Friday, July 30, 2010

Hartley's Crocodile Adventure

I have reserved a rental car for our two day trip up the coast from Cairns to Daintree and onto Cape Tribulation. The rental car lot is just a three block walk from our hotel and we are quickly on the road. Driving on the left side of the road is easier the second time around and little navigation is required since our route is straight north following Highway 1. It is less than a two hour drive to Daintree where we have reservations for the night so we have a leisurely day ahead. John shuffles through tourist pamphlets and tells me that he would like to go to Hartley's Crocodile Adventure Park. I tell him that it will probably be "lame," but that I am game! An hour later we pull into Hartley's parking lot, pay the $32.00 adult and $16.00 child entry fee and begin our crocodile adventure. We have tickets for the 2:00 P.M. river boat adventure and there are many other "shows" throughout the day. We spend the first hour walking the nature trails; observing lagoons filled with crocodiles, rocky enclosures of monitor lizards and bearded dragons, ponds with black swans and exotic waterbirds and an artificial enclosure of sleepy koala bears. The highlight for me is the "cassowary trail" and I fall in love with these exotic prehistoric birds. John tells me that they can eviscerate us with a swipe of their velociraptor like claws and I have no doubt. They are large and their claws are wicked; just like a velociraptor and with a fierce beak and a large horn upon their head. Their indigo blue and turquoise head feathers contrast with the long drooping blood red waddles and their iridescent black plumage shimmers. Beady eyes dart back and forth and they chortle and emit a deep vibration that sounds like a sub woofer. John is exceptionally good at reproducing sounds and he chortles back and soon the cassowaries and John are deep in conversation. I am not sure if the little girl watching is more fascinated by the cassowary or by John.

When we entered the park we were "warned" that going on the crocodile farm tour could be offensive to some people. I am offended by crocodile purses and shoes, but John reminds me that I eat meat and that these reptiles are farmed and not poached from the wild. We go on the tour and I take it in stride. The crocodiles here have a 3 year life span, much of it spent in the dark where they are quickly fattened and they spend their short life nose to nose with hundreds of mutually doomed crocodiles. Their environment is sterile and free from sharp objects, lest their valuable hide be damaged. The tour is interesting and enlightening.

It's time for our 2:00 P.M. crocodile river adventure and we cruise a loop in the river while the tired and venerable captain threads chicken heads onto a string, extending the delicacies out on a bamboo pole for the river crocodiles to jump for and devour. The crocodiles preform as expected and those of us on board applaud and take the expected photos. We race from this adventure onto the venomous snake show and then onto the crocodile wrestling show. A trainer in his mid 50's, who should know better, wades into the water and provokes an enormous crocodile. We hold our breath as the trainer takes risk after risk, baiting the crocodile with large chunks of meat and stepping out of harms way at the last second. The show is well choreographed and no blood is spilled but my blood pressure rises. We have spent nearly 5 hours here, but I insist on revisiting the cassowaries before we leave and John chortles his final goodbyes.

It is an hour further to Daintree and we pull into the tiny village at dusk. I ask directions to the Kenadon Home-stay cabins; we drive around the next bend and the woman mowing the enormous lawn, is expecting us. There are a half dozen cabins, all on stilts and facing out to the pastoral valley beyond where cows graze placidly. Ours is a sterile pre-fab cabin with a queen bed and three bunk beds. I take possession of the queen bed and John throws his belongings onto the bottom bunk. All is immaculate and I find milk, orange juice, bread and butter within the small refrigerator. Coffee and tea sit beside the electric water pot. We will be able to eat breakfast before our early morning departure on the Daintree River.

We leave our cabin and walk back towards the village to locate the Daintree River jetty where we will meet for our nature tour at 6:30 A.M. tomorrow morning. We find it easily and watch a family fishing off of the jetty. The young boy catches a river eel and we visit with the parents and an old man, tying up his boat. Multiple warning signs are posted prohibiting swimming unless one wishes to be a crocodiles dinner. It is dark when we walk from the jetty into town and the brush along side the road is alive with toads. John thinks they are frogs, but I flash back to Costa Rica and I instantly know that they are cane toads. John has a marvelous skirmish in the leaves trying to catch a toad on our way to dinner.

There is just one restaurant in the village and it adjoins the general store. The menu is minimal but we both enjoy the fried fish and chips.

Cairns at Leisure

It's a 15 minute walk from our hotel into the heart of the tourist district of Cairns and we have little on our agenda. The day is warm and slightly overcast and we eat lunch at an outdoor cafe on the corner of the center square. The giant fig tree dominates the square; it's "Little Shop of Horror's" tendrils and roots, creeping over the cement wall upon which people are sitting and enjoying the shade. We are not good shoppers, but poke into the many tourist shops and buy a few T-shirts for John and as gifts. The shops end and we cross over a busy boulevard and enter the park adjoining the beach. There are many interconnected swimming pools just inland from the beach and hundreds of people frolic in the shallow water or sunbathe on the adjoining sand or grass. We walk down to the harbor and drool over the incredible yachts in the slips and loop back around into town. We stroll past a drive through liquor store; amusing, and enter an air-conditioned mall. A fashion show is in progress and teen age girls are waking an improvised runway, modeling outfits that I surmise, they have put together. I am not impressed and feel embarrassed for the girls as they are ranked by the crowds applause.

