Wednesday, December 2, 2009

On the Great Barrier Reef

We made it out to the reef yesterday morning and have loved just about every minute so far. In fact, we're loving it out here so much that we have decided to stay out on the live-aboard ship, Ocean Quest, for an additional night. It's been so cool living and sleeping right on the Great Barrier Reef and getting to dive more than I thought was physically possible.

Yesterday morning we left the van at the dive shop and got carted over to the huge marina in Cairns. The smaller boat, Reef Quest, loaded everyone on and left around 8:30 for the outer reef. It takes about 90 minutes to get all the way out to our diving destination at which land can just barely be seen on the horizon. The first dive we did yesterday was a little stressful, for me anyway. When we anchored at the dive site on Saxon Reef, the crew kept commenting about a ridiculously strong current. They announced this to the divers with a warning that if you screw up your navigation, you will be popping back up miles from the boat. Instantly I was freaked about that idea. Then they go on to talk about all of the deadly things and what to look out for, which didn't lessen my anxiety any further.

When we did jump in, it was struggle to move anywhere against the strong current. Erich, Mr aqua-lung and swim team captain, just cruised on ahead while I struggled (and sucked down loads of air) trying to keep up. We approached a coral head and Erich motioned for me to come have a look. When I got to where he was, I was right over a Giant Moray Eel (up to 220cm long) which was, in fact, giant. It was a good 10 inches in diameter, and like all eels, looked mean as could be. I kicked upwards to get some distance between us, and once again began fighting the current.

We continued on another minute or two and then came to the (awful) Titan Triggerfish. We had been warned about these guys on deck and what to do it you crossed their path. Apparently they nest on the reef this time of year and the couple does what's needed to protect the eggs. These guys are not little, they are about 2 feet long with about a 1 inch mouth and big teeth. When you get anywhere near the nest, they charge right at you, hoping to take a chunk of flesh and get you away from the nest. Of course I got charged at, but remembered the divemaster saying to roll on your back and kick towards them as they approach with your fins. This worked really well, as it retreated, and we moved as quickly as possible away from them.

Next we saw two massive sea turtles, one munching on the reef and just hanging out down there. Unfortunately, my air was about gone at this point and we had to return to the boat. It was a fast trip back with the current pushing us along.

Back on the smaller boat, we enjoyed lunch up on the sunny deck and waited for them to move to the next dive site. This area was much better, and I felt much more relaxed without the crazy current to worry about. The dive was along a coral wall which was just gorgeous. Like much of the reef here, it is full of colorful coral, tons of bright fish, and nudibranch. We didn't encounter anything threatening and it made me remember why diving is so great.

Once we returned to the boat, we had to pull alongside the large live-aboard ship, Ocean Quest, and transfer over for the rest of our time. The boat is huge and spacious with three levels and super organized. Our room is really nice, with three massive windows overlooking the reef, a private bath and tons of storage space. It was certainly not the cramped musty interior I had expected. After we were told about the boat and shown to our rooms (complete with apple muffins), we headed out to the sun deck to get briefed on the next dive.

This spot was another beautiful reef, but so much more relaxed to get into the water on the bigger boat. The small boat had a bit of a frenzied feel to it, with people everywhere and fighting to get in the water as fast as possible. Here, everyone has an assigned seat with their tank, weights etc and takes their time getting ready to jump in the water. On this dive we got to see a glimpse of a white-tipped reef shark before it swam away over the reef. I thought sharks would certainly hang around more, but once you see them, they pretty much want to get away from you.

On the boat we got ready for dinner and watched the sunset colors off the back deck. The dining room here is sit-down and you have to wear clothes to eat (no bikinis or topless guys) with amazing food. I couldn't get over the dinner last night with marinated chicken breast with carmelized onions, roasted squash, potatoes, salad, green beans and bread. I was so stuffed but we still had one more dive to do that day, the night dive.

This was a totally new experience for me and one I can't say I was not nervous about. Erich had done a few night dives already, but since I hadn't I was required to go with one of the on-board guides. This turned out to be a really good idea since it just made it so much easier and enjoyable. All we had to do was follow her (she had a yellow glow-stick on her tank) and we knew we wouldn't get lost or disoriented. We each got a torch (flashlight in American english) which was cinched onto our right wrist. When we jumped in I was very uncomfortable for about the first 5 minutes trying to acclimate, and then it was amazing.

We didn't see any of the massive sharks I had expected, but did see a turtle swimming around and quite a few insomniac fish. The guide took a nudibranch off the coral and released it into her light. It was really cool to watch it swim back to the coral with it's fluttering wing-like sides floating in the dark. The whole dive really felt as close as I will ever get to going up into outer space. You could really imagine how an astronaut would feel, weightless in the dark and breathing precious artificial air. Since the water is pretty warm here (about 80-81) it feels like body temperature in the wetsuit, which adds to the sense of space. It was a really cool dive once I felt comfortable down there in the dark.

When we got back on board after the 30 minutes, they were serving ice cream, cake and pudding for dessert. The food just never stops around here. We went up to the lounge on the third level where the large plasma was on and they have a small bar with a few kinds of beer and wine. We relaxed on the couches there with a beer and copied all of the dive information into our log books. After being in the sun and water all day, we were exhausted and headed to bed around 10. After all, the next dive brief was scheduled for 6:15am.

