We set off early from Adelaide on Monday morning on our eastward coastal journey to Melbourne. We had taken the direct route on our way across to Adelaide but we had decided to take our time on the way back. Our target for the day was to cover the 460km to Mount Gambier where we had booked a night at the Old Gaol. We were driving the coast road, so turned off the main road at Tailem Bend and made our first stop for breakfast at Meningie, on the shores of Lake Albert.
From there, we struck out for Robe driving along The Coorong, a long coastal lagoon. This route also took us past the Pink Lake – or one of Australia’s many pink lakes. The coloration is the result of…
The lake was looking more dried out than pink when we visited but it certainly wasn’t blue.
After this brief stop, we climbed back into the car and carried on to Robe. I’m glad that we ended up with a Mitsubishi for this long drive, as all of the controls were in the same place as the Outlander we have at home. I had spent a lot of time in South Africa switching on the windscreen wipers every time I wanted to indicate a turn, which resulted in a lot of annoying squeaks and a smeared windscreen.
The drive to Robe was straightforward and we stopped here for a coffee and a wander around the town. It’s quite historic (for Australia) with many of the buildings over 100 years old. After Robe, we set off on the final leg of today’s journey to Mt Gambier.
Mt. Gambier is…odd. We visited two of its main tourist attractions and they were both odd. I found them simultaneously comforting and unsettling, which is a contradictory reaction but..they were odd.
First stop was the Blue Lake. I approached this with a lowered expectation after the faint pinkness of the Pink Lake earlier in the day. But this was different. This was BLUE.
Despite the day being overcast, the lake was the kind of blue you get in a child’s paintbox. Apparently, it retains the blue colour during the summer months then from March to November reverts to the kind of steely grey colour we’re more used to seeing in British inland lakes.
After the startling discovery of the lake, we went down to put ourselves in gaol. The Old Mt Gambier Gaol was a working prison from 1866 all the way up to 1995. It spent some time as a halfway house before being redeveloped as a hotel. Ishbel and I have stayed in the Malmaison Oxford, which is also an old prison, but very luxurious with only a faint air of its previous use.
The reverse is true of Mount Gambier. Every part of it screams gaol. We had managed to book one of the two double rooms. There are only two of them because most cells are too small for a double bed.
In Oxford, they had knocked cells together to create modern hotel room sizes. The reason that some of the Mt Gambier cells were bigger than others?
We were in Cell 20. If you find yourself in this part of the world, get yourself into gaol.
We had a quiet evening in Mt Gambier, grabbing some fast Mexican food in town and drinking tea in the common room at the gaol before retiring for the evening. The next morning we were tackling the 250km drive to Port Campbell and the start of the Great Ocean Road itself. But before we left Mt Gambier, there was another attraction we wanted to see. One that looked…odd.
The Umpherston Sinkhole just doesn’t seem like it should exist. It is a sinkhole caused by erosion of the porous limestone that is a feature of the area’s geology. But, in Victorian times, a Mr. Umpherston decided to turn it into a feature garden. And although it fell into disrepair in the middle of the 20th century, it was renovated by volunteers a couple of decades ago and has regained its innate strangeness.
It’s difficult to convey the scale of this place, which is why I am sitting on the bench in the distance. This thing is huge. And lovely. But very strange.
McLaren Vale is a name with great resonance for anyone who enjoys Australian wines. And our wonderful friends had decided to drive us up to the region for a couple of tastings on Saturday so we could enjoy the local produce to its fullest. Roadworks on the main road out of Adelaide meant we saw quite a bit of the South Australian countryside before arriving at our first stop: Chapel Hill winery.
The gothic windows that feature on the labels are omnipresent at the winery itself. We enjoyed a range of delicious wines here. They charge a nominal amount for the tasting, but waive it if you buy wine, which we did. They had a really nice shiraz so we grabbed some of that.
After Chapel Hill, we moved on to Coriole. This is a name I am less familiar with and I don’t think we see as many of their wines back in the UK, but the winery is a McLaren Vale veteran. They have been growing some interesting grape varieties on the estate so the tasting here was not the usual grape varieties.
They have a farm shop here as well and produce their own olive oil, which is very popular with visitors.
After Coriole, we went on to another winery and a very familiar name: d’Arenberg. I first became aware of their wines many years ago when I discovered a bottle they named “The Custodian”. As I was working for a Global Custodian, it appealed to me, and it tasted pretty good as well.
D’Arenberg has upped the ante on where tastings are hosted with their new building: The Cube.
