Dreams, every so often, do come true. I had been dreaming of diving the Great Barrier Reef for over 10 years and was close to fulfilling it in 2008, if it weren’t for “the end of a 7-year drought,” insane storms flooding highways and essentially shutting down the coast. The weather wasn’t much better this time but as we soon learned on the boat, “if it’s raining, the best place to be is underwater.”
We boarded the Kangaroo Express through the Cairns Dive Center, bidding farewell to our ladies for the night and promising to behave. We’d see them the following day after all and Claire needed to finish up some pool work before getting into the open water. The ride out was nothing short of terrifying, not so much for our lives, but for the sheer embarrassment of potentially being “that guy” who was hurling over the side of the boat. Eyes trained solely for the horizon, we mustered up the strength to keep our breakfast down and finally, the 90-minute ride ended with us boarding the much more stable Kangaroo Express, our home for the next 3 days.
After some safety briefings and getting checked into our rooms, and trying to sneak our way into the 11:00 dive, we learned we’d be spending our time between two dive areas: Mantaray Caye and East Timor on Moore Reef. Our first dive finally arrived and was essentially a refresher course and ultimately a way for divemaster Joel to gauge our skill
level. I guess he felt comfortable, because the 2nd dive was true freedom. On the first dive we saw a giant clam that was breathtaking and would be a regular sighting through the rest of our time. After the second briefing, we were allowed to go out on our own, exploring the massive reef system and bommies, scouting three turtles, anemones and tons of tropical fish. At first, it was scary being on our own but soon found our comfort zone and enjoyed each minute underwater. This would be our final dive of the day and we settled nicely into the buffet dinner, matched with goon we snuck on board, and got busy playing cribbage. We met a group of Americans and soon found out they knew how to play Euchre, and the next 2 days were spent perfecting our skills between dives.
The next day was busy, with 4 total dives. We started early and got on the 6:00am dive and then the 8:00 dive with a delicious breakfast in between. We probably even snuck in a game of cribbage, too. The highlight was the
giant clams underwater who would snap shut when we got close. Looking into their “mouths,” the flourescent blue and purple colors were brilliant. The girls arrived and went through their briefing and we were relieved to hear Claire had passed her pool test and could join us in the open water! Chris and I soon learned that for an additional $90 we would be able to get our Advanced Open Water certification and immediately jumped on the opportunity. This would allow us to go deeper, down to 30 meters once the course was complete. But this would take most of our remaining dives and introduce an element of “learning” to them.
First, we had to learn how to navigate, counting our kick-strokes each way in a current and realizing the difference. This was valuable information should we ever find ourselves in low-visibility situations. Next, we used compasses coupled with kick-counts to navigate directionally. With the help of the compass it was impossible to get severely lost. Most importantly, learning to constantly have a “mental check-in” to the boats whereabout as you were diving was hands-down the
most important lesson.
Our next lesson was “deep-water.” I had already been down to 40 meters on a dive in Belize, the Great Blue Hole, but that was a resort course and I had an instructor right next to me. This was to teach me how to do it on my own, and most importantly, to do it safely. Here, we learned of the shortened amount of time we had at depth due to compression. Taking a water bottle, a writing tablet and an egg down to 30 meters with us, we knelt in a circle for the lesson. First thing we noticed, is the once-full water bottle had shriveled up, a representation of what happens to our lungs. Next, we had to count in sequence, pointing to the writing tablet as fast as we could, where numbers had been scattered. It was harder than we thought and took at least 30% longer than it would have on the surface. This was an early warning sign of Nitrogen Narcosis, whose symptoms were similar to chasing down a beer with a shot to start of your night. You felt happy, funny and a little bit slow. And last, we cracked open the egg and watched as it formed into a perfect sphere with the white surrounding it. It floated along in an anti-gravitational, mesmerizing sway and we passed it around to each other. Again, this was
to make us understand the pressure our bodies were feeling at this depth. Heading towards the surface, we had to conduct a safety stop for 8 minutes, nearly twice as long as a normal dive, to give our bodies additional time to decompress.
And last but certainly not least, our last “learning” bit was an elective, and the obvious choice was underwater photography. We had already wanted to rent a camera anyhow so felt like we were coming out on top. And to make it even better, we had it for the next 3 dives, 2 of which we were allowed to do with the girls. Snapping away, we played around underwater together, posing and posturing, smiling and swimming. The last dive with the camera was definitely the best, as there were tunnels through the coral system that we could swim through. I noticed I was kicking a lot faster through these tight squeezes, probably because of fear of the unknown. But the fish life was abundant in these tunnels and schools swimming directly at you before parting was a sight to remember.
