Cairns and Northern Queensland

Cairns and Northern Queensland

June 1 – 24

Our first night in Cairns was our last night in the campervan. It had been a great experience and it made us think about buying a tent, getting into the great outdoors and camping our way around Australia until we remembered that most of the world’s most dangerous animals live here. Richard is terrified of snakes and I’m pretty scared of spiders, creepy crawlies and basically anything that can poison you. I know the risks are low but fear isn’t rational and sleeping in a tent seems to be asking for trouble – also we haven’t yet found a tent with ensuite bathroom, TV and modem socket…

So you travel to the other side of the world to escape your family and what happens? They follow you!
First Pat and Clive, who we met that night, but my Mum had also booked her ticket and was meeting us in Brisbane in July. None of them had shown any inclination to visit Australia before but suddenly everyone wants to visit! Actually we were really looking forward to seeing them after not seeing any family or friends for nearly six months and glad that they could all make it out here, both for our sakes and for theirs because it is a great place for a holiday. We went to a cafe in Cairns for dinner which was a BYO (bring your own alcohol) place which is pretty common here. Then we went for a walk around Cairns town centre and the big evening market. There are about 110,000 people in Cairns but at any one time tourists are about 10% of that figure, not surprisingly most people are here to go to the Great Barrier Reef.

My Mum and Dad had been in Australia for three weeks already (longer than us in fact!) – they started in Sydney and had hired a car and driven up the coast to Cairns: a 3000km trip. They’d actually been in Cairns for a few days already due to a mix-up over when we were due to arrive, and had spent a few days in a nice resort on one of the beaches to the north of the town. By the time we met up with them they’d moved to an apartment in town.

The next day we went apartment hunting and were lucky to find a fully equiped place so we could do our laundry and cook roast dinners and shepherd’s pies and all those lovely things that we hadn’t had for six months. It meant that Richard could eat something apart from steak again. It also meant that the four of us had a couple of good Aussie barbies around the pool. Somehow my Mum and Dad had got a great deal on their apartment – it was a nice size studio, with cooking facilities about two minutes walk from the centre of town, and they ended up paying less than we did for an older (but admittedly bigger) place a couple of km’s out of town. In fact it seemed that they had found good cheap accomodation all up the coast – better than we found on the way down anyway!

It was great to be able to meet up here and really catch up on what had been going on at home. Mum and Dad had had a great time on their trip up the coast and we were getting some good tips on what to see on the way down.

Atherton Tablelands

Richard, Pat and Clive, Cairns

The Atherton Tablelands is an area of rainforest close to Cairns, being mountainous it is much cooler than Cairns. We visited them twice, the first time we drove around through beautiful scenery with Pat and Clive stopping along the way to see some of the rainforest, a waterfall and gorge, a lake and a magnificent fig tree called Curtain Fig Tree which is an enormous parasitic strangler fig tree 50 metres tall and 43 metres around the base with a thick mass of tendrils supporting the crown all fused together.

Pat and Clive went on the Kuranda Skyway and Railway which is a cable car up to the Atherton Tablelands and then a scenic train ride back down again but we were trapsing around the second hand car lots of Cairns at the time so we went the week after they left. When we did I went on the cable car by myself and Richard hitched a lift with the bus driver up to the top and met me up there. Kuranda is a cute little village with nice coffee shops and markets and it was were I had my first, and last, Aussie pie. They love their pies here and the pie shop in Kuranda had a good reputation and a selection of 20 or so different flavours of pie – I went for the traditional beef pie – and it wasn’t too bad although you never know with the cheaper pie shops what type of meat you might get in your pie. We went to a butterfly sanctuary where hundreds of big colourful butterflies flew around our heads and landed on our shoulders. There was lots of courtship going on, couples everywhere fluttering around each other doing an inflight dance.

Great Barrier Reef

Cairns is the most popular place to visit the Great Barrier Reef from because it is so close to it – having said that it still took us one and a half hours to get to the reef we went to. There are loads of companies which do day trips to a number of different reefs. We went with Reef Magic on a big boat to Thetford Reef. Some people went diving but we just went snorkelling and saw lots of different types of fish (especially different types of Butterfly and Parrot fish) and coral (hard and soft, alive and unfortunately lots of dead coral too). The glass bottom boat ride was a great way to see the different types of coral and there were also some giant clams. After lunch it was time to feed the fish. Somebody threw small fish off the back of the boat to attract some big fish. Fish that were two or three feet long were jumping out of the water to try and grab some lunch. When we went back in for some more snorkelling we could see the big fish under the boat. Apparently they haven’t learnt that they only get fed once a day and they hang around all afternoon under the boat.