Tastings are hosted on the top floor of the building. There’s a museum/gallery on the ground floor and a reputedly excellent restaurant on the first. There’s an entry fee here to get in to the gallery and tastings, but it’s reasonable and they were fairly generous with the tastings.
We passed a pleasant time here then headed back downstairs but we had been told that the men’s toilets here were a must-see so stopped off for a look.
The time had flown by and as we finished at d’Arenberg, it was time to head back to Adelaide for a lovely home-cooked meal and a chat.
Sunday was our last day in the city and we had arranged a couple of activities. First was a drive over to Adelaide port and a trip on the dolphin watching boat that goes out into the harbour. Dolphins are pretty much guaranteed on these trips and we were not disappointed on this occasion. The only problem is that they are out of the water so briefly and you have no idea where they will pop up so it’s difficult to get a photo.
After the boat trip, we took a little stroll around the port area which is undergoing a renovation/gentrification project, then drove over to the Wheatsheaf Hotel where we had tickets for our second Adelaide Fringe Festival event of the weekend: Ukulele Blues Explosion. And if you thought the ukulele was an inappropriate instrument for playing the blues, these guys would put you right.
After all this excitement, we just had time to get back to the house and freshen up before heading out for a farewell dinner at another splendid Adelaide pub: The Colonist. Either Adelaide has a wealth of excellent pubs or our friends are particularly adept at finding them. Or Both.
That was it for Adelaide. Monday was the start of our long drive back to Melbourne using the Great Ocean Road.
Valentine’s Day on the road is not all hearts and flowers. It had almost slipped our memories, but we remembered to wish each other Happy Valentine when we woke up in Ararat. No cards though so take that, Hallmark.
Our task today was not to be romantic fools, but to get to Adelaide and visit some old friends that we met many years ago when we were all (one of us very briefly) studying in Glasgow. We left Ararat and drove to Horsham, where we stopped for brunch.
Horsham is another one of these film set towns that Australia appears to have in abundance. Maybe one day, someone will drive through lots of UK towns and admire the way the centres were ripped out of so many of them in the 60s and 70s to be replaced by brutalist concrete structures. Or maybe not.
After that, we drove out of town and passed a hitch-hiker. It was probably his guitar that inclined us to stop for him. He was a 22 year old German lad called Fred who was travelling around Australia. He was headed for Adelaide, so it was no problem for us to pop him in the back of the car and continue on our way.
The drive was fairly uneventful and we made it to Adelaide by late afternoon, despite the many dire warnings of the roadside signage.
We dropped Fred in town in an area where there seemed to be a choice of backpacker hostels from which he could select. We then drove out to the leafy suburb in which our friends (A&C) lived. To be honest, all of Adelaide seems quite leafy with many streets lined with trees. It was delightful to see our friends again. It’s odd thinking that we’ve now known each other for 40 years and, even though we’ve seen each other only sporadically for the last 30 of them, we just pick up right where we left off when we get the chance to catch up again.
Upon arrival we were immediately caught in the embrace of their legendary hospitality and were directed to the beer fridge for something cool and refreshing. C had prepared a lovely meal for us and we spent the evening sharing recent news, ancient reminiscences, and red wine. Our friend A had to work the following day and we had driven a fairly long way so we all had a surprisingly sensible early night.
Adelaide had undergone a heatwave quite recently with temperatures up in the 40s, but Thursday had seen a very comfortable high of 23°C. Friday was destined to be a bit hotter. We decided to follow what has become something of a tradition for us on our travels and visit the Adelaide Botanic Gardens.
With the outside temperature pushing 30°C, we couldn’t spend long inside the greenhouse structures, but Ishbel was once again snapping away at the exotic plants scattered around the gardens.
After our visit, we headed back to the house and organised our evening. Coinciding with our arrival, the Adelaide Fringe Festival was opening today. We did some research and decided to get tickets for “Choir of Man“, a musical show set in a pub. With free beer. Definitely my kind of show. We ate at the festival grounds and enjoyed the show before taking a wander through the city. We passed by the festival grounds and the Adelaide Oval before stopping for a nightcap in The Tap Room bar in the Adelaide Festival Centre.
We then headed home since Saturday was scheduled to be a big day – off to the McLaren Vale wine country!
Another stolen title, this time from the classic song by 60s American blues-rock band, Canned Heat. On Monday, we were headed out of Cairns back to the Gold Coast for a couple of days with Ishbel’s sister and brother-in-law (V&G).