On our walk back to our hotel, we pass other immense fig trees and I stop to take photos of the roots and tendrils. Another couple is taking photos, their cameras pointed high up towards the branches. I have been so focused on the bases of the trees that I have not looked up. There are thousands of flying foxes hanging like ripe fruits from the branches. We saw coveys of similar bats in the mangroves of Flores Island in Indonesia. I surmise that these Australian fruit bats are a foot to a foot and a half in length. The couple cautions us to watch out for bat guano missiles.

Back at our hotel, I do laundry and we have a reasonably good dinner at the hotel restaurant.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Lizard Island

We are anchored off of Lizard Island and the half moon beach beacons. It's time to leave our Spirit of Freedom dive boat and we divide into two groups, board the Zodiacs and motor to shore. It is a wet landing and we step barefoot from the boat into the water and wade a few steps to shore. Several years back, friends of ours spent a week camping on Lizard Island. They were flown in with all their supplies and enjoyed an idillic stay, snorkeling, hiking and relaxing. There is also a resort on the island where all inclusive prices start at $1500 per day per couple. The campers are not allowed on the resort premises and we will not trespass on resort property today.

As wonderful as the diving was, the equipment was cumbersome and claustrophobic and I enjoy the freedom of walking barefoot along the beach, fine white sand crunching between my toes. The morning is sunny and warm and we take tourist photos beside the Lizard Island Park sign and then follow Mossy inland along the boardwalk. The boardwalk meanders through the mangroves, the trees supported by spider like roots vanishing into sludgy brackish water. All is lush and quiet except for bird songs. We leave the mangroves and take an steep hike up to a view point stopping along the way to watch for lizards and to dine on lemon ants. Mossy demonstrates the technique and asks who would like to try one? Surprisingly, all the Japanese women are quick to volunteer and each in turn bites into the fat torso of an ant. John, not to be outdone, also bites off the torso to taste the lemony "nectar." I am not inclined to try this since I feel empathy for the ants and cannot imagine biting a living something in half. Everyone who eat an ant make a sour face and confers that the taste is bitter, if not lemony. The view from the top overlooks the resort and the bay with a few yachts anchored offshore.

We walk back down towards the beach in the direction of the airstrip. It is late morning and the day is heating up and we are lucky to see one of the Monitor Lizards that this island is known for. It is nearly three feet long and just off to the side of the trail. We are told that these lizards carry a bacteria in their saliva similar to that of the Komodo dragon and that if bitten, one must seek treatment or risk serious infection. John and I doubt the truth of this information and just want to catch and cuddle one.

We wait for our plane in the shady open air "terminal" alongside the airstrip. 30 minutes later, two small planes land, carrying the 20 passengers that will board the Spirit of Freedom for the next leg of it's dive journey. John and I have been advised to sit on the right hand side of the plane and we are second in line to board. The plane will accommodate 12, but there are only 8 of us on board and John and I find seats in the second row on the right side of the plane. The return flight takes two hours and we fly low along the barrier reef. The aerial view is breathtaking; intoxicating turquoise water so transparent and clear that one can see the intricate patterns of the coral below the surface. Where the reef is shallow, ribbons of waves break and tiny islands dot the ocean scape. John is exhausted and his eyes close in spite of the beauty below. I lean over him, absorbing the view and taking many jiggly photos.

Good Bye Spirit of Freedom

The morning is a flurry of activity as we all prepare to depart the Spirit of Freedom. John and I have had a marvelous time, but I am ready to put my feet on dry land and I am looking forward to hiking on Lizard Island. After breakfast we all meet on the sun deck for group photos and to say good bye to the crew.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Minke Whales

The morning starts off very much the same as yesterday with a 6:30 A.M. wake up call and a cold breakfast in the dining room. During the night we have motored to Pixie Pinnacle and it is here that I will make my deep water dive for my advanced certification. I am feeling more confident than yesterday and with Lozza at my side, we descend slowly to 90 feet and kneel on the sandy bottom. She pulls out a piece of fruit and writes "What is this?" on her writing board? Yesterday, during my buoyancy test, she had me swimming and balancing apples and I guess that the piece of fruit is an apple? She slices it open with her dive knife and I see that it is actually a tomato. Next she pulls an egg out of her vest and cracks it open and I am surprised to see the yoke and egg white float intact. Lozza bats at the floating mass several times and the egg white continues to hold its shape around the yoke. She gives it a hard whack and it breaks apart and small fish come in to feed on the particles. Except for the distortion of colors and shapes, I feel little difference between this 90 foot dive and the 50' to 70' dives that I did yesterday.

We ascend 30 feet and swim slowly around the pinnacle. Lozza points out camouflaged fish that I would otherwise miss. We see anemones caressing clown fish and stag horn corral with tiny angel fish swimming within the protection of the coral branches. Dozens of garden eels poke their heads from the sand, swaying in the current. There are multitudes of colorful reef fish and a sea snake makes its appearance. Incredible.

