SPINNING excitedly in her seat, the woman rests on her knees so she can talk with the friend behind her.
Her loose brunette curls are pinned away from her face as the plane starts to taxi.
“I’m excited about the swim,” she chirps.
A sleeveless white cotton coat over a pink skivvy shows off her athletic frame.
She is not out of place.
The majority of passengers look to be in peak fitness on this flight (all bar the pot-bellied, rough older man next to me who is hogging the armrest and barking orders down his mobile phone before take-off).
Two hours after we leave Brisbane, we touch down in Cairns and join a parade of fit and healthy people who have filled the Tropical North Queensland city’s streets.
Like a festival of vitamins, healthiness seems to leak from them all.
And fortunately so, because they are not here for your typical Cairns holiday.
This is the inaugural Cairns Challenge: a week of swimming, riding and running events capped on the Sunday by a massive ironman-style race.
In the region that boasts to be adventurous, thousands of athletes have travelled for a mighty escapade.
On the Sunday, it is an early morning wake to watch the start of what would become a 12-plus- hour race for many.
On a 6am bus ride to Yorkeys Knob, I’m left with a seat beside a woman who looks on top of the world.
A retiring Desley Boyle, the State Member for Cairns since 1999, talks jovially to her fellow passengers about the exciting weekend.
She gleefully spruiks “the gem in Queensland’s crown” that is her buzzing electorate, and it’s a hard analogy to argue with.
At this hour, the sun has barely started to light up the glistening emerald waters or the opal green mountain ranges.
But you know they are there because, in a few hours, they will be swum through or cycled over by the masses.
Bidding farewell to Desley, I trek for a few kilometres to the point of Yorkeys Knob where the fashion scene has been flooded with wetsuits and swimming caps.
A pastel orange and pink sunrise makes silhouettes of the dozens of swimmers in the water.
The crowd that has gathered breathes in the thin air of the early morning, many weary from the pre-dawn start.
It is mid-afternoon by the time those in the lead reach the closing stages of the race.
The esplanade in Cairns is bathed in sun as a jubilant Chris McCormack smiles widely as he runs the final 200m through a tunnel of cheers.
He is followed in the coming hours by dozens of men and women who have achieved an ultimate physical challenge.
You know that each person has his or her own story of triumph.
It is impossible not to be carried away by the emotional swell of the crowd.
Individual pockets of families, friends and supporters cheer each finishing racer.
Some fathers carry toddlers on their shoulders as they finish.
Mums and dads run hand-in-hand with their beaming children, probably unaware of the gravity of their parents’ achievement.
A young man stops to smooch his girlfriend mid-cheer on the sidelines.
One man hides his water-welled eyes behind sports sunglasses as he finishes the race with a sign that reads: “This is for you dad. I love you”.
But when you’re not running in a race, Cairns is a sublime holiday haven.
There is no such thing as “winter” in the far north.
A couple of hours out on to the reef on board a Quicksilver Cruise tour, or meandering through the rapids on an RnR White Water Rafting tour are ideal adventures for any time of the year.
The writer visited Cairns as a guest of Tourism Queensland.
GOOD TO KNOW
Qantas and Virgin Australia fly from Brisbane to Cairns starting at $199
Where to stay:
The Hilton Cairns is on the Esplanade in the heart of the busy city, and offers competitive prices. For details, visit the Hilton website.
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