Thursday, June 30, 2011

Deep Blue Sea

she said:

While it boasts a few bars, restaurants, and even it's own nightclub, I don't think Ayr would have held our interest if it weren't for it's proximity to Alva beach and the Yongola Dive site. As it was, our stop there was a blip while we waited for a shuttle to pick us up from the bus drop-off, then we bumped along through sugar cane fields to get to the beach side lodge. We got the low-down from those who'd been diving the day before, then tucked in to bed in anticipation of our early morning briefing.

he said:

To date, this is by far my best dive site. On a scale from one to ten this is an eleven (read in Genie's voice) and my other dives have been an eight maximum.  If anyone is considering a dive holiday in Australia this should not be missed.

Yes, it is better than the reef. It has everything the reef has in a smaller harmonious package.

she said:

Because of it's depth (20 metres deep at the highest point, about 28 meters at its deepest), you must already be open water certified in order to take plunge. As a result there aren't many backpackers who talk about the dive site, and very few boats make the trip out.

he said:

I would compare Yongala to a nice little restaurant that knows you and gives you larger portions or a free appetizer. A lesser known place with a lot to offer.

The dynamics, history, and preservation are all very fascinating.  Firstly the boat sank 100 years ago in a cyclone and all 120 some odd passengers died.  In the 1950's, while removing leftover war mines, the US Navy identified an anomaly in what was otherwise 30m deep ocean with flat sandy bottom, 20km away from the nearest reef. They reported it on their charts, but didn't send any divers to check it out. It wasn't until some time, research, and hard work later that a few guys diving the wreck were successfully able to identify it as the Yongala.  Then in the 80s the site was classified as a Heritage site which essentially amounts to preserving the wreck and all it's new inhabitants to the max.  You can read in more detail from the maritime museum site.

The Yongala Express is a speedy little day boat that gets there in a half hour, with 8 divers and 4 crew.  The seas were rougher than I would have liked (25-30 knots) and this was especially noticeable after we set up the mooring line and were just rocking up, down, and side to side at the mercy of Poseidon. The anticipation was rising and I'm suiting up then it hits me, my throat gets tight, my eyes water and I quite literally hurl my head, and then my breakfast, over the side.

Oh well, a little sea sickness isn't reason to stop and the only way to feel better is to get underwater.  Buddy check, backwards roll,  SPLASH.  We follow the descent line and at about 10m I turn my head and see nearly the whole length of the wreck. Breathtaking. A massive structure with so much life. Thank you Australian government for the fore site to declare this a Heritage site. What a place to get Advanced and Enriched Air certification.

she said:

The sites protection from fishing and looting gives the plant and animal life the chance to grow to larger then average size. This meant plenty of marble ray sightings (some up to 2m in size) and the chance to see huge groupers, including one they called Vdub because it is similar in size to a Volkswagen Beetle. Please continue to ignore us divers!

Thank you to everyone at the Yongola dive site! If anyone plans on diving in Australia, say Hello to all the fishes for us.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Town

she said:

We were unprepared for Townsville's size. After hearing how quiet and boring it was we were expecting one of the blink-and-miss towns we'd been passing all day. It was a surprise to find a city complete with shopping center, high-rise apartments, and hills. I'd forgotten how long a 20 minute walk can be with our backpacks on.

Luckily, the accommodation was worth the hike. A double bed in an almost private room (one other bed), TV, fridge, and linens included. A full kitchen with the pots and pans for actual cooking, and free laundry to boot. Definitely worth the hike.

he said:

Generally, you pay the going rate in town and then get nickeled and dimed for every other amenity, i.e. four bucks for an hour of internet, five or ten green backs to wash and dry a load of clothes, two clams to rent a towel. I'm out of synonyms but the list goes on. Anyway, we'd shacked up in an amazingly pleasant hostel now what the heck do we do. Another hike I guess.

The obvious choice was the towering sheer rock face dominating the skyline: Castle hill. Equipped with our map and some tips from Fran (the hostel hostess) we got to hiking. Overall, I really enjoyed the hike and I would call it a strenuous 400m out of an overall moderate 1.5km hike. There was no actual rock climbing it was really steep going for a bit. When we got to the top we could see everything in all directions and it was spectacular. Yet another example of something that Australia really has going for itself, breathtaking landscapes.

she said:

We hiked up for sunset, but should have taken a different route. Our up climb in daylight (Goat track) was a 1.5 km staircase, while we had to find our way down the more rugged hiking trail (Cutheringa) in the dark.

he said:

The next day we decided to get our culture on and learn about Townsville. We started with the Maritime Museum which was great. For six smackers you can easily kill two or three hours and learn all about Australia's naval escapades in WWII and the impact the shipping industry had on the town. There was also an exhibit on the S.S. Yongala, which was of particular interest to us, but more to come on that in the next adventure.

After some lunch we set out on the first of three possible heritage walks. This little activity was fun and would have been a lot more interesting had the subject matter been, well, more interesting. You were given a map and you had to find placards along the way which told you the history behind the buildings around the different districts of town. Unfortunately, they were virtually all hotels. Not all of them five star establishments though, occasionally we'd read a placard about a "bachelor hotel" which I freely interpreted as brothel.

she said:

Day three we decided to cross some water and see why Townsville seems to be known as the "Gateway to Magnetic Island." A short ferry ride and there we were, on an island big enough to be considered a suburb of the city, complete with grocery stores, bars, and hostels of its own.

