Monday, August 07, 2006

Sky Diving over Cairns

August 5th, 2006:

For my last day in the Cairns area, I decided I'd try give myself a fall, a big fall, a fall from a plane thousands of feet above ground. Yes, it was time to try: Sky Diving!

The hostel had a variety of brochures for Sky Diving companies, but the one that stood out was "Xtreme Skydiving". Formally known as "Paul's Skydiving", this company has been in operation since 1989, is the original operator in the area and has a team of experts with over 95,000 jumps between them: as the brochure put it "there {was} no decision to make" and I phoned up to make a reservation.

As I was flying back to Sydney later on the day of the proposed jump, a critical factor for me was time: would I be able to complete the mission before time ran out? The receptionist promised me that if I went on the 8:30AM flight, I would be back to my hostel within 2 1/2 hours which fitted perfectly with the schedule and so with no more excuses I booked myself in.

There were four of us rookies taking our first jump today, and we all nervously met up at the "Xtreme Skydiving" office. With all of the tourist activities I have done over the last five months there were mostly groups of friends with only a few individuals, but it was interesting to see that there were no groups of friends in this case, only individuals: perhaps this is an activity where it is tough to find whole groups of friends willing to go, leaving it up to the (clearly crazy :) individuals...?

Preparation for the flight took place surprisingly quickly. Paperwork was filled (the usual dangerous activity disclaimers needed to be signed) and then we had a harness fitted around each of us. We were all doing tandem jumps (meaning that we were jumping while attached to a more experienced guide) and so we were introduced to our guides for the day. Mine was a British bloke from near Cambridge who had a dark sense of humor: while checking my harness he joked: "Hope I haven't missed anything... Well I guess we'll find out once we are up there!" :). Our guides also had us practicing the various moves we would have to make while in the air (such as practicing the classic sky diving position: flat on your tummy, arms stretched out to the sides and legs arched back upwards) and also the landing position we would have to take at the end. Within ten minutes of arriving we were all climbing into the van and heading off to the Cairns' airfield, all of us wondering what we had gotten ourselves in to...

On arrival at the airfield, we found the plane was already warming up. The plane seemed impossibly small, and resembled a slightly elongated two-seater which was supposed to fit all four of us newbees and each of our guides. Having seen plenty of WW2 movies where the parachuters are seating in their plane ready to be dropped into France, I was expecting sixty years of progress to provide a nice comfy plane: the reality was slightly different and if anything the WW2 paratroopers flew in luxury(!) (except for the conditions outside for them, needlesstosay) Seats? What are they?! We roughed it in our plane by cramming into the small interior which just about fitted us all in. The plane was only wide enough for one person so we sat in a line with each of us first-timers sitting between the outstretched legs of our guides.

I was last in and so was right next to the door of the plane. The door, from floor to ceiling was composed of see-through plastic and as the plane took off and started to climb, nothing of the view outside was left to the imagination. The first three thousand feet were the most nerve-racking with everything on the ground getting smaller and smaller very quickly. My guide and I were continuing our dark jokes which helped distract from what was about to happen and by the time we reached our jump height, everything below looked surreal-y small and looked more like a picture/painting.

With Sky Diving, there are four main heights you can do it from: 8,000ft, 10,000ft, 12,000ft and 14,000ft. It seems that above 14,000 the reduced oxygen can become a problem so 14,000ft is seen as the limit. I figured if you're going to do it, you might as well do it right and so went with the highest option.

Once we reached 14,000ft, the door opened and it was time to jump. I was by now securely attached to my guide and as I was right next to the door there wasn't far to move to get to the jump position. We slowly moved to the doorway, through which a gale was now blowing through. Then I sat on the ledge of the doorway which my legs dangling outside and my arms and face outside the plane being blown by the icy hurricane strength wind blowing along the length of the fuselage. My guide edged me a bit further out so that he could get into the right position and I found myself teetering on the edge of the door ledge fighting the suction of the wind blowing past and also fighting the instinct to move back from the big drop down to the ground far, far below...

