Reflections from the Reef

Dreaming

Embedded somewhere in my subconscious is the ultimate Tourism Australia campaign. Sure I also learned how to spell, do long division and love reading, but one curious legacy of my primary schooling is my Photoshopped notion of Australia.

They immersed us in ecosystems and conservation, the outback and the bush, dot paintings, wet and dry seasons, beach life and the surf. Despite having spent 75 percent of my life in landlocked Canberra and 12 percent in other sea-deprived destinations, I still find myself drenched in the myth of an Australia that is sun-soaked, fauna-filled, epic and exotic. An Australia with a Dreamtime soul.

We often say that we see so much of the world and so little of our own backyard. I’ve sat in a train across the Moroccan desert, trekked through the Amazon rainforest and snorkelled round an Indonesian reef – but what of our desert, our rainforest, our reef?

It’s been two decades since I first started dreaming of the Daintree and the Great Barrier Reef. Last week I finally woke up in Tropical North Queensland.

2016-04-20 Daintree and Cape Tribulation 04-1.jpg

Breathing

I know a thing or two about altitude. The higher you get, the thinner the air, the harder it is for your lungs to get their fill of oxygen.

It’s only from about 2,000m that you might start to feel light-headed, lose your appetite, find yourself short of breath. In my first month in La Paz – around 3,500m above sea level – I ate very little, lost about five kilos and struggled with stairs. After that, the altitude became normal to me; I got on with life and didn’t notice it. It’s funny how easily I could walk around El Alto, Bolivia, and completely forget I was standing four kilometres above sea level.

Going up into the mountains is one thing. Going down into the depths of the sea is another.

2016-04-21 Great Barrier Reef 41-1.jpg

Scuba diving gave me a whole new appreciation for my ears and for that invisible thing called air. Sticking my head just one metre under water caused my ears to stopper. Descending into the reef required constant, active equalising to balance the pressure in my middle ear with my inner and outer ears.

Water surrounded, immersed, confronted me. Snuck into my mask. I had to resist the urge to breathe through my nose. I had to trust that I was getting enough oxygen through my mouth although it didn’t feel like it. It involved a bit of faith, really – in my regulator and my oxygen tank, in my dive instructor.

Swimming

And then there were moments where being in the water was the most natural thing in the world.

There was something about the freedom of the open sea.

There was something about navigating Nature’s current and feeling my body flow sometimes with and sometimes against the swell.

There was something about having the fish above and not below me.

There was something about slipping through the Great Barrier Reef alongside a sea turtle, trying not to kick it with my flippers.

2016-04-22 Great Barrier Reef 53-1.jpg

In the city there’s no swimming, no cruising for me. I’m often by the beach but rarely in the water. And the rest of the time I am on a bus or a train, earphones in, book or social media in hand, trying to be somewhere else.

Floating on the Reef, I was present. I was being. And I didn’t want to be anywhere else in the world.

Surfacing

Short and sweet and exactly what I needed: A trip I’d been dreaming of. Space to breathe. Freedom to swim. Time to be.

Can I bottle that up and bring it home with me?

*

Planning (ie. the details you might actually care about)

Return flight Sydney to Cairns on Tigerair: $275. Including booking fees, carry-on luggage only. I flew in on a Tuesday (flying on Wednesday would have saved me $10) and out on Saturday. Both flights at decent hours of the day.

3 nights in a private single room at Calypso Inn Backpackers, Cairns: $150. Free airport and city shuttle. Bathrooms are shared; I rented a towel for $1.

Room is basic but clean and air conditioned, common areas are spacious and comfortable, staff are helpful. Activities/events most nights of the week – the open mic I attended was disappointing but the drink prices were decent enough that I wouldn’t worry about waiting for happy hour. A group of guests and staff go into town to a club some nights and it’s free entry if you’re with the group. My honest opinion? At the Woolshed on Friday, basic spirits were $8, the place was crowded with mediocre atmosphere and the music was appalling.

The hostel is a little far from the centre of town, but (1) there’s a shuttle every hour during the day; (2) it’s closer to the Botanic Gardens, which is about the only thing worth seeing in Cairns; (3) in the evening it’s a pleasant walk along the Esplanade (the other thing worth seeing) into town; (4) there are still enough decent food options nearby.

Daintree and Cape Tribulation full-day tour with Cape Trib Connections: $144 (price has since gone up a little). Booked through the hostel. There is an overnight option, but I didn’t have the time. The minibus seats around 14 people. Lunch and entry fees included, only the ice cream isn’t – and it’s definitely worth the $6.50 you pay for four flavours (I got wattleseed, soursop, passionfruit and raspberry). A 7.05am start though we didn’t get out of Cairns till after 8am; back to accommodation around 6.30pm.

Wylie our driver and guide is a champion, personable and knowledgeable. Didn’t see any cassowaries but we got up close with some crocodiles on the Daintree River cruise. Myall Beach at Cape Tribulation was lovely and swimming at Mossman Gorge was a highlight. Very easy walking, suitable for all ages and you don’t need proper walking shoes – you could get away with wearing thongs for the day.

Overnight snorkelling and diving tour on the Great Barrier Reef with Coral Sea Dreaming: $440 + $30 reef tax. Underwater camera rental $40, tablets for seasickness $2. BYO alcohol. Booked through Cairns Visitor Centre, which offered three free introductory dives.

This was my first time scuba diving and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Conditions were a little choppy and the visibility could have been better, but it was still wonderful. It’s a small ship with a maximum of 12 guests – compare this to some of the day trip companies which take anywhere between 40 to 100 people. Spending the night on board and waking up to a sunrise over Michaelmas Cay was something special. Shout-out to skipper Gary and dive instructors Evan and Ted who took good care of us and made it a memorable trip – I’d have a pint with any of you guys, any day.

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