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Guide to Cairns, Australia, for Backpackers

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Written by: Penny Long

Cairns is a fantastic base for exploring the breathtaking beauty of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the tremendous, towering trees and wildlife of the prehistoric Daintree Rainforest.
If you want to learn about one of the oldest cultures in the world, there’s quite a bit of Aboriginal heritage and history in the area too – you can even learn how to throw a spear or a boomerang.
As if that’s not enough, Cairns is extremely backpacker friendly and offers more than its fair share of adventure for thrill seekers, with rafting, sky diving and bungee to name just a few. The city is a haven of hostels and bars offering cheap eats and drinks for travelers.
With so much to do here it’s a must-stop, and is a perfect start or finish point to trips along the glorious East Coast. Cairns is also a good gateway to the Northern Territories or Red Centre.

Things to see and do in and around Cairns

The CBD has loads of hostels, bars and clubs. There are several hostels outside the CBD too. Although not as central, they usually offer free shuttles into the CBD so you don’t miss out on the action, but have quieter surroundings to sleep in.
Cairns Esplanade is made up of parks and boardwalks running alongside the shoreline and there’s a public swimming pool – called a lagoon – looking out over the ocean. People don’t relax on the beach or swim in the sea in Cairns due to the risk of crocodiles and stingers, particularly during the summer season.
A flock of fruit bats can usually be seen flying over the CBD as the sun is setting, to take up residence in a tree near the library. These massive creatures are amazing to see and can’t be missed when they start chattering to each other.
Cairns Rocks!

Cairns for the culturally curious

Go hunting with Aboriginals in the Daintree

One of the oldest cultures in the world, you can go and learn about how Aboriginals live in harmony with their environment and use the bush and the reef as a medicine cabinet, grocery store and tool box. Walking through the shallows and mangroves learning how to hunt with spears and dig out other tasty treats is fascinating. It’s a true insight into the skills and heritage of another culture and is absolutely unmissable. You even get to sample your catch afterwards.
You’ll also learn about how Aboriginals use the landscape to tell stories and legends as you go up to the Daintree Rainforest.

Learn about Aboriginal culture, lifestyle and history

Tjapukai (pronounce jab-book-eye) is an interactive museum teaching visitors all about Aboriginal culture, lifestyle and history. As well as seeing traditional dances and interpretations of the Dreamtime, the Aboriginal version of the Creation story, you get the chance to throw boomerangs and spears. You can combine this with a visit to Kuranda on the Scenic Railway and SkyRail to make best use of your time.

Go to Cooktown and see ancient Aboriginal rock art

Cooktown is where Captain Cook settled on his first exploration of the northeast of Australia, so there are a lot of monuments in the small town commemorating its historical significance. It’s an interesting place and makes a good base for visiting the prehistoric art painted on the side of rocks near Laura on the Cape York Peninsula. Aboriginals have used art and stories instead of the written word to teach and communicate for millennia, and they offer guided tours of this incredible rock art to visitors.
It’s possible to fly up to Cooktown from Cairns to explore the rock art and Aboriginal history there.

For those nuts about nature

Visit Cape Tribulation

Stunning white sandy beaches and clear starry nights make Cape Trib a beautiful place to visit. It’s spectacular, and is the only point on Earth where two UNESCO World Heritage sites (the Great Barrier Reef and the Tropical Rainforests) meet.
You can either visit from Cairns in a day trip, or split a day trip in two and stay up there for a night or two. If you decide to take time out there, you can simply absorb the beauty and have a few drinks in the local bar or do a whole array of activities. Swinging from ropes into swimming holes, horseriding along the beach, sea kayaking, snorkeling a secluded part of the reef or jungle surfing on zip wires above the rain forest are only a few of the options. Just keep your eyes open for cassowaries, snakes and crocodiles!

Go to Fitzroy Island

Just a 45 minute boat trip from Cairns, this beautiful island is covered by rainforest and surrounded by coral reef. You can explore the island on walking tracks, rent paddle skis or take advantage of the great snorkeling spots. Alternatively the reef can be viewed from the comfort (and dryness) of a glass bottomed boat.
The highlight has to be the sea kayaking though. Allowing you to see the reef, marine life and admire the lush green island all at once, sea kayaking gives you the best of both worlds. And you’ll still have time to snorkel or hike in and around this paradise island after sea kayaking.