We also had to complete a night dive, which would be Erin’s first, and with torch in hands, we sunk down. Red Bass lurked at the
surface, attracted by the boats lights. We were told they also use our bright lights to hunt their dinners, so were eager to find some small fish to witness the Discovery Channel before our own eyes. Unfortunately, visibility and aquatic life was slim to none below. We did, however, spot a massive starfish and loads of shrimp, the latter easily spotted by their shiny protruding eyes that shine red when the flashlight hits them.
Our final two dives were both in somewhat dramatic fashion. The first, Piro was struggling to equalize so stayed on board and Erin and I continued. The visibility was so horrible, Erin and I were terribly lost, fighting against a current and unable to find the landmarks we had set out to see. It was kind of scary but when we surfaced we were fortunately close to the boat. The final dive, Chris, Erin and I went off with the plan of circling the bommies clockwise, hoping to spot a sea turtle we had spotted previously. Finding a wall, we swam along thinking we were circling. The coral formations and aquatic life were incredible and on any previous dive, I hadn’t seen anything like this. Considering we dove in only two spots each time, this should have been our first warning signal that something wasn’t right. Erin and Chris had run out of air earlier than me and as we had done in the past, they surfaced and began snorkeling until I got to 50 bars. At first, this was a good idea, but the top currents prevented them from being able to keep up and poor visibility didn’t help us keep our eyes on each other. Ten minutes later, when I surfaced, they were a good 100 yards away and I realized we hadn’t circled at all, but had instead followed a wall straight away from boat! The boat was pretty far but it was swimmable. Then, I saw a dingy from the boat speeding towards Chris and
Erin and once they were on board, all were looking and pointing down in the water. I swore that they had seen me once I surfaced and I swore we gave each other the “OK” signal but I thought, “Oh no, they think they lost me and set out the signal for help!” “I’m over here!” I shouted, but they definitely couldn’t hear me with choppy wave and heavy winds all around us. I was hoping they had seen me after the hand waving and as they seemed safe, I decided to start the swim back to the boat. They picked me up when I had gotten about halfway back but had 3 other divers in as well. Good, it wasn’t just us! Apparently, that’s who they were pointing at. Once on board, we decided never to split up again and soon learned the other 3 were diver rescue trainees who had also gotten astray underwater. Plus, they had breathed well below 50 bars on their tank, a big no-no in the diving world. Them getting reprimanded probably took a lot of heat off of us, but somehow I still felt guilty for not being more aware of the situation underwater.
In summary, I was happy to finally get to dive the Great Barrier Reef, finally get my advanced certification and hope to return someday. Hopefully the weather will behave slightly better, helping to increase visibility and giving us more time outdoors soaking up the rays. Until then, Belize is still the best diving I’ve done in my book!
Arriving back on land, our intentions were to hurry down to the Whitsunday Islands for a 2 day/2 night sail, but after the rough
seas we had just dealt with, no one was in condition for the 8 hour drive. Plus, Chris needed to work the next day, so we scrapped the sailing idea for a camper van, and after a good hot meal, we got a good nights rest and began our journey south to Brisbane the following day in time for Claire to catch her earlier flight back to the USA.
Picking up the van, we learned a valuable lesson when it comes to renting camper vans: Don’t book through an agent as they’ll certainly stick you with a Wicked camper, the bad boy of the lot. Wicked prides itself on being, well, wicked, and spray paints all of its vans in the most obnoxious fashion possible and allowing all users to graffiti to their heart’s content. Our lovely van, who had a giant image of a dog taking a poo on the side with the saying “Act of Dog” on it, and “Overworked and underpaid, overjerked and underlaid” spray painted on the back, stuck out like a sore thumb, eliminating all chances of any inconspicuous roadside camping. We all chuckled at the site of it but soon realized we’d be stuck with it for the next 9 days and hit the road. Fortunately, it had a cd player and music on a road trip is clutch.
