Tag Archives: Great Barrier Reef

Lucky Me

In my last post I wrote about how content and grateful I feel.  And why shouldn’t I?  I didn’t have the easiest start in life, but I am now one of the most comfortable creatures on the planet.

I live simply, in a cheap but nice apartment.  My indulgence is travel, and last year I got to go to Colombia with two great friends, Lynn and Roxana.  Now Colombia is in the news almost daily, since its next-door-neighbor, Venezuela, is imploding and Colombia is taking in its refugees in a model way.

And I got to spend a month in Australia with Heidi and other friends and see the place through their eyes!  My interest had been tepid going in.  Would it be like Canada, with kangaroos?  No offense, Canada, but you’re not exactly exotic to an American.

But Australia grabbed my imagination and heart.  I would love to go back.

Back in Australia.  But not for long.

You may have wondered, as I wrote about snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef, if I saw coral bleaching. Yes, I did.  However, we were told that bleaching is normal, to a point.  It’s part of the ebb and flow of weather conditions.  I’m not an expert so I can’t say how much is normal, but as with most things, it’s more complicated than your friends’ Facebook posts would have you believe.

As I walked into the office of the resort, I knew from Jim’s face what he would say.

“They’ve found your passport.  Someone at the casino-cum-liquor-store turned it in to the police.”

“So if I had waited a day, I wouldn’t have had to change all my plans and lose a day here.”

“Do you feel lucky, or unlucky?” Jim asked.

“Oh, lucky, definitely. I’m nearly 60 and have traveled all over the world—that’s lucky.  And nothing like this has ever happened to me before, so that’s lucky.”

On the “not lucky” side, I didn’t know if my passport had been cancelled and I had a lot of hoops to jump through before I would be allowed to exit the country.

You may wonder why I didn’t retrace my steps and try to find my passport.  I don’t know.  This didn’t even occur to me until I was in Sydney. In an urgent situation I go into “just-deal-with-it” mode, instead of “figure-it-out” mode.  I would not make a very good detective.

This was an instance where it would have been preferable to be traveling with someone.  I know for a certainty that if Lynn or Heidi had been there, they would have suggested, “Let’s go back and check at all the places you stopped,” and I would have done it, and probably avoided all this drama.

Oh well.

I went out for s last walk around Palm Cove. These are Holdens, the Australian car brand that started out as a saddle maker in the 1850s.  Heidi had told me that every Australian family drove a Holden Colorado or Commodore in the 70s and 80s.  Then this venerable company declined and was bought by GM, which shut down all car manufacturing in Australia.

You can still buy a car called a Holden, but it is merely a re-branded import of some other car company’s model, made in Thailand or elsewhere, with the Holden lion insignia slapped on.

This is a Skoda.  I love that name; it sounds like a disease.  I saw all models and makes of cars and utes (trucks) in Australia but if I had to guess I’d say the majority were Toyotas.

I walked along the beach.  Aussies have beach safety down to a science. There were signs about sunburn, rip tides, and marine stingers.

These kids had everything but their faces covered, just like Minnesota kids in winter.

Night came and I was still hanging out; I like this photo of a young woman being asked to snap a photo of some senior holiday makers, as they call vacationers.

Back in my room, I read, then tried to force myself to sleep but my nose was stuffed up and it was futile.  My mind was also stuffed up with worries about the next day.

Suspended

Last summer I took swimming lessons in hopes of feeling confident enough to get scuba certified, but observing the dive instructors on the ship, I knew it would have been too much for me.

The ship was a “speed catamaran” with “state-of-the-art computerized ride control systems.”  This meant we got out to the reef faster, with less choppiness, and for that I was grateful.  It still took an hour to reach the reef, and one hour of seasickness would have felt like eternity.

The dive instructors had convened the tourists who would scuba in the front of the ship.  Most of them weren’t certified—they would get one hour of instruction and dive with the instructors.

As I watched, I recalled my mother exhorting me, 50 years ago, to finish my food with her mantra, “Think of all the starving people in China.”