Sleeping on a boat was a new and weird experience for me. Initially it felt relaxing, but through the night I kept waking up when a little swell would roll through and change the rythem of the boat. It was definitely much better than the sweaty van, so I'm not complaining, I just wasn't as used to it as Erich, who slept soundly through the night from all his boat experience.

I was awake before the wake-up knock on the door at 5:45am (to ensure I could get a sip of coffee in me) and then we headed out to the sun deck. The dive was great and it was interesting to see what the fish were up to in the early morning. There was a lot of cleaning going on by the hard-working wrasse (cleaner fish) busy giving everyone a scrub before they start their big fishy day. There was some feeding as well on the reef and everything seemed very active. We were back on the boat by 7:15 for breakfast, which was huge like every other meal.

While we ate breakfast, they moved the boat from the "Reef Encounter" site we were on over to "Blue Lagoon" for the next series of dives. This dive featured (obviously) a blue sandy lagoon with the reef wall extending from there in either direction. On the first dive at 9:00am we headed right along the wall and saw tons of bright fish and the famous nemo fish hanging out in the anemones. We surfaced and had the second dive at 11am. This time we went left and again had a great dive.

12:30 was lunch (I kind of like being on a schedule like this) which was extensive. Following lunch is the longest break of the day from about 1:30 till 3:15 when we hung out and read on the sun deck. Everyone on that leg of the boat was really cool, a handful of Americans, a group of Koreans, some Germans (?) and one girl from Indo. During the post lunch break they swapped out divers when they joined with the smaller boat, as they did for us the day before. The Koreans all left and a bunch of new divers (or maybe snorkelers but we we can't figure out why anyone would live out here just to snorkel) got on for the night.

They decided against moving the boat for the late afternoon/night dive as the winds were a bit unusual coming out of the north, and we have to stay on the leeward side of the reef (south) in case the mooring breaks. Otherwise, if it did break the wind would push us right onto the reef before they could react. Because of this, Oli the supervisor offered to take us out further up on the reef so we could do a new dive site. We agreed, although I was leery of being taken out in the ocean and left there.

They got the dinghy ready and we geared up and jumped in. It was just the two of us on that run and we went up reef and had to roll out of the boat backwards which I have not done before. Once we were in, the dinghy took off and we were told to follow the reef on the right side back to the boat, going with the current. At first it seemed like just a big coral flat, but we soon realized that there was plenty to see over there. We saw a green turtle when we dropped down, and then started heading towards the boat. There was the weirdest fish fight that broke out when some bigger fish went after a parrot fish and debris from the bottom of the reef was getting stirred up as the fish tried to escape. The big fish won, and had the parrot fish half in his mouth with just the 5 inches or so of the back tail hanging out. It was going to eat it for dinner, but then saw us coming and decided to drop it and take off. I guess it thought we were bigger fish coming to snag his meal. I felt badly seeing this ripped up dead parrot fish laying on the reef, and then wondered if a bloody fish fight would attract sharks. We did see sharks, but not until a bit later. A small white-tipped reef shark circled us for a minute and then slowly swam away. Later, there was a large gray reef shark laying on the sand at the bottom for a nap when we came along and it decided to move. This one was significantly larger, but wanted nothing to do with us.

Further along, we spotted a huge spiny lobster hiding in a small cave in the reef. Next there was a massive Giant Clam with purple and blue lips. These things are so huge I literally could have just about laid sideways inside it's shell. It was easily 5 feet across and rose about 3 feet off the sandy bottom. There were two big holes in the top fleshy part which we tried to peek into, but it closed them up when we got too close. There were some bright cleaner fish that tried to help Erich tidy up his fins. They just started picking at them thinking it was a big black fish.

We made it back to the boat just fine, although we had to pop up once or twice to navigate. We're having a break now before dinner, and then it will be time for another night dive!

On the Reef, Part 2

After another good meal on the boat, it was off to the night dive right away. We were briefed for the dive and I chose to go with a guide again. It is obviously very easy to get lost down there in the dark but with the guide (which does cost an extra $15) all you have to do is follow behind them and you are almost guaranteed to get back to the boat. This time I opted for the smaller light and we jumped in. This dive was trickier than the night before due to the increased depth on the reef. Once you dive to a certain depth, every following dive that day must be shallower. So by the fifth dive of the day, you have to make sure you stay above 12 meters (36 feet) in order to avoid getting blackballed to dive the next dive.

We saw a cool Ornate Spiny Lobster tucked into a little overhang on the wall and Erich saw some shrimp with glowing red eyes. At one point I did get really disoriented trying to keep my depth above the requirement. It's very hard to visually reference anything in the dark, so you have to look at your depth gauge constantly. Erich said it was just like flying in the dark. Back on the boat, it was time for dessert and to fill in our dive logs from all of the diving that day.

At night it was hard for me to sleep since they seemed to be working on the engine, or maybe warming it up, at around 2:15am. Erich somehow slept right through it, but it was loud. We had some little wind swell come through in the morning which made the boat rock more than it had been as well.