We surface and enjoy a hot breakfast while the boat motors to Two Towers. This is where we hope to see the Minke whales. For 6 weeks each year, the Minkes come to the warm waters of the barrier reef to breed and to have their calves. Mossy gives us our instructions for this dive site; we suit up, take the giant step off the back of the boat and descend. Lozza has other required duties during this dive so John and I team up with Mossy as a dive trio and we descend and swim towards the two pinnacles. We spiral around the coral encrusted pinnacle, winding slowly up, absorbing the beauty all around. After exploring both pinnacles, we return to the mooring line where we have been instructed to "hang" and wait for the Minke whales to come to us. Apparently, the Minke whales like the sound of the engine of the boat and are curious about the divers and often come to investigate. 20 of us, hang on the mooring line and wait. We are staggered, holding the mooring line, 20 to 30 feet below the surface and beneath the boat. All I can see is open blue water and the odd fish that has ventured up from the coral below. Many minutes pass and I check my dive calculator to determine my remaining air. I estimate that I have at least 15 more minutes remaining and wait impatiently, peering off into the empty blue. Mossy taps my shoulder and I look in the direction that he is pointing and see a mere shadow of what might be a whale. Several minutes later and perhaps 30 feet away another whale glides past . There is no mistaking this for a shadow and our excitement escalates. Over the next 5 to 10 minutes we see other whales, or perhaps the same one circling the boat? Soon, two whales come into view, but they keep their distance; and then another whale appears and swims beneath us, less than 15 feet away. My remaining air has reached the 50 bar mark and I must begin my ascent, but I know that I will be designing a Minke Whale charm in the near future.

I have worked up an appetite and eat heartily from the lunch buffet; hot mushroom soup, an array of cold salads and a chicken rice pasta. Immediately after lunch I move to a far corner to read my dive manuel and fill out the chapter tests. This is feeling more like work than a vacation, but I am no longer anxious about the diving. As I read, the boat is motoring onto Rod's Rock, our next dive location.

We will have the ultimate Minke experience at Rod's Rock, but as we go through our pre-dive check, John shows me his dive computer and we note that his tank is not completely topped off. I ask John if we should ask the support team to refill his tank but John dismisses me. We descend with our separate buddies; me with Lozza and John with Craig, an experience diver from Kodiak Alaska. We all begin with the usual exploration of the site, following Mossy's pre-dive instructions, poking into crevices and admiring the abundance of marine life. Each dive is more incredible than the last, partially because I am more relaxed and confident and able to focus less on the mechanics of staying alive, and more on the wondrous surroundings. After exploring Rod's Rock we all gather at the mooring line again to "hang" and wait for the Minke whales. I scan the line trying to pick out John from the many other divers; yellow flippers, black wet suit, crew cut? I don't see him, but try to relax certain that he is safe with his dive partner. A whale appears from one direction; a minute passes and another two whales emerge from the abyss and glide below us. There is a tap on my shoulder and I turn to see John. My heart wells with relieve and joy; we are together and will share this incredible whale encounter. John points to his dive computer and I see that he is entering the red zone. We look at my gauge and I have plenty of air; considerably more than I will need. He mimes that he would like to use my reserve air so that he can stay down and watch the whales. Naturally, I offer my emergency regulator to him, delighted that I have air to spare and that we may share this very safe time together, holding onto the mooring line, just 30 feet below the surface. No sooner does John have my emergency regulator in his mouth, than Mossy, taps him on his shoulder and motions him to release the regulator. I was hopeful that this would be allowed, but am not surprised at the restriction. After all, the reserve air is to be there in case of an emergency, and although our conditions toad were relatively safe, I understand the protocol. John's computer dial moves into the red, but he stays down several minutes longer and watches as several whales swim within 10 feet of us. He reluctantly surfaces.

After we are all on deck, John tells me that he continues to watch the whales from the surface; taking huge breaths and plunging down, snorkel style.

Our fourth and final dive for the day is a drift dive. This is a dive that I must complete for my certification. We suit up and it is a challenge to step from the back of our dive boat into the rubber zodiac while wearing the heavy dive equipment. With considerable assistance, I manage to board and not capsize the smaller boat. The zodiac takes us up current to the dive site where we begin our dive.There are 6 divers in each zodiac; three on each side and we are to flip backwards over the edge of the zodiac to enter the water. At the count of three, all three divers on one side, must enter the water in unison. If one hesitates for even a second, the other divers will be bobbing to the surface and a collision of dive tanks may happen. Lozza asks me how I feel about the upcoming exercise? I tell her and my other dive companions that doing this is just about the last thing that I want to do; but that I will do it. Someone counts to three and I call out to HAULT! A minute later, one of the support team, Clara, moves to sit beside me and tells me that she will push me backwards at the count of three. I am apprehensive but grateful that the action is now out of my control. I hear the countdown and I am pushed over backwards. It feels no different from the giant step off the back of the boat and I surface in unison with the other two divers from my side of the boat.

