16. Great Barrier Reef

We caught the 6.20am bus from Townsville to Airlie Beach. The temperature was already a balmy 24 degrees. The humidity had hit us on our arrival the previous evening. What we didn’t realise was that it would make trying to dry clothes, beach towels etc considerably harder, which is important just prior to packing. At Bodalla, the washing had been dry in just over an hour, jeans maybe 2. Here they never really feel dry, even after 24 hours. This temperature discrepancy was also highlighted in the ‘real feel’ whereby the degrees increased unlike in the UK where it always decreases; our first experience of this. I’m just glad that we didn’t buy any bamboo socks as, despite their excellent reputation, I’d already noticed that they took 2 days to dry in the best conditions.

imag3936Our taxi driver took us the scenic route from the hotel and gave us a little guided tour and potted history of Townsville before dropping us off at the terminal. We arrived in Airlie Beach at lunchtime, found our budget accommodation and caught the bus back in to town. By mid afternoon Roger was swimming in the lagoon. The following day we were particularly lazy and it was quite a treat to not have any alarm set (not even to enable us to change to a bigger room). imag3937Late afternoon we caught the bus for the short ride back into town. Walking might have been an option for the distance but pedestrians don’t seem to be too well catered for here, even in terms of access to the bus stops which is a bit weird, must be to do with the almost continual need for air conditioning. We headed for the netted beach, this is one with an area cordoned off for safe sea swimming i.e. no stingers or jelly fish, crocodiles and sharks are not a particular problem here but the jelly fish strike can put you in ICU!

imag3941We had booked an excursion out to the Whitsunday Islands for the following day so were a little perturbed by the orange storm warning for the next afternoon. Fully expecting the trip to be cancelled we were unsure whether to be worried or reassured when it wasn’t. An hour across the waves to the far side of an outer island took us to our snorkelling location. We were mesmerised by the coral reef just a few feet underneath us, not really expecting to see such magnificence as we hadn’t gone scuba-diving on the outer reef but there was no need. This was the outer coast of the outer islands so produced the same hard coral as the bottom growing reefs further afield as they were subjected to the strong winds and currents.

We were thrilled and transfixed to glide over these amazing structures. I suppose the colours were more muted than I’d expected but the shapes and structures were so much more intricate and varied. Some resembled the convoluted surface and shape of human brains, others were a series of short tubes, there were huge mushrooms, floating plates, cauliflowers, blankets, boulders and trees. The beautiful pale blues, greens, pinks, lilacs and oranges were interspersed with flashes of vivid, almost neon blues, greens and purples.

The fish were not to be outdone even if some did try, very effectively to disguise themselves in the  camouflage of rocky brown. However the blues, greens and turquoise of both tiny and quite large, up to 18 inches, marine life gave the whole area a luminescence. Tiger stripes and flashes of silver swam lazily beneath our intent gaze. I don’t have a waterproof camera so no personal photos but there is plenty to google. I think we may be on a few other people’s pictures as we tried to see as much as possible in the hour given, despite getting a little chilly, even in our stinger suits. The problem was that we were doing a lot of floating around, just gazing at the multi-coloured light show displayed below and not much swimming. We had rejected the offer of a buoyancy aid or noodle and found the sea to be very salty and so had no need of any extra assistance.

Sadly there were areas where the coral had obviously died, grey and brown segments cluttering the seabed. I wondered if this was the effect of man and tourism on this very delicate eco-system, to which we would be adding. On enquiring, I was relieved to find out, from Capt Matty, that it is part of a natural process and the destruction is the aftermath of the cyclones which hit these parts most years. The ‘stones’ on nearby beaches are almost entirely comprising these battered corals. The delicate nature of this reef, and presumably all others, made it a little difficult to come upright in the water for fear of kicking and damaging some wonderful structure beneath so we developed a kind of rounded tuck when directing each other to another amazing ‘plant’.

imag3945imag3944Our next stop was a lookout at ‘swirly sands’, we were told. It sounded a bit of an anti-climax after the reef but was an amazing view of the changing depths and shifting silica sandbars. We could see Whitehaven beach on the left side of the spur, our final and lunch stop. We were supposed to be able to spot stingrays as well but when, after about 10 minutes, my fish hadn’t moved I had to concede that it was, in actual fact, a submerged rock.

imag3963Another short boat ride and we disembarked onto the pure white beach of Whitehaven. Beneath our feet the sand was as fine as icing sugar and even squeaked when you walked (or fell!) in it. Fatal for cameras apparently and has become so engrained in the seams of our bags I think we may, inadvertently, be bringing some back home, despite adhering to the adage ‘take only photos, leave only footprints’. The shoreline was strangely scattered with what appeared to be autumn leaves, adding an amazing colour dimension to the blue, white and green of this tropical paradise.

imag3956We ate lunch at a picnic table in the shade along the tree-line adjacent to the beach. A lace monitor, about 2 feet long with an almost equivalent tail, decided to join us, no doubt looking for scraps. A group of Chinese didn’t seem to know whether they wanted it to stay or go as feeding it and shooing it away at the same time must have been quite confusing for the poor thing! As we returned from our short walk along the shore, Braydon, our deckhand, was expertly handling a 2 metre long carpet python which had been snoozing at the base of a nearby tree. They, like all pythons, are not poisonous but are known to have quite a vicious bite. We were quite relieved that we actually shared our lunch space with the gentle little bush doves before the crows swooped in to clear up any debris; they don’t change. Our meal wasn’t spoilt by being 2 plates short when we were supplied with the lids of the Tupperware containers as alternative platters.

imag3965All too soon, although not for a rather sunburnt face, (a first after all this time!) we were hailed back to Big Fury for our return journey. The sea was a little rough but we were relieved to find that the storm had not materialised, not in our vicinity at least. The ride back was almost as bumpy as Genine’s truck trip back from the caves and we were most impressed by Braydon’s ability to serve a platter of cakes and biscuits in this heaving sea without appearing to drop any. The storm appeared to have passed inland if the foreboding clouds, which greeted us as we re-entered the harbour, were anything to go by.


We are now entering our final stage of this Aussie adventure with fairly limited wifi so apologies for the, even more sporadic contact!

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