I was well aware that I am not exactly travelling light, but on checking in my luggage at the Cairns Greyhound/McCafferty's bus station I realised just what an understatement that was. I thought I had done really well in condensing my belongings into only three bags - indeed I had . . . they are just three heavy bags: dive bag, 21kg, backpack, 22kg, and day pack 10kg. Just don't ask, OK?
After seven months in Australia, I finally left Cairns behind me, and began my southbound journey at 1100 on January 7th, arriving in Townsville several hours later, and booking into Globetrotters backpackers, in a dorm without air con, and with a fan that had only two speeds - slow and hardly moving at all. I booked in for two nights and asked the guy on reception to stow my dive bag, explaining how I would not be able to dive the famous Yongala shipwreck due to recovering perforated eardrum. He went on to tell me at length what a wonderful dive it is and how I really should do it - grrr!
I'd not been looking forward to a return to dorm life, after being spoilt with my own room for so much of the time I've been down under. I felt even less enamoured with it once I realised I had had $70 swiped from my wallet shortly after I arrived. Stupidly I had left it on the bed and gone out to meet my friend. I realised I'd left it behind within half an hour and gone back to retrieve it, but the damage was done. In between two appallingly hot and sleepless nights, I saw the sights of Townsville. That is the view from Castle Hill, plus a visit to the museum and the Imax theatre. The museum is largely dedicated to the story of the Pandora, the boat sent out to arrest and return the Bounty mutineers, which then hit the reef and sunk. The Imax was one of the omnimax ones, with all round viewing, and I saw Island of the Sharks, featuring Cocos Island off the coast of Costa Rica, and the many hammerheads that it attracts.
My next destination was Airlie Beach, and I arrived there early afternoon, choosing to stay at Beaches Backpackers, courtesy of it being the most central one that sent a van to meet the bus. My friend John had kindly put me in touch with his sister, who works for a company that does scenic flights over the Whitsundays Islands and the reef. I booked up to go the next morning, knowing that Airlie is a renowned party town I thought I'd get my early start out of the way. After two poor night's sleep I'd told the people I was sharing a dorm with how much I was looking forward to catching up, especially before my big day. Memories of my last scenic flight, where I spent most of the time in the foetal position, eyes closed willing myself not to puke were fresh in my mind. Whilst I was aware that that had been mainly alcohol induced, I didn't want to end up with a similar sensation because I was over tired.
The nice Irish lads in the room asked if I minded them having a few pre-going out drinks in the dorm, which of course I didn't, and they left around eleven. I'd already taken a temazepan to ensure I slept well, and dropped off half an hour later. At midnight I was awoken by the only other girl in the dorm coming in slamming the door and talking loudly to the bloke she had in tow. They then proceeded to turn out the light and have sex. Once they had finished, being well and truly awake, I turned on the light to read . . . whereupon I discovered that my bed was infested with bedbugs. I killed seven of the little bastards, and decided to sleep out on the balcony, taking my chances with the mosquitoes. After half an hour or so, the heat and the bites drove me back inside, and I thought I'd risk the bed again, but within a couple of minutes I'd had to kill another two bedbugs.
By now I had worked myself up into quite a state, the only thing saving me from despair was texting my folks giving them updates on the situation - at least I could share my agony! Then I thought of the storage cupboard in the dorm - a small doorless room with shelves to put backpacks, and settled down on the floor in there. As each of the other occupants of the room returned one by one, they would give me a shake, and suggest I went to bed, until I explained what I was doing there. One of the guys that had returned earlier (by now it was around four) then started talking loudly in his sleep. The situation had got so ridiculous that I at least had to see the funny side! I eventually managed to get an hours sleep before six, when I had to be up.
I arrived at the airport feeling absolutely knackered, and worried that this may make me feel queasy, but fortunately it didn't. The plane took off and soon we were over the harbour, and heading out toward the Whitsunday Islands, as the newly risen sun glistened on the water far below. It was beautiful, a wonderful way to see the islands - which I had sailed around last time I was here. The seaplane landed on the ocean near to Hayman Island, and we dropped three passengers off for a day there, and picked up a young Japanese couple. You will probably not be too surprised to learn that I out-snapped the Japs! Then we went from land back to sea back to air, and it was off and out too the reef, giving me a really different perspective on things. I saw a couple of turtles, rays and even two dolphins from my birds eye view.
We landed out at sea amongst the reef, and took to a small boat with underwater viewing before having a snorkel. Not as good as diving, of course, but good to be in the water. From there we were taking off again, next destination the famous Whitehaven Beach, with its sparkling white silica sand. A picnic lunch was provided here, and some time for me to stroll happily up the beach, contemplating on what a great day I was having. As a favour, they had arranged for me to be dropped off at exclusive Hayman Island, which used to be the number one resort in the world, and is still amongst the top five. It normally costs around $200 just to come here for a few hours. I spoke to one of the workers, who told me that the penthouse suite cost $4,500 a night - though to be fair, you do get your own butler!
