Friday, February 26, 2016

Scuba Diving in Cairns

I flew back to the East coast from Perth headed to Cairns to get certified in Scuba Diving.  The flight from Perth to Sydney was so smooth, no turbulence at all, and we got in early, it was great.  From there I was meant to have a quick transfer to get up to Cairns that night and start my training the next morning.  The flight was delayed slightly, but then we boarded, everyone was on and ready to go. But we didn't go. After a while, they told us there were some mechanical issues, but it was being taken care of, and they were just doing the paperwork.  And then we sat there some more.  Finally we pulled away from the gate, about an hour and a half late.  But then they returned us to the gate, still had some mechanical issues to work out. When we had been sitting on the plane for about 3 hours with very little update, I saw them starting to take the baggage off the plane.  They decided to get us off and switch aircrafts.  But when we were all off and they had found a new plane and pilot, they couldn't find a new crew (ours had already worked their hours), so we were being delayed until 7am the next morning, and only the people who had come from a connecting flight would be put up for the night (fortunately I had). So by the time I got to the hotel and checked in, I had about 5 hours until I had to be up to catch the shuttle back to the airport.  At least the morning flight got off the ground on time.  I had to forfeit a night at a hostel that I'd paid for, and got to my dive class a bit late, but I was just happy to have made it to Cairns, city of bats (or Fruit Foxes as they are known).

My Prodive classes began with some classroom learning of the basics, textbook and all. In the afternoon we got into the pool, proved we could tread water for ten minutes, and then learned how to assemble our gear, and swim in it.  Between that afternoon and the next morning, we picked up the basics, and proved we could handle most of the skills in a controlled environment.  Then we had to pass a written exam on all of the theory and practical skills we'd learned.  These two days were really tiring.  
I was staying in a quad-share room in a hostel (that turned out to have a reputation of being the party hostel, not quite what I was looking for just then) called Gilligan's. My roommates were two young girls who were there to get their partying on (and were usually getting ready to go out for the night when I was getting ready to go to bed -doesn't make me feel old at all), and a really quiet guy, who was keeping the same schedule as I was, so he could spend his days out doing all the activities the area has to offer, like sky diving and rainforest tours. 
After passing the written exam, we headed out for our 3 day 2 night live aboard open water training out in the Great Barrier Reef.  
On the boat we had 32 divers of varying skill levels and 6 crew (including the 2 instructors us 9 intro students had been working with in the pool), all paired off into rooms.  I took the top bunk. Aside from our tiny cabins, there were bathrooms where you would shower over the sink next to the toilet, a galley area where we ate our meals, and the outdoor spaces, lower and upper decks.
We set off for the outer reef, and as we got away from the shore, a storm picked up, raining on us and making the water really choppy.  Suddenly everyone was looking pale and taking up spots out back on the covered deck for air.  I've never had a problem with seasickness, but part of the ride, I wasn't feeling too great either anytime I was upright.  Lying down was much better.  But once we made it out to the reef, everyone had to snap to it, because our first dive was about to start.  

