Australia trip, week 2

Now that I'm in the next phase of the trip, I figure that it's safe to write about the previous leg, and, to be sure, it was a wonderful time. Not as pure unadulterated fun as Adelaide was mind you. Maybe it was the absences of the Jones'.

Again, I can't begin to thank the Jones' enough here. Stuart got up at what can only be described as Oh Dark Thirty to get us to the airport in time for our flight. On top of that, it was a holiday in South Australia, and he didn't even have to go to work on that particular Monday. Service above and beyond I say.

Airports are airports, and we spent way too long in the airport at Brisbane. There's much of it under construction too, which is just as well, as the parts that weren’t under construction were starting to look pretty seedy. But we eventually departed that place and got to the Proserpine airport in good time.

As I had mentioned at the beginning of this journal, Proserpine, and by extension, Airlie Beach is in the tropics. I later saw a GPS type output that said that we were at 20 degrees 9 minutes South and 148 degrees and some odd minutes East. As the tropics extend plus or minus 23.5 degrees, we are definitely in the tropics. Neither C nor I had ever been south of Hawaii, so the tropic clime was certainly new to both of us, which is to say that it was frickin hot. And when they say that it's not the heat, it's the humidity? Don't believe them. It turns out that it's both.

We caught a bus from the airport that almost took us to our front door, with said delivery only being prevented by the fact that the driver didn't know where 12 Airlie Crescent was, nor could he get his bus down the narrow cul-de-sac. He did point out that by going on this street as opposed to that street, getting to Airlie Beach proper would be an easier trek

Our house was pretty cool, and the pool beckoned immediately. The fact that it looked like a swamp pond didn't deter us that night. There we were, floating in the semi-green water, gradually realizing that a) we were more or less absent of observation, and b) you can in fact wear too many clothes in a pool. At least one of us got completely naked. You can imagine that it was the less inhibited one of us, and you'd be right. We recovered from that decadence, took a quick shower, and proceeded to wander into the “town”, such as it is.

The view of the sunset from our deck.

Venomous or not? Best not to take chances...

It had been pointed out to me before that what Australians call cities, we'd call towns, what they'd call towns we'd call villages, and what they call villages we'd call intersections. There isn't much to Airlie Beach, just a few blocks of tourist traps and places to stay and eat, and then lots of nothing until the next “village”. The town was pretty much shut down for siesta time, as the place didn't start jumping until later. (The truth is that we arrived on a Monday, and we never saw the joint jumping until the Saturday night before we left.) We got a quick dinner, grabbed some groceries, grabbed some beer (by necessity in two different stores, as you can’t buy beer in grocery stores in Australia), and hiked back to the house. And hiked it was. C had done a lot of research pertaining to all of the places that we could stay in Airlie, and it always came to a trade off: Get a great view and a steep hike, or live shallow and hang out with the backpackers. Being the old and mature types, we decided that we should hike great heights while our poor old hearts could still stand it. This necessitated planning and logistics suitable for a waterborne invasion, as one didn't want to have to climb that hill any more than we had to in any given day. Having done it, the inclination was to stay where you were just so you wouldn't have to do it again any time soon.

March 15. Did I mention that it was hot too? We took the next day off to make our plans for the rest of the week. We also took the opportunity to transverse the entire town. It didn't take long. What did screw up our plans was coming upon an opal shop near the edge of the strip. As had been mentioned earlier, we've been looking at (not necessarily “for”) opals on this trip because they are beautiful and unique stones, and Australia produces almost all of the opals in the world. In retrospect we should have steered well clear of this one, because they had beautiful gems in quantity, and I hurt my budget pretty bad. Details to follow.

