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Road Tripping on Australia’s East Coast

I drove from Cairns to Airlie Beach, stopping at a sugar museum, Cardwell, Townsville (stayed the night) and then on to Airlie Beach. The scenery was beautiful and I instantly wanted to stay in Airlie Beach for a long time! I found a steal at an incredible resort.

Days 428-429

It was time to leave Cairns, Queensland, Australia, after spending a week enjoying the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. As I drove away from my Airbnb at 10:00 am, I felt a little sad to be saying goodbye. I suppose it was because I had spent a week there. Anytime I spend that long somewhere, it starts to grow on me. 

On the way out of town, I stopped for gas. As I put the nozzle in my car, a girl walked over to wash my window with a wax that she was trying to sell me. She asked where I was headed and I explained, Townsville. The girl responded, “Everybody seems to be going there today. Well, you’re on your way. Where are you coming from?” 

I told the girl that I was coming from Cairns, but she followed it up with, “I hear an accent. Where are you from?” I replied, “The U.S.” The perked up, “Oh! The girl over there is from Texas!”

I walked inside the station to pay for my gas (they rarely have the option to pay at the pump), and I was hit with a case of Deja Vu. The place was so familiar, and then I realized it was the same gas station that we stopped at when I went on the hiking and swimming tour in the Tablelands. It was so strange. Sometimes I feel like I’m dreaming because I’ve seen so many places; it can start to blur together like a dream. 

The roads were smooth and much better than in Western Australia and the Northern Territory. The two-lane road took me through small towns, so I had to keep an eye on my speed. 

I saw a sign for a sugar museum and pulled over. The admission was $12, so I paid the fee and started walking around. I had passed tons of sugar cane fields, and it felt like I should learn a little something about them. 

Here are some things that I learned:

  • Sugarcane is grown in high rainfall areas. It was brought to Austalia in 1788 on the ships of the First Fleet. 
  • Twenty-six sugar mills employ 5,000 people each season. 
  • It’s still a family business, even though some companies own a few farms now too. Around 6,000 farmers grow sugarcane.
  • Ninety-five percent of growers are located in Queensland, and the remaining 5% are in Northern New South Wales.
  • Australia produces 37 million tons of sugar and 5 million tons of raw sugar. They are one of the world’s largest exporters (second to Brazil). 
  • Eighty percent of the sugar is exported, while Australians consume 20%. Most of the sugar is sold to Asia, the U.S., and New Zealand.
  • In 2012, the sugar industry was valued at 2.5 billion dollars. 

There was a dark history with the cane fields because of how they got their labor to harvest it in the beginning. One sign read, “Throughout the 1880s and 90s sugar became a strong and influential industry in Queensland. Sugar farmers and people of the sugar towns knew their industry relied on coloured labourers being paid low wages.”

The sign continued, “Australia’s first serious race debate focused on South Sea Islanders who had become a distinct underclass in Queensland. Islanders’ working conditions on Queensland plantations were so harsh that sickness and death were up to four times higher than for Europeans in the state. This was mainly the result of bringing Islanders to a new disease environment with a change in diet and often unsanitary conditions.” Thankfully, this is no longer the case in the cane fields. 

Once I was finished at the small museum, I continued driving south. I pulled over in Cardwell because the road took me straight through town, with the ocean to my left. 

I walked around, and it was a beautiful day! I walked down the jetty and looked around at the surrounding mountains. They were full of lush, green trees. Big billowy clouds were scattered above, appearing fake. 

I continued driving and enjoyed the landscape. At one point, there was a look-out area. I pulled over and was treated to magnificent views from the top of a mountain. I could see miles of the surrounding forest. In the distance, there was a river system that snaked its way through the valley. 

I arrived at Townsville (population 178,000) at 4:45 pm and pulled over in the downtown area by the ocean. There was a huge park with various sculptures and playground equipment. I walked around before it got dark and saw a tree that looked like the Avatar mother tree, with long dangling roots draped from the top. 

There were pods of palm trees, and the whole area was really well maintained. One sign read, “This fountain was built in 1959 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the separation of the colony of Queensland from New South Wales.”