Out on Milln reef, we assembled our gear, which included a stinger suit (a thin full body suit appropriate for the warm water, meant to protect from stingers or jelly fish, prevalent in the area this time of year). We hopped into the water and descended down a line off the back of the boat for the first dive.  I had discovered in the pool, and this remained true in the open water, that one of my ears has trouble equalizing or clearing, so I have to descend pretty slowly, at the back of the class, making my way down as my ear allows.  The first dive wasn't too deep, I went to a max of 10.7 meters (I really only know everything I did in metric, so do your own conversions as necessary).  The first day's dives were mainly about showing we had mastered required skills like neutral buoyancy (floating so that you neither sink nor float), clearing our masks of water (I hate this one, the salt stings my eyes for a while after, and despite breathing through a regulator, not being able to see and having my nose full of water just feels like drowning), showing that we know the underwater sign language, switching to our buddy's backup respirator (in case of running out of air), etc. 
Between every dive, we were fed tons of food.  Large portion meals, plus cake for snack, and fruit and biscuits available at all times.  So after our first dive, we had lunch, and then could go for a snorkel to chill out in the water a bit before our second dive (after cake). The second dive was where we showed we could get down close to 18 meters, which is what an open water certification covers.  I made it down to 17.2.  That was it for the first day for us beginners, but the certified divers had 4 optional dives the first day, including a night dive, in the rain (and still choppy water), after dinner, before more cake. 
Just before our wake up call the next morning, the skipper moved the boat to Flynn reef.  We got into the water around 7am, to work on some more skills training.  Then up for breakfast and back down for the final dive needed for certification, where we practiced some navigation skills, so that we can find our way out and back to the boat under water.  I still need lots more practice on that, but I have the basics.  And then, ta-da! We were certified divers! 
I wasn't able to bring a camera on any of the training dives, but we found Nemo and Dori (so many Doris!), a moray eel, which was really cool (swimming by like one of Ursela's pets), a bat fish, a green sea turtle, a giant clam, and many other fish.  And on the deck of the boat between dives, we saw the rain cutting across the water toward us, had just enough warning to pull down some of our drying things and run inside. 

After getting certified, I went along for a night dive.  After the sun was down, with all of the lights of the boat on, small fish are drawn to the light, and reef sharks are drawn to them.  So going into the water, there were white tip reef sharks swimming all around.  We had flashlights attached to our wrists (to make sure we didn't drop them). The instructor took us out and after we made it down, took us around to show us other nighttime reef sights, like sea turtles and puffer fish.  I thought I might be freaked out by what I couldn't see, but the dark really didn't bother me, and with the bright lights of the boat, it was actually easier to find the way back than during the day.  
The last day on the boat, I admit I slept in through the 6:30am dive.  I was exhausted! But I went out for the next two dives before we headed back to dry land.  I'm still working on my sea life identification skills, so out with just my buddy and no instructors, I'm not totally sure what all I saw, other than a starfish (obvious), but see some for yourself: 
I'm also still figuring out how to get good shots of the fish with the wide angle of the GoPro, but I think the red filter I added helped the colors underwater. 
After the final dive and another meal, we turned back for the shore, another long and bumpy ride (but not quite so choppy). 

Back in Cairns, we had some swaying to overcome as we adjusted our sea legs to a more stable environment.  We were dropped off at our various hotels, and I found myself at the nicest place I've stayed the entire trip in my own room.  In addition to free wifi, I had a balcony, a view looking out over the city, a full tub shower (I can't tell you how much easier it is to shave legs not having to find a weird propped up position in a shower stall), a hairdryer, both a/c and a fan, a minibar, a sofa -I know these things all sounds pretty normal, but after a boat cabin and various hostels and a dorm room, it's pretty damn nice. 

The next part of my trip is a tour from Cairns down to Sydney, the last leg in Australia.  I'll be back with an update in a while.  
Thanks for reading! 

Thursday, February 25, 2016

West Australia: Part 2

When I left off last, I had been to Monkey Mia/Shark Bay to swim with dolphins and be surrounded by emus. From there we headed back down the coast toward Perth.  Along the way we stopped off at Shell Beach, one of 2 beaches in the world made entirely of shells, just millions of tiny shells.  

The drive was incredibly hot again, so making stops was necessary.  We made another further down to see The Pinnacles.  These are natural limestone formations, the source of which is still under debate by experts.  Apparently if you go in the Spring, you can see wild flowers growing all around them.  I would also recommend either morning or evening, for better shadows.  But it's a cool thing to see whenever you make it through.

