Monday, 14 December 1998
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
I do not know what other people think about as being Australia but I have always pictured it as dusty red plains, endless roads and unrelenting heat. So imagine our great surprise to be turfed off the plane in Melbourne at the height of summer to find ourselves in a London like drizzle. Worse than this it was about three in the morning and we did not have the first clue on the subject of where we would spend the night. Foolishly we ignored the possibility of dossing in the airport in favour of Anna's plan of taking the bus into town. Anyone who is ever tempted to think that just because they run a half hourly shuttle service throughout the night there is actually something going on at the other end should think again. If you do not think again you will probably find yourself forking out to stay in the Holiday Inn or sitting under a shelter outside the train station for three hours which is what we did.
We had managed to get ourselves in a bit of a state mainly because we had been so used to guide books we were not used to having zero information on a place. Worse than this we knew nothing about what we should do next. We decided to head for Sydney, a month is not a long time in Australia, we were due in Cairns eventually, the only alternative suggestion was Adelaide and this was in the opposite direction and most importantly Sydney was where our guidebooks were!
When the station finally opened we found out that the train north was a lot more expensive than the coach. The morning coach was all booked up and we mistakenly thought we would be missing out on some amazing scenery if we took the overnight coach so we took two seats for the next morning's departure. We then found some accommodation with only the aid of a huge display of leaflets seemingly aimed at backpackers got there and then collapsed into bed at nine in the morning.
We got up at eleven and caught the tram into town. Melbourne is an okay sort of place, it is on the river and has a small riverfront cafe scene. The tram network provides a bit of character as do a wealth of slightly gloomy Victorian buildings. We walked around and sorted out the posting of our Christmas cards and presents. Now one of the most popular statistics about Melbourne is that it is the third largest Greek city after Athens and Thessaloniki so we decided, not unreasonably to try and find a Greek restaurant. So having peaked at someone else's guidebook we caught the tram out to Swan Street in Richmond. After a long wait we eventually spotted a couple of restaurants and after a while, seeing no more, we got out and walked back. It was very early in the evening and we caught one restaurant just as it was opening up. Chatting to the owners of the restaurant it seemed that the guidebooks had it all wrong. The area had been the centre of the Greek community for many years but in the last twenty years people had migrated out towards the suburbs leaving the rather shabby Swan street behind. Instead he steered us to an area in the city's central grid where there were a few cafes and restaurants. When we got there we found that this indeed was a bit more lively and we squeezed into a busy restaurant which even had its own bouzouki player stranded in one corner.
Tuesday, 15 December 1998
Collaroy Bay, NSW, Australia
Our idea to take the day bus was a big mistake. Without a guidebook we were unaware that the bus, rather than travelling to Sydney via the coast, would follow a cross country short cut. Worse than this the scenery was just continuous flat European looking farmlands with the occasional corrugated iron building. Somewhere around the barely noticeable Canberra we looked out and it was true bush - eucalyptus as far as the eyes could see and the odd creek but either we fell asleep or it did not last for long because soon after we were pulling into Sydney.
We met my uncle John at the bus station and he gave us a lift to the YHA at Collaroy Bay, a small place by the beach three quarters of an hour north of Sydney. It was a pretty amazing place as these things go, it had been recently built and our room even had a balcony. We had dinner then said goodbye to John.
Wednesday, 16 December 1998
Sydney, NSW, Australia
When you are a kid growing up in England you see pictures of the Sydney Opera House or Harbour Bridge you think "this is the capital of Australia". Later on you are taught that the capital of Australia is really Canberra and apart from the odd question in a pub quiz it is a rarely needed fact. However taking the ferry in from Manly and approaching Sydney from the sea leaves you doubting the veracity of the fact. Clearly you were right when you were a kid, Sydney is the capital and what you were told was just some ploy by the Canberra tourist board.
Well of course it is a bit more complex than that because the site for Canberra was chosen in 1908 as a compromise between choosing either Melbourne or Sydney over the other. If was then purpose built to a city plan arrived at after an international competition. Also it should be remembered that Sydney's two most prominent landmarks were not constructed until 1932 (the bridge) and 1973 (the opera house), well after the build up of Canberra.
Stepping off the boat onto Circular Quay we walked straight to the Opera house and inspected it close up and were, as I imagine most people are, surprised to find its surface is composed of hundreds of white tiles. In addition it is not really as big as you think it is, it is big enough of course, but you imagine looking at pictures that you are going to feel dwarfed by it which you do not. We then started walking around, sightseeing a bit but also getting a few of our endless "things" done. Instead of going back to Collaroy we met John at a train station near where he works and then drove back via the "scenic route" and Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park where we were able to get an idea of what it meant by "the bush" - the road took us over a ridge from where you could see nothing but eucalyptus trees for miles around.
That night we got a curious insight into the world of the retired Australian. John took us to Harbord Diggers Club which is a members club in name only and we signed ourselves in at the door. Your average club is populated by grannies who come to play the "pokies" - poker based fruit machines - and empty thousands of dollars into them with no apparent reward. One aspect of this whole gambling culture is that the clubs themselves can only pocket a percentage of their earnings and so are forced to invest the rest into the clubs buildings and subsidising the club's restaurant. The result of this is that you get a good meal for very little money. The passion for gambling did not just finish at the pokies, they had everything from bingo to a model horse track where you bet on totally random plastic horses.
Thursday, 17 December 1998
Sydney, NSW, Australia
Not too unlike the previous day. We stopped off on the way into town at a shopping mall - this is popular in Australia as you would imagine since it allows people to shop without suffering heat exhaustion. We then went into Sydney and met Gavin, a friend of Anna's who was also taking a year out following his PGCE course. He was working his way around the world with his girlfriend and they had rented a small flat in Kings Cross whilst gathering some funds in Sydney. Kings Cross turned out to be just as seedy as the London version. Scores of backpacker hotels clustered around the town's red light district made for a unique mix and more than a few confused recent arrivals. We spent a great night at their flat and were able to get back to Collaroy reasonably late at night.
Friday, 18 December 1998
Lake Tuggerah, NSW, Australia
Again we had to go into Sydney. We were beginning to wish we had stationed ourselves in town rather than out of it. More shopping was this time accompanied by some looking around. We looked around The Rocks, a very old area of town just below Sydney Harbour bridge before climbing on the bridge itself and crossing it half way to sample the view. From up close the scale of the bridge really strikes home. You see its massive arches which for a price you can walk over - quite easily since they are well over a metre wide. The road deck itself is a pretty amazing place since as well as six lanes of traffic there is also a railway line and a footpath (which we were on). When you look down at the yachts and cats passing underneath the bridge and the planes which often fly overhead it seems as if you are inside a children's book drawing depicting all the forms of transport. But I guess that's why the bridge is so attractive, it is very functional. Whilst something like the Opera House has a certain aesthetic value it probably achieves this at a certain cost to its function (i.e. to have good acoustics and seat as many people as possible). The bridge on the other hand is nothing but functional, thousands of people must cross it every day, and I guess it is this purity of design which makes it so beautiful.
