QUEENSLAND ADVENTURES — Breaking on Through.

6 Jul

My wife Chris, and I travelled to Port Douglas in the far north-eastern corner of Australia in April, 2013, following a visit to Sydney to see her son John and his partner Freya. Port Douglas is a pretty place in an idyllic location. It sits on a peninsula, surrounded on 3 sides by the sparkling ocean. From it’s palm -fringed shore there are views of distant wooded mountains dropping down to the shore. When Chris mentioned to the Aussie husband of a friend of hers that we were going to Port Douglas, he remarked :”Oh, does your husband play golf?” He was thinking of the numerous upmarket resorts that sprinkle the area, complete with their own; gardens, pools, shops, restaurants, gyms, tennis courts and golf courses. In fact there is so much to do that one might easily forget to go out through the security gates and see what Australia looks like! Our friend didn’t think to mention the Great Barrier Reef or the Daintree Tropical Rain Forest which were the real reasons for our visit. Both of them are World Heritage Sites, and are sited in this area of far north Queensland.
We approached our boat trip to the outer reaches of the Barrier Reef with equal amounts of excitement and trepidation. This was to be one of the outstanding highlights of our holiday and we had shelled out a lot of money to go on the trip, yet we were very nervous because neither of us had ever snorkelled before.
For most of my life I have been a very weak swimmer. My mother is a non-swimmer and I’ve inherited her innate fear of deep water. My earliest memory, which I can still vividly recall, is of falling in a boating lake in Colwyn Bay at the age of three. I can still conjure up the memory of being underwater, cut off from the world. My dad quickly dragged me out and I was fine, but the incident probably cemented the fear that was already inside me. Mum used to write me fake sick notes to excuse me from going to swimming lessons with school when I was about 9. On one of the few occasions when I did go, the instructor, an ex-army type, noticed me quivering hesitantly on the edge of the pool, afraid to enter the water. He sadistically ordered me to jump in. I needed gentle, sensitive coaxing, but instead got shock therapy! The result was another near disaster ( in my eyes) and I had to be rescued again. In the end I could only manage a width of doggy-paddle by the time I left primary school. This slowly developed into a pathetic, flapping front- crawl which swiftly exhausted me on my rare visits to the baths. I was scared to go to the deep end where my feet couldn’t touch the bottom.
Gradually through the years, I forced myself to do a slow breast stroke with a poor leg action and my head stuck awkwardly out of the water. Only when I got to 60, helped by Chris, did I finally manage to swim whole lengths without risking drowning. Now at the local pool I can swim up to 30 lengths without getting tired. I may be just about the slowest person in the pool, but it’s still a massive achievement for me.
However, despite this progress, the thought of plunging into the deep ocean, putting my head completely under water and breathing through a plastic tube, caused my old fears to come flooding back. It seemed to me a daunting task. Even though she is a much better swimmer than me, Chris was nervous too. As the boat slipped out of the marina and headed out to open sea, I felt the familiar butterflies fluttering around in my stomach. Would we or wouldn’t we?
As all the guide books tell you, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is one of the natural wonders of the world. It consists of 2900 individual reefs and 900 islands, stretching for 1600 miles off the Queensland coast. It can be seen from outer space and is the world’s largest structure made by living organisms. We saw it from the air as we flew in and out of Cairns. The shallower sea around the reefs glowed a stunning, azure blue. The reef has been built by billions of tiny organisms known as coral polyps. The coral attracts a mesmerising variety of marine life. The whole area was declared a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site in 1981. Taking all this into consideration, I didn’t think there was much chance that I would stay ashore and play a round of golf!
Chris and I sailed out on a large hydrofoil that surfed swiftly over the waves. It carried loads of other passengers — there’s safety in numbers! We were given an illustrated talk about the reef by a marine biologist. Then we watched a short film about how to snorkel, which emphasised how easy it was. I started to think that I’d probably give it a go. The expectation of how wonderful it would be was beginning to overpower my fear of making a fool of myself.
We arrived at a large floating platform on the outer fringes of the reef 40 kms out from Port Douglas. The sun was blazing and the ocean was sparkling. We put off the moment of decision by going for a fascinating ride in a semi-submersible vessel which was part of the package. The top of the boat was above the ocean while the bottom, where we sat, was hanging down below the water and we got a close view of the coral. It was all shapes and sizes and in a variety of hues. Some of the coral formations were like colourful cauliflowers, others were like multi-coloured sponges. We saw giant clams slowly opening and closing their jaws. We saw starfish and shimmering shoals of luminescent tropical fish. The trouble was that all this was viewed through a thick window so everything had a slightly blurred, bluey tinge to it. My numerous photos didn’t turn out very well. Next we ventured into an underwater observation tunnel which hung down from the platform. This too was a very good experience. This time we saw divers plunging between the canyons of coral and amongst the fish. We further prevaricated by eating a delicious buffet lunch on the platform. As we ate I could sense that Chris was hesitating too. Maybe we should have brought notes from our mothers to let us off!
Finally, the moment of truth arrived as time was pressing on. We had travelled halfway round the globe to experience one of the wonders of the world. We had paid a lot of money to go on this trip. We had had instruction and all the necessary equipment was available to us. Lifeguards were on duty to keep us safe. Were we really going to let this fantastic opportunity slip by because we were a bit nervous?
So we did it! We put on black, lycra, wet-suits to protect us from the sun and from stinging box-jellyfish. We clipped on yellow life-jackets. A lifeguard then put on my goggles, ramming them down hard on my nose so that I didn’t have any choice but to breathe through my mouth. She tucked the breathing tube inside the strap of my goggles and showed me how to hold it in my mouth. I had to clench it between my back teeth and then breath through my mouth. I was about to gag but thankfully got matters under control after a few deep breaths. Lastly I put on the long, cumbersome flippers. Standing there on the steps leading down to the water, I felt like a cross between a complete prat and an astronaut. I now knew how Buzz and Neal must have felt before they made their first great steps for mankind! I could tell that the female lifeguard who assisted me could barely contain her laughter!
After counting to three, I launched myself out into the crystal clear water. Chris quickly followed. I floated on the surface for a few moments and then put my head under and breathed through the tube. It worked and it was wonderful! I experienced a big surge of adrenaline. It was if I had been held captive by my life-long fears and now suddenly I was free!
Below me, through the clear, shining water, was a beautiful, colourful section of reef. Black and white striped Zebra fish and rainbow hued Angel fish swam around just below me, almost within touching distance. Shoals of glistening, luminescent blue fish swirled around. And I was watching it all, quietly and calmly, without panicking or spluttering or swallowing half the Pacific Ocean. I cannot give an accurate description of what I saw as it was all a bit of a blur. It was more the thrill of the experience than spotting specific things.
I had had the same liberating feeling of exhilaration when I first went skiing in the Dolomites and when I went white- water canoeing down the Ardeche Gorge in Provence. Both of these “achievements” had come in my early 40’s after half a lifetime of being cautious and timid, a family trait. Both of them felt like I was breaking free of inherited restraints. Snorkelling at the Great Barrier Reef also fitted into this category. To paraphrase Jim Morrison, it felt as if I was breaking on through to the other side.
Regular snorkelers and divers may laugh at me, but, in the context of my life, snorkelling in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Queensland was a memorable experience and wonderful “achievement.” Chris was elated too. We will certainly do it again!

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