Posts Tagged ‘supper’

Sailing the Whitsunday Islands

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

After several exciting days of diving, I couldn’t help but try to dive one of the best dive sites in the world: the SS Yongala.

Unfortunately I discovered they day before I was hoping to dive it, that the trip had been cancelled due to bad weather. Short on time, I converted my 7-hour coach ride into a 12-hour one, and just kept going to my next destination, Airlie Beach. I suppose that means I’ll have to come back to Australia some other day to do the Yongala!

Airlie is the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands, a magnificent group of volcanic peaks separated from the Australian mainland by a narrow passage of a few kilometres. It is also quite a pleasant, compact town with plenty of backpacker accommodation and agencies arranging yachts for charter.

Upon presenting myself at my hostel’s booking desk my first morning to book a sailing trip, I was asked whether I wanted to join a “party boat”, “traditional boat” or “racing boat”. Having had quite enough to drink at The Woolshed in Cairns, I erred away from the “party boat” and went for the racing option even though it was considerably more expensive. “Right, well there’s a boat leaving in 45 minutes,” the agent declared. Keen to make best use of my time, I jumped into action.

One hour later a group of eleven of us, and two crew, are sailing out of the the Abel Point Marina on former America’s Cup contender the Southern Cross. Definitely a “racing boat”! Here she is.

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Provided there were enough other volunteers, we could really help out as much or as little as we liked on the Southern Cross. However, with respect to one’s personal property, there are some basic precautions one should we aware of before volunteering. Unfortunately, we were not prepared and within fifteen minutes of leaving the marina, Tobias (Switzerland) and I had lost our sunglasses overboard! (And I had only bought the sunglasses in Sydney two weeks previously.) Andy the skipper, who really should know better, also had his baseball cap blown overboard, but given that this floated we were able to make a detour to pick it up.

Given the fairly tame wind conditions, the boat picked up some good speed, and we were leaning heavily away from the wind. Just a couple of minutes down below to use the loo was enough to make me quite seasick (and I rarely get motion sickness). After some time we arrived at out first destination, Whitehaven Beach, where the sand is supposedly some of the whitest and finest in the world.  We all hopped into a rib (called a tender in Australia) to be taken to the shore. It got a little cloudy as we arrived, but we enjoyed the beach (in our stinger suits given the jellyfish issue). From left to right: James (UK), Tobias (Switz), Maud (NL), Jenny and Hans (Sweden), and Rutger (NL)

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After a fabulous sunset (see below) and slap-up supper on the boat, the stars came out. The moon set shortly thereafter and we had a perfect view of the stars of the southern hemisphere, including the namesake of the boat, the Southern Cross. Unfortunately the rocking deck meant there was no opportunity for long-exposure photography,  but here is the sunset I mentioned earlier.

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Feeling all soppy and overwhelmed by the stars, I fell asleep on deck. When I woke in the morning, I saw James and Maud had done the same.

The next morning was quite dramatic: Rutger, who had been seasick since we left dock, started having heart palpitations, and had to get urgent medical assistance. A call was put out over the radio, and we altered course to take us to the nearest hospital on a private resort island. About half-an-hour later, we were met halfway by a high-speed boat that we transferred Rutger to to take him the rest of the way. There wasn’t much anyone could do while we were waiting, and we discussed afterwards whether we thought the response should have been quicker. I thought that given we were so far away from habited land, and yachts don’t react particularly well to helicopters, half-an-hour was as good as anyone could have expected. We heard over the radio later that afternoon that Rutger had been airlifted to the mainland from the resort island hospital.

With two members of our crew down (Maud had accompanied Rutger to the resort to help with translation) and not much else we could do, we carried on with our excursion. This included the opportunity of swimming to our own island and laying on the beach for the rest of the afternoon.

Reunited with Maud later that afternoon, we had another great meal and sunset.

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We visited another island the next morning…

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… and given we were covered in salt water, the private waterfall was useful.

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Unfortunately it was then time to sail back to Airlie Beach, but before we could do that, there was another dramatic development: as we switched back to the motor for our final approach towards the marina, the rope supporting our mainsail got stuck within the mast i.e. we couldn’t bring the mainsail completely down. Andy, the skipper, was going to have to climb up the mast and cut the rope from the other end. N.B. The mast of the Southern Cross is 100 feet (30 metres) high!

