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Friday, January 19, 2007

Ranger Rick and the Lion Fish

Brisbaine loses the ‘East Coast, Big City’ contest. I guess it’s hard to compete with Sydney, but Brisbaine’s too slick to even be in the running. While waterside, and potentially beautiful, it’s designed with too much chrome, glass, steel on both building and bridges, to be comparatively impressive. Luckily, I was just in and out, headed up to the reef-accessible city of Cairns (pronounced “cans” – they mute the ‘r’) then onto Port Douglas, the recent site of all those tacky Matthew McConaughey Down Under photos in the magazines that you all sent my way. “He’s in Australia, have you seen him?!?” No, I haven’t, though I’ve been looking . . .

Port Douglas is an adorable little town where they still park cars diagonally on the main street in front of the ice cream shop, the post, or the market. But, for all the quaint that Port Douglas dishes up, I was surprised to find that with respect to their bread and butter, diving, it’s very big business.

I was SO eager to dive the Great Barrier Reef. Just flying over it was breathtaking, the various hues of blue below me interrupted by greens and yellows glowing against the sun; it looked like a map, the underwater reef subbing for land mass. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen from the sky and the flight had me utterly transfixed, glued like an eight year old to the window. For me, diving the Reef was one of those things that I wanted to check off my life’s to-do list. Dove the Great Barrier Reef: check! Everyone was all Steve-Irwin-worried about my dives in Australia, but the places I was headed were nowhere as exotic as Irwin’s shoots. Plus, the outfit I had booked into at my hotel was “top-notch,” according to Steve, my B&B owner.

True to word, the Calypso boat was a three-decked glossy yacht of pristine white finish with royal blue trim. It was obvious that it was exceptionally cared for and each gleaming section of the boat offered more luxury. The top deck was devoted to plush lounge chairs; the second deck offered the same views, as well as shade. The bottom deck was divided into a designated dry space for our beautifully catered lunch and a wet staging area for the various divers (certified got red folders full of reef information and first-timers got green ones) and snorkelers (blue folders). There was a floating dive shop and (drumroll…) a full-fledged photo shop! The on-ship photographer, who looked like Pippy Longstocking, braids and all, was at the ready to snap you lounging with a book or engaged in underwater hi-jinks. The whole set-up was too perfect. I couldn’t imagine HOW people got left behind on the Reef with organization like this. It was here off Port Douglas that the “Open Water” couple was left at sea! I can’t imagine, given the onboard prep.

For all the hype, my three dives to the Outer Barrier Reef were disappointing. The coral was hardly colorful, the wildlife invisible, and the pace rushed. The most exciting part of the day came when Pippy the Photog had me sidle up to a spider-y looking fish hanging on some coral. She motioned (underwater signals are often guessing games…) for me to (I thought…) touch the fish. Um, really? He looks awfully menacing, Pippy. Throughout the day, Marty my divemaster had encouraged me to touch all sorts of anemone, coral, sea slugs, and clams that were double the size of me and looked like Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors. So, when Pippy signaled, in I went for the grab. Why not, right? The feel factor of the day was pretty fantastic, thus far. WELL…. Ever heard a human squeal of terror? Underwater? Yeah, a bit frightening. Pippy’s eyes widened to the size of donuts as she kept squealing at me. Thankfully, the Lion Fish (I’ve come to learn…) scurried off, spooked by either Pippy’s noise or the motion of my hand. I was told on surfacing that the effects of the Lion Fish’s venomous quills have yet to be truly understood. Initially, I would’ve suffered convulsions, followed by a paralysis. Depending on the sting, the paralysis might have been local to the bite and passing, or comprised a trauma to the better part of my nervous system. Yeah…so, I guess all the Irwin-worriers had right. I almost became a vegetable.

The next day, opting for a safer activity, I headed up to Cape Tribulation and the Daintree Rainforest. Here is the only place in the world where two World Heritage sites meet – the oldest rainforest on Earth (with more species than ALL of the species in the whole world) meets the largest living thing in the world, the Great Barrier Reef. Ta-daa! Now, that deserves a trip, no? Well… I again listened to Steve and booked onto Tony’s Tropical Tours. Name full of alliteration, high recommendation, I’ll see what it’s all about. Picked up at 7 AM, I should’ve known that I was in for a long, long, long day.

After a brief rainforest walk where David, my eco-friendly, pony-tailed waif of a guide, pointed out a few species, I remembered that I get bored on these kinds of trips. I usually opt for the half-day version as I can only feign interest for so long. But, out of travel-practice, I forgot my “half-day is the way” theory and booked full. I’ve been to quite a few rainforests in my day, I’m kind of from the “seen one, seen them all” school. But, it seemed we were headed onward quickly, not spending too much time in the forest. Excellent. To Cape Tribulation next, where Captain Cook discovered the Australian coast. (No, not Captain Hook, the Disney character who lost a hand when bitten by a crocodile – but I understand the confusion…)

Photo op accomplished, we went for another walk through the rainforest. Another one? Here, I started to wilt. Seemingly I joined a group of aspiring botanists and entomologists who knew their omnivores, carnivores, and herbivores on sight. They were all SO into the rainforest walks, asking questions to which David would answer, “Now, that’s a GR-EAT question, Mark!” and embark on a ten-minute lichen tangent. Ranger Rick had as much of a hard on for the lively group as he did for marsupials, reptiles, cassowarys (a prehistoric bird, bigger than a peacock that lives in Daintree, and got Dave really going...). Being “green,” the commentary didn’t stop. Ranger Rick’s NON-STOP soapbox preaching about anything remotely un-eco stole thunder from an otherwise nice day. “This is the original Garden of Eden, people.” And you’re freaking Adam, right? “This world is a world of harmony, the rainforest. Do you hear the forests song?” No David. No I don’t. “When it comes to the environment, America leads the pack of those going to hell. With the Devil, uh Bush, at the helm. Sorry, Marie. I can’t help the eco-chatter, it’s my passion.” Learn to help it, David. Americans tip, Australian’s don’t. “Fun and friends in the forest. We’re all friends, us and the animals?” Uh, no. No David, we’re not. Two World Heritage Sites, a day at one with nature, an exploration of our scientific lineage in the rainforest -- I couldn’t wait to get off the goddamn tour. Half-days, half-days.

More soon from the Lower Great Barrier Reef. I’m headed to Hamilton Island, part of the Whitsunday group for four days of beach and diving (yes, more…). I promise to look not touch, this time…


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