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  • Writer's pictureNick Elsey

Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef

Updated: Nov 14, 2018

Finally! You've reached the final chapter of this journal. Just a couple more page-downs and you won't need to read my constant ramblings any longer (or at least until the next vacation).

22 Mar 1997 - Cairns

Lynn dropped me off at Sydney airport this morning. This afternoon, Lynn gets on a plane for LAX and home, but I'm just not quite done with this vacation, so I'm off to the tropical north of Queensland for another 10 days of fun. My primary goal is a few days on a live-aboard dive boat, sailing the outer reef and diving like it's going out of fashion.

I had originally booked an eight day trip with Mike Ball (the Ritz Carlton of dive companies), out of Townsville, but this got cancelled, so instead I'm going on a 4 day trip out of Cairns, starting tomorrow. Faced with a few spare days on my hands, I tried to get an earlier flight home, but Qantas was all booked up. Too bad!

Lynn and I were in Cairns about 6 years ago, so I was keen to see how much it had changed. After checking into my hotel, I took a walk down the Esplanade into town. Surprisingly, the place hasn't grown as much as I expected. Three fancy new hotel had sprung up near downtown (one complete with Casino), but other than that, life continues as before. This places relies heavily on far east tourism and I guess the downturn in that part of the world has had it's effects.

Dinner's at Dundee's Restaurant. Of the 15 or so tables, I'm the only non-Japanese diner.

23 Mar 1997 - Great Barrier Reef

A very early start today - up at 6 am! I set three different alarms the night before to be sure. I also asked the hotel to book me a taxi to take me to the Mike Ball rendezvous point, since I needed to leave so early. He just laughed and told me that taxis start queuing up outside the hotels at 4 am. Cairns is the great base station for a huge number of outdoor activities in Queensland, and most of them start early!

All the divers are meeting at the Cairns Colonial club hotel, just north of town and I arrive in time for several cups of coffee. We're then whisked off to Cairns airport for a 50 minute flight to Lizard island, a good way north west of Cairns, where we'll meet our dive boat, SuperSport. The pilots fly the two planes below 1,000 feet the whole way, so that divers can avoid decompression sickness.

What should have been a great view of reefs is somewhat marred by heavy rain. Unfortunately this is a portent of worse to come. It turns out that cyclone Nathan (cyclone is the southern hemisphere equivalent of a hurricane) is playing havoc in the area and will cause considerably misery for the first 24 hours of our trip.

We're taken out to SuperSport in two inflatables and get a good view of the ship on the way. She's a big (87 foot) catamaran, custom built for diving. This turns out to be the best dive boat I've been on far - the attention to detail is incredible. Every aspect of diving has been considered and catered to. I've got my own cabin on the top deck (she can take 26 guests, but there only 16 on board for this trip, so there's plenty of space). This is good for the view, but bad when the ship is rolling as you're further from the centre of gravity.

Nick Diving

Our first stop is to be the Cod Hole, 3 hours cruising north of Lizard Island. As soon as we leave harbour, the cyclone's effect are really felt and the boat start to rock and roll with a vengeance. It's almost impossible to stand upright and half the guests are seasick. Dramamine is consumed in copious quantities. I'm feeling a little queasy myself, but manage to keep my breakfast on the inside.

The Cod Hole is a world famous dive site, probably the Great Barrier Reef's best known. It's famous for Potato Cod that grow to huge dimensions - 6 foot or more. They're very tolerant of divers (especially since they get fed once in a while) and will allow you get within a few inches of them. Since I plan on doing another 10 or so dives this trip, I won't bore you with the details of each one, but I'll try to give you a feel for a few of the highlights as they come along.

We spent a few hours being chased around the ocean by Nathan until we finally found another dive site, Pixie's Pinnacle, that wasn't being trashed by huge swells. This was supposed to be followed by a night dive, but the weather precluded it. Indeed, the Nathan's track didn't follow the predications, so we had to run right back to Lizard Island for safe overnight shelter. By evening, I'd got my sea legs, but I had to practically hold on to the bed all night to stop myself falling out.

24 Mar 1997 - Great Barrier Reef

The conditions were much better this morning and continued improve through out the day, to the extent that we were treated to a sunset by the end.

We returned to the Cod Hole for the first dive, this time to feed them. A couple of pounds of pilchards were handed out by one of the dive masters, while everyone else sat in a circle and watched. The cod and bass were obviously expecting the visit, and it turned into quite a feeding frenzy. We were barged into by the cod in their eagerness to get to the food. This turned out to be a great dive, other highlights included a turtle, a shoal of huge barracuda (6 foot long) and a sleeping Grey Whaler shark. I hired an underwater still camera for this dive, so I'm looking forward to seeing how they come out.

Eric Gingold

We then started sailing south again, Nathan having finally left us alone. Couple more relatively uneventful dives in the afternoon, and then on south for our final dive of the day - a night dive! Night diving is an exhilarating experience and quite freaky. The whole nature of the reef changes at night, with many animals, such as crayfish and the hard coral, coming out to feed, while others go to sleep. We came across several large reef sharks dozing on the sea floor during the dive, but perhaps the strangest animal to be seen is the other divers. I enjoyed turning off my dive light and watching another group approach me. With all the beams from their dive lights scanning back and forth, it looked a lot like something from Close Encounters!