Back in the southwest, we checked out the suburb of Fremantle and several of its local breweries. I'm not a beer drinker, but I have come to enjoy a number of ciders in my travels, and there are usually some local wines available as well.  
First up was Monk Craft Bewery.  We sat out on a nice patio under an umbrella and sampled their wares -I opted for the apple and mango cider, which was really tasty. Others had the beer flight (called a tasting paddle here) to try all 6 of their current small batch beers. 
After that, we headed over to Sail & Anchor where we also had lunch (I'm starting to get used to Caesar salads that include a poached egg and bacon as standard ingredients). They also offered a tasting paddle of 6 brews, I opted for wine. 
Next up (and last for the day) was the best, Little Creatures Next Door. With a great location overlooking the harbor and a comfortable environment with chairs and sofas pulled up to coffee tables, as well as card and board games available to play, this was a highlight. We ordered a couple of bottles of white wine to share, ordered excellent chips (fries) and delicious donuts.  And then played a few rounds of Tumbling Blocks (off brand Jenga) which it turns out I'm terrible at, followed by some Uno, which I have strategy for, and quietly won twice. I know most people would have a lot to say about the beers when on a brewery tour, but that's not me, sorry! 
The next day was Valentine's Day, which it turns out is a holiday here to.  A few of us celebrated by watching Dead Pool (excellent movie, great action and just hilarious, but seriously, rated R, do not bring children; we watched a mom march her kids out during some explicit sex scenes early on). Following the movie, we played some games at Timezone, like a Dave and Busters in the US.  A little Big Buck Hunter, some Kung Fu Panda, some basketball, some air hockey, good times. Later on we caugh a really pretty sunset at the beach. 
Then finally the day I'd been waiting for this entire trip, the visit to Rottnest Island to see the Quokkas! In case you don't know, Quokkas are like a cross between a rabbit and a kangaroo, they are small and cute and only live 2 spots in the world, one of which is an island off the coast of southern WA called Rottnest (because early explorers thought they were giant rats). 
We took the fast ferry out from Hillarys, about a 45minute ride, and we took the first boat out in the morning to get a full day there.  Though under the impression that the cute little guys would be all over the place, it's actually a little harder to track them down.  In the morning there was one by the bakery where we stopped for breakfast, but the poor guy was a little mangy and had a sore on his tail.  So we decided to walk around the island, which is a really pretty place. It was the first time in WA it was a nice enough temperature to lie out on a beach without frying, and there weren't bugs swarming me everywhere.  
In addition to the Quokkas, you can stay on the island, beach, snorkel, bike around, whale watch, etc.  We found it nice enough to wander around the coast, then cut across the middle by the "pink" salt lakes, colored by beta-carotene (I think it's more of an orange/coral kind of hue than pink). After a long walk around the island, we stopped for a frozen refreshment at Riva Restaurant, a pina colada by the pool, and then grabbed some lunch at Dome (it's a chain deli/sandwich shop but all good food), and then one more cocktail in the shade with a breeze off the water at Aristos Waterfront. While we were sitting on the deck brainstorming ways to see Quokkas, which we'd been told tend to hide away during the heat of the day and come out in the evening, (but our ferry back was at 4pm) I saw one ducking under a walkway nearby.  That was a shady spot, and it seemed logical that if there was one, there might be more.  So we went over and peeked under the walkway, and low and behold, at least 5 of them.  Now, the rules they give you explicitly say not to feed the animals on the island, so by no means should you use Pringles to lure them out. 😉 Once they were out, they were everywhere, and suddenly getting a selfie was pretty easy, so I have about 50. I won't share them all, but here are a bunch. 
Seriously, how cute are these guys?
With the thing I wanted to do the most checked off my list, it was time for my last few days in WA.
To start, we went out in search of the ridiculous crazy milkshakes that have become a trend in Australia over the past year, as trumpeted by Buzzfeed
And we were able to find one at Babooshka, the Triple Donut & Chocolate Coated Bacon milkshake, absolutely as insane as it sounds. Two of us split it, or I would have been incredibly sick. 
That was followed by sitting still in air conditioning to watch Zoolander 2 while getting over the sugar coma (laughing the whole way through it, better that I'd anticipated). And later that night, after having a salad to try and balance out the milkshake, we did some some karaoke at a local pub, that turned out to have a bunch of regulars who were incredible singers, not the way I typically like to perform. I'm an extreme amateur who shines among those who can't sing at all with my couple of songs I can pull off. These people sounded like they were practicing for Australian Idol. 
The next day it was off to check out the wineries and cheese of Swan Valley.  We started out at the Cheese Barrol for a selection of 5 delicious cheeses accompanied by bread, figs, honey, and meats.  I have had a shockingly small amount of cheese while traveling, what with not having a refrigerator most of the time, and eating out a lot.  This was exactly what I needed. 
Fully sated on cheese, we went to check out a few wineries in the area.  Most do free tastings of a selection of whites and reds.  Usually I am a red drinker, and some roses, but not a fan of whites.  Maybe it was the heat, or maybe these really were better than most white wines I've tried before, but for the first time, I really liked Chardonnays, especially from Ugly Duckling Wines, such a wonderful lingering taste, I didn't want to drink anything else after.  Before that, we tried Talijancich, a small cute place with just a few to try, but nothing that blew me away.  Twin Hill Wines is a family run business, they've had the place for decades, and had a nice Verdehlo white we enjoyed. Black Swan charged a few dollars, but you could try a large variety of wines, choosing what you like or don't (I'm not into very sweet wines, so I skipped a few at their recommendation). These were excellent and I really enjoyed them, though I can't remember now what my favorite was.  It turns out a lot of the wineries are not open this time of year Monday-Wednesday, so a few that we stopped by were closed, but we found enough to feel like we'd tasted what Swan Valley had to offer. 
That wound down my time in WA. About the only other things I did were to try Vegimite (on toast with lots of melted butter and just a smidge of the yeast extract that is so stereotypically Australian), and hit the beach again. As I said before, most travelers Down Under never make it out to WA, but there are some great things to see and do, and I'm glad I made the time to visit. 
Then it was farewell to WA, as I made my way back East for my Scuba course in Cairns (with some unexpected travel trouble along the way). 
More to come soon! 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

