It should have been one of the busiest times of the year when I arrived in Cairns during the school holidays, but the dearth of tourists at the region’s biggest attractions was alarming.
Some operators spoke of crowd numbers being down 60-70 per cent and workers being laid off until travel restrictions lifted.
Here’s hoping that this natural wonderland in the tropics will soon be welcoming back lots of southern visitors.
Meantime, Queenslanders can have it all – and take the grandkids for the ride. Here are some of the many memorable experiences to make the trip worthwhile:
DANIEL VS GOLIATH
We arrived at the Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Zoom on the top level of The Reef Casino in Cairns not really knowing what to expect. The morning started sedately as we walked through the dome and marvelled at the native animals – snakes, black cockatoos, rainbow lorikeets, koalas, lizards and main attraction, Goliath, a 4m 500kg crocodile more than 50 years old.
Soon it was time for the dome crew to strap on our harnesses and take us to the casino rooftop for a spectacular bird’s-eye view of the city and islands of the Great Barrier Reef.
The staff were fantastic in helping us conquer the fear although it’s ultimately a controlled and safe environment.
After catching our breath, we went back into the dome to try the zipline. I chose the more difficult Hi-Zoom path over Goliath. Tick “ziplining” off the bucket list, and purchase photographic proof.
THE SKY’S THE LIMIT
The saying “it’s about the journey, not the destination” is fitting when talking about a trip to Kuranda, the picturesque mountain village about 25km northwest of Cairns.
We went up on the Kuranda Scenic Rail and came down on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, which offer different, but amazing, views of the world heritage-listed Barron Gorge National Park.
The 90-minute train journey takes it nice and slow, to enjoy rolling farmland, misty mountains, steep ravines and spectacular waterfalls. For history buffs, commentary is provided on how the railway was built and its opening in 1891.
The train makes a stop at Barron Falls station for passengers to stretch their legs and take their photos of the spectacular falls, which are 327m above sea level.
Just outside Kuranda is the Rainforestation Nature Park where we went on an army duck tour and immersed in the culture of the Pamagirri people and visited the koala and wildlife park. The highlight was learning to throw a boomerang after watching the Pamagirri perform their traditional dances. For the record, my boomerang did come back but I dropped it cold!
After some lunch and a spot of shopping in Kuranda, it was off to the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, the largest butterfly aviary in the southern hemisphere. The tip here is to wear colourful clothing because the butterflies are more likely to be attracted to you.
The Skyrail trip back was breathtaking. It was surreal and peaceful at the same time – like floating in the clouds.
Stunning views of the river, rainforest canopy and Barron Falls made this an experience to savour. I would recommend taking the 7.5km trip. There’s no better way to see this ancient rainforest.
After three days relaxing at Granite Gorge Nature Park near Mareeba, it was off to another must-see – Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures. A 40-minute drive from Cairns, this wildlife park has plenty of eye-popping shows and boat cruises to see crocs being fed in their natural habitat.
Anyone who’s seen the crocodile show at Australia Zoo will suddenly think it’s tame. The host of the crocodile attack show doesn’t muck around and bravely enters the water to show how the croc performs a death-roll on its prey. It’s riveting stuff.
It’s also worth catching the snake show and visiting the enclosure of Australia’s largest snake in captivity, Psycho Sally, a reticulated python that is fed chickens and, on occasion, a goat (dead, of course).
It’s definitely worth exploring Zootastic. It costs $140 each (including park entry) for a premium wildlife experience that is priceless. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine feeding chicken to ravenous American alligators.
The Port Douglas markets are a renowned tourist spot but just outside this quaint seaside town is a lesser-known attraction that’s worth seeing. At the Wildlife Habitat we helped feed fruit to the cassowaries and learnt about how these exquisite-looking birds can tear humans apart with their razor-sharp claws if they’re disturbed during breeding season.
The park is divided into habitats – wetlands, rainforest, savannah, woodland and nocturnal. At an interactive crocodile experience the brave can “swim with a saltie” without fear of being eaten alive.
After all the adventures, you’ll need a place to put the feet up. For grey nomads with a camper or caravan, Granite Gorge is the ideal place to unwind.
Another great spot to relax is Palm Cove, a tropical village where there’s little to do except eat, shop and walk along the beach. Or take a day trip to Green Island to see turtles, reef sharks, stingrays and colourful fish from the comfort of a glass-bottom boat. Just be sure to get to this tropical paradise before international and state borders reopen, so you can miss the crowds that will flock back quicker than a hungry croc can snap its jaws.