In the morning, they pushed back the dive time by 20 minutes or so in order to move the boat to a new location (hence the engine noise the night before.) We got in the water around 6:45 and the dive site was really nice. There was so much to see on all three of the dives we did at that reef today; sea turtles, shrimp, lobster, nudibranch, huge fish, little schools of fish, cleaner fish, cod, unicorn fish and on and on. The conditions were good and it was a great way to end our three days on the boat. They kick you out of your rooms around 12:30 so they can clean, and we headed down to lunch and out on the deck to play cards.

The same small boat that had dropped us off had to come pick us up and take us the hour and a half back to Cairns. They switched over a lot of the crew as well, and many of the passengers had swapped out today and yesterday as well. There was a nice couple from Poland, two cougars from Atlanta (who must have been recently divorced and subsequently bitter), and a whole bunch of Swiss, Brits and Euros.

With all of the dives on our trip, both here and in New Zealand, I've more than doubled my dive count and bottom time. All you do out there is dive and end up getting in 12 dives in the three days. They have a tight schedule, but essentially it's dive, eat, dive, dive eat, dive, eat, dive, eat. The nice thing was that they kept the number of divers small, we only had around 30 people on board not counting the crew, so it wasn't like some of the huge companies that pack on 100+ people and take them out to an over-dived, dead spot on the reef. We were really happily surprised with the whole experience.

It was a great way to (basically) end our trip and certainly one of the main goals of the Australian portion. Ever since my elementary school report on coral reefs, I have always wanted to dive the Great Barrier Reef, and it feels like a huge dream has been accomplished. I don't think it was ever a question of if I would do it, more just of when, and it feels good to have experienced the reef in such an intimate way and for several consecutive days and nights. I certainly could have stayed on board one more night and day, but we had to get back to the mainland.

From here it's back to Cairns, back down to Brisbane and then eventually back to reality. We are not looking forward to making the tough transition after our charmed life of traveling in this area of the world. What an experience. It has certainly been the trip of a lifetime.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Whitsundays + Townsville

Since Marybeth didn't have any tips from her trip for us further north, we were on our own to figure out what we wanted to do next. We had decided to visit the group of islands off Airlie Beach called the Whitsundays, which are 74 different islands, most being national park. Unfortunately, we still had over an hour and half to drive north from our campsite at the beach, so by the time we arrived in Airlie it was almost 8:30, and most boats leave around 8am.

We visited the i-site center in town in a panic and they informed us of one boat that leaves at 10:30 that still had a few spaces open. We figured if we didn't go on this trip, BIG FURY, we wouldn't get to see the islands at all. A bit skeptical having done little research and knowing nothing about the company, we booked the beach and snorkel trip for the day.

It actually turned out to be a great day out cruising the islands and snorkeling. The boat was small and only held 35 people, which was ideal since it's no fun snorkeling with tons of people. It was more like a raft, with a quad engine on the back, and supposedly gets out to the islands faster than any other boat out there. Which was good due to the later start.

We got to see many of the islands as we went past and then arrived at the largest, called Whitsunday Island, around noon. The beach was a blinding white with bright turquoise waters. The sand is 98% silica which creates the dazzling white effect on the island. The guide went up to the picnic area in the shade of the trees to prep lunch while we found a nice spot on the beach.

The very bizarre thing about this part of Australia is the "stinger suits." Once you get north of Agnes Water, you are in box jellyfish country from October thru April. Now box jellyfish are not your average jelly or your average sting. They are the most venomous creature alive in the world today. One little sting and you are in agony, dying within 2-3 minutes. These guys are so incredibly lethal that the people here have gone to great lengths to figure out how to avoid them. One option is the "stinger nets" on many beaches up this way which enclose an entire section of water at the beach in netting to keep the stingers out. The other way to avoid certain death is by wearing a (very dorky) stinger suit, which is essentially just a lycra jumpsuit. Pantyhose are another effective option, but since the development of the suits, most people opt for those.

So the scene at the beach was quite odd with people zipping up into their suits just to cool off in the warm tropical waters. It looked like something out of an old sci-fi movie where no one could touch the ocean waters anymore. The good part is that they keep you from getting sunburnt too. Erich refused to wear one as he did have a longsleve wet-suit too and long boardshorts on as well and thought they were ridiculous. Of course I wore one, but still got stung by something on my upper lip, but luckily nothing dangerous.

The lunch was great, all sorts of sandwiches, salads, prawns etc. and we enjoyed all the food the owner makes everyday for the boat. After that, Erich and I walked to the very end of the beach to check out a coral reef there that we had read about. It was unreal. This area is by far the most amazing snorkeling either of us have ever done. There is just so much life and color and variety out on the reef, with giant clams, cleaning wrasse, schools of fish, fluorescent coral heads... it was unbelievable to just float and watch the intricate world below. We only had about a half hour before we had to get back down the beach to board the boat with the rest of the group to head out to our intended snorkeling spot.

We cruised out to Border Island, on the leeward side, so it was nice and calm and glassy. Everyone jumped in and swam 5 or 10 minutes over to the shallower reef and again, it was stunning. The forty minutes flew by and we saw such a huge array of fish and coral. On the way back, they served "afternoon tea" which was basically doughnuts, and passed through some narrow channels of islands different from the way out.

We had great weather the whole day and were happy we had made it in time to get out in the water on the Great Barrier Reef. We got some dinner at the marina area and watched the sunset, then it was back on the road. We needed to get a couple hours of driving in, up to the Townsville area, so we would not have such a long trek the following day. Luckily we didn't hit any Kangaroos which were along the roadways throughout the drive, and made it to Bowling Green Bay National Park to spend the night.

