Australia always seemed like it was so far away, but somehow, before our very eyes, what felt like the bottom of our itinerary jumped to the very top. Oz, as the local Aussies refer to their beautiful country, could not have come at a more ideal time for us. After two months in Southeast Asia, Australia was slotted to serve as our little vacation from our vacation. As silly as that might sound, traveling for such an extended period of time in such different cultures really is hard work. Everything is challenging. Food is different. Languages are different. Hygiene, transportation, and social standards are all different. Smells, sights, and sounds are different. As wonderfully life-changing and spectacularly fun as our Asia experience was, after two months of total lack of normalcy, eventually you just need a reprieve and that is exactly where we were at leaving Cambodia. So yes, even though this pricey country (made even more expensive thanks to our simultaneous timing with the holidays) was a huge shock to our systems after traveling for next to nothing for quite some time, we were pumped to get to Australia!
We landed in Sydney after a looooong day of travel, which consisted of a night flight we were certain would be a good idea to avoid jetlag but instead had the very opposite effect, and the very next day hopped a flight up to Hamilton Island, one of many islands comprising the glorious Whitsunday Islands. From there we boarded a boat that ferried us to the tiny town of Airlie Beach on the mainland. (Boat safety standards in Australia are a little different than those in Thailand. Shocking.) Since somehow we managed not to get any real beach days in Southeast Asia, we decided that Airlie BEACH would be the perfect spot to set up shop for the better part of our first week in Australia. Please note that I stressed the word BEACH.
Contrary to what any logical person would assume from a town named for a beach, Airlie Beach did not in fact offer much in terms of sandy shores. Rather, there was a “lagoon” or essentially a giant swimming pool filled with sea water. Oops! So much for a week of beach days. Better luck next time…again. Despite getting skunked out of beach time yet again, we were still stocked to be there just relaxing. We spent a good chunk of time totally absorbed in books, catching up on planning for the next portion of the trip, and finally cooking for ourselves. And it was awesome! (You will never appreciate the ability to cook for yourself until the option is more or less completely removed from your grasp.)
In addition to the beautiful water as far as the eye could see, both Airlie Beach and the greater Whitsunday Island area are situated at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. Being the primary reason for making the journey north from Sydney, we did not waste any time arranging a trip to the outer reef. Early in the morning, we boarded a big boat full of fellow Great Barrier Reef seekers. After a stunning and surprisingly smooth three hour ride out to the reef, our boat docked to a giant pontoon stationed out there that served as the day’s base for reef exploration.
Woohoo! Time to scuba! Well, let me clarify, time for one of us to scuba. I guess that this is as good a time as any to mention that during our last dive in Thailand, Ron ran (or swam) into some ear complications. To break it down, he went down too quickly and his ears did not adjust properly which resulted in him not being able to hear out of one ear at all upon surfacing. Later on, the same deaf ear started to leak fluid. It was at this point that we started to do some researching and discovered that he had a very common scuba complication called a middle ear barotrauma. Unfortunately, the only real solution is time. Having been almost three weeks without the ability to hear out of one of his ears (which I might mention has caused some comedic situations starring me talking to myself as well as some insight into what life may be like one day 60 years from now) Ron could not risk any further damage and was not able to scuba at the reef.
While I went diving, Ron went snorkeling. I think it is safe to say that what we both saw was amazing. At first, while diving, I was a little underwhelmed. I had really high hopes for the famous Great Barrier Reef, especially after everything that Thailand offered. There just did not seem to be much in terms of marine life. But then, slowly but surely, the reef transported me to a world of underwater wonder. Ron and I both were swimming withing arms reach of coral in more shapes, sizes, and colors than we had dreamed imaginable. There were giant schools of fish in their neon designs brushing by like it was nothing and a huge clam the size of a car. Ron swam alongside a massive grouper fish large enough that his arms would never fit around it…and Ron has long arms. Everything was just so vibrant and alive! Coral swayed in the current, fish practically glowed, and the water sparkeled in its clarity. Unbelievable, yes, but you will just have to take our word on this one seeing as we neglected to check what the depth limits were on our waterproof camera and while diving I promptly exceeded them resulting in one wet and broken camera. But I promise you that it is everything you imagine! Following an afternoon dual snorkeling expedition and a ride on the boat with windows in the bottom for better fish and reef viewing, it was time to hop back on board for a lazy ride back to shore. What a day! I am still pinching myself just to triple check that we were really and truly at the Great Barrier Reef.
Sadly, we managed not to take any photos for this section of the trip… not sure what we were thinking. We promise not to make that mistake again!