We descend to 58' and catch the drift current. We are a group of four; myself, Lozza, John and Cliff. We drift effortlessly along the edge of a reef with all the wonders of this environment scrolling past us. The current is slow and it is easy to slow our progression when something of interest catches our eye. The stag horn coral is plentiful and I am again enthralled by the miniature angel fish taking refuge within the protective branches. Colorful reef fish are abundant, but again, the clown fish caressing the anemones catch my eye. It is no wonder that Disney choose this endearing fish to be a star in one of his movies.

One of the requirement for my dive certification is to release the emergency "sausage." As our drift dive nears its finish, Lozza motions us into cove apart from the current and we kneel on the sandy bottom. She shows me how to fill the orange dive balloon with air from my regulator. As intended, it pops to the surface, and if this were a true emergency, would signal for help. I take a final swim around a large stag horn coral swarming with miniature angel fish; say my goodbyes to this underwater wonderland and reluctantly surface.

Tonight is our last night onboard and after hot showers we all meet on the top deck for a barbecue. It is a balmy evening and we are moored off of Lizard Island. We lost a few guests due to sea sickness, but those of us still standing have a common shared experience and the conversation flows freely. The wine also flows freely, since there will be no diving in the morning. I am cheered, toasted and presented with my advanced dive certification card. (with reminders that I must turn in my final chapter reviews in the morning.)

When the night air cools, we descend to the inside dining room for more festivities and games. Lozza has been a wonderful dive instructor and I want to give her a piece of my jewelry. I pull her aside and as subtly as possible, spread a collection of my sterling silver ocean charms upon the table. She is delighted and chooses the spread tentacle octopus neckpiece. John is absorbed in a game of Mexican Train with 6 or 7 other passengers and the Japanese group is also celebrating at an adjoining table. One of the Japanese women comes over to take a peek at my jewelry and asks the price of my angler fish with a pearl? She wants to purchase it and her friend wants another one exactly like it. Happily, I am wearing a second one and unhook it from my neck for her friend to purchase.

The celebratory evening is a wonderful closure to a remarkable dive experience.

The Cod Hole

A cheerful voice announces that it is 6:30 A.M. and I am quickly upstairs for the first breakfast. I down a cup of coffee and eat some yogurt and fruit. We will be served a hot breakfast later, after our first morning dive. At 7:00 A.M. we are all on the dive deck and Mossy explain the logistics of our Cod Hole dive. I have seen the photos of the giant Potato Cod online and I am looking forward to meeting them eye to eye. My advanced dive classes will start this afternoon and until then I am Mossy's dive buddy. I swim behind him around large coral stacks, richly encrusted with thousands of species of pristine coral and teeming with life. I feel extremely privileged to be having this fish eye view of this underwater wonderland but it is a visual overload and I can't absorb or comprehend all that I am seeing. We reach an open sandy bottom area where several large Potato Cod are "hanging" out. They are not as enormous as I expected; but they are wonderful, weighing several hundred pounds each, spotted and with grumpy personable faces.

After a full hot breakfast we are ready for our second dive of the day. This dive is also at the Cod Hole, but this time Mossy will feed the cod and we are instructed to swim in conga line fashion, one diver after the other, until we reach the site. When we reach the site we will sit in a large circle on the sandy bottom and wait for Mossy. So as not to excite the cod prematurely, he will come a few minutes later with the large metal box containing the fish food. Mossy will not be my dive buddy on this dive; and in retrospect, regrettably, I really didn't have a dive buddy since we were all to swim in a continuous line, following one another and to stay together in the circle. On this dive, I again have difficulty submerging and by the time I manage to get below the surface most of the divers are well ahead of me. I struggle to catch up but continue to have difficulty adjusting my buoyancy and fall further behind. I feel panicky and my accelerated breathing makes me especially buoyant and I continue to rise towards the surface. Just when I am certain that I will have to abort the dive, a diver swims up behind me, grabs my hand and pulls me back down. I am relieved and grateful to see that it is John and he guides me into the circle of divers waiting on the sandy bottom. John holds my hand tightly and the woman on my other side grasps my other hand. It is challenging to stay kneeling in one position, made all the more difficult since both of my hands are constrained and I feel like an unbalanced buoyant top. We have been cautioned not to wave our fingers around, lest the cod or the snapper take a bite of our extremities.

When Mossy swims into the center of the circle, the Potato Cod gather excitedly. They know that food is inside the box. Mossy reaches in, pulls out a tidbit of food and releases a morsel in front of each one of us. The enormous cod come within inches of each of our masks to swallow the food, so we have a remarkable, fish eye view of these amazing fish. I wonder how old these huge fish are; how many years it has taken them to grow to these proportions? I will think twice before ordering fish and chips, and only when I am certain that the fishing is sustainable.

