Posts tagged ‘Diving’

Diving into Oz. Cairns, Australia

Cairns was, predictabley, a bit of a shock after Timor Leste and much of Asia – clean streets, nice cars, trimmed lawns, quiet pedestrian-only squares, a shiny shopping centre and so many swimming pools. It’s a nice town full of mostly two storey buildings with a conscious small town feel. The centre of everything is the esplanade – a beautiful manicured stretch of boardwalk flanked on one side by the sea and on the other by grass and a street full of Billabong shops, Baskin Robbins icecream stores, restaurants and beauty salons. The jewel in the crown, as in so many other Aussie towns from our limited experience, is a small pool-cum-lagoon where children splash as their parents watch them from beach towels on the grassy verge. Here is where all the action happens in Cairns (well, during the daytime anyway. Nighttime is a whole other kettle of fish.) Here the young, toned, tanned and beautiful stretch out under the sun, serruptitiously checking everyone else out and discussing plans for the night as a guy a few feet away strums away on his guitar.

But we weren’t in Cairns to sunbathe. It’s a nice town but not exactly a calling in its own right. The real star of the show is of course the Great Barrier Reef. After all our training in Thailand and Timor Leste we reckoned we were ready to bring out the big guns. The Great Barrier Reef would be amazing, it would be mind-blowing, it would be…. Well what would it be? We had heard so much about this great natural wonder without ever learning anything. Everyone who talks about diving here just assumes that you know what fish are there and what the coral looks like and just proceeds to repeat over and over again how great it is with out divulging any details. Yet the tour agent wanted us to part with AUS$250 each for three dives on the outer reef. We didn’t pay much more than that for the whole course in Thailand! But we had come this far and we could hardly go home without diving the Great Barrier Reef, when would we ever be here again? Plus the price was pretty much in line with absolutely everything else in Oz – cheap my ass. It would have to be the expensive outer reef too. Word on the street is that the inner reef is destroyed by tourists who punch and kick their way through, bringing home samples of the coral with them.

So with absolutely no idea what to expect we boarded the Silver Swift, lamenting the stormy weather which would inevitably stir up the tides and reduce underwater visibility. Once onboard we met the rest of our dive group – the effervescent Pearla and Hillary from Oregon, Napoleon the friendly and hilarious pilot from New York and Ulrika, the smiley Swede.

We weren’t under the water long before we decided that the Great Barrier Reef was worth every penny. Huge towers of freestanding reef mushroomed up from the ground offering a fantastic mix of detailed hard coral and colourful soft coral swaying in the tide. There were loads of anenomes, crowded with anenome fish – most notably a group of beautiful clown fish who were doing their little Nemo thing, swimming out of the anenome and then reversing back in repeatedly in an almost obsessive compulsive attempt to bond with their home. Nearby Dory flicked her yellow tail and zipped past in a blur of electic blue.

The best however, was yet to come. Since our first underwater outing we had been promised turtles but they had never materialised. “They’re very shy but this is the first time we haven’t seen at least one,” was the common refrain. Not on the Great Barrier Reef though. Making up for its failings in the visibility stakes, the reef produced not one but four turtles. And what’s more, they were stoned turtles so they were on their most chilled, sociable behaviour – letting us pet their shells, eating out of my hand and hanging around until we were done with our photos and became distracted by something colourful in the distance. DUDE! Apparently turtles eat a lot of this purple/red weed they find in the reef and it has a narcotic effect on them so the later in the day that you encounter them, the more wasted they are going to be.

As if that wasn’t enough we got to hold a pineapple sea cucumber (not actually found in the fruit and veg section of Tesco), we saw two sting rays and we even got up close and personal with a giant clam. And when I say giant, I mean giant – the thing was around two foot long! Bet it would taste great in garlic butter….

On our third dive as our awe at the towering coral and milling fish was starting to wear off we finally caught a glimpse of the main act. We were just pottering about, playing with some soft coral and making it close over our hands when we heard this muffled yell, like someone being suffocated with a pillow. Panicked we spun around expecting to see our guide Jun with a manta ray’s barb through his chest á la Steve Irwin.

What we saw instead was a huge grey shadow circling around us 5ft or 6ft away. It was a shark! A real life black tipped reef shark. Awe-struck we stopped dead, afraid even to breath. Suddenly none of us could remember – did black tipped reef sharks eat people? Could one eat six people? I shuffled behing Gary just in case. After having his sniff about and figuring out that we weren’t the small fish that usually made up his diet the shark swam off, leaving us all to do our best mime impressions of utter exhileration and dying for the dive to be done so we could get to the surface and cheer. A real life shark! Mad.

Note: It has to be said that we just can’t reccomend the Silver Swift enough. The food was incredible, the staff just the right mix of fun and responsibility, the gear up to scratch, the boat beautiful and the sites well-judged. They were definately by far the best outfit we have dived with and Jun and the crew made what could have been a dissappointing day ruined by lousy weather conditions, something to remember. And while we’re gushing, The Northern Greenhouse Hostel in Cairns is one of the best we have ever stayed in, if a tad expensive.

