|Is this yer first sperience of strine cookin enquired the waiter, a young man dressed in the Australian national costume - shirt, shorts and hiking boots.
No, but I have had sausage, egg, bacon and baked beans before, I replied. Thats Australia.You travel to the other side of the world, and its just like home.
Lenny Henry once said that Australia should have been named Far. Hes right. There are few places farther. I had often thought of going but it was always just too far.
On the other hand, friends who went to live in Oz would tell me I should never visit. They said I would like it so much I would never want to leave. Something to do with my sense of humour. Aussies seem impossible to offend - which suits me! One Aussie hastened to add that they do, however, get pissed off at times.
So, eventually, I went. The journey was long but easy. All I had to do was snore, change planes at Singapore, then snore some more. Suddenly I was safely in Cairns (pronounced Cans), the capital of Great Barrier Reef diving.
I went with little prior knowledge. Its not that I thought Alice Springs and Sydney Bridge were Australian film stars. I knew that Emma Chissitt wasnt a pal of Edna Everidge. Its just that I didnt know that QANTAS stood for Queensland and Northern Territories Aerial Service. I didnt know that Brisbane was the capital of Queensland, or that Darwin was the boss town of the Northern Territories and was nearer to Singapore.
I was surprised to find that Cairns was not the tropical South Pacific. It was more like tropical South Croydon. So far from home and yet just like it, only the rain was warmer.
I stayed at Cairns Colonial Club Resort, a patch of sanitised rainforest built incongruously among the bungalows and suburban lawns.
This place has more in common with a 1920s Tarzan film-set than the call of the wild. I was woken in the morning by the sound of chirpy gardeners and the buzz of swarming strimmers.
Its a very practical base for travellers. The staff are very slick at getting you checked in and out, with free buses to the airport or town centre. They understand the travellers needs because thats how they came to be working there in the first place.
It has the look of an expensive hotel, but at the tropical poolside restaurant you still have to go to the hatch to get your pizza or sausage and chips when your number is called. Australian informality meets international hotel chain; its no place for snobs.
The Great Barrier Reef is actually a string of reefs that protect the Queensland coastline from the thrust of the ocean. At 1500 miles long, its unlikely that anyone has dived it all. Mike Ball, owner of a fleet of Queensland liveaboard dive boats, hails from Bournemouth. His mum still lives in Southampton.
He tries to stay as British as he can. He drives a Land Rover, supports English rugby and cricket teams, and makes British jokes. He is very Australian.
My visit to Cairns enabled me to take a trip on his SuperSport, a liveaboard dive boat now 16 years old but once thought the acme of vessels built specifically for the job. This twin-hulled aluminium vessel concedes little to conventional boat design. It rockets through the water at 15 knots.
It is very stable when parked, thanks to its giant catamaran design. A large central saloon is bordered by cabins, each with a window. Above there are superior cabins with more space and en suite facilities; below, economy cabins that need the light kept on. More than 27m long and 10m wide, SuperSport has an enormous dive deck that allows 20 divers to kit up comfortably. Mike calls it three-star accommodation.
SuperSport takes passengers north from Cairns to Lizard Island. Four days later, they are flown back at low level by a flotilla of light aircraft. Or you can do the reverse itinerary.
These trips are great for new divers. Diving as well as reef ecology and photography courses are offered on board, along with E6 processing, and an onboard videographer recording a souvenir of each trip.
Being a short voyage, this is ideal for a first liveaboard experience. Many passengers have only just been certified at one of the many Cairns dive schools, while others have yet to do their first sea dive, so everything is made as easy as possible.
The captain backs the vessels huge dive platform up to the sites. A trapeze is hung 6m below the boat, with a hookah air supply for those who have mismanaged things. There is rarely a reason to come up without making a safety stop.
You dive from the boat and return to it. Should you get lost, a couple of RIBS are permanently on patrol. Plenty of divemasters are available.
After a recent incident in which two divers were abandoned when a boat left a dive site without them, Queensland state law now insists that you sign out when you leave a vessel and sign in again on your return. There is more paperwork than you might encounter elsewhere.
Our Director of Diving, Craig, was a very Scottish, Butlins Red Coat-type character. He cracked lots of jokes which probably flew wide of the foreign-speakers and Americans in his audience. We Brits were highly amused, however.