See the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is an amazing underwater world of colourful corals and fish, terrific turtles, sharks and other sea life. Unfortunately experts believe that the coral is being bleached and causing grave risk to this World Heritage Site, so a visit to Nemo’s magical home is a must.
You don’t have to be a qualified diver to visit the reef. You can snorkel, go on intro dives with an instructor, or earn your PADI qualification while visiting Cairns and the reef. It’s surprising how much you can see on snorkeling expeditions, so don’t feel obliged to scuba if it’s not your thing. That said, you get a whole different view of the reef from deeper down and can see different varieties of fish and coral on scuba dives.
Even if you’re not a water baby, there are lots of ways to visit the reef. You could go out on a glass bottomed boat or fly over the reef in a helicopter, which gives you a unique view of the reef and lets you see the scale of the world’s largest site made up entirely of living organisms.
Great barrier reef

See indigenous animals

Australia is home to all sorts of fascinating animals, many unique to the island. Although you may be lucky enough to spot some of these animals in the wild, a lot can be shy or a bit dangerous to go in search of on your own!
Luckily, there are plenty of opportunities to see indigenous creatures in safe environments in and around Cairns.
You could visit the Cairns Tropical Zoo or the Rainforest Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary near Port Douglas. There are also options to go on a crocodile spotting cruise or to Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures which has more than just crocodiles to wow you with.

For the thrill seekers

Go white water rafting

The Tully River is a brilliant place to experience the adrenaline rush of white water rafting. You’ll be togged up in a life vest and helmet over your own clothes, and the experienced instructors will give you a safety briefing and explain how to get the best out of it. You’ll then help your instructor and raft team to row downstream and navigate the rapids.
Be sure to take a towel and change of clothes with you and remember to hang on tight!

Top tip:

If you’re going white water rafting on the Tully River, ask when booking if you can have a free transfer one way and take your luggage with you. It’ll save you the irritation of doing the same two hour stretch of road three times if nothing else!

Hot air balloon over the Atherton Tablelands

Gliding along in a hot air balloon is great fun. Hearing just the occasional roar of the furnace, you’ll enjoy magnificent views of the sun rising over the mountains behind you and spilling across the Atherton Tablelands that are rushing beneath. The flat landscape with rivers and wooded areas gives a whole new aspect to the region; you may even spot Kangaroos on the plains you cruise over.

Skydive over the city or beaches

There is nothing as exhilarating as hurtling towards the earth from 12 or 14,000ft then slowly floating down on a parachute. Tandem skydiving is an awesome adrenaline rush and a fab way to see the landscape. You’re strapped to a Tandem Master who tells you what to do and gets you out of the tiny plane and safely back to ground. (No matter how nervous beforehand, most people I met wanted to get straight back up there and do it again!)
At Mission Beach, you can see the reef as you descend before landing on the beach. Alternatively you can enjoy a bird’s eye view of the city and farm land stretching out below you.
It’s great to capture the experience on video, especially if it’s your first time. A handheld camera strapped to your Tandem Master’s wrist films the whole descent, from leaving the plane to the free fall and on the parachute. Another option is to have a third person jump with you, who has a camera strapped to their head. They video you as you leave the plane and free fall, then try to land before you to capture your landing too.
Sky diving in Cairns

Top tips:

  • Wear a t-shirt that covers the tops of your arms as the harness can pinch a little when the parachute opens
  • Wear shoes that you can tie on securely
  • Girls are also advised to wear a sports (or at least a more supportive) bra for the jump
  • If you’re going skydiving at Mission Beach ask when booking if you can have a free transfer one way and take your luggage with you. Although you won’t get any discount on your bus tickets for doing this, it will save you doing the same two hour stretch of road three times!
  • Ask your hostel to screen your skydiving video on the communal TV / big screen so you can re-live the excitement and see if your reactions were actually as you remembered

Bungee jump

Thrill seekers can test their nerve by bungee jumping in the rainforest near Cairns. With a purpose built tower for bungee jumping, A J Hackett at Cairns boasts the most variations of jumping styles in the world.
As if leaping from the edge of the platform and shooting 50 metres downwards on the end of a rope isn’t enough, you can choose from an incredible 16 different ways to perform your bungee jump: there’s even the option of riding a BMX bike off a roof!
Whether you opt for the traditional swan dive, the ‘fruit bat’ or decide to try several different types of jump, one thing’s for certain – it’ll be unforgettable and will deliver a big dose of adrenaline!