The Great Barrier Reef, Cairns It had been a while since my Dad had been snorkelling, and I’m not sure my Mum ever had before, but they both had a great time in the water, in fact at one point I think my Dad was trying to swim across the Pacific as he got quite a way from the boat. Jo is also a natural in the water, but I’m really not so good at snorkelling in the sea – I really can’t get the hang of swimming with flippers, and even a fairly calm sea is too choppy for me to snorkel in – as soon as I’ve had a mouthful of sea or got it in my eyes I start thinking about getting out. So I only did one, fairly short, session in the water, but still managed to get some good views of the reef and fish (the underwater photos are all by Jo tho’ – my Dad shot off a whole film as well, but we don’t have copies of those pictures to use).
Clown fish at the Aquarium, Cairns A more colourful aquatic picture was taken of this clown fish in it’s tank in Cairns Aquarium. The disposible waterproof cameras we’ve been using when snorkelling are quite good but a bit hit and miss because there has to be a lot of light to get the bright colours. One of things they told us about on the trip was how the nature programs get the really rich colours of the soft coral to show up: they use very bright lights. Normally, as soon as you get a couple of metres down in the water the red end of the light spectrum has been filtered out so the only way to consistently see the very rich vivid colours is shine a bright light onto the coral from close range.

By now my Mum and Dad only had a couple of days left, so we put them to good use ferrying us around car lots in Cairns whilst we picked over what was on offer. And what fun that was…see below for more details.

It wasn’t all car hunting for the last few days – as mentioned above, my Mum and Dad did the cable sky/scenic railway trip to the highlands, and we had a couple of barbies around the pool at our apartment complex. Soon is was time for my Mum and Dad to begin the long trip back to the UK – they were heading back via overnight stops in Sydney and Tokyo, a long journey. So after what seemed like a very short week we were on our own again. Not sure if they’ll make a trip out next year when we’ll be in New Zealand – my Mum has family and friends there, so maybe.

The trials of car buying

We knew that buying a car wouldn’t be trivial – there was bound to be a whole new set of red tape to work our way through, and a whole range of different models to choose from. But we did the sensible things: bought a couple of magazines on used cars (nothing as good as Parker’s used car guide over here tho’) and then started the rounds of the car lots. First thing we found out was that insurance might be an issue – all Aussie cars have third part insurance included with their equivalent of the tax disc (called rego over here), which seems very sensible, but we’d want fire and theft on top of that, and maybe fully-comp depending on the car. So we went off to an insurance company and they were very much of the “No worries, go and pick a car and we’ll give you a quote” frame of mind. So back to the car lots….

Here’s what you could have had!!… a 2000 Ford Falcon

The car we didn't buy, Cairns

We fairly quickly upped what we had planned to spend (suprise, suprise) and decided that a newish sedan (saloon car) from one of the four local manufaturers (Ford, Holden(= GM = Vauxhall), Mitsubishi or Toyota) would be best as there are so many of them about that servicing and parts and re-sale would be easy. And because we knew we’d sell the car in 11 months we figured a newish model would probably hold it’s value quite well. So what we started looking at were 3-4 year old Ford Falcons, Holden Commodoress, Mitsubishi Magnas and Toyota Camrys – those being the names of the family saloon models over here. Family saloon might give you the impression that these are sort of Mondeo level type of cars, and in a way they are: they are what loads of people over here drive, the Camry is about the same size. What they lack over here is the niceties that European cars have, what they do have is engines: all the four models we were looking at come in a 6 cylinder version: 3 of them V6s the Ford a straight six – and ‘reasonable’ engine capacity as well: starting at 3 litres, and going up to 4 litres on the Ford! Just whats needed for cruising around a country this big. In fact you can get the Ford and the Holden in 5 litre V8 versions, but that’s maybe just a bit over the top, and even with petrol being so cheap over here (about 30p per litre most of the time) that was going to cost a lot over the year.

