If you have been off travelling there comes a point when you really just want to get home. Most of that feeling arises from a longing to reconnect with family, notwithstanding modern technology affords us opportunities to do that in real time more than we used to, and if I was really honest I was seriously in no hurry to get back. You miss the hugs though, the real warm connection you get from wrapping your arms around your children and grandchildren and it being reciprocated, something that cannot be achieved on video calls. So it was that I had a dilemma; I didn’t really want my trip to end but I longed for that kind of connection to my family that wasn’t available when I was still in Australia.
As we know only too well, those kinds of shows of PDA’s or get togethers are currently off limits for the time being. And so it was that we were to arrive back to a new reality. One where we were confined to barracks, quarantined, #staying home at least for the foreseeable future. A few blogs back I did write about a visit to my own home for the weekend. Gaining a new perspective on how it might look through a visitors eyes. Now I really was like a visitor, just back from a 5 week trek on the other side of the world slap bang into a new reality with nobody but the Lion to share it with.
My delight to be home, lasted all of five minutes. The silence was deafening, with only the buzz of the fridge, humming out of tune with my happiness, to welcome us back. There was food inside, so someone had been busy, but it lacked the invitation to dine, maybe since we’d scoffed too much on the plane. We simply needed to see people. These needs were unmet. We were abandoned. Alone. Do you know how hard that transition from touring with a group of 28 to enter the dismal, loneliness of the Danders is? It is normally writhing with bodies, ringing out with voices, clinking with glasses and the mastication of food.
My farmhouse kitchen table, the hub of all activities and normally brimming with people, wine and food, bore only a raft of mail accumulated over our absence and neatly sorted into his and hers piles by my daughter. There was a warmth, which I had ensured was in place through my Hive App, that greeted us on arrival. A heat that would be impressive, as we welcomed our guests inside from the wintery conditions outside, given the fact we had just arrived home. I hoped they would soon arrive to share our stories, our photographs and their presents, except that none were allowed to come. I caught sight of our cases sagging in the hallway, groaning with washing, tired from all the hauling and pulling and bulking up in the aircraft. Their newness depleted, bearing the scuffs, scrapes and ticketing labels, their own identifying memories of our trip.
The Lion opened all of the windows, inviting the fresh air to replenish the staleness of uninhabitation. He lit candles even before he had emptied the case as he returned to super OCD mode now he was home and had purpose. I stood still, listening to the silence, smelling the air, slowly gaining my bearings with familiarity. Everything static, frozen in time, just the way we left it. No ghosts of memories these past five weeks, the house craved noise and laughter but none was coming.
I thought it best to empty the cases. 8 piles of washing occupied the floor of the snug. Each aligned to a washing programme, and carefully placed according to colour, materials and dirt. The reek of sweat and sun lotion permeated the room once the clothing was released from the confines of the case. A pile of shoes, and one or two items that were never worn looked forlorn in the vacant space created by the expulsion of washing. The cases suddenly lighter as they were lugged up stairs to their final resting place at least until we went on a big trip again.
Toilet bags had been cleared of most of the contents at the last stop, with the stalwart items, always needed but never used, found their way back into their hiding place under the sink until next time. Our bedroom was such a haven, despite the thinly spread layer of dust on the furniture, our bed was inviting us back, tempting as it was I am sorry but not yet. We were still buzzing on life anticipating the opportunity to speak with family or friends who might remember that it was today we were coming home. I checked the phone several times only to find everything was in working order. No messages displayed. No cars arriving, no people passing. Silence – shattered only by the Lion trying to ignite the candles and huffing and puffing as he did so.
Day turned into Night, and we had still no real evidence of any joy that we were back. The house wrapped itself around us, warm, cosy and illuminated by warm white lights and twinkling light strips, the strengths of our very own Shangri-La were in abundance. Video calls with our nearest and dearest over, we finally accepted and embraced the comforts we were surrounded by and would sleep on our new reality, of no social contact until the next day….
Our final stopover of the trip was to be in Bali, the beautiful Indonesian Island, promising peace and tranquility. A place where we might re-charge our batteries before heading home. The four day stopover was all inclusive, meaning you had little more to do than summon the Balinese waiter with the press of a button to bring you a cocktail as you lounged by the sea. The beds on the beach provided a serene outlook shaded with palms, and you were entertained by the antics of the paddle board rookies as they tried to master the waves. The rush of the waves to the shore, the blistering heat and the cool long drinks affirmed for sure, we were in paradise.
Our resort was within a gated community of around 17 hotels, our Hotel, the Melia Bali, was a grand affair with several restaurants, bars and for the strenuous among us, beach and pool activities to keep the calories at bay. We were initially unaware that somewhere close by a British Woman had died from Coronavirus and when the story did reach us it did little to provide any real context of the scope of the virus now, as opposed to when we left Britain in February.
This tragedy had occurred the week before we arrived and may well have resulted in a slightly stricter regime at immigration when we arrived on the Island. On immediate entry to the immigration hall we had to sign a declaration that we had not experienced any symptoms. Signing this with your name, passport number and next of kin was obligatory and somewhat sobering. Then we were placed through a screening process where those of us with high temperatures would be turned away. We had experienced screening at several airports along the journey but not as vigorous or individualistic as this. It raised the tempo considerably for us but not in a way that threatened our holiday. News items from Australia suggested that Australians should not travel to Bali. Being in our bubble I wondered what the drama was with this, since, as I have said, we had no context for it. Australia then went into lockdown preventing anyone arriving in the country from travelling onward, requiring a 14 day quarantine.
As we sipped our daily cocktails, oblivious to the reality, the world continued to collapse around about us. The waiters here provided constant hand sanitiser all around the hotel, other than that overt gestures that Coronavirus was crippling the country were absent, it was pretty much a non-event, if you were a tourist. Apart from the low numbers in the hotel, to us life was pretty much as it had been for the past 4 weeks, a holiday. How painful it would be when we were kicked into touch in just a few days. Lots of information from my kids, seemed to suggest that we might need to isolate when we got home. I scoffed at this claiming the UK had gotten things a little out of proportion, after all we were in areas also affected and life was going on as normal? Was it not? I’m ashamed to admit we were in a total bubble and it was going to be a very hard floor that we hit when we finally came back to earth.
As we cruised at around 35 000 feet from Bali to Glasgow in nothing short of luxury, we sipped champagne and munched on filet steak, watching the latest movies on ICE oblivious to reality. Little did we know what we were coming back to. Of course we had seen the FB images of empty shelves in the shops, but put this down to our eccentric behaviour as a nation rather than it conveying any real sense of crisis. As if to re-affirm our nonchalance to the matter in hand, our arrival at Glasgow Airport did nothing to dissuade me of my belief it was all a storm in a tea cup. We careered through the Airport unhindered with only customs seizing the chance to upset us by checking our luggage. How disappointed they must have been when they realised we had little but cases full of dirty washing. No-one quizzed us on where we had been, no mass screening, a swift check of the passport and out to our waiting driver to head home. If things were as bad as our children were suggesting how could this be the case?
The reality hit me when the grandkids were kept at a distance, because we had been on a flight and abroad in countries where the virus had claimed lives. My daughter, who is studying to be a Nurse, was somewhat more in the know than me. We realised, very quickly that self-isolation was the only way we might get to see our grandchildren. We sat alone in our home for seven days, watching the news and catching up to the place everyone else was already at. I ventured out to the shops, since the cupboards were almost empty and could hardly believe the shelves were so low. Someone commented that “at least there was bread” as if it was an unusual thing. We had been transported to another planet, I thought.
