Airlie Beach

 
Wednesday December 5th

 
      The bus arrived at Airlie Beach at 7am, warm already but not too hot for a walk with the bags in search of accommodation. In the same way as I arrived in Chaing Mai I had read a guide book in the last half hour of the bus and walked past the accommodation touts thinking I could do better. As it turned out the second building I passed had reasonably priced rooms for the area ($55 per night for a double bed or $20 for a dorm bed) and it was right opposite the main beach. I took a double room, making sure I took one with a window. And it's the best room I've had to sleep in in all Australia so far, the garden across the road is basically the beach, I can see the sea and hills from the balcony and the air conditioning is priceless!

 

Airlie Beach and some of the Whitsunday Islands
 

 

Airlie Beach
 

 

Looking out from my balcony
 

 
      Airlie Beach is a small, extremely friendly and sometimes very upmarket place. The beach is beautiful with many small boats anchored out at sea and some of the Whitsunday Islands in the distance. There are New Age shops, boat selling shops and there's even an architect shop. But as with most of Queensland's coastline the sea is deadly. Two large signs warn that from October to May no swimming is safe because of the jellyfish. They give instructions of what to do in the event of a person being stung, things like how to try to continue the person's breathing and heart and fetch the antivenom. Even some graffiti on the sign seems to avoid going over the message out of respect.
      It is a very hot day. I overheard some locals mentioning how hot it is. Water never tasted so good.
      Around the corner from the main beach there's an artificial swimming lagoon that at high tide almost seems to be part of the sea. A map tells me there's a netted area of the sea where it's safe to swim a couple of small bays away.

 

The lagoon swimming pool
 

 
      At night it's cooler, but still hot enough, so I have been sitting out on the beach. Strangely despite the heat I noticed no flies or mosquitos are around, I can go anywhere and sleep at night without fear of being bitten.

 

Thursday December 6th

 
      Finally some spare time on my own without needing to plan what to do next, so I spent a few hours improving and adding to the journal. I might email some particularly interested people the recent bits until I have the chance to upload them to the site.
      There are loads of people sitting and lying about in the shade of the trees along the beach, and plenty of room for more. A child walks down the beach and dips his toes in the water but no more on account of the jellyfish, these things invoke more fear than sharks.
      After dark the airconditioning in the area of the rooms is still strange for me, even at night it is much warmer outside than it is inside, I didn't notice it as much at night in Thailand.
      After dinner I wandered over to the Irish Bar. There where a few uninteresting loners and a small crowd of slightly too friendly drunk local men on the karaoke. I drank my drink faster than ever before and left.

 

Friday December 7th

 
      Just another superb day on the beach. Very hot again, sent a couple of emails, developed the latest film of pictures and booked an island and scuba diving trip for tomorrow. Just a simple instructed 'resort' dive as I haven't done any diving since becoming certified (if you know what I mean) a few years ago. This will give me a look at the famous Whitehaven beach as well.
      The travel agent in Sydney I booked the flight to Malaysia (for Thailand) a while ago phoned to say I needed a ticket to leave Malaysia before they would let me get on the plane. Lucky he called. So I phoned various people to try to organise a train ticket from Kuala Lumpur into Thailand and another back again so I could enter the two countries without spending too much money committing to my next move which I have no idea about at this stage. I just want to stay in Thailand for a while, renewing the visa each month. Who knows whether it'll work but I have to try, too far down that road to change things now! Also called Simone's mum to arrange a stay in Simone's room in Townsville. (Simone has my car in London.)

 

Saturday December 8th

 
      A totally awesome boat trip today. The minibus arrived at 8am. It takes about an hour to reach Hook island by boat (but far slower if you sail there as a lot of people do). A web site (www.ccy.com.au) tells me there's only a 20% chance of northwesterly winds, but we've been having them all week. I think it's what you tend to get here in the summer. This means that the best coral sites on the Whitsunday Islands (mostly on the north side of Hook Island) are out of bounds due to the large waves coming inshore. So the boat took us to the sheltered side of the island which was still great for my first scuba dive in almost three years. I haven't dived since I learnt in Byron Bay on my last Australia visit.
      As I was diving too deep for the camera there are no pictures, but it was more the fun of diving again that I was after. Seems far easier the second time. When you are learning you worry about everything, but after that it just seems so easy, one button to go lower, another to go higher, be totally relaxed, watch the air pressure, and don't come up too quickly. We only went down about 6 metres but were there for about half an hour. Plenty of the usual kind of reef life, fish big and small and loads of coral.
      Afterwards we went to the best end of the huge white sanded Whitehaven Beach (Whitsunday Island) for a couple of hours. In the middle of the day it was very hot indeed, so I found a shady bit around the back of a rocky outcrop, watching for snakes this time! We were warned not to try to walk across, as the other end is 7 km away, and even if you have the time you can dehydrate in the heat and you can't drink sea water.

