Land Down Under: Queensland!
Trip Start Jan 14, 2009
57Trip End May 2010
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Ben ready with his booking number tagged to his chest
Already enjoying the van!!
(Videos of Ben's splash entrance available upon request)
We immediately headed North. Our first stop was the Glass House Mountains, only 50 or so km north of Brisbane. The locals were very welcoming and friendly. Gary, who runs the information center there once a week, offered us a place to stay on our way back south (which we took him up on--more on this great time with Gary and his wife, Elaine, in our next entry!).
Gary and his VW beetle (notice the big rock in the background... climbing to come!)
At the top of Ngungun (pronounced "gun gun," one of the Glass House mountains that just happens to be in Gary's back yard!
Next, we scuttled up along the Sunshine Coast. Not a wave was left unsurfed at this popular resort destination! Perfect golden beaches lined with towering resorts left us with a Southern California feel.
Beauty beaches, mate!
It doesn't take long before you hit the subtropics and all the things that make QLD unique appear: endless sugarcane fields, kangaroo & cane toad roadkill, flooded roads, spectacular wildlife, and of course, the Great Barrier Reef (GBR).
A Goanna (or monitor lizard). Here's an outback video of this fella: http://www.flickr.com/photos/benkunz/4439380652/in/set-72157623414008795/
Lorikeets are said to drink nectar from trees to get drunk
We hit Townsville (some say it's the armpit of QLD) on Lindsey's birthday (Feb. 28), 1400km north of where we started from just 2 days earlier.
Lindsey tried on elaborate hats at an expensive tourist boutique
Hard to believe it's 31 degrees Celsius (88 degrees F) and the UV index of 14 with these overcast skies!
For Ben's birthday (March 1), we headed north of Cairns to the Daintree National Park, the oldest rainforest in the world.
Good times, great times!
If you get stung on the leg by a jelly, be sure to pee on it, or just use the vinegar station here...
A fun little rope swing into beautiful fresh water
Trying to stay cool on Cape Tribulation
Part of our drive to head north so quickly was to make the three-day livaboard out on the GBR that we reserved while in New Zealand. Before our trip though, we met and stayed with Kirk, a fun Aussie who lives just outside Cairns in Yorkey's Nob. Nights were enjoyed with pints and he invited us to the St. Augustus aquatic center where he runs the pool.
Kirk putting his kids through their final laps.
While at the aquatic center, we joined one of Kirk's adult classes, a short but intense abs and legs class, followed by 1.7km of laps in his 33-meter pool. It took us days to recover!!
Coach Kirk with Ben, who has no idea the pain he's in store for!
Nothing helps you says toned abs after hard ab workouts like pizza and beer!
Dive day arrived! We have been looking forward to our visit on the GBR this whole trip and the time had finally come. It was a bit like Christmas really. We showed up at the Pro Dive shop at about 6am and loaded into vans with the 30 other people, then into the fancy dive boat. Air conditioning, nice, private cabins, showers and good food! But the best part was, no surprise, the diving! Three hours out to the reef and we were quickly in the water.
In our gear. Stinger suits are mandatory during box jellyfish season, though the jellies keep to the beaches and mainland.
Ben and Lindsay, our dive master (fun sharing a name with him!)
Happy and salty
Sitting in our dive briefings
Lindsey and...well, Lindsay
The Pro Dive crew was very professional and a lot of fun. Except for the two night dives, we got to do the eleven daytime dives unguided, which meant were were free to explore the underwater world how we wanted to. Lindsay, our dive master, did give us some info about each dive and compass settings during our dive briefings so we wouldn't get lost, which helped us enjoy the reef even more.
The coral was quite spectacular and teeming with life. Among the hundreds of species of fish, we saw green turtles, black and white-tipped reef sharks, butt-headed parrot fish (about 2-3 feet around), moray eels, giant clams, lobsters and shrimp of various kinds, squid, flowery cod, the massive QLD grouper, titan triggerfish, and on and on! What a special treat!
But what was it really like below the water's surface, on perhaps the world's most renowned reef?