"Go!" was the next thing I heard and we fell out. Before going up the guide had asked me if I wanted to do any aerial acrobatics and in a moment of bravado I had replied "why not!", so as soon as we left the plane we started doing frontal somersaults and while keeping my eyes open I could see the land below switch with the sky above. Again, and again we flipped over and and over and after half a dozen flips we flattened out in a freefall. We were both in the classic skydive position by now and the wind screamed past us as we plummeted for about a minute. Exhilarating is the word to describe the freefall: the wind is so strong that the skin on your face straight away gets pulled back, any other exposed skin gets instantly chilled and you find yourself suddenly aware of gravity's inexorable pull dragging you down while the wind screaming past leaves you in no doubt that you are falling quickly!

After about a minute, the guide tapped me on my shoulder and as I crossed my arms in front of my shoulders he released the parachute. I was expecting a painful sudden jerk, but instead it was more of a smooth stop as the canopy unfurled and then we just seemed to hang motionless in the air. We were both buzzed after the excitement of the freefall and even though everything on the ground far below still looked too small to be real, I'm sure the people in a nearby matchbox-sized farmstead heard us :) The jump site we had gone for was just outside of Cairns, and the crystal clear viewing in every direction displayed the green sugarcane farmlands and rainforests directly below with Cairns city further out next to the blue sea in the distance with small islands dotting the bay. The view was amazing. The gently parachuted fall lasted a couple of minutes and the guide gently tugged the left and right handles attached to the parachute to change our viewing angle while he described the local landmarks. After a bit he asked if I wanted to spin a bit and as soon as I uttered the word "sure!" he yanked on the right handle and we suddenly started spinning insanely quickly in circles to the right. He then yanked on the left handle and we quickly stopped, only to start spinning to the left: the spins were disorientating and if you go sky diving yourself in the future, and you have a weak tummy, you may want to skip this bit...

By now, the ground was getting closer and it no longer unreal: it just looked like everything was getting bigger very, very quickly. We made sure to avoid a high-tension power cable tower below (that provided lots of jokes for our continued black humor :) and once we cleared the tower it was time to adopt the landing position. If you are landing by yourself you can land standing upright, but when in tandem it is far, far safer to land in the seated position. So, with our legs up we glided over a sugarcane field which had recently been harvested and the discarded sugarcane stalks provided a soft landing for when we touched down.

The rest of the tandem groups landed shortly afterwards and even though one of the other first-timer's was South Korean with poor English and another was Japanese and had no English, it didn't matter: we all had no problem communicating our excitement(!) Even the guides who have jumped hundreds of times were all buzzed and were happy that each of us had given it 110% and that there had been no problems.

So, it seems that I have found another activity that I will have to try again. The only thing with these new activities (scuba diving & sky diving} is that they are somewhat expensive: today's experience, though it only lasted minutes cost 270AUD, so its unlikely that I will be trying it often. Nevertheless, even if I never get to do it again, I'll never forget my first sky dive.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Scuba Diving at the Great Barrier Reef

August 3rd 2006:

My first experience with the Great Barrier Reef (with snorkling) was ok but underwhelming due in part to the murky conditions on the day. So, for today's trip to the reef I asked the tour organisers at the hostel to recommend what they thought was the best operator to go with. Based on their recommendation, I went out today with Tusa Dive for a bit of scuba diving.

Tusa Dive, which is based on Cairns, picked me up from my hotel at at crack of dawn (well, 7:20AM) and dropped me off at the docks where I joined my fellow divers and snorklers. The Tusa boat was your average small-medium sized dive-ferry with a capacity of 28 customers.

After a quick intro to the boat from one of the crew, we were on our way and about an hour later arrived at our first dive location. One of the factors which attracted me to the company was that even they didn't know where they were going until we got closer to the reef: they have 21 possible dive sites in the area and based on sea conditions once they get near the reef, they choose the most suitable location.

The location-delaying approach really paid off: there were two dives today, in two different locations, and both locations had crystal clear visibility with no sign of murky water.

