I wond’r how much it’ll cost to fix our car? Costly adventures exploring the Daintree Rainforest and Great Barrier Reef in Cairns

Arriving in Cairns was a significant milestone on our Australian Odyssey – marking the completion of our drive North up the East coast. Although Queensland’s fifth biggest city isn’t anything to write home about, that really isn’t an issue considering Cairns is famously the gateway to both the tropical Daintree Rainforest and the worlds largest single structure made from living organisms: the Great Barrier Reef!

We’d fortunately lined up a housesit on the outer edges of town that perfectly matched our dates, featuring an outdoor swimming pool, cinema room, pool table and an expansive balcony looking out to the surreal rainforested hillside overlooking us. While there we had the fortune of caring for a rather boisterous American Staffy named Bosun, who turned out to be the biggest (and strongest) dog we’d looked after thus far. Although this made me feel like a bad ass gangster, it did mean we weren’t comfortable walking him further afield.

Therefore we opted to go dogless for our first days expedition to Cairns’ impressive Botanical Gardens; where we walked through never ending walkways surrounded by tropical fauna and explored galleries set up in old WWII naval oil tanks, to the exotic soundtrack made by the many colourful birds above us.

Underwater adventures in the Great Barrier Reef

Despite seeing a myriad of stunningly colourful fish off Whitsunday Island the week before, we were keen to spend some more time in warmer waters while we had the chance. Having decided against another expensive tourist package deal, we initially struggled to find availability on a boat that would take us to one of the nearby islands before the weather turned. Eventually however, our relentless efforts proved fruitful and we successfully booked ourselves tickets to Fitzroy Island, on board the aptly named 1,000 bhp ‘Thunderbolt’ high speed reef boat!

Even with the additional time for the Captain to complete a series of doughnuts to show off the power of his impressive vessel, we made it to Fitzroy Island in little over half an hour. After disappointingly finding out the Turtle Sanctuary tour was fully booked, we set off along the rocky pathway to Nudey Beach, which has recently been voted the best in Australia. Wanting to make the most of our time, we briskly and carefully changed into our swimmers (it’s strictly NOT a nudist beach despite its name suggesting otherwise) but stopped short of putting our snorkel gear on after realising the conditions; to say the water was choppy would be an understatement :-/

So, with a glimmer of hope that the other side of the Island would be sheltered from the prevailing winds, we headed back in the direction of Welcome Bay from where we’d arrived. Just as we hoped, the water was far calmer, so we continued up the beach to the famous reefs that surround ‘Bird Rock’ – a prominent boulder so named because of the large quantities of bird poo that cover it like icing on a cake (it even glows in the moonlight apparently)!

Almost immediately on entering the water — the reef is handily just metres from the beach — we were greeted by a welcome party of assorted fish that grew larger as we snorkelled further out, consisting of Parrotfish, Wrasse, Surgeon Fish and Butterfly Fish. Although we were truly entranced by the cloud of colours that surrounded us (despite the murky waters due to the choppy waters), we secretly wished for the opportunity to meet a Green Turtle in its natural environment. You can therefore guess our astonishment and joy, as a turtle calmly paddled past! We couldn’t resist following at a distance, mesmerised at the beauty of how gracefully such a large animal moves from rock to rock, grazing on the sea grass and algae. Although we planned to do a walk or two around the island, we ended up far happier spending our entire time underwater.

Rush hour in the Daintree Rainforest

Understandably, given the impressive size of the Daintree Rainforest (almost 500 sq miles) there’s a plethora of walks and trails to choose from, and as per usual we were struggling to decide on which to attempt while keeping in mind the four hour return journey from Cairns. Eventually we settled upon Mossman Gorge, as it had good reviews, no entrance fees and meant we weren’t going to need to take the ferry further North.

After some beautiful driving along relentless hairpins that hugged the cliff edge with the beaches below, we arrived at the Centre. There we fought with our conscience, while considering whether to ignore signage requesting visitors pay $10 per person for shuttle buses to the beginning of the trails. After completing the pleasant 20 min walk, we were glad with our decision; especially considering at no point did we go through any Aboriginal settlements, which was a key argument for taking the bus.

Unfortunately, once beginning the trails, we realised we’d made a bad decision. Rather than being greeted with spacious, peaceful walkways surrounded by nature, we instead found ourselves feeling like we were on the London Underground: shuffling along narrow paths, constantly queued up behind large groups of tourists almost the entire time :-/ Despite this, we made the most of our time there and completed the full Rainforest Circuit Track that did have some picturesque streams and pools, but were ultimately glad to leave the hordes behind.

