Tag Archives: Australia
Melbourne: A Home Away from Home
My first two days in Melbourne: a fully stocked costume rental shop, where my friend and the sales guy refined her Gothic Lolita dress and another customer asked for tips on making his outfit more “Jesus-y”; a burger joint that names all its sandwiches after members of the fictional Huxtable family; a store with handwritten notecards describing each whimsical item for sale; a Scottish ceilidh in a community hall, all attendees clad in plaid. A place so fun and just a little too pleased with itself, I felt almost at home.
Theresa and I know each other through mutual friends in Chicago, but she’d moved to New Zealand shortly after I moved to the city proper, so we never really got to hang out in the States. She moved to Melbourne a couple years ago, and is huge on the Couchsurfing scene there. She offered me an air mattress spot in her cozy home for the duration of my stay in town, which turned out to be a full week (generous!). We had a lot of fun hanging out.
Theresa lives in the Fitzroy neighborhood of Melbourne, which felt so similar to Logan Square in Chicago that I had the strange sensation of comfortably navigating my way around the hipster hangouts of this city. I found bike shops, bespoke clothing shops, and expensive bars with good liquor. Of course, it is its own place, so I also saw things I’m not used to, like houses with ornate lacework gates, and women’s names painted on the facades; giant Russian nesting dolls decorating the lawn of the public housing block; and a storefront proclaiming the community service goals of a law firm.
Melbourne itself is a pretty city, with pockets of green everywhere, a river wending its way through town, and elegant Victorian buildings lining the streets. It does have the disadvantage of being set up on hills in the downtown area, but I realized later that was just good practice for the mountains that make up all the walking areas of New Zealand.
The main part of Melbourne is set up on a grid, and the residents are proud of the tram system that trots throughout the city. There are all these signs reminding you not to steal a ride on the tram, but after the third or fourth time my tram card deducted more than it should have for a ride, I did as many residents do and just stopped paying. (While I was in town, the transit department came out with a fun, morbid little video that made the rounds on Facebook. Now that song is in your head. You’re welcome.)
I took the free tourist bus around town, to get a glimpse of the main attractions. I did get glimpses, but glimpses only, because most of the time the bus was too crowded to get a proper look, and we never stopped anywhere longer than it took to pick up more passengers, so overall I don’t recommend the tourist bus. It’s a concentrated downtown area and wouldn’t take too long to just walk around.
I visited the Royal Botanic Gardens, which, like their counterpart in Sydney, were sprawling and well-tended. Paths squiggled all over, and soon I found myself in the middle of who knows where, resting by some roses wilting in the heat, then following some birds down to a lake and watching kids play. There were several signs indicating the various water-saving measures the caretakers have instituted–reducing use by 60% between 1995 and 2005, which is mighty impressive. I saw black swans and their nearly grown cygnets, packs of schoolchildren on field trips, and a grove of ferns actually labeled “Fern Gully.”
I saw the end of a concert at Federation Square, the recently revamped public square near the river. I glimpsed Rod Laver Arena, where the Australian Open tennis final is played. I ate a delicious dinner of trini curry chicken, roti bread, and garlic pumpkin from a Trinidad & Tobago stand at the Queen Victoria Market. I helped Theresa make purple sweet potatoes for a Thanksgiving feast high up in a Docklands building.
Did I mention the ceilidh? Because learning Scottish folk dances with septuagenarians was a seriously fun way to spend a Saturday night. One lady even distributed homemade “Happiness Kits” to all the women in our group. I kept it til I met someone who needed a pick-me-up, and then passed it on.
Oh yeah, and I saw penguins.
St. Kilda is a neighborhood on the harbor, and it rivals Fitzroy for funky goings-on and arty denizens. Its long esplanade is full of people jogging and roller blading (roller blading! in 2012!). I walked past fishermen on my way down the long pier, and at the end I read the sign about the blue penguins that nest here.
Blue penguins, or little penguins, are the smallest species of penguin, so the cute factor is upped considerably. A colony of them call the rocky breakwater at the end of the pier home, and for over 20 years they’ve been studied by scientists in this, their natural and wild habitat. It seems strange to call them wild, when they’re paddling past yachts at anchor to return to their nest every night, but they are wild. They aren’t bred or fed by humans; they just chose this spot because the harbor doesn’t have sharks or other predators, so it’s safer than some other places they could live.
