The Great Barrier Reef & Sydney

On our last day in Brisbane, we went to a magnificent lunch at Murray’s sister’s house, went back to pack, said “goodbye” to the dogs, and headed off to the airport for our flight to Cairns. On the way there, we stopped by the waterfront in Brisbane. It was beautiful and spectacular. It is centered around this HUGE pool/lagoon thing, completely artificial, but complete with sand beaches and beautiful landscaping. Anyone is free to drop by for a swim at their leisure. Of course, it is the tax dollars that pay for this place, but it makes the waterfront area of downtown SO nice, in a way that wouldn’t be possible if the place were fenced off and charged admission.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t hang out for long. We were waiting for the last minute to go to the airport, and if we dilly-dallied any longer we’d miss our plane. Murray & Kerri dropped us off at the Departure section. Immediately after checking in and going through security, we found that they had parked the car and were right behind us to see us off! You don’t need a ticket to get through security on domestic flights in Aus, so they were able to get through just fine. We haven’t had anyone see us off at the gate in the US since 9-11 due to security restrictions. They were excellent hosts, and so nice. They come to the US to ski every now and then, so we’re looking forward to seeing them again.

We really weren’t ready to leave Brisbane (which reminded us SO much of Portland), but if we were going to see anything else in Australia, it was time to go. We landed in Cairns pretty late, but it was easy to find the shuttle bus to our hostel. The old lady who checked us in was scatter-brained as hell. She reminded us of the Amsterdam hostel lady from the movie “Euro Trip”. She was, however, nice enough to check us into the “honeymoon suite”, complete with AC, a nice sitting area and a surprisingly comfortable and un-cheesy waterbed.

We were tired from our late flight and our GO-GO-GO schedule in Brizzie, and the bed was sooo comfortable that we wound up sleeping in late. We were starving when we got up, so it was time to shop. As an aside, for the past few months (mostly in Asia), we just can’t seem to pass up the familiar and mundane sight of a supermarket. We just haven’t been able to walk by one without going in for a look! Weird- we know. Anyway, now we were actually going to be able to buy a few days groceries for the first time in nearly six months. It was nice, but like most things in Australia, things were nearly 2x as expensive as in the US. Even produce they grow locally, like bananas, were about US$1.25/pound.- a far cry from the 40 cents per pound for our imported South American bananas we were buying in the US when we left.

After wandering around town, and checking in with the dive shop we’d be seeing the reef with, we passed a car rental place on our walk back to the hostel. Murry & Kerri recommended renting a car to see the towns to the north (Palm Cove and Port Douglas), so we checked it out. They had a roughly 8 year old Toyota Corolla “Ascent” (read: crappier) that was probably refurbished from a totaled collision for about $60/day. But, unlike most of the cheap rental places, this car was an automatic (with AC, too). I can drive a stick just fine, but having to worry about one less thing while learning to drive on the other side of the road & car sounded nice, so we went for it. We decided to drive around town a bit to get the feel of things. WEIRD! Adam hadn’t driven anything since his 15-minute drive in Marcus’s Mercedes in October, so it felt strange to drive at all- let alone on the wrong side! It took a bit of getting used to. Even the turn signals were on the opposite side, so he’d wind up turning on the wipers every time we wanted to turn. Making left turns was especially disconcerting (I’d always want to do a head-check over my right shoulder before turning). Still, the sense of freedom this piece of junk gave us was very nice! We decided to take a little drive to a small beach town north of Cairns to get the feel of things (Cairns is a beach town with no beach- only mud flats).

The next morning (Easter), we got up early and headed up to the rain forest. Our first stop was the “Crystal Cascades”. Apparently, this is normally a great swimming area, but all the rain they’ve been getting lately made it a bit too treacherous to swim. All that water helped our most notable stop- Baron Falls. This waterfall was HUGE. Very scenic.

Next we headed up to Port Douglas. We wandered around a bit through an artisan market area and up and down the main street. We discovered a “Peter Lik Photo Gallery”, too. This guy takes amazing photos- very inspiring. Ultimately, however, there wasn’t a whole lot to do there. We stopped by the grocery store to get a Coke and “Lemon, Lime & Bitters” (our new favorite refreshment, since Kerri offered us one at her hotel- and NOT bitter) and headed back down the scenic coastal drive to Cairns. We stopped by Palm Cove on the way. Nice town. The unfortunate thing about these beach towns though is the Box Jellyfish. There aren’t many, but those who’ve been stung have said it is about the most painful thing one can imagine- like a red-hot poker that is never pulled away (they can even be deadly- quite the overkill for a plankton eater, eh?). Consequently, swimming is restricted to a few small, netted-off areas.

