Cairns

Diving the Great Barrier Reef

Once we’d finally decided to leave Cairns, we only had a couple of days left to do everything we’d planned: dive the Great Barrier Reef,jump off waterfalls at the Atherton Tablelands and visit the Daintree National Park. Unfortunately the weather in Cairns hadn’t improved since we’d arrived… every day was grey and wet. There didn’t seem much point going to the Atherton Tablelands if it was going to be cold and wet the entire time. The weather forecast didn’t show any signs of improving for the next week or two. We knew we couldn’t leave Cairns without diving the Great Barrier Reef, so we decided to do a dive come rain or shine. We managed to find a good deal with a dive boat that went to the outer reef for $100 with lunch, snacks, drinks, snorkelling gear and a dive, and an additional $20 for each dive after that.

We had to be at the dive terminal for ‘check-in’ at 7.30am which meant getting up and leaving Joanne’s house very early for the first bus into the city. It was a cold and grey morning and the weather forecast didn’t show any signs of improving. Once we got to the boat we were given all our dive equipment to set up. We were the only 2 certified divers on the boat and the other 100 people would be spending the day snorkelling above the reef at the different dive sites. It was soon clear that it was going to be a very rocky day on the boat as the staff were handing out free natural motion sickness pills. When we arrived at the first dive site it was raining heavily and the sea was so rough that people were already throwing up.

We put our wetsuits and BCDs on and walked over to the back of the boat to get into the water, but it was pretty difficult because there were waves breaking onto the back of the boat. It was so choppy that the dive master told us to descend as soon as we entered the water because staying on the surface was too difficult. With a huge leap I plunged into the water and emptied my BCD to descend, and after going down a few metres under the surface the sea was calm. It was pretty cool looking up at the waves breaking on the surface above us, and yet it was so strange that everything was calm just a few metres down. We went down 12-15 metres and took in the beauty. Lots of people had told us that if you’d done a dive in Thailand and on the Gilis in Indonesia that you wouldn’t find the Great Barrier Reef that special. How wrong they were! The Great Barrier Reef was spectacular! The coral was more vibrant, diverse and alive than anything we’d seen before. We were very lucky indeed.

Clown Fish!

Clown Fish!

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Pointing at something amazing, obviously

Pointing at something amazing, obviously

We returned to the surface for a spot of lunch before going on the next dive. The dive master told us it was much better to be underwater than on the boat and he was right. The boat was rocking like crazy. I felt sorry for the people that were attempting to snorkel – the sea was so rough that they couldn’t see anything. We then went to another dive site, suited up and jumped in the water for a second site. We didn’t really see anything more than at the first site, but we did spot a huge turtle! There were also quite a few caves and swim throughs at this dive site but for some reason my BCD kept filling up with air. It filled up with so much air that I began floating up towards the top of the cave and I had to grab onto the cave to stop myself banging my head on the sharp edges. Kyle realised what was going on and pulled the emergency release valve on the back of my BCD to empty the air out. 🙂

Kyle with the turtle

Kyle with the turtle

Sea cucumber!

Sea cucumber!

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When we returned to the boat, I realised that I had a nasty cut on my leg from the reef. As reef cuts are known to get infected very quickly, the dive master made me go to the first aider on board to get my cut cleaned up. I was really exhausted by this point so decided to have a nap in the cabin upstairs whilst Kyle went on the final dive. Apparently 80% of the snorkellers on the boat hadn’t ventured out into the water because of the poor conditions – they basically just paid to sit on a boat all day throwing up.

Once Kyle returned from his final dive, the boat headed back to Cairns and the crew provided some entertainment. The chef got his guitar out and began singing and making up songs about various passengers on the boat. There were people running to the toilets to be sick every couple of minutes. It was only when we arrived back at the port in Cairns that the sky cleared and the sun began to shine.

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Our Help X Experience with the Hoults

When I was researching our Australian leg of this trip, I came across the Help X exchange programme website (www.helpx.net)

HelpX is provided primarily as a cultural exchange for working holiday makers who would like the opportunity during their travels abroad, to stay with local people and gain practical experience. In the typical arrangement, the helper works an average of 4 hours per day and receives free accommodation and meals for their efforts.