Volunteers in safety vests roam the rocks, enforcing the rule that says no flash photography or regular flashlights are allowed, and shining red flashlights behind rocks so visitors can see the penguins (the red light doesn’t bother them like the white does). Unlike Philip Island, which has set up a paid park system to manage the many visitors, the structure here is loose, and that works in large part because the lights of the city confuse the penguins so they aren’t sure exactly when it’s dark, like they are in places more removed from humans, so they trickle in at various times, rather than all in one group. (The lack of predators also makes this possible, whereas the Philip Island penguins need to travel in a group for safety.)
Before sunset, I was peeking at a baby penguin, or trying to anyway–it had hidden itself pretty well–when a young girl came right up to me and said, “Do you want to see one better?” and pulled my arm before I could answer. She was right; I could see this one more easily. Thanks, little girl. The crowds got a little pushy, but mostly stayed polite and listened to the volunteers when told to give the penguins more room. At one point, a penguin stood at the top of the rocks and groomed itself for a good five minutes, then sauntered across the path to the other side of the rocks, and it was just like paparazzi photographing a movie star.
When I had shingles in Byron and it looked like I might not make it to Melbourne, Theresa tried to make me feel better by saying that it’s more a city to live in than to visit, and I see what she means. There aren’t too many ‘must-see’ sights, and it’s more a matter of hanging out and soaking up the atmosphere. But that’s often the best part, especially in a place that feels like somewhere I could have lived in another life.
I went to a riotous party with Theresa, her boyfriend Sebastian, and friend Jez, and the next day we cooked up some ‘roo on the barbie and had a proper Sunday roast, Australian-style. We went to a pub quiz in St. Kilda and lost all the Australian-focused questions but won a couple random drawings that got us a round of beer for 20 cents each. What with the great weather and the excellent hospitality I experienced, Melbourne is easily the best city stop on my trip so far.
It’s Still the Summer of Love in Nimbin
On the backpacker trail, you meet a lot of the same sorts of people—partiers, hikers, shoppers, thrill seekers—and they’re all in the same age range of 18-30. People who don’t fit into those categories tend to stick out prominently, and the woman I met in Rainbow Beach certainly did that. She was in her mid-40s, and she kept pressing her natural anti-panic remedies on my while I was having my medical freakout, and afterward she made conversation by telling anyone who happened to be in the dorm room about her collection of crystals and the many spiritual advisors she’s consulted over the years. Also, a psychic told her that she had psychic powers she hadn’t tapped into yet. She was wacky, and although she talked too much to be charming, she was sweet. One of her favorite topics was all the groovy stuff you can find in a town called Nimbin.
Nimbin is a small town about 60 kilometers inland from Byron Bay. In 1973, antiwar activists gathered there for an “Aquarius Festival,” and some of them never left. It’s now a day trip from Byron, and busloads of young tourists come out to buy cheap pot brownies and gawk at the hippies. A day trip was included in the big bus package I’d booked, so near the end of my time in Byron I hopped on. Our first stop was a holiday park with a large swimming hole, and the driver grilled up a basic barbeque as we lazed in the sun.
Then on to Nimbin, and to get us in the mood, the bus driver played “Burn One Down,” “Because I Got High,” and other theme songs. Before we entered the town, the driver gave a little speech that amounted to: marijuana is illegal in New South Wales, so if you get caught don’t come crying to us; and also, you don’t know how much of what is in the baked goods, so if you buy a cookie, eat half of it and wait for thirty minutes before taking the other half.
I spent most of my time in the fascinating Nimbin Museum. It’s been around for decades, and it’s easy to see the years piled up in the layers of papier mached newspapers, painted murals, scribbled quotes, and various paraphernalia that adorn every square inch of space in this small place. It’s a mishmash of indignation over how white people treat aboriginal people, disdain for organized religion, and more inspirational quotes than you can find in the halls of a middle school. It was a combination of important insight and ridiculous hyperbole, as a lot of hippie talk is.
The little guide they give out at the beginning of the museum reads in part: “Nothing has made the alternative lifestyle effort of the new age pioneers more difficult than the outlawing of this herb which not long ago was the most popular plant on the planet. It nearly is again now and we believe the ‘war on drugs’ is breeding disrespect, as bad laws do.” I just cannot believe any one substance is that important to an entire movement, no matter how harmless and pleasant it is.
