Quicksilver, Wavedancer, Poseidon or Titanic? This was the dilemma we faced when considering a reef trip. On the one hand, we are budget travellers and aim to do our own trips whenever possible; on the other hand, visiting The Great Barrier Reef is likely to be a once in a lifetime experience for Tim and myself, and I knew we would regret not taking the ‘plunge’ and handing over the wonga for an escorted jaunt. Plus we don’t own a boat.
As with everything to do with Australia, distances are inevitably on a far greater scale than anticipated – the high speed catamaran trip to the outer reef (where the coral and sea life is the most stunning) takes 2.5 hours each way – not good if the ocean is choppy and you are prone to sea sickness. You also dive or snorkel off a platoon straight into the ocean and I couldn’t help but be influenced by Bill Bryson’s panic attack when he tried this (‘Down Under’, 2000), caused by the stark realisation that he couldn’t put his feet down, and the tragic tale of the young couple a few years later who were accidentally left behind in the ocean by their tour operator.
As mentioned earlier, the decision was made for us by P & O, whose ship Pacific Jewel was berthing in Port Douglas on the only day when the weather forecast bode well for a reef trip. Wavedancer it was.
Low Isles (known to the Aboriginal people as Wungkun), is made up of two small islands, situated 15km north-east of Port Douglas – a four acre coral cay surrounded by 55 acres of reef. The largest isle is uninhabited other than a large bird population and is covered with mango grove; whilst the smaller cay is a picture perfect tropical island with its very own lighthouse built in 1878. As a World Heritage site, they have a lovely slogan – ‘Take only memories and photographs; leave only footprints’. Which meant I had a major guilt trip about the two shells I pinched off the beach and ultimately left behind for Dawn to dispose of legally by taking them back!
As we sailed out of Port Douglas harbour (serenaded by the dapper jazz band organised for the cruise ship tourists), the sky was steely grey and the sea a little choppy; but gazing beyond the bay you could see a real contrast on the horizon – rain and low level clouds over the hills of the mainland; clear blue skies out to sea (Year 5 text book perfect example of ‘the water cycle’). We were in luck!
How can I even begin to describe such a memorable, life enhancing experience? Clear azure skies; warm sun on our faces; a gentle breeze and golden sands. It was absolutely perfect. And I learnt a new skill! Yes, admittedly I initially used the snorkel as a straw instead of a piece of breathing apparatus (what a plonker), but having fallen over in my flippers more than most, I eventually got the hang of it and was totally enthralled by the waving coral and myriad marine life, particularly the brightly coloured individual fish who used each fin independently of the other. Joe even saw a shark!
After a delicious ‘smorgasbord’ lunch on board Wavedancer, we headed for the shuttle boat back to shore – somehow Joe ended up on the 30 minute glass bottomed boat tour with all the OAPs, whilst we were whizzed to the beach with the youngsters! Still, he did get to see a turtle…
Our final day in Queensland dawned bright and sunny – what a perfect place to live. Paradise. Sadly it was time to leave, having been spoilt rotten for four days. By now an expert with the packing, we were out of our comfortable billet by 10am on the dot, dashing off for a quick peek at Four Mile Beach before heading back to Cairns and the end of our first idyllic days with Joe – whom I have to say hasn’t really changed one jot, still my lovely lad with the dry sense of humour and unflappable, independent nature. And the ability to turn one neat bedroom into an absolute tip within 30 minutes flat!
As we headed north towards Karunda and ultimately flights out of Cairns, along the stunning Cook Highway for one last time, past the croc farm, weaving around cassowaries, and dodging spiders, good old Bill is worth a quote:
“[Australia] is the home of the largest living thing on earth, the Great Barrier Reef, and of the largest monolith, Ayers Rock (or Uluru to use its now-official, more respectful Aboriginal name). It has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world’s ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of its creatures – the funnel web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick, and stonefish – are the most lethal of their type in the world. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you but actually sometimes go for you. … If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback. It’s a tough place.”
― Bill Bryson, In a Sunburned Country
We had lived to tell the tale! Queensland almost behind us!
But one last dice with death had to be faced – the sky rail (ominous drum roll). Mind you, the pies we had for brunch were also a tad risky, another great Aussie institution. There are a number of package trips which take you by train to Karunda, an ‘aboriginal’ village in the rainforest, leave you there for a couple of hours to enjoy the markets and then transport you by sky rail high above the wet tropical tree canopy back to your coach close to the shore of the Barron River. We opted to do the full ‘circuit’ directly from the village (omitting the train) and by sheer accident managed to miss all tour groups, meaning that we pretty much had the stops at Red Peak and Barron Falls to ourselves and no delays hopping on and off.
The views were stunning, and the swinging of our transport unnerving, but in true Rainer fashion we had to feed the adrenalin rush even more – this time by speculating about what could possibly go wrong.
“If the gondola falls, we’ll be ok because all those trees will break our fall,” I stated with false bravado.
“Except that as we fall through the canopy one or more of the branches will come through the window and impale at least one of us,” responded Tim.
“If we manage to survive that, a venomous snake or spider will result in certain death as we find ourselves dangling from a lower branch,” he continued assertively.
“Then, if by some miracle one of us hits the deck a croc will be waiting…”
At this point Joe pointed out vultures circling above some other poor sap who had made the crazy decision to take the trip. Or maybe I imagined that bit.
What I didn’t imagine was Tim and I queuing in true British style at the Barron Falls station, waiting for a gondola to make the final descent, wondering where the hell Joe had got to. We then spotted him sitting regally in one all by himself, giving us a royal wave as he sailed off (at least I think that was what the hand signal meant). Both our jaws dropped simultaneously, senior moments took over and we were truly perplexed – until we realised we were standing on the wrong platform, patiently awaiting our turn to go back to the Red Peak…
… how on earth would we survive alone in Sydney?