Cairns adventure tourism with canyoning, diving and swimming

Dominic Godwin leads the way on a canyoning adventure.
Dominic Godwin leads the way on a canyoning adventure.

My guide for the morning, Dominic Godwin, stands right behind me, yet he still shouts. "You've got it, bro, stop thinking about it so much!"

We're at the top of a 12-metre cliff, a deep natural pool beneath us, and Dominic wants me to jump. Needs me to jump. He begins a countdown but I stop him. I'll do it myself. "3... 2... 1...," I scream, followed by a word I probably can't print, all the way down until I hit the water. Splash!

After some encouragement, Michael Turtle jumps into Behana Canyon. Picture: Dominic Godwin

After some encouragement, Michael Turtle jumps into Behana Canyon. Picture: Dominic Godwin

It's exhilarating and it turns out I love it. And this is just the beginning of my adventure with Cairns Canyoning in Far North Queensland. For the next few hours, Dominic and I jump off rocks, float along the river, slide down cascades, and abseil from ledges. It's only after I become more comfortable with the rolling adventures that I also realise how spectacular the Behana Canyon is in the early morning light, with this natural playground to ourselves.

It took a little encouragement to get me off that first cliff, but now I'm enjoying every minute - and the same can probably be said for my whole time in Cairns. The tropical atmosphere lends itself to lazy days by the pool, casual walks along the esplanade, happy hour drinks at sunset. I have a glorious meal at the Prawn Star, where platters of fresh seafood are served on the decks of three old trawlers tied together in the marina.

Prawn Star serves seafood platters on old trawlers.

Prawn Star serves seafood platters on old trawlers.

And at nearby Hemingway's Brewery, I spend many comfortable hours trying the local beers, pairing them with some great snacks from the kitchen (if you're wondering, the mid-strength Canecutter Lager is definitely the most popular). So, the idea of leaving this repose to tackle a bunch of adventure activities initially seemed as crazy as a 12-metre jump. But, once I coaxed myself away from the prawns and cocktails (not prawn cocktails), I discovered it's a perfect way to experience the region.

Hemingway's Brewery is an excellent spot for craft brews and a meal.

Hemingway's Brewery is an excellent spot for craft brews and a meal.

One afternoon, I head out with Cairns Adventure Group for some white-water rafting on the Barron River, often described as "mighty" - and for good reason. It's these waters that have carved the dramatic Barron Gorge and feed the Barron Falls, a tiered series of cascades that drop 125 metres and gush in the wet season. Thankfully our rafting begins downstream of the waterfall and just beneath a hydroelectricity station that keeps the river at a perfect level.

More excitement for Michael (middle right) as he rafts through the rapids at Barron River. Picture: Cairns Adventure Group

More excitement for Michael (middle right) as he rafts through the rapids at Barron River. Picture: Cairns Adventure Group

The rapids are just the right difficulty for a thrilling but safe tour of the river. Even if the obstacles have imposing names like Cheese Churn, Hell's Gates, and Butcher's Knife, most of the white water elicits screams of fun, not fear. The biggest danger probably comes from being hit by somebody else's oar, leading to the joke about "summer teeth". (I won't ruin the punchline - you'll have to go rafting to hear it.)

A large natural pool at Babinda Boulders, just south of Cairns.

A large natural pool at Babinda Boulders, just south of Cairns.

Even if you're not keen on the rapids, the region around Cairns is swimming in rivers, and you can be too. For some of the most beautiful spots, head south from the city. First, you can stop at Babinda Boulders, where there's a large natural pool surrounded by lush rainforest and trees perfect for jumping. A walking path leads to viewing platforms where you can see beautiful formations with water crashing between the boulders that it's smoothed over the centuries.

The water at Josephine Falls comes from Queensland's highest mountain.

The water at Josephine Falls comes from Queensland's highest mountain.

Another 20 minutes drive south is Josephine Falls, fed by the rainwater from Queensland's highest mountain, Bartle Frere. After the main drop, the water flows down several gentle steps, creating a series of safe rockpools that families and groups of friends are playing in. After hiking up in the humidity to have a look, I curse myself for not bringing my swimmers. This time of year, the waterways around Cairns are teeming and seem so inviting.

You don't need to venture far from the city to find the adrenaline-inducing experiences, though. Right in the centre of the city, you can challenge yourself at Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome. Hidden at the top of the casino, within its glass dome, is a small wildlife park with animals like koalas, sugar gliders, cockatoos, and snakes. Throughout the tropical landscape created here are rope courses that end with a zipline over the top of Goliath the crocodile (who I hope is fed well). While the ropes are aimed more at families, even adults will be impressed by another activity - walking around the outside of the dome to get an incredible 360-degree view of Cairns and its surroundings. There are no barriers but thankfully you're attached by a rope at all times.

Michael Turtle hangs off the edge at the Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome.

Michael Turtle hangs off the edge at the Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome.

From up here, I can see the boats heading out to the Great Barrier Reef in one direction, and the lush green mountains in the other, where the rivers carry rafts and the canyons welcome even the most timid adventurers. I wouldn't get this view of the rainforest from the side of the pool, and if I hadn't ventured out further, I wouldn't have discovered the waterfalls and pools beneath its canopy. Perhaps this is how you're supposed to do holidays, I ponder, as I reach for another glass from my tasting paddle of beers.

WHAT TO DO:

WHERE TO EAT:

  • For amazing seafood platters, Prawn Star has tables on the decks of old trawlers
  • Along with the local beers, Hemingway's Brewery has an excellent menu
  • And for a market-style food experience in one of the city's top hotels, try Boardwalk Social

WHERE TO STAY:

  • Bringing a funky style with affordable rates is the recently opened hotel Bailey
  • The newest hotel in the city, Oaks Cairns offers modern rooms in an excellent location - and a stunning rooftop bar.
  • With a huge pool and a resort-like atmosphere, Riley is another great option

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