Pacifica Journals Part III: Down Under

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Feb 20: Brisbane

The nine hour flight to Brisbane feels short compared to our previous journey and we get decent sleep between meal service. So we’re awake, if a bit bleary, getting into Australia. The customs agents are relaxed and joke about the quarantine and we sail through to meet Diane at baggage claim.

She’s the same as ever – positive and smiling, but dressed in business attire on lunch from work. We pile our gear into her new car (a cute little Hyundai hatchback), joke about the roads and the weather. It feels like Florida, with the same hot sun and heavy humidity. Only on second glance do the tropical trees and car brands come out shifted.

We drive into her neighborhood – Bulimba – rows of shops and restaurants lining a park. We have a relaxed lunch of a California club sandwich and a beautiful sweet potato salad in the shade and talk about work situations, micromanagement and the global economy.

After lunch she drops us off at her apartment and we lounge, sticky and hot on her living room couch, and book our trip up to the Great Barrier Reef. A torrential thunderstorm blows through, the palms shivering and the streets streaming.

When Diane returns we head to the store for errands (cash, snacks, liquor) and put in some orders for Queensland-style burgers. Then we drive up to Kangaroo Point, overlooking the river and downtown Brisbane to meet up with her friends Ben and Holly. We chat and eat and sip beer on the soggy picnic table, watching ferries chug up and down the river, distorting the multi-hued lights from the high-rises across the water. The entire area is devoted to recreation, the riverside path for joggers, even the cliff set aside for climbers, bolt holes drilled into the craggy red rock.

Steph and I walk down to the waterside and back up, say our goodbyes to Ben and Holly, then we’re off to bed.

Feb 22: Brisbane

We wake early and head to the market with Diane. Along a stretch of river there’s a tree lined path where merchants of all sorts set up tents. There’s fresh produce and organic dairy and meat, filled with families and young folks stocking up on their weekly groceries in green fabric sacks and push carts, flip flops treading down the muddy path.

We get a coffee called flat white, rich with a frothy milk top, and sit in the grass eating a raspberry jam crepe and a bacon and egg sandwich. The overcast of the morning disperses and the heat begins to push through, revealing flocks of strange birds nesting in the wide branches of strange trees.

We drive out to Ipswich to see some of Diane’s friends – a suburb of Brisbane with quiet streets and smaller, older houses. Stop by a recently renovated bungalow, a big porch where a pair of Chihuahuas yap, newly stained hardwood floors and painted walls under an aluminum roof. We sit on the porch and chat about travel and gossip, listening to the strange cries of birds in the lush backyard, blue butterflies alighting on tiny red buds.

Then a picnic of chicken, beet and sprout sandwiches in a Japanese garden of a local park. Giant crows, colored ducks, and pigeon-type fowl with spiky black feather mohawks squawk about. We also stroll through a small zoo, wallabies and wombats and black swans behind mesh fences, scaly lizards warming up in the sun, and a jungle aviary with doves and parakeets.

After, we drive by Di’s parents’, the backyard filled with old rusting cars and a swing set under shady tree limbs. Her father is tan and toned and has a strong handshake and a knowing grin in his eyes. He gets Di’s old car ready for us, reviewing the paperwork. Then we’re off to learn to drive on the left side of the road.

It’s a bit strange at first. All the old muscle memory conspiring against me with things like the ticker and the direction to look before a turn, but after a few blocks I have the old Hyundai pointing in the right direction.

We drive to the local bat colony. As we approach we can see what looks like hundreds of black plastic bags hanging thick in the trees, down by the river. When we finally get out the screeches become a storm of noise, something hellish and demonic, and there is a stinging scent that fills our nostrils and throat. We take some photos of the brown, leathery bodies between the trees, then drive back to Brisbane.

We see a herd of huddled kangaroos in a field beneath an approaching storm. In the distance the rainclouds paint a faint rainbow across the entire horizon, the full spectrum (from red to purple) in contrast with frothy cumulus.

Di is quite the cook, frying up some sausages and sweet potatoes and peppers. The cuisine here is a great blend of meats with fresh vegetables, lots of bacon and sprouts, avocados and beets and leafy greens.