In the café, I met Arie and Laura, and their wallaby Bubby. Arie shared a story about how the government robbed him of two million dollars by undervaluing the land they bought from him, although I was a little fuzzy on how he lost the two million he did receive and arrived at his current financial position of mostly broke. Bubby was adorably curled up in Arie’s lap, but Laura shared stories of how jealous Bubby is of the two humans; he’ll pee in their bed if they spend too much time with each other and not with him. Tales of a pet, and yet Arie was adamant that they don’t intend to keep him as such. He saw Bubby’s mother get hit by a car, and rescued him from the side of the road, and Bubby already runs half wild and they expect when he’s a little bigger he’ll run off one day.
After everyone had had their fill of mood altering substances (no, I didn’t have anything), we got back on the bus and drove to Minyon Falls. The weather had been so dry that this usually magnificent waterfall was reduced to a trickle. Apparently, one mom decided this meant it was safe for her small children to clamber around the riverbed at the edge of the falls. Our entire tour group was looking at them from the platform wondering what she was thinking. We left before the family did, but I didn’t see anything in the paper the next day about a Dramatic and Stupid Death, so I guess they were okay.
Nimbin was basically an average small town, just a little more chilled out than most. And smelling more of incense.
Australian License Plate Bingo
I didn’t quite get bingo (I’m missing South Australia and the Australia Capital Territory). But it was fun to play! Here are license plates for almost all the states and territories in Australia. Some of them have varying taglines, so there’s more than one photo.
Victoria thinks well of itself, eh?
Bumming Around Byron Bay
Byron has a way of making you stay longer than you’d planned, I’ve heard more than one person say. This can happen in various ways; some people take up surfing and never want to leave, others get into the relaxed nightlife, and some of us get stupidly ill. Oops! I spent about four weeks in Byron Bay, three weeks longer than I’d intended. Obviously, I spent a good part of that recovering from shingles on my eye, but there was plenty of time for other, much more fun activities.
I stayed with Heather and her daughter Ruby-Mae, second cousins on my mother’s side, and their short-term tenant, Sophie. They live near Arakwal National Park, and a short walk up the hill behind their house takes you to a great lookout in the middle of the peninsula, so you can see water all around. On the day of the solar eclipse, I went up there to watch the sunrise, and then we stuck around for the eclipse. I was scared to look at the sun, even with the emergency blanket everyone was using as a safety measure, so I looked at a woman’s pinhole camera, and tracked the moon’s slow progress across the sun in shadow.
Heather owns several horses, so a few times we went up to the field they live in and I watched her feed them. We drove through the countryside, which to my mind looked like the English countryside, so I can see how settlers would want to make it look like home. It seemed to go on forever, so imagine their surprise when they went farther west and hit the Outback. Heather points out that a quick way to tell the difference between Australian and English fields (other than the different plant life, of course) is the barbed wire. They use hedges in England and barbed wire fences in Australia.
We went to a show in town, which was billed as a theatrical event but was basically a stand-up routine. The comedian was clearly very nervous, and the audience was very patient with him for a long time, but he never really got going, just kept asking us what it was like to live in Byron and fumbling with the mic while his video cameras recorded every misstep. Then he finally told a joke, and it was “I have a bestselling book, you may have heard of it, it’s called the Bible,” which is not only not funny but is not original. I was still willing to give him more time to redeem himself, although Heather, Ruby-Mae, and Sophie were ready to go. Then he told another joke, which was something about how women will ruthlessly tear out your heart, and I was ready to join the exodus of people streaming from the theater. I’ve never walked out on a show before—it felt weird! But definitely right.
We had an ice cream and wandered around the night market, speculating on how much of the show was done in earnest and how much of it was Andy Kaufman-esque performance art. I think he’s just a bad comedian, but if you see a movie about the greatest trick ever pulled on an audience and I’m sitting in the front row looking shell-shocked, we’ll know it was all part of a master plan.
Several times, we took the dogs for walks down the road, at a place they call “the lakes.” This includes a large lake surrounded by tea trees, which turn the water the color of brown tea, as well as a path over a hill to the beach. One time we walked along the beach and I saw lots of blue jellyfish up on the sand. They were just lying there, a little shiny in the sun, and as large as a dinner plate, and they looked really cool, but I didn’t have my camera with me, sorry.