You could participate in the programme on farms, hostels, pubs and families all over Australia, and was a great way to save money on accommodation and get the ‘true Aussie experience’. I’d spent quite some time messaging a few families in Cairns on the website and eventually one family agreed to have us in exchange for some babysitting and housework for four hours a day.

We were picked up by Joanne (the mum) in Cairns city and she drove us to her house in the suburbs of Cairns. Joanne was in her 50s and a single mum from Darwin with three children: Patrick (10), Annie (13) and Georgie (17). When we arrived at their 40s style house, Georgie had already made a tuna pasta bake and a vegetable pasta bake for dinner. The family had so many different food likes and dislikes. Joanne, for example, was a vegetarian and had been all her life, Georgie only ate chicken, canned tuna and beef mince (only in bolognese), and Patrick only liked peanut butter sandwiches… As Joanne was a vegetarian and didn’t like to touch meat, the children cooked 90% of the family’s meals.  The children had strict house rules and were each expected to cook a couple of times a week, clean the house, wash and iron their own clothes and walk the dog. The children had lots of questions about what our lives and schools were like back home – they particularly enjoyed hearing about the Oratory’s ridiculous rules. As their mum only bought healthy food and no junk, they would us ask what certain sweets that they’d seen on TV were like. They’d never tried peanut butter and jam sandwiches either!

We woke up pretty early the next day as Joanne said she wanted us to have breakfast with the children every morning before they went to school. We ate a very early breakfast with Patrick at 7.15am and then dropped him to school before getting on with our ‘chores’ for the day. Once we’d done everything she’d asked we went into town to figure out whether we should settle in Cairns for a couple of months or go down South. We walked around the city and quickly came to the conclusion that Cairns wasn’t too exciting and started considering our next move – Darwin or Brisbane?

Joanne asked us to cook dinner for the family that night, so we returned home later that afternoon to make a dinner of sausages, coleslaw and dauphinoise potatoes (Joanne’s idea). After 3 months of tofu, curry, noodles and chicken satay, the food tasted soo good. Joanne went out in the evening to catch up with friends so we were required to babysit as part of our work exchange. We ended up playing Just Dance on the Wii with Annie and Patrick for hours before convincing them they had to go to bed. (What hard work!)

The next morning Joanne asked us to help her fit the new washing machine she’d just bought as part of our ‘chores’. Kyle helped her carry it in from the car and then we were responsible for taking out the old one and connecting the new one. We’d obviously never done anything like this before but it wasn’t too hard! As Joanne is a single mother and doesn’t get the chance to go out that much, she went out that evening with some friends to a ukele performance and we ‘babysat’ the kids again. It wasn’t exactly ‘babysitting’ but more making sure that they don’t kill each other. They were well behaved most of the time but occasionally the two sisters would have screaming matches.

On Saturday we were assigned our biggest task yet: painting the house! I was pretty glad she did because I didn’t feel like we were doing our 4 hours of work a day, and painting the front of the house definitely made up for it. We had to sand down the panels that were to be painted, wipe them down with bleach to prevent mould, cover the edges with masking tape to protect the house against paint splodges, and then paint the panels blue! It took us about 6 hours all in all and Joanne was really pleased with the results. They’d only bought this house a year and half ago when they moved from Darwin and the house was very much stuck in the 40s. I actually really enjoyed the painting (possible career move?).

Joanne wanted to go away for the weekend and meet her boyfriend in Townsville, so we were in charge for the kids for the next couple of days. We cooked a delicious roast chicken for them all on the Saturday night and then watched a film together. Joanne said Georgie might try and sneak out to see her boyfriend, but she didn’t (well at least I don’t think she did….). It was also on Saturday that made the decision to head south for Brisbane and started planning our trip. Cairns is great if you want to visit the Great Barrier Reef or Daintree Rainforest, but you can’t visit these places everyday because it costs too much money. For example, a dive on the Great Barrier Reef will set you back about 100 pounds, whereas in Asia we were paying about 15 quid or so a dive.

Now that we’d decided to leave Cairns we were trying to decide how to get to Brisbane. I really want to buy a campervan and drive down the coast, but Kyle thought we should just rent one and see what it’s like first. The Greyhound coach is also another alternative but works about the same price as renting a van once you factor in petrol… Decisions, decisions, decisions!!!