The crystal clear water helped show why the Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven wonders of the natural world. The reefs were much more developed that Koh Tao and the range of fish on show was nearly sensory-overloading(!) There was plenty of Nemo (Clown) fish to see, but also many larger fish which were not at Koh Tao: these larger fish were at least the length of my arm and half the length again in height. Sadly no sharks again, but there were sea turtles and also some sort of 8-foot long eel. The fish swam amongst many coral formations and it made for interesting diving, swimming close to the coral but not touching it. We, for example, swam through a narrow 40 meter coral chasm with 20 meter vertical walls: we could just fit through the narrow space without touching the walls, and had to swim up at an angle to climb over coral which blocked our route, and a short while later swim back down to avoid other formations blocking the way from above all while schools of tropical fish darted about. It was all great scuba skills experience as you don't use your arms when scuba-swimming: its all about adjusting your breathing to change your buoyancy.

I brought another archaic (film-based) camera down with me and this one is re-usable (as opposed to disposable) so I'm hoping the clear sea conditions combined with this camera's flash capability will produce good results.

I also noticed that whereas we all left the snorkling, a couple of days ago, early due to becoming cold, there was no problem with the temperature during the scuba-diving despite being at a greater depth in the water. Perhaps there were just warmer currents on the further out part of the reef, or maybe the view provided enough of a distraction to forget about the temperature. Whatever the cause, the cold was not a problem.

The icing on the cake came on the way back. I had been chatting the skipper and he allowed me to pilot the boat part of the way back to port :) I was sitting in the captains chair driving the boat from far out at sea, cresting the slightly rolling sea back to the shore. While the ship had GPS, we were navigating based on landmarks on the horizon and in reality all that was required was small course adjustments, but still it was a great experience.

It was a great day out and the scuba diving is well worth doing if you are in the area. The reef was definitely even more impressive than the Koh Tao reef and best of all, unlike Koh Tao, my air hose didn't explose which is always a plus!

Croc spotting and other sights around Cape Tribulation

August 1st 2006:

A couple of months ago I went with a company called "Rob's Tours" for doing a tour around the World Heritage Site "The Lammington National Park". Today I went with "Tony's Tours" for a guided tour around several areas around Port Douglas. I found the company on the web before leaving Sydney and all the reviews were very positive, so I thought I'd give it a go.

Tony collected myself and two Melbourne-ians from the resort at 8AM and after collecting three others (two Canadians and an Italian) from another resort we were on our way up the coast.

Our transport for the day was a Toyota Land Cruiser 4-wheel drive, or SUV as it is known down here, and Tony came across as informative, humorous and very knowledgeable about the area.

Our first stop, after a quick look at the local cane and banana fields, was the Mossman Gorge. This clear flowing river set amidst a rain forest gave us a quick introduction to the rainforest flora and fauna. "Quick" is the main word here. It only took about 10 minutes to see the gorge and I can't help but think back to a gorge I viewed in France which took a couple of hours to get around: would I have seen more if I wasn't part of an organized tour? On the other hand, having a guide pointing out the history and the contemporary things to see was definitely a positive.

Anyways, we pressed on and our next stop was the Daintree River. We hopped into a small boat and were soon sailing down the river viewing... Crocodiles(!). There were LOTS to see. The first one was a mere 3-footer, followed by a baby 1-footer, then came a 5-footer, but these were all entrees to the main course. A croc called "Scar-face", which was about 8-foot long was sunning itself on the shore and then came "Fat-Albert"(!) who was a gigantic 15-feet long and weighed an estimated 500Kgs: thankfully he was happy to stay on the shore also(!). We got quite close to some of the crocs, being about 2 arms length from some of them. We also passed close to a Python which was curled up in a tree, but it was only a minor distraction to the croc-spotting. This part of the tour took about an hour and was well worth doing.