Despite having heard the occasional horror story about their tendency to cancel flights at a moment’s notice, our Jetstar return experience was just as straightforward and trouble free as the journey up to Cairns nine days previously. It felt like we were getting out just in time as the heat had rolled into town with a vengeance with temperatures hitting 36°C. We had enjoyed a farewell breakfast with Ellen before she left for the airport earlier in the day to start her long journey back to Germany. Our own, much shorter, flight to Brisbane was taking off in the afternoon so we hid from the scorching sunshine in the air-conditioned mall near the train station.
We went back to the hotel to pick up our bags and summoned our taxi. On arrival, we readjusted our bags to make sure everything was within the weight limits: 21kg for our single hold bag and 7kg max per person for hand luggage. They hadn’t checked the carry-on on the way up but we decided to err on the side of caution. We were glad we had done so when, as we were waiting at the gate to board, one of the crew members walked along the line with a pull-along scale asking each passenger to place their cabin bags on it. At least one of our fellow passengers was obliged to check his bag, and pay AUD 40 for the privilege.
Our flight was mostly uneventful, although I question why a six-year old feels it necessary to recline his seat on a two hour flight. Especially if he’s in the seat in front of me. Rant over. We arrived safely at Brisbane and collected our bag before heading for the train station. It was rush hour in Brisbane when we arrived, so we didn’t want anyone to drag themselves through that traffic to collect us when there was a direct train from the airport to Helensvale.
We were fortunate enough to find a train due to leave in 8 minutes sitting at the platform waiting for us so we ensconced ourselves in the carriage, signed on to the Queensland Rail WiFi service, and relaxed for the 80 minute journey. We were picked up at the station and were back at V&G’s house in no time. Over a lovely dinner of roast chicken and salad, we forced them to listen to our dive reminiscences before fatigue eventually overtook us and we retired to bed.
On Tuesday, a farewell dinner had been planned for the evening with V&G, their children and partners, and the grandchildren. During the day, the four of us went up to Mount Tamborine, Queensland’s first National Park, declared in 1908. We took a walk down to the Witches’ Falls lookout point where it became apparent that this part of Queensland has experienced less recent rainfall than the north.
The falls had dried to a mere trickle. One bonus of the walk, however, was the opportunity to see a kookaburra.
We also encountered a termite mound just off the path that appeared to have suffered some damage. The termites were hard at work trying to repair it, which meant a tasty meal for any passing lizard.
We made our way back up to where we had parked the car and drove to Eagle Heights hotel for a bite of lunch with a view over the whole of the Gold Coast. The air was a bit hazy but the high-rise buildings of Surfers Paradise 22km distant were clearly visible. Temperatures were in the low 30s, so after lunch we drove back to Helensvale and had time to jump in the pool to cool off before the rest of the family arrived.
Once everyone rolled in for the evening, we had a nice, relaxed dinner and a couple of glasses of wine. We chatted a little about the Australian concept of “long service leave” whereby employees who stay with the same employer for ten years are rewarded with eight weeks paid holiday. I remember my own tenth anniversary at work, when I received a signed letter from the CEO. On balance, I think I’d have preferred the eight weeks. At the end of the evening, we said goodbye to the younger generation. It’s always odd taking your leave of friends and relatives in Australia because you never know when or if, you’ll see them again. Although global travel is much more accessible now than it was on our first visit here back in 1995.
Wednesday dawned hot in Queensland (again). Ishbel was up and out early taking a last opportunity for some bird photography at Coombabah Lake. After deciding there wasn’t much going on there, she moved on to Oxenford Park and managed to get a couple of interesting shots.
Once she got back, we finished our packing and V&G once again drove us off to Brisbane Airport’s domestic terminal for the next flight on our RTW schedule. We were off to Melbourne today. This time, we were travelling business class with Qantas with plenty of luggage allowance so none of the concerns we had with Jetstar on the Cairns side trip.
Arriving at Melbourne, we picked up our bags then, as instructed, called the rental desk of our car hire company, Ace Rentals. We had booked this car through a consolidator, Rentalcars.com, because of the highly competitive rate they offered. We had reserved a Nissan Qashqai and, after going through the formalities at the desk, I received my documentation and went out for the always compulsory walk around the car to inspect for damage. I was surprised at a couple of things on the documents themselves: the high mileage (over 65,000km) and the number of dings and scratches already identified. I was even more surprised at the very first thing I spotted on the car.
We were driving to Adelaide and I wasn’t keen on a 1500km round trip with a gash like this on the sidewall of the tyre. I trotted back in to the desk and asked the young gentleman to come out and take a look. His verdict? “It doesn’t go all the way through, so it’s up to you if you want to take it.” I didn’t want to take it. We were offered a Mitsubishi ASX which was slightly smaller but had tyres I felt better able to rely on.