We barbequed by the ocean, in sight of the most expensive hotel in Byron, where all the celebrities stay. Australia has barbeque kiosks set up all over the country, with clear instructions pasted to them. We cooked up some burgers and corn and ate it while watching the ocean and feeling the wind rise. Finally, the months-long drought ended, and we ran back to the car as the rain the town had been waiting for arrived at last.
We went to the farmer’s market, which is similar to all the other farmer’s markets I’ve been to; mostly white, middle- to upper-middle class people, everyone in a great mood, delicious food. The difference here is that a third of the customers were barefoot, which is much more common down under than back in the States. I thought it was a bohemian Byron thing, but then I saw people going into superstores barefoot in other towns and concluded it’s the relaxed way of life here.
I ate very well in Byron. Ingredients are incredibly fresh here, and I’d make myself lunches with ripe avocadoes and tasty sourdough bread that had just been made the day before. Heather is an excellent cook, and she included me in the family dinner each night, so I had curries, pasta dishes, and all sorts of tasty things while I was there. I made a feeble attempt to repay her kindness by making a dish my last week there, one they’d never heard of: chilaquiles. They went over well!
One Saturday, the local Buddhist community had an opening ceremony for their peace stupa, the only one of its kind in the southern hemisphere. We drove out to the Crystal Castle and joined in the ceremony. We walked around the stupa three times, turning the prayer wheels as we went. Those prayer wheels each contained rolls of prayers for peace, and the idea is that as you turn them, you increase their effectiveness. We watched the monks, who had come down from Asia for the occasion, do their own circuit of the stupa, and after one last prayer, the ceremony was over (we arrived toward the end).
Then we walked over to the main building and looked at the huge collection of crystals they have here, a lot of which come from South America. I walked in the meticulously maintained gardens, and admired the statues and crystals they’d mixed in with the plants.
I spent some time wandering around town, picking up prescriptions, indulging in treats at cafes, walking the beach. Byron is a funny town, a mix of surf shops, head shops, and designer clothes shops. They have a great restaurant scene here, something like 90 eateries in this small town.
I went to a few concerts at local bars and restaurants with Heather. It’s a big music town here, which is a draw for their family, as Rick is a musician (he was on tour while I was there). We heard some rock covers, reggae, and a few originals over the time I was there. It was great to see a town so enthusiastic about live shows.
On my last day in town, Heather drove me up to the lighthouse. There’s a little museum at the top which has the old lighthouse chair and light on display, as well as a few other items. (Heather and Rick own a lovely, detailed scrimshaw from the mid-1800s, which they’re considering donating to the museum.) We walked down the path to the lookout, which declares this to be the most eastern part of Australia. Then back up the hill, and we saw the goat, a holdout from when the government decided to reverse their earlier policy of introducing goats and instead wanted to remove this invasive species. This goat in particular is a crafty one, and has never been caught, so the Byron lighthouse still has a goat guarding its hills.
Byron Bay is a great little town, with a lot going on, and I’m glad that despite my time in sickbed, I was able to experience a lot it had to offer. Special thanks to my gracious relatives!
Happily Stuck on Magnetic Island
When I was in Cairns, I found myself at loose ends. I couldn’t get anyone in town to fix my camera, and since warranties are “region specific,” apparently, I’d have to pay to have it fixed anywhere in Australia because I’d bought it in the States. The cheapest–though also the most convoluted–option ended up being shipping the camera to my parents, and having them ship it to the factory in the States.
Anyway, I sat out some inclement weather in town and pondered how to continue. I’d spent a lot of time planning how to get to Alice Springs and then to Cairns, but there all my plans stopped. And now here I was, stopped in Cairns (pronounced “cans,” no “r”).
I went to a bus company office and asked them what they recommended. My enthusiastic sales agent had all sorts of suggestions, some of which I’d never heard of before, but was intrigued by (like the Daintree), and others which I’d learned through the travelers’ grapevine were totally worth splurging on (like the Whitsundays and Fraser Island). We put together a package and an ambitious itinerary, and suddenly I was on my way again.
After the Daintree and the Great Barrier Reef, I got on a bus and headed south down the east coast of Queensland. The first stop was Townsville, which has a few sights of its own, but is also a launching pad for people visiting Magnetic Island, a short ferry ride away.