After our brief tour of the bridge we once again crossed it to go back to Collaroy by bus where we met up with my uncle who we had arranged to spend the weekend with. He drove us about an hour north to a house on the shores of Lake Tuggerah which he usually rents out but was now vacant. We again went to a club where dinner cost us an amazing $3.50 and then made plans for the next two days.
Saturday, 19 December 1998
Port Macquarie, NSW, Australia
First stop on our tour part way up the East coast was the Hunter Valley . You cannot really go to Australia without visiting a vineyard and the Hunter Valley contains some of the oldest (if not the most exciting). We first went to Rothbury who produced a very acidic Shiraz; Tyrells where we bought a bottle of much more acceptable Shiraz; and finally Lindemans who, despite high hopes, fared just as badly as Rothbury but by then we had dunk so much that it all went down well anyway.
After this we cut through to the coast and the Great Lakes region, a series of lakes separated from the sea by very narrow sandbars. We had lunch at Bulahdelah and then headed for Seal Rocks, a small headland between Wallis and Myall Lakes. Here the sea was truly beautiful and we began to realise how much beach Australia has - in both directions it swept for miles. I spent a while trying to get a photograph of the sea in action as it crashed against the rocks and then we got back on the road. The next town we passed was Forster which seemed very nondescript despite being situated on a sandbar at the mouth of a lake. In fact as we worked our way up to Port Macquarie all the towns turned out to be the same - dramatically positioned with superb beaches but with very little character. Fortunately however the scenery was breathtakingly beautiful.
After a brief stop at a lighthouse overlooking the town we soon found out that Port Macquarie was no different. In fact it was difficult to see quite why so many people retire or go on holiday there since there is very little difference between it and the Sydney suburbs. The club here (yes we went to the local club again for dinner) was pretty spectacular no doubt as a result of the huge retirement village next to it populated by slot machine addicted grannies able to play the "pokies" 24 hrs a day. After this we went out to look for excitement and settled for a pint in pretty much the only pub in town.
Sunday, 20 December 1998
Lake Tuggerah, NSW, Australia
We set off pretty early since we had to attend to a pretty urgent matter, we had been in Australia for nearly a week and had not seen a Koala bear yet. We found some pretty tired looking specimens at the Koala zoo in the middle of town. Well they are nocturnal so I suppose that they had a pretty good excuse for being curled up in the trees rather than partying. After this we got back on the road and worked our way south. On the way we managed to spot some kangaroos at a campsite next to another perfect beach and found a totally mind numbingly clean deserted beach behind some mountainous dunes on the endless sandbar enclosing one of the lakes.
However something must be pointed out here no matter how nice the beaches were swimming often seemed impossible. In fact swimming is a bit of a complex thing in Australia, the sea is usually so rough that it is either dangerous or simply unpleasant and if it is not you have box jellyfish or "blue bottles" (the Australian term for "Portugese Man o'War) to worry about. Several people had drowned up and down the coast the previous weekend and so we were tentative about jumping in. This is why when John suggested mentioned the safer enclosed waters of Port Stephens we decided it was wise to wait until then to jump in. Sadly when we got there we found it was too enclosed, some algae had descended en masse and was festering in the still waters of the coastal inlet. We switched back to the ocean despite the fact that the weather had taken a turn for the worse. Here we found no-one in the water and soon worked out that the reason why was bluebottles, we even found one washed up on the beach.
On the way back we stopped off at some friends of John's who lived further up the inlet. They were great fun and we chatted about everything from travelling to how to avoid shark attacks. One thing that I found interesting was that although living in a tiny community by the beach is what some would consider a perfect lifestyle, they clearly missed the company of their fellow countrymen. I found a parallel between their situation and ours because although we were living a dream travelling around the world in some ways we were missing our friends back in London.
Monday, 21 December 1998
Lake Tuggerah, NSW, Australia
We were at a bit of a loss as to what to do. We had intended to spend Christmas with John but he was not free. Gavin was going to Bondi but this did not appeal as drinking had lead to problems a couple of years earlier and the festivities had been somewhat restricted since. Instead we had, with a lot of uncertainty, decided to take John's spare car and head up to the Blue Mountains. Due to more than a few complications we could not leave on Monday so decided to spend the day resting and reading. The only thing worth recording is the fact that for the first time on our trip we were able to cook for ourselves!
Tuesday, 22 December 1998
Byron Bay, NSW, Australia
A long day which started off bad but was for the best in the end. The problem was that the indicators of the car were not working. We took the car to a mechanic who said that it was a wiring fault and it would take a day to fix and he could not start until the day after. The problem with this was that we did not have a driving license. We had not brought one with us and we did not think it would be an issue but driving around a car without any indicators would be a sure way of making it one. We were in a doubly difficult situation because we had organised to pop into Sydney on the way to the mountains to get some jabs for South America that we had not obtained in the UK for compatibility reasons. Not wanting to miss our appointment we jumped on a train to Sydney and pondered about what to do with the car.
It took an unbelievable two hours to get into town by which time we had decided what to do. If we got the car sorted out we would not be able to leave until the 24th which would leave us very little time before we had to leave for Cairns on the 26th. Instead we realised that it would be much better to take the opportunity to find somewhere on the East coast to hole up for the festive season and avoid having to do the whole of the journey to Cairns in one stretch. The place we opted for was Byron Bay on the basis of little more than a couple of recommendations. We hurriedly made some phone calls and secured a night at one hotel followed by four in a dormitory at the YHA. After this we changed our bus tickets to leave that night. We were a little dazed but at least we had made a firm decision after days of indecision.
After this we got our jabs which was as financially traumatic as always with a comment by Anna and some goading by the doctor resulting in us getting injected with meningitis as well as yellow fever. After this we did a few hours of hanging out before it was finally time to get on the bus. The bus driver was by all accounts a bit of a character. He was hell bent on injecting a bit of humour into the lengthy series of announcements that Australian bus drivers are forced to give and achieved it. "Do you want to see a video","Yes!","Well I'll be passing one around later - rewind it when you've finished with it". "If you look out of the right hand window now.... you'll completely miss what you should be looking at to the left". After all this he made us introduce ourselves to our neighbouring passengers and we set off.
Wednesday, 23 December 1998
Byron Bay, NSW, Australia
We spent the night on the bus and woke up the next morning to stop off to see the 'Big Prawn' at West Ballina . To this day I am still not sure what the Prawn was about, I think it must be the length of the highway numbs the senses so attractions have to be increasingly bigger to get noticed. There is also a big banana and a few other big attractions dotted around.
