Tuesday, 28 September 2010

The Reef, The Rainforest and The Jump

Hola comrades,

As the next leg of my journey fast approaches, I thought it high time I update you on what I have been up to since arriving in Cairns just over a week ago! As those of you who are on Facebook will have possibly noticed, I have been a busy girl and I have completed my first ever scuba dive (on the Great Barrier Reef no less), spend a night at Cape Tribulation in the world's oldest living rainforest and completed two bungee jumps recently. I will start with the Reef!

As most of you will know the Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven undisputed natural wonders of the world, and is so big it is visible from space. My expectations of the reef were based on postcards and Finding Nemo - which are arguably pretty accurate since the reef is just as stunning as you hope it will be, and sure enough Nemo and his pals are frolicking away down there in the colour-drenched corals. I headed out there last Friday, on a gorgeous sailing boat called Ocean Free - the very same boat my sister took out there 6 years ago - and tried my first proper scuba dive. I was more than a little nervous, given that I had tried diving when I was about 15 in a swimming pool back home and had really struggled with the breathing. I was prepared to get in the water, freak out and commend myself for at the very least giving it a go, but instead I found myself struck with the determination that since I was at one of the most beautiful places in the whole world, I would bloody well scuba dive. (This is a new, no-nonsense addition to the various voices in my head - and it sounds suspiciously like my Grandma.)

So naturally I was chosen (along with my friend Sam) to go first. We had parked up on the reef near a gorgeous island aptly named Green Island (they don't miss a trick these Aussies) and I was strapped up with a ginormous tank of air and all sorts of contraptions I was told not to worry about. The first challenge was standing up with all the weight of the gear, and the second was jumping into the water without dislodging your mask or breathing apparatus. I had visions of landing in the water and dropping like a stone, only to be found weeks later half eaten by sharks - but thankfully no such dramas occurred and I swam over to the side of the boat to cling on for dear life. As I was waiting for Sam to jump in, I tested the breathing by sticking my face in the water and immediately panicked at the sight of some HUGE fish all swimming around the boat. Before reaching total hyperventilation I remembered that I was in fact in the sea and fish were to be expected, and before I knew it I was excitedly scanning the water for anything interesting (i.e. I was looking to see if I could see Nemo yet).

As soon as Sam and I were both in the water and feeling good, our instructor took us each by the hand and we started our descent into the darker depths of the ocean. The first thing she pointed out was a giant clam, which slammed shut as she brushed her fin over it - then there was the obligatory hand gesture that pointed out Nemo was in our midst, though the clownfish we saw were a different colour to the usual orange hues. I smiled to myself before remembering facial expressions led to leaking masks, and had to put up with water sloshing around my nose for the next half hour. We also saw black tipped reef sharks (cue another (very different) facial expression and more water in mask) before we went even deeper to scope out the corals and the parrotfish and the various other creatures of the deep. Put simply, it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life and I am now thinking about doing a PADI open water qualification - something I never thought I would have the balls to do. Ignore anyone that ever tells you that snorkelling the reef is just as good - nothing compares to really being down there, just you and your breathing (and a good underwater camera) and the whole Great Barrier Reef stretching out for miles in front of you. If you ever, ever turn down a chance to experience that, you are missing out on something extraordinary. I loved it.

After our dive we went snorkelling for a bit, then headed to Green Island where my friends and I got a mojito and sat on the glorious white beach. If that's not paradise, I don't know what is! :) We then did some more snorkelling (during which I managed to skin my knee on coral) so I had to head in a bit early as the only image in my head was a shark four miles away smelling breakfast. I was the only one to emerge from the sea bleeding profusely, and it was only while my instructor was pasting orange crap over my leg that I learned the dodginess of coral wounds. Did you know if you don't disinfect one, the algae can live in your skin and can resurface in your hands and all sorts over the rest of your life?! I have been blasting it with industrial strength dettol ever since. After being patched up, we set sail back to the mainland for a leisurely two hour trip home and were fed cheese, wine, cake and fruit, which makes for a very happy Ashley. It also turned out to make for a very sunburnt Ashley - NB Piz Buin 'one-day-long' suncream does not work on the Great Barrier Reef, or indeed anywhere in Tropical North Queensland. The term 'one-day-long' really ought to read 'one-hour-then-you-get-roasted' and my pink shoulders, forearms and other non specific areas have only just stopped glowing. Needless to say, I am finally able to sit down without discomfort, which really is an advantage in 30 degree heat.

The day after the Reef trip, I was picked up by the AJ Hackett bus and whisked off to try bungee jumping - another 'sport' I had long doubted I had the courage for. My sister and my dad, both being adventurous sorts, have bungee jumped before (with my sister's last jump topping 200m) so I felt that if my old man and my sis could do it, a 45m jump in the rainforest really should be a piece of cake. Alas 45m on paper seems like not much at all, but 45m from the top of a tower half way up a small mountain overlooking the ocean is another story altogether. When I am afraid I become extremely business-like and resist showing any said fear. I strolled in and nodded solemnly at all the risks as they were explained, and paid ridiculous amounts of money to have the whole episode filmed for DVD. Of course on the inside my brain was asking questions like, what will they do if this kills me? Will they let my mum and dad have the DVD for free? Would my last moments be recorded with a bloodcurdling scream, or would that ridiculous techno music blasting from every speaker obscure it?

Of course to the casual observer I just looked a tad pained - as if this was some slightly unnecessary detour on the way to a very important business meeting I was going to later. As you can see, my head is a very complicated place to occupy. All the insanity aside, I skipped off up the tower (with a slight retracing of steps once I remembered I would not need my handbag up there) and after three million flights of stairs later I was there. At the top. Ready (!) to throw myself into oblivion with just an elastic band attached to my feet. Goodbye gentle world, goodbye ma and pa, farewell sister dearest, all the best Marks and Spencers, and toodlepip to everyone I have ever known and loved... but no. As you can see, I survived. God knows how.

