Australia is known as down under as the entire continent is below the equator. Of course the entire continent is also an island. Coincidentally my most memorable experience in Australia was down under the sea. In the next few paras, I shall cover this as well as my other experiences in water in Australia
Even when we first mooted the idea of visiting Australia, I was sure we would see the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). In the list of Natural wonders compiled by CNN after some research, it ranks second behind the Grand Canyon. (The others are Harbour of Rio de Janeiro, Mount Everest, Aurora Borealis, Parcutin volcano and Victoria Falls). It was purely coincidental that I had seen the first in January 2009 and the second in December of the same year. Seeing the Grand Canyon is relatively easy. But a close look at the GBR is not. As we all boarded the Reef Experience - the ferry which was to take us to the Great Barrier Reef, all the 12 of us were thrilled. As the forms were distributed whether we would see the corals by Scuba diving or by snorkelling, all the 10 adults opted for snorkelling. Amritha, Rukku and Hema who were in saris were assured by the crew that they would be able to snorkel. We finished the breakfast on offer and as the ferry set sail, there were high expectations about the visit to GBR.
Alas, we all underestimated the power of a fast ferry and a choppy sea to make us seasick. The crew had distributed anti-vomit pills, but they had no effect. Raghu was the only realistic person as he had said that he would become seasick as soon as the ferry started. After Raghu, it was Prema, then Vidya and soon there was a clamour for the brown bags (to contain the vomit) and a scramble to the deck which resembled a sick bay. The only four who did not throw up in our group of 12 were Mukund, Nitya, Chandra and Rukku. Surprisingly most of the other 30 passengers were also victims to the sea-sickness. Mal de Mer is a rather pleasant and unassuming French term for the debilitating effect motion sickness may have on your body. In the case of Raghu, Hema, Amritha, Prema and the kids, the symptoms escalated to extreme nausea, vomiting, dizziness and headache. In one of his books, Isaac Asimov has related the anecdote about a seasick passenger whom a steward cheerfully assured that nobody ever died from seasickness. The passenger muttered, "Please– it's only the hope of dying that is keeping me alive." So when the first stop of the ferry for visiting GBR came, only Mukund and Nitya were ready to go snorkelling. After they got into the water, I asked Gabby (a helpful New Zealand crew member) whether I can go snorkelling as I have not done any swimming for over 20 years. 'Yes, of course. You don't need to know swimming' was her answer and when she added,'I'll guide you' I started putting on the wet suit. What is snorkelling? According to Wikipaedia, it is the practice of swimming on or through a body of water while equipped with a diving mask, a shaped tube called a snorkel, and usually swimfins. In cooler waters, a wetsuit may also be worn. Using this equipment allows the snorkeler to observe underwater attractions for extended periods of time with relatively little effort. After I was ready to jump into the water, my stomach which had held on till then turned queasy and I asked Chandra for a brown bag. Out came my breakfast into the bag. A concerned Gabby asked, Do you still want to go snorkelling? ''Yes, of course,' was my answer. There was a Japanese girl who was also a novice and Gabby was to guide both of us. 'ok, then. Don't ever let the pipe out of your mouth' she told both of us. Since I wear dentures and since losing them in the Pacific ocean would have caused a premature return to India, I bit the tube firmly and let my bite release only after I came back to the ship. With Gabby's encouragement, both of us held the rubber tube that Gabby was holding and off went the three of us on the surface of Pacific ocean to look at the coral reefs which were about 80 metres away.
The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system comprising over 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands stretching more than 3,000 kilometres over an area of approximately 344,400 square kilometres . It is formed by 400 types of coral, is inhabited by 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 types of mollusc. It was recognised as a World Heritage Site in 1981. It is claimed to be the world’s biggest single structure made by living organisms, since the reef structure is composed of and built by billions of tiny coral polyps. These are mere statistics. The sight under water has to be personally seen to comprehend its awesomeness. Though the corals come in a variety of hues, surprisingly the water filters out most colours and you see only varying shades of blue. But you can see the fishes in all colours. Every now and then, Gabby would dive into the water and come up with some unique sample to show to us and put it back into the sea. After about half an hour, we were ready to go back. It was a unique and memorable experience. After I came back to the ship, Nadine (another crew member from Denmark) told Raghu that the glass-bottomed boat would take passengers to see the corals. All of us (except Mukund and Nitya who were out in the water) got into the boat. Just as we got into the boat, I felt like vomitting. An Australian sitting next to me said,'Go ahead and throw up into the sea. Some fishes like it.' So I went ahead. The fish that likes vomit got some from Amritha and Hema as well. The glass-bottmed boat trip was good and we could see the corals.