We have another elaborate buffet lunch and afterwards, Lozza pulls me aside to discuss the dives that I must complete for my advanced certification. As amazing as the Cod feed was, I remember the panicky feelings I had, left behind on our conga line swim. I am almost in tears and want to forego my advanced dive certification but she is patient and encouraging and ultimately, I am too embarrassed to call it off. I visualize three days from now, still being alive and having completed the certification and I imagine that John will be proud of me. Before I know it, we are suiting up again and I take the dreaded giant step off the back of the boat and submerge, to learn buoyancy control. Lozza teaches me how to regulate my buoyancy simply by inhaling and exhaling. 60 feet below surface, she has me swimming through hula hoops with breath control. When sign language fails, we communicate via a small white board and I soon grasp the techniques necessary to keep myself at at consistent depth.

The 4th dive of the day is to learn navigation via the compass. I am not confident that I can preform these skills on dry ground, in bright light and with reading glasses; but I somehow manage to swim 10 meters in one direction, set my compass and return to the same spot. Again, using the compass she has me swim 10 meters, adjust 90 degrees, and repeat this until I have navigated a square and have returned to my starting point. I suspect that she cut me a little slack, but I pass and she cheers me on!

Diving is exhausting. Simply suiting up with all the cumbersome equipment is exercise enough and I have literally been swimming through hoops today. We must complete one more dive today, a night dive, and I am not looking forward to it. Lozza informs me that I must stay below for 20 minutes and preform some simple tasks. I agree, but request that we surface after the 20 minutes. I expect the dive to be frightening but flood lights from the boat illuminate a vast area over the rear of the boat. We descend via the mooring line with our torches aglow. Since my buoyancy dive class, I feel that I have turned a corner and I have much more confidence and a better sense of my equipment. I am surprised at all that I can see and quickly adjust to the magic of the night. There are animals out tonight that are not out during the day. Lozza shines her light into crevices; illuminating unusual creatures at every turn. Earlier today, I was overwhelmed by the visual intensity of the reef; but at night, one can focus on each crevice individually. We see eels, scorpion fish, giant clams and sleeping white tipped reef sharks. After 20 minutes, Lozza leads me back to the mooring line and we ascend. In retrospect, it was the most magical of dives and I wish that I had stayed below until my air was depleted. John ascends 20 minutes later with tales of mystery, imagination and carnage. The night dive was also his favorite and he tells me that wherever he directed his torch, an otherwise camouflaged fish would become a target of prey.

I have completed 5 dives today and I feel empowered and exhausted. Except for the family with the two daughters, most everyone is at dinner tonight and over their sea sickness. One of the daughters was so ill and dehydrated that the family was motored to Lizard Island in the afternoon and flown back to Cairns. Dinner is incredible; and I don't think that my perception is only due to my exertion. We dine on Alaskan salmon, curried rice noodles and bock choy. I am grateful that the fish on tonights menu is not cod.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Spirit of Freedom

The Spirit of Freedom van picks us up at our hotel promptly at 11:05 A.M. It is a short drive to the Cairns dock where we board the Spirit of Freedom dive boat. The boat is lovely; 122 feet long, beautifully maintained and accommodates up to 24 passengers in 11 cabins. We have a brief orientation and meet the 11 crew members onboard; all with specific duties to make our three night dive experience pleasant and rewarding. We meet our fellow passengers, half of whom are Japanese and speak little English. Also among the passengers is one family with two teen age girls, age 17 and 19. John immediately introduces himself to the girls and although they are somewhat shy, I have no doubt that John will win them over by the end of the trip. John and I are in separate state rooms, each of us sharing a quad room. I bunk with 2 of the Japanese woman, the third Japanese woman apparently unable to make the cruise. John shares a room with three other men; one Canadian, one Japanese and one from the Netherlands.

A gourmet buffet lunch is served as we motor north towards our first dive site. Lunch is an array of cold salads, a huge platter of plump shrimp and a hot chicken curry with rice. All is delicious, but I refrain from overeating since the ocean is a bit rough and I know that I have two dives ahead. I have committed to taking my advanced dive certification on this trip. It has been nearly two years since I earned my PADI certification and I have not had the opportunity to dive since. My rational is that by taking the advanced certification, I will get personal attention and feel more secure during the dives. Lozza is my instructor and after lunch we go over the dive manual, discuss the upcoming dives and she assigns me reading and homework. Lozza is a pretty and dynamic woman in her mid 30's and I like her immediately. Over the next several days, she will patiently instruct, encourage and push me through the certification process. Thank you Lozza!

By 3:30 P.M. we arrive at our first dive site and "Mossy" heads the orientation on the dive deck. I surmise that he is in his mid 30's; witty, personable and commanding. We are each assigned a bench station where we will store our gear and behind which our tanks and B.C.D.’s are secured. John and I are renting most of our equipment and it is on this first test dive that our equipment is assigned, wet suits fitted, weight belts adjusted, etc. Once everyones equipment is assigned and sorted, we suit up for our first dive. The equipment is cumbersome, the tank extremely heavy and I am very anxious. I maneuver carefully down the rear steps of the boat, put my regulator into my mouth, hold my mask in place and take the dreaded long step off the back of boat. All goes relatives well; air flows through my BCD as promised and my mask doesn't fog or leak, but submerging is problematic and I have difficultly deflating my BCD and getting below the surface. Mossy is both John's and my dive buddy and once I am below the surface, I relax and I swim happily along side of Mossy, secure it the thought that should something go awry, he will be able to assist me. John is completely comfortable in this wonderland of lush coral and brilliant fish. There will be a second dive at this same spot at 6:00 P.M. John tells me that he doesn't want to be my dive buddy and I agree whole heartedly. I want him to be buddies with an experienced diver and not be dependent on me for his safety. John goes on the 6:00 P.M. dive and I take a hot shower and read over my dive manuel. It is nearly dark when he surfaces and I am waiting anxiously on deck when John finishes his second dive.

