Friday, 26 February 2016

Diving the Great Barrier Reef

My first time scuba diving could almost be likened to having sex for the first time. I had to be directed in what to do but I was clumsy it was also a painful experience. Ironically enough, it was my ears that were giving me the trouble! I must have missed the all important memo that stated: “Ensure that you equalise the pressure in your ears as soon as you submerge under the water”. I waited until I was a metre or two below the surface before attempting my first equalisation.

Learning in the swimming pool

It was too late and I couldn’t relieve the pressure. It was painful and the usual tricks of swallowing and jaw movement weren’t helping. The doctor’s words came back to my mind: “I can’t let you go diving with only one good ear. Imagine if something happened to that?” Maybe the good doctor was right after all. What was I doing risking my hearing? As the rest of my group made their way down the rope I languished near the surface wondering if I’d be able to join them.

“Are you okay?” my dive instructor asked me with a questioning thumbs up. “Take a wild guess whether I’m okay” I wanted to reply but communication under water didn’t allow for such words. I pointed to my ears and indicated I wasn’t sure. He understood and waited with me while I desperately tried to resolve the problem. After a long few minutes I had relieved enough of the pressure to get down and join my group. As they say, there’s one in every crowd and today it was me.

Off the back of the dive boat

After an uncomfortable 35 minutes I was glad to be back aboard the dive boat. After removing all my gear I needed the bathroom. It was there in the mirror that I noticed a faint line of blood across my cheeks where my mask had been sitting. “Oh great” I thought, “the pressure did rupture something in my head and it’s been bleeding out my nose”. I quickly tested my hearing by talking to myself. It all sounded okay and when I told my dive instructor he told me it’s not too unusual and not to worry.

Fortunately things improved and I began to enjoy my diving. I was able to do the various tests to get my open water certification and took some confidence into being able to complete the advanced course. This included additional challenges such as doing a navigation dive, descending to greater depths and also several night dives. It took some courage to submerge into the pitch black ocean at night but once the initial apprehension was overcome it was a unique and thrilling experience.

The wonder of the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is a marine wonderland and home to some of the greatest biodiversity of any ecosystem on earth. Aside from over 30 species of marine mammals, it is also home to countless types of fish, coral, molluscs and sponges. As much as I had the privilege of seeing, I was merely scratching the surface of this wonderful world that is so vastly different to our own. As I admired the amazing array of brightly coloured fish and coral, I often thought that we must do all we can to protect and nurture such an extraordinary environment.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Preparing to Dive

Although it wasn’t an organised tour, I had a great day with a couple of friends going initially up to the pretty sands of Trinity Beach and Palm Cove. I decided that if I ever became rich, I was coming back to this place on a luxurious holiday! After strolling the beach and swimming we headed inland to the township of Kuranda. Set amid pristine rainforest, is a popular tourist destination for the markets and various sanctuaries for butterflies, birds and even snakes. While others shopped, I did the Jungle Walk trail to the Barron Waterfall.

The idyllic Palm Cove

For many, the attraction of Kuranda is in the journey as much as the destination. While we took the road up the hill, there is also a scenic railway that winds 34km from Cairns up through picturesque mountains and 15 tunnels. This line took five years to build which isn’t bad considering it was opened in 1891! Another popular and certainly the most spectacular way of enjoying the Kuranda rainforest is on the 7.5km gondola cableway. Maybe something else I’ll do when I’m rich!

Kuranda Scenic Railway

As I mentioned, Cairns was where I ticked ‘scuba diving’ and ‘Great Barrier Reef’ off my bucket list. After working on the dive boat for several weeks it was now time to get my diving medical and begin my first course. A mere formality I thought to myself as I idly ticked yes and no boxes on the doctor’s form. I was fit and healthy but as I sat in the doctor’s office I could sense a problem emerging. “Tell me about your hearing loss” the doctor asked me.

“Pardon me?” I replied but it seemed that this wasn’t the moment for joking. I am virtually deaf in one ear and the doctor didn’t like this at all. “I’m sorry” he informed me “but we can’t issue you a dive medical with only one good ear. “It’s too risky. I’m sorry”. He is sorry? What about me! I was totally devastated and as I returned to the hostel I was nearly in tears. This was a dream being crushed by the red pen of a doctor. Besides, it was my only way of being paid for all my work.

Down Under Dive boat Osprey V

The silver lining of my dark cloud was my friend at the hostel who told me not to worry and assured me that I’d be able to go scuba diving. “How can I possibly go without a medical certificate?” I reasoned with her. She smiled at me and gave me a wink. “You simply go to another doctor” she replied “and don’t disclose anything about hearing loss”. “But they’ll test me won’t they?” I insisted. “Probably not” she continued to reassure me, “they’re too busy for all that!”

And so it was. With a little tick in the wrong place on the ‘Hearing Loss’ question, I soon had my precious medical certificate and was making a booking to begin my PADI Open Water course. Initially there was some theory work to do and which involved becoming familiar with all the equipment. There was also a lot of safety information to learn before the baby steps of getting submerged in the swimming pool. Finally, the big day arrived: it was time to begin scuba diving on the reef.

Friday, 12 February 2016

North to Cairns

One of the great things about travelling Australia is that you can move with the seasons and get the best weather. In other words, when winter was starting to set in down south, I headed north to Cairns in the north of Queensland. Here the tropical rain and humidity was receding and I could settle into a comfortable climate of bright sunny days with average temperatures in the mid 20’s. After taking some time to be a tourist I’d settle in, earn some money and learn to scuba dive before continuing my journey.