You know when you’ve been fast asleep and wake up suddenly, you get a bit confused trying to recall how you get here and got into bed. It was much the same as that for us; what was this world we were now living in? It was clear the bubble we had been part of during our holiday had finally burst – and it was traumatic. Slowly during our week of isolation I finally appreciated what needed to be done. I have to say it took us a week to actually process the information and get the message. A week later on the Monday night we were in Lockdown and that was any time with the grandchildren well and truly scuppered.
Life has altered dramatically in the space of five weeks. No Mass ( during LENT!!!), no social gatherings, social distancing between neighbours and all our family over 70 locked away in their little houses with no-one to see them or hug them. It’s a devastating time for many. But we have been so fortunate to even have had a holiday at all, many cannot get away, losing money in some cases. All the trips we had to look forward to are also gone now but at least we had one that was pretty amazing.
How will we cope? What will life be like in isolation for so long, will there be new ways to live our lives? Will we seek out contacts through social media? How will we shop for our every day needs, when all the slots are taken for months on end? Every day, in this new reality of mine, I am grateful for my health, grateful for our NHS staff and Care Workers, all of the shop workers and delivery drivers, pharmacists and teachers, social workers and police officers, dealing with the reality of this awful crisis. Meanwhile I am still trying to get my head around what it all might mean? I have now well and truly admitted that Coronavirus is now in my back yard.
And just like that it came to an end. 29 days on our Very Best Tour of Australia with stopovers in Singapore and Bali. In total 4 and a half weeks of unadulterated pleasure travelling in good weather (despite Melbourne) and with great company. This was a celebration for my 60th birthday, a trip I didn’t really get excited about at all with all of the concerns that precipitated that; Coronavirus, bushfires and terror attacks.
If you want to see Australia there are so many ways of doing it. When you are young backpacking is the only way that is likely to work; reasonably cheap and unstructured. As a couple in the early thrusts of love, perhaps a camper van or converted transit, when all you need is a bed and wheels, is for you. As a family you are probably more likely to visit places where family or friends have relocated but as a retired person, or for special occasions, this tour would be well worth every penny you spend. How else might you visit every major city in Australia with the minimum of fuss, the maximum of opportunity and the finest hotels?
In addition to being the most excellent of all Tour Guides our Tigress was a stickler for detail giving us the greatest confidence in her ability to deliver. We could not have asked for anyone better because she managed this trip like a military operation and we were enabled to be tourists without a care in the world while this all went on behind the scenes. This tour also balanced a busy trip with the right amount of Freedom days to do as you wish. Four days is often enough to see a City, but the Tour incorporated several worthwhile escapades that were included in the price as well as offering additional trips, if you were inclined to see more. The finely tuned arrival and departure from each venue was seamless and even the 9 flights we took on the entire trip did not feel daunting or difficult in any way, because we had the Tigress.
In addition to this being an interesting tour, with fantastic trips and wonderful experiences; the Great Barrier Reef, the Sydney Bridge Climb, the Aboriginal People, the Wine tour and the Wildlife trips, one of the best aspects were the people we travelled with. Twenty Eight of us in total. We all had our personal reasons for being on this trip, but we had the option of finding out whether we shared these or not on the many occasions we spent together over a glass of wine or a beer. I found the welcome invitation of a group of people sitting in the bar at the end of our night a treat, never feeling isolated on our holiday we always had someone to speak with. As we progressed and got to know each other this was one of the most memorable aspects of the holiday. It became important to have joint meals as we headed toward our last day. Many people doing different tours suggested the last day in Australia had taken on a new significance as we hung on to our fellow travellers with a little bit more love and affection knowing it was the last we would be together as a group.
The Tigress was going on a well earned break back to Melbourne, we were off to Bali, but it was clear we had no idea what lay ahead for us when we arrived home. Coronavirus was a threat at the beginning of our holiday and now even more so four weeks after we had left home. As we sat in the bar on our last night, everyone arrived for a departure drink, many with sadness at leaving but some ready for home. This was a magnificent group with many memorable aspects that added considerably to our journey and the memories we will treasure. To spare their identities but they will know who they are they have been given animal names.
The Antelope was heading directly to London, this elegant lady in her senior years was involved in Haute Couture all her life and worked with the greatest designers her style and grace was part of who she was and travelling alone we wanted to be sure she had someone looking out for her. The Jaguar and the Spectacled Bat had been in New Zealand before joining us. The Jaguar shared a common role to my work that would see us bonded through shared interests in protecting the vulnerable when we made it home. The Rabbit and the Sea Lion were off to Singapore, this beautiful woman with the delightful smile and her hubby had been together since they were teenagers, and he was still besotted with her it was clear. The Hamster and her Guinea Pig were off to hire a car, a formidable character, the hamster and I shared a love of swimming and I loved to hear her articulate her stories; she had a truly engaging lilt and tone to her voice. Her partner a fine gentleman with a permanent smile was delighted to be finding his roots in some of the Australian cities we visited and taking off to explore them further in Sydney when we left.
The Lynx and the Daddy Long Legs loved the sun and shared our passion for catching the rays whenever we got the chance. They both had a birthday while we were away and the Lynx was to celebrate hers in Bali by staying an extra day. The Swan and the Peacock shared our outlook on life, the Peacock off swimming in the sea, the Swan making sure everyone was okay on our trip her emotional antenna often on alert, an affable friendly pair whom we shared much in common. The Leapord travelled alone, a kindly but fiercely independent character she was the most travelled among us with many trips under her belt. I loved her humour, and although often willing to offer her aid, she often kindly reminded me she was more than capable of helping herself and she was! The Lark and the Rhino were recently married, their love of horse racing took them off in their own direction on most days exploring the racing times and form. The Lark often volunteering to take part in activities that saw her aiding the Blacksmith and starting a fire for the Aborgines.
The Horse Whisperer and the Hyena will remain with me in my heart for ever. The Hyena looked so much like my father it gave me such comfort to be in his company. The fact that the Horse Whisperer loved my blogs was such a privilege as I know they will also remember me with that link. The Kanga and Roo, seemed very active to me when we first met them, they had been cycling. But the Kanga was worried about her health as I learned on this trip and had to be more cautious that she wanted to be as we travelled around. Like me they love Kenmore and Aberfeldy in Perthshire and so we bonded over our love of my favourite place. The Bear and the Zebra liked to sit at the front of the bus, I don’t know the reasons why this was important but it was something they enjoyed. Staying on to visit family in Brisbane it was the Bear who often had to fix out the WiFi for me when I couldn’t get a signal, I don’t know what I would have done without him.
The Panda and Giraffe were a quiet and reserved couple, slow to engage but with so much to offer. I loved the togetherness of this couple, so in tune with each other, I am sure they had more than a few laughs at our antics on the trip and the Panda always inquisitive, hungry to find out more about you. It was a welcome opportunity to develop a relationship on a more personal level. The Rabbit and Platypus had the energy of youth, perhaps the youngest on the tour they were often off exploring, taking amazing photographs and enjoying every bit of the trip. His love of football meant we could relate to his need to watch the match in the middle of the night, and we shared our Sky Rail experience with them in the rainforest.
