Monday, 27 April 2015

TOD Tour, Day 75 - The Great Barrier Reef

In the words of Billy Birmingham, "Great Barry, a reefer" ...

... and so it was.

Having travelled extensively though Australia, there are few experiences which still rate as first time for us. Whether we are watching travel programs at home or reading articles from laundry magazines on the road itself, it's quite rare that we don't give it the "been there, done that, bought the T-shirt" judgment. Even our three adult children have the satisfaction of often ditto-ing scenes from the top spots around Australia as a result of the travel appreciation bug we first infected them with.

A trip through the Whitsundays and diving on the Great Barrier Reef have been, until yesterday, an open check box on the list of Oz destinations. In truth, expense has always been the main contributing factor as these things are not achieved cheaply, especially if viewed for their one off cost as an event but in light of the eleven hours we spent yesterday, the attention we received, the quality of the food and that rarely well defined and highly personal "wow" factor, this was a value for money.

It was an early start - 7am pick up from our accommodation by Cruise Whitsundays - but Hardy Reef is a long way out to sea, past Hook Island and to the north east of Airlie Beach, our starting point. As usual with such events, Sue was all Cheshire Cat: her smile lines extending well beyond her face, like some good looking visual pastiche of Jack Nicholson's Joker. There were repeated squeezes of my arm and hugs until I could settle her in her seat in the sun (literally) on the top deck of the three storey sea cat, Seaflight and she was still grinning when she fell asleep last night.

Hamilton Island
Leaving Airlie, we first turned south to Hamilton Island to pick up the bulk of our passenger load. Hamilton is the largest of the inhabited islands of the Whitsunday archipelago and the only one to have a commercial airport. The tourism legend, Keith Williams, purchased the island in 1975 and along with Seaworld on the Gold Coast and Port Hinchinbrook, it marked him as probably the most influential entrepreneur in Australian tourism history. Its now owned by the Oatley Family of Rosemount fame, whose patriarch Bob Oatley bought Hamilton twelve years ago for $200 million; mere loose change from the $1.5 billion sale of Rosemount two years earlier. It's all Resort, with a large and overpowering "R". Everything about the place is purpose built and designed to pamper. As we sat watching the hundred plus extra people populate the Seaflight, electric golf carts, the main form of transport, zipped everywhere on a place which doesn't need cars.

As we had travelled south, commentary told us some history and pointed out landmarks, including the islands we were passing. "To our left is North Mole island and further south is South Mole Island. That small island between them and the boat is Daydream island, and to our right, is the largest island in the area, Australia."

Now loaded with more than 200 passengers, it could have been a day of lining up and frustration at taking one's turn but Cruise Whitsundays is a well-oiled machine and the copious number of staff meant that there wasn't a moment in the day when a courteous blue shirt couldn't be found with a turn of the head. About twenty five staff meant a ratio of about 1 to every 8 passengers and yet, you never had the feeling they were hovering or in your face. When we boarded at Airlie, we were taken by a young man to the seat of our choice, after he first explained where all the amenities could be found and a brief overview of the advantages/disadvantages of any given seating location. We opted for the open sundeck at the top of the boat, as previous experience of enclosed spaces - all be it with vast expanses of glass to look out and air conditioned spaces out of the sun - are better seats when the sea gets beyond glassy. A predicted 26 knot blow from the south promised just that.

Once we left the shelter of the Whitsundays, the ride became rougher but our 60km trip to Hardy Reef in the north east was at least partially aided from asteen, so the half metre swell didn't prove too difficult.

Hardy Reef pontoon
After  ninety minutes, the first of the reefs came into view, with their soft aqua colours and small waves breaking over the outer edges. Our destination was a narrow channel which runs between the Hardy and Hook reefs, where a permanently anchored pontoon sits beside the reef wall. If you imagine "pontoon" to be one of those floating open decks with bollards and a rolling surface, you'd be completely wrong. This is a large stable structure, with two decks, change rooms and well defined areas for all of the gear and activities you can participate in. The upper part, a sundeck with large sails for those who would prefer shade, is resplendent with chairs, tables and lounges to better that tan or advertise one's youthful body with the least obstruction of clothes. We chose the chairs.

You are warned as you arrive at Hardy, that time passes quickly out here. Fours hours seemed more than enough time to have a snorkel or a scuba dive, take a ride in the semi-submersible, visit the underwater viewing chamber, feed the giant groper, enjoy an sumptuous lunch, have a few wines and pretend to think of those at home. It wasn't.

It seemed the best approach to us was to get wet, so we quickly had the togs on and were kitted up with our stinger suits, goggles, masks and flippers. I had to be signed off and on the boat owing to my slight asthma condition and also had a special ribbon placed on the top of my snorkel. Sitting on the small wet deck - a meshed floor which is about a foot underwater with a stool to sit on to attach your flippers, my diving buddy and I allowed ourselves a hug and then slid into the water.

* Photo by Reef Safari Photography
Twelve months ago, I wouldn't have been in the water. My preoccupation with my state of health and the fear of a potentially fast approaching death that doctors were failing to diagnose, kept me from doing such things. Now, eight months ex-lithium, my confidence has returned: my "have a go" takes me to the places it should but thankfully, not beyond. Knowing my limits doesn't mean being afraid to set them. As a result, I entered the water with confidence and for the next two hours, it never waned.