Having straightened this out, we hit the road. Time confusion was pervasive at this point. Victoria was one hour ahead of Queensland, so we had lost an hour on the flight. However, Adelaide is in South Australia which is a half hour behind Victoria, so a half hour ahead of Queensland. I had booked a motel at a town called Ararat which was about a two hour drive from Melbourne airport, but I hadn’t checked which state it was in, so I had no idea what time it would be when we got there. As luck would have it, it was still in Victoria, so we arrived just before 9:00pm. Reception there was scheduled to close at that time, so we just made it. We also discovered that the latest opening restaurant in town closed at 8:30pm. One takeaway was still open until 9:30pm so we grabbed a pizza from there after checking in. We drove up to collect it and were struck by how much the town looked like a scene from a movie set in the 1950s.
We couldn’t even finish the pizzas and eventually just crashed out, looking forward to a good sleep before finishing the drive to Adelaide the next day.
Today’s title is borrowed from a traditional American gospel song, “This Train“, which also gave its lyrics to Woody Guthrie’s biography, Bound For Glory, and which has been recorded by artists as varied as Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and Bob Marley. And the Worthing Bluegrass Jam guys. I am missing those jams!
Anyway, the title is a tenuous link to our Sunday adventure, which started with a trip on the Kuranda scenic railway accompanied by our German dive friend, Ellen. The railway may now be described as scenic, but the construction process, which started in 1886, was far from enjoyable for anyone involved. The first two contractors on the job went bust trying to complete Section One, a 13km section from Cairns to Redlynch, rising to just 5.5m above sea level.
Section Two was the real difficulty, intended to ascend a further 320m over the next 24.5km. Eventually, this part of the railway passed through 15 tunnels, rounded 93 curves, and crossed dozens of bridges positioned across ravines and waterfalls.
All of the work on this section was completed using hand tools as it was impossible to get powered equipment up the track. Over 150 men died in accidents while working on the railway’s construction, while an unknown number died from the natural hazards of jungle work, such as disease or snake bites. The railway was eventually completed and the first train completed the journey between Cairns and Kuranda in 1891. Interestingly, this also spelled the demise of Port Douglas as a commercial centre since all of the traffic from the tablelands now passed through Cairns, relegating Port Douglas to relative obscurity and, ultimately, to an economy based almost entirely on tourism.
Nowadays, one makes the journey in vintage rolling stock, built between the 1900s and 1930s, pulled by a slightly more modern diesel electric locomotive, built in 1966.
Since the carriages are so old, there’s no air conditioning, so all of the windows are wide open to catch any passing breeze.
On the trip up, we saw plenty of evidence of the extreme weather the area has suffered recently. Because of the rain, many rivers are in spate and look very brown as a result of silt being washed into the waterways.
The journey time is two hours, which includes a 10 minute stop at the overlook point at Barron Falls, before eventually arriving at Kuranda.
Having climbed 1,000 feet, we were hoping that the elevation might have made the temperature more bearable. Sadly it was not to be. The temperature up here was 36°C and the humidity was stifling. There are some signposted footpaths around the station and village so we followed the river walk. After 500m in the signposted direction, we reached a point where the river had burst its banks and the path was impassable. We returned to our start point and tried the other direction. Again, we only managed around 500m before encountering another flooded bank.
There was a jungle boardwalk on the other side of the village so we walked up there and, this time, there was a sign posted, warning that the path was blocked. This was just opposite the tourist information point so we went over there to ask whether there were any paths available. They informed us that, although the sign said it was blocked, the first 1.5km was still passable. By this time, (with the heat, humidity, and distance already covered) we were perfectly happy with a 3km round trip.
We walked down the boardwalk until we reached a creek that flowed along a valley floor. Once again, we were reminded that in this part of the world, it doesn’t take long to completely leave civilization behind and find yourself in dense tropical rainforest.
Back to the village for a cold refreshing drink – another mocktail – and then on to the Skyrail for our return journey. The Skyrail isn’t a train – it’s a cable car. It descends from Kuranda to Smithfield over the rainforest canopy, providing a unique view of the jungle.
Like the train on the way up, the windows are wide open to catch in any breeze there may be. We had another opportunity to disembark at Barron Falls, which we took, and the view from this side was even more dramatic than from the train stop on the way up.