We arrived in Byron Bay around ten and were picked up by the courtesy bus. However the well run facade of the Belongil beach house stopped there, the current occupants of our room were sleeping in and had to be evicted and the room cleaned before we could get our keys. It was starting to rain so we decided to sit in the restaurant and have breakfast to pass the time. The Belongil Beach House turned out to be a relaxed sort of place, alternative but in a streetwise sort of way (i.e. no bead curtains, joss sticks and kaftans). It is not exactly on the beach but it is a short walk over the main road and through the dunes. This is why it came as quite a surprise when a car pulled up outside and a man stepped out into the rain stark bollock naked and ran like someone possessed over the dunes towards the sea. It appeared that Byron Bay was going to be somewhat more interesting than Port Macquarie.
We finally got into our room around twelve, showered and took the shuttle bus into town. We then drifted around the shops and restaurants and generally checked the place out. It turned out to have a quite successful mixture of surf shops and more alternative outlets with the large chains totally absent. In fact it appeared that MacDonalds had been banned by petition from opening up a restaurant which came as a relief as the golden arches seemed to have been a feature of almost every Australian town we had visited. After dinner we walked back along the lengthy Belongil beach in the half light. It was a great walk but the end result was a little disappointing, Everything was shutting up at the beach house and a storm had just kicked in, we were forced to retire to our room early and play cards.
Wednesday, 23 December 1998
Byron Bay, NSW, Australia
There is no getting away from it, Christmas in Australia just does not feel like Christmas. We had transferred from the Belongil Beach House which did not have any rooms from Christmas Eve to the YHA which did not ave any rooms before Christmas Eve. We had lucked out a bit because there had been a cancellation and we were granted the intimacy of a room rather than the threatened mixed dormitory. However in a staggering display of deja vu it turned out that not only had the current occupants not vacated the room they had in fact returned the key before check out time and then gone back to sleep. When we finally got into our room we dropped our stuff, borrowed a couple of the hostel's bikes and then set off to the beach. We decided to head for the secluded beach at Broken Heads. It was about half an hour's cycle north of town on a road parallel to the lengthy tallow beach.
So there we were lying on a squeaking clean white sand beach with the impressively powerful pacific surf crashing against the rocks either side of us. We did not have much company, a handful of people were sunning themselves in the grassy dunes at the back of the beach and there was a group of four people at the far end. Soaking up the sun I thought about how far removed this all was from the typical Christmas Eve. All through my childhood Christmas Eve was nearly always taken up with the journey from wherever we lived to my grandparents for the big family get together. The year before Anna and I had retreated to a converted farm house on a loch in the Trossachs and although I was away from my family it was still very definitely Christmas. On Christmas day last year we walked into the hills above the farm house and it started to snow, sitting on King's Beach white Christmases seemed very, very far away.
After getting a bit burnt we cycled back, swam in the pool for a while, then stuffed ourselves silly at a restaurant. After this we cruised a selection of bars and ended up in a nightclub where the music never resorted to being danceable - all very handbag house - and so we sat and chatted in what one normally describes as the "Chill-out" room. We got back to the hostel well after midnight and so opened the present my parents had sent us. The rest of the hostel was far from quiet, a large group of lads in their early twenties were giggling like schoolgirls. We thought it might be because they were excited about their presents. Later we were to find out they did this every night and were just a bunch of immature arses. We got to sleep in the end.
Friday, 25 December 1998
Byron Bay, NSW, Australia
I missed the cold of Christmas and had been hoping that a Christmas day beach party would more than make up for it. Unfortunately Australians seem to have a habit of outlawing things outright when a small bunch of people cause a problem and in Byron Bay drinking and cooking on the beach was illegal. So our Christmas day lunch was to be held in the YHA itself. After recovering and going for a swim we went out for a short walk around town (everything was shut apart from Baskin & Robbins) and then sat down for lunch. This was to prove a bit of a disappointment, we were not the only ones who had overdone things the night before and the general atmosphere was jaded. Worse than this the Christmas lunch that we had been looking forward to and paid sixteen bucks a piece for turned out to be a cold buffet. We were allotted half a chicken each accompanied by some rather lacklustre salads. We managed to drink the wine we had carried up from the Hunter Valley and a couple of the eighteen beers we had bought the day before but it was tough going. We also managed to sit next to a very self contained threesome and despite a few exchanges everything was a bit quiet.
After lunch we went to the main beach. This turned out to be a good move as it was a lot more lively than the hostel. We sunbathed for a bit and then decided to try to master the art of body surfing as the waves along Byron's beaches are to say the least big. This went well for a while and I managed to catch a couple of waves which carried me all the way in. Then disaster struck, I got caught up with a wave at the wrong point and was flipped over and my chin was smashed into the sand. When I got up again I found that I was bleeding heavily and it was a pretty deep cut. We stayed on the beach until my chin finally stopped bleeding then returned to the hostel. As everything was closed we had bought our own food and beers and so spent a pretty quiet evening in.
Saturday, 26 December 1998
Byron Bay, NSW, Australia
We had decided to not spend the whole day at the beach and go for a walk up to Cape Byron (the most Easterly point of Australia) and its lighthouse. The path follows the main beach then cuts around another couple of beaches until you get to a beach which is perfect for children swimming as a sand bar breaks the surf way before it gets to the beach. It was also good for surfing because a small headland provided a break which carried surfers for at least 200m roughly parallel to the beach. We watched the fun from a small lookout at the top of a rock, the thing that amazed me in particular was that no-one got hit as the wave bourne surfers hurtled towards other surfers paddling back towards the break.
Carrying on around the back of yet another beach we found ourselves at Cape Byron. Here the waves crashed relentlessly into the rocks and I was able to take some shots of the sea in action. Again there was some amazing surf off the end of the head but here it was dangerous to say the least and the waves were huge. We then went to Lesser Widegoes beach which is, I guess Australia's most Easterly beach. Here we were also amazed to find the first topless sun bather we had seen in the whole of Australia. The total absence of topless sunbathing from Byron's beaches had confirmed our opinion that the Australians are quite conservative when it comes to the body. But at Widegoes we found that this was quite easy to break down. Seeing someone else without their bikini on Anna removed hers and then within a quarter of an hour another two came off. Although we had no idea whether the other girls were Australians it at least demonstrated that the possibility for a change in attitude was there.
The lighthouse itself was okay and we were able to watch dolphins from up high on the cliff. We then followed a path through the semi-tropical forest back down into town. Of course we plunged straight into the swimming pool when we got off then cooked dinner and then hit the streets of Byron.
Sunday, 27 December 1998
Byron Bay, NSW, Australia
I woke in a bit of a sweat and it was clear that I could no longer afford the sun. We decided in the end to spend the day reading and writing and buying Anna some clothes for New Years Eve when we would be attending a party. This turned out to be a bit of a mistake because it took longer than either of us had thought and even keeping to the shade the heat was a bit too much for me. We got a very nice dress in the end and I sort of collapsed with a high temperature back at the hostel. After this we had to have a fairly quiet evening and did little more than swim, cook and pack.