After getting back to town, even though it was raining, we were reluctant to give the car up. We just drove around aimlessly for a while. We had to get up at 5:00 the next morning for our dive trip though, so we turned in the car and headed back to our hostel.

Even though breakfast was supposed to be included on our dive, we’ve been disappointed with these promises in the past on this trip, and since we still had half a dozen eggs left from our shopping trip, we got up early and made a big breakfast. After the van picked us up, swung by the shop to get our gear, and dropped us off at the boat, we were presented with quite the breakfast spread in a relatively large galley area on the boat, so we dug in for ‘second breakfast’. We asked how bumpy the ride out to the reef would be. The reply was “if you have to ask, you need to take something. We took our Aussie brand “Kwells”, which work the same magic as Dramamine, but for only four hours. Immediately on leaving the harbor, we were joined by a small pod of dolphins surfing our wake (which, unfortunately, we wouldn’t see again for the remainder of the trip).

It took about three hours to cruise out to the reef, during which time we ate and had our introductory safety briefings. Getting 11 dives in, in two and a half days would be a challenge, so immediately upon anchoring everyone put on their stinger (jellyfish) suits, wetsuits, and scuba gear. When diving, everyone needs a “dive buddy”. Since Shawn isn’t certified, Adam found a dive buddy (Randy, an Alaskan bush pilot), who’s girlfriend was taking a PADI certification course during the trip. Morning dives were particularly beautiful, with the sweet, morning light coming in at an angle giving a particularly good sense of direction and vibrance. The underwater housing for our little Canon SD800 quickly began to pay off, with some of the best shots Adam has ever taken.

Four dives a day may not sound like a ton, but with getting geared up, diving for 30-60 minutes, taking the gear off and cleaning up, and taking a break, we were onto our next dive before we knew it. The schedule on the big white board read like this (starting at roughly 6:00 AM).

Dive brief & prep
Dive brief & dive
Night Dive
Party and cake for 45 minutes and go to sleep

The dives, for the most part, were amazing- the next one always being better than the last. While visibility wasn’t quite as good as that day at Byron Bay, it was usually as good as it was in Indonesia. The coral formations (either “Bombies” or “Balmies” in Aussie) were absolutely enormous, and spectacular. I’d see a sea turtle on almost every dive. As you can see in the photo gallery section, they’d let you get VERY close. A couple of times, I even got directly eye-to-eye with a turtle (I have a few great shots of this, but would’ve preferred a shot from the third person perspective). The turtles are just so docile and mellow they just go right on grazing on algae on the coral, not really caring what you’re doing.

On a night dive, we were even fortunate enough to spot “Brian”- a 140 year old sea turtle with a shell the size of a large dinner table, sleeping under a rock. Even with half a dozen flashlights shining on her, the old girl (a visiting marine biologist later discovered “Brian” was a female) didn’t lift an eyelid. They just mind their own business and, so long as they don’t think something is actively chasing them, don’t care about anything but grazing on algae and seaweed.

Speaking of algae, one of my favorite little fish on the reef were these little farmer fish. Often, when taking an interesting photo of some coral, a little fish would come up, stare directly at me, dart off for a couple of seconds, and then come back. These fish had little algae crops on the reef. When they see something take interest in their little patch, they automatically think “this algae is MINE, and I know you want it, but ya’ can’t have it!” They go between making mock attacks at you, to trying to lure you away from their precious slime patch. I’m sure they were very frightened, but they were very cute.

A very similar fish was the anemone fish- or “clown fish”, famous from “Finding Nemo”. These little guys would display similar behavior when you approached their anemone, although they were a little more skittish and defensive. Still, they could often be found in groups and were absolutely adorable- not to mention photogenic.

We were also told that they have become more rare on the reef after the movie came out, because they are now more collectable. It reminded us of our Thailand trip two years ago, when we were on Phi Phi Island and we watched several Japanese tourists bag reef fish in Ziploc baggies and photograph the whole event. The whole affair just makes us sick and very frustrated that people do not understand that this is wrong. There were tons of other beautiful fish on the reef- the most notable of which were reef sharks.  Speaking of sharks, at night the “munchies”  would hang out around the boat to chomp on the fish attracted to our flood lights.  They’d put on quite a show, chasing fish out of the water, with their dorsal fins piercing the surface.  Even though reef sharks are shy with people, it was a little disconcerting to be the first one in for the night dive.  It was fun hanging out under the boat and watching them though.  You just shine your light around, and then you see their eyes glowing green in the reflection, and then see their sleek shapes going in and out of the shadows.  Cool experience.