The Eagle and the Albatross had also visited New Zealand before they came to Australia, the only other pair from Scotland but who were English by birth. The poor Eagle must have my forgiveness because for so much of the trip I called her the wrong name, mortified I rectified this at the Great Barrier Reef. Another one who cared for the vulnerable I was so sad we didn’t get to say a proper goodbye at the end.
So to the Koala our tour guide in the outback, the Parrot our assistant in the Ghan and all the wonderful bus drivers, porters, pilots, stewardesses, train drivers, captains, waiters, waitresses, cleaners, cooks, bar tenders, guides and people we met along the way. We loved it all, we cannot thank you enough for the wonderful experience Australia delivered. Thank you everyone, thank you Australia ❤️🇦🇺
The Sydney Harbour Bridge is synonymous with Australia and New Year. A symbol of some stature, it is a charismatic icon in Australia and of course there were so many here we had been fortunate to see; the Great Barrier Reef and Uluru among them. Sydney was the last tourist destination of our Very Best of Australia trip and one Distant Journeys recognised in their planning. Our Hotel for this part of the visit affording a stunning panoramic view of the harbour and Bridge from every single room.
In 1932 the Bridge was completed, the vision of John Bradfield, Chief Engineer with the Department of Public Works. There is little doubt Bradfield was a genius, completing first a Bachelor Degree and later a first class Masters Degree, he achieved the University Medal on both sittings. He first conceived of the idea some 17 years earlier proposing 3 significant projects for the City; the North and South shores might be linked by a bridge, electrifying the railways and improving the underground service. WW 1 put these grand but visionary schemes on hold. His thesis on the Sydney Harbour Bridge earned him a Doctorate of Science in 1924 and so it was the proposal became a reality.
The Bridge was completed at a time when there were very few cars on the road but his vision of a 6 vehicular lane, 2 tram lanes, 2 railway lines and pedestrian and cycle paths still remains sufficient to deal with the 56 million vehicles a year that cross it. For whatever reason the tram lanes did not materialise but the space was assigned to the vehicular lanes providing 4 lanes in either direction when crossing the Bridge. A toll still exists despite the Bridge being paid off in 1988, but upkeep costs are high given this is a steel structure and maintenance is an ongoing matter.
The Bridge is the sixth longest Arch Bridge in the world with a span of 504m. Constructed in steel manufactured in Middlesborough, England by Dorman Long, who leveraged some of the Tyne Bridge design into their contract. During hot weather the Bridge expands about 18 centimetres but this was appreciated in the design and hinges afford the expansion with little interference in the function it performs for the traffic that traverse it daily. At its pinnacle the Bridge is 134m above water level. And we were going to experience this directly during our trip to Sydney with the Bridge climb.
Many years ago the Lion’s youngest sister visited Australia and was proposed to under Bridge. For our visit, this wasn’t an option so we were planning to climb this famous icon instead, and paid nearly $650 dollars AUD to do so. It is not cheap but if you can save the money, or earn a bit extra as you travel, it is a very worthwhile experience if heights do not scare the shit out of you. 6 of our trip colleagues were taking part in the climb with us making the trip even more significant since we were doing it with friends. The Horse Whisperer and Hyena, having missed out on the Scuba Dive, signed up, the Swan and the Peacock from the south coast of England, the Rabbit and Sea Lion from Barnsley, all joined us adding a celebratory and camaraderie feeling to the event.
You need around 3 and a half hours for this trip, we were booked onto the 4pm climb and didn’t actually get anywhere near the Bridge until 5pm. Our first task was to complete a health and fitness questionnaire, sitting in a circular room we completed the forms in a silent, industrious little circle scribbling away and hoping we made it through the first hurdle without too many drop outs. There were another 4 younger people on our climb and they must have wondered how they ended up with the Saga Tourers on this particular climb or whether some of us would even make it. Ha! not so not this group of oldies, we passed the first test with flying colours. Ben led us collectively into our second circle of the day, standing this time, we were asked to say where we were from and why we were climbing the Bridge. Our youngsters were from Peru, Denmark and England but whether we were young or old, every male in the group admitted they were only doing it because the women in their lives wanted to do it. How interesting that the women, universally, were the drivers for this particular climb. Having introduced ourselves to the team, and passed the second test, we were now handed our suits, the first part of the equipment we needed for the climb.
The suit itself has gone through several iterations before reaching its current design, a grey onesie with blue flashes on the arms and legs that zips up the back. You are assigned a locker and asked to leave everything that might fall from your person in the locker before you begin your ascent. Such is the importance of this request you will also undergo a metal detector frisk once you have gotten the suit on. There can be no chance of causing a major incident from a falling phone or watch once up that high. The suit equalises everyone, now all the same, aside from age, the first demonstrable sign of becoming a team has been delivered. Once suitably attired we moved into a much wider room which was kitted out with individual stations with belts and braces, a radio room and two sets of stairs linked by a platform. Our leader now emerged taking over from the delectable Ben, clearly on a higher pay grade and not to be troubled by menial but important tasks, such as allocating the right size suit to the assembled party.
G, as our guide liked to be called, was an experienced operator. He provided you with a confidence from the outset and took time to recall every single one of our names as he talked us through our paces. Our first task was to be shown to an individual station, direct leadership required here, as we were tasked to stand with our hands on the bars and await further instruction. Once everyone was in place we were instructed to step into the braces and secure the belted clips. Collectively we put our legs into the braces, silently following the instructions that were designed to eliminate confusion as each of us got into the gear. Having checked everyone’s clips were properly in place we were now directed to the front of the steps and platforms where we would now learn techniques on how to climb the steep steps of the Bridge in a practice run. G demonstrated how a cord with an open ended clip could attach us safely during the climb to the fixed structures of the Bridge. It slid on at the start of the Climb gliding along a continuous linear steel rail that sat just below the handrail. There were intermittent break points in this rail, but they could only be opened with a key by Guides to allow them to navigate up and down the group as we progressed. The clip afforded you a continuous link to safety throughout the Climb.
Once the entire group had learned to navigate the steep steps up and down, recognising the importance of keeping the clip on the right side of the body as you turned to descend backwards and not getting into a fankle. We watched and listened attentively, such was the importance of the information we needed to keep safe on the Climb. At this point a group returning from their Climb entered the room, buzzing with excitement. One of the youngsters on the group wished we could get started, almost 40 minutes of preparation having taken place so far. Once we had all mastered the trial climb, we were moved out to the comms room. We lined up facing each other as a radio was clipped to our suit braces with a set of headphones linking us with the instructor as we navigated the Bridge. One or two had to change headsets as a full and comprehensive check whether we could hear the guide took place. Once all were connected, and spectacles and hats were attached by strings to loops on the braces, we had a final brief from G before we headed off along the grey painted corridors toward a door that would lead us onto the Bridge.
We waited anticipating what lay ahead in a holding bay, the heat building in the suits, I was glad to have shorts and tee-shirt only underneath. We were offered a hat, but opted to leave this for collection once we had completed the Climb. After all I couldn’t have the hair messed for the photographs could I? Once outside we were immediately clipped to the rail, walking along the narrow mesh walkways giving you a waffle eye view of the ground below. Looking down is essential just to see the progress you are making in height terms, looking out just as important as the panoramic views alter as you ascend, and looking up just gives you time to pray to God you don’t fall. Once clipped we quickly began moving along the grid at pace, the guide constantly checking we were maintaining it. It was clear the Climb was not considered by Bradfield during the design, most of the steps and the rail were added by the climbing company, but the walkways with low pipes and occasional platforms leading to electric stations, reminded you these conditions were what workers had to endure every day just to ensure the safety and efficiency of the bridge.
