Friday, March 21, 2008

Sail Of The Century

Arrival in Airlie

I arrived in Airlie Beach about 8pm after a rather taxing 11 hour bus journey. I don't know of you've ever had to take a tinkle on a moving bus, but I would liken it to trying to a water a plant nailed to a Catherine Wheel.

Occasionally your stream and the bowl coincide in space and time like some rare planetary alignment, but more often than not your left reeling and clanging off the cubicle walls as the bus accelerates round a bend or stops suddenly at traffic lights.

Rest-stops are a a godsend on such journeys, where beefy housewives dressed in chequered tabards serve up pasties and pastries from a heat-lamped cabinet. Not classy, but most welcome.

Airlie itself is simply a street comprising marinas, travel agents selling scuba, skydiving and sailing courses, mingled with hostels pumping beats on to the streets. The real attraction here is The Whitsundays, a semi-tropical arc of islands scattered off the East Coast of Queensland and alongside the Great Barrier Reef. Really, people come here to leave; visits are relatively fleeting as most backpackers kick their heels waiting for the day their boat sets sail.

Sailing The Seven Seas

My boat trip was 2 days and 2 nights aboard the Atlantic Clipper (a 34 metre sailing ship) for a cruise around the sandy crescents and inlets of the Whitsundays. I set sail on the Tuesday and initially wondered whether I had done the right thing: the weather had been terrible, like Cairns, and the introductory welcome from the ship's crew, as we tootled out of Airlie Marina, was a bit Club 18-30 for my liking with its emphasis on whooping and cheering and, then, when the Captain claiming "I can't hear you" whooping and cheering a little bit louder.

However, it turned out it was fairly laissez-faire affair, and so spent my time talking to other passengers. I did actually get quite lucky with my shipmates this time. Whereas my Coober Pedy trip had been somewhat blighted a gaggle of insular German teenagers and my Red Centre tour rendered awkward by a group whose first language was not English, the boat had just the right mix of people.

Aside, that is, from a group of dour "it girls" from Chelsea or somewhere, who were so posh their lips didn't meet when they spoke (thus the word "really" was pronounced as "reewry" and "lovely" as "wuvreh") and who spent the trip pouting, appropriately, like fishes, speaking to no one and applying suncream to their chubby little thighs. Should have tipped them in.

The Little Mermaid

By the second day we were in Whitehaven Beach, widely considered one of the best beaches in Australia due to its white, sugar-like silicate sand.

After wrestling with a wetsuit for the best part of 10 minutes where , much to everyone's hilarity, I tried to put my leg in the arm, the arm in the leg and, once I had that sorted out, realised it was back-to-front, I waded out into the ocean.

The water was a kind of milky-pearl blue. And very shallow; we wandered out a good hundred metres yet the water was only at waist height. There, we had piggy back fights, tried to form human pyramids and legged each other over. Jolly good fun.

After lunch we were dinghied out to another inlet for snorkelling. I had never tried snorkelling before and had never been a particularly good swimmer, my last aquatic achievement being my Green badge for 25m in 1986. But I ignored my common sense and elected to believe it would be "an easy thing to do".

I was almost right. I waded out past the incredibly sharp stones with my wetsuit, goggles, snorkel and float and within moments was on the set of Finding Nemo, with electric blue fishes darting in and out of my field of vision, and big brain-shaped coral formations lying beneath me.

I also came across what can only be described as a violently purple lady's part which opened like a flower as I neared it. Later, I found out it was a clam.

For the duration of my subnmarine adventure, my only accompaniment was the sound of my own breath and the sploosh of my kicking legs. Fantastic.


Back at the boat in the evening we were treated to a display by a visiting dolphin, who later came to be bothered by two reef sharks, Jaws's much smaller cousins. The dolphin didn't seem too concerned by the maritime equivalent of group of chavs hanging around under a streetlight, and continued about its business of chasing fish. Still, a great sight.

The next morning the sea had begun broiling and the trip turned into a huge who-can-keep-their-breakfast-down competition. Most people had come up on to the top deck in order to get a fix on the horizon and the ships bow was now pitching wildly into the air before plunging into the waves. I didn't feel too bad. The same couldn't be said of one Irish girl who was the first to openly spew into the bin.

Back on the mainland we all said our goodbyes. Later that night in bed I could still feel myself swaying as if trying to gain my balance on the boat, a sensation still with me the next day.

I will always be a land-lubber I fear, but the trip was ace.

No comments: