It took my fourth visit to Australia for me to make it north.
To make it to what is arguably the country’s most iconic attraction.
The Great Barrier Reef.
For a long time, I had little interest in seeing it. Let’s be honest, I’m not the best in water. I tend to get seasick from just glancing at a rolling wave, and my snorkelling attempts have always ended in disaster (see: me swallowing everything in Maldives, flashing my tour group in the Cook Islands, getting washed out to sea in Mozambique). Why would I prioritise seeing a destination where absolutely everything about it is crying out for me to get out on the water?
And plus, wasn’t the Great Barrier Reef supposed to be dying? What was the point in spending a ton of money to see an ocean full of dead coral?
As I found myself returning to Australia year after year, though, the Great Barrier Reef made its way further up my list.
And eventually, I found myself in Japan with the need to fly to Australia for Christmas. When the cheapest flights I could find connected Osaka with Cairns, I decided that was a big enough sign to head to the reef.
It would make for an excellent Christmas present, too. Dave and I were travelling for six months, so I knew my present for him would have to be an experience rather than something tangible. It made sense to treat him to something he’d never be able to justify spending his money on.
The answer came to me immediately: a scenic flight over the Great Barrier Reef.
Every time I’ve suggested jumping on a scenic flight to Dave in the past, he’s rolled his eyes and mentioned how ridiculously overpriced they are. He’s always told me that he loves the idea but could never rationalise paying so much money for so little time in the air.
Fortunately, I could.
It sounded like such a fun activity! We’d both get to see the Great Barrier Reef from above before heading out on a liveaboard, and we’d be able to gain some sense of just how large it is — something we wouldn’t be able to do from underwater.
I settled on GLS Aviation, as they’re the top-rated flight company in Cairns. They operate a GippsAero GA8 Airvan 8, rather than a helicopter, and I thought a teeny-tiny plane might offer a cooler experience — Dave and I have both flown in helicopters before, so this would be a new way to fly for us both. Plus, a scenic plane costs around half of what you’d pay for a helicopter ride, and on the plane, everyone is guaranteed a window seat.
GLS have several flight options leaving out of Cairns.
The first is the Reef Hopper experience, which lasts for 40 minutes and takes you over Cairns and out over the reef. It’s priced at 219 AUD per person — around 150 USD/£120.
The second option is the Reef and Port Douglas route, which is the one I eventually chose. Priced at 289 AUD per person, you’re up in the air for a full hour and get to fly out to see Port Douglas and the Queensland coastline in addition to the reef.
Fortunately, my Christmas splurge wasn’t for nothing, as Dave loved the idea of seeing the Great Barrier Reef from above. We were both brimming with excitement when we arrived at the airfield to check in.
We got settled in at the safety briefing, and spent a few minutes going over what to expect from our hour in the sky.
As we made our way out to the plane, our pilot spun around and asked for a volunteer to be co-pilot. Well, I’m not quite sure what happened here, guys, but I put my hand up???
“Sweet,” he said, taking me around to the passenger side and strapping me in.
I glanced around at the hundreds of dials and buttons spread out before me, and felt the call of the void. I was overwhelmed by a sudden impulse to mash every button in front of me, punch the throttle, grab the yoke and ram it to one side.
I shuddered and sat firmly on my hands.
Once the feeling had passed, I took a deep breath, turned around to grin at Dave, and prepared to take to the air.
I was nervous.
I used to be acutely afraid of flying, and in my many hours of research on how to cure this fear, I’d often read that one of the best methods was to take flying lessons.
Of course, I wasn’t learning to fly over the reef, but getting to watch the pilot sit beside me and act as though what we were doing was the most natural thing in the world had me believing that it was.
I felt so relaxed sitting at the front of the plane, observing how planes didn’t seem all that terrifying after all.
In fact, it was nothing but fascinating.
We soared up over Cairns and made a turn to head out over the ocean. I felt a sense of tranquility wash over me, the call of the void no longer threatening to take my life as I began to take dozens of photos out of the window.
Our pilot pointed out Green Island to us: a beautiful coral cay that attracts hundreds of visitors every day. If you’re made of money, you can even spend the night out there, on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef.
I was surprised by how low we were flying — around 1,000 feet, our pilot told us. It was high enough to check out the enormity of the reef ahead of us, but low enough that we could see manta rays and turtles lazily swimming over the coral.
“That’s where Steve Irwin passed away,” our pilot told us, pointing down at Batt Reef.
I blinked in surprise, unaware of where exactly in Australia he had died, then tried not to think about it. I could see dozens of stingrays from my vantage point, and I was already nervous about my upcoming date with a snorkel.
Fortunately: a distraction.
The most incredible looking spit of sand out on the reef, waves lapping against its shores. To my delight, we soared over it, and I immediately decided it was my favourite sandbank in the world. We spent five minutes passing back and forth over it, so that everybody on each side of the plane had a chance to take a photo.