Our first photograph enabled the other iconic site of Sydney to take centre stage, the Sydney Opera House was slid into the background. Just before we stopped for our picture two pipes either side of your head sprayed water in a mist to cool you down, a thoughtful addition this beautiful Autumn day. The sky was without cloud, the temperature not too hot, and the views spectacular to the east, west, north and south of the City. We had time to peruse these at leisure as we were each allowed two poses for the first picture stop. Once taken G led us up toward the summit, the pace continued as we made the Climb trying to remember to look down, up and out as we also tried to keep our balance on the slim but adequate steps. As we reached the pinnacle our panoramic view now included new bays, previously concealed behind hills as our ascent took us higher. We were directed by G to count how many cars passed between Red Cars on the Bridge below. Suitably tasked we all watched the cars, now the height of rush hour, criss cross the 4 lanes assigned from the South to North side with some purpose. It was noisy, bikes, buses, trucks and cars whizzing along as we tried to count past the best target of 30 before the occasional red car brought us back to zero and we started to count again. This delay allowed each pair to make a short video as we stood on top of the Bridge. The Lion was not a fan of this so we opted for pictures only and once we were all through the photo station at the summit it was time for the descent.
The descent was aided by individual guides waiting at the steep steps to ensure you managed the turn without a fankle and to let the individual before you clear the stairs before you began. These guides engaged you in small talk taking your mind off the task and cleverly relaxing you into this trickier aspect of the Climb. We arrived back in the holding Bay, exhilarated. I’m sure if you have read any theories of wellbeing, I would place this experience as Maslow described it; a “Peak Experience” one that brought you deep satisfaction in your wellbeing, one you were likely never to forget. The final team talk, led by G, afforded us a congratulatory talk keeping you on a high sufficiently long enough to complete the questionnaire for favourable feedback. Our final task was to collect our photographs and we were advised to buy them in a group of 4, which allowed a cheaper price to be achieved. Around $32 dollars allowed us to download all the photographs and videos (if you did one) to our phones. These we could share instantly with our families, waiting anxiously for word that we had completed safely the Climb of a lifetime. We did it…… go us❤️
Charles Smith was 16 years old when he fell foul of the law. In Scotland today he would be treated as a child for his crime. In the 19th century he was tried and sentenced to death, his crime? The theft of a letter containing a 1 pound note. Harsh as this may seem young Smith received a reprieve if he elected to commute his death sentence by electing to serve his sentence in a Penal Colony in Australia. I’m sure it was a bit of a no brainer for this young lad, who bade farewell to his family and set off on one of the Colony ships for Australia. The ‘Baring’ sailed with over 300 convicts and was 151 days at sea. This was no Princess of the Seas sister ship cruise, life was harsh on board, some of the men did not make it.
On arrival at Sydney Harbour they would find themselves in the heart of historic Sydney in an area called the Rocks, now a tourist destination, then a place of squalor; a slum filled with dingy dwellings, taverns and brothels. It was an area to be avoided, people were not safe and gangs patrolled it pouncing on the unsuspecting drunk or visitor to the brothels. Despite having some grand shipping buildings and businesses here with pretty historic cottages, the area fell into further disarray when the shipping industry moved to nearby Circular Quay. The area would have a certain appeal for many of the convicts but they were still incarcerated when they arrived and the intention was to put them to use in the development of Sydney.
Lachlan Macquarie, is synonymous with Sydney the way John Stuart is with the Northern Territories. Both were Scots. Macquarie was the fifth and final military autocratic governor of Sydney who had a leading role in the social, economic and architectural development of the City. He played a crucial role in the transformation of New South Wales from a penal colony to a free settlement. His fingerprints are still evident in the City and add splendour and grandeur worthy of its history and status in the early settlement days. His wife, stricken by homesickness, used to sit near the harbour on the rocks watching for the ships coming in and bringing news from home. Mrs Macquarie’s chair, a rock hewn into a chair, from where she observed the Harbour comings and goings, is the final piece of an area of private garden and passageway known as Mrs Macquaries Road. Her husband had this developed in 1816, principally for her to enjoy and now a tourist attraction as a lookout point separating the idyllic Farm Cove and grittier Woolloomooloo Bay.
Macquarie developed an area at the end of Macquarie Street known as Hyde Park a green space lying to the north of the Hyde Park Barracks, home to the colony’s convicts. The Barracks are now a living museum where we heard the story of Charles Smith and could see how he lived when he arrived here. The barracks contained up to 170 men at one time living cheek by jowl, sleeping in simple rope hammocks that they shared routinely with rats. The museum affords you an insight into life here with many relics recovered during its revitalisation, now on display. The voices of men and later the women incarcerated there tell a moving story, pieced together from historic records and linked to discoveries in the building and in the records maintained of the day. The men here contributed to the development of Macquaire’s vision for the City working as builders, roofers, cabinet makers and plumbers. The regal court building, St Mary’s Cathedral, the Sydney Hospital, National Mint, Parliament Building and the National Library among the buildings we took in are evidence of his vision realised.
However Macquarie and the convicts found living with the indigenous peoples of the area was not as harmonious as it might have been. Macquarie was responsible for authorising the massacre of the Gundungurra and Dharawal people. In the Barracks we heard of the massacre of aborigine families and of wars between the two factions locally as they tried to claim their land back or achieve superiority. With the military power associated with the regime it was evident there was only going to be one winner here. The tales within the Barracks shifted from convicts to a holding house for immigrants. Mostly women were housed here on arrival, many from Ireland, their lives packed neatly into little brown suitcases. Some of the fine linen and lace still on display in the Barracks, little rosary beads and hair clips evidence that these women arrived prepared to remain, with hope and anticipation in their journey and relived in the stories we listened to as we observed.
The Sydney Hospital adjacent to the Hyde Park Barracks was the first of Macquarie’s developments, now part of this grand building has become the Mint and Parliament building. Lined with flags of the commonwealth the Aboriginal Flag among them, evidence of a nation keen to make good the relationships damaged by colonial masters. There are two bronze statues along Macquarie street worthy of mention on our tour of historic Sydney; the statue of Matthew Flinders, you may recall we heard much about him in Adelaide, who mapped the island of Australia and the Il Porcellino a bronze copy of the lolling Florentine boar gifted to the City in 1968. Rubbing it’s nose is meant to bring luck and it glints against the sunlight with the number of people hoping to benefit from a rub of its nose.
The Rocks lay derelict, a carbuncle on the City, until the 1970’s when it was reinvigorated. The historic buildings saved from demolition, now prized residences in this dark, narrow and quaint little streets surrounding the Rocks. Play fair Street is home to welcoming pubs, restaurants with seating outside and a Market on weekends. The finest stores can be found within the old shop fronts, faced with iron lattice work now home to modern designers such as Louis Vuitton and Prada. When the City fathers wanted to destroy many of these historic buildings the foresight of a radical building workers union whose opposition to the demolition, was vocal enough to ensure the detail and history of these little buildings were retained. Sydney, among its high rise business district, its majestic harbour and bridge has history and integrity within its confines that adds weight to the principle city status in Australia. We still had much to explore and do in Sydney but understanding where it was and how it became one of the significant cities of the world was just as important as looking at its sights.