More pictures from Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef are available in the gallery

April 28, 2010 at 6:08 am 1 comment

Desperately seeking paradise. Ko Phi Phi, Thailand

It is almost redundant to describe Ko Phi Phi, so familiar is the western world with images of the emerald in Thailand’s crown. Featured in Alex Garland’s film The Beach and James Bond:The Man with the Golden Gun, the scorching white sand and silky green sea of Phi Phi are by now synonymous with both Thailand and paradise. What more could you want from a tropical getaway after all? Crystal clear water? Check. Luxurious sand? Check. Dramatic cliff faces topped with startling green vegetation? Check. Traditional longtail boats bobbing in the waves? Check. A rough jungle interior untouched by concrete roads or high-rise hotels? Check. Absolutely no motorised transport on-land? Check.

The only problem is that Ko Phi Phi’s shores are anything but the undiscovered playground that Leo and crew happened upon in The Beach. On the contrary, Ko Phi Phi is Thailand’s very worst kept secret so instead of that Castaway moment you were looking for, you are more likely to have a Kevin And Perry Go Large experience. Topless girls sunbathing only a hundred metres from the local Mosque, overweight middle aged couples sitting in restaurants wearing only their swimwear, drunk 19 year-olds stumbling down the street at 7pm, astronomical prices (relatively speaking of course. I am told that €2 is not really too much to pay for a large plate of curry, nor is €15 for a standard ensuite room ) – these unfortunately, are the realities of Phi Phi’s budding tourism scene. But for Phi Phi, I can forgive it. For Phi Phi, I can forgive anything.

Whatever about its on-land assets though, the best part of Ko Phi Phi is only open to a select few. Here the wildlife roams free and the natural habitat, alive with vibrant shades of pink and blue, is completely untouched. And what’s more, you can go for hours without seeing a single tourist or loose boob. I am of course talking about Diving: The Sequel. If the diving scene in Ko Tao was good, it was earth-shattering in Ko Phi Phi. Instead of the few barracuda we saw in Ko Tao, there were schools of them in Ko Phi Phi. Where we saw a handful of the same fish in Ko Tao over and over again, the waters of Ko Phi Phi housed far too many species to even take in – clownfish, angelfish, sergent major fish, harlequin sweetlips, grupas… And then there were the huge, menacing moray eels lurking behind the coral (waiting to report back on the Little Mermaid no doubt), striped sea snakes curled up on the sand and comical yellow trumpet fish looking a lot more serious than anything with lips that long should. Apparently Phi Phi also has a huge population of leopard sharks, reef sharks, seahorses and turtles although we didn’t spot any (our instructor informed us that ours was the first trip he had ever taken out to that part of the marine park without spotting at least one turtle).

And all that was just two dive sites out of an almost endless number on offer – sites which take in ship wrecks, deep sea dives and some of the most beautiful reef in Thailand. Just one more reason I could stay in Ko Phi Phi forever. Other reasons include the endless offshore uninhabited islands that I have yet to explore; the fact that when a local is passing you on a bike, instead of ringing their bell, they just sing “ring, ring” or “beep, beep” to ask you to move; the impossibility of getting anywhere without setting foot on a longtail boat, festooned at the front with coloured prayer scarves as an offering to Buddha in return for safe passage; the surprisingly interesting shopping scene; the spectacular weather; the snorkelling; the monkey that walks around town, hand in hand with his owner, wearing red shorts and a shirt with sailing boats on it; the lively nightlife and in particular the live band in Rolling Stoned; the hope that one day, I might arrive in the famous Maya Bay (where The Beach was filmed) to find it deserted and the opportunity to climb up to the view point every evening to watch the sun set behind the cliffs.

It has to be said though, that one of the best parts of our trip to Phi Phi had nothing to do with the island itself but rather the happy coincidence that we got to spend a little more time with Dan, Ash, Cat and Julia (okay fine, we followed them). Before our final, devastating seperation we spent a few days lounging on beaches chattering about nothing and everything, lolling about companionably in hammocks, arguing over whose turn it is to decide where we are going for dinner and, best of all, downing buckets and attending wet tshirt competitions in the local Irish Bar. When the Norwegians left for South Africa and Dan and Ash strapped on their boots and headed for Mt. Everest (“but they’ll climb that mountain when they get to it,” says Gary) Laura and Joe rolled into town and the merriment continued. Hurrah for friends!

Six days after we arrived, we left Ko Phi Phi bronzed, totally relaxed and in my case, completely smitten. Khao Sok National Park has some big shoes to fill.

More pictures from Ko Phi Phi are available in the gallery

March 24, 2010 at 2:45 pm 5 comments


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