D: Arrival in Oz and exploring the Great Barrier Reef
Oct 20, 2004
|Arriving in Australia
In our original planning of this trip we broke it down in to 4 regions—Africa, Europe, SE Asia, and Oceania. When we were in Africa 6 months ago Australia and New Zealand seemed like, literally, a world away. Leaving Indonesia it was hard to believe we were really on our way to our last quarter of our trip. We loved Asia, but were really ready for a change, and Australia proved to be akin to heading home—without the friends and family there to greet us.
Australia is our first English speaking country since we left South Africa back in March, though I swear sometimes the Aussies are speaking something other than English. They speak so fast and the ones with really heavy accents really throw us. There have been conversations where there was literally not one word I could decipher to get a grasp of what was being said. Usually by the third time I ask them to repeat themselves they slow down enough to catch the gist of it. We are fully entertained by all the "aussie-words" they have, but often we have no idea what they are referring to. It took me a while to realize that "boardies" are the long surfer shorts that is the basis of teen fashion along the sunny coast of north Queensland. When a girl helping me in a clothing store asked me what I called them I gave her a funny look and said, "shorts?" She thought that was pretty funny.
Though we planned our route around the world before we left (with the exception of Laos which we added when we were in Malaysia) all planning within the country has usually taken place as we are arriving or just after we've arrived. We have become pretty good at planning-by-the-seat-of-our-pants and it has actually worked out well in most places in the world. Much of the information about traveling within the country is more readily available once you are there. Also, the countries have been reasonably accessible in size. Australia has been the big exception. We bought the trusty Lonely Planet at the airport in Denpasar, Bali just before we boarded our overnight flight to Brisbane. Up to that point we had thought very little about what we were going to do, other than drive the east coast. It turns out that we grossly underestimated the true size of Australia and ended up with a lot more actual windshield time in our trusty rental car than we had expected. We also feel like we could have worked in a 5-7 day trip into the outback had we done some more prior planning. But none of this really dawned on us until about 4 days after we were wandering around northern Queensland and realized we needed to hightail it south to Sydney.
On our flight to Brisbane, which is located about halfway up the east coast of Australia, we decided that if we were going to go north we should head straight up there. A bit bleary-eyed at 6am (3am Bali time) we found our way to the domestic flights to book a ticket to Cairns. Throughout Asia we got very used to the government subsidized flights with printed fares that are the same if you buy your ticket 2 months in advanced or 2 hours in advanced—always very cheap. Australia adheres to the more American way of airfares—the closer to the departure time, the more expensive the ticket. That was just the beginning of the sticker shock of re-entering the First World. However, it was far preferable to a 17 hour bus ride (that should have been an indication of the distance we had to travel, but it didn't really sink in).
One very welcomed change with our arrival in Australia, to Snow, at least, is he is no longer a relative giant. Beds are long enough, he doesn't hit his head on low awnings walking down the street, there is plenty of leg room in buses, planes, and cars. After 2 months of being the "freaky tall guy" he is very happy to just be one of the guys.
Being loyal users of The Lonely Planet Guide Books we have accumulated quite a collection at this point in our travels—some better and more useful than others. The guidebooks are written by a variety of different writers/travelers who are familiar with the different regions. All the principal writers have a brief biography in the front of the book so you know who wrote which part and where they are from, where they have lived, traveled, etc. At least one, if not more, writer in every LP book we've used has been Australian. So, it makes sense that most of the writers for the Australia LP are, indeed, Australian. When you are writing a guidebook about a country in which you are a guest, you have to be more respectful about poking fun—even if it's innocent fun—at the country, people, or culture. But, when you're writing about your own country, it's a free-for-all. Consequently, the Australian LP is quite an entertaining read with good little tidbits as: "If you can't find tourist information in Cairns, then you'll never find porn on the Internet either" to describe the proliferation of tourist offices in Cairns. Anyone who has been to Cairns recently understands just how true that statement is. They seem much more apt to tell it like it is and if something is ugly, tasteless, or a worthless tourist trap they have no problem telling us—which we've appreciated both from an informational stand point as well as just fun reading entertainment. Another great example: they provide a brief description of each of the sleeping options in every town. Most are something like, "friendly, informative staff, on a busy street so ask for a room in the back, breakfast included, etc". For the Grand Pacific Private Hotel in Coogee in Sydney this is what they have to say: "In NO way grand, but charming in a dilapidated, down-at-heel way, and the beachside location is great. Grab that person you're having a dirty affair with (having bumped off their spouse) and hole up for a seedy seaside weekend straight from a true crime novel." Needless to say, we decided not to stay there.
The Great Barrier Reef
The only living organism seen from space, larger than the Great Wall of China, stretching 1240 miles from just south of Papau New Guinea down about half the length of the east coast of Australia, larger than the UK, The Great Barrier Reef is a definite Not-To-Be-Missed stop in Australia. There are literally hundreds of different snorkeling/diving companies with whom you can explore parts of the reef. Most of them start in Cairns, stay in the general vicinity and carry, in some cases, hundreds of people for the day. We opted for a smaller company that left from a smaller town about an hour north of Cairns, Port Douglas. QuickSmart carried about 50 people on their catamaran to 3 different diving spots along the outer reef. The water was such an incredible crystal clear blue we didn't see how the divers could be seeing any more than we were snorkeling. The fish were fun, but mostly the same colorful tropical fish we've seen in many places around the world. What is so amazing about the Great Barrier Reef is the coral—the range of color, size, shape, how delicate or sturdy it seems. There were also lots of HUGE bivalve giant clams about 2 feet long and about 8 inches wide when they're open. Some had iridescent blue electric-like streaks going through it—very psychedelic! We bought a disposable, underwater camera to capture the wonders of the water world. A fun toy for a couple of snap-happy tourists, but doesn't really produce the best quality, as you can see with the attached pictures. We had a fantastic day marveling at the color and clarity of the water and enjoying the antics of the fish darting around the coral. Our little glimpse of The Great Barrier Reef doesn't begin to capture the awesome scale of this truly Natural Wonder of the World. We were happy to learn that Australia goes to great lengths to protect the reef and revitalize it where necessary.
Snow will take you on our driving journey of the east coast. I'll see you again in Tassie.
All the best,