Leaving Cairns was the most difficult aspect of the tour. We huddled like penguins hoping our resistance outside the coach would delay departure, intent on stretching out our last moments in Cairns as long as possible. We all knew entering that coach would take us on the last leg or our Very Best of Australia Tour, so we huddled. The end of the trip was not something any of us was ready to acknowledge. I dragged my heels as I climbed the stairs, feeling sadness and took my seat before we set off to the airport. A few hours later we were in Sydney.
During our travels we heard more than once about the intense rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney, vying for position like petulant children, as the capital city of Australia. In the end the government declared neither was suitable and the status of capital went instead to Canberra, created for the purpose in 1927 in the style of an authoritative parent. Sydney, however was the location where the first settlers arrived and its status and integrity as a candidate for Capital was certainly due in part to the development of the City by its first Scottish Governor Lachlan MacQuarie. The City has many grand buildings thanks to his influence on its design and grandeur.
In the history of Sydney Harbour we learned that in 1780 Captain Cook actually missed the harbour berthing instead at Botany Bay. On his recommendation this became the site for the penal colony and in 1788 the first fleet arrived with over 1000 prisoners. Life was hard, Botany Bay was not the ‘fine meadows’ Captain Cook billed it to be, it had little to sustain the early settlers and no freshwater. Actually Commander Arthur Philip later moved the fleet south beyond South Head Cliff and located the most natural and largest harbour in the world. He named it Sydney Cove after Viscount Sydney the Secretary of State for Great Britain at the time.
Port Jackson, home to the indigenous people at the time, carves Sydney in two halves linked by the Harbour Bridge since 1932. The South Shore contains the city centre, while many of the main attractions are within sight of Circular Quay. We were resident in the Harbour View Hotel on North Shore directly above Lavender Bay where several little yachts were moored adding a seaside charm to the city. There were additional coves, bays and harbours around the sprawling city, accommodating business, wharf developments, bars, restaurants, tourist attractions and residences. A one bedroom flat overlooking the harbour would set you back around $1 000 000 AUD.
Our coach made it’s way over the famous Harbour Bridge as we entered the North Shore, many business blocks here rose into the horizon just like those in the business district of the South Shore. The visitor attractions were less evident here, it was more of a suburb for working and living. Our Hotel was aptly named Harbour View, stretching its foundation over the railway line its curved convex line hugging the hillside, with every window afforded a sensational view of the Harbour Bridge and South Shore. It was a prime view you would never tire of. Many of our group left the curtains open in deference to its majesty letting it fill the window frame with its grandeur, the entire time we were there. At night the twinkling lights of the City and Circular Quay, the Super-Cruise ships docked at Campbell Cove, added a layer of magic to the vista but the camera flash prohibited you from capturing the mesmerising image with any quality.
The rail link between North and South Sydney runs under the hotel, this meant frequent earthquake like vibrations every time a train arrived or departed the station. We hoped for a higher floor given the vibration was so noisily close on the first level bar floor. However even from the 8th floor the rumble was apparent and we were grateful they ceased running between midnight and 4 in the morning. Staying on the North side had the major advantage of the view, but really you want to be on the South side where the attractions lay. Our day would inevitably begin with a walk downhill and over the bridge taking around 40 minutes, a short ferry to Circular Quay or a two stop train ride changing at the first station before traversing to the South Shore. Over 30 000 cars per day make the journey across the bridge to the west or eastern side of the City.
To use public transport here you need an Opal card, available at the little convenience stores these can be used on the trams (not free here like Adelaide, Perth and Melbourne), trains, buses or ferries. You can top them up as required and need to tap them off and on each journey to ensure you pay the right amount. If you have a pre-paid card or debit card then you may also use those instead. Those in our group who bought a card with $20 dollars each (you need one each) did not use it to its full advantage since many enjoyed wandering around the city on foot. If you want to travel to Manly beach or by any of the ferries it’s a great advantage. We opted for walking and debiting the costs on our pre-paid card.
On our second day in the City we took a dinner cruise around the harbour. Near the entrance to the Harbour lies Fort Denison completed in 1887 a formal penal site it was used as solitary confinement for prisoners not toeing the line. Nowadays it is a national heritage site, more used to monitoring tidal patterns and as a navigational aide. Should you wish you could be married there. Along the shores we saw the Royal Sydney Yacht club, of which the Duke of Edinburgh is patron. Our ferry navigated each of the coves and bays as we tucked into a two course lunch of Barramundi or Tenderloin followed by chocolate bombs or lime cheesecake. A narrator provided points of interest and stories of past events surrounding the harbour, while we sat a top of the boat enjoying the scenery along with a chilled glass of sav blanc.
As we sailed back to Wharf 6 at Circular Quay we observed Admiralty House home to the Governor of Sydney, guns still evident from the gardens pointing out to the harbour to protect the owner, redundant now and like large cigars propped against the wheels long extinguished and forgotten. Port Jackson, once home to the aboriginal people of Sydney welcomes around 2 500 ships a year into the harbour which is 9 km deep even at low tide. In Welsh bay we heard of the importance it played in the development of Sydney as a busy wharf area where cargo was loaded and unloaded and how in the early 1900 the bubonic plague took its toll decimating the area. The wharfs lay derelict for many years but have been revitalised in pursuit of prime locations within the City, it is here Russel Crowe’s apartment worthy some 13$ AUD is located, with his super yacht moored along side. The revitalisation of the wharf’s largely occupied by art and cultural exhibitors are there for everyone to enjoy, with theatre, 99 art galleries, bars and restaurants.
As our boat transversed the harbour back to our dock, we caught sight of the two icons of the harbour; the Sydney Opera House and the Bridge. Soon we would see both of these icons up close…. one a bit closer than the other.
From the Tjapukai Centre we walked the short distance to the nearby Sky Rail which would take us up to the village of Kuranda. The Sky rail would afford us an ariel view of the tropical rainforest located near Cairns in the north of Queensland. The Barron River (Bibhoora) is the main waterway in the Atherton Tablelands of North Queensland. At 103 miles long, following its traverse through Kuranda it tumbles and tosses down the 850 feet high Barron Falls, a sight we would be able to see from a vantage point high in the Rainforest, where its energy has long been harnessed into hydro electricity.
As we boarded the sky rail, 4 of us to each carriage which we shared with the Rabbit and the Platypus, it began to rain confirming its status in case we were in any doubt. As we powered toward the edge of the landing station the cart swung back and forth and lunged forward dangling from the overhead cables and offering us a breathtaking panoramic view of the forest. The density and greenery of the forest are immediately obvious, it is difficult to see what lies on the ground or get a sense of how high up you are as the canopies from the trees act like giant umbrellas keeping the rain but most importantly the sun at bay. 99% of the forest is canopy, light is life here so most of the animals and plants have adapted to their surroundings just to survive, as we would see on the ground. The Barron Gorge and Falls have been successfully eroded by the powerful Barron River, this feat considerable since it is a mountain range that would rival the Andes of today.