Monday, 28 December 1998
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
On the map it looks not too far from Byron Bay to Brisbane . In reality it takes about four hours. When we got there we checked into the somewhat institutional YHA and then wondered what to do with the afternoon. I was still running a temperature so we thought that a tour of the city in the baking heat was not the thing. Instead we headed for the science museum the theory being that it would have quite fierce air conditioning, which it did. It also had a fascinating collection of hands on exhibits and it was a bit like being back in a school science lesson. Anna especially was unstoppable as she played with just about everything. Quite amazingly there is a time difference between NSW and Queensland (caused by the fact that Queensland has no need of daylight saving time) and we left the museum an hour before we should. I had originally planned that we would meet up with Craig, a friend of mine, in Brisbane prior to travelling up to Cairns where we would again meet up with him to spend New Years. He got in contact with us but sadly I was still in the grip of my sun induced fever and we had to cancel. We played scrabble instead.
Tuesday, 29 December 1998
Cairns, Queensland, Australia
Brisbane to Cairns is a good twenty-seven hour journey. All of this day was therefore spent on a bus. The scenery was pretty dull the Pacific Highway sadly runs quite a way in land and you hardly ever get to see the sea. You just stop at an endless succession of 24 hr roadhouses and watch several tame movies.
Wednesday, 30 December 1998
Cairns, Queensland, Australia
Cairns is generally a hot place and December is one of the most hot and humid months. Although it is quite well known it is not such a big place and it is very spread out with amazingly wide streets and few buildings over two storeys. We got a taxi to where Craig's parents-in-law lived and walked in. I had not seen Craig for over six months, in fact I had not seen anyone from back home in this time and it was good to see him again. His wife Natalie was now five months pregnant and seemed very happy to be back with her family. Natalie's mother Carol was also there and she was great, looking after us and giving us some lunch and generally making us feel at home.
We chatted over lunch and then we went to visit the centre of town with Craig and Natalie's brother Andrew where we looked around and played some pool. That night we met Natalie's father and he cooked some steaks on their capacious barbeque. Whilst Anna and I did the washing up the family unwrapped their delayed Christmas presents.
Thursday, 31 December 1998
Port Douglas, Queensland, Australia
We did not do much on New Years Eve. Andrew was going to take us to a swimming hole but he was not feeling too well. Craig went out to play golf with his friend Matt and Natalie went to the airport to pick up her uncle who was coming up from Brisbane as it was her father's birthday on New Years Day. Anyway we were more than content to write diaries and read. The thing was that the majority of things to do in Cairns revolved around the sea or were activities such as bungy jumping. It was raining on and off all day so the sea did not seem like an option and by the time we got up we had probably missed most of the trips. Craig returned about three and ran us into town so that we could finish off a couple of errands.
That night Craig, Natalie, Matt, Matt's wife Kerry and the two of us went to Port Douglas for the celebrations. They have celebrations in Cairns but these have been known to get a bit out of hand so a lot of people from Cairns go up to Port Douglas, a high class resort, for the night. We were staying at the Radisson, which was a step up from the hotel's we usually stayed at, as were a lot of Matt's friends and we got together in one of their rooms for a few drinks. We chatted to a number of people then moved over to the swimming pool which was slightly annoying because Craig and I really wanted to get into town to see what was going on there. Sadly Natalie did not feel very well so had to go back to their room before we finally headed off to town at half past eleven.
When midnight came we were out in the streets, it was all fairly tame the only real excitement was someone letting off a roman candle between two cars and presumably not doing any favours for either of their paintwork. Anna and I returned back to the hotel before every one else and I had to put Anna to bed as she was feeling rather worse for wear. After this I went for a quick swim in the floodlit multi-level hotel pool where I briefly ran into some of the others. I went to bed about half past two wondering whether I had been expecting too much of New Years, maybe we would have done better to celebrate it in Tahiti as we had originally planned!
Friday, 1 January 1999
Cairns, Queensland, Australia
The first day of the New Year started with a hangover interrupted by a phone call from Craig saying that they were leaving in fifteen minutes. We bundled into the car and drove back to Cairns along the coast road which was beautiful. Back at the house everyone was making preparations as it was Natalie's father's birthday. Throughout the morning and afternoon scores of people dropped in to wish him a happy birthday and we chatted to a few of them. We had however decided that it was time to do something as three days of drinking was not exactly what the doctor ordered. We found that there was a place listed in the Youth Hostel guidebook up in the mountainous area south west of Cairns so we booked to go there the next day.
Saturday, 2 January 1999
Undara, Queensland, Australia
The drive through the mountains and the Atherton Tablelands to Undara was magnificent. The tablelands were very reminiscent of the English countryside, surprising since not so many years ago there was little more than rainforest there and now it is one of the biggest milk producing regions in Australia. The bus driver also told us tons of stuff as we went along, names of trees, facts about the towns we passed through, the roads we took. However since it was costing us a total of two hundred and forty bucks to get us to Undara and back it was just as well we got something for our money.
The Undara Lava Lodge is set in the grounds of an outback livestock farming station. The countryside surrounding it really made us feel like we were in Australia, widely spaced Eucalyptus trees punctuated by the occasional granite bluff and dusty red road. We checked into the hotel, had lunch, had a swim in their very nice swimming pool and then went bush walking. Although getting to the Lava Lodge was expensive and the whole point of the place was a set of not very interesting lava tubes the thing that made the trip worthwhile were the bush walks. They had laid out a few trails of differing lengths and with not too many guests we had the trail almost to ourselves. At first it skirted around the edge of a swamp. The swamp was known as the 100 mile swamp not because of its size but because its distance from the coast. The prospectors and miners all used to come through the area and would navigate with the aid of natural features such as the swamp. They knew that if after a certain number of days following the often overgrown trail they would hit the swamp and if they did not then knew they would have to double back. We walked through the trees and bulbous termite nests with the occasional parrot flying overhead and finally got to a flat expanse of granite known simply as flat rock. We pushed on and eventually got to a bluff known as circle view as from its top you got a 360 degree view over the treetops to the tops of distant volcanoes. I got some fantastic photographs.
After dinner that night the lodge had organised a night walk. One of their guides took a group of people with flashlights out to explore the bush. It was a full moon she explained so we would not see man animals as they all kept a low profile in the strong light. However we did see an owl, some green tree frogs and about a million cane toads which after their unsuccessful introduction to combat the sugar cane beetle have somewhat overrun Queensland. We also nearly had a heart attack going back to our room as some kangaroos leapt out of the bushes and crossed the path ahead of us making some bizarre barking sounds.