Next stop was Cape Tribulation. Now, it seems that many of the landmarks around the area were named by Captain Cook back in the day, and when he got to this area of the world, he hit a reef which put a hole in his ship. It seemed to put him in a bad mood as some of the landmarks are now called "Despair", "Sorrow", "Misery" and the one we visited today was "Tribulation" (as in Trials and Tribulations). Despite the name, the Cape is worth visiting, with a rainforest situated next to a long, gray, quiet beach. It is, however, rather similar to the rest of the coastline in the area so don't feel too disappointed if you don't make it up there.

After a quick tea break with cakes and chocolate-chip cookies we moved onto Alexander Lookout for a view from near the top of a mountain over the the valleys and mountains back to Port Douglas. This was also a quick stop and we moved quickly onto Noah Valley where we had lunch and tried to goad each other to taking a swim in the nearby river (we were assured by Tony that there were no crocs in this river, but nobody was in a hurry to find out for sure(!))

After lunch we took a tour around part of the World Heritage Daintree Rainforest which had a phenomenal range of plants which had stopped evolving over 100 million years old and some of the ferns last changed nearly a quarter of a billion years ago(!). All of the old favorites were there (similar to Lamington National Park near Brisbane), with Strangler Figs and Gimpy/Stinger Trees in evidence. The guide also had us licking green ants (for a sherbet taste) and had us smelling a flower which had the guys in the group thinking that it smelled nice and the ladies thinking that it smelled like sweaty socks!). The addition of a guide to how Aboriginals used the rainforest resources to live was the icing on the cake.

Wrapping up the day was a Daintree Tea made from tea grown locally, and Daintree Ice-cream made from locally grown exotic ingredients. Tony even cleared up what that giant spider I spotted on my first day in the area was: its a "Golden Orb", it seems, and while it is poisonous to insects, it is sadly non-poisonous to humans due to it not being able to break through our skin. It is technically still poisonous though, so I'll be sure to play up that aspect of it when describing it in the future :)

Snorkling at the Great Barrier Reef (Low Isles)

30th July 2006:

Well, I somehow managed to survive the night without any unwanted visitors (although, I do have a mysterious bruise on my arm: I wonder will something hatch in a couple of weeks? Something to watch for I guess :)

Today's activity was to visit the Coral Sea, and in particular, the Great Barrier Reef.
I spent the morning at the nearby, nearly deserted Four Mile Beach with its flat, white, stoneless beach and waveless sea. It seems that during the summer months (November - February), swimming in the Coral Sea is a bit of a gamble with the sharks and stinging jellyfish. Apparently though, the risks are reduced at this time of the year, so with not a lifeguard or any fellow swimmer's anywhere in sight for four miles, I decided I'd go in for a quick swim... in what turned out to be the chilly, murky sea water. Still, the lack of waves made for a relaxed, albeit uneventful swim.

So, looking for a more interesting swim, I phoned up a local tour operator and booked a snorkeling trip for the afternoon. Most operator's claim that you need a day to get to the reef, do the swimming and get back, but this operator in Port Douglas claimed that two and a half hours was more than enough.

I had my doubts but this afternoon I made my way to the marina area and joined six others on the docks which was full of big yachts and ferries. And then their was our boat(!) If you've ever seen Baywatch, you would be familiar with the Scarab speedboats that they used on the show: I no longer wonder what it would be like to get a ride on one as within minutes of arriving we were sailing at a relaxed pace out of the harbor on a sleek white Scarab. The skipper (sadly not a Baywatch cast member(!)) told us that due to choppy sea conditions away from the shore he'd have to go slower than normal and restrict our speed to a mere 60kmph, but in reality that speed is still fast for a boat. Having been on boats before, I moved straight to the front as it is the best to experience the bow leaping high out of the water after cresting a wave, and then slamming back down again. Sure enough, as we quickly picked up speed we all had to hang on tight and as the boat jumped over the top of the rolling waves, there was a feeling of weightlessness before coming crashing back down to the water below.