I booked a motel and wanted to see the city before checking in. I read that the best view of the town was from Castle Hill Lookout. It is a massive rock mountain in the middle of town. I drove to the top as it was starting to get dark. The road zigzagged as it wrapped around the hill. People wearing workout clothes were using the inclined road as exercise.  

When I arrived at the top, I was thrilled! I could see views of the city and surrounding areas in a 360° direction. The temperature dropped dramatically because a storm was coming in. I grabbed my jacket and walked around the top. There was a path that wrapped around the top and had to some steps. The wind was powerful and dark clouds made for an ominous feel. 

I was happy that most people had left and it wasn’t crowded. I walked around the top, investigating the ocean, city, and landscape. It was like the water carved its place into the land. I was able to see the views as the sun was setting and then saw the change of the city lights in the night sky. 

It was dark outside, and I felt very cold in my shorts, so I rushed back to my car. I drove to my motel, and when I walked into the lobby at 7:00 pm, nobody was there. Then a man walked in from the back room, wearing pajama bottoms and a t-shirt. He and his wife lived there. My room had a full-sized bed and two twin beds, but they were all touching. There was no room between the beds; only comforters separated them. It was like one massive bed. I watched The Proposal and went to sleep.

The next day, I checked out of the motel at 10:00 am and then sat in my car for 30 minutes while I tried to figure out how to spend the day. I looked into diving at a shipwreck with great reviews, but they didn’t have availability for almost a week. 

Before leaving Townsville, I stopped at the aquarium. I walked around and stumbled on a woman giving a talk about sea life. The talk was for anyone, but it was mostly grade-school aged kids on a field trip. The woman was doing a show-and-tell about various snails while giving information about each one. 

I couldn’t help but laugh when she talked about the Cone Snail. The woman said it shoots a dart, paralyzing its prey. If a human gets hit by it, it will make you very sick (added to my list). There are different types of snails: worm-eating, mollusk-eating, and fish-eating. The woman said that the fish-eating snails are deadly to humans because we have spines. 

I stood around listening to more information, and the woman told the kids about the sea urchins and how they have poison on their tips. It reminded me of when I was stabbed by a sea urchin while diving in Vietnam. 

The school kids were attentively listening to the woman, and she picked up some creatures from a shallow tank. She pointed out the sea cucumber and said, “If you pick it up and scare it, it will poop out white smelly stuff. One girl shaved her head because the smell was so bad and lasted for two weeks.”

I walked around the aquarium on my own, reading signs and looking at the creatures. I came across the Estuarine Stonefish. The sign read, “Stonefish have paired venom glands on either side of each dorsal spine to help protect them from predators. People are sometimes stung when they come in contact with these fish. The severity of the sting will vary, running from mild discomfort to severe pain.” 

Another sign warned, “Stonefish: the world’s most venomous fish.” It goes on to explain what to do if you’re stung: “If stung, immerse the wound in hot water (not scalding). An antivenin is available for stonefish venom. If walking through shallow water, or when reef walking, always wear foot-protection to prevent injury from the venomous spines of these fishes.” Another one added to my list of things that want to kill me in Australia. 

I saw lots of creatures, from sharks to brightly colored fish that I saw while diving, seahorses, and even seasnakes. Of course, they are poisonous too. The sign read, “Seasnakes evolved from land snakes and are amongst the world’s most venomous serpents. Most are, however, gentle and inquisitive creatures and bites from them are rare. People bitten by seasnakes are usually fishers cleaning their nets, or waders who accidentally tread on them in muddy water. Scuba divers commonly encounter Olive seasnakes when diving on the reef. This docile species has been known to take a romantic interest in diver air hoses, smelling them with their tongues before swimming off in search of a more suitable mate!”

I enjoyed the aquarium, and before leaving Townsville, I stopped for lunch on the main street with shops. There was a Sunday market going on, so I checked it out. Then I kept driving south to Airlie Beach. 

The drive had lots of sugar cane fields, and it was harvest time. The small trains were full of the stuff. There were signs on the road that warned, “Use your train brain.” 

I arrived at Airlie Beach (population 1,200) at 5:00 pm and parked at the beach. It was incredible! I walked along the oceanfront, where there were parks, palm trees, swimming pools, lagoons, and the ocean! I could hear live music in the distance too. 