Saturday, 2 January 1999
Cairns, Queensland, Australia
We had booked to go on a tour of the Lava Tubes the main attraction at Undara. They were created by the eruption of Undara volcano from which lava flowed some 160 kilometres down the course of a river. As it flowed the outer crust cooled but the inside core continued to flow out leaving a hollow tube as it emptied out. This all sounded interesting in the leaflet but at the end of the day little to pick between the tubes and a bland featureless cave. Anyway the guide spun it out taking us to the top of another bluff to show us the surrounding volcanoes, giving us information on the flora and fauna along with the practices of the aborigines and the early pioneers. The thing was that the tubes were half full of debris and so were semi-circular and the inside walls of the tube were not of obsidian or pumice but just plain basalt. Well some people are never satisfied.
After the tour we had the obligatory swim and then played cards until the bus to Cairns turned up. Back in Cairns we checked into the YHA and went out for a huge meal at a pub that actually served pints!
Monday, 4 January 1999
Airlie Beach, Queensland, Australia
Another very long bus trip from Cairns to Airlie Beach. As usual the bus driver got totally carried away with his announcements, "Please lock the toilet door when you are in there otherwise I might brake hard and you will be propelled out of it and slide down the aisle with your trousers around your ankles. If on the other hand you really want to expose yourself please do not wait around in the toilet for someone to open the door, come down here and have a word with us, we will lend you a mackintosh and make an announcement over the speaker system so that everyone can see."
Finally we got to Airlie Beach around eight and checked into Club Habitat, which was just a fancy name for the Youth Hostel which was a bit grotty. We quickly had a look around for another hotel then found a restaurant and had dinner.
Tuesday, 5 January 1999
Airlie Beach, Queensland, Australia
People come to Airlie beach for two things diving and sailing. We wanted to do both but it was not really on the cards, the majority of the dive trips were three days long and involved between eight and twelve dives. Anna had experienced problems diving in Thailand and Sumatra and quite apart from this so much diving in the space of three days sounded tiring. We instead decided to concentrate on sailing and had opted for the biggest and fastest sailing ship in Airlie, the 80ft ex-racing super maxi yacht "Condor". We would get some great sailing in and would get a chance to do a couple of dives on the reef if we wanted.
The first thing we did that morning was change hotels. It was really pissing down with rain so this sort of constrained us to the hotels along the main street but we ended up finding a room which as well as having its own bathroom had a small kitchen. After this we went shopping and then went to a ProSail briefing. This was basically a talk about what to bring, what to expect etc. Most amusing were the instructions on alcohol "Work out how much you should bring and then double it. People often underestimate and there are no bottle shops on the reef" - we feared that the boat would sink under the weight. The other amusing thing at the briefing was an elderly woman who, in the midst of a group of twenty backpackers, looked a little out of place. It turned out that she thought so to because when it came to any questions she came out with "It seems to me that these activities are designed for them not me". The response was "well in the end of the day it was your choice to do this not ours". Rather cryptically the old lady then turned to her daughter and said "I'm not sure it was", she then babbled about sailing boats in Amsterdam in the old days. Thankfully for both her and us she was on another boat.
That night's entertainment was provided by a couple of rented videos. The thing was we were getting a bit bored of being force fed a diet of PG films on long distance buses and so the idea of picking our own films seemed too good an opportunity to miss. However we had our fair share of problems. Predictably the first video player we rented did not work, chewing up both of the tapes we had picked and we had to return it. This is when we really got to know the manager of the video shop really well. He was french and more than a little crazy insisting that we relaxed and he would fix it etc. On to our second machine we had a few problems tuning the ancient HMV television in but finally sat down to watch "Chasing Amy". This was superb but the same could not be said for "Scream" which we had hoped would be scary. I actually fell asleep in the middle so and as a result achieved a degree of continuity as the chief suspect at the start after being proved innocent is then found to be the culprit. By sleeping through the middle you sort of iron out the plot twists and it all seems very simple.
Wednesday, 6 January 1999
Airlie Beach, Queensland, Australia
Hanging out in Airlie Beach, not really much to say. We had to think about how much beer we wanted on the boat, decided to play it safe and that thirty-six would be a good number and proceeded to buy two crates of VB.
Thursday, 7 January 1999
Whitehaven Beach, Queensland, Australia
Setting sail. We sat outside the offices of ProSail watching everyone else arrive with a single six pack each. Clearly they thought they would drink a beer a day and had doubled this number and come up with six. It was all a bit embarrassing until a couple of British lads turned up with a crate each. We got on the bus and rode down to Shute harbour, everyone waiting to set eyes on our home for the next three days. Fortunately it was as big and as well looked after as it looked in the brochures. We took off our shoes and said goodbye to them and then stowed (spot the nautical term) our bags. We got a sort of double bed in a small compartment towards the "pointy-end" which we shared with two Norweigan girls (the cabin not the bed). The majority of the other passengers were not so fortunate and were given an array of bunks with zero headroom in the open plan galley-cum-dormitory that occupied the centre of the ship. Beers were placed into capacious eskies and then we were off.
It was to be a hand's on trip. There was not an awful lot to do since we only hoisted the sails up twice a day and did the washing up. However it was all new and quite exciting (the sails more so than the washing up). On a yacht you raise the sails using small pedestals with two man cranks on them. They are quite sophisticated with three gears and the ability to be connected to different drums. On Condor there were five such pedestals requiring a total of ten "grinders" to hoist the main sail. By the end of the trip we knew the routine, first ten grinders would be volunteered to hoist the main sail in first gear. Six of these would then sit down whilst the other four completed the job in second. Then a "fresh four grinders" would be put into play to hoist the top sail. This would get the sails up. When we got to our destination we would have to put the sails away. This was slightly less labour intensive as the main sail took care of itself and the top sail only required a couple of minutes of frenzied grabbing and folding to put it back in its bag.
Having hoisted the sails we got underway. Neither of us have ever been on such a big boat so nothing could really prepare us for what happened when we caught the wind. The boat leaned over to an angle in excess of forty-five degrees and everything fell off the deck into the sea. Fortunately our briefing had prepared us for this and nobody had left anything on deck. Nobody except for Pete, one of the most experienced of the four crew who had nor secured the speakers. Led Zeppelin floated to the bottom of the ocean.
There is no easy way to explain how far yachts lean over. Imagine sitting with your legs over the "high side" of the boat hanging onto the rail. Then you look behind you and down a steep slope you see the sea rushing past, twelve foot below you, in contact or almost in contact with the deck on the "low side". It sort of fascinates you for a while, until that is you want to go to the toilet and you start to realise that moving really is not an option. This is what happened to me. In the end all I could do was wait until we subsided to a lower angle and then try to get to the hatch holding on for dear life to anything that did not move. Once down the hatch your troubles are not over. Above deck the continual motion of the boat is somewhat damped by the fact that you look at the horizon. Below deck thee is no horizon, it is somewhat like being in a cocktail shaker. You fall from one side to the other grabbing on to the rails which adorn every stable surface. I have seen plenty of maritime disaster movies where bad actors flung themselves from side to side. On this occasion it must have looked like I was going for an Oscar. The problems got worse, but I am not going to go into details of how to use a toilet when the boat is pitched at such an angle that the water actually runs out of it onto the floor.