They aren’t starving anymore.  All the divers were young Chinese.  The base tour wasn’t cheap—$176 US—and they would pay extra for each dive.

The instructors were hunky, sun-browned he-men.  They demonstrated scuba hand signals, “This means low on air,” said one as he held his fist to his chest, “and this means out of air,” as he slashed his hand across his throat.

No thanks.

Suddenly a crew member yelled, “Dolphins!” and everyone rushed to look.  Dolphins indeed!  There were a dozen cavorting in our wake, and when a crew member went out on a wave runner they jumped for joy around him. It was absolutely delightful.

Everyone around me was taking photos and video but I desisted.  There was no internet out here, and I had decided to leave my phone wrapped in a plastic bag with a small amount of cash and my Minnesota driver’s license. For all I knew my passport had been stolen.  Maybe Aussies weren’t as honest as I’d thought.  Would someone pay $176 to spend the day on a ship and pickpocket their fellow passengers?  Probably not, but I wasn’t going to leave my phone in the open.

I took two photos of the sea all day, at our first stop. Then I decided to just enjoy and not try to capture it.

We snorkeled and dived for an hour at a site called Stonehenge, where rock formations jutted from the ocean.  I understand the naming system, but Stonehenge is part of Agincourt Reef 3.  The ship stopped at three sites out of 35 in the vicinity, depending on weather conditions.

The fish were astounding.  There were angel fish with yellow, blue, and white vertical stripes and yellow tails and beaks.  Whatever kind of fish Nemo the cartoon is, it was there.

I glanced down and make a muffled exclamation into my mask, “Giant clam!” My dad had played Giant Clam with us when we were little—sitting akimbo on the floor and pretending to eat us—the little fish.  Giant clams really are giant—maybe four feet across.

When I am fortunate enough to be in an environment like this, I feel a peace and oneness with everything.  I don’t believe in god but I do believe in heaven-like places and states of mind, and this was one.

The horn sounded and we exited the water for lunch.  There was an enormous buffet with fresh seafood, fruits and veg, and healthy hearty salads.

As I ate, three women in the adjacent booth invited me to join them.  They were Lebanese-Australians from Melbourne.  They appeared to be my age but they all rocked bikinis. Was it their Lebanese skin they should thank for their faces being without a wrinkle?  They were well-educated, smart and funny world travelers who were very kind to invite me to join them.

After lunch we stopped at Barracuda Bommie.  A bommie is an underwater tower.  I floated face down, mesmerized as I watched thousands of barracudas swirl around the bommie—down, down, down into the darkness until I couldn’t see anymore.

Why do scenes like this bring on such a feeling of peace, at least for me?  Perhaps because it’s so humbling.  I realize how vulnerable I am, and how insignificant.

At our last stop—Blue Wonder—the sea began to swell and I hit a wall of exhaustion and nausea.

Lost

I lugged my laptop all over Australia with the intention of trying to live blog.  this reinforced what I already knew, that I love travel because I can be in the moment.  I don’t like feeling like I have to post before I can do anything else.  So my laptop just added four pounds to my load.

I had flipped it open once, to add an extra night in Palm Cove and change my return flight.

Now, after tearing my room apart to no avail in search of my passport, I flipped it open a second time to visit the US State Department website.  If you like stories about people fighting with their internet provider or getting root canals—well, what’s wrong with you?—but you will appreciate this story.

The US Government gets a lot of flak for treating foreigners badly and being a bureaucratic abyss.  Surely things would go better for me—a US citizen—right?

I read the lost passport info and learned I would have to appear in person in Sydney to get a replacement.    This was the auto reply to my email in which I asked if I could possibly see them on Friday, the day I was already scheduled to arrive in Sydney.

The answers to most inquiries can be found on our website:

  • If your inquiry can be answered through one of the links, you will not receive another reply. 
  • If your query warrants a more detailed response, we will endeavor to provide a personal reply within two (2) business days.
  • If you have emailed about renouncing your U.S. citizenship, please allow 10 business days for a response.

I wondered how often people send an email to renounce their US citizenship.  Related to my concerns—two business days before I could expect a response?