A quick check back with the insurance people on how much one of these would be to insure (a bit less than we paid for 3rd party on the E reg cavalier in Brixton for fully comp!) and we started some test drives. We couldn’t find any reasonably priced V6 Camrys and the Holdens were a bit more expensive than we were prepared to go, so it was down to a Falcon or a Magna. Lots of these about, with a choice of models and age in the range we were looking at. In the end we narrowed it down to a choice between a 3.5 litre V6 Magna Advance that was a 2 ½ year old ex-goverment car that had done just under 20,000 miles, or a 4.0 litre straight six Falcon that was 2 years old and had done a few thousand more miles. Once the two different dealers had cancelled each other out with their ‘Oh the Falcon/Magna will be much easier to sell/cheaper to repair/more fuel efficient/whatever’ it was down to what price they were going for. This is where it got weird. These guys appeared to have absolutely no interest in selling the cars, all week we’d been back and forth around the dealers, and no-one else had ever been on the car lots. They weren’t selling anything. But when we tried to get a few hundred dollars off the price they were quite happy to let us walk away. Weird. And they don’t open Sundays, or public holidays, or Saturday afternoons. How do they ever sell cars?

Fortunately their stubborness on price was real stroke of luck for us. We’d been going over the insurance policy to make sure that it was all OK and there was a bit in it about having to inform them of change of address. Now in our situation that was going to be ridiculous – what do we do, ring them every evening with a new motel address? So we asked the agent about it, and he said not to be concerned, but we were, so we asked for a side letter to the policy understanding our situation and saying we’d inform them everytime we settled somewhere for a month or more. He took this idea to their legal department. It was at this point that my Mum and Dad left to go home. They thought we were likely to buy the car by the time they got home and have a years nice driving in a reasonable car…

We went back to the insurance guy on the Tuesday, just before we planned to stop off at the dealer with the Magna and buy it even if he wouldn’t shift the final $500 we were trying to get out of him. Then they dropped the bombshell: ‘Sorry, we can’t do you any insurance until you’ve lived here for six months. Goodbye.’ An hour on the phone to other insurance companies got much the same response: as soon as they realised we were just here travelling they didn’t want to know. Never mind about fully comprehensive insurance, they wouldn’t even sell us fire and theft policies. And there was no way we could get the car we were planning on without having the insurance in case we had a crash or had it stolen. Too much to risk. So, after a week of being strung along by bloody Suncorp Metway that they’d insure is, we were back to a very depressing square one. And we started to realise that maybe all the backpackers drove around in knackered old heaps because of the insurance rather than them just being cheap…

In a very depressed mood after the visions of cruising around in a (relatively) luxurious car – especially by the old Cavaliers standards – we hit the car lots again. This time tho’ it wasn’t the nice models at the front of the lots, it was the crap out the back we were after…. The name of the first place we went to has been mercifully forgotton, but it was something along the lines of “Stavros’ budget cars”. This was the last stop off before the scrap yard for most cars. YUK! And they still weren’t cheap – real rust buckets, 15+ years old, still priced at 25% of what the newish stuff was selling at! We had days of traipsing around looking at this junk. And I mean traipsing – our handy taxi service in the form of my Mum and Dad were back in the UK, so we slogged on foot up and down the couple of miles that made up Cairns’ car selling strip. In 30°+ heat…fun…not – you really do need to have a car to buy a car. One side note: the dealer we were so close to buying the Magna off never even rang us back to find out if we were still interested – he just let what must have looked like a potential customer vanish! Side note two: as we visited the various lots, quite a few of the dealers reckoned they could get us insurance: mainly by pulling stunts such as using a mate of their’s address and such-like: thanks, but no thanks – not really going to be much use if we need to claim on it is it??

Eventually we found some older (ie. cheaper) cars that would have to do – this time we are talking about 10 year old Ford’s or Holdens, with 100,000+ miles on the clock. At least these dealers were keen to do a deal – you barely had to look at a car and hundreds of dollars started flying off the sticker price. And they’d phone us back after we’d left the lot. We’d pretty much narrowed the choice down to a couple of cars when we decided to give the classified privates sales one last go. This is when we came across John, and his Lexcen.