Scenic Railway to Kuranda and the SkyRail over the rainforest

The Scenic Railway to Kuranda weaves up through the hills and past waterfalls in the Barron Gorge Rainforest. During the wet season especially, the thundering Barron Gorge Falls are spectacular.
Once arrived in Kuranda, you can explore the arty village or go to the butterfly farm, the heritage markets or simply enjoy a coffee or an ice cream.
The SkyRail takes you back down over the rainforest and towards the ocean and the reef. This incredible and unique view as you soar above the rainforest is from one of the longest cable cars in the world. Half way down the 7.5km journey, you stop at a station and have the opportunity to walk through a section of the rainforest and marvel at the colossal trees and try to spot wildlife in their natural habitat.

Visit Port Douglas

A posher feel than Cairns, and just 70km further up the coast, Port Douglas is home to the beautiful sandy Four Mile Beach. There is also a marina where you can admire the boats and dream of sailing off into the sunset.
The coastline surrounding Port Douglas is superb and very picturesque. The town has lots of stylish shops and galleries, and hosts a famous Sunday market. You may even manage to spot some high profile people in the town – previous visitors to Port Douglas include former US Presidents and Pop stars such as Pink and Kylie.
There is a laid back, but slightly exclusive feel to the arty town. If this sounds more up your street than Cairns, you can explore the Reef and Rainforests from here. But most backpackers tend to prefer being close to Cairns for the nightlife, selection of grocery stores and usually find there’s more flexibility and choice for tours from Cairns.

How to get to Cairns

By air

The airport is only a few miles north of the Central Business District (CBD) and many hostels offer free airport shuttle services. Make sure you let your hostel know when you’re due in and call them to arrange a lift when you arrive, or talk to the airport information desk about alternative transfer options to your accommodation.

  • Domestic and International flights arrive here.
  • Low cost internal carriers include Virgin Blue and JetStar.
  • International carriers include Qantas, Tiger Airways, Air Asia.

If this is your first port of call in Australia, be aware of the strict customs rules on what you can and can’t import. For example, if you’ve been hiking abroad, you’ll need to declare it and have your hiking shoes cleaned by customs before being allowed to enter the country. They use sniffer dogs and X-Ray machines to help enforce customs checks, so it’s best to declare stuff. To protect their island eco-system Australia doesn’t allow any fruit, veg, plants – or even wooden, bone or shell items into their country…
Also remember to check out visa requirements before you arrive in Australia. Unless you hold an Australian or New Zealand passport, you’ll need a visa. Information can be found on www.immi.gov.au

By rail

Rail services are not the most flexible or frequent option, but there are services between Cairns and Brisbane on the Tilt Trains and The Sunlander. Heading inland, the Savannahlander operates between Cairns and Forsythe.

By road – self drive

Many backpackers buy secondhand cars or campers, or hire camper vans to drive along the coast themselves.
Australians drive on the left and you can rent manual or automatic transmission cars or camper vans. There are several companies catering to backpackers, supplying you with kitchen and cooking equipment as well as beds in the camper.

By bus

Greyhound and Oz Experience both offer bus passes ideal for backpackers, allowing them to travel flexibly between common travel destinations including Cairns.