Our first destination was Whitehaven Beach. I had read somewhere that it was rated as one of the best beaches in the world and this was quite accurate. The sand was not just white, it was really white and it did not just squeak when you walked on it, it was like jumping into a box of white mice with a pair of size nine Doc Martens on. It was an endless strip of sand and moreover it seemed like the only access to it was by boat. Not that this meant it was underpopulated, one by one yachts cruised in and anchored up and just before we left a huge catamaran ferry cruised in and disgorged people by the hundreds. Despite this we had a huge area of the beach pretty much to the thirty of us. We dived into the, as you would imagine, crystal clear sea and swam about. This is when we met Simon, a fellow British traveller who had pretty much followed the same route as us. We all got chatting in the sea and explored the obvious comparison to Mama Hanh's boat trip which we had all been on. We also met a girl he seemed on rather good terms with, a Canadian ex-gymnast called Stephie.
After a bit of soaking up the sun we got back into the inflatable and zoomed back to the yacht for lunch. It must be said that the food was firstly superb and secondly plentiful on board. Then we set sail for our anchorage for the night in the shelter of one of the Whitsundays. On the way we chatted to even more people, it was rapidly transpiring that nearly everyone on the boat was British. There were two Canadians, two Norwegians, two Dutch, one American, one Australian, one Brazilian (!), one Greek (Anna) and sixteen British passengers. Not that this is an atypical situation in Australia but it made what happened all the more unusual.
We dropped anchor and then the brave people jumped into the sea. I say brave because we had previously seen scores of Lion's Mane jellyfish which although not as deadly as some of the "stingers" roaming around Australia's shores are still worth avoiding. In the end about five of us got in and Anna and I lasted about five minutes before we saw a gigantic submerged jellyfish with the aid of our masks and swiftly exited the water. One guy tried to make the shore but had to tun back because of currents. This was the Australian, Jarred, who as we later found out was rather nifty in the snorkelling department. After this the barbeque (yes there was one strapped to the back rails of the boat) was fried up and we had dinner. After this we partied, or should I say we did not because everyone dropped off like flies. This was okay because it had been a long first day. Quite a few people slept on deck which was cooler but we reasoned that our compartment, which was below a huge hatch, would be cooler. We were wrong.
Friday, 8 January 1999
Hook Island, Queensland, Australia
The fact that we got up at six was pretty irrelevant because I hardly slept a wink and was sweating most of the night. Breakfast was orderly because by now everyone had got into the routine of circling the galley in a clockwise direction picking up what they wanted. We then hoisted the sails and set off for the reef. This was a whole different class of sailing. Out of the shelter of the Whitsundays the sea was pretty choppy and the wind pretty strong. We managed to tip the boat up to a quite severe angle and had to wedge ourselves even more tightly against the rails to avoid rolling off deck.
It is probably at this point that I should include a bit about the crew. The two younger deckhands were Nathan and Vanessa. They did a lot of the work with the ropes and sails and directed us when they needed some grinding done. Then there was Pete, the cook, who at a weather beaten forty years of age definitely looked like a sailor. Finally there was CD ("California Dreamin") the captain of the ship. Definitely the character of the four of him he grew up surfing in California until he realised there was more money in sailing. He had captained the Condor in a few of its winning races and seemed rather attached to it. He got his nickname for apparently leaping up on the boom of a yacht during a storm and riding it like a surf board. Anyway he cut quite a figure again having the weather beaten look but this time permanently supplemented by zinc sun block war paint. He also seemed responsible for selecting a lot of the music which was why we were continually listening to Led Zeppelin, Credence Clearwater Revival etc.
By nine thirty we were at the Great Barrier Reef . I am not sure what most people would expect but for some reason it seemed like a bit of an anticlimax - we were in the middle of nowhere, all we could see was another ship and a couple of mooring buoys. However as we got closer we started to make out the lines of the reef under the turquoise waters of the pacific. We had decided not to dive, mainly because Anna was not happy with the idea but also because we thought we would see more snorkelling. However some people had decided to go for it so had to be transferred over to the other boat, which was something like a floating dive factory. Whilst they were being transferred Pete started throwing bread into the sea and this attracted several big fish. We jumped in with snorkelling gear on and before long we were joined by the largest Wrasse I have ever seen, about a metre long and half a metre "tall". It was quite tame and seemed oblivious to our presence as it gulped down the bread. It even carried a couple of hitchhikers, some cleaner fish permanently attached to its gills.
The first snorkel was pretty uneventful. The coral was nice but nowhere near a match for that at Pulau Weh, the visibility was pretty poor and the fish were few and far between. Fortunately they had to go out again because of the size of the group and we managed to tag along for the second trip. We dived in and instantly I saw my first shark. It was a white tip reef shark but as soon as we spotted it ran away. I gave chase camera in hand but never got close enough. We continued snorkelling and saw three more sharks but they were always just a bit too fast to get a good picture with our waterproof camera. In fact none of the pictures we took worked out that well, the instructions on our camera said we had to be within three metres but at three metres away all fish looked tiny through its viewfinder. So you had to get within one metre, frame the shot and quickly take it. This sounds easy enough but trying to do it whilst swimming and whilst your subject is trying to run off in the opposite direction is to say the least hard. The other problem was that we took a lot of the shots whilst diving down and as you go down all the colours start to leech away and you are left with a blue picture.
At lunch we irritated the others, who had not seen the sharks, as well as the divers who, predictably, had seen nothing at all. It seemed like a wise move not to go diving as for the price of fifty dollars the divers had spent half the time we did in the water and had seen half as much. We again went snorkelling after lunch and this time the Norwegians, as well as us, saw some sharks so we knew we had not been seeing things. The person who seemed the most annoyed by not spotting a shark was the Australian Jarred. We witnessed him snorkelling this time and it appeared that he had totally mastered it, staying underwater for absurdly long amount of time.
The sail back to the shelter of the islands was monumental. The sea was incredibly choppy and the angle of the ship was worrying. It turned out that the second top sail was not properly secured to the front railing of the boat so Vanessa was sent down to tie it down. We sat there amazed as wave after wave of water crashed over her threatening to wash her away. In the end she managed to do it and she got a well deserved round of applause. All through this drama CD was dancing away at the helm to the strains of U2's "In the Name of Love" pumping away at full volume.
That night we anchored off the shore of Hook Island near one of the resorts. This meant that we were able to go ashore, buy a beer or two and play some pool. After we came back we had dinner and got ready to party. Well that was the plan, sadly only four or five other people seemed to share the same idea. We ended up the seven of us talking in the dark without any music whilst everyone else slept around us, occupying every square centimetre of the deck. We still persevered until someone woke up and shouted at us to shut up, we found this a bit pathetic, especially since it was one of the British "lads", but even so we decided to call it a night. Anna and I had a go at sleeping on the deck but just as we were about to get to sleep it started to tip down with rain and we had to disappear below deck.
