Travel day; we had a few hours in the morning to upload photos and check email at an internet café before heading to the airport. While Karel worked on that, I had a nice conversation with the girl at the desk, another Scottie on a work visa having a great time living in New Zealand for a while. So far, here on the tourist trail, it’s been easy to find friendly people who are glad to have a chat, but damn hard to find someone who was actually born here.
Farewell, New Zealand! You’re a beautiful country with great people. We’ll be back to see you again, we hope.
Our trip from New Zealand to Australia was uneventful. The long, late twilights of summer in the far south are now behind us; it was completely dark when we landed in Cairns. We had a prearranged transfer to our accommodation in nearby Palm Cove resort. Tired and famished, we dropped our bags in our apartment and set out in search of dinner, only to discover that we had arrived at 9:30 in a town that shuts down at 9 p.m. We finally managed to procure a slice of cheesecake.
We had big plans for the next day and, still a little hungry from our missed dinner the day before, got up early to get a good breakfast before the bus arrived to take us to the port. That’s when we discovered that no restaurants or grocery stores were open yet. We waited impatiently for the café to open its doors, then wolfed down some eggs and coffee, abandoning our plates when the bus arrived. Oh, well, we looked forward to a nice lunch (a “tropical seafood smorgasbord”), which was included in our activities for the day.
A large catamaran transported about 150 passengers to a pontoon anchored 70 km or so offshore, near the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef. We signed up for an “advanced” guided snorkeling trip with a marine biologist, and were given a suggested schedule for the day that would have us ready to go out with the biologist after a light lunch.
The catamaran arrived a little later than expected at the pontoon. Our first activity was to go out on one of the semi-submersibles (i.e., glass-bottom boats), which departed every 15 minutes. That gave us a nice overview of part of the reef near the pontoon, and we sighted a sea turtle and learned about the corals. It stayed out a little longer than expected, and that’s kind of how things went that day.
Next, we donned our snorkeling gear, including stinger suits. These are attractive (I’m being sarcastic here, can you tell?) Lycra suits that cover you completely (including hoody) and protect you from jellyfish and the sun. Getting into them is a bit of a struggle and took a little longer than we thought. Ahem. Mask …. Check! Fins …. Check! Snorkel …. Check! If you need to pee at this point, just forget it. Off we go, into the Coral Sea.
It was supposed to be overcast, with a shower or two, but of course the weather was glorious! Big, puffy clouds floating serenely in a sunny blue sky. A very light wind, no waves, hardly even any chop. The water was warm and buoyant and reasonably clear.
We paddled out to a reef and practiced our skills, including figuring out how to stay afloat, breathe, move around, not accidentally destroy the corals, and take pictures underwater. I love that little Sony camera we brought along! The only thing is, it’s hard to see the viewer sometimes, so I have to just point the camera and hope that’s capturing what I’m seeing.
Our practice run went well, and after the briefest of excursions, we returned to the pontoon for a light lunch. But, oh no! We’re already out of time. We weren’t the only ones; all the others signed up for the guided trip had missed lunch, too. No worries, mates, the biologist ducked into the kitchens and ordered lunches to be set aside for all of us, which we could eat on the boat on our way back. I had a granola bar in my pack, which I split with Karel, two bites apiece, before we jumped back into the sea.
The reef is magnificent, truly one of the wonders of the world, and the guided trip was excellent, with the biologist pointing out all kinds of things that we would never have seen on our own. Karel is a natural in the water, and we had no trouble keeping up with the group. Still, we were out quite a while, it was strenuous doing all that swimming, and we’d just basically missed our third meal in a row. When we realized that one of our group had wandered off in the wrong direction, and the biologist wanted us all to make the long swim to fetch her, I announced that I was tired and heading back in. I could feel my body on the verge of crashing and didn’t want to take any chances.
As it turned out, the ship summons for all-aboard came just moments after my return, so Karel and the rest of the group were back by the time I’d flailed my way out of the stinger suit. Quick shower, dry clothes, run to the boat, find a seat, and now, at last! Food. But that’s a no-go. Somehow, my lunch was given away to someone else, sorry, nothing we can do, have a cracker.
My inclination is to break down and start sobbing. Normally I can handle this kind of thing, but I’m tired, my reserves are completely depleted, I’m having fun, but these Aussies are STARVING ME. With a little encouragement from my husband, I go back to the hospitality counter and throw a fit. A gigantic salad and two sammies (that’s down-under-speak for sandwiches) magically appear.
OK, that’s better, but from now on, I decide I’m taking no chances. I wake Karel from a nap when it’s time for dinner, and I go to bed early and set the alarm so we’ll have plenty of time for breakfast before our next tour departs in the morning.
Our tribulations are not over. The next day, Tuesday, we discover that the restaurant that opens earliest turns out to be closed on Tuesdays. In fact, most of the restaurants are closed on Tuesday. (Did we mention it’s rainy season here? In spite of the great weather we’re having, things are relatively quiet.) I finally found another place that opened a little later, but the staff was 10 minutes late in arriving for the day, and then needed time to fire things up. They kindly packed up a little brekkie that I hustled back to our pick-up spot, and once again we had only a few minutes to wolf it down before scrambling for the bus. Those of you who’ve eaten with me know I’m not really able to wolf down a meal or eat while in motion. This just isn’t working.
We get a nice tour of the Daintree Rainforest, a World Heritage site, including a ride down the river in search of crocodiles. We don’t spot any of the big ones, but we do get close to some young ones, less than a year old. There are palm trees with wicked stickers, vines that can blind you, leaves that will give you a 12-day hangover with migraine if you touch them. The Australian bush is as treacherous and deadly as the New Zealand forest was innocent and vulnerable. It’s all very interesting, but having seen the mature, untouched rainforests of Costa Rica, New Zealand, and the Pacific Northwest, the novelty has worn off, and a superficial rainforest-in-a-day tour is no longer a satisfying way to see it.
We also get to feed some kangaroos and wallabies at an animal rescue center (I’m glad someone is getting something to eat around here).
At last, we made it back to home base in time for an actual square meal of uniquely Aussie food (as opposed to anything we could find that was edible). Karel and I split a sampler of crocodile, kangaroo, emu, and barramundi (the local fish), all done up on the bar-b and served with sauces on the side. It was yummy and fun. We both agreed, the croc was the best. Tastes like chicken ;-).
There was a message waiting for us at reception: our ride to the airport would be collecting us early because of airport security procedures for international flights. Once again, no breakfast, or at least, not until after we’re checked in and through security and then have to wait for three hours before we can board our flight. Which, by the way, was a domestic flight, from Cairns to Darwin. We have to go through the whole security rigamarole again (and yet again, yes, three times in one trip, when we go over to the international gates) when we get to Darwin. I ordered a nice, nourishing breakfast of salmon, avocado, and potato cakes from the airport concessionaire, only to discover that the plastic utensils they’ve given me were no match for the food. The knife was as flimsy as a piece of oaktag, I mean, its not like I was trying to eat a steak or something. When I asked for something, anything, that could actually cut the salmon and potato cakes, I was told that was all they had, because of security precautions. I worked up a good sweat trying to get things down to bite-size, and finally gave up about halfway through. The potato cakes were victorious.
So, travel advisory/culture shock alert for anyone going to Australia and venturing beyond the major cities: The food is wholesome and the portions are plentiful,
make sure your schedule allows you to eat when Aussies see fit to feed you, keep plenty of granola bars and kangaroo jerky (I don’t know if there is such a thing, I just made that up) in your daypack, and forget about eating on Tuesday.
Perspective, perspective; if this is as bad as things get, life is very, very good.