 

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island
 

 

Whitehaven Beach
 

 

Whitehaven Beach
 

 

7 km long - These pictures are scaled up so the hills are further than they look
 

 
      But after half an hour the boredom flushed me out and I went back to the front of the beach. Still very hot and bright, the sun reflecting off the water and white sand which was almost everywhere. The sand was a lot like snow, very fine with a thin crust on the surface, looking from the distance like a dry salt lake in America. I found a cave with just enough shadow to sit in. As the sun moved round the shadow got bigger so I could lie down making everyone wonder why they hadn't found it first. I decided to build a metre deep scale model of Bin Laden's Tora Bora cave complex in the sand (there must be a computer game in that). Then braved the sun and ignored the jellyfish and went swimming. Couldn't believe it there were fish in the water. I found that if I stood fairly still they would come towards me as fish often do to larger objects that can shelter them, or maybe they have been fed here sometimes, who knows. Looked like you could survive on spear fishing here, but I'm not sure where the drinking water would come from, I haven't seen any sign of fresh water on these islands.

 

Friendly fish at Whitehaven Beach
 

 

Perhaps he's hungry
 

 
      I found out today that the last person to die from jellyfish was a child in 1936!! Bloody hell, bit of an overreaction or myth to promote the area then. Or maybe people are so scared of something they cannot see (but you can't see a shark before it's got you can you?) that they observe the precautions. I have seen absolutely no one swimming in the sea on the mainland.

 

Looking back at Airlie Beach from the boat

 

Sunday December 9th

 
      Nothing much today, except more calls about the train ticket to Thailand. This has to be after New Year because it is heavily booked, but I am hoping to have it just to allow me onto the plane for Malaysia, and then take a bus into Thailand instead so I can meet up with Om sooner, hopefully at the islands in the south. Booked another boat trip, this time for the outer reef. As I worked out it would be low tide (tides are a difference of 3 metres) I decided just snorkling would be enough to see everything.

 

Monday December 10th

 
      I looked out to sea with relief, it was calmer than for the last few days. The boat trip I was to embark on has a reputation for sea sickness. It claims to be the fastest boat out to the reef, perhaps the only daytrip from Airlie Beach that takes you out that far, but a long and fast ride through waves is risky for sure so I ate no breakfast and got on the bus for the boat at 7:30am. No encouragement when I paid for the trip at the harbour, $10 sea sickness packs were prominently for sale so I knew I was lucky it was a calm day.
      So a comfortable fast ride out to Bait Reef, 60km from the mainland taking about an hour and a half. When we reached there, almost at low tide, to my surprise the reef was still completely submerged. The photographs you see all the time must get taken an unusually low tides. There was time for two hour long dives or snorkling sessions with lunch provided in between. Most of the coral was half a metre beneath the surface at the low tide so to go further afield you needed to do this either side of low tide (and not get stranded!). Perfect for photography though the disposable underwater camera I used doesn't come close to showing the brightness of the colours, perhaps a session in Photoshop will help... The water was very clear, you could see down to about 20 metres, very impressive. The only time it gets deeper is the drop to 60m outside the reef, but you want to avoid that as then you get exposed to the dangerous currents of the open sea.

 

Bait Reef
 

 
      I swam around seeing all the usual corals and fish you'd expect at a good location such as this and then after half an hour I decided to swim over a deeper area. I noticed a huge colourful blue fish, half my length but almost as high as it was long swimming slowly around the depths. Later I was looking behind me and saw two huge fish with teeth showing coming right towards me quite fast, each almost as large as the blue fish I'd seen earlier. The first time I'd skipped a breath snorkling, but harmless as usual. There was a shark sleeping on the bottom quite deep, at least 15 metres down. Later on I was to see it pass me at half the depth when I could see the yellow body and spots so it was a leopard shark. I'd seen a couple of those at Byron Bay.

 

Fish in the coral
 

 

Large fish hiding
 

 

Jellyfish
 

 

A fish eating some coral
 

 

Spiky coral
 

 

First sight of the big colourful blue fish, deep down
 

 

Just after a scary moment, the lights are my bubbles
 

 

Leopard shark asleep, 15 metres down
 

 

Big fish and small fish down there
 

 
      At lunch time all the big fish (apart from the shark), and a number of smaller ones would flock the boat looking for food. The big ones got a bun as their bribe to turn up each day. There are 2000 reefs like this in the Great Barrier Reef, so plenty more to see another time...