Best time to visit Cairns

There are lots of activities to do all year round in the area, so don’t worry too much about timing your trip for a specific season.
Summers/Wet Season (November to April) are very humid and can be wet due to tropical rainfalls. Don’t worry if you do end up there in the wet season – it just means the waterfalls seen in the region and the rapids for white water rafting are much more impressive. Top tip: book a room with air con if you can afford it!
Winters (May to October) are cooler, dryer and less humid making that a popular time to visit too.
The Great Barrier Reef

Tips to stretch your budget

  • Ask what drinks (and food) offers are on when you arrive at a bar
  • Lots of pubs and clubs in Cairns do cheap meal deals so try to find out where you can get vouchers but be aware its usually a very restricted menu on the cheap / free meal option
  • Find out if your hostel does any special meal deals for guests
  • Tuesdays are a good day to treat yourself as cinemas, pizza delivery companies and some others tend to offer special discounts on Tuesdays
  • Cook with other people from your hostel
  • Check out the smörgåsbord style ‘load your plate as high as you can’ options at the food court in the market. Take a zip lock bag or food box with you (or ask for a take out box after you’ve loaded your plate) so you can take half the food away with you for another meal
  • Join associations that get you discounted accommodation and other perks. VIP backpackers and BBH cards will get you discounted room rates with member hostels if you book direct (you won’t be able to claim the discount if you book through a third party such as hostelworld). These membership cards are also a phone card and usually give you free credit when you charge the phone card for the first time
  • Join the YHA or collect stamps to earn free membership if you stay at YHA hostels. Your YHA membership gets you discounts on YHA accommodation and with all sorts of other companies across Australia (such as Greyhound bus tickets!)
  • Investigate ‘relocations’ with vehicle hire companies. If they need a van returning to a specific destination, they’ll rent it really cheaply to someone to drive it back for them. This is a great cost saving option if you can find it, and make it work for you. You might find you have less time to stop and explore along the way though, if they only give you a few days to cover a lot of miles

Be alcohol aware

Although Cairns and most of the East Coast of Australia are party places, Australia has a fairly strict approach to drinking in bars and clubs
If the person serving behind a bar thinks you’re drunk, they are legally allowed to stop serving you and ask you to leave. Anything such as slurring your words, bumping into someone else, dozing off or spilling your own drink, even if you think you’re not drunk, can be cause for being thrown out of a club or bar. So have fun, but try not to appear drunk and end up separated from your mates.
It’s also worth noting that many bars will not allow people in (particularly men) if they’re wearing ‘thongs’ or flip flops. Most are ok with trainers though, so don’t get caught out and refused entry.
You should take a photocard drivers license out with you as proof of age – you can be refused entry to bars if you don’t have any ID, even if you’re old enough. This is due to the local licensing laws requiring every person in the bar to be in possession of ID.
Central Cairns

Learn the lingo

Here are a few (official and unofficial) terms that could need some clarification…

  • Bottle Shop – off license and the only place to buy alcohol – you can’t get it in supermarkets!
  • Budgie Smugglers – speedo style swimming trunks
  • The Bush – forests and wooded areas
  • Capsicum – bell peppers
  • CBD – Central Business District or town centre
  • Damper – a kind of bread baked in a bush oven by aboriginals
  • Intro Dive – short scuba diving session that doesn’t require you to complete a full Diving qualification first. A good way to sample scuba diving and see the Great Barrier Reef in a small group with an instructor
  • Lagoon – swimming pool
  • Mangroves – trees which grow in the muddy marshes bordering the sea. Their roots are an intertwining mess that are exposed at low tide. They create a natural habitat for all sorts of wildlife
  • PADI Open Water – PADI is a globally recognised accreditation in Scuba diving. Open Water is the course that can be completed in about a week to enable you to earn qualification to go scuba diving without an instructor present. You’re required to complete a medical, some theory tests and a series of practical skills tests in and underwater. There are numerous diving schools in Cairns that allow you to complete this course during your visit. You can start the course in the diving school’s swimming pool and complete it on the Barrier Reef and get diving with your ‘buddy’ straight after qualifying
  • Pie – the Aussies think they invented pie and love all kinds of pie – particularly meat and cheese variations. The stodgier the better – they’re fab for soaking up beer!
  • Stingers – jelly fish: stings from the Box jellyfish and the small Irukandji jellyfish can both be deadly. It’s dangerous to swim in the sea around Queensland during stinger season (November to May) without the protection of stinger nets or stinger suits
  • Stinger nets – a giant fishing net style barrier in the sea to create a safer area to swim in
  • Stinger suits – seriously un-sexy star trek style cat suits that should be worn as protection against stingers when swimming / snorkeling in the sea during stinger season
  • Thongs – flip flops
  • Tight-arse Tuesday – since lots of places offer discounts on Tuesdays, it’s a good day to treat yourself (or ideal for tight-arses and backpackers on a budget!)
  • Wattleseed – a native seed that has a nutty / cappuccino like taste when blended into ice cream
  • YHA – Youth Hostel Association
  • Zucchini – courgettes