I joined plenty of other backpackers on that ferry, and we all milled around once we landed on Maggie (as Australians call Magnetic Island), searching for signage that wasn’t there to tell us how to get to our hostel. Eventually, a bus pulled up and the driver, who must do this every day, clearly called out that he was headed to Base Backpackers, so we all paid him and piled on.
This was the first of a few rural buses I’d take in Australia. They’re usually nice coaches, with the cushioned seats fit for long treks; I’m used to the CTA buses, and seeing these swank buses used for local transportation made me do a double take. But I guess if your local transportation is going to take 40 minutes through backcountry roads, it might as well be in comfort. (We’ll skip over the part where you can easily sit on a bus for 40 minutes in Chicago and not go more than 5 miles.)
The Base Backpackers franchise is known for being a place to get a cheap room and cheap drinks. I didn’t realize this was the hostel I was booked into (one of the reasons I never book with tours), and had I known it was this one, I probably would’ve changed my mind. But since I was there, I figured, hey, I haven’t partied at all since I got to this country two weeks ago. If the hostel bar will be playing loud music til midnight anyway, I might as well join in. So I had a great first night there, making friends at the beachside bar, playing ridiculous bar games, and watching the moon rise over the ocean.
The next day, I had a lie-in and then journaled down on the deck, and sunbathed and swam down on the beach. The sun was bright, a slight breeze kept me from getting too hot, and the guy at reception was playing classic rock over the loudspeakers. Perfect.
Later that afternoon, I joined my roommate on the other side of the island, to do the Forts Walk. Apparently, wild koalas are plentiful in this area of the island, but we didn’t see any. Instead, we did a surprisingly athletic climb up a hill to see remnants of the fort that the military built here back in World War II.
If the Japanese were going to attack Australia, there were several key places they’d hit, and Townsville, with its large shipping industry and port, was one of them. Magnetic Island was the perfect place to set up a lookout. (In fact, Australia was attacked in WWII; Darwin was bombed in 1942 and 1943. Also, some subs slipped into Sydney Harbour, you may remember.) The fort hasn’t been kept up, and it’s amazing to see how much nature takes back in just 60 years.
Unfortunately, I don’t have many pictures from the walk, because the camera I was using while mine was in transit to the States started to act up. My roommate on the trip promised to email me the photos, but that never happened. Foolishly, I gave her my email but never got hers, and she’s not on Facebook, so I have to consider those photos lost. Live and learn.
But it was a great walk, with a 360 degree view from the top of the hill, and the hilly island spread out below us. Afterward, we took the bus back to the hostel, and the indefatigable young hostelers partied again that night, while I went straight to bed. Partying two nights in a row is beyond me now, but hey, if you party it up right the first time, that’s okay.
Delving into the Daintree Rainforest, or Licking the Ant’s Butt
I researched this trip before I started it, but the more I travel, the more I realize I didn’t research nearly enough. I mean, I didn’t even know there was a rainforest in Australia, much less that it’s the oldest one in the world! The Daintree Rainforest is estimated to be 180 million years old, which puts it back at the time of dinosaurs. Plants grow here that were previously only found in fossilized form. And as a bonus, the main section of the rainforest visited by tourists is evocatively named Cape Tribulation.
The phrase that all the promo materials repeat is “where the rainforest meets the reef,” because it’s the only place in the world where a rainforest comes right down to an ocean reef. It will not surprise you to learn that there is a large concentration of World Heritage Sites going on here.
I took a two-day trip to Cape Trib (remember, this is Australia, so you must shorten as many multi-syllabic words as possible) with Active Tropics Explorer. Our driver was a loquacious middle-aged man, who told us as much about his diving prowess as he did about the natural wonders we passed. That was only mildly annoying, but he crossed a line when he described what he wears while diving, and said he doesn’t wear the tight-fitting bodysuits because that makes him “look gay.” Way to live up to nasty stereotypes about bigoted outdoorsy Australians, dude.
Aside from that, he was a pretty good guide. He clearly loves the area, and it’s always nice to be shown around by someone with such a passion for the place. We started out in Cairns, and he drove us north on the extremely windy Captain Cook Highway. We didn’t stop for any pictures on this picturesque drive, which was too bad, but we all got our cameras out at the second stop: a crocodile tour on the Daintree River.