But then someone named Alex did respond: “Due to routine maintenance in the building our office occupies, there will be a complete supervised power outage beginning Friday afternoon.  We expect to return to normal functionality by Monday afternoon.”

Seriously?  In Australia?

I would have to go to Sydney early.

Alex also listed the things I would need to bring with me to my appointment:

  • Completed (but not signed) Form DS-11: Application for a U.S. passport;
  • Completed and signed Form DS-64: Statement Regarding Lost or Stolen Passport. Please include the Police Incident/Report number on this form;
  • Evidence of identity (if available);
  • 1 x U.S. sized passport photograph. (Note: these are a different size from Australian passport photographs);
  • Applicable fee. (All fees are subject to change without notice)

The only form that could be submitted online was the missing passport one.  I submit six- and seven-figure grant applications online all the time; I know how to submit online forms. I got an error message, and when I emailed the Help contact I got an autoresponse saying they would get back to me in two days.  No one ever did.  Even if I found my passport now, I had no way of knowing if it was cancelled or not.

I wept a bit as I booked the last available appointment this week at the consulate in Sydney.  It was for 10am in two days’ time.  I filed a police report online.  I tried to change my flight, but Expedia required I call them, so I wiped my face, traipsed down to the office, and asked Jim if I could use their landline.  I don’t regret not paying ATT $10 a day for phone service in Australia. After 20 minutes the flight was changed back to my original date with, amazingly, no charge.  Jim print out the forms I needed, cancelled my last three nights, and booked a van ride to the airport for 3:30am.

“Do you still want to go to the reef tomorrow?” he inquired delicately.  I must have looked like I was on the verge of a meltdown.

Yes,” I replied without hesitation.

I moved through my last day there in a zen-like state.  This was it—my last chance to enjoy the sun, warmth, humidity, scenery—I appreciated how lucky I was.

I was going snorkeling on the fucking Great Barrier Reef!

Down Day

I allowed myself one down day in Australia, in Palm Cove.  I didn’t plan anything, I went where I was called.

I took a couple long walks on beach.  I had not realized that crocodiles swam in the ocean, but that helped me decide I would not be swimming here or renting a kayak.

I had wondered, before arriving in Australia, if the whole crocodile thing was overblown—something they played up to titillate the tourists and TV audiences.  But no.  As I wrote before, on the shuttle on the way from the airport I had seen signs that warning people not to swim or wade in streams, and just beyond the signs were people standing in the water up to their thighs, fishing.

“So … isn’t that dangerous?” I asked the driver.

“Yeah, it is.  A ranger was doing the same just last week with her family. She was an Aboriginal. You would think she would have known better.  One minute she was there, the next she was gone. They found her body a couple days later.”

I walked through the jungle around Palm Cove.  There were paths and boardwalks so I knew I wasn’t crazy to be walking here, but there were also warning signs about crocodiles everywhere.

I’m normally a pretty intrepid hiker.  My mother would freak if she knew some of the deserted places I have hiked alone down by the Mississippi River.

All the time I was in Australia, I never felt afraid of crime.  I’m sure crime happens there, but I never saw warnings about crime like one does everywhere else.  You know: “Be vigilant on trains and on the street for pickpockets.”

I would take my chances with a pickpocket any day, I thought, over a crocodile.  I was really on edge, watching for signs of fast movement on the sides of the paths.

It really wasn’t very relaxing, so I headed back toward the beach, past a new housing development. I imagined walking out my back door to find a big croc in my pool, or leaping out at me as I gardened.  No thanks.

I stopped for a fried barramundi sandwich at the corner restaurant/grocery and perused the Sunday papers while I waited.  I don’t know who this guy was, what really happened, or what his greatest triumph was, but he was handsome in a Cro-Magnon Man way.

They had all manner of fried snacks that sounded like exotic variations on fish sticks; I imagine my five-year-old nephew would find them appealing.

There was this sign explaining why they don’t issue plastic drinking straws.  Because of the glare you won’t be able to read it, but trust me—straws are bad for sea turtles.

I checked out every shop along the promenade and bought a few things but it was basically resort wear—nothing I would have occasion to wear in Minnesota.