Within 20 minutes we had arrived at the reef. We berthed off a vegetated coral cay (its coral which has grown out of the water to form an island and trees and other vegetation have grown on top) and once the gear was on we jumped in and started swimming around the coral below. The view was, unsurprisingly, unforgettable with shoals of exotic fish swimming amongst the colorful coral formations. All of the coral formations were there with Brain coral, Cabbage Coral and Mushroom Coral were easily visible with schools of Angel Fish darting about and I even swam for a bit with a sea-turtle(!).

I would advise that you do your homework before visiting a coral reef: it becomes even more enjoyable when you're down there and you spot a fish/coral that you had read about before (as opposed to "oh look, a colourful fish" and moments later "and another colourful fish", etc.) You can also purchase from dive shops a laminated colourful chart that you can bring down with you of all of the fish/coral that can be seen.

Swimming time allocated on our trip was 1 1/2 hours, but in reality we were all finished before the allocated time expired. During the summer months, the sea can reach an incredible 30C, but today the temperature was 22C which eventually sucked away all body warmth. Only other downer was that the sea wasn't as clear today as it had been at Koh Tao due to the choppy sea conditions. I had brought an underwater camera with me but I suspect the pics will turn out to be murky as the visibility down below was nowhere near as clear as the sheltered Koh Tao dive sites.

Speaking of underwater cameras, if you own a digital camera you can get an underwater enclosure for your camera so that it will work underwater. However, these enclosures cost a couple of hundred dollars and there is a minor risk of leaking... If you don't go swimming/snorkeling/scuba diving often, a much cheaper and risk free alternative is a disposable underwater camera and it seems that you can even get it developed straight to digital CD: sweet!

So, seeing the Great Barrier Reef is another box I can tick in the things-to-do list. So far, the Koh Tao reefs are winning due to the better visibility and warmer water, but I hope to go back to the Great Barrier Reef again for scuba diving in a couple of days for another great experience.

Arrival into Cairns and onto Port Douglas

29th July 2006:

I have traveled to quite a few airports around the world over the years but the approach into Cairns airport was one that I won't forget anytime soon. The airport is located next to the coast and as planes land they skim in over the blue water to touch down, usually without much drama. In our case, though, our skimming was suddenly aborted seconds before landing: the flight crew came on later to explain that the plane which had landed previous to ours had suffered from landing gear failure(eek!) and so we had to circle just over the water to give the airport emergency services time to respond. We weren't told about the other plane's problem as we were circling though, so in my blissful ignorance I found myself staring down at the water out my window at... hundreds of whales! Some were under the water, but many were blowing big spouts of water vertically, and others were creating big splashes with their back fin/tail: neat!

Once we did land we saw the stricken plane with the problem surrounded by airport fire brigade vehicles but whereas the flight crew on our plane had made the impression that the stricken plane was a big Boeing/Airbus, it was merely a small two seater... still, no doubt an exciting moment for the pilot who had a lucky escape.

It was hard to stay staring at the little plane too long, as the view in the background was also impressive. Much of the Cairns area is flat, but it is surrounded by high mountains, golden beaches, intense blue seas and the nearby fields are planted with tall sugar cane.

I'm staying for the first couple of days in the nearby town of Port Douglas. I'll be popping back to Cairns later in the week to stay up all night in the bars/clubs, but in the mean time I've rented a serviced villa at the "Rendezvous Resort" in Port Douglas for some R&R and the villa will be the base of operations from which I tour the area. The villa costs 79AUD a night and is vast. The resort also has three pools, and is a five minute walk from the "4 mile beach". Only minor downside is that its a 30 minute walk from the town center, but there is a regular bus service to and from the resort reception.

Before I left, one of my housemates warned me to watch out for the insects: Sarah, you weren't kidding! I had noticed before arriving at the villa that there weren't many flies about Cairns/Port Douglas, and then I found the cause: the spiders here are massive! Well, I've only seen the one, but it was at least the size of my hand (I didn't want to get too close to measure it...) and in addition to the insects, this thing could probably have taken on small birds. The main reason why I noticed it was because whereas the spiders back home tend to spin their webs into small corners, this thing's web was stretched between the ground, the first floor of a neighboring villa, acrossa scmall garden and was finally attached to the villa's carport. I've never noticed fangs on a spider before (they were always too small), but it was clear from the fangs on that spider that it meant business... The house that it was attached to was empty and I suspect it will be empty for a long time as I can't imagine anyone wanting to take that spider on!