The Rainforest has been part of the world heritage list since 1988 and consists of wet tropical land. It’s value cannot be underestimated since the Rainforest cleans the air we breathe and regulates the water cycle. The Rainforest here also contains the world’s best record of the major stages in the evolutionary history of the world’s land plants. The Pandanis trees are plentiful, evergreen conifers reach some 100 feet into the sky. The Pandanis trees offering in its sap something that is ten times stronger than coffee, kids are not allowed to drink this, according to our Aborigine guides. The tree bears a fruit, which is very difficult to get into and only the male is edible, the peanut contained within the tough exterior, we were advised must be dropped into hot water to suckle the fruit and reach the peanut which is a great delicacy. Walking around at the first station, we see how trees have adapted to the loss of light, some growing roots downward. Birds, insects and animals essential for the transference of seeds and pollen.
The stop at Barron Falls was spectacular, some rain had fallen recently and there was enough water to make the impact of this powerful landscape and escarpment a visual pleasure. After a short stroll through the forest by way of a neat and tidy decking area, we climbed back into the Sky Rail and headed for Kuranda the village of the Rainforest. Many staff are deployed at each of the stops, to control the entry and exit from the Sky Rail but also to clean and sweep the pathways. There is a pride in the work they do each and everyone of them with a welcome smile and spring in their step.
Kuranda at the summit is linked by road, rail and more recently this Sky Rail. The village itself full of tourist wares, cafes, aboriginal art, bars and restaurants. It was pretty but lacked the draw of Hahndorf. We sauntered down the Main Street and stopped for a coffee where the locals were full of interest in our tour and willing to share what life was like here. Despite its rurality it was pretty busy and the added attraction the Kuranda Scenic Railway was one of the best aspects of the day. It is considered the greatest engineering feat of the time, built in 1891 it took 19 years to complete. The terrain was unforgiving and equipment simple. It has 2 kilometres of tunnels and 2 kilometres of bridges, at one point the train negotiates a hairpin bend and you can see the front of the train as it waddles along the track, rather cautiously and slowly.
For 2 years men worked on the tunnels using only picks and shovels, in the humidity and heat you can only imagine how conditions were back then. We sat in the comfort of this beautiful train ignorant of the difficulties that must have faced them trying to complete it. 132 men lost their lives building this railway line, most in accidents but many to illnesses associated with the rainforest and its inhabitants. Over 1500 men in total were involved in delivering this challenging project, they lived in tents and were isolated for long periods from families and friends.
The views are beautiful and the little train stops intermittently on the way down to allow you time out to view the scenery. It is opposite the Skyrail so does provide a very different perspective. We all started to nod off on the way down, the busy day taking its toll on our energy levels, sapped by the humidity and the amazing experiences we had encountered in Tjapukai and Kuranda. Glad to have had the time to explore this beautiful area and meet its people and grateful to those involved in delivering this fantastic rail journey. It was not the Ghan but each of these railways in their own way was a considerable achievement of endeavour and hard labour. Hard to miss out on this journey if you have time you won’t be sorry.
You cannot really blog about Australia and not mention the indigenous people. I have, on one or two occasions. mentioned them on our travels to Alice Springs and Darwin not always in detail because we were advised, quite strongly, these tribes did not want to interact nor be photographed and to respect their privacy. This made it difficult to speak to them and find out anything. The closest I came to a conversation was with an Aboriginal woman who was painting at the Art Centre in the Outback, she told me her painting depicted women gathering leaves to make medicine. She spoke quietly as she worked and nodded only in response to my questions keeping eye contact to a minimum.
The indigenous people were thought to have come here from Sri Lanka many thousands of years ago, when it would have been easier to transverse the vast lands of our planet long before the seas were imploded by the melting glaciers. Their history is well documented in Australia and makes for shameful reading; when Cook arrived here in 1770 he declared the island uninhabited, ignoring the indigenous people, their land rights and more importantly what they knew out this environment. Early settlers did not appreciate the ways of the Aborigine people and there were many battles, even massacres with the loss of entire families, foreign diseases imported unwittingly by the visitors devastated the indigenous people’s numbers in the early days. Christian groups in the early 1800’s with every good intention tried to protect them by locking them up but this invariably led to them being incarcerated or held against their will unable to move freely for fear they would be harmed. Today there is sill a high proportion of indigenous people locked within the criminal justice system as a result of the historic inequalities and pathways they have been forced down.
In Alice Springs, at the telegraph station, we learned about the 1970’s children born of aboriginal women and white men who were removed to children’s homes often by force, separated from their mothers. This tragic set of affairs was to be referred to as the ‘Lost Generation’ and appalling stories are still emerging today from that period. Today Australia is trying to make amends for the deeds of the past, we read that Adelaide was the first City to fly the Aboriginal flag alongside the Australian Flag but it was evident to the tourists eye, this symbolic gesture has a long way to go before balance is achieved. The lands that have been handed back to the Aboriginal race were as a result of lengthy law suits and not through any altruistic attempt to right a wrong done. It will be a complex journey and it is clear it varies from state to state and territory.
After the Outback experience and the Darwin encounter with the Aborigine peoples, the indigenous people of Cairns, as we were to discover on our visit to the Tjapukai centre, provided an entirely different perspective. The map of Australia greets you but it is an Aboriginal Map constructed in the 1980’s to better inform people, a task the indigenous people could not have completed alone since the Aborigine people themselves would have little understanding of the size and scale of the area before the early explorers arrived. There are around 500 tribes and 300 dialects. Within Queensland alone there are 6 dialects spoken. tribes may know neighbouring tribes but rarely further than that and often marry between neighbouring tribes. Dreamtime legends and stories were passed through the generations from men on long hunting expeditions. The Djabugandji and Tjapukai tribes, known as the Djabugay people of the Kuranda area of Cairns rainforest, reflect the nuance and difference between tribes, they have different songs, traditions, dances and music from other tribes. In Australia, of those that completed a census, only 3.3% of the population, around 649,100 people identified as Aborigine.
Dreamtime is a term identified by scholars and now used universally to describe the cultural worldview and beliefs of the Aboriginal people. In Tjapukai the Dreamtime story of creation is based on their belief that following creation there were two seasons; Wet and Dry. Animals, Fish, mammals, plants and people are either wet or dry. If the father is traditionally of the Wet side (fishing) the son or daughter must marry into the Dry side, to create harmony. They believe two brothers from the wet and dry sides fought over superiority, the dry side was murdered by the wet, returning as a crocodile eating the wet side brother as he fished, on his death he became a mountain on the dry side. The simplicity of their view does have a familiar ring to it and makes sense, you can also relate it to a religious link with the creation and the story of Cain and Able in the Old Testament.
Our guide called herself Ruby however her aboriginal name, given by her grandparents, was Rainbow (Guti Guti). In aborigine families the grandparents name the children since they have more knowledge of the culture and systems of the tribe. She was a beautiful girl, black wavy hair pulled off the brow to reveal an open and warm face,with a wide smile revealing well cared for teeth (not like others we saw), tribal clothing covering her petite frame accompanied by delicate patterns of white and ochre body paint on her shins and arms. Rainbow was very engaging and willing to share stories and information about her people with anyone interested to hear them.
In addition to the history we also had a go at throwing a boomerang and spear. After our initial introductions we went to the grassed area for our Boomerang lesson. Only males use boomerangs or spears, women foraged for medicines while men hunted for food. The boomerangs shaped different for left and right hands, were intended to give the appearance of a flock of birds, it was not unusual for 10 boomerangs to be released at once. The Lion had a good technique and managed to return it twice when it was his turn. I on the other hand would have been more of a snake than a bird since my throw stayed close to the grass, 5 feet in front to be exact, suppose I might have been better at foraging.