Mike Ball allows solo diving. You must carry an independent pony cylinder and demonstrate that you can switch to it under water. You also must prove that you can swim, clear your mask, use a snorkel and carry a knife, safety sausage and whistle. That done, you sign a disclaimer and off you go.
I did this, but the chances of diving alone when 20 passengers plus crew are in the water alongside you are limited. That took special arrangements which I thought of only on the last diving day.
You can do 13 dives in the three diving days available, including two night dives.
The first reefs were very tame. Harrier Reef was a tragedy. Obviously once extremely beautiful, the effects of global warming had killed so much coral that an infestation of crown-of-thorns starfish was in danger of death by starvation.
I did have some very pleasant encounters with a cuttlefish and a sea snake, a creature so venomous that it goes about its business without any fear of predators, but we had to get further north to get into first-division diving.
I jumped in early at Pixie Pinnacle, a typical Aussie coral bommie, beautiful but compact. I finished my dive reflecting that it was like the Red Sea without the crowds, and then found a very co-operative pufferfish, so I popped back to the boat for a film reload.
When I returned, 20 other divers were trying to photograph the poor puffer. It was suddenly like the Red Sea but worse, with several divers actually standing on my head, as well as each others!
We finally arrived at Ribbon Reef No 10 and the Cod Hole, the focus of the trip. Here numerous large potato cod (giant grouper) and sometimes one Maori (Napoleon) wrasse had grown accustomed to being hand-fed.
Its run much like a Bahamian shark feed. The feeder wears a chain-mail glove, because big grouper have sharp teeth. Some of the guest-divers were clearly alarmed at being so close to such large animals.
You can get as close as you like to the action. I photographed the feed, then got some rewarding shots of potato cod under the boat. The last dive was to be at the same location.
Craig asked what I thought of the trip. Now, I confess to being utterly spoiled. I appreciated that everyone was enjoying the trip but suggested that it was all rather tame. One could never see the best of what was there by always diving in the shadow of a big boat, in the lee of any current, and in the company of a shoal of divers.
Craig confirmed that most of the divers were very inexperienced and that safety was paramount. Then he offered to let me dive alone, on the opposite side of Ribbon Reef No 10 to the Cod Hole. He warned me that there would be a fearsome current and took me out in the RIB.
The current was exhilarating rather than fearsome. I tucked in close to the reef so that there would be no danger of being sent off into the open sea, and drifted along past some of the finest table corals I had ever seen. They had built up on the reef in layers, so looked more like plate corals at first glance.
A great shadow passed over me. Whale shark No, it was a school of densely packed bumphead parrotfish. They dumped a load of processed coral sand over me as they continued and disappeared over the reef top.
There were plenty more potato cod, though these spotty giants looked puny compared to three blue-black Queensland grouper that came within chin-tickling distance and gave me lots of portrait shots. Plenty of whitetip reef sharks were enjoying the flow - and then I found myself confronted by one of the biggest sharks I had ever seen.
It was head on to me, but hard to recognise. Its head had been smashed in - its eyes were gone. Its wound was covered in small fish feeding on it.
Green blood pulsed into the water, half a dozen remoras dashed around in panic. What could have caused such an injury
I fired off one shot. The shark sensed my presence and turned away, crashing into the reef. Its head was a metre across.
I saw its two dorsal fins - it was the biggest tawny nurse shark I had ever seen and it was dying, but there was no way I could follow it against the flow.
Mike Balls vessels all have prop guards, and its unlikely such a bottom-feeder would be swimming close enough to the surface to be hit by a boat.
Another vessel had been seen with fishermen aboard near the reef when we arrived. I believe they had hooked this animal and, unable to land it in the boat alive, tried to kill it by smashing its head in while it was still in the water. It had escaped the hook during the violence.
Back on the boat, I found that many frames of what would have been the most interesting set of photographs of my trip had suffered from light infiltration. It was a sad ending to what was otherwise a world-class diving experience, at the back door of No 10.
From SuperSport to SpoilSport - a flight from Cairns took me to Townsville, handy for visiting what is probably Australias most famous wreck site, the Yongala. If Cairns is tropical South Croydon, Townsville is a tropical Salford Shopping City, on a Sunday when England is playing Germany at home.
