Day 147 Revisited: The Great Barrier Reef

Iguazu Falls was honoured with its own update; Machu Picchu gained the same award; and Bolivia’s salt flats received similar tribute. We therefore felt it fair and appropriate that the Great Barrier Reef followed in their footsteps, illustrious or otherwise.

You will find the Great Reef on many of those arbitrary ‘wonder’ lists, whether ancient or modern, natural or manmade. These provide endless and pointless opportunities to debate whether the Taj Mahal is ‘better’ than Christ the Redeemer or the Grand Canyon ‘bigger’ than Victoria Falls. Whatever lists the Great Barrier Reef is currently included in or not, one thing is certain – it boasts some impressive facts (shamelessly cut and pasted from the internet):

– 2,900 separate reefs make up the Great Barrier Reef, ranging in size from less than 1 hectare to over 100,000 hectares.
– The Great Barrier Reef covers over 34 million hectares, a larger area than Italy, and spans 2,300 kilometres of coastline, from Torres Strait to southern Queensland.
– It is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world and this diversity reflects the maturity of the ecosystem.
– Over 1500 species of fish live on the Great Barrier Reef, representing 10% of world fish species.
– The Great Barrier Reef contributes over $6 billion annually to the Australian economy.

Faced with a daunting number of one-day tour operators in the end we plumped for Quicksilver, not that expensively cool surfing brand but the largest commercial outfit in Port Douglas. Before booking we weren’t aware of just how big they were, but as it turned out what we lost in intimacy we made up in safety and professionalism.

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No that’s not a rusting hulk, its some special marine paint finish

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The beautiful, still waters of Port Douglas

So it was in a rather large catamaran that we left the marina and sailed out to Quicksilver’s pontoon at the Agincourt reef. Once out there, we realised the extent of their setup: for pontoon think small manmade island. From this huge platform they offered every conceivable means of experiencing the reef: snorkelling, scuba diving, an underwater viewing deck, a ride in a semi-submersible, a helicopter flight, and even a helmet dive for those not wishing to get their hair wet.

Our main intention was snorkelling, but our main worry were stingers. Jellyfish to most readers, they fill the coastal waters along the north-east shore from November to April. And they can be deadly; especially the ones that are the size of your fingernail and virtually impossible to see. As a precaution we had to don fetching black stinger suits before entering the water.

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Seated on the entry platform and wrestling with our flippers and masks, our minds were put at rest by one of the crew. She was rushing around with a net hooking out small gelatinous lumps and muttering to herself: ‘Jees, there’s thousands of them today!’ We asked if these were the dangerous ones. She replied: ‘if you get stung by one of these, mate, you’re looking at a helicopter ride straight outta here!’

Whether it was bravery or stupidity, we put these concerns to the back of our minds as we slipped gingerly into the water and pushed off from the side of the pontoon. We had entered the special world of the Great Barrier Reef.

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That’s the best you’re gonna get with our camera

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Look! A fish!

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Look! Some more fish!

Our three swims that day were memorable, if only made so by our senses being heightened by a constant fear of being stung and ending up as shark bait. The water was beautifully calm, the visibility good and the colour and kinds of coral on display impressive. Surprisingly, however, it was the ride in the semi-submersible that really gave us an appreciation of the limitless amount and variety of creatures that lay just beneath the surface. We were even lucky enough to spot a sea turtle.

Now we don’t want to come over all Karl Pilkington at this point, but the Great Barrier Reef does receive a lot of hype. And granted much of this is justified – for example, it is the only living thing on earth visible from space (you can’t sniff at that). But therein lies the problem. Two people bobbing above a structure larger than the Great Wall of China can’t hope to comprehend its vastness. And so we were left to try and appreciate a small section. It’s a bit like standing under a small drip of water at the border of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay and being expected to take in the splendour of Iguazu Falls. You just don’t get the full effect.

And perhaps we were also hamstrung by two other considerations. Firstly, we’ve been fortunate enough to snorkel in the waters of Fiji and the Maldives, the latter being particularly stunning. Secondly – and this point shouldn’t be dismissed – we’ve been privileged to grow up in an era of incredible BBC wildlife documentaries. Sitting in the comfort of your own living room watching beautifully shot, painstakingly pieced together footage is a high bar. Both factors, we’re sure, lessened the impact on our senses.

But that all said, we had a great day; and it would be churlish of us to plead any case for the removal of the Barrier Reef’s well-earned adjective.