Back on to the cable car after this and on to Red Peak station where there is a compulsory change as the cable is divided into two sections. Since we were getting off anyway, we decided we would take the guided ranger tour as the next one was due to start in just 6 minutes. We waited the appropriate length of time then the ranger talk started dead on time. In Chinese. That ranger pointed us on to a group ahead which was in English so we went and latched on to that. It was a private tour. That ranger pointed us on to another group even further ahead so we joined that. Another private tour. By this time, we could hear an ominous sound. Silence. The cable had stopped running. We gave up on trying to find a public, English-language tour and walked back to the cable car station to investigate.
When we got there, they were putting out seats and handing out bottles of water to be shared one between two. The water – not the seats. We didn’t need the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes to recognise that this was not a good sign. An approaching storm meant that the cableway was switched off. I imagine that, being made entirely of metal and protruding from the forest canopy as it does, the system is a preferential target for any lightning strike. We waited for about 15 minutes then heard the sound of the cable starting to run again. Another 10 minutes later, we were in a car bound for the end of the line where bus transfers to our Cairns hotels awaited us.
It was a relief to be back in air conditioning. After freshening up, we headed out for dinner. We met up with Ellen again on the Esplanade and wandered in search of an eating spot for our last night in Cairns. Through general indecisiveness, we ended up eating at Rattle n Hum, where we had enjoyed a beer with our dive colleagues on Friday. Although philosophically opposed to dining in a bar named after a U2 album, I actually quite enjoyed the food here. And the beer. 4 Pines American Pale Ale is a tasty drop.
After dinner, we said goodbye to Ellen and headed back to the hotel to think about how on earth we were going to fit our new diving accoutrements into our luggage and stay within Jetstar’s draconian baggage weight limits.
Saturday dawned sunny in Cairns. We had decided to travel on the Kuranda Scenic Railway on Sunday, leaving Saturday free for a visit to Port Douglas. First, though, we met one of our fellow dive students, Ellen, for breakfast at a little cafe called Che Zest. All three of us ordered Eggs Benedict with smoked salmon. We had been (inadvertently) drinking salt water for the past three days solid, and I guess we were missing the taste of the sea. After breakfast, we said goodbye to Ellen and headed back to the hotel, the IBIS Styles. We rented a car from the Budget office attached to the hotel for AUD 60 for the day. There are cheaper places around but as the temperature hit 30°C, the convenience outweighed the price for me. Port Douglas is around 70km north of Cairns and the road between the two is reminiscent of the winding coastal road that we took from Cape Town to Hermanus back in December.
As we glided along the road in our little Suzuki Swift, we enjoyed regular, stunning views of the coastline ahead and behind us.
As we drove along, I entered a little reverie around the history of British colonialism. The fact that I was travelling between two towns with Scottish derived names led me to ponder the influence Scots must have had on Britain during its colonial heyday. There are Scottish names all over Australia, but this was also the case in Hong Kong. And South Africa. It struck me forcefully that Scots were very much part of the history of Empire – both for good and ill. Hence the title of this post: another Burns reference. It’s amazing what can go through your head when you’re supposed to be concentrating on driving in a foreign country.
Despite this, we made it safely to Port Douglas and stopped first at the viewpoint overlooking the town, where we witnessed what appeared to be the inauguration of a new colony of tree ants. The queen (pictured below) was travelling along the railing at the viewpoint followed by a number of much smaller workers.
We then drove into the centre and enjoyed a fruity mocktail at a pleasant little cafe, whose name now escapes me. The temperature had risen significantly since we were last on shore earlier in the week and it was oppressive to walk around. I had opted for a cotton shirt today, which was to prove a schoolboy error. We walked from the cafe out to the historic lighthouse, which is hidden down a narrow, shaded path between two houses. We successfully sought it out and discovered it to be historic but not necessarily enthralling.
After the lighthouse, we strolled back along the shady path and back towards town. Then I discovered that my cotton shirt was no match for the local mosquitoes’ mandibles. I had acquired three bites on my upper right arm which started to itch furiously. Luckily, one of the first shops on the main street was a chemist where I was able to acquire insect repellent and itch easing cream. I’m not in the habit of publicly exposing my flesh but the irritation was so extreme that I had no hesitation in stripping off my shirt and asking nurse Ishbel to minister to my puncture wounds. Relief was instant, as promised by the packaging. I immediately put the shirt back on and we both liberally applied repellent to all exposed flesh and any possible point of ingress. I am generally a mosquito magnet and Ishbel need not worry about bites when she’s with me as I appear to be a preferred food provider for mosquitos the world over. But once I’ve sprayed, she needs to as well. When visiting the quaint towns of Northern Queensland, it’s easy to forget that these are mere pinpricks of development in a vast swathe of tropical rainforest. Don’t wear cotton shirts in the jungle.