We have an ex-Chicago Bulls NBA player on board, Eric Gingold and he's tall - 7 foot 3 inches! Poor guy spends his entire time doubled over to avoid the low clearances on the boat. He end up sleeping up on the sundeck, as the bed's are barely 6 foot long. A real nice guy with a great sense of humour.

25 Mar 1997 - Great Barrier Reef

A great day to be alive. Hot, hot sunshine and calm seas. Four great dives with just an incredible abundance of reef wildlife. The best stuff is to be seen in the first 30 feet or so of water, and we would regularly spend 20 minutes or more hanging over just a few square feet of coral, and still not see everything.

My dive buddy for the trip has been Cyrus Bark, a German who turns out to be a very proficient diver. We work very well together as a buddy pair, we always want to go in same direction and see the same things, and consume air at exactly the same rate. All the divers on this trip are using dive computers rather than dive tables, which increases your possible dive duration massively and is the only way to get four or more dives in a day. In fact, the time limitation to our dive is not no-decompression limits, but remaining air, so it's great to have a buddy that doesn’t consume air faster than yourself.

I was hoping to make my one hundredth dive this trip, but because of the lost dives on the first day, this was not to be. Oh well, I guess I'll just have to come back again soon.

The last night onboard gives us a clear sky and so we are treated to a mind boggling star vista. This far from land, there are no lights to wash out the stars and the view is just amazing. We all lie on our back on the sun deck, drinking beer, eating BBQ prawns and convincing each other that we can name all the constellations in the sky. Definitely a great day to be alive.

26 Mar 1997 - Cairns

The Guests

We wake up in a marina just north of Cairns and are treated to a farewell breakfast. We've got to be good friends with each other and the staff over the past 4 days and we're all sorry to see the trip end. I'm almost tempted to stay on board for another 4 days, but restrain myself.

I'm dropped off at the Tradewinds hotel in town and Eric decides to stay here too. We share the lobby with about 200 local high school students who are using the conference facilities for a day's sex education! How things change. Thankfully they're not staying the night, but I escape to the pool for a couple of hours nonetheless.

Tomorrow, Eric and I are off for a long day's white water rafting. Of course they start early - 6:30 am pickup, so I spend the afternoon sleeping and washing the salt out of my clothes. I wake up just in time for an beautiful sunset. The sun is setting behind the hills to the west and I'm treated to the sight of thousands of fruit bats flying out off the hills and towards town.

The evening is spent with Eric and his cousin, Brad, clubbing in Cairns. This turns out to be a bit of a misnomer, since all the 'clubs' are packed to the rafters with sloppy, drunken backpackers.

27 Mar 1997 - Tully River

After a very early start, we are taken on a 2 hour coach ride south to the Tully river for a day's battle with the elements, specifically H20. The Tully river is the place to go white water rafting in Australia. The company we are using, Raging Thunder, is very well run and we have a great day. The rapids are a little too tame for our liking, especially since Eric, Brad and I are joined by three more guys with a similar outlook on life, and we end up being the raft to be feared for the day.

28 Mar 1997 - Cairns and Port Douglas

A late start this morning after another late night on the town. We've hired a convertible for the day and we drive north to Port Douglas after lunch to check it out. After the rigors of the past few days, this is a welcome day of relaxation in a very quaint and sleepy town. Lynn and I spent a few days here several years ago, but it doesn't seem to have changed one bit since then.

We spend some time on the beach, but swimming is limited to a small section enclosed by nets. This is the 'stinger' season in Queensland, which means that box jellyfish are prevalent in the coastal water. You can very easily die from a sting, so there's no one swimming outside the net. The enclosure is not at all crowded, and there's another 4 miles of beach to walk along. This part of the country is blessed with almost continuous golden sandy beaches.

Back to Cairns for another evening with the Back Packers.

29 Mar 1997 - Port Douglas

Today I take my leave of Eric and Brad. I plan to head back up to Port Douglas to round of this strenuous vacation with a couple days of serious pool lounging. Unfortunately, what was supposed to be a brief brunch with a few of the Tradewinds staff we've befriended turned out to be a 5 hour food and drink orgy (all you can consume for one price). Eric and I spend a few hours in the pool drinking coffee until I'm sober enough to drive again.

So, about 6 hours later than planned, I hop into a convertible (you have to do these things in style) and head north to the Raddison Reef Resort.

30 Mar 1997 - Port Douglas

Mission accomplished. Day wasted, being almost entirely devoted to pool lounging, interspersed with some fine dining. Started the day with a run on 4 mile beach (only half of it), so I'm feeling very virtuous.

31 Mar 1997 - Port Douglas

The most exciting thing I can report for today's activities was a hike in the local rain forest. The place lived up to it's name and I got totally soaked half way round. I was going to round off the walk with a dip in the local river, but after the rain there didn't seem much point.

1 Apr 1997 - Homeward Bound

And today's the day. I'm looking forward to going home to all those creature comforts, although Lynn tells me that it's been snowing and worse in Portland since she got back. As I drive back towards Cairns, I suddenly realise that I was supposed to be in Sydney last night, as I couldn't get the Cairns to Sydney flight to connect with my Sydney to LAX flight. Ooops! Luckily, there is an earlier flight out of Cairns that the USA Qantas office knew nothing about, so everything's cool.

I'm typing this on the flight from Sydney, so only 11 hours more and I'll be in LAX and another 6 after that and I'll be home. It's been a fun trip. If I had to do it all over again, I'd take about twice as long and spend more time at each stop. Other than that, I'd thoroughly recommend this part of the world to anyone.

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