The routine became pretty standard. We’d drive as much as possible, stop at a Mickey D’s for coffee and free wi-fi, drive some more, and find a camping spot for the night. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much in the way of “sights” along the way aside from a small
stroll to a waterfall and pit-stop to see kangaroos and koalas, it was pretty much straight highway. But, we had each other and Piro’s damn-good cooking, so each night we’d feast like Kings and Queens, take strolls on the beach and silently bitch and moan to ourselves every time we had to pack into the van for bed. The van is certainly comfortable enough for two, being about the size of a queen bed. Wicked hangs two cots by chains halfway down to pack four people inside. You can imagine the circus positions we dealt with to get in and out and so help me if anyone had to pee in the middle of the night. My wide Herrmann shoulders were not Erin’s friend as every time I’d turn over to get comfortable, I’d shoulder-check her in the bum, waking her to shouts and everyone else for that matter. The experience was ultimately one we’ll always remember but one in which we’re likely not to repeat. It’s just too damn crowded.
Along the way south, we learned that our friend Cat, whom we had met in Sayulita before the wedding, was arriving back home to her native Australia, and we changed the plan to stay at her mom’s house, Kay, with her. Arriving in Noosa, we parked in town and met Cat and Kay at the Surf Club for drinks, food, the Rugby World Cup Final, and most importantly, catching up. After dinner, we parked the obnoxia-van out front of Kay’s place and profusely apologized for having to park it there. Being the good sport that she is, she said in so many words “no problem, I just moved in here and I don’t really care what the neighbors think.” My kind of gal. This would be Claire’s last night with us as she had an early fight out of Brisbane. We
hugged and kissed her till it hurt and can’t wait to see her big smile and impersonation of a stanky face again.
Noosa is a really nice town with amazing beaches, a cute downtown and as Kay was allowing us to stay at her place, we made the very best of our time and cooked up great meals, relaxed in the hot tub and enjoyed getting caught up with Cat and meeting Kay. We spent all three days on the beach, our favorite being “Little Cove,” the final two days with surfboards in between our legs. The surf was small but we just enjoyed being out in the water. Our final night in town, Kay took us to an amazing pizza dinner which was BYO and we celebrated during the early sunset, gave each other sunset hugs in honor of Claire, and laughed raucously when Kay had the most graceful backward chair fall into the bushes anyone had ever seen. The company was delightful, the hospitality superb and we are forever grateful to Kay for letting us stay in her beautiful home, treating us to dinner, carting us around town to show us the sites and even letting us sleep in her bed. As always, we are humbled by the hospitality we receive as travelers and always try to pay it forward once home. Thank you again, Kay, we miss you and hope to see you again soon!
Cat decided to join us for the short jaunt down to Byron Bay, her old stomping ground. We packed up the van and head south, arriving in time for open mic night at the Arts Factory, a hostel cum brewery, and we settled into some sampling before heading out on the town. Next thing we knew, we were at the Cheeky Monkey, the legendary bar that we’re probably too old for now, and ended up dancing on the tables until the wee hours of the morning. We somehow managed to pull off some incognito camping in the outlying suburbs and the following afternoon during persistent rain, enjoyed a great brunch, a crappy movie, some well-sauced fish tacos, and wished Cat farewell as she boarded a bus back to Noosa. We are hoping to catch up with her again later in this trip when we get to Melbourne!
And so, the three of us continued south, with the ultimate destination of Sydney. We had a few pit-stops before arriving in Newcastle, the next biggest city to Sydney. Feeling that our drive was nearly (and finally) over, we decided to hit the town and had a killer Vietnamese dinner which also happened to be a BYO. With excitement in the air, I somehow managed to overserve myself and as we
attempted to walk into an Irish Pub for a night-cap before cramming into the van one last time, was immediately escorted back onto the sidewalk by Australia’s now-infamous over-steroided bouncers. Who would’ve thought sneaking goon into a bar would be such a bad idea?
We head back to Bondi the following morning for some afternoon surf, a great fish ‘n chips dinner and some tall brews at a German restaurant on the strip. The dirndl’s, traditional Bavarian-style dresses, were weak, but at least the beer was good. We finished out the final day with Piro with a morning surf, some Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwiches that were impossible to find, but so worth the search, an amazing lamb BBQ and some late night card playing. The following morning we had one last go at the Sydney Fish Market before dropping Piro off at the airport to big hugs and “see ya soons.” It was a great trip and we’re glad we have friends that are willing to come and play with us during our travels. Keeping the theme alive and well, we got desperately lost returning the wicked van and once we did, were relieved that we had just driven the equivalent of Vancouver to San Diego, vowing never to repeat it again. With coastal flights at $49, who could blame us?
Next up, the San Francisco of Australia, where the food scene drives the locals wild and even celeb chef’s Anthony Bourdain says it’s one of the best foodie cities in the world. We might just have to put old Bourdain to the test to see if he’s been telling the truth. Finally, we’re going to Melbourne!