The tiredness did set in while I was there, but I enjoyed wandering around, seeing how the other half live. After a few hours I returned to where the seaplanes drive up onto the island, and rejoined my plane for the trip home. The pilot kindly let me sit up front in the co-pilot's seat - though wisely did not let me have a go of flying. It had been a great day, and a wonderful way to see the Islands, as I did not intend to take a sailing trip this time around.
On returning to the hostel I had to tell them about the bedbugs and get to change rooms. Like a friend in need, you truly find out how good a hostel is when you have a problem, and these guys were great. After a quick examination of the bed to confirm I'd not imagined the whole thing, I was given a key to a new room, and a handful of dollar coins - I had to wash all my clothes to prevent contaminating the new room, even though most of them had been nowhere near the infested bed. No complaints from me though, as I got to get all my clothes nice and clean. Okay, so they had all been washed in Port Douglas before I left, but at least I'd have the peace of mind that my possessions were bed bug free. The next couple of hours were spent in manic washing, hand-washing and drying, and at the end of it I had damp clothes strewn all around the new room. Then I had an early night, sleeping ten hours to catch up.
Not long after I awoke the next morning I noticed a sudden and painful headache. I took a couple of tablets and went out for breakfast, but half way through began to feel most peculiar. I felt light-headed and woozy, and a bit sick. I staggered back to my fortunately air conditioned room, where I slept for six hours. I managed to get up in the evening and get some food, though I still felt decidedly crook, and had to return to bed soon after. As I seem to be having a bit of a run of bad luck lately, I did wonder if I'd been unlucky enough to come down with dengue, which is still a problem in the Cairns and Townsville regions. I vowed to get it checked out the next morning, having at least learnt something from the ear incident.
I did feel much better than I had when I awoke, but was still not 100%, so headed to seek the chemists advice. I was relieved to hear that my symptoms were not those of dengue, but he said they were classic migraine symptoms. It seems a little strange to have got my first ever migraine at 32, but then I guess I am a little strange! He told me I could expect to feel washed out for a couple of days, which was in line with how I was feeling. At least I was in an air-con room to recover. I did little more that day that book my bus to Hervey Bay, and also accommodation with the same company, and pack my now dry clothes.
Having some time to kill the next day, I went to Vic Hislop's great white shark expo, billed as hours of entertainment for the whole family. I wasn't sure I approved, as the man is proud of being the world's top shark hunter, but thought I'd go along and see for myself. Well it was certainly an eye opener! I left the place with the distinct impression that Jaws really isn't all that far fetched after all. He concentrates on trapping the top three man-eaters, great whites AKA white pointers, tiger sharks and bull sharks AKA whalers, and used to be called in after an attack on a human. I say used to be because great whites are now protected, environmentalists arguing that they are becoming extinct, though this is a moot point.
Vic is convinced that shark attacks are covered up so as not to hurt the tourism industry, and I have to say that his argument is compelling. Shark attacks are played down over here, the government proudly quoting low figures that may not be terribly realistic. Only witnessed - or survived - attacks count as such, whereas the real figure is probably a lot higher. Anyone that goes missing in or around the water is listed as presumed drowned, but having been to the show it does seem likely that a large number of these would have been victims of sharks. In some cases, Vic has caught large numbers of man-eater-class sharks within days and metres of where people have disappeared, making it most probable that they were the cause of the disappearance.
It was macabrely fascinating to read the hundreds of newspaper clippings on the walls - and I was there for four hours, so did get to read most of them. Something I had been totally unprepared for myself was the amount of attacks on divers (sorry mum!). Admittedly, by nature diving is something that is normally done with a buddy, so these attacks are much more likely to be documented, i.e. most of the shark attacks on divers are likely to be recorded as such by virtue of there being a witness, but even so. Spear fishermen and surfers I was aware of as likely targets, but not us divers. I was also under the impression that sharks did not intentionally eat humans, but there does seem to be evidence that once they get the taste for it they will come back for more. This is backed up by multiple attacks and disappearances in the same stretch of water (and could have included the former prime minister here). As I said, maybe Jaws isn't so far fetched
It's certainly not going to put me off, and indeed it's not meant to. The idea behind it is to educate, and give people a bit more of a healthy respect for the creatures. You would still be much more likely to die driving a car than in the water. I would now though think twice about diving in an area where baby whales are, as this attracts these types of big sharks. Vic has done research into why whales beach themselves, and is convinced that they do this to escape sharks that are hunting them - avoiding a fate worse than death, as it were. I don't know much about the subject, but apparently the general consensus is that they get disorientated - which he argues is unlikely due to their intelligence and instincts. It would also explain why efforts to get the beached mammals back into the water so frequently fail; they know what is out there lying in wait.
Later that day I boarded my bus to Hervey Bay, where I am now - in a stinking hot dorm with no aircon. It's actually much cooler outside than it is in my room. It's funny speaking to the people that are heading north as I head south - they are all complaining about the heat, whereas for me, this is the coolest day I've known for a while. The journey here took 12 hours, and I naively took an overnight bus thinking I'd get some sleep - when will I learn?! I've booked to go on a guided tour of Fraser Island tomorrow (and the following two days). Many people go on self-drive trips, but I don't want to get all anal about how my companions are driving, and whether they are up to it. I'm not the best passenger in the world, but at least I am aware of the fact.