After a day and a half of snorkeling, and taking a few puffs off of Adam’s regulator, and being the only person on the boat not diving, Shawn decided that diving the Great Barrier Reef was an experience she’d like to have, too. She was all ready to go when the crew found out she was on a prescription medication. The drug is only an anti-inflammatory, so we didn’t think it’d be an issue. After the dive master called a doctor on shore, however, we found out that in some cases, this drug can cause scaring on the lungs while breathing pressurized air. Unfortunately, Shawn’s GBR dive experience was not to be, although some of the best sites could be seen at snorkeling depth anyway, and her comfort level in the water increased tremendously. She was nevertheless very sad, as she had overcome many fears of the water (and the creatures living in it) and was truly ready to take on this challenge. Still, she was able to see most of the same things as Adam saw (reef sharks, turtles…..).
After a few days of eat-dive-eat-dive, it was, unfortunately, time to head in. The next few days in Cairns were spent making arrangements for Sydney and New Zealand, with evenings spent hanging out with Stephen and Becky. They were a remarkably similar British/American, Engineer/Teacher couple who were also on a 9-month around-the-world on the same ticket (although in the opposite direction).

After a couple of days in Cairns, it was time to go back to Sydney to spend a couple of days there before catching our flight to New Zealand. While Brisbane reminded us of Portland, Sydney was very similar to San Francisco (except warmer).

Of course, the first thing we did was walk downtown to see the famous Opera House and Harbour Bridge.. These sights were absolutely spectacular- particularly on this day. Since the population in Australia is so low, even in their biggest city the air is amazingly clean. On this day, there were huge, billowy clouds right around where the sun was at sunset. This made for spectacular skies, where you could see the shadow cast by the clouds all through the sky, making it go from deep blue to even deeper blue. The conditions were so perfect that Adam took about 3 of his top 10 all-time best photos this evening.

The next day in Sydney, we spent the morning making arrangements for New Zealand, and the afternoon exploring Bondi Beach. This place was amazing- particularly for a place right next to a major city. Although it is autumn in the southern hemisphere, the water was still warm enough to swim in, so we went for an impromptu dip before a walk along the beach to “Coogee”. The locals were all remarking about how lucky they were to still be swimming this late in the year. “Sydneysiders” are SO lucky to have not only one of the world’s most beautiful and cleanest cities, but also to have such an amazing city beach.
The next day, Adam called his grandparents to discover he has a great-aunt (on his mom’s side, whom he hasn’t seen since he was a child) who lives in a place in New Zealand we were already planning on visiting! We finalized our hostel, campervan, and airfare reservations there as well as giving her a call to make arrangements for a visit. After that, we visited Sydney’s other beach, the macholy-named “Manly Beach”. This place is nice, but if you have limited time in Sydney, Bondi is better. We finished off the evening with a harbour ferry cruise and another visit to the Opera House and Bridge. While we had planned on doing the famous Harbour Bridge climb, we discovered they had jacked the price up to $225 each to climb it at sunset (and only a paltry $175 the rest of the day). To top it off, you can’t even bring your own camera with you. They take a picture for you and try to sell you that for another $40 each! It seemed cool, but not a weekend-luxurious-ski-vacation cool, so we passed that one up. We finished the evening off by grilling up some kangaroo at the ole’ hostel.

Oh yeah- one more cool thing about Australia: Bats! At night, HUGE flocks of enormous “flying fox” bats would fly around the cities. Very cool!

We’re already writing our New Zealand post, so hopefully we’ll have one up soon. In the mean time, you can see some of our New Zealand photos in the Photo Gallery section (in the upper left, below our picture)


3 responses to “The Great Barrier Reef & Sydney

  1. As always, your pictures are spectacular!!

  2. Trish Nickerson

    Oh my gosh, I can’t believe you dove the Great Barrier Reef! I’m so glad you took those dive lessons….wow! The pics are wonderful, so I can only imagine what it really looked like down there. As good as the photos are, and they are really beautiful, they never quite do it justice so I’m thinking it was wonderous. Anyway, that’s on my BUCKET LIST so I’m thrilled for you!

  3. Good post!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s