This particular store was family owned and operated. Apparently the parents of the strapping lads in the store were about to retire, having spent a number of years digging holes in the opal mining areas of Queensland in search of what the Aborigines call God's fruit, the opal. The parents mined it, and the sons sold it. At least one of the sons created jewelry to show off the stones, and he wound up being the one that we talked to the most. He pulled out a couple of trays of opals and C's eyes went big. I was impressed as well. There were hundreds of stones on these trays, and Isaac, the jewelry designing son, started to pull out his favorites. And he was good. You see, an opal is just a rock. It has no intrinsic value in and of itself. It's only worth what somebody will pay for it. So just because the rock had a sticker on the back of it with a four digit number written on it doesn't mean that that is what it’s worth. The price might start there, but its end price is the one where the other person smiles, says OK, and hands over the credit card. So the number started dropping. A little here, a little there. A discount for cash. I've got to go ask my brother. That sort of thing. I decided that I wasn't going to buy anything at that time, so he had C put her favorite rock in a small bag and sign her name to it. At that point, one could feel that it was yours already, with just a trivial exchange of money keeping you from taking your rock home. What I took away was my wife. I made her wait a couple of hours. I told her that I'd already bought her an opal on this trip, and that another opal was just another rock. If she wanted another rock, she had to want it real bad. And in fact she had to want a particular rock real bad. There could be no “buyer's remorse”, especially as she wasn't the one doing the actual buying. So I made her wait. And then I made her wait some more. We took part of the day to plan out and sign up for the other things that we were going to do on this trip, just so she could see what other things I was spending money on in order to make her happy. We even went back to the house. In the end, we returned to the shop that night, negotiated further, and bought the rock after all. I don't know if we drove a hard bargain or not. In fact, I actually came away from the affair with two rocks of my own, plus a CD of didgeridoo music. One of the rocks was given to me because I asked for it. A mined opal comes from a rock, usually about fist sized, not unlike a Thunderegg from my region of the world. I don't think that the geologic processes for making the two rock types are at all similar, but they look alike when they're dug up. They call the kind of stone shell that surround the opals of this particular mine a “nut”, or a “yowah nut”, and maybe one in a thousand actually had a gem grade opal inside. Maybe one in one hundred thousand actually had a truly fine gem inside. I was fascinated by the process, so I asked for and was given an empty nut that they had around just for showing people how they came by the gems. The jewel that C wanted bad was actually petrified wood that had been opalized, and it is truly remarkable. It sparkles and twinkles in colors unusual for an opal. I got one too, just because I was fascinated by the process. It's also petrified wood, but it's only the bark that had gone all sparkley. It's pretty cool for a rock. The amount that we eventually paid for these gems were just under half price from the price marked on the sticker. They added ten percent for the national sales tax, so we would up putting about $800 Australian for the two rocks. As part of the selling process we we're told that we could show our receipt at customs as we were leaving the country and get that ten percent back. (What is also true is that you have to show the goods as well as the receipt, and is only available on total sales in one location of $300 or more. If you spend less than that, you don’t get a refund. And if you don’t show them what you bought as well as the receipt, you don’t get a refund. Let that be a prescient warning.) So ultimately her gem cost about $600. The one that she bought from Liz was much less than that, but only because Liz gave us such a tremendous deal on it. I don't know if we got a deal on these rocks or not. What I do know is that the price of anything is what you're willing to pay for it, and I was willing to pay that much to make my wife happy. I think that in the end it will be just another rock. Only time will tell.

March 16. Having purchased two cruising tours for later in the week, we had a free day, and something of an agenda. On the maps we had seen a Cedar Creek falls, with a beach that had turtle breeding ground nearby, but these were not accessible by any means at our disposal. So I rented a car so that we could get to these places. Let me now tell you about the vehicle driving experience in Australia. First off, they come from the English tradition, which means that when they drive, they keep to the left, or “wrong” side of the road. (Their light switches flip the “wrong” way too, but getting that wrong was not necessarily a lethal mistake.) Secondly, the lanes of lines that represent where traffic is supposed to go are narrower than they are in our part of the world. I was told that they are even narrower in Old Blighty, but I wasn't fixing to drive there on this trip. Finally, what lines are there are treated more as “suggestions” rather than as firm and rigid boundaries. Suffice to say that the prospect of driving in Australia was not a decision arrived at lightly. And I wasn't the only one that was scared either. On more than one occasion the person in the “other” lane was guaranteed a fright. I'll numerate the examples in short order.

There were four places in town where one might rent a car, but one was on siesta, so we actually priced three. We got a small yellow Hundai from Avis for about 60 $A a day, and off we went. We didn't have much of a map, but I'd remembered seeing a sign for the falls as we were bussed in from Proserpine. It turns out that driving on the left is pretty easy when one doesn't have to make any choices. You get in that lane and stay in that lane. Turns provided an opportunity to screw up, but I did pretty well at that. The flaw in our plan manifested itself as we got off the hard asphalt and onto the dirt road approaching the falls. The tropics, being tropical and all, have tropical storms, and our tropics had been having storms for weeks now. This is good news for farmers in the area, some of which grew coffee, but most of which grew sugar cane. This is bad for people wanting to drive across roads flooded by rain runoff in vehicles without snorkels. We saw several such vehicles, but ours wasn't one of them. I took off my shoes and made an attempt at trying to cross a very flooded road. I'm sure that had I been camping with my chums, we would have made the attempt at fording this deep and rapidly running stream. We might have even succeeded too. However, it's just as likely that we (at least one of us anyway) would have failed in a most spectacular fashion. I got partway across, and returned to the C side. I told her that I had a reasonably high confidence that I could make it across, but that I had no confidence at all that I could get both of us across, and therefore we had to make other plans for the day. Of course we were (and continue to be) disappointed, but at least we're still alive to tell the tale.

