Australia: The Sixth Continent

That’s not its formal name, but it’s how I think of Australia. My perhaps indulgent goal is to reach all seven continents someday. Australia is number six. Despite reading and talking to friends who’d visited, seeing movies and consulting online guides, I still had no idea what to expect. I’d heard so many things, but I wondered, what would it be like, this place I’d never been, this goal I’d had for so long? Answer: it is amazing. I thought Australia would be good, but I had no idea that it would be this good. Wow. I might be ready to emigrate. It’s a very long flight from anywhere, which is a bit of a problem, but otherwise, I see no reason not to make a home in Australia. Of course, there is the pesky matter of needing to have a marketable skill that warrants a residence visa, and getting my stuff moved across a couple of oceans, but otherwise, I’m ready to go.

My introduction to Australia was late at night at the Cairns airport, in from Guam. The flight was a mere five hours, direct, but we didn’t get in until 12:30 AM. Even at that hour, it was 29 degrees Celsius and about 80% humidity. Cairns has a tropical summertime, and beautiful flowers to go with it – yes, that’s right, it was summer down there in the southern hemisphere, and what a treat after chilly Maryland. There were, as always, forms to fill out, but this time with a real emphasis on quarantine. The Australians are very concerned about non-native species invasion, having had epic-scale problems with transportation, if you’ll forgive the ironic word. To name just one example: rabbits. Victorians introduced rabbits as a sport-hunting quarry in the 1800s. Now they are a destructive plague with no natural predators. Australia actually built over 2,000 miles of rabbit-proof fencing across the continent to stem the tide. Knowing this, I was explicit in my declarations. I don’t want to be the person who was responsible for introducing some tiny pest that permanently ruins the crops of a continent, thank you very much. And I had something to declare. Because the early morning dive boat people hadn’t said anything about breakfast, at the Guam airport I picked up a can of macadamia nuts, some dried pineapple and a bag of dried green mango to keep me going. Hey, dried green mango is good, people. Branch out. Anyway, fruit is a perpetual pest carrier, so I made sure to declare my snacks. Upon collecting my luggage at the carousel, I had a little inspection, put my things through X-Ray, and was allowed to keep my food. The whole thing was low key, quickly handled, and professional. The driver who picked me up was also fast and efficient, and he didn’t mind stopping en route for a bottle of water and an electrical outlet adapter (can’t believe I forgot that). We couldn’t find the adapter, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. In about 30 minutes, I was standing before my hotel in the little beachside town of Palm Cove.

I heard Palm Cove was a lovely place to stay, more peaceful than the bustle of the city. I’m a little sorry to have missed Cairns, but Palm Cove was so pretty that it won me over. My lodgings were typically Australian. Tourists there seem to like apartments, which is what I got. The place was squeaky clean and it had a washing machine and dryer. The bed was comfortable, there was air conditioning, and I could see the ocean right across the little street. Perfect. But it was also on the third floor, there was no elevator, and there was no one to help me with my 125 pounds of luggage. The owners had left me an envelope with instructions and left the door to the room unlocked. Hm. On arrival, it was 1:30 in the morning and there was nothing for it but to quietly haul the stuff up myself. After all, if you can’t carry it, you probably shouldn’t pack it. I was starting to really dislike this 44-lb cooler of photography equipment except for the times it was assembled and underwater. Fortunately, I was used to it by now, so no one got hurt. Once upstairs, I thought about assembling the camera gear, cleaning O-Rings, and figuring out the strobes. But I got tired even thinking about it. I also knew I couldn’t charge anything without a power converter, and I didn’t know the state of the strobe batteries. Hm. Well, okay, how about just getting some sleep and taking the camera the following day? Oh yeah.

Before you know it, it was 6:50 AM and the Tusa Dive bus had arrived. Remarkably, I was up and out to meet it. I even had time for a sunrise photo or two with my phone out on the beach. No point in packing the big camera if it had to stay on the boat the whole time. I’d brought my snacks, but since the people at our next pick-up were late and needed more time, I managed to grab a latte at a local cafe. These people being late for the bus should have been a clue. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I was met at the pier and then directed on board. Once there, I found myself part of a well-oiled machine. Every day this company herds 60+ people onto their large boat, motors out to the outer Great Barrier Reef, presents a briefing during the long drive, puts half of those people in full-body lycra suits and scuba gear and sends them over the side. They put the other half into snorkels and send them over too. Remarkably, they get everyone back. It’s a lot of work. There is the organizing into dive groups, making sure everyone has their equipment, accommodating nitrox and self-guided divers who brought their own stuff along with folks who brought nothing. They photograph people, rent extra equipment and cameras as needed, and feed everyone not only breakfast but lunch, snacks & drinks. They even make sure you’re wearing your sunscreen and pass you some if you forgot. Mothers everywhere would be impressed. It was like a beehive.