On the way to a party we chat about explorers “discovering” these places, and the resulting conquest, imperialism and colonialism. How all these English speaking nations were once united under one Union Jack flag, the mentality and pride of those conquerors and bureaucrats, and how even after dissolution culture spins off on its own trajectory. The question presents itself: is the remarkable similarity between Australia and the U.S. due to the same “genetic” root of post-colonialism, or the homogenizing influence of globalization?

This morning I wake early, go for a run in the nearby park as the heat intensifies, a bright summer day, sweating, ducking under golfball-sized orb spiders. Then a tasty brunch of bacon, avocado, sprouts and camembert, with a fried egg on a croissant and a delish tomato spread. I chill in the air-con to book flights to Sydney and New Zealand.

We drive out to the bush with Di and meet up with some of her friends, Colin and Nathan. We sweat and trudge up the ridge along a mountain bike trail, some kid in a thick skateboard helmet skids down the dirt, fast over the humps through the gum and eucalyptus trees.

Later in the day we shower and dress casual in collared shirts and sundresses and met Di’s sister Michelle. On the Brisbane ferry (CityCat) it’s a short stop down the river, the flag flapping, the sun hard and sharp against the water, low hills dotted with modern little houses, big windows and porches facing the water, distant cumulus black with rain and the hint of a rainbow above it all.

We exit the ferry in a green park along the water. Families are picnicking, little boys kicking around balls, dogs chasing the long-beaked birds under the wide trees.

A hydroelectric plant has been renovated into a trendy patio where young people drink and chat and watch the water. All the blondes and boys wide-shouldered, solid and tall, all flip flops and sundresses. We talk of world travel and New York City. Colin and Michelle are both members of the Australia Police Intelligence task force, and we theorize about terrorism and hype verses legitimate threat, the imposed state of fear that stands as a victory by the jihadists. But then our attention is diverted by a squabble between a drunken woman and security.

She gestures and wobbles wildly, her head swooning, her white top pulled up her belly, perhaps some strange attempt at seduction. But the thick-necked security guys won’t budge and firmly push her towards the exit. Her boyfriend tries to put up a fight, dragging his feet and back talking and the dudes are forced to press him in an arm lock and he stumbles and sprawls on some public artwork, big red steel letters that spell FLOOD.

We have a good chuckle and finish our beers and watch the sun sink lower, a second rainbow coming into focus above the first, the seabirds dodging and diving on the air currents, becoming silhouette.

Then it’s back on the speedy CityCat, cutting a wide wake on the breezy river, back home.

Feb 23: Airlie Beach

Flying up to Proserpine, Steph sleeps while I watch the coast of Australia beneath the clouds, smudged islands off the coast, and the northern wet country of snaking rivers and soggy green stretches. On the bus from the airport, kangaroos hop along the road and the fenced fields, cattle out in the green, mountains dark and jagged in the mist, out past vast cane fields, small clumps of trees, rows of coffee.

The bus slowly churns through a flooded stretch of road, muddy water a meter deep, and the driver quips with his stoic and terse Australia-isms, chuckling.

The town of Airlie Beach cradles a marina of sailing boats, clusters of private homes up the leafy hills, a small stretch of alterna stores and pubs. The place feels like those early days in Hawaii, the sky overcast but bright and everything dripping.

We check into our small little hotel, which is more of a private studio apartment, and then walk into town to register for the boat and pick up some groceries. Later, we dip in the pool looking out over the docks, this simmer of light and vapor over water and rows of boats and rolling hills of green trees.

We sauté peppers and zucchini on the hot plate and toast grilled cheese and eat outside watching lights on the water and night birds dive bombing.

Then a bit of American TV shows and into town for an evening drink.

Feb 24: Whitsunday Islands

Today we go on the boat. We have a breakfast of fruit and yogurt and hot cross buns, and walk into town to explore and see the thin beach for the first time.

The day is sunny and hot, blue skies surrounded by tiers of clouds. We go for lunch at a small corner spot around 11:30, only to find out they’re still serving breaky and settle on omelets. We don’t finish eating till it’s nearly time to gather at the boat dock on the other side of town and hoof it, sweating in the sun, weighed down by our bags, strange little showers tickling our arms and evaporating as soon as they hit the ground.

The meeting spot – a brick patio on the marina – is populated with dozens of tan girls, a scattering of smokers, alterna surfer guys, etc. In short: backpackers.