The area was on Alligator Creek, which was not encouraging, but we didn't see anything too deadly when we pulled into a picnic spot, so we popped the top, threw the surfboards out the side and got ready for bed. In the morning, wild brush turkeys picked at the front bumper for dead bugs, and a few kangaroos chewed on grass next to the van. The night before we had seen a lemur up in the trees, but it was dark so we didn't get a good look. Tonight we actually saw the biggest bat I have ever seen (or even heard of) in my life. It was easily 4 feet across and when it was hanging upside down, it nearly pulled the whole branch off the tree.

But nothing was more startling than the trip to the bathroom that morning in the park. I was just using the toilet for a minute, and all was clear when I walked into the stall. However, when I turned to get some toilet paper, a HUGE brown and hairy spider was sitting ON the back of the toilet seat with me! It looked like he was getting ready to take a big bite and of course I freaked and ran right out of there. I'm normally not all that squeamish about spiders but this one was easily 5 inches across and looked like a flattened tarantula. I knew this would happen eventually, practically expecting it, since everyone has a spider in the bathroom story from these parts of the world. Erich didn't even bat an eye when I ran out completely frantic. He just gave me the car keys, said it was fine, and went in to his side of the bathrooms. (I did some research later, and this spider is actually one of the few things in the country that is not incredibly lethal, in fact it is non-toxic but does hurt when they bite if annoyed.)

We cruised into Townsville for the morning before we had to drive the rest of the way up to Cairns. It was before 8am, so the temperatures had not reached their usual scorching highs for the day, so we decided to hike up Castle Hill, a landmark near town. It was all stairs, but a good workout, just incredibly hot even that early in the day. The top had some fabulous lookouts over the city and up and down the coastline. It was a nice spot to get oriented with the town.

Following the hike we were drenched in sweat (as we are most of the time here) with faces flushed bright red, and needed to get into the water to cool off. We headed to the northern tip of town to the beach and rock pool. This little beach section has a stinger net so we could safely jump in the water and cool down which felt great. The rock pool was right next to that and is an artificial pool with saltwater that is filtered and stinger proofed for people to swim. We felt much better and were ready for the rest of the day.

The next stop was the massive aquarium in town called Reef HQ. This may seem very counterintuitive to go to an aquarium when you are on the brink of the Great Barrier Reef and are a certified diver. However, we did not have enough time to actually go out and dive all day, and we wanted to learn more about the reef and fish before the next couple days of diving from Cairns. The aquarium was huge and featured a massive coral reef tank, probably 18 feet high, and a large predator tank with sharks and rays. We got a tour from one of the volunteer guides that happened to be starting shortly after we arrived. Maybe not the best topic before going diving, it was titled DEADLY CREATURES OF THE REEF. I realized that I had so much more to worry about than just sharks on dive trips! There are deadly sea-snakes, lion fish, stone fish, conch that stab you with a poisonous dart, and of course the infamous box jelly. Basically I learned, wear a wet-suit or stinger suit and do not touch anything, ever.

We really did learn a lot about the coral and kinds of fish on the reef and enjoyed our time there. We saw a short movie about the reef and checked out the interactive zone. It was nearing 1:30 and we had to get moving to be in Cairns by tomorrow morning.

The drive was long (about 4.5 hours) and uneventful, the major highway is inland about 10-20km so there aren't too many ocean views. We arrived at the holiday park in Cairns for the night and it has a friendly relaxed feel and seems like everyone is pretty quiet. We leave early in the morning to head out to the reef for an overnight dive trip which hopefully will be as good as the snorkeling!


After our night in the holiday park, we were on our way back to the beach at Noosa Heads to get in one more surf session before hitting the road. Unfortunately, the swell had come down a little bit over the night, but was still surf-able. To help us get some more waves, we rented a 7'6" board similar to the one back in San Diego and traded off between that and the Flyer. The longer board clearly was more fun and much easier to get waves, but on either board we enjoyed the warm azure waters and the sunny skies. After our couple hours of rental time was over, we dried out on the beach before walking into the little town just a block over from the water.

It happened to be our 3-year anniversary (at least in Australian time, in San Diego it was one day short) and since we had no idea where we would be that evening, decided to celebrate with a nice lunch. We sat outside at a cute euro-inspired sidewalk cafe and watched the tourists, surfers and the trendy elite walk past. Erich was happy with the fish and chips and I loved the snapper saffron risotto. We could have sat there all afternoon, but after awhile we had to motivate to keep moving north.

Australia is really big. I mean really really big. All of the European countries can fit within the island, with plenty of extra room to spare. We have to cover 1650km by Thursday of next week to make our flight, while trying to enjoy ourselves and see some sights at the same time. Noosa was just barely north of Brisbane, so we had to make up some distance for the last few days.