Back in my room, I pored over the brochures, then arranged with Jim at the front desk to take an excursion through the Daintree Rainforest the next day.  I was excited; it would involve a train ride through the jungle, then a couple hours in the village of Kuranda, where I could buy more trinkets and have a beer, then a hike through the rainforest, then a cable car ride back.  I would be gone all day.  I couldn’t wait.

I sat by the pool and read my book.  I was half way through my 800-page Somerset Maugham short stories.  I was tearing them out as I read not only to lighten my load, but because he uses the N word and other offensive language.  He was a product of his time.  These were the words people used.  But I would not be leaving this on the take one, leave one shelf.

I took a dip in the warm salt water pool, gazing up at the pointillist canopy of gum tree leaves way above me.

I capped off the day with a gag-inducing “Japanese” dinner.  Imagine sushi made with “local fish.” Now think—like I didn’t—that the local fish is not tuna or shrimp or  salmon, but barramundi, which is nice fried, but not raw.

 

Palm Cove

After a 20-minute drive I alighted at the Reef Retreat in Palm Cove.  This was my big splurge. I had read about the place in Frommer’s Easy Guide to Australia; it wasn’t easy to find the website and when I did, it was fully booked for some of the nights I wanted.  I went back and forth for a month before securing five nights there, then I added a sixth night when I was in Blayney.  I felt so lucky to get the place I wanted.

I wanted it because it was one block off the beach, which was traced by a road full of traffic. I didn’t want to stay in a B&B because I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t want to stay in a chain hotel. I didn’t want to stay in a sterile high-rise where you had to take an elevator and walk down a long hallway.

This was the photo that got me.  The red square outlines the Reef Retreat.  Two stories of rooms were built around a central courtyard with a pool and, basically, a miniature rain forest. I could be close to the action but feel like I was in the jungle.

And it was only $95 a night.

The place did not disappoint.  I checked in with Jim and Joanne, the owners, who would soon become my personal support group.  I loaded up on brochures from the Wall of a Thousand Brochures, then rolled my bag through the courtyard to my room, which was up a flight of about 20 stairs.  This was the only downside of the place—you would have to stay on the first floor if you couldn’t manage stairs.

The rooms were clean and bright and had everything one needed to be a hermit in paradise.  Balcony screened by trees, couch and TV, and fridge.

These are the views from my balcony.  The big screen is to keep people who are using the barbie from being barbecued themselves, by the sun.

I hung up my dank clothes to air for the first time in weeks, then hustled out to buy supplies.  The books in the “take one, leave one” shelf in the laundry room were typical of a resort that attracts an international crowd.

I would pass on “Analfabeten” but I had a couple books with me and I could read by the pool every day!  I could catch up on blogging.  I could sleep late.  I could take long walks, rent a bike, maybe a kayak.  I would alternate excursions, like to the reef, with down time.  This was going to be great.

This was the night I would lose my passport.  This was not going to be great, but I didn’t know it yet.

I walked on the beach and took a few excellent photos, for once.  They somehow vanished off my phone, so here’s a photo from the official tourist site.

I have been to tropical beaches in Belize and Colombia in the last two years, and I have to say that one beach looks very much like another to me.  There’s sand, and water, and palm trees.  But that’s not to take away from their beauty.

I walked along the promenade and bought groceries, then donned my rain poncho so I could keep my bag from disintegrating until I got to the casino/bottle shop where I could buy wine and beer.  The 16-year-old kid who waited on me asked for my ID, and I fumbled with my poncho, backpack, and grocery bag to find it and show it to him.  If you like casinos, you would have loved this place.  I hate them so I hurried to get back to my quiet retreat.

I watched TV; there was the Ernie Dingo Show, where an Aboriginal guy walks around the outback and shows sites of cultural significance to a white guy, whose job is apparently to nod and show keen interest in everything Ernie says.  Megan and Harry were on the news, as they would be every night during the Invictus Games.  Harry was climbing Sydney Harbor Bridge, and it was raining hard.  “Guess I picked the wrong day to cross the bridge,” he quipped.