Nursing a poorly car back to full health

Rather than making a speedy getaway, we did the complete opposite: While driving back to Cairns, our trusty steed suddenly lost all power, requiring us to swiftly pull over before coming to a complete halt in the middle of the road. Fortunately we made it, just, to a garage in the nearby town of Mossman. After taking a look, the mechanic reckoned the transmission had gone, and would need to tow us back to Cairns where they’d have the parts and could fix automatics. His initial estimate was $2,500 🙁

The next day we played a spot of pool, trying to take our mind of things, as we waited for a phone call from the garage to confirm the damage and when they’d be able to get it done; we were on a tight schedule needing to get back to Sydney at the beginning of August for a house sitting assignment, and still had over 8,000 km to go. Hating the suspense, I gave the garage a call and we immediately breathed a sigh of relief – the work was almost complete and was going to cost just $650; phew!

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Once we’d replenished our food supplies — consisting mostly of tinned cans — we set off once again towards the dusty world of the Outback, on our way to Darwin…

I wond’r if they’ll let me steer the boat? R&R time in Brisbane, followed by seaward voyages en route to Cairns

Despite thoroughly enjoying our rough and ready adventure to Lightning Ridge in the Outback of New South Wales, we were ready to return back to the creature comforts of civilisation. It was fortunate therefore, that Joella had conveniently lined us up with a house sit in the central ‘burbs of Brisbane – Queensland’s cosmopolitan capital 🙂

As I did my best to settle back into the frantic ways of city driving – attempting to avoid cruising at 110 km p/h or failing to stop at sudden red lights, we arrived outside what would be our home for the next week. Although extremely close to the CBD, rather than finding a small ‘unit’ (flat), we were instead greeted by a substantially sized house sat upon stilts, with a massive garage nestled underneath. Once inside, we were immediately welcomed by two adorably fluffy black cats by the names of Boo and Cece, whom we later found out seemed to be big Cisqo fans much to our amusement! Pleasantly, the interior was equally as nice as its exterior, and there was even a futuristic robot cat litter tray that looked like it had come straight from NASA’s R&D department. It was all quite a contrast to sleeping in prehistoric static caravans or in the back of our car!

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Exploring Brisbane

Conveniently we were just a 15 minute walk from Brisbane’s famous South Bank, bursting with a variety of eclectic things to do and see; including a surreal street beach, fascinating museums, striking galleries, lush parks, happening markets, impressive vegetable gardens and even a huge pagoda. Not surprisingly, we spent most days wandering through the maze of walk ways (and cycle lanes by accident), exploring everything this part of town had to offer. We especially enjoyed learning about Australia’s prehistoric past and amazingly unique wildlife in the Museum of Queensland; although I probably spent a little too long in the gift shop, much to Joella’s frustration…

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However, it wasn’t just the South Bank that got our attention; we made sure to check out other areas of town too, including Brisbane’s smart CBD peppered with contemporary sculptures, as well as the hipster haunts of Fortitude Valley and New Farm. The Town Hall in the centre was an impressive building that housed a delightful museum detailing Brisbane’s history, including the many devastating floods that have occurred periodically throughout the last 150 years (hence the houses on stilts). While in the alternative neighbourhoods we couldn’t avoid unintentionally blending in by grabbing an overpriced caffeine fix, then spending our arvo browsing secondhand bookshops and commenting on street art in the various laneways.

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On our last evening we climbed aboard the free CityHopper for a scenic cruise up Brisbane River, en route to check out the monthly comedy show at Brisbane’s impressively large and industrial arts venue; The Power House. The improv show was mediocre overall, but definitely worth our efforts considering the free entry and fun, lively atmosphere. Before turning in for the night, we couldn’t resist grabbing a quick drink at the quirky ‘Big Little House’; an old style, multi terraced bar, sat atop a set of four comically large stilts.

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Driving North

Our next house sit was scheduled to be in Queensland’s tropical city of Cairns later in June,  giving us six days to drive up, in amongst some sightseeing and adventures of course! Having heard good things about the rather well to do beach town of Noosa, we settled upon there as our first stop North up the coast. Expecting something along the lines of Byron Bay, we were disappointingly greeted with a smaller, busier version that unfortunately didn’t grab us like the hippy surf town did (although the cloudy weather probably didn’t help). So after a quick walk along the beach and main strip, taking in the various art galleries and boutique shops, we were ready to skedaddle out of there. Not wanting to pay over $40 at a caravan park for what equates to little more than a parking space, we conveniently discovered that the nearby Sea Scouts offer their facilities for a fraction of the price, so we headed there for the night.

