Currently, I am in Cairns on an internship for a policy institute. Not a bad place, you might say, to spend your Summer holidays working. For those who don’t know, Cairns is in Far North-East Australia and is the so-called “Gateway to the Great Barrier Reef”. This guarantees two things: one, it is HOT, in a way sub-tropical places just aren’t. And currently its monsoon seasons, which, when combined with my stubborn refusal to buy an umbrella (an Englishman coming to Australia to buy an umbrella –whatever next?) has produced some eventful walks to work. Secondly, there are, in the central area anyway, almost as many backpackers as locals, recognisable by their singlets, wavy hair and silly sunglasses. So not so lucky me to be here, you might say – sounds like it has the makings of a touristy hell, a Costa del Street Crime Aussie-style.
The funny thing is, though, that these things actually do no seem to suck the soul out of the place at all. On the weather front, certainly I would advise that noon is not the time to go out and do anything intense, or anything much at all for that matter. It really is like a sauna. But just like how places that are used to heavy snowfall have a procedure for dealing with it whilst Britain goes into nuclear meltdown, so too does Cairns know how to deal with heat. Most noticeably, this means air-conditioning. LOTS of air-conditioning. Even places that are relatively “budget” have it and its funny how high heat doesn’t seem so bad when you know you’ll have some instant (and yes, artificial and ozone-layer destroying) cool air once you arrive.
The tourist question is, in a way, similar. Tourists feel like part of the town’s culture rather than poachers of it, perhaps because, relative to most worldwide tourist hotspots, Cairns is still such a relatively new settlement. The place, indeed, seems to come alive in the evening, especially around the esplanade area on the seaside, one notable attraction being the night-market where, if you decide that what you really want at 11pm is a full Chinese massage or an ornamental Aborigonal figurine, you are in luck.
Cairns for me is also a great mixture of small-town and city life. Everywhere is within walking distance but there are still all the conveniences and amenities that you’d expect from a big city – supermarkets, shopping malls and, naturally, McDonalds, Subway and the like. Anyone that knows me also knows the importance I place on a good gym and here one is spoilt for choice: the place where I have temporary membership, bizarrely, has another branch two or three blocks away and another four around the town. I suppose it can make for a nice change of wallpaper. But there is still intimacy here – because there is often less choice as to where to shop, for example, you can quickly become familiar with the staff that work there. “Capitalism with a human face”, the tourism brochure might say.
I am still, though, a big city boy. Call me lacking in community spirit but anywhere where the local paper sells as well as the national one is just too parochial for me. Sad really, but there you go. As a place for a trip though, don’t let the humidity and tourists put you off. If what you are after is relaxing break on the beach, restaurants galore and a base from which to explore the Reef and other natural wonders, Cairns, despite its small size, really has earned its spot as Australia’s fourth most visited tourist destination. Just don’t expect haute culture. When I told the police officer I thought I’d had my phone stolen next to the Cairns Museum, he was shocked – “I didn’t know we had a museum!?”.