Wednesday, 19 December 2012

A week in Cairns (part III / V) - The Great Barrier Reef

A week in Cairns (part III / V)

Visiting the Great Barrier Reef

The main reason for our trip to Cairns was to see the world famous Great Barrier Reef.  I had learnt a little bit about the reef whilst I was street fundraising for the ACF (Australian Conservation Foundation) such as only a third of the reef is actually protected which is quite surprising considering the whole reef is listed as a world heritage site.  There were even plans to start drilling for oil in the reef but the good people at the ACF applied pressure and the plans were eventually scrapped.

Good on you

As we had previously discovered the only viable way of seeing the reef was through excursion trips.  We took 2 excursions to sail out to the reef on separate days.  On one of the trips about an hour out of Cairns we stopped off at a small island to pick up a few more people.  The island was very picturesque and looked like one of those typical tropical islands you see in travel brochures.  The island was covered in lush green trees and the beaches were made of flawless golden white sand.  There was a hotel on the island but it was hidden away in the dense green forest.  The sea surrounding the island was a beautiful shade of light blue and looked very inviting.  I guess I had originally imagined Cairns to look a bit like this island.

Who's idea was that?  Lets put a pick-up truck on an island with no roads

The Reef

On both excursions after about 2 hours from leaving Cairns the boats would suddenly stop in what looked just like deep sea.  The only sign of the reef from the deck of the boat were some waves crashing on some shallow rocks over in the distance.
After the boats were anchored up we were given the go ahead to get geared up and to enter the water.  Since we were in the Coral Sea I was expecting the water to be pleasantly warm but the water was much colder than I had thought.  The wetsuit kept most of me dry and reasonably warm but occasionally a small amount of water would enter the suit and trickle down my back which gave me the shivers.
When we were all in the water and acclimatised an instructor would lead us to the reef.  Whilst following the instructor I could see what looked like a massive underwater boulder come into view.  I guess the reef was made up of these submerged rocky islands were the water is shallow enough to support underwater plant life.
When we arrived at the reef we were advised not to swim over the reef as the water was very shallow and we could risk damaging the coral with our flippers.  After the instructor left I started to do circles around the reef.  My first impression of the reef was a bit modest at first, I was expecting an underwater forest of brightly coloured coral.  In reality the reef was more of a beige and dark green colour.  I wasn’t disappointed though, I was swimming in the Great Barrier Reef and it was awesome. 

Awesome stuff

The edge of the reef, note how steep the drop was at the edge of the reef

Olivia holding what I think was some kind of Sea Cucumber

Residence of the reef

There were many different types of fish swimming around who didn’t seem bothered by our presence.  Instead they just continued doing what fish do, which didn’t seem to be much.  They were just wondering around the coral (a bit like me).
During my rounds around the reef I came across a school of parrot fish who I started to follow.  They would swim around the reef slowly and then suddenly dive on a section and start eating it.  The sound of 20 odd parrot fish scraping bits of coral off the rock with their bills was very loud and gave me that nails on a chalk board feel.
During my wonders of the reef I would occasionally come across a giant clam.  These ominous looking shells were just sat on the seabed amongst the coral.  I was tempted to put my hand in one of the shell’s open mouth but it was too deep to reach which was probably a good thing.
So...I have swum in the Great Barrier Reef, awesome.  A great experience to tick off my list.

Olivia is a qualified scuba diver and took some of the best photos.  I wasn't allowed anywhere near the
scuba equipment because I have asthma

Show off

Giant clam

I only saw a glimpse of this turtle, Olivia was lucky enough to
get close enough to feed it and give its belly a scratch

The boat from a distance

A good day

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

A week in Cairns (part II / V)

A week in Cairns (part II / V)
After getting off the plane at Cairns airport we headed off to our hostel in a shuttle bus.  Olivia had booked us a 5 night stay in a hostel called Asylum, other than the name and some good reviews about the atmosphere we knew very little about the hostel.
It was interesting stopping off outside each hostel and thinking “is this one Asylum?”  After stopping outside some very comfortable looking hostels the shuttle bus pulled up outside a tired looking white building with a big sign outside that read “Asylum”.

The Asylum

We left the shuttle bus and were both immediately greeted by a friendly guy behind the reception who came round and gave both of us a big hug.  
After checking in we headed to our room which was very basic but clean.  It had all the basic facilities including a ceiling fan that had some dodgy electrics.  The fan was operated using a dial on the wall which had numbers 1 to 5 to set the speed (1 being lowest etc) however the dial was broken and turning the dial to any number resulted in the fan spinning at a dangerously fast speed.

Our cell

The fan of doom
After unpacking our stuff and playing around with the psychotic ceiling fan we left the hostel to have a wonder around Cairns.  It quickly became apparent that Cairns wasn’t a particularly special place.  We had imagined a sunny beach town with golden sandy beaches, clear waters and friendly people walking around with surfboards under their arms.  In reality Cairns is a rather dull and sleepy little town.  The roads were wide and empty and the whole place was quite barren.  There was a water front however there was no beach.  The water along the front was dark and looked very uninviting.

Not what I had imagined

The waterfront, complete with some ugly artwork

We did actually find a beach later on in the week,
but this sign kept us away

Another disappointment we had was when we went into a scuba diving shop to find out more about the Great Barrier Reef.  Our initial plan was just to hire some gear and swim to the reef ourselves from one of Cairns nonexistent beaches.  However we found out that the reef was at least a 2 hour boat journey away from the coast and the only way to see the reef was by expensive excursion trips.
Of course we weren’t going to let this small set back stop us from seeing the reef.  The next day we did some research and with help from the great staff at the hostel we had some reasonably priced trips booked.  We had booked 2 full day excursions to the reef and one full day tour of the landscape that surrounded Cairns. 

Strangers are just friends you haven’t met

We might have got some things wrong about Cairns, but one thing we seemed to get right was the hostel we booked.   The hostel had received an award for its atmosphere and we could see why.  Right from our first night we made friends quickly.  It helped having Olivia around as she is more outgoing than me and was very good at breaking the ice with other guests in the hostel and making friends (I did make some friends on my own as well).
There was a wide variety of nationalities staying at the hostel, but everyone was friendly and like minded.  Goon pong was a very popular past time in the hostel and pretty much everybody was involved either directly or as a spectator.
Goon Pong is the same as Beer Pong, only instead of beer we used cheap wine which in Australia is known as goon.  Using cheap wine for this game instead of beer meant losing a game would result in a rather nasty hangover the next morning.

Goon pong, notice the championship table on a sheet of paper in the top left
and the medals for the 2 winners in the centre of the table
Some guy taking an important shot,
 they later lost the match  because his partner got too drunk to play
One thing I began to notice whilst lounging around comfortably in one of the hammocks in the front garden of the hostel was any locals who walked past the hostel would look in at us with a disapproving look.
 I later learnt that the hostel had a reputation for being a party hotspot and the guests staying at the hostel were often drunk and disorderly in the town centre at night (and maybe sometimes during the day).  I even heard that the hostel was the subject of a damning local TV report regarding the drunken behaviour of its guests.  However after the TV report was aired the number of guests staying at the hostel increased.
The frown from the locals did not bother me.  When I travel somewhere I usually try and integrate myself with the locals and their culture as much as possible, but I was on holiday and I had left my cares behind.  I felt like I had already been marked out as an “inmate” of the asylum by the locals and I liked it.  After all I was on holiday and I was looking forward to the trips we had book for the week and the goon filled nights out that gave the hostel its reputation.