Vern: We woke up at Cairns Beach House (about 3 blocks from the beach) for the free breakfast which is served between 7 and 8am (because they hope no one will wake up at this hour and will have to fork out for the paid-for breakfast served from 9-12). Two Weetabix logs down and with the whole day ahead of us, we walked down to the Esplanade - a pedestrian road which runs along the shore for a few miles and ends at the recreational harbour.
After the big calm bay which the city looks out on, the second thing we noticed were the warning signs: no swimming else the salt water crocodiles will eat you. Blimey! What they lacked in wavy water fun, however they compensated for in recreational facilities: the Esplanade is lined with manicured lawns, covered picnic benches and tables, and free gas BBQs, as well as a brightly coloured kiddy splash pool and a huge swimming pool lined with both beach sand and grass, dubbed 'The Lagoon'. The pool complex reminded me of the pools on Durban's South Beachfront where I'd spent many happy summers in my childhood.
We spent a while in a travel agency and eventually decided on and booked a Great Barrier Reef diving trip for the following day. The internet doesn't seem to have made much of an impact on the tourism industry in Australia. There are still a ton of middlemen phoning each other for availability checks, and the booking agency still prints out vouchers which must be presented to the tour operator in exchange for tickets which are torn up on boarding. No e-tickets, no real-time availability checks. It's like travelling in the 90s. We were very surprised and the only explanation I can fathom was that the Internet is not free in most hostels and hotels so most tourists aren't online.
The one business which did have a feature-packed website and online booking was our Hop On Hop Off Tourbus company, OzExperience. That Saturday evening we sat down and tried to book our itinerary on this site. It started well and we booked onto a bus leaving Cairns at 6:15am on Monday morning, but then the wheels started coming off: there was NO availability on any of the the other journeys which we were trying to book, the buses were already full or weren't running on the days we wanted.
Andrea phoned OzExperience and got through to someone who she explained our issues to. The woman couldn't help: "OzExperience had been bought by Greyhound on Thursday... Bookings made on the OzExperience website are probably invalid... Please call Greyhound. I just work here after hours and don't know anything... Didn't you get an email... Greyhound is closed now but will be open for a few hours tomorrow..."
Andrea came back from the public phone box fuming. We certainly didn't get an email. We couldn't call Greyhound because their call centre was open only while we were on the Reef tomorrow and thus we didn't know if there would be a bus waiting in town for us on Monday morning or not. There was no notice on their website but after some searching I found that there was a post on the company's Facebook page ending in, "...affected passengers will be contacted." Didn't this situation justify a little more than a wall post?!
Almost all of the travellers at the hostel were working to help fund their travels round Australia, and the backpacker job market seemed to be ablaze. At dinner we sat with a Taiwanese couple and in broken English he explained that he had been in Cairns for 4 days before being picked up as a tour guide. Talk about local knowledge. His girlfriend had found work in a Chinese restaurant.
The boat trip out to the Great Barrier Reef was fantastic. The large modern motor-yacht cruised for about two hours while it's metropolitan crew kept us busy serving coffee and tea and cookies and cakes. We then underwent a dive briefing and while the boat anchored off of Saxon Reef we kitted up in the scuba gear. Andrea was a little nervous as this was the first time she was going diving since qualifying. Not a bad place to start right? The world's largest reef.
We weren't following a dive master, we were simply allowed to take a big step off of the back of a yacht and set off exploring the big blue by ourselves. Simply "..return to the boat with 50 barrs of air". The reef started about 5m below the surface and dropped down to the ocean floor at about 21 metres. The coral was dense and stretched out in every direction. We felt like Peter Pan and Wendy flying up, over and around an alien neighbourhood. Beautiful corals we hadn't seen before bloomed amongst a lot of grey dead coral. Parrot fish chomped at the coral and clown fish hid amongst the anenomes. The coral had actually been more impressive snorkelling in Fiji and the sea life more abundant in the Galapagos, however what impressed us was the size of things. Some huge fish startled us as they eased out from under overhangs to take a bite out of debris floating by, and we felt very small hovering like hummingbirds next to a sheer 3-storey reef wall.
Two dives before a huge buffet lunch and one after and we were spent! We peeled out of the wetsuits and into a warm shower, then, in dry clothes, collapsed into a booth. Chocolate cake and warm drinks were served while the skipper sped the yacht back to Cairns. The waves had picked up and it felt like a rollercoaster as we surged over choppy sea. Tidal waves rose over the bow and soaked the passengers on the sundeck. At first they looked astounded but as the waves came and came it seemed to become a bit of a game - the first to retreat to the interior of the boat loses.
The yacht tied up back in Cairns in the late afternoon and we disembarked with that it's-been-a-great-day feeling. We found a travel agency who knew something about the OzExperience takeover and there, a wonderfully helpful Irish woman phoned around (OzExp didn't make it easy for her) until she could assure us that the bus would definitely be there to pick us up tomorrow. After that we'd need to make some phone calls to figure out the rest of our journey down Australias east coast. Good enough for now.