Looking at the (crappy) map we had seen that there was another beach down that-a-way, maybe the one that had turtle breeding grounds nearby, so we decided to go there. After a bit of driving we found Conway Beach, a miles long stretch of sand in either direction, pretty much deserted, and with us arriving at low tide. It was still hot, and it was still humid, and the breeze blowing off the water wasn't the cooling and refreshing wind we might have hoped for, but it was glorious. And it had some amazing wildlife too.

The first thing that I noticed was that the wet beach seemed to be covered with sand colored balls, slightly bigger than a BB. They collapsed under the touch with no structure to them. What could they be?

The second thing that I noticed was when I thought I saw a moving cloud reflecting off of the wet sand. Then I thought that it was the surface of the sand moving. Instead, it was thousands of tiny little crabs, perhaps the size of my pinky fingernail, moving like a flock away from us. I looked away for a second to tell C, and when I turned back, they were gone. Vanished. Disappeared. Like a magician's trick. I had to know where the crabs went. There was no shortage of these creatures on the beach, so I watched another flock as we approached. As the big scary creature (me) approached, the tiny crabs did one of two things: if the sand was dry enough, there were tiny little holes that they dived into. If the sand was wet and there were no convenient holes to duck into, they leaned to one side and started digging. By doing so in a spiral pattern, they quickly buried themselves in the wet sand. We saw either of these two behaviors thousands of times over the course of the afternoon. Farther down the beach we saw larger crabs, with a more vertical shell rather than the flat crab shells of the earlier crabs that exhibited the same behavior. These marched forward, with their two pincher claws held to the front like fangs ready to pierce, but the biggest were no bigger than my thumbnail, and those were the largest of the species. We certainly saw hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of these crabs as we walked about two miles on the beach. We even saw some few birds trying to capture them, but I don't think that they were too successful: These crabs had millions of years of practice in evading predators such as this. And this wasn't the last wildlife we saw.

I told C that I thought that, after maybe a mile and a half of walking down the beach, there might be somebody sunning themselves in the rocks, but it might be a very pale log. There was a house nearby, although how the residents got to it I had no idea. Later, C reported that, not only was it not a log, but it came equipped with a penis. I asked her if she wanted to take pictures of the wildlife, but she declined. Why anybody, especially in the tropics, would go out of their way to lay in the sun is beyond me, especially in light of what happened to me.

You see, sunscreen only works if, when, and where you apply it. I'm no fool, and I mostly learned this lesson at Black's Beach some 25 years ago. Still, one must be careful. It turns out that I didn't quite apply sunscreen to all of the spots on the back of my lower legs, and I've been paying for it ever since. It's not bad, but it's bad enough.

We returned to the car, fished out the eski (what we'd call a cooler, but was really just a poorly insulated bag), and found out that even warm beer tastes good under the right circumstances. We also observed the sign describing the various kinds of jellyfish and their affects on humans. Let me tell you, this place can kill you a dozen ways from Sunday. And here it was only Wednesday!

March 17, another wonderful day. If you've read the first week's memories, you might have noticed the lack of the phrase “another wonderful day” from the Airlie leg. It's not because this leg has been bad, just not as fun, exciting, or adventurous. This day made up for all of that.

Airlie Beach is on the mainland continent of Australia. It serves as a cheap drinking and lodging establishment for young people backpacking from around the world, typically taking a year off between school and university. It also serves as a launching point to one of the wonders of the world: the Great Barrier Reef. There are 74 islands in the Whitsunday chain, but none of them are the reef. The islands themselves are pretty close to land, mostly just a few miles out. The reef is a good 30 miles from land at its closest. The islands are cool, but it's not the reef, and that's where we went this day. We went to the reef on a high speed two level motorized catamaran that took us out to Hardy reef, about two hours out, and dropped us off to a more or less permanent platform that was anchored there. Oh my. As I explained to C on several occasions, swimming over the reef was one of the most amazing things that I've ever done in my life. The platform is anchored at what is essentially the top of a sea mountain, with the level of the coral near the level of the water. There wasn't much space to swim between the coral and the surface when we started, and as the tide let out there was even less clearance. Eventually the tide was out completely, and great heaps of coral were exposed above the water. But before then it was glorious.