Saturday, 9 January 1999
Whitehaven Beach, Queensland, Australia
When we woke up the sea was as calm as a millpond and it was clear that any sailing that day would be in nowhere near the same league as the other two days. We were meant to do some snorkelling but when we arrived at the site five minutes around the corner it was teeming with lion's mane jellyfish so we abandoned the idea. After this we put up the sails (using an extra big topsail to make the most of what little wind there was) and set a course for South Molle Island. Daniel, the Brazilian photographer steered for a lot of the way to the shouts of "Oi Fabio!" from CD. The Island turned out to be a pretty unexciting resort with a very stony beach. I think the purpose of the stop was for us to do the walk up to a bluff on the Island from which you could see out over all the Whitsundays. Quite a few people did the walk but we opted to chill out on some grass at the back of the beach. Back on the boat the crew used our cameras to take some group photographs. Apparently when Simon's camera (the English guy who had been on Mama Hanh's) was in position Stephie (the Canadian ex-Gymnast) lifted her top. This was very confusing because she had been getting on rather well with Jarred the night before. Anyway the two of them looked almost identical so maybe she was just confused!!
The ride back was not so much as a triumphant homecoming as I had imagined. Without any wind we were forced to use the engine to get back and we slowly ambled into port. We jumped off the boat and were reunited with our shoes and somewhat shell shocked got into the ProSail bus. To make matters worse on the "it was not enough" front a party had been arranged at a restaurant for that night. Sadly we had booked ourselves on the first bus out of town so we had to say our goodbyes on the bus. We ran into Daniel a little later in the street and took his address as we got on very well and at the time our final destination was Brazil.
Sunday, 10 January 1999
Byron Bay, NSW, Australia
The distances between places in Australia are colossal and if you need any proof of this you can count up the number of days we lost simply in transit. Even travelling overnight we did not get to Brisbane until two and to Byron Bay until eight. It may be a bit surprising to here the name of this place again but the thing was we had not left ourselves enough time to visit Fraser Island (the other place we were interested in) and we had spent a lot of money on the Undarra and Whitsundays trips so wanted to save a little bit in our remaining days in Australia. Perhaps more importantly we had loved Byron Bay and still had a couple of things we wanted to do there. When we finally got there we checked into the youth hostel, this time we were not so lucky, there were no cancellations and we had to stay in a dormitory. We went out straight away and got a table at our favourite pizza place before crawling around a few bars.
Monday, 11 January 1999
Byron Bay, NSW, Australia
The first thing we wanted to do was to head to Kings Beach. It was still an effort to cycle there, it was still perfectly secluded, however this time there were more people there. We had a very relaxing time just laying out in the sun. When we got back we went shopping and cooked ourselves some dinner. That night we indulged in more alternative activities and went to the Arts Factory Cinema to see the latest Hal Hartley film. You may ask what could be so alternative about a cinema, well they only stocked "Bandi" coke and instead of chairs you laid down on mattresses but other than that....
Tuesday, 12 January 1999
Byron Bay, NSW, Australia
It is probably a bit surprising that in all our time in Australia we avoided surfing. Well in the end we could not resist, the Youth Hostel had free Boogie Boards (a reinforced and sculpted polystyrene body board) and so we took them down to the beach. At first we were a little puzzled, they did not seem to take you very far and you seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time just floating around looking stupid. But then, all of a sudden it happens. A wave comes towards you like a five foot wall of water and you think that you are going to get smashed into pieces. You start paddling and then the wave catches up with you, physically lifting you up a couple of feet onto the crest of the wave. You quickly pick up speed and find yourself being propelled headlong towards the shore. More than this since you are on the crest of the wave and the rest of the sea is a couple of feet below you get this worrying feeling that you are about to fall. However you do not and as the wave crashes into the shore you are sent hurtling into the beach. Whilst all this is going on you can steer using your body weight and a great way to stop before you hit the beach is to turn the board around, as you might do in skiing, and then let the board pop up from out of you as you fall into the sea. To summarise after you catch your first wave you are on such a high that you do not want to stop and do not give a toss that the next such wave might be ten minutes in the coming.
We surprisingly managed to avoid getting sun burnt and did in the end manage to stop just in time for lunch. After lunch we considered our options, there were many things we needed to do before leaving for South America and we could get a couple of these sorted out in Byron Bay. Alternatively we could go back to the beach. Well it does not take much guessing to figure out which won. We started walking up the beach towards the Belongil guesthouse, found a spot on the beach and hung out there for the rest of the afternoon
Wednesday, 13 January 1999
Sydney, NSW, Australia
The bus back, which we had boarded the night before, got into Wyong at six in the morning. We then had to use the area's very inefficient bus system to get to my Uncle's house (fifteen km in an hour) and pick up the stuff we left there. After that we caught the next bus into Sydney. We had arranged to stay with Anna's friend Gavin and his girlfriend Mariead for our last two nights in Australia so we picked up the keys to their from him at work. After we dropped our luggage off we started to check off things from our to-do list.
That evening we had dinner at an amazingly bad value Japanese restaurant before meeting up with Gavin and going out for more than a few drinks.
Thursday, 14 January 1999
Sydney, NSW, Australia
The whole day was consumed by doing things. It was getting a bit sickening the amount of time we had to spend sorting things out but we had changed our South America plans, in order to make the most of the west coast we would not now be forcing ourselves to travel all the way over to Rio and would end our trip in Peru. We also had read a bit about hiking in Patagonia and started to get the picture that we really needed a tent if we really wanted to do more than day hikes. So we had to spend a lot of time in airline offices, on the phone and in camping shops. Eventually it all came to an end and we cooked dinner for the two of them back at the flat and spent the rest of the night going through our slides with them.
Friday, 15 January 1999
Moorea, French Polynesia
We left Sydney very early in the morning and got on a plane bound for Auckland. New Zealand looked distressingly beautiful, I say distressingly because it was just one of those things, you cannot go everywhere in nine months. We then changed planes and were Tahiti bound.
Crossing the international date line for the first time in your life is a bit of a confusing business but the way I dealt with it was not to bother too much about what day of the week it was or the date for a while. The theory being that when you are travelling the date is rarely relevant so not knowing what it is for a while does you no harm. Anna however thought about it too much and I think got freaked out about it. Of course now I write about it in my diary it is all a bit confusing but you really just have to accept it as part of the whole thing that keeps times looking sensible.
Anyway at some point on the fourteenth of January we arrived at Papeete airport to be greeted by three guys strumming guitars in a very South Seas style. Anna even had a flower stuck in her hair to complete the experience. After this what little we had of the day in Papeete was expensive. There were no buses at eleven so we had to resort to a taxi which cost twenty-five dollars for a ten minute ride. We were then shown to the room we had booked which on a cleanliness scale of one to ten of all the places we had stayed ranked a two, just above the Ice Mountain Hotel in Tashkurgan. Looking at things from the point of view of expense however at forty dollars it was right up there at number ten. Having no other option we just took it on the chin and went straight to sleep.
