It was a real relief to leave Cairns – Bohemia was getting to feel just plain strange, and I spent my last evening there in a one-sided drunk conversation (me listening, him talking) with a truck driver called Kevin who had recently crashed his truck and decided to come to Cairns for two weeks to drink himself silly. He was a very friendly bloke with hands like hams and a big red nose from all the beer he’d been drinking, but it was one of those conversations that worries you slightly because you’re not sure where it’s going to end, and it ended pretty much where any drunk conversation with a stranger has recently with words such as ‘Bush’, ‘Blair’, ‘Howard’, ‘F*ckers”, ‘Oil’, and phrases such as ‘This world is going to hell’. Strange how if you talk for long enough you end up coming to the conclusion that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and yet here we all still are – goes to show how much those Jehovah’s Witnesses know. I’ve heard some real gems while sharing a beer with a stranger, and such is the nature of the beast that it often takes a short while to recall them – in Cambodia I was talking with an American about tourists from different places and how some were very different from each other. I made a remark about chalk and cheese, and he paused for a moment before saying “Yah…. chocolate cheese…”.
I’m in Byron Bay, a well-known, hippyish town about eight hundred kilometers north of Sydney – this is my last stop before returning to Sydney and then on to New Zealand next week. I’m still coming down from the hilarity and beauty of a three-day camping safari on Fraser Island and the relaxation and stunning sights of a three-day sailing trip round the Whitsunday Islands. After leaving Cairns, I headed for Airlie Beach on a very long Greyhound bus journey with a driver who virtually ate his microphone when he made announcements to the passengers, so the sound coming out of the speakers was half announcement, half porno soundtrack, slurping and sucking noises echoing round the bus. An old French teacher used to do that when she coached us on pronunciation in the language lab, and it was enough to put you off your lunch.
Airlie Beach was a one-street load of nothing-muchness to compete with Cairns, but a pleasant enough place to ‘chill out’ for the night before heading out to the Whitsunday Islands. When I say ‘chill out’ this is one of the activities you can engage in at the beach in Australia. ‘Chilling out’ usually means doing very little, which is OK for about an hour and then becomes a bit of a hassle. ‘Chilling out’ therefore has to be punctuated with short bursts of activity such as eating, drinking, and walking. If ‘Chilling out’ really starts to get on your goat you end up binge-eating, as drunk as a monkey, wandering the streets like a lost child. I’m not so good at ‘Chilling out’. I’m going to try giving up ranting about beaches as it’s not got me anywhere – they’re all the same and have stubbornly refused to change their ways despite my going on endlessly about them. Australian Beaches are at least devoid of dodgy looking teenagers in hoodies sitting looking threatening in their Ford Escorts, and rubbish fairground rides operated by fat blokes with mullets who shout ‘scream if you wanna go faster’ to spotty teenage girls, which is more than you can say about Felixstowe.
The three-day, two-night sailing trip round the Whitsunday Islands on the Providence V was fantastic. A small-ish group half comprised of stern-looking Germans gathered at the marina to board the replica topsail schooner, welcomed on board by a three-man (well, two-man one woman) crew, after being equipped with stinger suits (wetsuits to protect swimmers from jellyfish stings – box jellyfish stings in this area are potentially lethal) by a lady called Mrs Snorkel. I was desperate to ask her if she met Mr Snorkel before or after she’d got into the business. We headed out from the marina to Hayman Island and Blue Pearl Bay, sailing some of the way, using engines when the wind was too low, on the beautiful Providence, all colourful ropes, gleaming chrome and freshly repainted deck. You could tell it was going to be a good three days – even the Germans turned out not to be that stern.
I was really nervous at the prospect of snorkeling, seeing as how it involves swimming, and I am a truly pathetic swimmer, but after donning stinger suit, snorkel, flippers and waterproof camera and stepping gingerly from the beach into the chill waters of Blue Pearl Bay, I became a converted person. Snorkeling rocks. We swam out, made more buoyant by stinger suits, over my first coral reef. Even underwater, ‘whoooaaaaahhhhh’ comes across quite well. It was beautiful. Coral formations shaped like mushrooms, brains, antlers and spaghetti were patrolled by fish so colourful you can’t help but think evolution just wanted a bit of an underwater Mardi-Gras because it was bored with using browns and greys. Parrot fish in stunning greens, pinks and blues flapped tiny flippers lazily while bottom-feeders pecked at the reef floor, and a humungous Mauri Wrasse chugged slowly along the fringes of the reef. We told Grant, the skipper, about the Mauri Wrasse, and he coolly responded with “Yeah, that’s Elvis”. When we sat on the beach afterwards and got talking to two lads who worked in a resort there, they explained that all of the Mauri Wrasse in that area were called Elvis.
We had plenty more opportunities to snorkel on the trip, in coral gardens that seemed to get progressively bigger and more impressive, some of the most stunning sights being coral reef dropping away like cliffs to reveal ocean floor thirty of forty feet below, the bottom still visible through the deepest blue water. Inquisitive fish would still be swimming around your ankles even as you walked on to the beach, and new colours and shapes always appeared from the gloom to surprise you. Floating above the reef, looking down, gave me a weird sensation of flying and peering into a completely different world. When we weren’t snorkeling, we were taking it easy on the deck, reading, chatting and cracking open the beers in the evenings to watch the sun set.
Even though I haven’t been too keen on beaches, Whitehaven Beach on was a revelation. Pure white silica sand like snow lay in giant semi-circular spits around blue-green waters off Whitsunday Island. Even the Italian who insisted on taking his shorts off and jumping up and down in the sea seeking the attention of four beautiful girls in bikinis like Honeychile Rider wasn’t enough to spoil it, and the four Honeychiles turned in disgust and left the Italian alone and looking like an utter berk, so it was all good.
Next post (because I haven’t been outside in way too long and I need to eat) the Fraser Island trip – the Hand Grenade, underwater dingoes, and laughing until your cheeks hurt.