We all tromp down to the ship, a red hull and two masts – the S.V. Whitehaven. Shortly after one we leave port, chugging out to the islands on diesel power, foreboding clouds on all four horizons, and a curt breeze over the water. Our crew is young, weather-tanned Australians and Kiwis. There’s Rob, the calm tempered captain, Sarah the cook and Dave-O the deckhand, boisterous and cracking jokes. We trail a zodiac in our wake.

Out between the islands we raise sail, cutting the engine, and the sun cuts through the overcast and we rise and fall in a rocking lurch, red sails taut. The backpackers lounge in the sunshine and the girls loosen their tops.

Our first snorkel is Caves Cove on Hook Island. We anchor, go through a quick tutorial on the equipment and stinger suits and then swim out to the fringing reef.

Only a few dozen meters from the rocky shore we hover and kick our fins above the coral. Once our vision adjusts the fish come into focus, the schools surrounding us, the coral pulsating like feathers in the currents. The fish are intensely colored, flashes of green and blue, some larger ones purple and sapphire with domed foreheads and sleek torsos. I try to follow a few standouts, extending the underwater camera, diving down underneath the furry red boulders into nested and bulbous canyons. My ears equalize and I weave through a narrow passage of spiky, tree-like extensions, spot a sluggish grouper, then finally ascend back to the surface to blow out the snorkel.

I watch purple parrot fish nibbling the coral and can hear the snips – sharp little clicks – above the background whoosh and the churning motor of the zodiac.

Steph gives me the thumbs up and we chase fish together, stare down at a pink coral like a pulsating brain. Then it’s back to the boat to towel off.

In the evening the crew serves up a stew of chicken curry and rice and we form lines, fill our plates in an assembly and chow.

We anchor in a cove with some other boats, their lights coming on and stretching across the gap of dark water as night approaches. Then the stereo kicks in as everyone starts drinking. Steph chats with some European girls and I fool with my camera.

In the light cast by our boat we can see the fish dancing and jumping across the surface. Every so often a drop of silver streaks out, fleeing predators, and other times there’s a flurry of splashes, entire schools terrorized, exploding out and away, like shooting stars, these dying capsules of life in a vast, underwater cosmos.

Feb 25: Whitsunday Islands

It rains in the night, a dark downpour over the water and blowing awning on the stern of the boat. The crew close the vents for the cabins below, and when Steph and I climb into our top bunk there’s a permeating stench, some sort of sealant or industrial cleaner. A girl in the adjacent room jokes that she’s in a coffin and all she can smell is wood.

It’s stuffy and humid and even shirtless I’m sticky with sweat, the loose sheets bunching into a soggy heap. Coupled with the claustrophobia, it’s a tough night, tossing and turning, hugging the slant of the painted steel hull.

When morning finally comes, I visit in the head. It’s a contraption of tubes and pumps, all cramped in with a shower, sink and mesh floor the size of a closet.

On deck, Sarah, the cook, has served up fruit, muesli and instant coffee. Perfect out here at sea. By the time we lift anchor and start chugging out of the inlet, its blue skies over water, a brisk wind whipping just the tips to white, cumulous rising on a smoky gray horizon.

Whitehaven Beach, our namesake, is our first stop of the day. Rob takes us to a small kelp cove known for sea turtles and a four meter tiger shark named Rosie. We anchor and ferry to the island in the rubber timber.

A few sea turtles surface across the water, their green backs like logs, blockish heads lifting a few breaths before they dive again.

A short tromp through the jungle, lush palms and muddy trail, and we emerge at a high point, staring down at the crescent of white sand, fringed by weathered tan stone. Dave points out a sand shark and a ray swimming through the shallows, dark shapes against the white sand.

Then we hike down to the beach, emerging from a tangled curtain of mangroves to stretching acres of white sand, turquoise water and clustered islands beyond, communing with all these layered clouds of varying character – some happy puffy white, others foreboding thunderheads, and distant streaked cirrus.

It’s high tide and a good piece of the beach – the arc – has been submerged into a warm shallow lagoon, patrolled by camouflaged schools of fish and the sand sharks that hunt them.