Whitsunday Islands

View of the platform we docked at. Better than a hotel, next time we'd spend the night here!

You are here...

When one looks at an aquarium, it's like watching television. You look at a box, and you see what's in the box and not much else. Swimming on the reef was more like a wild animal park: it was a television program that you were actually in. In any direction you looked, there was coral and fish, in splendid colors and fantastic multitude. It was a wonderful thing.

View from the platform's observation deck.

Australia is in fact a land of dangerous creatures. We had to wear colorful “stinger suits” in case we came into contact with any number of very dangerous jellyfish. They can be lethal, having a poison in their stingers which act as a neurotoxin that can be life threatening. As far as I know, nobody on this trip had any such encounter. I however had a less lethal encounter that wound up being quite annoying. Somehow I ended up with some rather large itchy red welts on my belly, apparently courtesy of something called Sea Lice. And yes, they are as unpleasant as they sound. The redness and swelling subsided a bit, but even after a week it was still quite itchy. C counted 16 separate places where somebody attempted to colonize me. I keep expecting little Alien type creatures to pop out of my belly and begin terrorizing the crew. The cream that I put on didn't help much, but right now I have a hell of a souvenir.

The reef as the tide goes out.

Anyone up for another cruise?

Two days later we took another cruise. This was on a great purple catamaran sailboat called the Camira, supposedly an Aboriginal word meaning “wind”. The boat had been called Tsunami, but after the Boxing Day wave that killed so many thousands of people, they renamed the boat. In any case, we had been able to see this boat from the deck of our rented house, and I wanted to go out on it. In retrospect, it was something of a disappointment. It was advertised as being able to go 30 knots, but the winds of the day never allowed us to achieve any such speed. We stopped at an island resort and picked up more people and then proceeded to a snorkeling ground. The tide was high and the current strong enough that there was poor visibility. Even diving down to the bottom revealed little but sand and rock. We got back on the boat and proceeded to Whitehaven Beach, supposedly the most beautiful and photographed beach in the world. The sand was a pure white shelf of almost pure silica. C and I kept our stinger suits on and spent most of our time in the water, just wading away from the noisy and rowdy crowd of others. I found a coconut on the beach which we adopted as our own particularly hairy and ugly son. I stripped the nut covering off as best as I could, and we proceeded to play catch with our son. We called him Wilson after the volleyball in the movie “Cast Away”. As we were walking back to the pick up area, we stirred up some sort of ray, and being the size of a garbage can lid it was the most dangerous critter we'd encountered on either of our reef tours. It didn't chase us, and it avoided us chasing it, but it was quite cool to follow. There was a plastic cricket wicket set up on the beach, and I put Wilson at the base of it. I never did see anybody try to pitch it at the wicket, but as far as I know it's still there.

Artsy shot of Camira's sail

The helm of the Camira. Note the daylight and tide chart.

In one of the great ironies of the trip, that night on television we watched the beginning of the Tom Hanks movie “Cast Away”, said movie being broadcast that night. We didn't watch it long enough to see Wilson the volleyball, but it was an amusing coincidence that it happened to be on after us talking about it that day.

The Pre-snorkel briefing.

Her and him. No ugly children.

As mentioned before, Airlie is a destination for backpackers, and young people in general. The Camira was infested with a “hen party”, a group of women, one of which was soon to be a bride, and a stag party, which was just a bunch of young guys. I never got the impression that one of them was about to hitch up to a shared wagon. The girls were funny though. The bride-to-be had a pink cowboy hat trimmed with pinker fur, with the words “hen party” on the front. The Camira had a cooler with free soft drinks, and the girls were sucking out of the cans with straws that had two round protuberances part way up, and ended in a shape of a circumcised penis. It was kind of funny, but I was reminded of an old, unfunny joke. The night before the wedding, the groom is telling his buddies, “Yep, it's gonna be blow jobs every night from here on out!”, while on the same evening the bride to be is telling her buddies, “You know what this means: no more blow jobs ever again!” I know that's funny because it's ever so true. In any case, somewhere along the trip the stag party and the hen party started to mingle. I was pretty sure that somebody was going to get lucky that night. Youth is wasted on the young.