Andy was going to need ropes, lots of ropes, to help pull him up to the top of the mast, support his weight, deliver equipment to him, and eventually bring him back down without him falling off. Although Andy was really the only one who knew which ropes were going to do what, he was over 30m away, and was going to need us to do the leg-work. We must have learnt a thing or two about how the ropes work over the three days, as everything seemed to go swimmingly (with the help of the Portuguese deputy on deck level). My role was to translate between native-speaking Andy thirty metres away, and the mainly continental group on deck.

With that drama out of the way, we were able to bring the original drama to a close when we saw Rutger greet us on the marina as we docked.

That night we celebrated with a drink or two (as demonstrated by Sandy below)

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Finding Nemo

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

The English Channel is cold. At university I decided it would be great fun to learn to scuba-dive with the sub-aqua club. After a few months of Monday evenings at the University of London Union in the classroom and pool, we were sent down to Plymouth for a week of fun in water that was only 12 Celsius and very murky.

The Great Barrier Reef (GBR), off the coast of Queensland, on the other hand is supposed one the best diving locations in the world. Diving the reef was an opportunity not to be missed. In particular, as a BSAC Sports Diver with over 40 dives under my belt, I now consider myself a pretty good diver who could really do the GBR justice. I signed up to a three-day live-aboard all-in trip with Prodive, Cairns. They promised eleven dives (including a couple of night dives) at a number of different sites on the reef.

Fitting 11 dives into three days was going to necessitate a lot of early starts. The first morning was no exception as we met at the Prodive centre at 6:15am. Along with 35-or-so people, we were driven over to our boat in the Cairns marina. By no means luxurious, it was well kitted out with a large lounge and sun deck, a galley with full-time cook, twin bunk cabins and lots of scuba equipment; what more does one need for a fun three days?

After a two-or-three hour journey out to the reef and the first of many great meals (although I can never fault with any fried breakfast) it was time for the dive briefing! As an “experienced” diver, about 12 of us were separated from rabble and taken to the top deck for an illustrated induction.

Dive briefing on the top deck 

Dive briefing board

I was actually really impressed by how professional everything was, and by the trust and independence the crew gave us. Everyone is overly concerned with safety in the UK (probably justifiably given the cold and murky water) and my other trips in the tropics have seemed more like guided tours. Here, the message was very much about having fun and feeling free to explore.

Marie, from Sweden, and I linked up as dive buddies. It was to become a successful relationship as we both used modest amounts of air and so could stay down longer than many other dive pairs over the next couple of days. We would frequently be the first couple into the water and the last pair out. Here we are enjoying the sun deck.

Alex and Marie enjoying the sun deck between dives

Another reason for being very lucky to be paired with Marie, is that she had an underwater camera. Here I am!

Alex underwater

In case you are wondering why I appear to be wearing a wetsuit in tropical waters, it’s actually a stinger suit used to protect divers from the jellyfish that inhabit these waters at the time of the year.

At times it really did seem like we were on the set of Finding Nemo. Although I don’t know the names of the fish, I was constantly recognising characters from the film. Strangely enough, it was the fabled clownfish (Nemo himself) that was hardest to find, but here is a magnificent photo that Marie took of two we found.

Clown fish

The two night dives didn’t lend themselves particularly well to photography, but they were both great. Each diver gets allocated a fluorescent glowstick (attached to the air tank) and a torch (tied to a hand with strict instructions no to lose). For most of the dive you don’t see anything except these items on the other divers – very eerie. Nonetheless some different wildlife comes out at night. As our second night dive was starting, the crew were throwing away the leftovers from supper over the side of the boat. Then the Jaws theme music starts being played over the tannoy! As we were kitting up, we could see about eight reef sharks swimming around the boat. Reef sharks supposedly don’t eat humans, but the group was fairly hesitant as we were signed out of the boat. My cries of “a life lived in fear is a life half-lived” went down a storm. Needless to say, everyone made it back okay.

Once back in Cairns, we all met up for drinks. Cairns itself is a bit of a hillbilly town, which is somewhat pleasant but wouldn’t have enough to keep anyone entertained for more than a day. However, in backpacker circles, a bar by the name of The Woolshed is legendary. Here it is acceptable to dance on tables (yes I did join in, if not lead the way). One can also watch groups of young ladies take part in something called a wet T-shirt contest. The guy with the jet-spray wasn’t looking as happy as I would expect someone with his job should.

Wet T-shirt guy

And yes, photographs of the girls were allowed. (Not sure why I ended up with a front-row view, but it was probably because the bouncers had to kick me off the stage where I was dancing)

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So I hope to have reassured you all of the cultural aspects of my great trip abroad!