The Kiss of the Jellyfish
Cairns, Queensland, Australia
Cairns is the height of tourist inundated, soulless cities. Of course, there’s a good reason for this and it is that Cairns is within striking distance of a dozen wildly popular, natural tourist attractions, the granddaddy being the Great Barrier Reef. Nearly every single conspicuous business-front in the city somehow supports the tourist industry, which are thusly adorned with huge, colorful signs trumpeting their offers. However, in a grand and satisfying departure from most other tourist bathed destinations, there aren’t people hassling you every few feet on the street, handing you brochures, grabbing your arm and pulling you into their shops or grifting you through a complicated scam. The Aussies want your business, but they are content to let you find your own way into their establishments, which almost makes up for the eyesore of business-fronts wallpapered with screaming promotions.
I spent my first day in Cairns, walking around, sweating profusely in the tropical heat and arranging a reef expedition, in addition to putting all the transportation pieces into place to get myself through the rest of my Australian east coast journey. Greyhound Australia has a multitude of hop-on-hop-off deals for the entire country. My particular ticket would take me the nearly 2,200 miles from Cairns to Melbourne, allowing me to stop and go and stay as much as I pleased. The only restrictions were that I had to keep on a southerly course, no backtracking north, and I had to get it done in a month. The grand total for this arrangement was an amazingly cheap US$190. Considering I had shelled out US$77 for a single bus ride from Mackay to Cairns, this was the deal of the century. Part of the reason for this miracle of budget travel was that I received a huge discount due to my other acquisition of the day, the VIP Backpackers Card. This US$27 card, valid for one year, gives the holder discounts on transportation, services and accommodations in a multitude of countries all over the world, in addition to acting as a rechargeable phone card. The card practically paid for itself with the discount I got on the bus ticket purchase alone. All these details had me glowing with happiness and admiration at the wonderful convenience and affordability that is traveling in Australia.
Despite having a huge harbor, Cairns does not have a serviceable beach. Years of dredging the harbor to allow larger ships to pass into port have bogarted what little beach they once had. There are still beach-like areas along the harbor esplanade, but when the tide goes out, the entire beachfront turns into an unsightly, sprawling mud puddle where I imagined one could be swallowed alive if they dilly-dallied too long into low-tide. Well, a tourism hot-spot certainly can’t go without a place for children to frolic and Germans to sun their ample bare bosoms, so Cairns has put together a picturesque, 4,000 square meter saltwater swimming lagoon at the heart of the harbor area. Leading away from the lagoon, the harbor esplanade stretches nearly the length of the city’s waterfront and is dotted with play grounds, exercise stations and mini-water park fountains for children and adults alike to crash through for heat relief. Every few hundred meters there are large, smartly designed kiosks that have poster-sized information displays, detailing points about Cairns’ history, culture, climate and native Aboriginal tribes. Each kiosk also has an interactive touch-screen information station where you can learn even more about Cairns’ numerous attractions. Though after a walk down Sheilds Street or past the business side of the esplanade, there is very little more to be learned about Cairns’ enticements that you haven’t already priced at three different shops.
On my second day in Cairns, I took my full-day Great Barrier Reef tour with Down Under Dive Tours. The US$62 tour included the boat transfer to two different Reef sites, morning and afternoon tea, a huge lunch, a free SCUBA “discovery dive” and the musical stylings of the ship’s cook for the journey home. The day before my reef tour, I was regaled by several hostel mates about the rough seas of the previous week. Every single reef excursion ended in most if not all of the boat’s passengers leaning over the side, puking up three days worth of Thai food. I have never had serious problems with movement related sickness, but I imagined that when surrounded by 49 retching people, I would undoubtedly suffer from a sympathy chunder or two myself. Just to drive this possibility home, the first thing out of the mouth of the crew during our boat orientation was the fact that complimentary seasick pills were available and we should all take them. The young, sun-drenched crew member went on to entertain us with a possibly fictitious story from a few days earlier where one woman in the corner of the interior, air conditioned lower cabin lost her lunch and it started a gagging chain reaction that swept the entire cabin, clockwise, like dominoes. The few people who were able to lurch out to the back deck and puke over the side of the boat sparked a group puke by the smokers and sunbathers that weren’t privy to the regurgitation circle going on inside. Despite this vivid tale, only one person, an already green-looking Croatian woman, took the pills. Ultimately, I’m happy to report that our journey was puke-free. The day of our tour was enriched by the best weather I had seen since my arrival in Australia. No storms, no rain and little wind. There was still enough wave-fueled boat jerking going on to keep us dancing into each other, but it was all contently free of any food reviews.
We arrived at Hastings Reef first, where I took my SCUBA discovery dive, a shallow depth, sugar-coated, but nevertheless tempting preview of what one might experience during a genuine dive. I had briefly intended to start my SCUBA PADI certification in Oz before I was told I could get certified in Thailand for a fraction of the price. I told my dive instructor upfront about my plans to certify in Thailand, but she nevertheless did her very best to bait me into buying a last second 30 minute dive plan right up until she sent me floating back up to the boat.