That evening we flicked through the Lonely Planet “Australia’s best trips” book that Joella’s family had kindly got us, for destination inspiration (check me out – I’m a poet and didn’t know it!). After browsing through the various road trips featuring jaw-dropping photos, we decided upon the strangely named town of 1770 for our next days drive. But beforehand, we couldn’t miss out on a couple of capers en route…

First was the the opportunity to feed some wild dolphins at the Barnacle Dolphin Centre in Tin Can Bay. Unfortunately, despite a very early departure long before the sun had risen, we arrived just a little too late, and had to make do with spectating instead, which was amazing none the less given how close the dolphins came in.

Our second stop involved spending time in Maryborough; a small town mostly famous for being the birthplace of P.L. Travers – the writer of Mary Poppins! There we enjoyed learning about its colourful history (e.g. it was home to Australia’s only ever outbreak of pneumonic plague), while completing a self guided walk featuring lots of lovely bronze sculptures, wall murals and subtle nods to its links with the world famous English nanny.

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As was becoming a habit, we hadn’t decided upon accommodation until we were an hour or so away. Although our original idea of a beachside getaway for the night did sound great, the opportunity to stay at a kangaroo sanctuary ultimately won us over! We were immediately rewarded for our decision, as a mob of adult and baby kangaroos jumped past perfectly on cue, to signal our arrival 🙂 The Horizons Kangaroo Sanctuary turned out to be fantastically sociable too, as we found ourselves still up, chatting loudly to the other international guests well past the 10pm noise curfew – oops! In the morning we got talking to a group of Irish girls travelling South, which ultimately led us to changing our travel plans. So, rather than having a relaxing walk along 1770 beach and a leisurely days drive, we instead found ourselves cruising full pelt in the direction of Airlie Beach – gateway to the world renowned beauty spot of the Whitsunday Islands…

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Sailing the Whitsundays

During the nine hour drive we continued to perfect our team skills; with Joella juggling iPhones and iPads researching boat cruises, while I kept my eyes on the road. By lunch time Joella had everything lined up for the next day: rather than being crammed aboard a noisy speedboat with 60 other tourists, we were to be sailing on Providence V – a classic 62-ft gaff-rigged schooner, with a far more intimate group size of 12. After even more driving that gradually became more tiring as day turned into night, we eventually arrived in the touristy town of Airlie Beach, where we picked up supplies and headed to the nearby Flametree campsite for an early night.

Bleary eyed but wide awake with excitement after a very early start to the day, we soon found ourselves walking along the harbour front as the sun began to rise, attempting to spot our vessel while ignoring the ominous clouds rolling in. Once our fellow sailors had arrived, we were led along the marina’s maze of creaking wooden jetties to Providence V, which pleasantly turned out to be just as gorgeous as she was in the pictures online (guys – I’m talking about a boat..). As most of the crew readied things for departure, a fellow Scot named Andy gave us our safety briefing and talked us through the days itinerary, with the help of some weather beaten nautical maps that wouldn’t look out of place in a Pirates of the Caribbean film.

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Once I’d been given the chance to put my sailing qualifications to good use (merely pulling a rope rather then touching the tiller), we begun our voyage with a little help from the motor to maximise our speed, together with an escort of Spinner Dolphins who performed their impressive signature barrel rolls while leaping through the air. The first port of call was to be Whitsunday Island; home of the famous swirly Whitehaven beach. It was refreshingly satisfying heading out to sea, with the ocean spray blasting us while enjoying mugs of warming tea and sugary cake 🙂

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We arrived at the viewpoint overlooking the serene Whitehaven beach just in time to gaze at its beauty and take a few stunning photos, before the blue sky disappeared behind the dark clouds we’d been pretending weren’t there until now. It wasn’t surprising therefore that within 10 minutes of arriving at the dazzlingly white sandy beach below, the heavens opened, resulting in a mad dash back to the boat.

Following a spot of lunch while sailing to a nearby secluded bay, we reluctantly got ourselves ready for snorkelling, even though the gloomy skies made things look more like the North Sea than the outer edges of the Great Barrier Reef! But once we’d taken the plunge we soon forgot about the dreary conditions above, while losing ourselves in the underwater world full of colourful fish below. As the cooler water got the better of us, we waved goodbye to Nemo and friends, then climbed back aboard for our return leg.