West Australia

Out in WA I finally got to see Australia beyond the cities.  Yes, I started in a city, Perth, the one major city in WA (and major in the way that Providence RI is a big city, but the biggest city in an area almost the size of the continental US west of Texas). Most tourists visiting Australia never make it out to WA, though it's about half the country and there are many beautiful natural places to see.  
After a couple of days in Perth getting the lay of the land, we headed off north on a long drive through open country with not a lot besides scrub bushes and cows and arid land all around.  The thing about the cows is that they aren't fenced in, they roam around, which means they are a road hazard.  But mostly I saw tons of dead kangaroos on the side of the road, because much like the deer in the Northeastern US, kangaroos are a big road hazard here (which is why, like deer, people don't feel bad about shooting or eating them). So that was the scenery driving for the first couple of days into the heart of the country. Cyclones had come through a few days earlier, so there was some water, but fortunately all the roads were open (sometimes they get flooded).

All of this driving up through the middle of nowhere was with the destination of Karijini National Park, the second largest park in WA, akin to the Grand Canyon in its vast expanse of natural gorges, waterfalls, and rock formations.  All of the rock bears the red tint of iron ore, which absolutely clings to your skin, clothes, and shoes. But as you climb down into steep canyons and find cool pools to swim through, you tend not to mind.  We started with Circular pool, Fortescue Falls, and Fern Pool, the last of which reminded me of the hidden lagoon and waterfall that Kate and Sawyer discover in the first season of Lost (minus the dead bodies at the bottom...I think). Instead, there were trees full of large sleeping bats (or Flying Foxes as a fellow traveler told me).  
Later in the afternoon we visited Joffre gorge, down a steep Grade 5 rock climb, and this small pool and waterfall was my favorite to swim in and climb up, despite any Game of Thrones references that made me inclined to dislike it. 
While here, we camped out in tents, not a pleasant experience when the daytime high is around 107degrees and the nighttime only somewhat cools down, while flys and mosquitos swarm. I will admit that being surrounded by flies much of my travels through WA was irritating, and I came close a few times to buying one of those incredibly flattering beekeeper masks. But whining about the bugs while off in beautiful places seems a bit petty. (Also please note the large formation in the center below which is a termite mound, plentiful all over WA). 

