Three days in Cairns

posted in: Down Under 2024 | 3

I flew from Sydney to Cairns and stayed there for three nights. I scheduled two all-day outings. Here’s the full story.

At the moment I’m in Brisbane Airport awaiting my flight to Auckland. (I flew here from Cairns this morning.)

As usual, you can skip to the photos if you don’t want to read about my experiences.

Sunday 31 March

I had a flight departing at 8:10 from Sydney on Virgin Australia. The good news is that the Sydney Airport is just a short train ride from the city. The bad news is I got on the wrong train and had to backtrack and change to a different train. The good news is I’m pretty anal about getting to the airport early, so even with the delay, I had plenty of time to make my flight.

I got a shuttle from the airport to my hotel, the Oaks. My room wasn’t ready, so I wandered around the city for a few hours. I found the locations for where I would need to check in for my Great Barrier Reef excursion and for my Kuranda excursion, and I had lunch at the food court at a mall next to the train station.

Once I got to my room and got settled in, I walked along the waterfront. Cairns is an interesting place, because it has the vibe of a beach resort town, but the beaches are pretty much off limits. They are mostly all reserved for migrating birds. There is a huge swimming pool, and that’s pretty much where people hang out.

Along the waterfront is a nice walking path (think malécon) lined with bars and restaurants on one side and nice beach and ocean views on the other. The marina where all the Great Barrier Reef excursions depart was a short walk from my hotel. Everything was very convenient to where I was staying.

Monday 1 April

I checked in for my Great Barrier Reef excursion. I selected Ocean Free because it was limited to 25 people on a smaller boat. After I checked in, I saw a counter where they were renting GoPros, and I thought this was finally my chance to get a photographic record of the spectacular colors of the reef and the fish. 

When I was seeing all the larger boats heading out, I was glad of my choice. The crew were very nice, and I got to chatting with a number of the other guests. The waters were quite rough, though, and our boat was significantly slower than most of the others. I’m not prone to seasickness, and I was enjoying the ride. I assumed at the reef the seas would be more calm.

Snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef

Alas, it was not to be. When we arrived I suited up (they provided wet suits to protect against marine stingers) and eagerly hit the water. Right away I saw a marine turtle, and I excitedly pointed my camera and snapped away. But the water was murky, the seas were choppy, and there was a strong current that made it difficult to move easily in any particular direction. I kept surfacing to make sure I wasn’t drifting too far away from the boat, and there were plenty of other snorkelers, so I knew I was not off too far away. But I kept getting water in my snorkel from all the waves, and I swallowed some salt water, and I was getting tired of working so hard. 

All this would have been acceptable if the fish and the coral were in rich, colorful display. But they were not. I took lots of photos and hoped they would show something of the spectacle I experienced in Fiji. And then I started making my way back to the boat.

This was easier said than done. The current was working against me. I considered calling for assistance, but the captain of the boat was watching me and encouraging me, and little by little I made it closer and closer. Finally the ladder was within reach, but I reached for it and it was just beyond my grasp. I swam a little more and reached again, and still couldn’t quite grab hold.

I have never been so glad to be out of the water after snorkeling. But I was hoping that some of my pictures would capture a little of the world under the water, and that it would be more impressive than my experience suggested.

Alas, it was not to be. Here are a few of the best pics. They don’t begin to capture the beauty of the fish I saw in the Galapagos nor the coral in Fiji, when I didn’t have a camera with me.

That’s a black-tipped reef shark, and below are yellow-tailed blue damselfish.

I’m just glad I had the awesome snorkeling experience in Fiji last week. Otherwise, this would have been far more disappointing. As it is, my biggest disappointment is not having something better to share with you all.


After snorkeling they served a huge lunch. But I was feeling queasy from all the seawater I’d ingested, and I couldn’t eat a thing. Well, some bread.

I guess for health reasons they aren’t allowed to save any of the leftover food. It was so depressing to see them shovel so much food into the trash. 

Green Island

Our snorkeling spot was about 1 km off Green Island. This is a coral cay (or key) formed about 6,000 years ago by waves depositing sand and other debris onto the coral foundation. James Cook named it Green Island in 1770. The captain of our boat said he named it after Charles Green, an astronomer aboard the Endeavor. But it might just be named after the green vegetation on the island.