We drove and drove for the afternoon, but at one point passed a seriously bad accident. It was terrible and we heard later that at least one person dies every week on this roadway. The guy said it's because people get comfortable on the straight and easy road and they just fall asleep. This may also be partially due to the fact that is is light at 4:45 every morning and nobody can get any rest, or Erich's theory is that they purposely throw themselves and the car off embankments to escape the desolate and boring scenery. Either way, we were daunted by the accident and since it was dark after around 6:15, we pulled into a rest stop / picnic area for the night. It didn't seem that close to the highway, but the trucks kept moving all night and were really loud. I survived with earplugs, eye-mask and tylenol pm, while poor Erich was awake the entire night and was subsequently exhausted by morning.

Trying to bring him back to life with sips of my coffee, we managed to get back on the road and continue. We kept wanting to stop for the day at a nice beach or National Park, but every time we looked at the map we had barely even budged on the massive continent. Our one stop was to pick up some food at the Woolworth's grocery store, which for some weird reason they put inside a massive shopping center. With the temperatures outside, the place was packed with people walking around window shopping to get into the air conditioning. For some reason you can't buy beer in the grocery stores here, so we booked it (with the shopping cart) through the entire mall to the liquor shop on the other side, barely missing the entire Singapore navy who seems to be in port, just to grab a six-pack.

We also had to get some lunch and Erich was overjoyed that Rockhampton is the beef capital of Australia. They had giant size bulls at various points around town, just in case you missed that part in your guide book. We got a recommendation from the local i-site and went to the happening "Hog's Breath" near the mall with the grocery store. The place started out dead, but filled up quickly and had a biker bar theme but with the ever-present American 80's music playing. Erich got the Aussie burger, which kind of wasn't even a burger at all. It was a thick piece of steak between the bun, which he ended up eating with a fork and knife claiming it was one of the best pieces of steak he'd ever had. I struggled to find even one item on the menu with no beef, and out of the two choices, chose a wrap.

After our lunch break, we pushed on through the staggering heat (thankfully we have good ac) and lifeless landscape to reach Cape Hillsborough National Park. We had considered going way out of the way to Eungella National Park, where the platypus live and you have a chance to see them in the wild (if you are lucky), but decided this park would be a better spot for the late afternoon and evening.

The campsites are right on the beach and it is quiet except for some of the strangest and loudest bird (?) noises we have ever heard. They say there are crocs here so we are keeping an eye out for them. The van is still 100 degrees, but does cool off with the night air fairly quickly.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Noosa Heads

We got another good tip from Marybeth about stopping off in Noosa Heads, a trendy town and National Park. It was gorgeous and tropical and the surf looked really fun when we arrived at the National Park. It's a right point break, but really nice since it is so spread out, you can have your own little spot to yourself. It would have been better if we had bigger boards, but was fun anyway. The water is about 75, and clear and aqua, reminding us a lot of Hawaii.

There was a big rush in the morning (and seemingly all day) to get a parking spot, as there isn't much room, so we left the van there after surfing to go for a hike in the park. The coastal track had great views looking out towards the ocean at the various bays and points we came across. At one point, we looked up to see a koala bear just hanging out up in a tree over the trail sleeping the afternoon away.


The trail continued around the headland of the park and out to the windier Eastern beaches. As the next section of trail crossed the soft sand beach and the sun was searing at the Australian high noon of 10AM (remember sunrise is before 5AM) we decided to take the shortcut back to the slightly cooler coastal track we had come in on.

Arriving back at the van we did some organization the best we could in the lessened camper space than we had in New Zealand and hung out for a bit by the beach until the urge for ice cream was felt and a change of scenery.

The lazy beach day continued into the early evening with only a break to find the night's campsite. We decided there would be no other choice but to stay in one of the local Holiday Parks and the Noosa information center pointed us in the direction of the closest. Although the park is full to the brim with campers (estimated over 100) and is booked solid everyday of the year according to the park attendant (this is still off-season despite the crowds apparently) the campsite was relatively quiet, aside from some punk kids yelling out their car window, until of course the sun broke over the Eastern horizon at 430am and the birds started losing it. This time Sara was prepared with her ear plugs to pop in once the commotion began.

Overall the night was less restless than the night before as we added some padding to the bed set up with the comforter laying underneath us. The bed is like a bad convertible couch with metal bars running across it in three different spots. We believe there may have been a Koala fight in the trees over the car, but since there aren't supposed to be in Koala's in town, it probably was a mango hitting the car roof and one of the wild turkeys or local cats screeching about. Even our neighboring Euro campers managed to keep quiet last night despite their constant need to play techno.


We were sad to leave New Zealand after falling so in love with the country during our time there. The people are so exceptionally friendly, the spaces are uncrowded and the scenery is fabulous. We are lucky we got to spend as much time there as we did, but easily could have stayed longer.

Onward to Brisbane for our next stop. We didn't realize we had to get an Australian visa, and then the surfboards caused a bit of a panic with their weight, but everything got sorted out. Brisbane is a huge city and reminded me very much of a hot and tropical Boston. Skyscrapers towered over old stone churches and the suburbs stretched on for quite a ways. We stayed at a pretty nice hotel downtown where we could walk to see the older buildings and get some dinner. The people at the hotel were nice enough to let us store two enormous bags of winter clothes and 4/3 wet-suits and booties there so we would be able to make the weight limit on the flight back to Brisbane. Our plan is to drive up to Cairns and then fly back down from there.

I really hadn't considered how incredibly tropical this area of Australia is. It is really really hot and humid and the water is just like Hawaii, warm and crystal turquoise colored. I guess we were still in winter mode with all our New Zealand items, but quickly realized we would need no more than shorts and t-shirts at any time of the day.