As soon as everyone is onboard; and there is a strict protocol to insure that no one is left behind in "open water," the boat pulls up anchor and begins motoring north. We will motor all night and the majority of our dives will be at the edge of the ribbon reef, off shore of Lizard Island. The seas are a little rocky and several of the guests are looking green. The two girls have disappeared below and we learn that the older girl is very sea sick. Mossy passes around sea sick tablets, encouraging those still standing to take them. John and I are not usually prone to sea sickness, but we split a precautionary two tablet dose and enjoy our dinner. Thick and tender steaks, mashed potatoes and salad are on the menu. I am a little disappointed that only a third of the passengers are well enough to eat dinner tonight. John would have enjoyed playing card games with the girls, but many of the passengers are sick in their cabins or filling the bio degradable paper bags with vomit and chumming the fish at the back of the boat.

Transition - Desert Outback to Coral Reef

After nearly two weeks of winter weather, we are thrilled with the balmy weather in Cairns. John literally dances down the steps from the plane and across the blacktop of the Cairns airport. The air is warm and humid and promises tropical adventure. It is only a $20 taxi ride from the airport to the Discovery Cairns Hotel and we are deposited at our hotel within minutes. Our reservations are in order and we quickly put our luggage into our room and head into town. We have shed our sweaters and jackets and with a spring in our steps, walk the 15 minutes to the heart of the tourist district. A gigantic fig tree graces the center square, it's roots climbing up and over the walled cement enclosure that presumably confines it. Couples sit upon the wall, enjoying the magic of the evening. It is 8:30 on a Sunday evening, but the shops in this area are still open and we poke into several and purchase an appliqued, cut out, butterfly blouse to take back for Alisha. We choose an outdoor cafe for dinner; invitingly ambient and adjacent to the art museum. We dine on their raised outdoor patio, enjoying excellent food. At 9:00 P.M. the shops start to close and the parade of people diminishes as we finish our late night dinner.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Laid Back in Alice

We’ve had an intense several days so a leisurely morning is most welcome. At 9:00 A.M. I tiptoe down to the dining room and find it closing, but am able to scrounge a cup of coffee and I sit and write. I wake John at 11:00 A.M. and we arrange for a taxi to take us to the Desert Park Museum; a $20 taxi ride as well as a $20 entrance fee. There are no local busses and we must wait an hour for our taxi.

We have heard good things about the Desert Park Museum, but are disappointed. We stroll the designated walkways, dutifully reading the information signage with as much enthusiasm as we can muster. The kangaroos are even lethargic, hopping away only when John steps a little too close for their comfort. We watch the park’s 20 minute information film, a very amateuristic overview that leaves us more confused than informed. To give some credit, the nocturnal house is well presented and we spend an hour viewing the dimly illuminated habitats in search of spiniflex mice and other illusive and endangered rodents. Their reptile exhibit is within the nocturnal house and included in their collection is a habitat housing 3 thorny devil lizards. We are happy to have a second, more leisurely opportunity to watch these amazing camouflaged armored lizards. We end our visit at the bird show, watching birds of prey soar in from the sidelines, snatching tidbits of meat mid air.

This is the weekend for the annual Alice Spring Show, which is equivalent to a county fair. We catch a return shuttle from the Desert Park Museum and request to be dropped off at the “Show.” It is exactly 5:00 P.M. when we enter the gates and we are delighted that admission is free after five. The exhibit halls are beginning to close but we have time to spend 30 minutes wandering through local exhibits of photography, needlework, and baking. Another hall houses the vendors and nonprofit booths. John and I both halt at a table where a magazine is open to a marine iguana article. The title of the article is “Imps of Darkness.” It takes us a moment to grasp that all the pamphlets on this table are about Creationism and we gather up a pile of brochures answering questions about natural selection, continental drift and “How did Noah fit all the animals onto his arc?” We read these later and find them well written, thought provoking and somewhat amusing.

The exhibit halls close and John and I wander outside to the carnival. There is an excited energy in the air as dusk descends and the bright lights of the amusement rides flash and twirl. This is a big weekend for the locals of Alice Springs and the young people are out in droves. There are groups of both white and Aboriginal youths, and the air is thick with the aroma of sweat mingled with cotton candy, corn dogs and popcorn. One can quickly loose $5.00 at any number of arcade games and John plays one ball toss. John and I are an oddity, but John’s self confidence allows him to boogie freely to the music while a group of young Aborigines children stand by watching shyly.