We got paired up, and I had a dive partner that I’d met on the bus. He was a good dive buddy, made sure we did our buddy checks and he was paying a lot of attention to all that was going on. I felt good that someone so detail-oriented chose me as a partner. If only the rest of our little group of seven were so careful… Sigh. We got into the water, and it was busy. People didn’t really branch off and go in other directions right away, so the dive site was crowded. That’s never fun. As I got acclimated and down a few meters (we were not deep), I noticed that our dive master was physically pulling a woman out of the coral. She’d gotten herself and her tank stuck in it. Yes, a live reef. Well, maybe a little less alive now. At first, I hoped this was an aberration. I am not sure I’ve ever seen anyone get stuck like that. Accidents happen so I tried not to pass judgment, though this was kind of a bad one since the coral can die when you damage it that severely. Then the woman proceeded to whip out a little camera and start taking pictures of all kind of things, and she did so in a hurry and from far away (I don’t know how any of those photos could possibly come out well with this method). She swam into people and on top of people. She swam into the reef more than once. And then she got stuck in the coral physically again! By the time she had swum into me for the third time, I put my hand on her shoulder, shook my finger, gave her a firm look and pushed her away hard. She stayed away from me after that, at least. How on earth did this woman qualify for a diving certification? After watching her behavior further on board the boat, it was clear that she was totally thoughtless and self-involved. She ran over people on land too. And yes, you guessed it, she was one of the late ones from the morning bus.

The thing is, if you’re a diver, you have a responsibility to protect that which you go to see. If we as divers just willy-nilly damage the sea, then diving tourism will ruin all the beauty that it wants to enjoy. Coral can heal from this kind of damage but it’s like a cut to the bone every time we touch it or get equipment tangled in it. It’s not easy when you start diving to maintain control of yourself in the water, and it requires concentration. Control over your body in your surroundings is lesson number one and it should always come before photography. No one likes being run into repeatedly, and no one should feel good about reef damage. Please, if you take up diving, master yourself as much as you can before you bring in other distractions.

I myself was worried I might have a problem with the camera versus the diving. I hadn’t been diving since 2010, after all. And I’m still not as controlled as I would like to be. My partner on day two of the Australian reef was an incredible example of buoyancy control, but I am only partway there. So, in Kosrae I went without the camera until I was sure that I was comfortable with myself. And sometimes, even when the big housing was working correctly, I just stopped shooting for a while. Same with the little rental Lumix. Turn it off for a bit and “be here now” in your dive. If you see something amazing, you can turn the thing back on and shoot. Or, dive with a photography goal in mind, accomplish it, and then relax and enjoy yourself. After all, that’s why it’s called leisure diving!

Thankfully, the next day went much better after I talked to the staff on the boat about the previous situation. I was in a wonderful group and had a far more relaxed and secluded experience. My first two dives were wonderful, especially the second dive with the Navy mine clearance partner. By the time the third dive was available on day two, I was very tired and decided to simply rest instead. I figured I couldn’t top that second dive and I might as well quit while I was ahead. I fell asleep in my swimsuit on the bow of the boat. Can you imagine – the staff came out to make sure I’d put on sunscreen (I had). What a thoughtful group. Thank you Tusa for listening and giving me such a great day.

But back to Palm Cove for a moment. That first night, by the time I was dropped off and got an adapter from the front desk and found a restaurant, it was all I could not to fall asleep in the soup. I was exhausted. But it was awfully good soup. I went to a Palm Cove restaurant specializing in “Mod Oz” cuisine, across the little main street from the ocean. Mod Oz is usually seafood, though it can be meat (often the trendy pork belly), seasoned in a southeast Asian or Japanese kind of way, with an emphasis on vegetables and proteins rather than carbs. There are traditional western touches like ravioli too. I had a lot of this sort of food in Australia and it was delicious. It was neat to try out new sauces, new methods and old favorites re-imagined. Honestly, the food everywhere in Australia was delicious, and it seemed to me that good food was a high priority for people. The restaurant, like all the others in Palm Cove, had a large covered porch with seating, and outdoor tables beyond the porch. Warm open air flooded the evening. You could hear the waves and the happy voices of the other diners. It made me wish I had a friend here, but it was all families and couples. After traveling alone for ten days now, I was starting to feel it. Seeing them in their happiness made me wish I was a part of it. Instead, like single people everywhere, I went back to my little apartment and did the laundry. The next evening I tried a Thai place up the road while I wrote postcards (I know – will the romance never cease?). The Pad Thai was delicious, but expensive. Eating out in Australia is a costly proposition. Why? They pay their waitstaff a living wage, and they don’t tip. While it’s a little painful on the wallet, it’s not a bad idea because you get great service and better food as a result. After all, you can’t keep a bad restaurant open for long at those prices. Overall, I liked Palm Cove. It’s a pretty town, quiet but romantic and clean, with everything you need and nothing more.

After three nights, and some intensive scuba, it was time to move on. I can’t tell you how good it felt to have all my clothes clean and the diving portion of the vacation enjoyed but also ending. It meant that I could soon mail the camera enclosure back to Los Angeles and stop carrying a third bag. It meant I could start a whole new chapter of this voyage. Australia could show me what she was all about and after what I’d seen so far, I was more than ready. Let’s go!

Me on the right, chasing after the turtle for a photograph.  Courtesy of Calypso Reef Imagery

Me on the right, chasing after the turtle for a photograph. Courtesy of Calypso Reef Imagery

Typical front porch in Palm Cove at a hotel

Typical front porch in Palm Cove at a hotel

Children at the Palm Cove beach

Children at the Palm Cove beach

Tropical plants, Palm Cove

Tropical plants, Palm Cove

Flowers at Palm Cove

Flowers at Palm Cove

Eucalyptus at sunrise in Palm Cove

Eucalyptus at sunrise in Palm Cove

Palm Cove at sunrise

Palm Cove at sunrise

The Reef Fleet Pier at Cairns

The Reef Fleet Pier at Cairns

Feather stars, Great Barrier Reef

Feather stars, Great Barrier Reef

Coral, Great Barrier Reef

Coral, Great Barrier Reef

The view standing at my hotel

The view standing at my hotel

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