We picked up our new camper van from Kea which we would drive north. After being so totally spoiled in the Wilderness Camper we had just had, this one is certainly a bit of a disappointment. It's much, much smaller, about the size of a VW Bus, but the good thing is that it's much easier to drive and an automatic. However, there is barely any storage space at all, and you have to pop the top to comfortably camp, which is pretty conspicuous if you want to freedom camp. There is no inverter, so therefore no electricity like the last van unless you are plugged in at a fancy holiday park. No toilet, bathroom or indoor shower either. There is a little shower out the back which works well for post-surfing. In hindsight, getting the camper van here may not have been the best idea. It is so much more urban and extremely developed with high-rises and endless neighborhoods, that it is not very easy to find a quiet secluded spot like in New Zealand.

Nonetheless, we got onto the M1 which felt like a super-highway with it's 6 lanes across compared to what we had gotten used to, and headed north. Taking Marybeth's advice (thanks MB!), we decided to go an check out the Australia Zoo, popularized and developed by the late Steve Irwin. The place was amazing and so much more interactive than the zoos we are used to in the US. We fed an elephant several pieces of fruit, which she snatched with her trunk from our hands. Her trunk was like hairy sandpaper, not the leathery feel I thought it would have at all. Next we were able to pet the snoozing koala bear, which was so soft. There were lots in the trees, all sleeping. Apparently that's what they o for 20 hours a day because of their low-energy eucalyptus diet.

After getting a snack and checking out many of the crocs, we saw the wombats and red pandas, and then into the venomous snake house. This was an a very cool display with lots of information, but did not encourage us to go hiking around the bush here with so many lethal snakes all over. But the best part of the zoo was the way the kangaroos are set-up. It's just like a huge open park and you get to go in and feed them, or pet them as Erich did. He was like a kangaroo whisperer in there, they would come up to him and one put it's paw in his hand and just left it there, sort of holding his hand. Others just loved to be pet while laying on their sides. I was pretty jumpy around them, they are just such foreign and weird animals like nothing I have ever seen. Completely fascinating to look at, but I wasn't sure how much they could be trusted until I watched Erich with them. They fed from our hands although with all the food these guys get during the day, they were less than thrilled by the time we got there at 4:45pm.

The zoo closed at 5pm, so we barely got to see the Dingos, Emus and Kimodo Dragon before having to leave. It was such a great place, but a little sad too as Steve's pictures are up all over and there is a memorial for him there too.

We drove up the coast, delusional in thinking that it would be simple to find a park or beach to spend the night. Unfortunately, we couldn't find anything as the entire coast line is so incredibly developed. Imagine driving from downtown San Diego north and thinking you are going to find a quiet little covert spot to sleep for the night near the beach. Doesn't happen (at least not legally). Finally we ended up in a tiny park area, just out back of a little asian market and luckily no one said anything to us.

The time zone here is pretty bizarre. It's like they really messed up when figuring out what time it should be here. It is literally, I am not exaggerating, daybreak at 4:45am. Now when the sun rises is also when the crazy tropical birds start to go nuts, so we got a good loud wake-up call around then. The the even weirder part is that people just get up then and go about their day like that's normal! And then it is totally dark by 7pm, with the sunset about 6:30pm.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Bay of Islands and Kauri Coast

We woke up on the beach and peeked out the windows hoping to get in another surf session before moving on for the day. Unfortunately, the swell had dropped considerably, and there wasn't much left to ride. In lieu of waves, we cooked up some eggs and sat outside in the grass enjoying the morning ocean scene. After we cleaned up, we left Sandy Bay to head north to the Bay of Islands.

We arrived in the touristy, but cute, town of Paihia, right on the Bay. It was a gorgeous view, although overcast, of the blue waters and as the name clearly states, the bay full of islands. Sailboats were out in abundance, cruising past islands on their way towards the ocean. We walked around town poking into the small shops that lined the main street, and some really good gelato.

The Waitangi Treaty grounds we visited next we interesting, but disappointing at the same time. We had heard they were a must-do sight here, but they didn't provide much historical information at all. The signs and graphics were limited to the same information over and over and the majority was about the house that was restored on the property. The 20-minute movie we watched at the beginning was all told from a Maori perspective and they actually called the Europeans the "white goblins." To me, this isn't even history, it's just a skewed and one-sided viewpoint of what actually happened. I wanted to know why the Maori were still fighting each other, instead of teaming up to fight the Europeans? What changed after the Treaty was signed? What happened with the tribunal that came along much later and why was there a need for this? NONE of these questions were answered or even mentioned in the video, much less the entire complex. When we left, I felt like I had learned nothing new from my guide book, and had hoped for a much more detailed recount of the events that led up to, and followed, the signing of the treaty.

The Kauri trees we saw next were unreal. They were massive and easily the size of our giant Sequoia trees in California. Unlike the Sequoias, which are more open and spread out with space in between, these trees are packed into a dense, lush rain forest environment, with so many plants crowding for light. The biggest tree was impressive, but we also enjoyed the (rainy) hike through Trounson Forest. This area had many more Kauri trees, including the famous "four sisters." This tree had a twin truck, which happened to grow up against a Kauri with a twin truck as well. The two merged, and now the tree looks like one massive base with four trunks emerging. It's sad to think these are the last remains of the giant Kauri trees, but we're lucky we even got to see these, as they could have all been completely wiped out.