When your name is called, you have to strap on a waist harness (cue totally inappropriate memory from PGL and you saying weirdly, 'we don't do dangly bits' to the totally bemused bungee man) and then you are sat on a bench while a towel (yes, a towel - the kind you lie on on a beach) is strapped around your legs. I looked from the towel, to the tattooed man, to the drop and back again and accepted that I might actually die doing this, so I resigned myself to cheerfully pretending not to care. Soon enough I was being told to shuffle to the end of the platform and to wave at the camera man a few metres below. Then 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and I just sort of jumped. I had practised this part in my head - a very elegant, Pocahontus style swan dive, body all long and graceful and emitting not a squeak as I serenely (and in slow motion) fell towards the earth. Not so. When you jump, the first thing you notice is that gravity is really bloody strong, and you are freefalling towards the ground at remarkable speed. I made a noise I have never heard before - somewhere between a girly scream and a moose bellow and a few seconds later the bungee kicked in and I was flung up in the air to face it all for a second time. Quite frankly, it was the scariest thing I have ever done. You dangle upside down for a bit until you stop swinging about like a mad woman and then the burly man in the boat below catching you trapeze style and lowers you onto the boat. I have since watched the DVD of this and my second jump - there is no elegant Pocahontus moment, just me jumping with my legs in the fetal position, being flicked around like a ragdoll on a string. And they very kindly zoom in on your scrunched up red face just as you land on the boat, so all in all, it is not the most elegant of activities. The second jump was actually scarier than the first, and for a moment of two I wondered if I could do it again, but the determination to achieve the swan dive was still there so away I went. Amazingly, I look completely identical in the both jumps, so I have accepted that elegance (which eludes me for the most part as it is) would not be part of the bungee experience.

I also did a Minjin Swing, which was far more enjoyable and much less scary than the bungee jump. I did it with a girl named Amanda, and you are strapped into an outfit that looks like a big apron, then you are dangled horizontally from a rope and winched up 45, so you hover around the rainforest canopy. Then you have to pull this cord and you go flying through the air at 135kmph and it is all very fun and exciting and playful. It is the poor man's bungee to be honest, but it is a great way to finish your day and to help dissipate all the tension that the jumps have built up. I am incredibly proud of myself for jumping though, and I can probably safely say that I would be totally fine with never doing it ever again. :)

After the bungee day I headed up to Cape Tribulation for a few days chilling in the Daintree Rainforest. Cape Tribulation, so named because that is the point at which Captain James Cook's problems began, is the only place in the world where two world heritage sites meet - namely the rainforest and the reef. It is full of mangroves, swamps, giant palm trees, lizards, insects and cassowaries. Cassowaries are huge birds - and they look like the result of an orgy between emus, peacocks and turkeys. They are extremely endangered and territorial, with one female cassowary controlling an area of 21km squared, so it is very rare to see one. There are hundreds of warning signs with cassowaries on them (which look like parachutes with turkey heads) along the road as they are often killed by cars. They are 6ft tall and the girls eat 15-20kg of fruit every single day. We were lucky enough to see one on our guided tour of the rainforest - she was very weird and looked like some sort of genetic experiment gone awry - she would definitely look at home in Jurassic Park. But since they are so rare, it was really exciting to see one.

We also went on a river cruise in the pouring rain along the Daintree River and saw a couple of crocs and a kingfisher, though to be honest once you have done the Top End, crocs just aren't as exciting down here. Up in our hostel in Cape Trib it rained and rained for the first day (sort of to be expected given its the rainforest and not the sunforest) and I went to bed fairly early with my book. On our second day the sun was out in force and we headed down on a long walk to Mason's Swimming Hole, a popular place to swim in the creek nearby (despite croc warnings 200m downstream). As I was strolling through the rainforest I heard my name called, and turned to find a girl I had known at school! Such a small world. It was a lovely surprise to see a familiar face in the middle of nowhere, and totally surreal. I will be catching up with her when I get down to Melbourne (where she is studying for the year) which is something nice to look forward to! After swimming we headed to the glorious Myall Beach and took lots of very Paradisey photos and read our books for a bit.

On the way back to Cairns, we stopped at Alexandra Lookout and saw the area where Steve Irwin was killed, and we also went to the Mossman Gorge, which is a gorgeous (freezing) swimming spot and finally to Port Douglas which is gorgeous. I almost wish I had stayed there instead of Cairns as it is a beautiful little town (popular with celebs in fact) but alas there is no time for regrets, and my journey is taking me southward. Cairns is not what I expected by any means - it is bigged up an awful lot by backpackers and to be honest I have been a little disappointed. It doesn't help that a German backpacker was attacked around the corner from my hostel three weeks ago, and I have not felt particularly at home here. My initial plans were to stay here and work for a couple of months but following my snap of homesickness last week and my general dislike of Cairns itself (not the Reef and the Rainforest of course!!) I have decided to move on. Thus the beauty of travelling alone. On Friday I am heading south by Greyhound to Airlie Beach, where I will spend two days and two nights on a boat sailing the Whitsunday Islands (picture below!). As my Bavarian friend Sabine puts it, 'the money is running through my hands' so I have to find a job in the next few weeks. If not Airlie Beach, then Brisbane! After Airlie I have planned a trip to drive 4WDs and camp on Fraser Island, the world's largest sand island and home to the purest dingoes in Oz. Then it's Brisbane baby!

That's all for now folks. Love and snuggles xxxxxxxxx

(Ps - all photos are mine except the one below!!)

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