Having tasted blood once, I wanted more. Gabby had said that the guided snorkel tour was free only in the first stop and that the second would cost 20 $ per person. That did not put us off and Vidya (who had recovered enough to try it), Chandra and I gave our names for the tour. As wet suit was not required, I put on Mukund's shorts. Vidya went with another guide while Chandra, myself and the Japanese girl (the one who came with me earlier) went with Gabby. The reef was only 50 metres away from this stop. Chandra was flanked by Mukund and Nitya for additional safety. The procession went for a few minutes, but Chandra could not somehow breathe through her mouth and was choking often. So we came back to leave her and then spent more than half hour enjoying the tremendous sight underwater. Reluctantly we came back to the ship. Mukund who had snorkelled for more than 3 hours had to yield to Prema's frantic signals to come back. So it was Mukund, Nitya, myself, Vidya and Chandra (in that order) who saw the GBR in all its glory. On the return trip, Mukund, Prema, Keshav, Shriya, Chandra, Nitya and I sat on the upper deck and it was a very nice experience with occasional sprays of water as well as the sighting of a whale (by a crew member).
We had stayed out for 4 days in Cairns, 3 days in Coffs Harbour and 3 days in Melbourne. All the 12 family members went to Cairns while 7 went to Coffs Harbour and only the 4 of us from India went to Melbourne. Our stay in the first two places had been organised by Raghu and both were excellent. In Cairns, it was a fully-furnished bungalow with swimming pool, an outdoor swing etc. In Coffs Harbour, it was a fully furnished 5-star resort in a 200-acre campus which had a swimming pool. So my adventures in water continued. The day after visiting GBR, Mukund, Nitya and I jumped into the pool. I became overenthusiastic and after 2 laps of swimming started a race with Mukund. Halfway through the lap which unfortunately was at the deep end I lost my breath. Fortunately the maximum depth was only 6' 2" and the place where I lost my breath was just over 5 feet. I became ok quickly. I was not so gently reminded by Amritha that I am 63 and so confined myself to the shallow end thereafter. In Coffs Harbour, Nitya, Charles ( a family friend of Raghu and Chandra, Nitya's boss and Vidya's tenant) and I got into the pool.
My other memorable experience with water was when we visited the famous Penguin parade in Philips Island near Melbourne. It was an experience at the waterfront but can be included here. In Penguin parade they march in groups to their homes in the dunes after a day in the water, The parade takes place every day just after sunset. We left Melbourne at 5.00 PM and reached Philip Island by about 8.00 PM. After coffee, we walked around the information centre and then on to the special stage on the beach. A ranger gave us a brief description about the fairy penguins. We learnt that penguins are creatures of habit and that they would use the same path every time they move from the sea to their home (burrow). The ranger left after exhorting the crowd to be as silent as possible. The first penguin was expected shortly after 9 PM, but came by about 9.15 PM. As the penguins waddle up the beach, more and more clusters swim up from the sea. When they reach the sand, we observe quietly as they walk unsteadily up hill to their homes. Photography is not allowed and everyone talks in hushed tones. All we hear are the ocean waves and the penguins talking with each other as well as some of their kids which have come down to meet their parents. We walk back slowly to the bus watching the penguins waddling all around us. It was a spiritual and unforgettable experience. As we were about to board the bus, we saw the board asking people to check under the car for penguins. We smiled, but did look under the bus.
Another memorable experience with water was when we travelled on the Great Ocean Road near Melbourne. This road made by soldiers delisted after World War I is a great piece of engineering. There are a lot of places to see and it has some of the most breath-taking sights of sea coast. The most famous sight on this road is twelve apostles which I shall describe later, Personally I found Loch Ard Gorge to be more impressive than twelve apostles. The gorge is named after the ship Loch Ard, which ran aground near this place on 1 June 1878 approaching the end of a three-month journey from England to Melbourne. Of the fifty-one passengers and crew, only two survived: Tom Pearce, a ship's apprentice, and Eva Carmichael, an Irish girl immigrating with her family, both of whom were 18 years of age. According to memorials at the site, Tom was washed ashore, and rescued Eva from the water after hearing her cries for help. Tom then proceeded to climb out of the gorge to raise the alarm to local pastoralists who immediately set into plan a rescue attempt. The gorge is only a few kilometres past The Twelve Apostles and the stairs allow visitors access to the beach which is otherwise kept as it was in the past. To make the journey even more memorable, a film All the rivers run which was shot in that area was screened during our return journey. The film was also very good. Torque Bay, Bells beach, Apollo Bay, Port Campbell and Gibson Steps- all on the seafront are some of the impressive places on the beach that we saw.
We had a few other meetings with water. One was in our travel by ferry within Sydney to the zoo. And the others were when we visited beaches. There are so many good beaches in Australia that it is impossible for anyone to visit all. Apart from the places mentioned in the previous para, We had visited the following and all were good.
-- blowhole point at Kiama near Sydney where the waves come up in a spray through the hole in the rocks
-- Bombo beach near Sydney
-- Machans beach near Cairns
-- Nambucca Heads on way to Coffs Harbour and
-- Coffs Harbour jetty.