* Photo by Reef Safari Photography
Unfortunately for Sue, a large part of those two hours were a mix of frustration and uneasiness. She was never able to adapt to breathing through the snorkel successfully and the mask felt claustrophobic. However, she took my name all those years ago but she is forever a Gibbens and she wouldn't give up. Repeatedly I suggested we return to the pontoon but she refused to give in. Several times staff offered assistance refitting the mask and offering suggestions re her breathing technique but largely to no avail. In the end, she just hung in there, wholly and solely because she saw I was doing something she never thought I would and was enjoying it. Those lucky enough to know Sue well, understand this selflessness. You will have experienced it. If only the rest of us were as skilled and as dedicated to the well being and happiness of others.

It wasn't until the last half hour that things finally came right for her. Using a combination of holding the mask under the nose piece and short spells with her face under the water, we happened upon a quiet part of the snorkelling area which we will forever call "our spot" and saw all of the things she came to see. Beautiful corals, a wonderful array of fish, large and small and in all sorts of colours and just the peace of floating there, in some small way a part of this busy but silent world. Glimpses of her eyes through the accursed face mask were of wide eyes singing her joy. It was the end she deserved for all of her perseverance and her love for me.

Climbing back on board, we just had enough time to get dressed and make it to lunch before they closed up shop. It wasn't until we were tucking into some tiger prawns that we realised we had been in the water for two hours. The couple we were sitting with had even enquired of the dive team to make sure we were okay because we had been gone so long! The photos I took with the new camera don't do it justice: a combination of water that wasn't as clear as it can be, my inexperience with the camera and my inability to see the view screen without my glasses. Most of the time I was just pointing and using the audible beeps to tell when the camera had focused but couldn't tell what on. The fact I got any usable photos has amazed me.

The last 45 minutes flew by. Our twenty five minutes in the last ride of the day for the semi-sub was inadequate compared to the snorkelling but those that couldn't get wet would have known no different and therefore it was as much wonder to them as our wet experience was to us. Again the staff were understanding, holding up the departure of the craft whilst some old bloke, water logged and still with a slight shiver, ran off to the toilets for a pee. I thanked them profusely on behalf of my bladder.

Regretfully, it was all to soon over and their confident experience about time at the reef proved accurate.

The wind was fresher and our return direction taking us into the face of a larger swell rising above a metre, once we left the protected waters of the reef. The bar and tea making facilities were closed down and all passengers were asked to find a seat and stay in it. It was a hectic ride for an hour but we were so glad we were on the top deck. Staff were present with sick bags and they were required. Kids were lying with their heads in their parents laps, whilst their parents stoically fought back rising lunches. Young tourists, particularly the Chinese couples, struggled and lost - something intensely embarrassing to people immersed in a culture where such things are a loss of face. Towels, bags and hats became recepticals rather than asking a crew member for assistance and the designated container. Several made for the lower decks and the toilets, crashing into things as they went and risking injury despite urging from the staff to stay seated. Through it all, the staff were wonderfully patient and professional.

It should be said that patrons were warned before we left the reef and passengers urged to use the travel sickness medication or ginger tablets that were available, as the passage would be rough. A senior staff member told me, once the water got calmer, that most Asian passengers never do, despite broadcast warnings in their languages.

What of your intrepid correspondents, Pete and Sue?

Not one jot of problem. I opted for no meds as there was a potential clash with the one drug I still take and Sue has never been bothered by motion sickness. Maybe it was the open air? Maybe it was watching the horizon? Maybe it was not focussing on anything close, like reading? Maybe it was because we didn't gorge on the food, didn't drink a lot and scoffed a couple of packets of chips before the second crossing.? We talked and discretely laughed our way across the open water, enjoying the bumping and crashing.

There was one moment when our laughing lost its discretion. Sue is known as a bit of a muddle headed wombat at times. Just ask former work colleagues who went looking for her when it was her turn for bus duty or perhaps me when we searched up and down the street in Rockhampton for my umbrella cover when it was in her pocket and then her hand all along.

Retribution is a wonderful thing ... unless you are the one receiving it. With the crossing in full raucous swing, I suddenly realised I had lost my watch. We discussed where I might have left it. I racked my brain for an answer and then finally decided - with Sue's urging - that I should call over a staff member. Waving to the senior bloke on board, who had earlier in the day been so obliging when Sue was struggling with her snorkelling, he came quickly, via detours for a heavily swaying deck, drawing vomit bags as he came.

"No, no," I said, "I appear to have lost my watch." I explained the last time I remembered seeing it, gave him a detailed description of make and colour and style and asked whether they might radio back to the pontoon to find out if it had been found. He nodded and listened and agreed that would be possible.

"Before we do, " he calmly suggested, is this it?" and plucked it from the seat, between my legs, where I had placed it when I applied sunscreen before we left the pontoon.

Sue is still laughing. No doubt she will be for some time. It is a story that will rate along side her nun story, for those who know it. Those that don't, I will happily relate it in the pursuit of equity.

Most of the spewers left when we returned to Hamilton Island. I was amazed at their mettle at consuming caramel or chocolate or strawberry muffins after the water calmed in the lee of Whitsunday Island, on the last of their passage.

The last fifty minutes to Airlie, with less than sixty still with us, was quiet and peaceful as we watched the sunset and the perfect end to bucket list checkbox brimmed full of multiple ticks.

Ah, the serenity!

(Note: all photos, unless otherwise noted, by Peter Langston)

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