An hour later, on our way out, we pass a boxing arena. A garish canvass tent is erected and a weather worn hawker stands on a wooden platform above the tent’s doorway, loud speaker in hand, beckoning the public to challenge the fighters. Also standing upon the sagging wooden platform and wearing skimpy satin yellow shorts and capes are the fighters, strutting and flexing their muscles and doing their best not to shiver in the chill of the night. John wants to watch the fights and although it may not be my thing; I understand that he boxes at home and that this is important to him. It is long past dark and very cold and the hawker is doing an excellent job of gathering a crowd. I wish for the selection of challengers to be quick, but this is a carnival and the hyped up selection takes over an hour. 6 fighters are matched with 6 local challengers and the tent doors open. There is a frenzy of excitement and John and I go with the flow of bodies, pay our $15.00 each and find a place to watch, standing in the red dirt, at the edge of the ring. There are slightly over 100 spectators and all of us get a prime viewing position. There are 6 fights, 3 rounds each and John is enthusiastic and cheers the contenders on. The next hour passes slowly for me; but no one is seriously hurt or terribly humiliated and after the show, we exit the tent and head off to find a taxi back to our hotel. John pleads with me, asking to stay for the second fight and be a challenger, but I insist that we return to town. The traffic exiting the show grounds is bumper to bumper and there are no taxis in sight. I eventually spot one pulling out of a parking space and negotiate a flat rate. As it turns out, our taxi driver was off duty, also watching the fight, so our fare is an unexpected bonus for him. He drops us at the Bo Jangles Saloon, a colorful eating establishment and pub. I treat John to a steak and I order the less expensive vegetarian lasagna; not the best choice in a Town like Alice. John’s steak is excellent the wood burning stove, adjacent to our table, takes the chill off of me.

We have another leisurely day to spend in Alice Springs; more time than we wish for. Our flight to Cairns is not until 5:30 P.M. After checking out of the hotel we walk the 15 minutes into town and enjoy flat white coffees and egg, cheese and bacon sandwiches at the Red Dog CafĂ©. It is Sunday and their version of a craft market stretches several blocks along the main promenade. Knitted pot holders, commercial jewelry, soaps, scarves and the scarce, artist made product, are for sale. The day is overcast with a slight drizzle and I am happy that I don’t have a booth here. I believe that if I did, I might blow the shoppers out of the water, but John tells me I would just get robbed. I know that when I travel, I am usually disappointed in the lack of quality souvenirs to purchase. There are virtually no good quality sterling silver or gold, kangaroo, camel, platypus or thorny devil charms for sale in the entire town. One sees a smattering of poorly designed and hollow charms, but nothing that a well heeled traveler would want to take home as a memento. I have no desire to live in Alice Springs, but I believe that I could fill a much needed niche here.

With time to kill, John and I walk into a market in search of lemon myrtle spice. It takes two markets to locate it, but we leave with a small, $9.00 tin in our possession. It’s now time to catch the shuttle to the airport for our 5:30 P.M. flight to Cairns.

Way Out Back Safari - Day 3; Watarrka to Alice Springs

We have the luxury of sleeping in until 7:00. The coffee is passable and while the men eat cold cereal and toast; Elizabeth wraps leftover chicken and veggies in foil and places the packets in the fire. She and I enjoy these leftovers for breakfast and are well fortified for our climb up through Watarrka, (Kings Canyon.)

The King Canyon trek is 7 kilometers and the initial climb is termed “heart attack hill.” I make the climb easily with a slow and steady pace. The rain has cleared during the night and the morning is sunny and mild. We hike through the towering, red rock canyon walls, pass through gaps and crevices and traverse open plateaus. The vistas are breathtaking, as is the hike, demanding many up’s and down’s along the way. K7After reaching the top plateau, we descend a wooden stairway, several hundred meters down into a canyon oasis lush with palms and a flowing creek. Following the boardwalk path, we reach a large swimming hole, rest upon the rocks and enjoy a snack of chocolate chip biscuits. John edges crab like around the sheer ledge of the swimming hole, sure footed and testing his climbing skills. I consider the possibility that he may slip and fall into the icy water; but know that this would only result in his embarrassment, not in injury, and I watch with pride and amusement.

Our out back adventure ends tonight and we have over 350 kilometers left to travel. Before starting the long drive back to Alice Springs, we stop for lunch and “fire up the Barbie.” “Mystery bags” and hamburgers are on this noon’s menu. I pass on the “mystery bags,” (sausages,) opting for an open faced cheese-burger piled high with grilled onions, peppers, and tomatoes.

Much of the trip back is in 4 wheel drive, along a well graded dirt road, a wide scar of red slicing through the sparse landscape. Australian oak trees and coolabah thrive in this flat, dry land. These oak trees look nothing like our California oaks; the young ones, narrow and torpedo shaped, have roots that shoot straight down many meters in search of ground water. Having reached water, the trees grow round in maturity. Low grasses and shrubs blanket the burnt orange landscape, the brush a varying pallet of dusty green, teal and olive. Tony spots a flock of black cockatoos in the distance and maneuvers our land cruiser and trailer up and over the raised dirt shoulder, navigating around the brush for us to get a closer look. The flock is absorbed in foraging for seeds on the ground and we get quite close. When they take flight, to the safety of a coolabahs grove, their tail feathers flair and we glimpse a brilliant splash of red.