We piled into a long, flat-bottomed boat, which puttered down the river slowly. Everyone scoured the banks for logs that might actually be reptiles, and the boat captain told us about saltwater crocodiles, which trickily live in both fresh and salt water, and which kill at least one person per year in Australia, so quickly that it’s hard to know what’s happening until you’re snapped up in their massive, powerful jaws. Crocodiles haven’t changed much since they lurked in primeval waters, and their dispassionate stare and long, deadly bodies give me the creeps. Probably just as well we didn’t see any.
Instead, we heard fun facts about the many species of mangrove that line the river bank, and then crossed to the other side of the river, where our driver/guide was waiting for us. We went on even more winding and steep roads, and heard about the activists who protested the government bulldozing through the rainforest to build this road. The road was eventually built anyway, but the international attention the activists gained helped ensure that the rainforest–previously unprotected–was given the protection afforded by a World Heritage listing. See now, that is why you stage protests. They’re rarely the final say in a public debate, but they’re often the necessary catalyst to get those debates on the right track.
We stopped for a short walk on the Maardja Botanical boardwalk. We inspected basket ferns (which look like Mother Nature’s hanging baskets), cane vines (which are made into cane furniture), ferns with sharp spikes all along the edges of their leaves, and mud pits with trees poking their knobby-kneed roots in the air.
About halfway through the walk, our guide picked up an ant that was marching along the guardrail. As the ant squirmed in his fingers, our guide said, “Anyone got some tequila on them? Maybe some salt?” And then he licked the ant’s butt. “Lime!” he exclaimed. The green ant, which looks slightly irradiated, has an acidic taste to it that reminds some people of lime. Our guide found another ant and held it out to guys in the group, and one by one they all turned him down and walked away. He turned to me jokingly, but I am not one to turn down silly, harmless antics, so I said, “sure!”
And then I licked the ant’s butt. It did, indeed, taste a bit like lime. Not something I’d add to my margarita, but it was fun to do.
Cape Tribulation is so named because Captain Cook hit a reef on his way along the shore, then hit it again on his attempt to find deeper waters. That’s like hitting the concrete curb on your way into a parking stop, and hitting a car as you back out of it. If you look out at the ocean from the beach here, you won’t see any signs of a reef, so I suppose I can see how he made the mistake–the first time, anyway.
Our guide dropped us off at one of the hippest YHAs I’ve stayed in, and then we had an afternoon to do with as we pleased. Stinger season had just started–because why have crocodiles as the only danger when ocean swimming in Australia, when you could also have invisible jellyfish to take you down with one sting?–so I did not go in the water. Besides, it was a rainy day in the rainforest. I waited til it was mostly clear, then took a walk along the beach to a lookout on the cape. I passed coconuts in their hairy husks and a heron who tried to give me the slip with the most comical evasive maneuvers I’ve seen in a bird. I skirted mangroves and inspected pockets of tiny balls of sand, which look like someone made Dippin’ Dots out of sand. I still have no idea how they come to be.
On my walk to dinner, I passed a bird walking along the path and excitedly took a picture. Then I saw about 10 more of them in the next hour, and was informed that this is the brush or bush turkey, a very common Australian bird (which showed up in my Thanksgiving post). An uncommon bird found in these parts is the cassowary, which looks a bit like an emu with a bump on its head. I didn’t see one, but that’s not too unusual.
The next day, after a leisurely breakfast, we piled back into the bus with a new driver/guide. She was the opposite of the first guy in so many ways–a hippie who spoke frequently and seriously about “the good vibrations of this special place” and the karmic complications of getting what you wish for (as illustrated by the story of a tourist who saw a croc and poked it with a stick to get a good action shot on his camera–and got his leg nearly bitten off).
We went to the Daintree Ice Cream Company, which grows all its non-dairy ingredients onsite. Each day they offer four flavors in one cup for $6, so we all bought a serving and ate our apricot, raspberry, macadamia nut, and wattleseed on the bus. (The apricot was delicious, the wattleseed a bit sharp but nice.) Afterward, we drove to Alexandra Range Lookout, so we could see the river flowing into the sea and some cockatoos squawking overhead.
We drove out to Mossman Gorge for a short meeting with a representative of the local aboriginal group, the Kuku Yalanji. He talked about learning from his uncle about when to hunt, when to move to the seaside for a few months, and so forth, all based on traditions dating back thousands of years. He showed us some of the white body paint that you may have seen in photos of aboriginal people, and explained that for his people, this was used when meeting people from other groups (the word “tribes” is inaccurate in regards to groups of aboriginal people of Australia).