The next day we explored a few more spots, like Handrail Pool (which I renamed Spider Cavern, as they were all over the place), and another steep and tricky climb down into Weano Gorge, where we encountered some wildlife other than flies, a kangaroo and a couple of snakes.  This was the first living kangaroo I saw outside of a zoo, so that was exciting. 

After the wonders of Karijini, we got back onto the road out to the coast for a little ocean side relaxation at Coral Bay.  This is a tiny and beautiful coastal town, with warm clear water inside the barrier of a large reef, the Ningaloo. After a long hot drive, the water felt amazing. Another pleasant surprise was that the Backpackers hostel we stayed at had air conditioning, quite a perk after camping. 
Naturally a main attraction out there is snorkeling the reef, which we did, a full day boat tour out to swim with the Manta Rays (at other times of year you can swim with whale sharks, but we were out of season for that). The water is a lovely blue green akin to the Caribbean, and  full of colorful coral and all kinds of fish.  I was surprised that unlike in the Caribbean, you snorkel in a wetsuit (I'm told in case of jelly fish, some of the least avoidable of the things in Oz trying to kill you). 
The rays are the main attraction, but we also encountered sea turtles and reef sharks (they are pretty small and have no interest in people if you don't try to bother them, like bees). I was happy to have along my GoPro for some underwater shots (though now I really want a red filter to equalize the colors underwater- it's always something!).

The crew aboard the ship were all wonderful as well, really knowledgable and clearly loving their jobs, while caring about keeping the wildlife safe, as well as the tourists (weaker swimmers were given pool noodles to help keep them afloat). 
In addition to the attractions of the reef, the small town (it's all down one street that ends at the water, so genuinely small) boasts a really great cocktail bar as part of their one resort. The Mojito I had there was the best I've tasted outside of Central America. There is also Bill's Bar for live music, pool and darts, an entertaining hangout, and the bar at the Backpackers itself. 
We next spent a night in Exmouth just up the coast after that,  also offering reef attractions, a larger town, and several nice beaches, as well as families of emu crossing the road wherever they feel like it. It turns out that though this is high summer, it is actually the off season in these areas, because of the extreme heat.  We found at the beach we were only comfortable in the water or in the shade (crowded underneath a dock for lack of umbrellas). Not great weather for lying out with a book working on a tan (though given the UV risk down here, best not to do too much of that anyway). 
We went up to the lighthouse in the evening to catch a spectacular sunset. 
And then off to one of the restaurants that is open on a weeknight in the off season, 5 Kennedy St, where the owner, Dexter, waited on us himself and was very attentive, serving us the most delicious homemade butter with our bread and his own selection of wine and beer. I've been making a point to drink Aussie wines while I'm here, and some ciders as well (the pear ones are awfully tasty). 
From there a shorter hop down to Monkey Mia, totally inaccurately named as there are no monkeys, but tons of emu (emus? Not sure), and it's known for the Dolphins that swim up and down the coast, which they invite by each morning for a feeding. As it happened, we didn't need the crowded feeding time, since while swimming in the afternoon, a few went right by us, up the beach and back (I was caught off guard and have no pictures of them, but here's a family of emu in the parking lot and the view from the room at the Backpackers). 
One word of warning, the restaurant in Monkey Mia (and I do mean The restaurant) suffers from lack of competition (I would love to see what Chef Gordon Ramsay would do to their so called crab cakes), you would do better to take the short drive over to Shark's Bay. 
Though I have completed the whole of my WA leg of this trip, I'm going to save the second half for another post. These are some of the most stunning places I've been on this trip, and WA was a really amazing chapter for me, so why not draw it out a bit. 
Cheers for now!