Now safely armoured, we headed back to the car and drove through the town to the car park by the beach. We wanted a stroll along the beach and this seemed a nice spot. There was an area netted off for swimmers and lifeguards patrolling. There was also a warning that marine stingers were active, so we decided not to dip our toes.
I had already experienced stingers the previous week when we had a swim near Surfers Paradise. My heels and top of my foot suffered at the hands…tentacles…of small stingers known locally as bluebottles. These menacing little creatures are not actually jellyfish but siphonophores, related to the Portuguese man o’ war although smaller and less venomous. The pain lasted about an hour and there were no ongoing ill effects but I was in no hurry to repeat the experience.
After a shortish walk enjoying the sea breeze, we turned and headed back towards the car park. That was when we spotted the osprey circling above and, eventually, witnessed it diving into the sea and emerging with a fish.
Ospreys are so rare in Scotland that we were hugely excited to get an opportunity to see this, even though they’re ten a penny in Australia. This was a pleasant way to finish off our Port Douglas visit so we headed back to the car and pointed ourselves towards Cairns.
As we approached the city, we decided to stop off for what is fast becoming a tradition on this trip: a visit to the Botanic Gardens. After the vast acreage of the gardens of Cape Town, Johannesburg and Brisbane, it was a nice change to stroll through Cairns’ considerably smaller version. It did, however, offer us one of the most appropriately named plants I have ever seen:
the Beefsteak Heliconia. It’s not an Australian native, but it’s quite a striking plant.
After the Botanics, we drove back to Cairns and had an early dinner, before calling it a night.
The title of this post has been stolen from the skipper of our dive boat. Warren made a number of announcements to us during our three days on board and ended each one by saying “Peace on the Reef.” By the end, we were all responding in kind, and on one occasion even pre-empted him by saying the phrase en masse before he had the chance to.
Having qualified as PADI Open Water divers on Thursday afternoon, Ishbel and I didn’t dive again on the day. However, we were determined to have our first unsupervised dive together on Friday, 8th February. The dive schedule had three dives planned for Friday, the first of which was to take place at 6:30am. Wake-up time was scheduled for 5:45, twenty minutes before sunrise on the reef. After Thursday’s second dive, we had moved from Milln Reef to the Boulders site on Flynn Reef, which was to be the site of Dive 1 this morning.
We had devised a cunning plan to be last into the water and, ideally, first out so that we wouldn’t be getting our newly qualified selves in the way of the more experienced divers. The first part went exactly to plan. We let everyone else off the boat then stepped in to the water ourselves. On this memorable occasion, I contrived to mess up my giant step. The key is to look at the horizon as you step out. Stupidly, I looked down, the result of which was to push my mask off my nose and up on to my forehead. Luckily, I didn’t lose the mask completely. Only my dignity. Ishbel joined me in the water with considerably more grace and we swam round to the rope which we decided we would descend before swimming off to the reef.
This particular site is one which doesn’t require any real navigation skills as you descend the rope to a concrete block to which the boat is moored, then swim off. There is a steep reef wall on your left hand side, so you just keep it on your left on the way out, and on your right on the way back and you can guarantee finding the boat again. Finding the boat is a skill all on its own and even some of the experienced divers missed it on some of the dives. Sometimes, they were close enough to be able to swim back on the surface but on a couple of occasions, someone from the boat went out in the little motor launch to tow them back home. It was comforting to know that we were in no danger of getting lost.
For our first dive, we had a great time. No dramas, as Australians are fond of saying. We swam along the wall as recommended and saw a wide variety of fish and even a couple of reef sharks, about 2m long. For all the hard work that we put into the course, and the even harder work our instructors put in to getting us through it, this was the payoff. Our relaxed dive along the Great Barrier Reef, going down to 18m for 28 minutes, was a wondrous experience. We weren’t even first back to the boat as we were enjoying it so much.
Winds, tides, and encroaching weather were all conspiring to make life difficult for the skipper and crew in determining where the next dive would be. The boat changed position in the hope of finding better sea conditions, but it was still very choppy. The decision was taken to cancel one of the Day 3 dives to give more down time between them and allow a longer dive rather than two abbreviated dives. We decided conditions were too rough for us to venture back down, and a couple of other people sat out the last dive as well. The boat was rising and falling quite noticeably as we sat at our mooring, so we decided this was a good time to take another seasickness pill. If it was like this when we were at rest, it was going to be very rough on the way back to Cairns.