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Days 140-149: From Crikey To Cairns

With Barney Mk II stocked up with an appropriate balance of provisions – one bottle of wine to every pack of noodles – we turned the key, selected drive, released the handbrake and tore north out of Brisbane (if you can tear out of anywhere in a pregnant roller-skate weighed down with enough tins to survive a nuclear winter).

Quick geography lesson: Australia’s big. Travelling up from even the midpoint of the east coast meant we were clocking up around 400km per day. En route we stayed overnight at Noosa, Rockhampton, Airlie Beach, Townsville, Cairns, Port Douglas and back to Cairns.

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Noosa: playground for the rich; great stop-off for the flashpackers among us

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A stone, next to a bench, at Airlie ‘No Beach’ Beach

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Cooling off in Townsville’s beachfront lagoon

From Noosa we visited Australia Zoo. Made famous by its owner, Steve ‘the Crocodile Hunter’ Irwin, it’s an impressive place. Spanning nearly 100 hectares it showcases the best of Australia’s wildlife, and all in fantastic surroundings.

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Getting up close and personal with a ‘roo

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Crocoseum: Steve Irwin’s impressive snapper arena

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A cute and cuddly koala

Steve – no longer with us following a stingray attack in 2006 – was viewed in the UK largely as a figure of fun; a crocodile-wrestling loon more famous for his indecently-sized shorts than his work with animals. In his native Queensland, however, he was revered. And his memory is kept alive each year with an official ‘Steve Irwin Day’, when everyone is encouraged to walk about in khaki saying ‘crikey!’ a lot.

And perhaps rightly so. Once you learn a little more about him, you discover a man who spent his whole life championing conservation and trying to educate people in his own inimitable style. Australia Zoo is a powerful reminder of what he achieved and well worth a visit – even if, on the day we visited, undersized khaki shorts were not available in the gift shop.

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With the Khaki-coloured one and his family

Our nights at Rockhampton, Airlie Beach and Townsville were largely uneventful bar one phenomenon – the heat. Even in Noosa we began to notice that the nighttime temperature was a touch oppressive; but the farther we drove north the worse it became.

It reached its apogee in Townsville, a place so dull they named it twice, but in different languages in the hope we wouldn’t notice. Here the problem was not just the heat; it was the mosquitoes too.

Imagine the scenario: it’s 26C, it’s midnight, there’s not a breath of wind, the air is thick with bugs, and you’ve taken the decision to sleep overnight in a family-sized biscuit tin. Any chink in the skylight or gap in the window invites a squadron of buzzing infidels. But an airtight seal means even higher temperatures, restricted breathing and clandestine claustrophobia. Japanese POW camps had nothing on this. Suffice to say, it was a long night.

During the nights that followed we either managed to acclimatise to the conditions or taping a scrap of netting over the skylight made all the difference. Whatever the reason, nights in Cairns and Port Douglas were merely awful rather than unbearable.

Our time in Port Douglas was dominated by our trip to the Great Barrier Reef (separate blog to follow), while our stay in Cairns was a rather sedate affair where heart rates were only quickened during a visit to Coffee Works, the world’s largest coffee museum. Not only was it surprisingly informative – did you know, for example, that Balzac used to jitter and judder his way through 40 cups a day? – but there was all-you-can-consume coffee, chocolate and liqueurs.

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Wired for grounds

And it is amidst this caffeine-fuelled high that we come to the end of our time in Australia; and for that matter the South Pacific. Today we fly off to Bali to begin our Southeast Asia adventure. We still have a couple of packs of noodles left over, but apparently they’re readily available where we’re headed.

Days 134-139: Byron Bay, Brisbane & Barney’s Back

After Sydney we headed further up the east coast on an overnight bus to Byron Bay. It was 12 hours in length and the seats were as upright as the Mel-Syd train, but it passed pretty quickly; low expectations tend not to keep you up at night.

Byron Bay is your quintessential Australian small hippy-surfer town. It’s managed to keep at arm’s length the grasping tentacles of the big hotels, and in doing so retained much of its authenticity and charm. It is said that you used to be able to get high just by strolling down its main street, but nowadays it’s the smell of cinnamon bagels and Italian coffee which dominates.

We stayed in the elaborately titled Arts Factory Lodge, just ten minutes walk out of town. It was basic and expensive – a common theme among Australian hostels – but fine for a couple of nights.

