“This is my fourth coach tour,” says Janice.
“First I toured around the North Island with AAT Kings, because I was travelling alone and I really liked it, so I’ve done more. This is my third Australian tour.
“I like that the guides look after everything; they’re always willing to help, in every situation. It’s good that once you’ve paid, that’s it. Everything’s included.”
Janice, who lives in Christchurch, says another factor of taking a tour, as opposed to travelling independently, is safety. “You worry about safety, travelling solo. And I’ve always found it easy to fit in with others on the tour; there’s always a range of ages, other nationalities – and there have always been others travelling solo.
“Also, I do things I wouldn’t ordinarily do – and certainly not on my own – like snorkelling on the reef.”
Janice and I were chatting as we headed for Great Barrier Reef, leaving Cairns early in the day for several hours of being intoxicated by the sea, from a pontoon moored in the middle of it.
We dressed in stinger suits that we didn’t really need in winter, but were comforting for the extra layer and warmth, making it easier to stay in the water for a long time. We grabbed snorkels, masks, flippers and slid off the side.
Some were new to it and were being coached and supported. Some scuba-dived, deep below us. Some people didn’t even get wet. They rode in a glass-bottom boat, climbed into a submersible craft or stepped down into an underwater observatory – all options providing a chance to observe another world.
Underwater, I focused on the notion of ‘safety in numbers’ and tried to not be overwhelmed. I worried about how to describe it.
This is what I recall: sulphur yellow coral, branching coral tipped with amethyst, silvery, bronzy and crystal-like coral. Swarms and swirls of tiny fish and big fish ‒ from secretive lurkers watching from under rock shelves, to great slow drifters. Multiple, hilariously cheerful fish wore the colours of spilled paint.
Giant clams, sea cucumbers, sea anemones with tentacles, cute little clown fish living within the tentacles, parrot fish, lion fish, butterfly fish…
Fish patterns would surely be great fabric design inspiration, I thought.
Such elaborate, brave colour combinations: pastel mauve and mossy green, white spots on khaki and grey, translucent green and yellow, violet, safety orange, electric blue. Others were mossy, stone-coloured, textured, frilled, shiny, splattered. In a word: crazy.
There are, I read later, over 30 types of corals and plants and 1,500 different types of fish here. To swim amongst it was incredible and wondrous.
Finally we re-surfaced and ate well from the buffet – hot food and salads and fruit and multiple cups of tea. Then soaked in the sun, drying off, exhausted.
Sarah from the UK, Janice and I walked back to the middle of Cairns in the evening to share a meal, talk over the day, then indulge in a little night market shopping. It had been a full day. And each day was. Each was a new experience and felt special, even if thousands of travellers had had similar days before us.
We zipped to Kuranda on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, flying along seven kilometres of wiring high above the trees. The swinging glass pods stopped at Red Peak and Barron Falls for short walks and photographs then at Kuranda, a surprising little town up high, designed for wandering. We checked out gift shops, art shops, had lunch. Our coach met us there, at the top. It was a lovely bus, it must be said. Smooth, impressive, with a classy interior ‒ leather seats, huge windows, an on-board bathroom, WiFi and USB charging points. A low-key commentary kept us company; Paul, the tour guide, introduced where we were going next and gave gentle history briefs along the way.
We passed through eucalypt forest; through classic Aussie landscapes.
Then we trundled across the Atherton Tablelands, stopping at highlights to take photos of waterfalls and extraordinary views. We passed banana, mango and sugar plantations. Then down, down off the tableland, through rainforest and followed a river to Millaa Millaa Falls.
Late in the day we arrived at Mission Beach. This was a good example of something special that could easily be missed. If I was travelling randomly, would I know to take the detour off the main road?
Mission Beach is a white-sand, palm-fringed, gentle-surf beach that stretched forever in both directions from the resort we were at for the night. I took a long walk, watching kids swim and dog-walkers congregate. The full tour group ate on the terrace watching a fat orange moon rise out of the Coral Sea.
It was an early start the next morning.The coach took us through Tully, clouds of smoke billowing from sugar mills, past African tulip trees with bright orange splashes of bloom against dark green foliage, past palms and eucalyptus gums and clumps of bush covered in vines.
We New Zealanders were intrigued by the rope bridges slung high across the roads for possums and other canopy-dwellers to cross safely. Other creatures were provided for with underpasses.
We looked in vain for a cassowary. We passed market gardens growing pineapples and watermelons, then arrived in Airlie to catch a ferry to one of the Whitsundays: Hamilton Island. There are 70 islands in this group – six inhabited – the rest are national park.
This is when things went squawky. The cockatoos yelled and screeched and I wanted to join in, such was my frustration. My huge room, with its balcony boasting views down to the beach and out to the sunset, was too spectacular. It was not fair; I'd just arrived on Hamilton Island and I wanted to stay a week, not a night.
This was a resort like none other I’d experienced. People got about on golf buggies, indulging in touristy things, floating about in flash swimming pools then wandering off to lounge on some lovely white sandy, sunny beach with waves lapping at their toes. When they’d eaten too much, they’d take a quiet walk to a stunning view, all in the soft warmth of the sun. I wanted to stay.
That’s the thing about this sort of tour: you get somewhere you like and you don’t want to move but you have to. It’s a tease – or, more politely, a taster. When I complained about not staying here long enough, Paul, the guide, pointed out that if we stayed a week in each gorgeous place on the itinerary, it would take six months to get from Cairns to Sydney.
The tour was six days. Everyone else stayed on Hamilton Island for two days but I had to cut my time short and get home. Squawk!
Word of thanks
The writer was a guest of AAT Kings on the six-day Queensland’s Beaches & Reef guided holiday from Cairns. Thanks also to Tourism Queensland. Grab AA Travel Insurance or call into an AA Centre before setting off.
Reported by Kathryn Webster for our AA Directions Autumn 2020 issue