May 27th, 2000
The Great Barrier Reef
Before we left, we decided we had to take the opportunity to see one of the greatest natural phenomena on earth, The Great Barrier Reef. Some have even called it the largest living organism, the only one that is big enough to be seen from space.
We chose the funky Seahorse, a 50 foot version of a Grand Banks Schooner built in the 80’s in the Solomon Islands, to be our floating platform for snorkeling. There are many large white plastic bathtubs carrying hundreds of tourists, but we preferred the Seahorse for its maximum of 20 paying guests; and the price was the same.
We anchor in a cove of turquoise water tucked in close to the reef. White sand and many colored reefs in all directions. We don snorkel gear and plunge into the warm water. Floating not more than a meter above the many shapes of coral: brain, tree skeleton, fans, powder puffs, dusters, spikes of green, brown red, purple beige… An explosion of reef fish, stripes and puzzle piece shaped colors, like autumn leaves in a wind. A giant clam, purple and fluorescent green, more than a metre across, open and tempting; I take a big breath and surface dive to it, kicking hard with flippers to keep me down and I touch him. A jerk and it closes a foot or so and pauses. I surface and leave it alone. What if it grabbed my hand? Reef fish allow us to come to within a metre or less, but dart away under coral caves if we get closer. Some of the corals have small fingers by the millions and they react to your hand waving nearby, like a sea of Saskatchewan canola in response to a prairie wind.
Our second anchorage was at a pure white sand key, Upolu, ringed by reef. There we saw a small sea turtle, two feet across or so, and followed him a couple of meters above for a long time. He sailed so effortlessly below while we kicked hard to keep up. Finally he slowed in about two meters of water, and I dived and was able to touch his shell with my hand, and again with both hands. Very cool. Humans are strange.
Later, over a sand bottom, we saw a stingray feeding. I yelled at Claire through my snorkel, afraid she would miss it. She panicked a moment, thinking I was drowning. “I didn’t know what I would do,” she said, “I just knew I was going to grab on and hang on to you.” Wow. What love. I dived to chase the ray, but he didn’t want to play, and in a puff of sand was out of sight. No contest. Skipper Jon took us back to Cairns under sail under the rapidly lowering winter sun and into sunset. Wonderful to be under that much sail in a stiff breeze, wood creaking, quiet singing of the rigging; to sail into port under the unknown southern sky.
Wonga Beach north of Cairns
Our first day riding was a short fifty kilometres to Wonga Beach north of Cairns. We wanted to camp on the beach at least one night before tackling the steep climb to the Atherton Tablelands. New friend Des showed me how to husk a coconut and his partner Trina told ribald New Zealand and Irish jokes as we enjoyed the sunrise. We had been lulled to sleep the night before to the sound of surf and clattering palm leaves in the trade winds. Des and Trina convinced us to hang around for a day and join them for a trip further north to see the rainforest from a tower at an interpretive center. The range of plants is amazing.
We sort of wanted to see a cassowary, a large ground jungle bird that can launch a man with a kick and rip his guts out with a razor sharp claw. Guess we weren’t all that sorry to have missed them. (We had an encounter with a protective papa bird with chicks on our return 11 months later)
We did see a lovely little black and white tuxedo bird Trina called a Willie wagtail, “Cheeky little bastard that one.” The cheeky little bastard would follow us all around Australia, in every conceivable environment save the big smoke(s) of Sydney, Melbourne and the more developed towns of coastal New South Wales. He was always on the move, singing his constant, “sweet pretty creature” song for us from fence post and bush, roadhouse roof and the backs of sheep. He was small, but that didn’t stop him from being very aggressive to large birds. Claire saw one land on a large crow’s back, in flight, and stay there. One night we heard one singing all night vigorously protecting his nest from two big magpies bent on his (her) eggs. They are in a family called wagtails, you can guess the reason; they wag their up thrust tail vigorously each time they land. They are dressed like a Black Phoebe with the tail and personality of a mockingbird.