The beaches in and around Byron Bay are terrific and boasts Captain Cook’s Lookout and the easternmost tip of Australia. The fish and chips are rather fantastic too.

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More of a set from a lost Saturday morning kids show than a hostel

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On the lookout for Captain Cook

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That’s it. You can’t get any more eastern Australian than this.

Travelling further north makes you appreciate Byron Bay even more. As we Greyhounded our way to Brisbane we passed Surfer’s Paradise, a city that’s built more out of the sky than the surf. From the main highway we couldn’t see the beach for a massive wall of towering hotels and entertainment complexes. You couldn’t imagine two more different places in which to go looking for that perfect surf break.

Now, Brisbane: a travel editor recently wrote of two colleagues who each have a rule by which they live their itinerant lives. The first always maintains that he will never leave a city until he has experienced some form of cultural enrichment; the second that he will stay put in a particular town until he’s had some fun. Both friends, the editor observed, are currently stuck in Brisbane.

From the perspective of our four nights in Brisbane we think this is a little unfair. Yes, admittedly, the city may not smack of the highest cultural sophistication, but what it lacks in refinement it makes up through enthusiasm: there are not many cities which can boast half a dozen top art galleries and museums, and all free to the public.

And we had fun in Brisbane too – dining at Lady Lamington’s on Valentine’s Day night being just one example. The chilli burgers were rather fine, as was the South Australian Riesling.

While we were there one diner exemplified the Brisbane commitment to F-U-N. She was barracked and abused by a random passerby who, clearly feeling that he hadn’t given great enough vent to his feelings, came back and finished off his mean-mouthed monologue, this time from inside the restaurant. After he was forcibly removed from the establishment she brushed the incident off with great aplomb and went back to having a good time with her friends. More power to her.

So perhaps Brisbane gets an unfair reputation.

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It could be the Thames on a sunny day

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Brisbane getting all artistic

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The city’s approach to history and modernity

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This is what can happen when a boat crashes into a bridge

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Brisbane’s touching ANZAC memorial

Oh, and guess what? Barney’s back!

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Well, one of his relatives, anyway. We can’t decide if B2 is younger or older than his New Zealand cousin. Interestingly, B1 had quite a rough exterior but was beautiful on the inside; whereas B2 is shiny and polished on the outside but a bit shabby when it comes to the interior. This may be a specific example of a wider New Zealand-Australian phenomenon, but we will leave it to the reader to speculate.

Anyway, B2 or not B2, that wasn’t the question. We felt that after part train-ing, part bus-ing our way up the east coast it would be fun to drive the rest of the route to Cairns. Well, we proved partly to be right.

Days 127-134: Sydney Drizzles While Mel Burns*

Poor old Sydney! Perhaps he had got wind of the marvellous time we had in Melbourne and felt under pressure; perhaps he was feeling a little under the weather; or perhaps he was just a touch complacent after years of lording it over Mel. Whatever the reason Syd got off to a slow start.

He wasn’t helped by the overnight train from Melbourne. As Mel waved us goodbye at the station we sat back and relaxed, fully expecting the long-haul buses of South America to be easily surpassed by the Aussie train experience. How wrong we were: the twelve hour trip was dominated by our curious inability to rack up even a few zeds before we met Syd. As a result, we arrived in the morning rather crabby, cranky and cantankerous.

Then Syd was let down by the weather. It was dark and drizzly, and pulling into the station smacked off arriving in Glasgow, Newcastle or Manchester in the midst of October.

But it was our accommodation that was arguably most injurious to Syd’s plans to wow and dazzle us. Slap bang in the centre of King’s Cross and entitled ‘The Asylum’, it far surpassed any South American hostel in levels of dirt, dishevelment and disrepair. You didn’t have to be mad to stay there but… sorry, yes, you did have to be mad to stay there.

Well, we believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt, and we had heard lots of lovely things about Sydney. So shaking off our train-lag, dismissing the bed sheets of Bedlam and brushing off the unseasonal rain drops of New South Wales, we headed to the harbour to revive our spirits.

Unfortunately, the weather didn’t let up during all the time we were with Sydney. At best it was overcast, at worst it was heavy rain, so much of our time was concentrated indoors – the Gallery of New South Wales, the Museum of Sydney, the Harbour Acquarium, etc.