The Centra Hotel looms like an example of post-Stalinist architecture. Its comfortable, but dont spend more time in Townsville than you need to.
The following day found me waiting at the decompression bar hung below the stern of another Mike Ball liveaboard, SpoilSport, at the end of a dive.
Because of its twin hulls, the vessel was generating a strong current over us as it swung on its mooring. Suddenly, we were joined by a diver from above, then another, and another. The bar was pulled up to 2m by the pressure of water flowing over us.
In the end, seven divers were added to our group. With a nod from their leader they took off, diving seven abreast. The Welsh synchronised diving team was off on another dive of discovery in the Coral Sea.
load of mates
Including some members of crew, SpoilSport puts in around 30 divers on every dive site. Thats a lot.
Again, this trip isnt aimed at the solitary photographer, but it does offer an enjoyable experience for anyone who likes diving with a load of mates. I was to make several new friends during the trip.
SpoilSport is an aluminium apartment block. This 100ft, 15 knot catamaran has four-star accommodation to suit all pockets, some with en suite, others with shared facilities. Passengers are of many nationalities but everyone speaks English. You have to, in Australia!
Our new Director of Diving was Blake Pelling. His animated briefings were so exciting that the diving he described could rarely live up to them, but you cant stop a boat this size and put so many passengers into the water without scaring off a few fish.
Again, the diving was tailored to the less-experienced. Some went down the line to the Yongala, thought the current too strong and came back up again.
This did not include the likes of Tony, a man with so much equipment we called him Inspector Gadget. His eyesight was so poor, he could see his dive only by means of his video camera monitor. He went round the Yongala several times, bent his computer because he misread it and got banned from diving for a day.
A line ran from a buoy to the dive site, and from the back of the boat to the buoy, counter-balanced to allow for the swing of the vessel. There was also a down-line; in fact, there was more knitting around than in Grannys handbag.
As on SuperSport, divers signed out and in on return, confirming that they made two safety stops of five minutes each, one at 10m and one at 5m.
Nitrox 32 was available for those who wanted even more paperwork to sign, but its worth using - you could easily do six dives a day on SpoilSport.
The Yongala, a mixed freight and passenger vessel serving the Queensland coast, was on her way to Townsville from Brisbane in 1911 when she was lost with all souls in a hurricane. It was a national tragedy and the wreck was not discovered for 50 years. Queensland state law forbids entry to the wreck or any souvenir-hunting - be warned.
A lonely feature in a bleak, sandy landscape, the wreckage of this 330ft ship offers a refuge from predators and attracts all manner of marine life.
Masses of soft corals bear testimony to the gentle currents that flow over it. Glassfish are there in seeming millions, with the lionfish that prey on them.
Maori wrasse, sweetlips, trevallies, grouper and every variety of Indo-Pacific coral browser hover around. Giant sting rays pile up in heaps on the adjacent sea floor.
The sea is rich in nutrients (thats operator-speak for poor viz) but I did five dives on the Yongala and was game for more, till the seductively clear waters of the Coral Sea beckoned us away.
Flinders Reefs are betrayed by a single sand spit called Flinders Coral Cay, complete with its unmanned meteorological station and a host of nesting booby birds. It was a welcome trip to dry land for some passengers. We took our own party drinks.
The diving was dictated by the need to moor in the lee of any current. Blake Pelling would study the tide-tables so that no one would be shocked by a strong flow. He even went in and marked the position of frogfish (they call them anglerfish) and carpet sharks (wobbegongs) by tying off glowsticks to the nearby coral!
Some pinnacles like Watanabe are small enough to let you get from the back of the boat to the current point, where schools of barracuda and massive dogtooth tuna cruise. One of the crew snorkelled down and speared one such massive fish, needed for a vital part of the diving programme later. He also took a yellowfin tuna, which provided enough sashimi for everyone that evening.
Mike Ball thoughtfully provided me with a model for this trip, making other on-board photographers envious. Emma was the stewardess and, being a whirlwind of efficiency, made the necessary spare time to dive regularly with me.
I suggested after the first few dives that she got a smaller tank. She was so tiny that on her back a 12 litre looked more like a 20 in my pictures. Alas, we rarely found ourselves in the presence of the more spectacular forms of wildlife, though I overheard many saying this was the best diving they had ever done.