The discovery dive was surprisingly simple and succeeded in ridding me of any SCUBA apprehensions I had, which were admittedly few. Before we were allowed anywhere near the equipment, we learned a variety of underwater sign language, the ins and outs of clearing your face mask and regulator, and that reef sharks almost never eat you. Finally we were kitted up and went below the boat to spend 10 minutes underwater doing confidence building exercises. After all this, my instructor gave me one last, non-verbal enticement to continue on with the dive (she flashed me, just kidding), but I declined and she reluctantly filled my vest’s air chamber and sent me popping to the surface. I was relived of my dive equipment and I immediately headed out to snorkel and ogle the Reef.
After snorkeling in Maui in 1999, I had become a snorkel junkie. Unfortunately, there are no worthwhile snorkeling opportunities in Minnesota, so I hadn’t snorkeled since. Well, it was just like riding a bike. I torpedoed away from the boat like a greased porpoise and spent hours exploring the reef, diving, chasing giant fish and fondling sea cucumbers. I was even blessed with the presence of a reef shark that was as long as I was, which we were all told would be an unlikely encounter, what with all the discouraging noise and commotion made by the boat’s engines and the thrashing of the snorkelers. After 20 odd minutes of snorkeling, I realized that I had neglected to don a t-shirt as planned after my discovery dive. I meandered back to the boat, retrieved my t-shirt and wore it for the rest of the day. Unfortunately, as I discovered later, with the Australian sun magnified by the water, 20 unprotected minutes was all it took to leave me badly scorched. Even the parts of me that I had slathered with SPF 30 sun block (twice) were red, though not nearly as red as the parts of my back that had been exposed. Sadly that was the least of my suffering. In the meantime, I had become the plaything of several bluebottle jellyfish.
In addition to having a booty that makes the ladies coo, my kickin’ bod apparently also happens to have a catnip-like effect on the blueys. I was stung four times throughout our three hour visit to Hastings Reef. One or two other people were stung once, but those damn blueys were on me like Australian Lip-Shitting Flies to my bottom lip. And it wasn’t as if I neglected to watch out for the little bastards. I was all eyes, particularly after the first round of stings, but those sea imps are all but invisible. Supposedly blueys can be spotted by the telltale blue tinges in their tiny head and long trailing tails, but being underwater the entire time, I never saw one coming. I only felt their searing caress.
To hear Bill Bryson tell about bluey stings, I was expecting profound agony, but these stings were shockingly mild. The first two sings (left should and scalp) were one right after the other and the burn was so light that I wasn’t sure that they hadn’t been jellyfish at all, but instead a different ocean-related irritation. When I exited the water to take a rest, the boat crew assured me that they were bluey stings and treated me with vinegar. Within minutes of returning to the water, I got a very hearty lashing on my right shoulder. That one left a mark. It still wasn’t excruciating pain, but it was definitely uncomfortable. The last sting was the kicker. Right across the lips. Fucking misery. My lips were swollen and raw by the time I got back to the boat. The crew was visibly sympathetic as I had my lips treated with vinegar ï¿½ FYI, this remedy is almost as unpleasant as a bluey sting itself – which is saying a lot considering the traditionally unsympathetic, tough guy Aussie demeanor. Eventually, we jetted off to the second dive site where there was no jellyfish presence. Or maybe they had all decided to call it a day after wearing themselves out on me at Hastings.
At our second site a helicopter joined us, bringing more divers and offering last minute air tours of the reef. As much as I would like to get up in a helicopter some day, I passed on this particular opportunity. Not only because of the added expense, but I got the distinct feeling that the experience wasn’t that much of a kick when the pilot came out to do his pitch and seemed to be desperately reaching in his attempts to sell the tour.
The second reef was slightly less amazing, but I still snorkeled for nearly three hours. The mere act of floating freely and spying on another world was attraction enough for me. I paddled around watching colorful fish feed on the Reef, while occasional buzzing over the heads of the newbie SCUBA divers just for yucks. Despite the seemingly light duties of floating around and breathing through a tube for nearly six hours, by the time we wrapped things up and headed back to Cairns, I was pooped. Too pooped to sing “Waltzing Matilda” along with the cook with more than nominal gusto.
Cairns has weeks worth of diversions to offer. Rain forest tours, sailing, fishing, (out-of-town) beaches, skydiving, bungee jumping, and multi-day tours into the outback, but I came specifically to snorkel the reef and once that was accomplished I felt I needed to move on. Five weeks seemed like plenty of time to cover the entire east coast of Australia while I was budgeting time for the trip months earlier, but having arrived and gotten a taste of the vast distances between cities, I quickly realized that it wasn’t nearly enough. My time constraint paranoia mushroomed each time I told fellow travelers about my intended itinerary and they just smiled sympathetically and shook their heads like when someone announces that they want to go over Niagara Falls in a Mickey Mouse costume. I hastily left town the next day.