Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Snorkeling, soldier crabs, and soda

I rode into Airlie Beach, gateway to the Whitsunday Islands, in the pouring rain. This wasn't particularly a surprise, as it was the rainy season in Queensland, but I was feeling gloomy nonetheless: I was hoping to take a sailing trip around the Whitsundays that day, but that wouldn't be much fun in the rain.

I had arranged to be dropped off at a backpacker's: my couch surfing host, Bill, was working all day, but I could store my stuff at the backpacker's for the day if I paid a small fee. The owner also agreed to book me on the aforementioned sailing trip, as many of the tourist day trips picked up from his place. Unfortunately, my train was late because of the rain, and that gave me literally 10 minutes to drag my things down the long driveway, change, and pack a day bag before turning around and heading out into the downpour.

We left port on a repurposed military raft, and the first hour or so miserable. The surf was choppy because of the rain, I felt a bit nauseous, and I couldn't see anything through the deluge. At length things started to look up, just in time for us to land at Whitehaven beach, one of the most photographed beaches in the world. We took a bush walk (Australian for "hike") through dense rain forest to a beautiful look out, then walked across a long, ankle deep inlet back to the boat, shuffling our feet to avoid rousing stingrays.

Whitehaven Beach, still cloudy

We lunched on a beach near Whitehaven, with the whitest sand I've ever seen. According to our guides, the sand is 100% silica, which gives it its white color and also makes it great for polishing jewelery. I considered trying to get the scratches out of my glasses but thought better of it. By the end of lunch the sky was clearing a bit, which cheered us up, although by then we had begun a day-long battle with marsh flies, which are some kind of devil's spawn of a mosquito and horse fly.

Leaving my mark (temporarily) in 100% silica

We spent the afternoon snorkeling at Border Island. The Whitsundays are at the very southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef, and this was my first taste of the wonders of the reef. The fish were gorgeous, and the coral remarkable. It was larger and more diverse than anything I'd seen in previous snorkeling in Bermuda and Virgin Gorda. And it carpeted the entire bay, as far as the eye could see, in knobs and swirls, branches and intricate patterns front light green to dull red to purple.

The rafting company dropped me back at the backpacker's, where I met my couch surfing host, Bill. Bill was a bit of a nomad: he worked out on one of the resort islands five days a week, then came into Airlie Beach each weekend to do overnight security work, sleeping in a motel. He had generously offered to let me stay in his room, which was a lot less suspect than it sounds, given that he was gone most of the time.

Airlie Beach is basically a big backpacker party all the time. The town is essentially pure tourist creation, and there are an endless supply of travelers, mostly foreign and ages 18-28, coming throughat all times. This meant that most of Airlie's main drag consisted of huge, rather expensive backpacker bars filled with glitzy people drinking copiously. I walked down the street looking at bar after bar filled with drunk co-eds but enjoying the warm night air. At length I chanced upon a little restaurant at the end of the road with a cheap soup of the day and a man playing an acoustic guitar at the bar. So I had my dinner, drank a cider, and felt good about finding a spot that fit me in the midst of so much else.

In the morning, Bill and I went sightseeing. We stopped first at the weekly Airlie Beach market to browse the crafts and produce stalls. This is one of the best market locations anywhere, I think, abutting a sparkling blue sea lapping under coconut palms. I tried to have coconut milk for breakfast but it was sour in a way I wasn't used to, so I ate dim sum pork buns instead.

Best market location ever

The wonderful thing about couch surfing (well, one of the wonderful things) in a place like Airlie Beach is that your host can take your off the beaten track and away from the plastic key chains and $10 Coronas. Bill was kind enough to spend the afternoon with me, driving me to a beautiful lookout over Shute Harbor (where the boats from the Whitsundays dock) and a gorgeous, deserted beach, and taking me to see a huge, old tree and a woodland waterfall.

Shute Harbor

Maybe the oldest tree in Queensland. To give you an idea of scale, you can just see Bill leaning against the the bottom of the trunk

Along the way, he told me a little about his experience growing up as an Aborigine. He was raised by his grandparents (although he didn't mention it, I inferred that his parents were among the Stolen Generation, an entire generation of Aborigines who were taken away from their parents and made to assimilate to white Australian culture at boarding schools, often never seeing their families again.) His grandfather was left to tell him about his family's people, who lived originally inthe Blue Mountains area outside of Sydney. Bill had had some success getting his people, who had scattered through New South Wales, to come back together and apply to be recognized by Government and reclaim some of their land, although much of that effort had come to nothing due to infighting.

As we walked through dappled sunlight out to a swimming hole/waterfall in the woods, Bill told me the story of the "Dreaming of" an area near the place he grew up. In Aborigine parlance, during the Dreamtime (a sort of prehistory) the ancestors sang or dreamed various places into being, so all creation stories involve the dreaming of a place, tradition, or landmark. This one involved a wise eagle fighting against dark spirits.


Our last stop was the beach. The tide was out and the sand extended about a quarter mile to the water, which blended seamlessly with the cloudy sky. It was dotted with seaweed and mineature armies of soldier crabs, tiny blue marbles with legs that travel in masses of hundreds or thousands and whose simultaneous scurrying sounds exactly like soda when you've just opened it. The tide had carved curving lines into the shore, and I wandered for a time hunting soldier crabs and relishing the solitude of an empty beach.

Soldier crabs

I spent that night at a little Thai restaurant, then back at the same bar with a different acoustic guitarist, this one accompanied by a drummer with an electric drum set. Between songs they were heckled by couple of very drunk, enthusiastic Kiwis, who would whoop, shriek, and yell at the performers to "get out the little brown cigar, broo!" ("broo" is what very Kiwi Kiwis call one another.) It took me several songs worth of heckling to realize that the "little brown cigar" they were referring to was a didjeridoo, and when the duo finally heeded their demands and played an acoustic version of "I Come From the Land Down Under" with didjeridoo accompaniment I experienced a moment of elated, hilarious harmony. I told you Aussies love that song.

The beach

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