A whirlwind tour of Townsville

Our final overnight stop North was to be the mining town of Townsville, pretty much slap bang in between Airlie Beach and our final destination of Cairns. Thanks to putting in the brutal full days drive two days earlier, we had a relatively short three hour drive ahead of us, leaving the rest of the day to stretch our legs and explore the ‘ville…

Once parked up at the fairly central Rowes Bay Holiday Park, we set off on a picturesque walk along the beach fronted esplanade of the Strand, followed by a hard slog up Castle Hill – a large, imposing outcrop of Pink Granite, oddly rising up from the middle of Townsville’s streets. There we found a comfy spot on the hillside, just off from the busier pathways and viewpoints, to enjoy the sky turn a beautifully golden colour as the sun disappeared behind the clouds on the horizon.

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With our thirst and hunger growing, our tastebuds led us to Townsville’s brewery for a tasty tasting paddle, then on to the Herbert for a quick pub feed, before turning in for the night.

Spontaneously, the next day I got us up at the crack of dawn to enjoy an incredible sunrise over the Coral Sea, framed by the surrounding palm trees. As the sun rose higher, we reluctantly dragged ourselves away from the heavenly view before us, to hit the road North once again, for our next house sit in the tropical city of Cairns!

I wond’r where the python is? Beginning our Australasia adventure in style, in Byron Bay and its Hinterland

Immediately after returning from our Queensland trip, Joella struck gold with housesitting assignments once again; managing to line up four in a row, featuring an eclectic mix of Sydney’s superb suburbs and characterful critters, including:

  • A lovely little dog called Rosie, and Pistachio the cat, in the foody district of Glebe
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  • Two playful British Shorthaired cats, named Paddy and Millie in hipster Newtown
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  • A very chilled out and attentive cat called Barney, in Leichhardt; Sydney’s Italian Quarter

  • Two cute little ginger cats named Tigi and Frankie, in the awesome beach town of Dee Why
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Preparing for our five month adventure

With our visa expiry fast approaching (16th Aug), we realised we’d better start planning the holiday part of our ‘Working holiday’, otherwise risk being banned from entering Australia for a decade if we overstayed. Much to Joella’s annoyance, my inner Project Manager came out, resulting in the creation of a series of spreadsheets detailing projected spending to ensure we’d have sufficient time and funds, before handing in our notice at work (I’m such a bloody nerd). Once we’d locked down the route (travelling North to avoid the chilly winter months down South) and accompanying details, we begun preparing our trusty steed for the long drive ahead…

From our previous experiences sleeping in the back of our Holden Commodore, we’d put together a list of needed improvements. The most important issue was space, so priority number one was to sort out a roof rack and roof box. Following a day of trawling through ads, making phone calls and circumnavigating Sydney (Leichhardt > Blue Mountains > Campbeltown), we bagged both for just $150 🙂 Although the roof box had definitely seen better days, thanks to a quick tutorial from my Uncle Martin, we soon patched it up using strips of fibre glass together with adhesive and hardener.

For our next challenge we needed to come up with a solution that would allow us to cook and relax outdoors, no matter what the weather was doing. Installing a side awning seemed like the obvious choice and we managed to buy a brand new 2m x 3m set up online, for under $100, that we bolted straight onto the roofrack 🙂

Lastly was the dreaded matter of curtains. We’d spent what felt like eternity on YouTube, researching a variety of methods involving drilling holes in the roof, velcro strips and industrial strength magnets. But in the end the cheapest and simplest solution won out, that saw Joella carefully cut out perfectly fitting sun shades for all windows, held in place with suckers. This had the extra benefit of providing much needed insulation during the colder nights in the outback.

Once we’d shopped for the last of our necessary supplies; including mountains of tinned foods, a butane stove, stacks of tupperware, a clever folding table and a badminton set, we were all set for our big adventure!

Cheerio Sydney, g’day luxury escape!

During my last week at work I was taken out for lunch to an English style pub that even served London Pride and semi-decent fish and chips! The epic team I felt grateful to have worked with over the last 6 months even sorted me out with a Scottish themed leaving card and goody bag, consisting of an Australian hat and purse made from a Kangaroo scrotum! Goodbye work and Sydney, time to hit the road for our big adventure…

Our first day involved a marathon nine hour drive North, to a house sit Joella had excellently lined up in the Byron Hinterland. The dates and location fitted perfectly with our schedule, and we weren’t fussed about not stopping en route, as we’d already explored these areas on our previous adventures.

We successfully arrived just after dark, and immediately felt at home, thanks to how welcoming and inviting Tracy was; she introduced us to gorgeous Chloe her labradoodle and reeled off a long list of things to do in the area that I attempted to frantically scribble down. While she gave us a guided tour of her wonderful home after dinner, we soon realised that we’d be living in the lap of luxury – the place was enormous, modern, beautifully decorated and finished to a very high standard. (uh oh, am I sounding like an estate agent…?) There were even outdoor showers offering stunning views of the surrounding countryside!