Instead of walking the entire island as we foolishly thought we'd be able to do, we took on an 8 mile hike through rainforest, bush, and island community from Nelly to Horseshoe Bay. Here we stopped for a picnic and made a fair-weather friend before hopping a bus back the ferry stop to finish out the day.

Pete the Lorikeet was just using us for our grapes. He doesn't like the skin though.

So pleased we stayed at the Orchid Guest House, thank you Fran! Hello to Ayr, Alva Beach, and the S.S. Yongola shipwreck.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Super Size Me

she said:

Back in Cairns for a couple days before hopping on our first Greyhound. While Cairns hasn't turned out to be our favourite city, it does have certain novelties that were missing in Port Douglas…

he said:

McDonalds. Ahh yes, highly caloric, sodium rich food, how have I missed thee?  That first pinch of fries left my fingers sparkling and shimmering with salt and grease.  I wish I was eating them right now.  Once we both had our fix we moved on to our next vice.

she said:

Movie Theatres. While certain venues (the Central Hotel, the Sugar Wharf) do their best to bring movies to the people of Port Douglas once in a while, something I've really been missing is the big screen. So I was more than happy to take advantage of half price Tuesday for a Marvel-ous double-header (X-Men Origins and Thor).

he said:

A night life. In contrast to Port Douglas, there is actually more than one single bar open after midnight.  More than two even. 

However, this was not one of the activities we were excited about and we tried to spend our nights relaxing.  Unfortunately, around two or three in the morning we were reminded of how far from PD we were.  The novelty wears off quickly.

All said and done. I'm glad to have gone there and met the people that we did but I don't think I'll be in a great hurry to get back.

she said:

Next stop, Townsville. We've been told it's kind of boring and quiet, Please let this be true. Thank You to our friends in Cairns for the free place to stay. Hello Maritime Museum and Magnetic Island.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Joe vs the Volcano

she said:

Back on the road. First stop, lava tubes.

After four hours in the itsy bitsy rental car winding our way along Gillies Range, and bumping through pot-holes on Kennedy Highway we arrived at the Undara Lava Lodge mid-afternoon. Being without camping gear, but still on a budget, we opted to stay in one of the rooms referred to as swag tents: permanent plastic tents with raised floors, electricity, and twin beds. With a bit more to spend I'd have wanted to see what the re-purposed train carriage rooms were all about, but as far as camping goes I wouldn't say we were roughing it.

he said:

Once we got there and found our digs we had a short while before our first tour. I elected for a nap and she elected for, well, I don't know, I was asleep.

17:00 rolled around and we met our guide, Greg, and the rest of the tourers. I would have preferred to hike there on our own, but the fine for travelling without a guide in the Undara National Park is $10k. You are probably thinking, "You've made some good financial decisions, I'm sure that's no sweat for you," but with the US dollar still struggling it would end up being more like $10,600, and I just think there's better uses for that money.

Once on the bus we journeyed to our first destination, a sunset bluff lookout and on the way we saw heaps of kangaroos, walaroos, wallabies, rockaroos. For an explanation of the differences I refer you to your favourite research medium because they all just look like cute and cuddly little boxers to me.

The view from the bluff look-out was really spectacular. Aside from the 8 or so humans we were with, there wasn't a single bit of humanity to be seen. The outback was generally flat with a sparse tree line and a peppering of granite and bassillic rock outcroppings that resulted from the volcanic activity of some 190,000 years ago.

After snacks, sunset and bubbly we moved on to our first lava tube: Barker’s Cave. Another spectacle. As you walked up there was a slight decline in a little patch of dense brush and then POW a massive opening that you could drive the Technodrome through, a few camera flashes revealed the seventy billion micro-bats whizzing in and around the tube, and the smell was that of the guano that comes with them.

she said:

Day two had us up early for a "Bushman's Breakfast" which translates to really organized camper's food: sausages, eggs, toast, cereal, and pancakes. Then it was time for Lava tubes by day on another guided tour. The first tube we visited used to be a gathering place for the discoverer's family, until it was further studied and turned into part of what is now the national park. Now, for liability reasons, instead of clambering down rocks and across the silt floor you're limited to the railed walk-ways. And instead of being able to crawl through the last bit of tunnel and climb up through another opening, guests are limited to the point where the walk-way ends. I think we (and our guide) were especially disappointed by this.

But we weren't disappointed for long, the second tube on our tour, the Archway, allowed for a bit more adventure. After taking the steps down from the bush into a tropical rainforest growing in a cave, we were allowed to go swimming down the progressively darker tunnel. It's hard to say when, but at a certain point the light from the opening of the tube no longer reaches and your only marker is the railing running through the water to guide the way. Like a game of Marco Polo where everyone is it and no one can cheat by peeking.

he said:

Many of you know I enjoy going scuba diving at night. That certainly isn't for everyone. There is one friend of ours who always seems especially freaked out when I tell him about it. Well, as I was swimming past the rail to the far end of the tube in complete darkness I thought, "This is so f*&^ing scary!" Despite my heart absolutely racing I tried to convince myself there were no monsters that were licking their chops as they used their night vision to stalk me. That didn't work at all, I'm still very confident that tube is filled with monsters but for whatever reason they decided to spare me.

she said:

Probably not meaty enough.

they said:

Now it's back to civilization (Cairns) for a couple of days. Please let us get the rental car back on time. Thank You to everyone at the Undara Lava Lodge for your hospitality. Hello movie theaters and fast food.