Next up was the spear throwing; the spears were bamboo stalks with holes at either end, a wooden peg with a hook carved into the tip like a crochet needle, slid into the bamboo hole pinched close to the speak creating a spring to launch it toward the target. This ingenious weapon took a bit of practice but I was better at this than the boomerang, getting it at least near the running Kangaroo target. One thing for sure this little venture brought out the competitiveness amongst the alpha males in the group. With an invitation for anyone who wanted another go 6 of our team, all men, fought for pole position to do so. It was clear they wanted to demonstrate their innate hunter gatherer to their women but it was clear all of us women would be starving if that was the case.
Our next station was to observe tribal dancing, and the centrepiece activity, the Digeriedoo. Carved from red or white gum trees this is the oldest wooden instrument in Australia. If termites have already infested the tree there is a good chance it will be hollow and most of the work to hollow it out will have been done by the little pests. The cut and length of the instrument determine the pitch, much lower if longer etc and that can also be altered if it is soaked in water for a few hours . They use beeswax to soften the mouthpiece and fill any holes in the trunk. To create a sound (it’s not like playing a trumpet) the lips softly vibrate, like blowing a raspberry but constantly and air is taken in through the nose at the same time. A bit like the scuba diving, a tricky combination, we were invited to try to do this as he made it look so easy but we failed. It’s a practiced art to breath and raspberry at the same time.
The dancing and clothing worn has symbolic meaning for everything, the paintings on the body represent animals, ladies wear grass skirts and men, animal skins. The men also have animal tails or grass rolled with hair dangling from their waist like tails to decorate the outfit. Paint is naturally derived producing ochre, yellow and red, white or charcoal from the ashes. The dance they performed described the Cassowary, native to the rainforest and the symbol of the Djabugay people, its forage and encounters with other animals. This bird also appears in the paintings; paintings here differ from the Outback Aboriginals who paint in dots mainly, whereas here animals and people were evident. we buzzed with excitement at the chance to speak with the Aborigine people here, a very enjoyable presentation, informing us a little of the insight to the rainforest people of Kuranda.
And with that we ventured into the rainforest and to its lonely village of Kuranda by Skyrail, a tale I will provide in the next blog. For now lets enjoy the Djabugay people and their stories.
Our boat moored alongside a giant pontoon, almost as tall as the boat but much wider. This little city on the water was where we would begin our underwater exploration of the reef . Safety of course is premium so we spent 30 minutes on board discussing the skills necessary for the dive. It was my first ever, I have never snorkelled or been very good at diving at all so this was completely out of my comfort zone. On board the safety drill was provided with a real tank, jacket and mouthpiece. We had to observe not try it out here. It’s amazing what fear does to the brain as I watched every detail and forced it into my memory lest I forget when it got down to it. There were three of us doing the introductory dive, a young man in his 20’s, the Hyena in his 70’s and me. Me and the Hyena were already pals, this was going to cement that friendship and acting as a team was helping to conceal my fear, he was a good pal.
Once we berthed it was getting so real. First port of call was to get fitted out for a wet suit. There were rows upon rows of these in a variety of sizes all lined up like deflated penguins waiting to be handed out and filled up. The suit is necessary since it was stinging season for the jelly fish, I suspect this was a bit of a fib, since none of the other instructors or staff wore them, that is other than the Marine Biologist. Now he was a handsome young man, slim, bearded with just the right amount of fluff but he appeared with what I might describe as s designer wet suit. Camouflage, grey in colour it had a little flap across the front of his hips should he need to visit the toilet and slipping out of the skin tight outfit was likely to take time. This little flap drew your eye automatically to it because it was so peculiar. Trying not to seem impertinent I tried to look away , feeling less than ravishing in my penguin suit,without a toilet flap. It did have gloves though so none of my skin was left too visible. All wrapped up I then ventured to the rear of the pontoon where the scuba diving equipment was stored. Stacked neatly against the seating area with life jackets open and ready to wear. A range of tubes, I’d been instructed on using on the way here were flapping around waiting for the action to get underway. I eyed this arrangement cautiously because I’d already forgotten what they were all for. Soon I would be wearing it. I frantically tried to recall the three skills needed on this dive but no matter how I tried my brain froze with fear.
The tutor from the boat seemed uninterested in my anxiety and advised me to try snorkelling first just to get the hang of having my face in the water. I think secretly he thought I’d never do it. He did suggest I could do a helmet dive, but this just made me more determined. With my flippers in hand, mask and snorkel I made my way down to a stainless steel shelf with seating around the edge slightly submerged in the water. A small guy with ‘Snorkel Supervisor’ on his tee shirt eyed me with interest. I told him I was planning to dive but had never snorkelled before, to which he responded that diving was easier than snorkelling. Great news but I needed to feel that first. I sat on the bench and attached the flippers, feeling like Dustin Hoffman in the Graduate, I fixed the mask in place and ventured tentatively into the water. Failing to grasp the basics I inhaled a considerable amount of water through my nose as the mask filled with the sea water when I first put my face down. Gasping and spluttering I made my way back to the safety of the steel landing area. I tried again, but couldn’t manage to fix my mouth securely around the mouthpiece and water once again flooded in. Back to the den before the kindly supervisor suggested I sit on the edge and just face plank while trying to master the breathing. This seemed to work. Slowly but surely I managed to breath through my mouth and put my nose out of commission. With this renewed confidence I pushed off the edge and floated face down looking for the first time at the GBR. I smiled with delight at what I was seeing only to realise this lets water in and once again I was back up fighting for breath. The sight of the fish and coral were too exciting, inviting me to stay and have another go and before long I had the hang of it.
Parrotfish, butterfly fish, tiny plankton swam around me. The colours differ in reality, they were more bland than the enhanced photographs because your mask is probably not the best quality visor. The coral was high at some points, but delved deeper in others, small and round or long and bony the fish darted in and out feasting apparently unconcerned by my presence. Or the other 40 odd people in the water. After half an hour I felt quite pleased with myself and got out ready to face the dive. I found the Hyena and we approached the dive bay. I was feeling more confident now I had mastered the snorkelling. A heavy belt with lead weights was attached to our waist. The life jacket as next with its tendrils of tubes and the all important tank was then attached and secured to our torso. We were asked to stand up but I could not move for the weight was so heavy. With assistance I got to my feet. And we descended into the abyss.
The Lion was frantically photographing me for posterity purposes. I waddled down the stairs and we ran through the skills again. The removal of the mouthpiece to blow bubbles frightened the hell out of me. I was relieved to learn however that this was not expected during the dive but a necessary precaution just in case. I had to master blowing my nose to clear the mask, snot and water splashing around my mask as I tried to follow the instructions given. Suddenly the Hyena’s weight belt fell off and as the instructor tried to fix it I was asked to submerge and practice the breathing with the air tank on. Kneeling down on the ledge, holding on to the barrier for dear life I breathed slowly in and out unaware that the Hyena was having more trouble with the mask now.