One interesting event did occur between the two Friday dives. As we sat around the tables in the lounge area, someone said “I think I can smell burning” two seconds before a loud bang and a flash emanated from one of the cabins. There was a group of three American couples, all qualified divers, and the emergency occurred in one of their cabins. Nothing actually went up in flames, but someone had hung up a wet costume immediately above an electric point where they were charging their phone. The drips had fused the power, and melted the charger. The group are all current or former members of the LA Fire Department!
We skipped Dive 2, although Ishbel went out to snorkel the shallow part of the reef. After Dive 2, we headed back to Cairns, after repairing a mooring buoy at one of the sites that had been snagged the previous day. We ended up getting back to town about an hour later than scheduled, but it didn’t interfere with anyone’s plans so we weren’t unduly concerned by the delay.
The homeward journey also allowed for a moment of reflection on the whole experience. Our decision to go through the diving course was something of a whim that we had decided would be a fun thing to do on our travels. I had certainly underestimated the scale of effort required to get through it and certainly wish that I had worked more on some basic fitness before the course started. Our fellow open water students were a diverse bunch of people, ranging from 18 up to, well, our age since we were the oldest. They were from Australia, Canada, Netherlands, Germany and the UK. Despite the obvious differences between us all, the sense of camaraderie was overwhelming, We could always put that down to the fact that we were united in adversity, all trying to qualify as divers. But once we were on the boat, that diversity increased as we met qualified divers from Denmark, Sweden, the US, China, Taiwan. And everyone still got along really well. There’s something about the experience that just brings out the best in everyone. We loved it.
As we approached Cairns, we were informed of a tradition whereby the instructors book tables at a German Beerhouse in town for the evening of our return to port. So it was that we showed up at 7:30 and met up with our fellow divers and a couple of the instructors for possibly the last time ever.
After some 3 litre beer towers and schnitzels, the group moved from the beerhouse to another bar where live music was playing. We had a last drink there with our fellow divers, then headed back to the hotel.
The next post will be just a collection of photos from the dive boat that will hopefully be of interest to everyone who was on board at the same time as us.
Having been chided for a faltering schedule of blog posts, I’m going to just jump in with current events and try to catch up on the lost week at some point in the future.
We arrived in Cairns in Northern Queensland on Saturday afternoon, 2nd February. We flew up from Brisbane on one of Australia’s budget carriers, Jetstar. Ishbel’s sister kindly let us leave our instruments and one suitcase behind with her while we made this side trip which helped keep the cost down. In common with budget airlines everywhere, Jetstar are vigorous in their upsell, which includes paying extra for luggage.
We had a quiet Saturday evening in Cairns. Ishbel needed a new swimsuit so we managed to acquire that at a shop called Splish Splash Swimwear at Cairns Pier. As we came out of that shop, another caught my eye. Man Overboard had a collection of really quite striking shirts in their window. One of my shirts has frayed at the collar and cuffs so, in accordance with our “one in, one out” policy for packing, I bought a splendidly garish linen shirt to replace it. We found a bar/restaurant called Salt House at the Pier where there was live music and decent food so we spent a couple of hours there before heading back to the hotel.
We had booked our dive medicals for Sunday morning and it turned out that the Cairns 24 Hour Medical Centre was right across the road from our hotel, so that was easy to get done. We then just had a leisurely walk around the town to see what it had to offer. Northern Queensland has been experiencing some severe weather. Most of it has hit Townsville, south of here, where over a metre of rain fell just in the last week. By comparison, my home town of Glasgow which is notoriously wet, has an average annual rainfall of 1.079m. (I checked). the edges of the weather system are affecting Cairns so it was overcast and a bit drizzly for our walk. We ended up back at Salt House for food and the live music again. We were very good and only drank mocktails. Having passed our dive medicals earlier in the day, we were faced with the brutal reality that we were now going to try to learn to dive so didn’t want to impair ourselves in advance. We waited out a thunderstorm which rolled through then headed back to the hotel for an early night and a pickup the next morning at 8:15am.
We were waiting in reception Monday morning as the minibus from Pro Dive rolled up outside. We were picked up and met the first cadre of our fellow students as the bus took us to the private Pro Dive facility for our first day of classroom and pool education. We were in the classroom for three hours until lunch, learning many of the basic safety precautions necessary to qualify as a diver and some of the dangers associated with the activity. Then, after lunch, we changed into our costumes and hit the pool. There were 11 of us on the course so we were split into two groups. Ishbel, me and three others were with our instructor, Line from Norway, in Pool 1 and the other 6 were with Steffen from the Netherlands in Pool 2. They proceeded to bombard us with information on the technical and practical aspects of diving, made us swim 24 lengths, had us tread water for 10 minutes, and swim underwater fully loaded with scuba gear and weights. I learned that I’m not fat, just overly buoyant. That explains the 10.5kg I had added to me which, when combined with the tank, regulators, Buoyancy Control Device (BCD), and my own mass, gives me my own gravitational pull. It’s also quite a lot to move around in when you’re not in the water. After four hours in the pool, class was dismissed for the day and delivered back to our respective hotels.
