October 21, 2002

Notes from Down Under, part the third

Cape Tribulation, Queensland

I have seen the Great Barrier Reef, up close and personal, and wow. Floating weightless amid breathtakingly gorgeous coral formations, in every colour of the rainbow, teeming with huge schools of fish of every size, and squid and stingrays and sharks and shrimps and eels and anemones and giant clams and and and and, and it all just went on, and on, and on -- and this was just at a few of the smaller dots on the overall Reef.

I went on 11 dives in 51 hours, living on a boat the whole time; for a while there I thought I was growing gills. I am now officially an Advanced Open Water Scuba Diver, which may impress you -- unless you have done the same course, and know it's about as difficult as Basketweaving 101. Terrific fun though.

The night dives were my favourite. Going headfirst down a towering coral wall, playing my light over the twisting alien formations -- I felt like an astronaut. And there were sharks at night, their eyes glowing a poisonous jade green. Little whitetip reef sharks, a mere five feet long, and gray whalers bigger than me.

The deep dives were a little disappointing; I was waiting for the nitrogen narcosis, the famous "rapture of the deep", to hit, and for me to develop delusions of omnipotence or a sudden hatred for my fellow divers; but no, I just felt a little slower and more thickheaded than normal.

(OK, I'll assume you've all made some kind of witty joke at my expense here. Now can we all just move on.)

I didn't get at all seasick -- though conditions were calm, the ocean nearly flat, the underwater visibility ("viz" to you divers) a good 20 metres -- but once I got back on land I kept expecting it to slosh back and forth the way the boat did, and my system (particularly the "balance" subcomponent) was not pleased by this unexpected stability. My attempt to counteract this lack of sway by consuming large amounts of Victoria Bitter, as suggested by my crazy Norwegian dive instructor, was an interesting but total failure.

The next morning, a little worse for wear, I went north to Cape Tribulation, a point overshadowed by Mounts Misery and Sorrow -- quite an unfair name, really, for one of the most spectacularly beautiful pieces of real estate on the planet; apparently Captain Cook went and ran his ship into an offshore reef nearby, and was obviously in a foul mood when he went about naming things.

But I guess he was half-right after all. While you can argue about what the deadliest creature on earth is, there's no doubt that whatever it is it's Australian, and it probably lives near Cape Tribulation. Here the crocodiles are 8 metres long, the jellyfish stings are so painful that most victims immediately die of shock and drowning and the survivors are still screaming after being knocked out with morphine, and one of the most common native plants causes three to six months of continuous agony if you so much as brush against it. And then there are the usual Aussie contingent of snakes; thirty-foot pythons, ridiculously lethal vipers, and so forth.

And then there's the cassowaries. But I'll get to them in a second.

It's a wonderful place. When you think Australia, you think rocks and kangaroos, not jungle; but Cape Tribulation is covered by rainforest which despite two consecutive failed wet seasons is as dense and diverse as any I've seen in Africa or Indonesia. I stayed a couple nights in a very relaxed jungle hostel called Crocodylus Village. It was just a few klicks up from an absolutely gorgeous warm-water beach, and at the village they assured us that despite the copious warning signs on the beach the jellyfish weren't out yet and the crocs stuck to the rivers. Although come to think of it they did insist on payment in advance. Hmm. Anyways, I swam and lived to tell the tale.

Cape Tribulation is also infested by cassowaries. Yeah, I never heard of them either before I came here. A cassowary is a colourful giant flightless bird, about my height. Allegedly they're extremely rare and highly endangered, but I couldn't get away from the bloody things - after a sightings yesterday, this morning I woke up and went outside and there was one literally blocking my path to breakfast.

Those of you who know me know that this is an unwise thing to do, but I hesitated; first because it was morning and as you know I spent all morning in one giant hesitation, and second because, even though cassowaries seem extremely slow, awkward, and ungainly, there is at least one documented instance of cassowary killing a man -- a man sitting on a horse, no less -- with a single flying karate kick. I swear I am not making this up.

(Who taught the cassowaries karate has not yet been determined, but Pat Morita is apparently wanted for questioning.)

Hunger won out over self-preservation and I gingerly picked my way past the cassowary. I wasn't too concerned about animal attacks anyway, because this was clearly the week for inanimate objects to have a go at me. Thus far I have been bashed by a vengeful scuba tank, blistered by a malicious flipper, bruised by two separate tree roots, and gashed by a bloodthirsty vine. Those of you who have known me long enough to remember when I was mauled by a savage waterbed will probably not be terribly surprised by any of this.

I'm leaving out a lot here: diving through hoops, the crocodile cruise, kangaroo steaks, my first confirmed wallaby sighting, the tropical-fruit ice cream factory, an aboriginal lecture on rainforest as pharmacy and buffet and arsenal...but I think I've gone on long enough for now, and besides, I'm absolutely dying for a roo burger.


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