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The Cairns Gateway to Reef and Rainforest


Queensland is the second largest of Australia’s six states and to put that into perspective it’s seven times larger than Great Britain, or two-and-a-half times the size of Texas. Its far north is a tropical region centred on the city of Cairns, stretching north to the Torres Strait and west to the gulf country. Offshore is the Great Barrier Reef and inland is the Wet Tropics Rainforest, both of which are included on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Cairns is a city of almost 170,000 residents and host to more than 3 million visitors in a normal year. Apart from Cairns itself, the reef and rainforest are what overseas and Australian visitors come to see, as well as the hinterland towns of Atherton, Mareeba, Mossman and Kuranda and the coastal town of Port Douglas. North of the crocodile-infested Daintree River are Cape Tribulation, Cooktown and Cape York.

I can write about Cairns with some authority as I lived and worked there for four years some three decades ago. Those were heady days with a massive influx of visitors from overseas and the airport expanding to meet the demand. I was head of media relations for the Cairns Port Authority, which owned both the local seaport and airport. Cairns Airport went on to become Australia’s fifth busiest international airport and the only one in the top eight not a state or territory capital airport.

Leisure time was taken up strolling along the Esplanade, shopping at Rusty’s Markets and exploring the rainforest, all pictured below. The Esplanade was the place to watch all the action, on both the water and the streets – bird watching and people watching. At low tide the Cairns waterfront became an expanse of mudflats frequented by migratory wading birds feeding on the exposed crabs and other marine creatures.

2_Cairns Esplanade3_Rusty's4_Rainforest scenic flight with Nautilus Aviation Cairns

This was a far cry from the Cairns of 50 years ago when it was just another remote regional city. One hundred years before that, white settlement took a firm hold in the region with the discovery of gold, which led to the foundation of Cairns in 1876. Named after the State Governor of the day, Sir William Wellington Cairns, it was formally declared a town in 1903 with a registered population of 3,500.

When the gold rush ended, fishing and sugarcane plantations became the dominant local industries, and they remain important today. However, when the first stage of the airport development was completed in 1984, a major tourism boom began which transformed Cairns from a sleepy regional town to the thriving city of today.

5_Cairns lagoon6_Riley A Crystalbrook Collection Resort

A lot has changed in Cairns since I lived there – massive development, the mudflats have been largely covered by an artificial beach, there is a saltwater swimming lagoon and the city now has a casino and high-rise hotels – but it is still a magical place.


Kuranda is the closest of the hinterland townships, just a 30-minute drive north-west of Cairns. It’s a delightful mountain village and two alternative ways of getting there are the scenic railway (above) or the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway (below).

8_Skyrail Rainforest Cableway [1)

Kuranda has many restaurants and cafes (below) and outdoor dining is one of the joys of the cooler mountain climate.

8A_Frogs Restaurant at Kuranda Heritage Markets

For those young, fit or brave enough to do it, summer is the time of year to go white water rafting on the surging Tully and Barron rivers. The Barron is easier and the closest to Cairns, about 20 minutes away. The Tully River (below) is more challenging and farther away from Cairns – about two hours south, towards Mission Beach. It is regarded as the best white water rafting experience in Australia and New Zealand and the World Rafting Championship was held there in 2019.

9_World Rafting Championship 2019 Tully Australia [2)

Cairns today

I go back to visit whenever I can. Here are a few things to do that have popped up since I was last in Cairns and which are a little different from regular tourist activities:

Join the Australian quoll conservation team collecting data on the endangered spotted-tailed quoll in the world’s oldest rainforest. The 10-day tour with No Limit Adventures also includes work at the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre on Fitzroy Island and data collection on the Great Barrier Reef.


Experienced certified divers can join conservationists assessing reef health on the Great Barrier Reef with a new tour launched in Cairns by Passions of Paradise. Participants will monitor coral planting undertaken through the Coral Nurture Program. The experience is part of a full-day tour to two outer reef locations and includes two dives.

A prehistoric giant platypus is part of a new exhibition at the Cairns Aquarium giving visitors an insight into Far North Queensland’s little-known third World Heritage-listed site, the Riversleigh Mammal Fossil site. The Aquarium has also launched a behind-the-scenes Marine Life Encounter including hand-feeding Cownose Stingrays and a visit to the Cairns Turtle Hospital.

And in June and July the Dwarf Minke Whales arrive on the Ribbon Reefs north of Port Douglas. Day and overnight trips are available to swim with these inquisitive creatures.

Right now is the best time to go, in the Australian winter (June to August) when the climate in the north is just perfect. Hotel bookings for 2022 are filling up already. If you go, make sure you enjoy a seafood feast at your choice of restaurant overlooking the waterfront, while watching the rain descend on the mountains across Trinity Inlet.

11_Raw Prawn12_Barnacle Bills13_Night Markets14_Cairns Marlin Marina [1)

In normal times there are direct flights to Cairns from Auckland, Bali, Singapore, Port Moresby, Shenzhen, Tokyo and Osaka. Flights from other cities via Brisbane or Sydney are available through most major international airlines and their codeshare partners.

Next time … a look at the region north of Cairns.


Images (15)
  • 2_Cairns Esplanade
  • 3_Rusty's
  • 4_Rainforest scenic flight with Nautilus Aviation Cairns
  • 5_Cairns lagoon
  • 6_Riley A Crystalbrook Collection Resort
  • 7_Kuranda_Scenic_Railway
  • 8_Skyrail Rainforest Cableway (1)
  • 8A_Frogs Restaurant at Kuranda Heritage Markets
  • 9_World Rafting Championship 2019 Tully Australia (2)
  • 10_pexels-richard-segal-turtle_reef
  • 11_Raw Prawn
  • 12_Barnacle Bills
  • 13_Night Markets
  • 14_Cairns Marlin Marina (1)
  • 1_Title_Coral Sea

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Comments (4)

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Every time you write, it makes it harder for me to keep saying "Australia's too far for me to sit on a plane..." At this rate, I might be ready by the time Australia's ready for visitors!

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

I've been to Australia twice, once to Adelaide and Kangaroo island, once to Perth and western Australia.  Have never actually spent any time on the east side of the island and Cairns would be at the top of that list.

Thanks for another terrific article, Barry!

Twitter: @DrFumblefinger

"We do not take a trip, a trip takes us".  John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charlie

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