What upset Syd the most was that anytime we parted company we had a ball, and experienced glorious weather. He wailed in frustration as we chilled out in Manly, toured the Hunter Valley (First Creek, Tempus Two, Lambloch and Blueberry Hill wineries), explored the Blue Mountains and checked out Bondi Beach:

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Municipal swimming, Manly-style

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A surfer on world-famous Manly Beach

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Watching the sunset at Manly Wharf

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Australia’s Hunter Valley

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No grapes of wrath here

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What’s that? Pinot Noir in Australia?

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The Blue Mountains of New South Wales

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Longer than Iguazu Falls (160m) but a little gentler

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Us at the end of the Grand Canyon walk (we’re in there somewhere)

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Bondi Beach. When the sun’s out, strangely reminiscent of an English seaside town

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The famous Iceberg Surf Life Saving Club

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The rugged coastline near Bondi

In the end Syd had to get a little help from his friends. Gordon
and Margaret Galletly, distant cousins of Mr England, brushed off the poor weather and showed us around central Sydney. Such was their knowledge of the area that they saved old Sydney from greater ignominy and meeting up with them was the highlight of our stay.

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Since our trip started in the September of last year we’ve been lucky with the weather. It’s only reasonable to expect that we would have a blip somewhere along the line. We’re just sorry for Syd that it happened here. It reduced much of his celebrated scenery to cityscapes not wholly different from those big urban centres back home.

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We are sure, though, that while Sydney Harbour may be in the rain reminiscent of, say, Newcastle, under blue skies it no doubt dazzles and delights like no other. And, given that Syd has had the upper hand over Mel recently – their differing successes in attracting the Olympics being a good example – we’re pretty confident that he’ll bounce back soon enough.

*This was too contrived a title even for us, but we couldn’t think of anything better

Days 118-126: Melbourne – Two Tales Of A City

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair – and that was just the tennis.

Our time in Melbourne came to be divided neatly into two themes: the sporting adventures of a surly Scot and the travel adventures of two slightly less taciturn Northern Brits.

First, the tennis. It was entirely down to luck that we found ourselves in Melbourne for the last week of the Australian Open. Our luck continued when we rocked up on Monday to the Rod Laver Arena and managed to get two seats for the only session of the men’s quarterfinals still available. And Lady Luck seemed firmly on our side when the draw was made on Tuesday afternoon and that session turned out to be Andy Murray versus Kei Nishikori.

As a warm-up to the main event on Wednesday we watched Errani v Kvitova and Makarova v Sharapova. And then came Murray.

It is a somewhat surreal experience watching from the stands a tournament you have seen many times on television. What was particularly surprising was the ease in which Murray fended off the challenge of Nishikori. Andy never seemed to move out of second gear and he always looked in control – something you can’t say often about any sporting Scot these days.

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For the epic semi-final match we had to content ourselves with deckchair seats in front of the big screen at Federation Square, Melbourne’s beating heart. The atmosphere was even more raucous than the Rod Laver Arena, and despite the result it turned out to be a memorable night. Another close-but-no-cigar performance from Murray, but perhaps we can take positives from the fact that his failures seem to be getting more glorious with every grand slam event that passes.

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The sun sets on Andy’s 2012 Australian Open campaign

Second, the tourists. In between the tennis we tried to squeeze in as much of Melbourne as we could – and we didn’t do too badly. In fact, if the tennis hadn’t been on we would have still been well-satisfied with our first taste of Melbourne.

(It should be pointed out that it was hot during our week in the city. Very hot. 34C wasn’t unusual, and one evening it was still pushing 33C at 9pm. That’s warm in anyone’s book.)

So aside from the tennis, we:

Took in the many parks and vistas that Melbourne had to offer –

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Did some koala-spotting –

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Visited Ramsay Street and met an ex-Neighbour (not Charlene unfortunately but Connor) –

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Encountered a wallaby or two –

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Took a trip down the Great Ocean Road…

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…and visited the Twelve Apostles en route –

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Took advantage of the many free museums, galleries and local attractions that Melbourne had to offer –

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Made friends with the local wildlife –

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And generally had an uplifting time –

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Hopefully Murray will be able to draw encouragement from the 2012 Australian Open and will look back on his time in Melbourne with the same fondness as us. And although he has not been quoted as saying as much, perhaps he won’t be too crestfallen after his semifinal defeat and will look back on it as a far, far better thing that he did than he has ever done.

Next stop Sydney!