The experience is unlike just about anything above water. With a giant stride off the back of the boat, hands over your mask and regulator so they don't pop off/out during the commotion, you're set, bobbing on the waves and without control of your motion. You signal to your partner to descend (Lindsey usually breathed off Ben's alternate air source instead of her own regulator since Ben's normally better on air, giving us more time overall below the surface) and within seconds of letting the air out of your BCD (jacket), you and your buddy start to sink. Only a foot or two below the surface and you find all the turbulence left behind at the surface and you slowly float to near the bottom, like a fairy.
On some of our dives, we saw schools of squid floating perfectly horizontally near the descent lines (ropes tied off to the boat that lead to blocks at the bottom of the ocean). These squid blended in perfectly with the sea. From the top, they looked dark, like the black depths of the ocean. Looking up at them from below, they were a translucent blue colour, bringing in the light of the sun filtering through the water.
Setting our compasses to 120 degrees, we swam off toward a peculiar-shaped bommie. In the ocean, these bommies were like forests, where each bommie (reef structure) was a unique bush or tree with its own distinctive shape. There's almost an infinite complexity to the coral on these bommies, and as you draw close to one, all the intricate details start to take shape. On just one bommie, you might see dozens of types of coral: hard and soft, different colors and shapes. Each type of coral might house its own ecosystem of fish and other sea life.
It's disorienting underwater, looking through a mask that leaves you with tunnel vision. You literally have to move your whole body to see in a different direction, and every move produces a momentum. And time seems to pass by at varying intervals. You'll find time speeding up as you pause to examine just a small section of a bommie; without knowing, you'll have spent minutes scouring over the tiny space that may hold a sea anemone, for example, with Nemo and his family floating amidst the swaying pink and purple tentacles and other small but colorful fish loitering around. With just one kick of your fins around the corner of the same bommie, there might be a moray eel ten feet long, snaking in, out, and around the natural holes in the coral, the eel's mouth opening and closing rhythmically like a robot.
Suddenly, from the corner of your mask, you catch movement. A giant butt-nosed parrot fish, about the size of the biggest hoop you can make with your arms. A peculiar-looking tank of a fish, you follow it across a sandy patch as it leads you to a reef shark. A tad nervous, you suddenly remember to check all your gauges to make sure you aren't too deep, you have enough air to get you back to the boat, and you know where you are so you don't get lost on your way back to your boat. Not wanting to linger too long around the shark, you signal to your buddy to head toward the Great Barrier Reef's wall. To get there, the two of you first have to navigate through a heap of tight bommies. You spot a snug cave, which feels a bit uncomfortable at first but a few seconds later, you pop out the other side and are welcomed by two giant clams with purpley flesh about three feet in diameter. You'd swim along the wall until you find yourself in a forest of staghorn coral, which looks like giant piles of elk antlers, some painted pink and some painted blue.
You float over one mass of staghorn to see a lively green sea turtle, nipping at red algae that grows on coral for lunch. You stop swimming and just hover a few feet above him for minutes, which feel like infinity, just watching this magnificent old-looking creature perform his daily routine.
Checking your gauges again, you're at 70 bar of pressure in your tank--time to go back to the surface. You signal to your buddy and ever so slowly, you head to the boat, slowly angling upward. Getting the Benz is no fun, so at a minimum, you shouldn't ascend any faster than 18 meters per minute (1 foot per second). But of course, we would try to be even more conservative, so just surfacing takes about 10 minutes. At three meters from the surface, you stop for three minutes to decompress, letting all the nitrogen bubbles in your body get smaller and off-gas. Even if you don't go very deep, it's the right thing to do every time. Besides, at three meters below the surface, heaps of big fish interested in the boat start curiously swimming around the boat, and you consequently, making your decompression stop just another entertaining part of the dive. Time's up, you and your buddy slowly float toward the surface and back to the real world. There's an instant high as you get to talk again and share your experience with everyone on board, but then you realize how quickly it all went by and you can't wait to get back into the deep.
Here's just a small glimpse of some of the many fish and sea life we saw:
Angelfish with some staghorn coral (with lots of algae) below him
Nemo (sea anemone fish)
More photos of our first Aussie adventures:
Queensland Road Trip: http://www.flickr.com/photos/benkunz/sets/72157623414008795/
Great Barrier Reef: http://www.flickr.com/photos/benkunz/sets/72157623485686313/