I stayed put focusing on slowly breathing in and out when the Instructor appeared and scribbled on a white board that the Hyena was not coming. Giving me the OK signal that we would go alone we left the safety of the ledge and took hold of a rope. Lowering myself down I glued my eyes to the man who held my life in his hands. My ears felt the pressure immediately and I had to pinch my nose and blow to clear them. Mastering this underwater is a bit different than on the aeroplane and water started to feed into the mask. I felt slight panic but managed to master the technique quicker when the pressure was on. Then without warning the instructor tugged my hands off the rope and we were diving, or swimming or whatever you call it. I was doing it. I was actually doing this thing I never thought I would ever do in my entire life. Weightless I felt nothing of the heavy belt of tank. I just swan and looked in awe at very single thing down there. he jerked my attention upward and there was a sea turtle swimming 2 feet in front of me. We followed it for a bit as it looked for food, faster in the water than out, it set a bit of a pace for this beginner but I was determined not to let it out of my sight. A large blue Maori Wrasse swam past, much larger fish were on the sea floor and I fleeting wondered if they were sharks. I was smiling again forgetting the seal and the rush of water into my mouth set me into a panic. The instructor took me to the surface where I apologised and steadied myself. But I couldn’t wait to get back down. We swim freely around the coral taking the sights in only in my memory since I didn’t have a camera to take underwater.
After 45 minutes we headed back to the sea pontoon, I was exhilarated jumping for joy once the weights were off and hugged the instructor for giving me that opportunity and one on one instruction. What an experience. My first thing though was to fetch a cup of tea, the taste of salt water in my mouth was too much and I needed a refreshment. I saw the Lion from the sun deck looking out to sea, no doubt frantically trying to see where I was. I left him wondering as I savoured my experience for a few minutes more all to myself before sharing it with anyone else. I dived at the GBR. Go me!!
In the state of Queensland, the tropical weather continued at our next destination; the north eastern coastal city of Cairns. The 5th most populated area in Australia. There is a very different vibe here notable as soon as you arrive; holidays, summer, sea, ice cream and fun. Although it has no beaches of note (there are mudflats) the area is of course host to the Great Barrier Reef and we were promised a whole day there creating a buzz of excitement for us and our fellow travellers. Our welcome to the Hilton included a lovely glass of wine, one of the first hotels to offer this. It was a grand and beautiful lounge and reception area, creating the essence of the sea with its blue art and hints of the aboriginal heritage. Our room, to our absolute delight offered us a fantastic uninterrupted view overlooking the river Barron, our gateway to the Reef. The esplanade skirted the river and the hotel offering us a good walking opportunity with the option to see plenty of scenery, wildlife, swim in the man-made lagoon, shop, eat and drink. This walkway links the hotels with the speedboats, catamarans and reef tour boats so there was plenty to see and do within walking distance.
The city began life in the 1830’s as a seafaring port on the Trinity inlets, much of its history reflected in the buildings that can still be seen dotted around it like the Post Office. The esplanade is planted with mango and frangipani trees that scent the warm air, but do little to mask the stink of ‘eau du tar’ from the road works or the construction going on around Cairns. I couldn’t fail to hear the driver of our coach claim ‘they’ are ruining his town with all this construction, giving a little hint of the local’s perspective on progress. The tigress pointed out the covered night markets which ignite around 4pm with the usual fare of tourist tat and food stuffs but if you care to you might want to spend a bit more money in the Galleria where Louis Vuitton and Prada might be more to your taste. I’d need to spend a bit of time in the Casino if I wanted to shop there! While it was very close to our hotel we didn’t go, therefore I didn’t buy anything expensive and that’s all I have to say about that.
Spectacled flying foxes and giant fruit bats are very common in the tropical North, they dangled upside down from the esplanade trees. Asleep for most of the day, around 530pm they jumped into life to forage across the river to the rainforest for food. Thousands of these animals twittering as they flew, filling the dusk with a continual high pitch squeal as they made their way across the esplanade out into the estuary heading for the rainforest for their evening meal. This lasts for about half an hour, the sky is filled with the spectacled flying bats, sometimes a fruit bat can be seen alongside them but they seemed much happier strutting around Cairns in the absence of their smaller kin.
In the evening we could wander along the esplanade and enjoy fantastic seafood or steak in one of the many restaurants. Steak and a bottle of wine around $80 AUD is about £42 our money. The wash of the sea, the squeal of the bats is almost forgotten as you are tempted by the aroma of food, soaked in spices, herbs and garlic. The staff were friendly, often international travelling around the country, keen to know you, find out what you are doing here and share a bit of their own story. Tipping is not as much of a thing here as it is in America the approach is quite relaxed, if you feel it warrants one then they are happy to accept it but they won’t chase after you for it.
Our first big trip in Cairns was out to the Great Barrier Reef on Saturday, we joined our sizeable craft about 9 am full of anticipation and excitement. I had wanted to scuba dive but there had been some concerns about a previous passenger falling ill after the experience and that made me hesitate. It was just as well we had to book it on the boat. The Lion booked a helmet dive and I intended to join him but his medical history put paid to that. Having had this cancelled I turned my attention back to the scuba dive, the Hyena, a little older than me and a Yorkshireman, had also signed up for it. If he could do it then I would and so following a rigorous checking of my health matters I signed on the dotted line. I was exhilarated with the decision made if more than a bit apprehensive. The information sheet was quite explicit about the risks, the trick was to look right through most of these and find the joy secreted within.
An informative presentation by the on board Marine Biologist advised us that the Reef was 2600 kilometres long and covered an area of 344 400 square kilometres. In 1770 Captain Cook’s ship ran aground here and he was not quite sure why. Following a recce up Lizard Island’s mountainous terrain he noted blue channels between the reef and how he might steer clearly when he left. The area was populated by the indigenous Gurang aborigines at that time. Their Dreamtime stories of the development of the Reef appear to link with the scientific information available. There are around 3000 reef systems within the Great Barrier, these are either 1) fringing reefs which are extensions of islands, 2) ribbon reefs which run parallel to shore but do not have lagoons and 3) the patch reefs, horseshoe in shape which is where we would be berthed. Estimates place the Reef at over 1 million years old with changes affected by the ice age the latest of which was 18 000 years ago. Nowadays the Reef is a world heritage site, protected and monitored for change and deterioration. It is both animal and plant, a living symbiotic organism that adapts to this relationship, its environment and those which depend on it.
The Reef itself consists of a variety of over 600 types of coral, boulder coral, stag horn and leather corals. The marine biologist advised we were going to encounter some of the 6000 species of fish that thrive in this environment. They would be colourful and adaptive in their evolution to maximise their food intake; the Butterfly fish with its long snout to suck out the contents between the coral, the Surgeon fish with a sharp appendage on its tail to fend off predators as it feasts. The famous large Bumphead or Maori wrasse, known affectionately as Willy and Parrotfish that eat coral, grind it down and excrete it as sand back into the sea. The Triggerfish would look very obvious from their pouty mouth. Sea Anemone, giant clams, reef sharks, jelly fish and skates not forgetting 6 of the worlds species of turtles would be out on the reef waiting to meet us.
The rest of the journey we were invited to reflect on the environmental impact we humans were having on the Reef and how this was being combatted. Our Marine Biologist offered a wealth of information about the work being undertaken to counter this. We would see some bleaching caused by global warming. Work is still needed to deal with the antiquated fishing methods in the area, described as work in progress it is clear there is much to be done to protect it. As we neared our destination the anticipation and the anxiety about the dive grew. I knew one thing, this was going to be an absolute highlight of the holiday.