After lunch, we took a smaller boat (which they keep moored at the snorkeling spot) to the island. We had about two hours to explore if we didn’t want to come back to the Ocean Free to do more snorkeling (which I definitely didn’t want to do).

There’s an upscale resort on the island and some walking trails. I enjoyed this more than the snorkeling. I spotted some birds, which I always enjoy. (Some of them were so plentiful it would be impossible not to spot them.)

Buff-banded rail. These run all over the island.
Pacific reef heron
Orange-footed scrubfowl

While I was waiting for the launch back to the Ocean Free, a group of girls came up to me and asked if they could ask me some questions. They were from Hong Kong, and were tasked with interviewing foreigners for a school project. They asked me where I’m from and what I know about Hong Kong and what I know about Green Island, and every time I answered they oohed and aahed.

And that was pretty much the day at the Great Barrier Reef. Here are photos from the day.

Tuesday 2 April

Kuranda Scenic Railway

Today I rode the Kuranda Scenic Railway from Cairns to Kuranda. The trip up was really enjoyable, with some great scenery.

The railway was originally built for commercial purposes, primarily to support mining north of Cairns. But nowadays it’s used almost exclusively as a tourist line. There was an interesting narration, describing the history of how it was built, starting in 1887, and pointing out sights along the route.

We crossed that bridge, passing right by the waterfall, then looped around for a view back.


The trip to Kuranda took about two hours, and I had about four hours to spend there. It’s a cute town with art galleries, restaurants, and plenty of gift shops. There are two markets that are only open Wednesday through Sunday, so I missed out on those.

There are three wildlife sanctuaries in Kuranda, and I visited all three.


The Bird Sanctuary had a mix of local and exotic species.

Pied heron
Eclectus parrot


The wildlife sanctuary included animals native to Australia, mostly mammals.


I opted not to have my photo taken holding a koala.

Is it a kangaroo or a wallaby?


At the butterfly sanctuary they are engaged in a major breeding program. It was unclear to me, however, whether they breed them just for show or for conservation efforts. They have all native species, not just to Australia but specifically to Queensland, since the species they breed have to be able to thrive in this climate.

Orchard swallowtail
Cairns birdwing
Cruiser butterfly


After the birds and animals and butterflies, I had a quick lunch and did a smidge of shopping, and then I decided to hike a little. There was a loop trail that started in the town and went past the Skyrail station (Skyrail was my mode of transportation back to Cairns.) It said it was about an hour for the entire loop, giving me plenty of time to get to where I needed to go. So I set off.

The hike was easy, all paved, and not particularly interesting, but I enjoyed it. Until I got to the river. This was a half hour before I was to check in for my return trip.

At the river was a sign. No entry. Construction zone. Path closed.

So I had to backtrack, and now all of a sudden I went from having plenty of time for a relaxing walk to running in the heat and humidity so I wouldn’t miss my scheduled departure time.

Fortunately I didn’t have to backtrack all the way. After fifteen minutes of running I came to a road that led back to the station. So I was able to relax a little, but by the time I got to the Skyrail station, I was wiped out and a sweaty mess.


Gradually the Skyrail ride got me relaxed again. It was a great ride. The gondola rode high above the trees with views even better than those from the Scenic Railway. There were two stops along the way to see a waterfall and a viewpoint.

Barron Falls. We stopped here on the Scenic Railway, on the other side of the falls, but the view from this side was more impressive.

Here are the photos from my day trip to Kuranda.

Back in Cairns

I saw one more new bird species on my way to dinner.

Bush-stone curlew

And I had a decadent dinner: burger, fries, and chocolate thick shake. I figure I burned all the calories on the run to the Skyrail.

I still have about an hour til my flight to Auckland departs. Australia, you have definitely enticed me to return to see more of you.

3 Responses

  1. Joy Sherman

    Dear Lane,

    I so enjoyed your descriptions of your adventures and misadventures 😜. I especially enjoyed the pics of you! You look wonderful!!

    LOL (lots of love), Joy

    • Lane

      Thanks Joy! I prefer the adventures, but the misadventures are all part of the fun of traveling, even if they don’t feel so fun at the time.

  2. Tamera A Vig

    I loved Cairns, but sadly, the GBR is suffering from climate change. And don’t feel bad Lane, I have a great underwater camera and have been trying to photograph the underwater world for years and most of my pictures still suck. But, you did get some very nice shots of the birds!

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