“Can you see that manta ray?” the pilot asked, and I answered in the negative.
I gasped as we then began to descend towards the water. I watched the altimeter drop further and further until we levelled out at just 300 feet.
I felt as though I could open the window and dive into the warm waters below.
At this vantage point, we could see so much of the reef in detail, as well as the sealife that have made it their home. There were manta rays swooping through the waves, hundreds of turtles swimming over the coral, and even a handful of sharks clustered around a neighbouring stretch of the reef.
It’s hard to give a sense of perspective in my photos, to show you how low down we were, but many of the dark objects in my photo above are actually sea turtles.
I was excited to spot plenty of liveaboard boats anchored around the outskirts of the reefs, too.
One of the best ways to see the Great Barrier Reef is via liveaboard — the day trips just can’t take you far enough outside of Cairns to see the flourishing parts of the reef; when you’re exploring by liveaboard you can swim with healthy stretches of coral and avoid the huge crowds.
I was going to be venturing out on a liveaboard the following morning, so seeing the boats and divers underneath us was an exciting reminder of what we had on our agenda. I couldn’t believe that I was going to be out there in just 24 hours.
Before I’d taken to the air, I pictured the Great Barrier Reef as one long stretch of coral, snaking its way across 1,200 miles. In reality, though, it’s made up of 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands, and it’s much easier to spot the boundaries when you’re looking down it.
It was bizarre to look at a single reef and know that it combines with hundreds of others alongside 1,200 miles of coastline.
And then I retched.
If you’ve read any of my blog posts over the years, you already know that I tend to get sick from even the slightest of movements. Despite that, I’ve always been fine in planes.
It turns out that getting in an eight-seater of a plane and sitting at the front was a surefire recipe to me wanting to throw up all over the controls.
It got bad, actually.
As much as I was enjoying the incredible views, I also had one hand on my sick bag and was doing everything I could to prevent myself from using it. It was bizarre, because I’d been in planes that are just as small all over the South Pacific, and never felt sick before. There was something about the vibrations in this particular plane that really didn’t agree with me. Was it the way that this plane moved? Or was it sitting in the cockpit?
I’d read hundreds of reviews of GLS Aviation before booking our flight and never once seen somebody mention feeling sick.
As we approached the half-way point of the tour, I found myself wondering if I should have bought the shorter flight, knowing that if I had, I’d have been flying back to Cairns by this point.
But no, I’d splurged on the longer tour, and there was nothing I could do about it now. We made our way north towards Port Douglas.
Before we reached it, though we spent several minutes circling Woody Island and Low Island, with the former being the largest of the pair. Like Green Island, which I’d spotted at the start of the flight, this is a popular day-trip destination, and it offers excellent snorkelling. I loved seeing the reef surrounding the two islands.
Fun fact! In 1770, James Cook described Low Island as a “small low island” and that was exactly how it got its name. Creative!
A few minutes later, we were soaring over Port Douglas: a small town that’s super-popular as a Queensland getaway. I loved spotting the marina in the distance and discovering that the palm trees were taller than most of the buildings.
We circled over the town, then began to follow the coastline back to Cairns.
This is Four Mile Beach for self-explanatory reasons. Take note, 90 mile beach in New Zealand, which I was disappointed to discover was a mere 55 miles in length.
Accuracy notes aside, this looked like a seriously beautiful part of Australia, and as I looked down the beach, I found myself making plans to road-trip back this way later in the week. The beach looked pristine, and the palm trees lining it so tropical. I have such a weak spot for clusters of palm trees.
We continued south, past beaches and mountains and rivers leading to a glistening turquoise sea. As someone who doesn’t travel with a drone, I was thrilled to be able to gain such a great view of the scenery.
Ahead of us, I could see Cairns, and the runway we’d be touching down on.
With a huge sigh of relief that I wasn’t actually going to throw up in the plane, I held my breath as we took one final turn, then marvelled at getting to see the runway up ahead.
I’d had the best time up in the air, so was feeling this strange blend of emotion. That I didn’t want the flight to end, but also, I couldn’t wait for it to end because I was feeling terrible.
Of course, once I stepped foot on the tarmac, I looked longingly back at the plane, wobbling on shaky adrenaline-fuelled legs, and wanted to head back up into the sky.
Feeling vaguely dizzy, Dave and I ventured to Pantry15 — a paleo restaurant in Cairns that I may have eaten at every day during my week in the city. My vibrant smoothie bowl, it turned out, was exactly what I’d needed to settle my stomach.
I’d avoided visiting the Great Barrier Reef for so long because I’d been convinced that going would only set myself up for disappointment. And yet, my short time over the reef had been incredible.
A scenic flight turned out to offer the perfect introduction to the reef, and I couldn’t wait to get out on the water.
As always, keep your expectations low and you’ll never be disappointed!
Have you been to the Great Barrier Reef?