 

Feeding time at the boat
 

 

Hungry fish
 

 
      We returned to see Whitehaven beach again, but when we arrived the waves were too big for the boat to safely beach. Luckily the only time in the day when the waves were too big. This time you could see at least a half metre vertical drop in the sand at the high tide mark from the previous night's weather. It's a big boat but can get to a depth of only one metre if the waves are calm enough. We moved to a more ordinary yellow sand beach around the island for a sit about in the water before returning home, hearing stories about how on windy days people beg to stay at the beach and not get into the boat again. I have even heard stories of people chartering sea planes to get them back to land! No sign of jellyfish, the rains haven't come yet, and as I had heard on the previous trip there really isn't much risk as everyone seems to be avoiding the most risky times and places to swim. It was 30 degrees C in the water (aparrently no lower than 20 in the winter).
      In the evening I turned up to a volunteer organisation's talk about the reef. Their web sites are www.reefdiscovery.com and www.ouchvolunteers.org. Excellent talk from a bloke there, who had clearly emmigrated from America. He was just like some of the older computer people I had met when I had worked over there so no surprise to hear he's come from California. Worth the $10, which goes to their efforts to protect the reef from inexperienced boats and mainland polluters. Not a lot they can do about the crown of thorns plaugue, but it seems to be a pollution thing as it only happens close to the mainland. No doubt I'll see plenty of this up in Cairns where apparently about half the reef of effected. (It takes 10 years for a reef to regenerate.) He also said that no one has even been injured by the jellyfish for four years, and before that it was 7 years. Airlie Beach alone has half a million visitors a year, so not much risk of that then.

 

Tuesday December 11th

 
      Rain and thunder storm at 7am for a couple of hours, then cleared to normal blue sky and hot weather. The first rain of the summer apparently, marking the real start of the stinger jellyfish season, so good to have done the swimming on the islands already. I booked the room until Saturday when I'll take the bus to Townsville. No intention of doing anything at all today, apart from sitting by the beach and typing in this journal.

 

Wednesday December 12th

 
      I made good progress on formatting and typing in this journal yesterday (if only I could upload it!) so I'm continuing today while I'm in the flow and I can spend time in a room on my own without feeling I should be going out and doing something. There's plenty more snorkling and diving in Townsville and Cairns later on.
      A tiny bit more rain today. Today and yesterday are probably less hot but more humid, so it feels just as uncomfortable. The rain and humidity are another good reason to stay inside and work on the journal. When I've finished I'd like to begin work on my computer game and artificial intelligence project, been thinking about this on the boats.
      Looks like a bad year for the jellyfish, a newspaper says there was a swarm of them around Cairns yesterday and a few people have been hospitalised, a zoologist got a number of bad stings, a bit like how the crocodile and snake men on television keep getting attacked I suppose. Apparently there's a good national park rainforest around here, I might have a look at that tomorrow.

 

Thursday December 13th

 
      The rainforest tour was cancelled due to lack of interest, seemed a bit expensive for what it was anyway. It's cooled a lot with the rain, quite a lot of it today, perfect temperature for trying to finish HTML-ing the journal. I tried to polish my scratched CDs with limited success, took too long, just fixed half a track in an hour.
      The English in the dorm upstairs are annoying the cleaner and only talk about what they'd like to steal. No way is it the same international crowd as three years ago, The British have largely taken over the backpacking scene in Australia. After Adelaide I was hoping the backpackers would be more interesting in a place like this. Perhaps I have to wait for other countries where travellers should be more serious about it as you have to do some work and save money to be able to stay there. Most people here seem less likely to want to do that, but there are plenty on the particularly cheap eastern coastline of Thailand I have heard (and plenty of trouble there as a result). It's too easy here being able to do casual work as and when you run out of money. And after meeting a particularly sad Scottish bloke in a bar a couple of evenings ago I can't blame Aussies for talking about Poms so much. Even John in the car up to Rockhampton seemed to be after my money. So I'll try to go to places a little more exotic and less easy from now on.
      Meanwhile I've become very established in my room, it feels more like a bedroom than a hostel room as I've been here so long. It takes a whole day to do a page of the internet journal, typing it up, filling in all the unwritten bits and organising and converting the pictures. That and the time it takes wandering around the beach until I feel like doing more...

 

Friday December 14th

 
      Two months since leaving London and my last night in Airlie Beach.
      Today I'll get all the pictures (300 to choose from so far!) chosen and ready for the next time I can update the site, and type up as many of the stories as I have time for. The rest might have to wait a while, but that'll be ok for now.
      Back to sunny weather all the time, but a more pleasant temperature than before. I've found another barbecue on the beach, opposite where I'm staying. These are great, free public access, presumably gas-lit barbecues along the beach. There was someone cooking up a feast on one at the lagoon a couple of days ago.
      A power cut tonight, most of the night from 11pm. Amazing stars, with it so dark I don't think I've ever seen so many stars in my life, the sky must be clearer here than in the UK. There are just a few car lights in the road, that's it, everyone walks past like a zombie you can only see a shadow of. Lucky it's cooler so I can sleep without a fan or air conditioning.
      Tomorrow it's the bus for Townsville.

 
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