Cairns things to do: Australia's adventure capital feels like an exotic overseas escape

It's starting to feel like everything I do in Cairns begins with a countdown. "Three, two, one, bungy!" "Five, four, three, two, one, jump!" "Three, two, one, go!"

The end of each countdown means a plunge into the unknown: a leap off a cliff into a raging river; a step into the ocean to explore the deep; a teetering, windmilling, ground-rushing freefall with only a rubber cord for safety.

I came to Cairns looking for adventure, and I've found it. I came here looking for an old-school travel experience, a south-east Asian-style escapade where it's hot and sweaty and you do crazy things and you meet crazy people and everything feels adrenalin-fuelled and loose. And I've found that.

This is Cairns, the international adventure capital that lost its international tourists. That doesn't mean it lost its international flavour though. The backpacker bars here still have actual backpackers in them. You still meet travellers from around the world. My scuba guide, Camille, is from Belgium. My canyoning guide, Marcio, is Brazilian. The guy tying my legs together on the bungy tower is from France.

Their foreign accents seem so thrilling now, because with no overseas travel in the foreseeable future for Australians, this is as close as it gets. This is where you can have those wild south-east Asian-style adventures, those sweaty, joy-filled nights out, those chance encounters with like-minded travellers.

My adventure begins at the top of a tower high in the rainforest canopy. You would be scared up here, 50 metres above a small pool, even if you weren't about to jump. But I'm jumping. I only got off the plane an hour ago, and I'm jumping.

AJ Hackett is one of the originals in Cairns, one of those tourist attractions that feels like it's always been here. And it's still so wildly enjoyable. I pause on the ledge high up in the sky, peer out over the distant ocean all the way to Green Island, listen for the countdown, and then go. The rush. The thrill. Magic.

Only a few hours later and I'm being counted down again. "Three, two, one, go!" The jump here is a leap of faith, a 12-metre plunge from a cliff-top into a river far below. This time, no bungy cord. Twelve metres looks a lot more than 12 metres when you're about to jump.

This is canyoning at Behana Gorge, about a half-hour south of Cairns. It's less a traditional canyoning experience with ropes and caves and more of an old-school river adventure, leaping off cliffs and bumping along through rapids.

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I haven't had this much fun in a river since I went tubing in Laos so many years ago. Sure, there are no guys selling $1 tallies (longnecks) of Beerlao by the side of the river here, but the basic enjoyment is the same: get together with a bunch of fun, friendly people, and dive into the water from great heights. Float downriver, laugh, repeat.

Even scuba-diving around Cairns has the feeling of south-east Asian delight to it. You could be on Koh Tao or the Gilis. The instructors onboard the Divers Den boat come from all over the world, from Belgium, from Italy, from Brazil, from Japan. Pretty much all the passengers are Australian. So, just like Koh Tao or the Gilis.

But then we have the Great Barrier Reef. Only a wonder of the natural world. Only some of the best scuba-diving on the planet. You can give up your bargain-basement beachside bungalows and your nasi goreng for a real Barrier Reef experience.

Though fortunately, there is nasi goreng. Pretty soon it's night time in Cairns, and there are still south-east Asian vibes. I'm getting dressed at my hotel and my big call is which pair of thongs I'm going to wear tonight. No one cares too much for dress codes up here.

Just around the corner from the Flynn hotel, barely even far enough to work up a sweat – though this Cairns in summer, so I've definitely worked up a sweat – there's the Night Markets, a hawker-centre-style arcade filled with purveyors of cheap food and souvenirs. The cuisine isn't as good as Singapore, but then, you're not going to Singapore this year.

You are going to Cairns. Where there are international resorts to rival those in Malaysia or Indonesia or Vietnam. Luxury brand Crystalbrook has opened three new properties in the last 18 months, amazing places with fancy pools and on-site drinking and dining.

You're going where there are still backpacker bars, too, if that's more your thing. So many of the travel agencies in Cairns have sadly boarded up their windows and shipped out, but there is still backpacker culture here, still wild parties at the Woolshed, still cheap drinks at the Jack.

I, however, am heading back to the Flynn tonight to relax, because there's only so much adventure I can take these days. The thought of doing shots of tequila accompanied by another countdown… I'll stick to bungy jumping.

THE DETAILS

FLY

Qantas flies direct to Cairns from Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. See qantas.com

STAY

The Flynn Hotel by Crystalbrook has modern, spacious rooms overlooking the ocean, starting from $225 per night. See crystalbrookcollection.com

SEE + DO

Bungy jumping with AJ Hacket costs $139 per person – see skyparkglobal.com. Cairns Canyoning's Behana Canyon trips cost $174 – see cairnscanyoning.com; day trips with Divers Den start from $194 for certified divers – see diversden.com.au

The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism Tropical North Queensland

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