One of the highlights of our guide books in this area was the Waitangi Treaty House which is where the Maori and British formed an agreement over on-going disputes. Although we were slapped with a hefty entrance fee of $20/adult to see this "sight," we have had many burning questions as to how the Maori assimilated into the British culture to become New Zealand.

The visit was very historically informative, but we still don't quite understand what those Maori tribes that wanted nothing to do with signing the treaty did over the coming years to deal with the impending takeover of their lands and way of life.

The most interesting part of the treaty grounds had to be the meeting house and its ornate Maori carvings covering every inch of the ceiling and walls.

Our next destination was the Kauri Coast on the West side of the Northland District peninsula. It started to rain not long after departing the Bay of Islands Area and the visibility started to get low. Mostly the area was rolling sheep paddocks so there probably was not too much to miss from the roadway.

The West side is very much a rain forest in these parts, and the level of moisture that was coming out of they sky was an obvious fact of where the plants obtained all their water. In the Waipoua Forest there are the Tane Mahuta (Lord of the Forest) Kauri tree which is said to be the oldest (estimated at 2000 years) and largest tree in the world. After driving the windy road thru the forest we finally reach the tree and it was massive. The Kauri trees are just one of those tree species that make you speechless when you stand next to them and are in complete awe of their sheer girth (of 45 feet around).

Of course like all great things in nature, the Kauri tree were nearly wiped to extinction by the early settlers of New Zealand and many other Europeans, Americans, and Australians. The Kauri tree is so tall it is perfect for use as ship masts so it was heavily sought after in the 1800's.

On down the road we went to another section of the forest that contained many more Kauri trees along the well-maintained hike in the woods. None of these were quite as big and old as the first we had seen, but many were well past 1500 years and just as amazing to look at.

The rest of the evening was spent heading South again towards Auckland as we had many kilometers to cover to make up for the previous days of heading North. We pulled back in to one of our favorite campsites at Wenderholm regional park just before the closed the gates at 9pm.

Tonight is our final night in New Zealand and we could not ask for a nicer campsite next to the ocean with huge Pohutakawa (NZ Christmas trees) towering overhead.

Poor Knights Islands

Yesterday evening, while driving up the northern coast towards the Bay of Islands, we took a smaller coastal road to check out some of the beaches along the way. We passed by the tiny town of Tutukaka, and knew this is where many dive companies were based. We figured we'd just pop in and have a look around, ask them about the diving, and get the prices for the boat trips. We hadn't really planned to go diving, but we had heard about this location from several Kiwis as well as in the States before we left. We were persuaded by the good conditions and figured we should take advantage of the opportunity, and luckily they still had some openings available for the following day's dive.

My biggest hesitation about the dive trip was the water temperature. I learned to dive in Hawaii and the last place we dove in Key West had a water temperature of 88 degrees. Here, it's only around 62 degrees. This requires a cumbersome 7mm wet-suit farmer john sort of pant-suit as well as a jacket and hood over top of that. I had also requested a shark skin under-layer which helped add some warmth. When you have to wear this much neoprene, you are more buoyant and therefore have to wear much more weight to keep yourself submerged. It all sounded much less inviting that our usual tropical dives.

Aside from the cold water, the Poor Knights sounded like a diver's dream. They will tell you an endless amount of times that the infamous Jacques Cousteau rated these islands as one of his top 5 dive sites in the world. Even today they are still rated among the best of the best diving areas worldwide and were just on the cover of a top dives book. What makes them so famous are several things. First, they touch the tropical current coming down from Australia (think the turtles in that current from Finding Nemo) which adds a few degrees of warmth, but also brings in tropical fish that would not normally be here and are no where else in New Zealand waters. It is also where the Pacific and the Tasman Sea meet, which creates more nutrients in the water and allows more life to flourish there. It is also has been a marine reserve since the early 80s, which lets fish to survive longer and grow bigger. And lastly, there are sheer cliffs all around the islands that plummet 100s of feet down into the water and provide lots of nooks and surfaces for things to grow, hide and feed.

We started our boat trip out at around 9am, after checking in and getting all of our gear sorted out at 8:15. The conditions were great, as promised, mostly sunny skies and very light winds. The dive company, Perfect Day, was impeccably organized and OCD which was great since there is quite a bit of equipment and people to deal with on these dive boats. We each got our own waterproof bag for our gear, complete with a name tag and where you were from on each, and these were stored under the bench seats around the large boat. We also all got custom lunches (meat or veggie) in neat little brown paper bags with our names written on them. There were two levels on the boat, plus the bow, so it allowed plenty of room for people to spread out and take in the views as we motored out to the islands.

The first dive was at spot called Rikoriko Cave which was exciting since I have never gone diving in a cave before. The company gave you the option to have a dive guide in a small group, and having never dove in the cold water and in a cave, we figured we'd take them up on the offer. We were in a group of 6 people with our dive guide who looked exactly like Kate Bosworth, but without the different colored eyes. She made us all do a buoyancy test one-on-one with her to make sure our weights were okay (mine were 20 lbs instead of the 8 lbs I had on in Key West!) and we were ready to dive. I wish they had warmer booties (or even gloves) since the only part of me that became numb were my toes.

