the snorkel pool where they can swim directly off the lift’s chair into the weightless environment of the reef to snorkel and explore at their own pace.
The Great Barrier Reef is just one of the many jewels that Australia has to offer. If ever you get the opportunity, stretch the budget just a little bit more and see what other parts of this beautiful country you can discover. For not much more than your ticket cost to visit your loved ones, you can add an extra destination and get to tick some boxes on your bucket list.
Author: Lindsay Ransom (travel guru)