The next morning, after dropping Tracy off at the airport, we took Chloe over to nearby Ballina for a nice walk along its glorious beach in the golden sunshine (something we’d missed in miserable rainy Sydney the previous week). Once home, we then ventured carefully (apparently there are pythons about and Joella swears she saw evidence of one) for a stroll around the impressive gardens that featured a swimming pool, cinema room, studios, separate appartments, pizza oven and terrace; while tucking into the bountiful supply of juicy oranges and sweet baby tomatoes we picked along the way.

Exploring Byron’s Hinterland

Throughout our stay we certainly felt rather well to do, while sitting out on the enormous decking overlooking the swimming pool and gazing out at the gorgeous countryside. This was despite drinking instant coffee – we were now unemployed so on a budget (although the experience was certainly improved by the rather tasty lemon drizzle cake Joella baked). However, we didn’t want to sit around drinking tea and coffee all day – we were keen to treat Chloe (and ourselves) to plenty of exciting excursions while on the doorstep of such a beautiful part of the world!

Although Byron’s Hinterland isn’t as well known as it’s famous coastline, it proved to be equally as beautiful in our eyes (not being massive beach people probably helps). With the undulating hillsides, luscious forests, countless towns full of quirky craft shops and roadside honesty stalls selling homemade jams; it certainly offers a unique, almost spiritual charm that nourishes the soul.

For one of our trips we headed out to the Killen Waterfalls, after first stopping in past Harvest: a nice country farm and deli, to pick up some of their famous sausage rolls we’d been told about by Marcus the handy man I’d met at the house the night before. The initial walk down to the waters edge was fairly straightforward, although we needed to take it nice and easy along the stepping stones that lined the river bank, to prevent Chloe (and us) from getting wet feet. Once we laid eyes on the falls our efforts were immediately rewarded; sitting down to watch the water from above cascade down, crashing into the pool before us while glistening in the sunlight was very relaxing.

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Later in the week we couldn’t avoid visiting the famous hippy town of Nimbin – apparently the only place in Australia where Cannabis is legal, although I have a feeling this is merely down to Police turning a blind eye… Within ten minutes of arriving, Nimbin immediately lived up to its reputation; as we found it impossible to avoid being offered weed while mooching around the various Cannabis themed craft shops! Although we’d thriftily packed sandwiches, we ended up enjoying free hot dogs from a friendly group of global missionaries without any attempts at converting us (are we already lost causes?).

On the way back, we stopped in past the picturesque Rocky Creek Dam where we ventured upon its many surrounding walks. Despite failing to spot any platypus, we still enjoyed ourselves as we weaved through the forested footpaths and traversed the slippery concrete spillways. With a blink of an eye, our time with gorgeous Chloe at the luxury escape had drawn to a close, although we were now looking forward to spending some time back on the coast, in wonderful Byron Bay 🙂

Back to Byron Bay, and to sleeping in the car

Not wanting to pay the premium for camping on the edge of Byron Bay’s famous beach as we did previously when driving up for Sarah and Kael’s wedding, we instead opted for a campsite a little out of town opposite Byron’s Industrial Estate.

Although this probably doesn’t sound too appealing, rather than consisting of the usual factories or building merchants you’d expect to find, it was instead lined with countless organic eateries, vintage clothes shops, home decor boutiques, art galleries and micro breweries. As planned, we made it to Australia’s famous ‘Stone and Wood’ brewery, just in time for its annual Stone beer, which is made using the traditional method of dropping wood fired stones into the kettle to caramelise the brew. It was certainly a unique taste, a little similar to Guinness perhaps, with hints of coffee and dark chocolate – perfect for the cooler winter months which were requiring Joella and I to wrap up for (no we haven’t suddenly become soft Australians unable to cope with temperatures below 20 degrees).

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Our last evening saw us make an unsuccessful sunglass shopping expedition to Byron’s main strip (Joella’s last pair were on their last legs), before then enjoying a nice bottle of Pinot Noir alongside our bargain basement $5 Domino pizzas. This was perfectly accompanied by one of Byrons seemingly infinite beautiful sunsets, together with a bunch of hippy type folk who were dancing madly to the impressive busker as he finished off his set.

Once again, Byron and its surrounding Hinterlands didn’t disappoint. It was now time to say good bye to the warm, comfortable coastline; and journey inland to the harsh and unforgiving outback….