I wander around, wading in with my stinger suit, water up to my calves. The currents carve the fine sand into miniature dunes, identical patterns that stretch for long rows, tickle my feet and hide stingrays. Steph comes out, head to toe in the black stinger suit, big sunglasses, hair in pigtails and a straw cowboy hat shading her face. We sit in the warm water and let it tug us this way and that as the clouds roll overhead, casting us alternatively in blazing sunshine and shade.

I take the obligatory photos of sun and sand, the splashing horizon, tattooed backpackers diving for the long pass of football into the waves. Then I nap in the sun.

We ferry back around lunchtime, 15 in the zodiac at once, inches above the bay. We tie our stinger suits to the railing in thick knots, make sandwiches and watch the weather shift.

Off in the distance, what looks to be a wide vertical column of haze beneath a puff of gray. Rob, the captain, calls it a squall, and points us into it. We start hitting bigger crests of waves and the bow is sprinkled with the crashing spray, to the chagrin of the skimpily attired girls.

Manta Ray Bay is our next destination. From the boat, it looks like brown swirls beneath a tiny sand beach and steep jungle cliffs. But once we canon-ball in from upper deck, the reef reveals itself: furry boulders rising up from the green depths, sprouted with all sorts of corals. They borrow shapes from the plant and fungi kingdoms, flat plates on twin stalks built of fractal chambers, or branching limbs, spikes like briar bushes or thorns. Only the furry edge alive, little hairy worms dancing in the current.

There are many of the same fish as yesterday – big green and purple parrot fish, small little striped “referees”, and more exotic creatures shy and hiding in the coral. I see a spotted leopard shark hiding down in a nest of branched coral, and giant clams down along the floor, squiggles with purple lips.

I take one last dive down the shelf of coral, feeling the pressure and the water grow colder, the colors just as vibrant but the craggy cliff now to the side and overhead, strange and wondrous creatures dissipating like smoke as I swim near. Then I ascend back into the light.

Before dinner Steph and I take a shower to beat the rush, huddling in the miniscule chamber to rinse, soap up, rinse, alternating each phase, switching spots, sliding wet past each other in that cramped confine.

Then spaghetti and the stars come out and all the backpackers huddle in the bow to drink and smoke and the stereo cycles through a playlist of eclectic hits and party songs.

Rob tells us a short history lesson on the Whitsundays last night as the rain pattered above. Poor Captain Cook, confused about the day due to the International Date Line, had “discovered” the islands on the Christian holiday of Whitsunday. He’d stumbled into the treacherous Repulse Bay, nearly running aground, and then found nothing “worthwhile” among the islands save steep cliffs and sharp reefs.

It put some of the romanticism about the explorers in perspective, along with living aboard a ship. The close quarters, filthy feet, the head, the sweating claustrophobia of the bunks. All these things paint this picture of what those first explorers must have lived through to find this paradise.

As for Steph – she puts her foot down. No more roughing it. For her, this is camping at sea. It’s cozy Bed & Breakfasts from here on out.

Feb 26: Airlie Beach

Today is our last day on the S.V. Whitehaven. After breakfast, we set course back to port from Hook Island, full sails and tight rudder across the open water, big swells in the windswept channel. Rob has a few laughs as he turns us into the deep troughs and the spray soaks us all.

With the sun at full burst, elongating rays beneath a passing cloud, and this soundtrack of synthy Bach, there’s this emotional rise, as though there’s a sullen or forlorn mood settling over the boat, like a hung-over morning in bright sunshine, knowingly the last day out among these beautiful islands.

Steph has found comrades in misery – two Brit backpackers, Tina and Lisa. She saw Lisa reading some chick-lit she’d read and struck up a conversation. Turns out they’re following a similar path, down to Brisbane tonight and then New Zealand next week. We exchange numbers.

Once we make port we wander into the town of Airlie Beach to pick up our bags and some lunch. We meet up with Tina and Lisa and share a meal at one of the many outdoor pubs, two pints of Pure Blonde for me, then its over to the lagoon, a shallow public pool that’s saturated with backpackers.

They stretch out, lithe tan bodies on the grass, or toss a rugby ball in the shallows, or slip into a session of incognito PDA off the side of the deep end.

I do a bit of swimming myself, sluggish backstrokes, staring up with my new shades (the previous pair knocked into the Pacific by Steph following a lurching shift of the boat and subsequent collision, both of us bewildered and giggling) into the puffy blue, framed with shards of green palm trees.

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