I followed the sidewalk, and it connected to a street with restaurants and shops. The whole town had a vacation vibe, and I instantly wanted to stay there for a few days. I wasn’t sure if I could afford it, though. 

I sat down on a bench and the breeze was a little chilly, but the daytime temps were warmer. I searched Orbitz for a room so I could use some reward points. Because this was clearly a vacation town, I wanted to stay in a resort. I found a steal – $75 a night after taxes! I paid twice that for crappy motels in the outback. I booked three nights and then drove to the hotel. 

The hotel was just off the street with shops, but it was up a massively steep hill. I pulled up and parked my car out front in a small section of the narrow hill. I was so excited that I was staying at a fancy resort! The lobby was closed, and a sign explained that there was no hotel reception after 12:00 pm on weekends. Oh, Australia. I wondered, “How do you check people in?”

As I looked around, trying to figure out what to do, a woman and a large man showed up to check-in too. I called the hotel, and a woman answered. I explained that two of us needed to check-in, and she said she’d be there shortly. 

The woman checked-in the other couple and then helped me. She explained that I was fortunate in getting the deal that I got because she had just reduced the price that morning, just to get it filled. She said, “Your suite has one of the best views. It’s just you?” 

As the woman got my paperwork ready, I browsed the brochures and realized there were tons of fun activities to do in the area. I also realized this was a steal, and I asked if I could add another night for the same price. The woman said I could add one night, but then the unit was booked. She agreed to honor the price I received when I booked. 

I moved my car to the underground parking and then took the elevator to the main floor. It dropped me off outside, and I had to walk across a bridge that went over the pool towards the units. Each unit had a patio or balcony, and I couldn’t wait to see my suite! My room was on the top floor, so I had to climb up three flights of stairs. 

When I opened the door, I jumped with joy! I had a huge apartment! There was a separate bedroom with a walk-in closet. The kitchen and living space opened to a giant balcony! I even had a small balcony off my bedroom. 

I walked around in complete happiness. I opened the balcony door, and I had a view of the beautifully lit pool. I knew the ocean was in the distance but couldn’t see it because it was dark outside. I couldn’t wait to see the view in the morning. 

For dinner, I walked down the super steep hill to a restaurant/bar with live music. I sat outside at a long bench table. A drunk woman was inches from spilling her drink on me as she set it on my table so she could go past the rope (and the drink fell over). She didn’t have a care in the world that she almost spilled on me, and I snarked at her, “You’re excused!” She said, “Sorry.”

I told the waitress, “What a bitch.” Then a couple of minutes later, another girl on the other side of me practically fell on me and the table. She didn’t apologize or acknowledge me at all. The girl started walking to her group on the other side of the rope, and I said, “Of course you’re with them. You have no concept or understanding that other people exist in this world.” She just looked at me and walked away.

I’ve been traveling alone for more than a year, and I often talk to myself, even out loud. It’s usually not an issue because I’m alone. I guess I had gotten used to it, and I didn’t realize other people could hear me. Oops. I ate my steak and drank my red wine while searching for what I wanted to do while in one of the most beautiful places that I’ve ever been to. 

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5 Responses

  1. I thought for sure you were going to eat fish ‘n chips after your visit to the aquarium… lol!

    As for the landscape… wow! Christy, it is just so beautiful, I can’t even get over it. This area has got to be my favorite so far (I know I keep saying that).

    I had to laugh at that last part with you saying out loud what most others would be thinking 😀 We all have our moments I guess.

    1. Ahahahaha! I messed up my tradition – I should have had fish ‘n chips! 🤣🤣🤣

      I think you’re going to like all of Queensland and New South Wales! It is incredible!

  2. It seems like Australia may be one of the most beautiful places to visit but also the deadliest. I would not do well with sea snakes! As for drunk girls falling all over me…some guys might want to visit. LOL.

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Throughout her wild 3-week journey backpacking 220+ miles in the California Sierra Mountains, Christy encountered freezing temperatures, pelting hail storms, and losing her way, but found trail family, incredible views, and experiences that would change her life forever. Hiking up and over ten different mountain passes gave Christy a lot of time to think about why her nine-year marriage was falling apart, gave her the chance to truly embody her individualism, time to make new friends, and the strength she would need on and off the trail. Her life could never again be the same.
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