Once we went under, it was overwhelming how much there was to take in. The cliff and cave walls added a new plane to the usual top and bottom of diving, and within the water were thousands and thousands of these little clear, sort or rainbow--ish organisms floating all over the place. Some were bigger, maybe 7 inches long, while others were teeny tiny and they looked like something you would see under a high-tech microscope. The walls were a kaleidoscope of colors, with fluorescent moss-like growth on the walls, to technicolor nudibranches, to bright blue anemones and on and on. You could literally just stop and stare at this wall from about 1 foot away forever and see so many small and intricate things. If you turned your back to the wall, schools of fish danced along and rainbow colored fish came around to see who was in their territory. Once in the cave, the light dimmed and there were more fans growing on the wall and even bigger nudibranches to see. Since the dive was around 65 feet, our air only lasted about 40 minutes or so and then it was back to the boat. The one tricky thing about diving here is that everything is in metrics and your air gauge is in BAR not PSI. It took some time to get used to that.

After each dive, we were greeted on the back of the boat and someone would take your fins and mask for you and set them with the rest of your stuff. Then they would immediately ask if they could make you a hot beverage, like coffee, tea or cocoa, or if you would like some hot soup. Then while you peeled off your layers of wet-suit one of the crew would go in the kitchen area and make just what you wanted and have a steaming mug back to you when you were trying to warm up. It was pretty unbelievable for a dive operation to offer that level of service.

On the surface interval, the sun was shining brightly and it was nice and warm so we lazed on the bow of the boat and ate our lunches. Then they started up the boat and drove it into the world's largest sea-cave, which we had just dove into, and it was pretty amazing. It was massive inside, so much space that another few boats could have easily joined us in there.

The next dive was at the Maomao Arch, which was that actual spot that Jacques Cousteau had rated one of his favorite dives. You drop down off the boat in front of the arch and then have to pass through a swim through tunnel under a huge boulder to enter into the narrow corridor under the archway. Walls on either side of the rock arch drop down from the surface and create this neat passageway where the fish tend to relax from predators. We saw an enormous scorpion fish hanging out on the bottom, at least 4 feet long, and tons of those rainbow fish and cleaner fish and a school of fish with two white dots but I forget the name. The walls were also covered in millions of colors.

The captain of our boat, Sam, was a really nice guy and had helped us decipher the surf report the day before and give us some info on the local breaks. He was a great captain, always briefing us on the dives and sharing bits of history about the ancient Maori who used to live on the islands. Apparently, a chief on the other side of the North Island had it out for the chief on the Poor Knights. He waited until he was away, and then took his warriors over and slaughtered every single person on the island. When the other chief returned and saw what happened, they claimed the islands as Hapu, or sacred/cursed, and never came back. They left the entire village as-is and to this day it is a protected sanctuary and you are not allowed on land without a special permit.

Anyway, Sam had said that he heard the surf looked really fun over at a local break, so once the dive boat had cruised back into the marina around 4:30, we decided to drive the 10km up the road and paddle out. Some of the guys on the boat that we met had talked about renting a board and surfing too, so we ended up bringing over their 8" board in the van as well. There were so many nice people on the dive boat, and from all over the world. Two guys were local Kiwis, two from Australia, two from the US, one from England, a lady from Norway, a guy from France, a girl from Germany, a Dutch guy and on and on. The Kiwis were really fun, and the guys from the States were cool, although one was actually originally from South Africa. These two, Eric and Grant, were the ones that came surfing with us.

We pulled up to Sandy Bay with only a few guys out, and light off-shores. The waves were only about waist-to-chest, but you couldn't have asked for a better setting. Islands sat offshore, including the Poor Knights, and the long golden beach stretched the length of the bay. Green grassy rolling hills were visible from the water as far as you could see. We had a great time playing around and even the boat captain, Sam, came out a little later as well.

The guys were going out for pizza and beer in town, so we decided since we had already sorted out a place to freedom camp, we would join them. We got to the place and they were closing, as most local restaurants tend to do right at 8pm. We begged them to make just one more pizza, not knowing if the other guys had been there yet or not, and they agreed. We sat out on the deck overlooking the marina when the rest of the group showed up. Unable to coax the chef into making any more pizza that night, they had to go next door where we met up with them afterwards.

On the deck we heard another American couple prepping their two girls for a few weeks at sea on a sailboat they were taking out in just two days. The girls struggled to wrap their heads around what exactly they would be doing at sea for this period of time, and the parents tried to explain they would learn a lot about sailing and see lots of neat things. Erich was about ready to go over and ask if he could come along too it sounded so nice.

We met the guys at the bar after the pizza where they played 80s music on full blast (complete with videos) the entire time. The french guy was there too, from Toulouse, and happened to be an Army paratrooper in New Zealand just to learn english for one month. You'd think they would have sent him to England to accomplish this, but he lucked out and gets to go to school in Auckland and stay with a family there. The South African was a pilot for Southwest so Erich was interested in hearing about that.

After our big night out, we drove back to the beach where we had surfed and parked right up against the sand where we could listen to the waves all night. It's amazing to us there are so many places here where you are able to temporarily have ocean-front property for free.