The fifteenth of January second time around could not have been more different. Gone were the trappings of civilisation we had got used to in Australia, you were either staying at Club Med or trapped in a no-man's land of buses and ferries that arrive whenever they are ready. We exchanged far too much money fearing that Moorea (we had decided to get off Tahiti as quickly as possible) would not sport any banks. We then found the ferry docks and once again started travelling.
The ferry journey was short and fast, two rival companies run catamarans between Tahiti and Moorea and have a tendency to race each other. As we approached we began to realise that Moorea truly is just a shattered volcano. The jungle covered rim of the volcano rise straight out of the water to a height of a thousand metres. On landing we found a bus waiting for us and it took us around the southern coast of the island. There really is not much to this side of Moorea, there is a reef which encloses a coastal lagoon, the rim of the volcano and a tiny strip of inhabitable land in between. The road travels along this strip for half an hour past fairly modest houses and villages to arrive at Hauru Point on the NW tip of the island. Here we erected our newly purchased tent in the grounds of Moorea Camping and were charged a whacking $16 a night for the honour. We then had lunch and went for a walk.
Hauru point's longest running tenant is Club Med and it was not long before we came upon their "compound". Following this we found ourselves at Les Tripaniers resort which houses a dive shop. Well a dive shop and a snorkel rental shop both of which were run by French men who seemed to spend half the day taking the piss out of each other. Anyway after we finished speaking to the "big man" about diving we decided it would be best to go snorkelling first and so consulted the "small man". The best snorkelling according to him was between the two "motu"s (islands) in front of Club Med. However because of the navigation channel in between we could not swim there we would need a kayak. Fortunately he just happened to rent them. We thought about it, because it looked close enough to swim, but then saw some jet skiers ploughing their way up and down it and changed our minds.
The kayaking was probably the best bit of the whole package. The waters of the lagoon are very still and crystal clear and since it is never very deep you can see the corals and fish as you paddle over them. The snorkelling was not so great, partly because the area between the Motu's was heavily populated by people day tripping from all the resorts and so a bit massacred, partly because it was shallow and there was not an amazing amount to see. Of course we were measuring it against the yardstick of Pulau Weh. Towards the end of our snorkelling we found a couple of stingrays and fascinated we followed them around for a bit.
On the way back to the campsite we went shopping at one of the island's exorbitantly priced supermarkets. I say exorbitant but compared to eating out it was a positive bargain and we had decided that this was one of the best ways of getting the cost of French Polynesia down. As the sun set we cooked and ate dinner. It was nice since for the previous month we had been staying on the east coast of Australia and so had seen no sunsets.
Saturday, 16 January 1999
Moorea, French Polynesia
We woke up late and straight away went for a swim in the (dare I say crystal?) clear waters of the lagoon. After this we had brunch and then sort of sat around doing nothing but soaking up the sun. In fact that was pretty much all we did that day.
Sunday, 17 January 1999
Moorea, French Polynesia
I guess most people would find it normal to lie around on the beach for days on end if you were in a picture perfect place like Moorea. Sadly we are not those sort of people. Having achieved nothing the day before we were itching to do something. Sadly it was Sunday and our options looked limited. We were thinking about diving but were worried that the coral was not up to much and the whole point of diving in Moorea was sharks. We decided a cheaper course of action was to go on the Camp site's own shark feeding trip which left about ten minutes after we found out about it. Shark feeding was just about the last thing I had on my mind when it came to planning our trip but we had pretty much got used to the fact that they were more or less harmless in Australia and it seemed more fun than cycling around the island (our other option).
The trimaran sped out through a marked channel into the lagoon and then stopped. It was no more than 500m out from the campsite and I kidded myself that we were starting off by doing some regular snorkelling. No such luck, our Tahitian guide jumped into the water, anchored the boat and then popped up to instruct us on the etiquette of shark feeding. The story was he was going to throw meat into the water whilst we hovered around one of the boat's pontoons watching the sharks with our masks. Well it was an interesting but not altogether satisfactory arrangement us being in the water and the guide being out of it throwing chunks of meat in. Anyway we went along with it and had quite a treat, six black tip reef sharks turned up along with hundreds of other fish who did not seem to be bothered by the sharks much. We watched them circle around fighting each other for chunks of meat and generally doing shark stuff. Naturally they completely ignored us.
The stingray feeding was a bit more interactive. On the scale of things with box jellyfish and great white sharks at the top stingrays are pretty safe. Sure they have a non-venomous six inch long spine a third of the way along their tails which they can whip around and imbed into you. But they do not tend to use it unless they feel really threatened (i.e. if you step on them). Anyway our guide dumped us overboard into the waist high waters of a sandy part of the lagoon. Within minutes the alien like creatures were flapping towards us from the depths of the nearby navigation channel and our guide again produced some meat. This time we were encouraged to stroke them, indeed we had little choice because they were so used to feeding that you would often have to push an over keen one away. The guide also caught a lift on the back of one but no one else followed suite.
The finally part of the day was feeding us for which we returned to the Motus opposite Club Med. Despite having experienced it already after some coconut and pineapple we went snorkelling. It was still enjoyable and I found a breed of fish that was attracted to the faceplates of snorkelling masks and so came up very close and stared at you. They were only small and it was pretty easy to see why, for some reason the French are very keen on harpooning things and so the big fish kept well clear of Club Med.
It was a nice little trip - we had the right amount of exposure to sharks, diving with them probably would have been a bit too much - and the rays were fantastic to watch. It was a bit sad to see how domesticated they had become but it was much better than a trip to the average aquarium. Once we returned we had the usual lounge on the beach followed by a sunset dinner. We then went for a drink at a beach bar up the road (Anna understandably wanted to drink cocktails to complete the exotic Island). I'd like to say they were not exorbitantly expensive, however they were and the bar where we had them was more dead than Elvis so we decided to give up after one. Moorea is not really a party place!
Monday, 18 January 1999
Moorea, French Polynesia
It was our last day on the island and, for a while at least, our last day at a beach. So we spent the morning sunbathing and then went to find the bus for the port. Buses travel in both directions around the island and we wanted to go around the north coast this time to see the two bays that were at one time the inside of the volcano crater. Sadly our bus driver lied to us and after telling us he was going to turn around and go our way turned around twice and went back by the same road we had got to the camp site by. We could not really say anything since by this point the bus going in the correct direction had left so we just quietly fumed. The ferry was fast as usual even though we were on the losing boat. Following this we had a lot of hours to kill in Papeete and then we caught the bus to the airport (chatting to an emigrated Yugoslavian at the stop). For some reason a lot of departures leave Tahiti at one in the morning and the regular bus system finishes around ten. So we had even more hours to kill before we eventually caught the plane that was to take us to Chile.