It was certainly good to see coral reefs in all their pristine splendour and untouched by the bleaching that has destroyed so many reefs elsewhere.
At Cod Wall we saw no big grouper but the current provided a nutrient supply for numerous large gorgonians.
One of these, at 42m, was about 5m across, certainly the biggest I have seen, though if you missed it there were plenty more only slightly smaller. Emma made it look even larger than it was.
We caught a fleeting glimpse of a great hammerhead shark as it cruised up before beating a hasty retreat. The big animals are there, but are likely to react to the sound of 30 or more roaring regulators.
Scuba Zoo was to be the high point of the trip. Here, at the southern point of Flinders Reefs, the shark-feeding dive is done. After a long briefing, extra liability waivers had to be signed. Some passengers were nervous, and one declined to join in, but they were in no danger.
On the seabed, a group of large cages were arranged in an L shape. We were invited to sit inside or on them, though as they were covered in growth this released much detritus into the water.
A galvanised, lidded trash-can with holes in its side was lowered. It contained pieces of the tuna caught previously.
One crew-diver controlled its height using a line that passed through a pulley fixed to the seabed and another at the vessels stern. Another had a line that allowed him to drag it from side to side.
They pulled it about in the space between the cages and the mainly female grey reef sharks and occasional silvertip, drawn by the spilling tuna oil and blood.
This went on until some 20 sharks had been brought to a frenzy of frustration. Then we were all hustled inside the cages, crew-divers too. On a signal to SpoilSport the lid was released. The sharks battled desperately for their share of the bait, biting the chain, the trash-can and the ropes, but it was hard to get any pictures from inside the crowded cages.
I later suggested to Blake that he should visit places where shark-feeding was done more sensitively. Sadly, I felt this Mike Ball method did not portray the shark as the discerning predator it surely is. If you teased a group of spaniels with a bone in the same way, they too would become aggressive monsters.
It said more about the Australian attitude to sharks than about sharks themselves, and the process continued with shark-baiting from the back of the boat. With the head and tail of the unfortunate tuna dangled on the end of a line from the highest dive platform, sharks again were teased to a frenzy.
Cheers were raised all round when one of the crew pulled a determined shark with its teeth embedded in the bait about 2m onto the boat. All very macho. Then again, we were in a country where the most famous newspaper headline was Mother Of Four Eaten By Shark!
|A family of booby birds at Flinders Coral Cay |
|Is this the worlds largest gorgonian A 5m specimen at Cod Wall. |
|A venomous seasnake on Harrier Reef |
|teeming with fish, the Yongala, Australias most famous wreck site |
|At Scuba Zoo on Flinders Reef, the reef sharks are teased into a feeding frenzy ... |
|...as divers take cover in the cages provided |
|Pyramid butterflyfish at the Lunar Landing site |
|This tawny nurse shark had severe injuries, probably caused by man |
|dogtooth tuna destined to end up as sharkbait |
|shark-baiting antics on SpoilSport |
|The Great Barrier Reef offers spectacularly colourful underwater vistas |
|SpoilSport, big enough to put 30 or more divers into the water |
GETTING THERE QANTAS operates the route with BA under a code-sharing arrangement. It flies to Townsville from Cairns, which in turn is reached from London via Singapore with a brief stop at Darwin en route. John Bantin reports that QANTASs service proved exceptionally efficient and flexible.
DIVING:SeaSport and SpoilSport liveaboards, Mike Ball Dive Expeditions, 00 617 40530 500, www.mikeball.com.
ACCOMMODATIONJohn Bantin made overnight stays at the Cairns Colonial Club and the Centra Hotel in Townsville.
WHEN TO GOAny time. Wet season is November to May.
MONEYAustralian dollar, credit cards
VISA UK passport-holders can get an electronic visa (around£20) from Australia Visa Line, 020 7842474
EMMA CHISSITTReturn flights from the UK to Cairns, plus four-day, all-inclusive Cod Hole trip on SuperSport, with twin-share accommodation, flights to or from Lizard Island and two nights at Cairns Colonial Club, costs from£1,225. The seven-day Coral Sea package on SpoilSport, with return flights to Cairns and Townsville, and two nights at the Centra Hotel, costs from£2,059. The double trip was arranged by Bridge the World Travel Service, 020 7734 7447, www.bridgetheworld.com.
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