Next, we went to the Mossman River and walked along the path there. I liked this path a lot, because it was dotted with signs that didn’t just describe the natural sights around us, but also explained how human efforts to help the environment directly helped preserve those natural sights–like “your recycled milk bottles built this boardwalk,” etc.
People gathered at a little rocky beach, and some brave souls got in the cold water. After a little dithering, I decided what was my Michigan upbringing for if not to prepare me for all types of swimming conditions, and I got in too. It was great! Fish swished by my ankles, the current carried me rapidly downstream, and for the first time all weekend, the sun shone.
The Daintree is the first example on my trip of the advantages of listening to tour company employees when they recommend sights. Sure, they’re selling you something, but sometimes that something is totally worth it. It may be the first example, but happily, it isn’t the last. More to come!
Where in the World Wednesday
The World of the Great Barrier Reef
Being underwater isn’t just like being in another world–it’s like being in your own world. Sounds are muffled, movements are fluid and languid. Gestures are obscured by bubbles. Shadows are at once more menacing and more enticing. Other people might swim into view, but the space between you and them is heavier than on land, and it takes just a little longer to recognize them. Everything is more beautiful and mysterious underwater, and we can explore and interpret that world however we choose; we literally can’t hear what someone else might say about it, when we’re below the water line. No wonder the mermaid myth has remained popular through the centuries. It’s alluring to imagine ourselves belonging there.
Even being underwater with 70 other tourists didn’t detract from the magic of the morning for me. I took a boat named, hilariously, Passions of Paradise (doesn’t that sound like a C-list celebrity’s perfume line?). I’d felt ill for most of the two-hour boat ride from Cairns to Paradise Reef, but I felt better as soon as we stopped and looked out from the boat deck at the dark patches in the water that indicated coral. It was a little weird, looking around at open ocean with nothing but gently rolling waves out to the horizon, and then clownshoe-ing over to the edge of the boat in my flippers and slipping into the water and seeing just how much life there was under those gently rolling waves.
I wish I had been able to take pictures that showed how vibrant the colors were and how graceful the swaying coral was. Unfortunately, the camera I borrowed from Heather chose that morning to inexplicably fog up, and as a result all I have are some dark, dim photos. (I know, my camera luck has been amazing on this trip.) I’ll share a few anyway, but please see these to get a glimpse of what I saw down there.
People spread out as soon as we got in the water, so it was just me, and the coral, and the fish. I slowly waved my flippers up and down, and followed a fish from one patch of coral to another, then whipped my whole body around as a school of fish whirled past, and finally I just floated and watched the coral sway back and forth. There’s a philosophy to be found in the way the coral smoothly followed whichever direction the currents were flowing, but I will just note that this natural movement was beautiful to watch. Something caught in my peripheral vision, and I saw that my hand was emulating the coral, calmly swishing one way and then the other.
I saw a large school of fish gliding in the other direction, and I followed them to the edge of the reef. Since I know people will make Finding Nemo comparisons anyway, let me say that this was the part that most reminded me of that movie. When Nemo swims to the edge of the reef and they all peer over into the dark abyss beyond, and they’re all terrified. That’s what this was like. Remember that this is the open ocean, and what’s beyond that reef is thousands of meters of dangers known and unknown, in water that gets so dark it might as well be night. I hung out on the edge for a bit, drawn to that dark, silent place, but then I paddled back to the safety of the reef.
I was one of the last ones out of the water, and then we went to Michaelmas Cay, which is a little strip of land used as a resting area for thousands of migrating birds each year. People chased sea turtles and walked on the beach. I floated on my back and watched the birds in sudden flight. Then I flipped over and watched some huge fish swim figure eights under the boat.
This time, I was the very last one out of the water, and they had to call out three times before I heard them. I had been watching a purple clamshell-shaped coral open and close its “mouth” as tiny yellow fish darted past. The coral and the fish were crystal clear, and everything else was indistinct. I eventually heard the crew’s calls, sounding like the teachers in Charlie Brown cartoons, and I surfaced.
But the other thing about being underwater is that if you stay long enough, and you feel immersed enough in the beauty of it, then you can take a little of it with you when you leave. Now there will always be a part of my mind that can see the bright colors, the calm swaying, and the deep abyss.