Before the mingling, the guys were inside the cabin playing some sort of drinking game. You see, after 11:00, the Camira also had free wine and beer for its customers. Some might take advantage of such a situation, and these boys lined up for the chance. I did see some silly game where the boys sat at a table with one finger placed on the lip of a cup that I'd seen filled with both beer and wine. Sure, you could get drunk, but there did seem to be a penalty involved. One or more people would raise their finger from the cup, and by some rule I never did understand, somebody would be eliminated from having to play further until the next game. This continued until there were only two players, and the one who didn't get eliminated at this stage had to drink the glass. The time I watched, the drinker consumed the cup then inverted the glass on his head. I presume that was so the next loser of the drinking game had to deal with a hit of salty hair as punishment as well as a toxic mix of wine and beer. The wine was terrible by itself, being produced by the big internationally advertising chain. We visited there on our tour of the Barossa Valley the previous week, and their wine was more or less nasty. No names please...

It was Saturday night when we got back to shore, and as promised, the town was hoppin. Three clubs in town had live music, each with just a guy and an amplified guitar playing classic rock to drunk young people. We walked past one apartment and we heard squeals from the second floor. C had seen somebody dressed up as a fireman without all (or perhaps any) of the prerequisite safety equipment, presumably to slowly remove what he did have on, to the embarrassed pleasure of the hen party, possibly the same one that we had seen on the Camira. We’d hear another series of squeals every 30 seconds or so, presumably having something to do with firefighter training. We didn't really fit in with the hip young crowd, so we had dinner at a chain restaurant, in fact the original Hog's Breath, a joint that had then spread across the country. I wouldn't recommend it though. If you've been to Red Robin or T.G.I. Friday's, you've been to this place too. I know that there's some company that sells “Americana” to places like this to add atmosphere to the place. Things like license plates and movie posters and old farm equipment. You’ve seen them. We did see a Washington plate, but if I'd wanted to go to an American chain restaurant, I could have save a bit of money and stayed home.

Some random hedge

We have crows and pigeons. They have parrots and cockatiels.

The next day was one for departure. We tried cleaning up the place we'd been staying in so as to not suffer the damage of the cleaning deposit, but the dishwasher leaked water all over the floor. The seal had disconnected itself from the wall, and I called the landlord and told him so. We were absolved of having to use the dishwasher, and Boyd, the cleaner and caretaker, soon showed up with his dog Spud. Boyd worked on the washer while Spud worked his wiles upon C. He was a sweet dog, and enjoyed playing ball there in the living room.

A word about Australian dogs. I'd say 80% of them are either Australian Cattle Dogs or Jack Russell Terriers. What were they thinking? Most of the dogs seem to be males, which you can see (at a distance in fact) because neutering dogs seems to be a foreign concept here. The dogs, like the kangaroos we'd seen the week before, dangle when they move, and it looks damned uncomfortable.

Having Boyd there made us feel a bit uncomfortable, so we left early to go to the bus shelter to wait for our trip to the airport. We arrived an hour early due to my misunderstanding about the differences between the local transit buses and the airport shuttle bus. This was actually a happy accident, because while we were waiting at the stop, the heavens opened up, and one of those aforementioned tropical storms fell upon us. Had we left at our scheduled time, we would have been walking in that downpour! As it was, we had to stack our possessions on the bench under the cover to protect them from the water raging through the shelter.

We're good at airplanes now, and getting into the security area in the Proserpine Airport was no problem. They did have a display of things that people had tried to take on board, forbidden things, confiscated things, and some of them were amusing. Knives and blades obviously, but fireworks too. My favorite was a land mine. No wonder they took them away! There was also a package that advertised itself as “nipple cream”, which included a small butter type knife, presumably for application. This had been taken away as well.

We walked onto the runway in the rain to get to the plane. A quaint little airport.

I guess that there are three domestic airlines in Australia, and the one we were scheduled to take, Virgin Blue, saves money by shaving the ground time of its planes. This meant we missed our connecting flight to Melbourne with its subsequent flight to Adelaide. They gave us tickets for the next direct flight as well as some vouchers for 6$ off airport food. It didn't go far for food, but we did get the direct flight, arriving only a little later than we would have had we continued on our original itinerary. Thus ended the week.

Continue to The Great Australian Adventure, part 3

This page is authored and maintained by Rich Webb. You can send E-mail to me by following this link to the contact page. And feel free to contact me if you have any comments, criticisms, or suggestions. I remain, however, perfectly capable of ignoring your useless opinion...

This document was last modified on April 8, 2011, and has been viewed countless times.