It was a nice looking car – 10 years old, but lowish mileage and good equipment. The Lexcen is a Toyota car thats actually a Holden Commodore: some weird government rule that the Japanese manufacturers had to use at least 50% components. Toyota didn’t fancy mixing in Aussie parts to their cars, so instead they bought a load of locally manufacured Holdens, stuck a few Toyota badges on them and called it a Lexcen! Anyway, it looked like a decent car, except for some dodgy re-wiring were John had put a CD changer in, so we sent it for inspection. And it failed. ‘No worries’ says John, I’ll get it fixed over the weekend, and you get can it re-inspected and we’ll do the deal on Monday. Monday comes and when, by mid-afternoon, John hasn’t phoned I give him a ring. And out pours some cock-and-bull story about the dealer selling on the part he’d reserved and it wont be available till who knows when etc. When I tried to phone him back a few minutes later he just wasn’t answering – I guess it was either too expensive for him to do, or he’d found another buyer, but it was a bit weird. So another 4 days wasted. We had been due to leave Cairns by now, and seriously contemplated just hiring a car and trying again in Brisbane, but the apartment we were in was available for a few more days so we decided to give it one last try.

Another scour through the classified ad’s and we found a couple of likely prospects. So we went round to see one of them and it was OK – much better for the money than what the dealers were selling, but by no stretch of the imagination anywhere near what we’d been test driving 10 days before. We decided to go and have a look at the other one before making a decision so phoned up for directions: oops! the car was from Townsville, about 300 miles down the coast, so that made that decision for us. We went back to the first one and decided it was worth putting it in for an inspection . It didn’t exactly fly through, but most of the problems were minor and when we went back to the seller he dropped the price down to cover us having the work done. So we bought it. Finally. All in all we spent over two weeks trying to buy a car – but the one we actually bought we had transferred into our name within 24 hours of seeing it. Madness.

So what did you buy in the end I hear you all cry after slogging through that mammoth tale? Well here you go…

The car we did buy, Cairns

…and here’s what we got…a 1994 Ford Falcon

Much like the newer Falcons we were looking at, it’s a 4.0 litre straight 6 1994 ED ‘Falcon Futura Classic’. Only 101,000km on the clock (pretty low for an 8 year old). Big and roomy. Air conditioning (essential). Cruise control (very handy). And very little else. In fact it’s pretty much the local equivalent of a 1988 Vauxhall Cavalier that we left behind at home – the larger engine and the automatic gear box are just norm on this type of car over here. As I write this we’ve done about 20,000km in it and it’s OK. Nothing special at all, but it does the job and has enough umpf to overtake road trains in the outback and pick up speeding tickets if we’re not very careful. A couple of things don’t work, and we have to take care to get it maintained regularly, but hey, it’s 8 years old so you expect that. And it’s not insured against fire or theft, so we worry a bit. But not as much as if it had been the newer cars that cost over twice as much.

By this time we’d spent way too long in Cairns and hadn’t really done any of the things we wanted to, but tough luck, it was time to get moving down to Brisbane to meet Jo’s Mum. But we did manage one trip away before heading off…and it gave us a good run in the car where we could still go back to Cairns and complain to the garage if anything went wrong.

Cape Tribulation

Where the rainforest meets the reef, Cape Tribulation Where the rainforest meets the reef… The last thing we did in Northern Queensland was to head north along the beautiful coast road to Cape Tribulation. It’s great to be able to eat out doors all the time and being on the move so much we don’t have a lot of choice so on the way to Cape Tribulation we stopped at a beach to have lunch and try out our new all singing all dancing chairs. They are fab, they only cost £8 each, are comfy and most importantly have a drinks holder in them – sounds extreme but we might be posting them home when we leave Oz.

Cassowary Road Sign, Cape Tribulation These roadsigns are famous. The bottom sign is of a Cassowary, an odd looking bird, a bit like an emu but with a bright blue head with a horn on it. We haven’t seen one in the wild but wherever they live there are speed bumps and Cassowary warning signs to try to prevent people running them over (because they are rare) hence a speed bump looks like a dead Cassowary.

Other good signs are the picture of what looks like a cow eating a car which is supposed to indicate to drivers that they should be careful not to crash into cows but which has been helpfully defaced with the warning ‘cows eat cars’. The other popular sign we’ve seen right through Australia is the kangaroo warning sign which has skis and ski sticks added.

The next day we left Cairns and headed south to Brisbane where my Mum was going to meet up with us in July. On the way from Cairns to Brisbane we had some fun sailing in the Whitsundays and Platypus spotting in Eungella National Park.

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