Animals to watch out for

  • Cassowary – Large flightless birds that charge through the rain forests. They have bright blue feathers and an odd looking keratin bump on top of their heads. Up to 7ft tall they can be very aggressive if they feel threatened. You’re advised not to feed them, approach them, photograph them, make eye contact or turn your back on them should you come across one in the wild.
  • Cane Toads – These poisonous toads were introduced to Australia to control sugar cane beetles, but the different variant of cane planted meant the toads were ineffective and have since plagued Queensland and beyond. These toads are not protected, and it is legal to kill them humanely. However taking a cricket bat (or similar object) to them or accidentally killing a native frog by mistake is illegal so its best not to get involved!
  • Crocodiles – Salt water and fresh water crocodiles live throughout the coasts and waters of Queensland although are rarely spotted. Both are dangerous though and you shouldn’t swim in rivers, lakes, lagoons or the sea where there are croc warning signs. You can go on a safari to try spotting crocs in various nature reserves if you’re keen to see them.
  • Sharks – You may see Reef Shark when out on the reef, but these timid creatures are generally not dangerous to humans. There are other types of sharks in the oceans, but they’re rarely seen in and around Queensland or the reef.
  • Snakes – Many varieties of snakes live in the Cairns region, some of which are venomous and dangerous to humans. If a snake feels the vibrations of you approaching it, it will tend to disappear out of your path before you reach it. To avoid confrontation with a snake, it is therefore best not to walk through piles of leaves of other vegetation / sand they might hide in, to wear fully enclosed shoes and not to walk gently so your footsteps send vibrations and alert the snake to move on.
  • Spiders – The tropical climate of Queensland is home to many spiders. If you see one, it is best to look but not touch or disturb it. There are venomous spiders in the region and if you’re bitten you should seek medical advice quickly.


  • Reef Teach – Learn how to identify the fish, creatures and corals that live on the Great Barrier Reef before you go out there. This fun, informative evening meeting helps you get the most out of your diving and snorkeling experiences.

Tours and trips

  • A J Hackett – Cairns’ most extreme bungee jump experts
  • Jump the Beach – Skydive over Mission Beach and land on the sand
  • Ocean Safari – Half day snorkeling trips in the more secluded sections of the Great Barrier Reef off Cape Tribulation. You speed off in a Rigid Inflatable Boat for your guided snorkeling experience.
  • Raging Thunder – Raging Thunder are experts in the Cairns area and can book everything from your diving school to your sky dive, your trip up to Cape Trib to your bus ticket down the coast and your accommodation.
  • Sky Dive Cairns – Views of the Great Barrier Reef and Tropical Rainforest as you exit the plane.


  • Backpacker Campervans – Hire a campervan with kit to travel along the coast.
  • Greyhound buses – Buy a pass allowing you to travel on their regular services along the coast.
  • Oz Experience – Hop on / Hop off bus travel in Australia, taking you off the beaten track and allowing you the opportunity to try lots of activities along the way.
  • Wicked Campers – Hire a campervan with kit to travel along the coast.

Surfing in Cairns

About the Author: Penny Long

I loved Cairns because of its laid-back attitude. In the height of summer it’s hot, sticky and humid. On these sweaty evenings, I liked nothing better than relaxing in the cheap bar at my hostel where I could cool off in the pool between sips of my drink; the bars in the city were always pumping if I wanted a more lively night out, though…
I’d only intended to spend four days in the city but ended up staying in the area for a whopping 14 days – there was just so much to see and do in the area and the city was fantastically backpacker friendly.
I was afraid of a lot of things before arriving in Cairns, but I developed a real adrenalin junkie streak there: I was blown away by the Reef and took my first steps towards becoming a qualified Scuba Diver, got hooked on sky diving and (encouraged by an Aboriginal guide) found the courage to lick a green-arsed ant! After all that excitement I absolutely adored the tranquility of Cape Trib.
I’d love go back!

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