Our final stop is at Jim’s place, another cattle station where we have the dubious honor of meeting, ________, the singing dingo. ______ is now in old, bad tempered and retired. We are warned to keep our distance. With our trip close to an end, I ask Elizabeth and David the appropriate amount to tip our guide, Tony. They inform me that tipping is not expected or appropriate and that he might feel embarrassed. If I wish to give him anything, they suggest a bottle of wine or small gift. I have brought a few sterling silver charms along with me and I discretely pull out a bearded dragon on a chain and tuck it in my pocket.

We arrive back at our Alice Springs hotel at 6:30 P.M. John and I are the first to be dropped at our hotel, All Season’s Oasis’. Our two bags are quickly off loaded and we say our awkward goodbyes. I thank Tony and hand him the silver bearded dragon charm. He looks a little confused, but I explain that I have made it and his features soften and he gives me a hug.

Way Out Back Safari - Day 2

Tony wakes us before dawn so that we will have time to break camp and drive to the overlook where we hope to watch the sunrise over Kata Tijuta. It is freezing cold and he has started a welcome fire, but with the time constraint, breakfast consists of only cold cereal and bad coffee. Sugar and milk do little to camouflage the bitter taste, but I am at least awake enough to roll up my swag. We drive 30 minutes to the overlook positioned half way between Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tijuta, (the Olgas) and follow a boardwalk path uphill to a vista point to await the sunrise. Dawn creeps in quietly and the two immense rocks change colors gradually; a spectacular sight of morphing colors and velvety shadows; purple, salmon, pink, orange and red. Visually satiated, we drive to the base of Kata Tijuta for a 7 kilometer hike through the “Valley of the Winds.” Except for the chilling cold and harsh winds in exposed gaps, this morning’s hike is my favorite. The sky is clear of clouds, adding to the chill factor, but the morning sunlight dramatizes the rock formations. John is layered in a capalini, a T-shirt, a flannel and his windproof jacket but is uncomfortably cold in spite of the exertion required for the hike. Two hours into the climb we stop at a spectacular vista and Tony dolls out granola bars and oranges, a welcome mid-morning snack. It is only now that we spot one other group of hikers. Tony has us on a strict schedule, which keeps us away from the throngs of other hikers. The hike takes us 3 ½ hours and we enjoy private breathtaking vistas.

It is 11:30 A.M. when we return to the parking area, now filled with tour busses and 4 wheel drive vehicles. We retrace our drive back through the Uluru resort area on route to tonight’s campsite. Elizabeth and I both wish for a real cup of coffee and while Tony fills the Land Cruiser with petro, we buy flat white coffees and snacks at the Uluru resort center. An hour later, we stop at Curtin Springs station and break for a picnic lunch. We team together and again make sandwiches and I wander the back sections of this immense station, admiring the farm machinery and a few loaded road trains. A road train is a long chain of flat cars, loaded and hitched together and powered by a Semi-Truck engine; an Australian phenomena.

By late afternoon, cloud bursts dampen the landscape and the sky has grown ominously grey. Tonight’s campsite will be near Kings Canyon National Park but we need more fire wood before we make camp. Tony veers off the paved road, in search of Mulga wood. He finds a suitable grove and John morphs into the Karate Kid, uprooting rotting trees with one kick and jumping on the downed branches to break them into manageable pieces. Tony loads the wood atop the trailer with cigarette in hand.

We arrive at a campground around 5:00 P.M. and all take showers before our planned drive out to our private campsite. It has rained heavily here and the ground is sodden and muddy.

After our showers, Tony expresses concern about the weather; that if it continues to rain during the night, we might not be able to drive out in the morning. Elizabeth is also concerned about the rain and Tony informs us that we may choose to stay in one of the permanent tents belonging to Connections Tour. Somewhat disappointed, but agreeable to the consensus, I agree to this solution. Connections has an empty site on the edge of the campground consisting of a half dozen small tents surrounding a screened in cooking and dining tent. John and I choose one small tent, equipped with cots and mattresses and unroll our sleeping bags. Tony starts a fire which is soon blazing and we team together to cut vegetables to duplicate last night’s vegetable stew. Tony busies himself preparing the chicken with lemon myrtle, his bottle of port close by to assist him in his culinary magic. All is cooked in cast iron pots nestled in the coals of the fire. Dinner is exceptional again; the lemon myrtle spices in the chicken a unique flavor that we all marvel at. Tony has planned a second course and after dinner, he holds a kangaroo tail over the fire, burning the hair off the hide. He then wraps the tail in foil and buries it in the coals. I surmise that he is cooking this delicacy for the benefit of John and John is politely determined to stay awake until the tail is cooked. I turn in before the sampling, but can hear their muffled talk from the confines of my tent. John comes to bed an hour later, not entirely impressed with the flavor and texture of kangaroo tail; extremely oily and sinewy.