That wasn’t enough education for one day for us. We decided to attend a session at a place called Reef Teach, which does exactly that. It was recommended by our instructors and was scheduled to run from 6:30 to 8:30, so when we got out of there at 9:30, we were considerably better informed about what we could expect to see on the Great Barrier Reef when we eventually got out there. After that, we had time to grab a quick bite at Evo Burger which was delicious.
We were exhausted by this time so headed back to the hotel then up in time for a 7:35 pickup on Tuesday morning. We were driven back out to the facility then were straight into the pool for the morning. We again practised skills and emergency procedures, like taking off our BCD and putting it back on, while in the water. Taking off our weights and putting them on again, in the water. Taking off our mask and putting it back on again. In the water. Throwing away our regulator (air hose) and finding it again. In the water. This all finished about noon and, once again, we were feeling a tad fatigued by the whole exercise. Bear in mind that we have a good 10 years on the next oldest student and he in turn has a few years on most of the rest of the class. We’re entitled to be tired!
We then all went for lunch together at a place called Grill’d before stopping by the Pro Dive shop in central Cairns to look at and possibly acquire equipment. We, of course don’t have any room in our luggage for such things. So imagine my surprise when I found myself the proud owner of dive boots and flippers and Ishbel had a snorkel and mask! These things happen.
Anyway, after the shopping spree, it was back out to the facility to sit our exams. Luckily, we all passed so the whole class was set for the next part of the course: the Great Barrier Reef. Pickup on Wednesday was at 6:15. It just keeps getting earlier! We were driven to the shop to check in for the trip and to store the luggage we wouldn’t need on board. Once that was done, we were back on the minibus and out to the marina to see our boat for the first time, the Scubapro. I should mention that I had chosen today as the first day to wear the previously mentioned garish linen shirt. So when the skipper, Warren, completed the roll call once everyone was on board, he stopped at my name for a special mention of the shirt. Yes, it really is that loud.
In total, there are 31 divers on board. Apart from the 11 of us PADI Open Water students and one snorkeller, the rest are already qualified and are either having fun dives or are trying to qualify for more advanced qualifications. For our group to qualify, we have to complete four open water dives and perform certain skills both at depth and on the surface. I don’t usually get seasick but the skipper pointed out that even people who don’t get seasick get seasick on this boat so Ishbel and I decided to take a preventative tablet each. The ride out to the reef was very turbulent and once the outbreak of seasickness inevitably happened, I was delighted that we had done so.
It was a three hour trip out to the reef, and the skipper informed us that North Westerly winds were making it very choppy at the usual Day 1 site so we would head to what was called the “Wild Side” of Milln Reef. Once moored, everyone changed into their gear. The water is warm out here, about 28°C so we all have highly attractive full body lycra suits to wear. My apologies for putting that image into your heads. If you don’t want to be further traumatised, look away now.
Thus it was that, looking somewhat like an aquatic Santa Claus, I made my way to the back of the boat, held my regulator and mask with my right hand and the mask strap with my left, and took my giant step into the ocean. As we descended to about 12m, we again were obliged to go through a variety of skills similar to those we had learned in the pool, with the added thrill that we were in the sea with waves buffeting us and currents pulling us around. We all survived that and just about managed to scramble onto the boat at the end. That is a whole new skill.
There’s a well defined schedule for dives for the three days we’re on board. As learners, we need to do Dives 1 and 2 on Day 1 and Dives 1 and 2 on Day 2 in order to qualify as PADI open water divers. Once we’ve done that, they actually allow us to dive without an instructor.
The good news is that Ishbel and I managed to complete the 4 dives necessary – 2 at the Wild Side, Milln Reef and 2 at The Whale, Milln Reef – and are now, as I type, qualified divers. I’m sure you find this as difficult to believe as I do. However, having qualified, we declined the opportunity to go diving unsupervised on Day 2. Mainly because we are absolutely shattered. We slept 9 hours straight on Wednesday night and will probably do the same tonight (Thursday). We plan on doing at least one dive on Friday before the boat returns to port in Cairns.