Well, its getting late and nearly time to sleep. Even though its coming up on midnight, it is still hot outside. Despite the heat, though, I'll be sure to keep the windows closed in case I wake up in the middle of the night to find that spider crawling across the pillow...!

On the road again

29th July 2006:

Well, I'm on the road again. I'm writing this from a plane, flying somewhere north of Sydney on the way to Cairns which is near the top of the continent. The countryside far, far below is completely different from the countryside near Perth (on the other side of Australia): here it is all green hills and valleys with not a sign of the red dust that dominated the northern Perth landscape. However, similar to near Perth, there is no sign of civilization whatsoever, so if you ever think of hitch-hiking up the coast, you may need to prepare for a loooonnnnggg walk!

The recent job hunting has finished and I am now an employee of "Vero", which is part of "Proxima" which apparently is the third largest insurance related company in Australia. Vero is a large corporate so it will be a change from my previous jobs at small/medium companies. The contract lasts until December 31st which is convenient: the next leg of the round-the-world flights begins in January so I can decide then if I want to stay longer with Vero/Sydney and come home for Christmas for a short break, or if I want to continue the round the world trip until the following March.

I have a couple of weeks off before starting at Vero hence the escape from the Sydney winter to the seemingly eternally good weather in Northern Queensland (well, until the area gets devastated by hurricanes...)
I was expecting the preparation for this trip to be easy after taking care of the arrangements between Ireland -> Asia -> Oz. However, things rarely go smoothly(!) and there was a faulty Qantas website to deal with ("Invalid configuration: please contract your administrator" was the helpful message), an overloaded Jetstar system (Jetstar is another airline and they just launched their summer sale so the website was up and down while their phone system was engaged nearly all day, and on the way from home this morning to the airport, an entire section of the train system was closed which meant having to resort to the bus with the associated traffic delays.

So, there was a bit of a MacGuyver moment with a mad dash to get to the check-in desk in time and I only just got there as it was closing. Still, once I was randomly selected for a chemical/explosives test it was like old times and it was great to know that I was traveling somewhere again (the security officer even commented that it was a nice change to have someone happy to do the test :) Also on the upside, I was expecting a seat near the loo having checked-in so late, but it turns out that Jetstar does not have assigned seating so I just joined the throng at the boarding area and still managed to get a good seat. They even moved the ubiquitous nearby screaming baby to a different part of the plane so things are definitely looking up.

There is one bit of local Sydney news which may interest anybody reading this who knows Sydney: Hyde Park is being leveled... Hyde Park is the equivalent of Central Park for New York and unfortunately they have found that subway work going as far back as the 1920s has allowed a fungus to infect the roots of all of the mature trees in the park: the result is that the roots have rotted and city officials say that its only a matter of time before one of these giant trees topples over onto nearby people/buildings. Thus, the park has to be completely dug up, all top soil removed and new top soil added to remove the fungus. Sadly, they reckon that it will take another fifty years for the park to recover :( I'll be sure to take lots of photos when I come back from Cairns.

Finally, I've abandoned the stylus/pen approach of tapping in each letter to type this: I got a present of a bluetooth, near-full size keyboard which folds up into a small easily portable unit and which talks wirelessly to the PDA: compared with the tapping approach it is bliss!

Well, I think I'll go back to chatting to the two English women sitting next to me: their accents are straight out of Emerdale (I don't watch that UK soap, just to clarify: I have lived with girls which were fanatics though.. sigh...) and the accent sounds odd hearing it in real-life, but we’re all off to Port Douglas so we can share the travel cost of the transfer from Cairns airport to Port Douglas: handy, oh-aye!