Although it was April and the wet season hadn’t yet dried up, I was keen to get to the beach for a swim. But like many tourists I was disappointed to find only mud flats that stretch along beside the esplanade boardwalk. To make up for it though is the wonderful artificial swimming lagoon which has been created on the reclaimed foreshore. Like so many other travellers, I enjoyed a few lazy afternoons there with friends that I’d met at my hostel. From the lagoon, it’s a pleasant walk around to the marina and Trinity Inlet where the cruise boats and daily island ferries leave from.

Cairns swimming lagoon

The beaches are just north of the city and the most appealing of them is the stretch of white sand at the curiously named Yorkeys Knob. This was the first stop on a little day trip I had up to the resort town of Port Douglas. It’s a nice drive up the Captain Cook Highway and the town itself is a relaxing place for those looking to enjoy tropical north Queensland without the backpacker crowd that is a perennial part of Cairns. It’s more expensive though and most accommodation is a range of self-contained apartments or upmarket resorts.

City view from the Botanical Gardens

I played tourist while waiting to find a job in Cairns. A favourite place quickly became the Flecker Botanical Gardens which included some lovely walking tracks through the rainforest. One in particular offered viewpoints over the city in one direction and the airport in the other. Through the dry season this became a running circuit that I always the challenges and rewards of. I visited the small museum and always enjoyed the ambience of the night markets.

Cairns is a nice town that became my home for five months. It didn’t take long to realise though that it is a gateway to surrounding attractions more than anything. Literally hundreds of tours bus, boat, fly or drive out of the city on a daily basis. The most popular of these is obviously the Great Barrier Reef and I was fortunate to be able to get a job with a dive company helping with the annual maintenance of their ship. Instead of receiving payment in cash, I was compensated with being able to complete my open water and advanced scuba diving certification.

Snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef

The other job I was working at the huge flashpacker resort of Gilligan’s. For most guests, it’s expensive and impersonal but I was in a room with other staff so we all become friends and had a good time at a discounted rate. Working as a kitchen hand here was probably the most unglamorous work I’ve ever done but it provided badly needed money and a place to stay. It also meant getting free drinks at the bar and at least one good meal a day which many backpackers couldn’t lay a claim to!

Gilligan's - my north Queensland home

There were other perks as well. Every Thursday the guys from the AJ Hackett Bungy Jumping site would come in for promotional work and in return the Gilligan’s staff would receive free jumps. After about a month, Gilligan’s began doing yacht tours out to the reef so I enjoyed a complimentary day of cruising, swimming and snorkelling. Aside from the hostel, accommodation, restaurant and bar, we also had a tour desk that kept us in the loop for good deals and last minute options.

Friday, 5 February 2016


Our final Tasmanian destination was the capital of Hobart. Sitting between the towering Mount Wellington and the Derwent River, Australia’s second oldest and southernmost capital city would have plenty for me to enjoy over the next three days. 

I used the first of these days to do the climb up Mount Wellington.  And what a great day it was! The five-hour return hike through temperate forest opens out to a rocky and almost lunar like landscape at its peak of 1270m. The lookout which is also accessible via a road that winds up from the city offered spectacular views of the city, Derwent River and beyond.  In fact I could see Bruny Island, Tasman Peninsula and even Maria Island to the north. I hiked down another track to view the Organ Pipes which is a sheer rock formation about halfway up the mountain.

Lookout at the summit of Mount Wellington

I split the other two days of my time between the city of Hobart and across the Derwent River at Rosny and Bellerive.  I was particularly interested in visiting Bellerive Oval which is the home of Tasmanian Cricket and contains an interesting museum.  The other feature over that side of the river is the gun battery built in the early 1800's. It was commissioned because of the misplaced fear that Hobart would be invaded by the Russians.  A lot of time and expense was put into the project but it was destined to never fire a shot in anger.

Bellerive Oval on the banks of the Derwent River

Spanning the Derwent River between Hobart and Belrieve is the Tasman Bridge which was opened in 1966. Just nine years later it was hit by a huge ship destined for further up the river.  It caused part of the structure to collapse onto the vessel and it sank as a result.  Several cars plunged into the river and a total of twelve people died in the disaster.  The aftermath was commuter chaos with people suddenly unable to reach the city.

The second bridge a few kilometres up the river wasn't built at this stage.  Ferries were employed until the bridge could be rebuilt and two huge piles that look slightly different to the others is a lasting reminder of that day.  There is a sign on the footpath now that reads "Warning - do not cross the bridge if large ships are approaching"!

The Tasman Bridge

The focal point of Hobart city is the waterfront at Sullivan’s Cove and the iconic Salamanca Place. This picturesque row of four-storey sandstone warehouses is some of Australia’s best preserved historic architecture and dates back to the 19th century whaling era. Nowadays it is a vibrant cultural precinct and the buildings are used as galleries, studios, performing arts venues, restaurants, bars and shops. There is a large Saturday market here offering a maze of bargains, buskers, food and arts.

The historic buildings of Salamanca Place

The nearby waterfront includes Constitution Dock where the annual Sydney to Hobart yacht race finishes. This whole area is a great place to explore or simply sit and watch the various harbour activities. Just a few minutes walk from the dock is the Tasmanian Museum that features an interesting collection of colonial relics and Aboriginal art. Also a very short walk from the waterfront is Battery Point which is a nest of 19th century cottages and lanes which takes its name from the 1818 gun battery that once stood on the promontory. 

On my final day in Hobart I did a run along the bike trail that leads up the valley beside the Derwent River. As much as I would have liked to, I didn’t make it all the way to an area called Claremont which is where the Cadbury chocolate factory is. Instead I explored Queen’s Domain and the beautifully kept botanical gardens. It was a final opportunity to enjoy some serenity and reflect on the wonderful time I’d had before embarking on the next phase of my journey.