In part one, our intrepid travellers drove the left lane through New Zealand, and dove with the right gear under its waters. We were about to take a flight on which there was a muscular, cricket bat wielding passenger over the ocean to Cairns, Australia. It’s worth mentioning: this was a flight where the alcohol was flowing free and easy.
We were off to Cairns (pronounced cans by the locals, as in cans of XXXX beer) as it’s a jumping off point for the Great Barrier Reef, and our going down under there was our main reason for going Down Under. We didn’t actually dive out of Cairns; we headed further north to Cooktown, little more than a wide spot in the road famous for being the place where, in 1770, Captain Cook beached the Endeavour to repair damage incurred running into one of the nearby reefs. We were there to board a liveaboard dive boat, which would be our home for the next four days while exploring the Ribbon Reefs.
In a normal feel good story, this is where I’d tell you about how incredible the reef was, how it was a life affirming experience, and how it couldn’t be topped. And maybe it was for me, at the time. The reality is, that was 27 years and hundreds of dives ago, and I don’t remember it all that vividly. Like any dive trip it had great dives and some not so great. I did learn a valuable lesson about liveaboards; you need to pace your eating and not just accept what’s offered, unless you have the appetite of a blue whale and a hyperactive digestive system.
There was one dive that sticks out in memory.
It was at a famous dive site known as “Cod Hole”. I was the first diver off the boat and descended to a white sandy bottom with occasional boulders strewn about in around 45 feet of water. I was just hanging out, waiting for my dive buddy to join me, when an entirely different sort of buddy swam up.
It was a giant potato cod. It must have been 4-5 feet (1.5 meters) long, a good 18 inches (45 cm) wide and maybe 130 pounds (60 kg). And it was hungry.
It stopped right in front of me, and gave me that “well, what are you waiting for” look for 30 seconds or so. It seems these guys had gotten used to divers dropping in with handouts, and I was due to pay the rent. But I’d left the checkbook on the boat.
Soon other divers joined the party, and seeing I was empty-handed it blew me off and checked other sources. But for a rookie diver, having a fish nearly as big as I was swim up with clear expectations whilst I was alone on the ocean floor set a memory that persists to this day.
After finishing our tour of the Ribbon Reefs we headed further south to the Whitsunday Island region, where we found another liveaboard. While the diving wasn’t amazing (I mostly remember a lot of staghorn coral), there were a couple of topside things that stood out.
The liveaboard wasn’t the professional dive boat we enjoyed the first time around, it was a guy with a sailboat who was willing to take out divers for a bit of income. He didn’t give us a lot of confidence as he navigated his way through the reefs while chain drinking beers, but we arrived unholed. As for the food, he brought his girlfriend to cook: let’s just say that even if you had a whale like appetite you would have pretended it was a fancy gourmet restaurant and gone for the tiny portions.
This was all going on around the Christmas holidays. We’d arrived in the central coast region on Christmas Eve day, and it wasn’t surprising to see Santa Claus wandering around in a shopping mall. What was surprising was that he was wearing shorts.
Christmas is a summer holiday Down Under, and with the summer heat I can’t blame Santa for going casual on that leg of his annual visit. The weather also made it quite reasonable to enjoy some shrimp on the barbie, along with a tasty steak or two for our Christmas dinner.
New Years Eve found us in Sydney.
Have I mentioned that the Aussies like to drink? And party? I used to think the Germans were the champion beer drinkers until I met the Australians. They could both drink me under the table, belch twice, and ask who’s next. Imagine me with thousands of Australians on Bondi Beach on New Years Eve in full party mode. Imagine my hangover the next day.
At this stage my dive buddy headed back to Portland and I went on to visit with some Aussie friends that lived inland, but by now I’m guessing that you’re saying, “enough already, what happened on that flight from New Zealand?”
This wasn’t just any flight between Auckland and Cairns, it was the inaugural flight. Air New Zealand was a pretty nice airline to fly even under normal circumstances, but they went all out on this trip. Full sized menu cards for breakfast. Complimentary beer and wine. We were feeling no pain. Then it was time for cricket.
Fortunately it wasn’t some over inebriated slob with a souvenir bat making a scene, it was one of the local cricket stars making the trip, and as part of the festivities they bowled a couple of balls down the aisle which he gently swatted. There were no complaints about a sticky wicket.
A little anticlimactic? Let’s try again.
Mighty Casey took a powerful swing at the ball, barely missing the ear of the nearest passenger, rupturing two abdominal muscles and slipping a disk. But he miscalculated; he failed to consider the thinner air and a moment of turbulence – he missed. Alas, mighty Casey had struck out!
Wait. That’s baseball. Oh well, serves me right for being clueless about cricket.
Australia and New Zealand are each unique, each full of experiences and stories. It’s been nearly 30 years now since I’ve been there, and writing this tale sets an itch to see them again – I’d like to scratch it.