Saturday, February 12, 2005

Cairns

While I was in Alice Springs, I talked to a number of other backpackers about what they'd done or planned to do, and I heard that one girl planned to get her dive certification in Cairns, on the Great Barrier Reef, and thought that sounded like a good idea. It was a lot easier to plan than a trip to Fraser Island (another highly-recommended spot), and fit perfectly into my time left: a dive course is 4 days, and I had 5 until I had to be in Brisbane to catch my flight to New Zealand. So to Cairns I went.

It didn't start off well. I had to wait at the airport for the shuttle that would take me to the hostel I'd booked, and was attacked by bugs. Not big, buzzy bugs like bees or mosquitoes that are easy to see. Tiny little black bugs that don't look like they could possibly be big enough to inflict any damage. You don't know there's a problem until they've already bitten you. Fuckers. And my bug spray was buried in the middle of my luggage and couldn't be gotten out. So I did my paranoid curl-up-and-sporadically-slap thing for about half an hour. No one else came near me.

I went to Cairns, checked into my hostel, and headed out to walk around. I had a coupon for a free dinner at a nearby pub, from the hostel, and figured I'd take advantage of that. There was a rugby match on, with about half the bar really involved in it. I went over to the bar to watch, and got myself a pitcher of Victoria Bitter (it only cost a dollar or two more than a pint). I talked to a few Irish guys sitting near me (in an Irish pub, go figure), watched the match, and generally had a good night out. I was sorry for it when I had to get up at 7 am the next morning.

The way a scuba course generally goes is you spend the first day in the classroom in the morning and in the pool in the afternoon. You need a medical examination to make sure you're fit for diving (congestion or other conditions that might mess with equalizing--relieving the pressure in your ears when you go down--have to be detected before you dive, because you can't dive with problems like that), then you have to watch cheesy PADI videos and take quizzes. In the pool you start getting used to the equipment and learning skills that you're later tested on in the ocean in order to get your certification, like how to clear your mask when it fills with water (definitely a handy bit of information) and how to descend properly. After 8 or 9 hours of this--with a hangover--I was pretty wiped. I'd also learned how necessary it was for me to bring a towel. The second day was the same, but in reverse order. The third day we finally headed to the Great Barrier Reef to go diving. The first day is kind of a blur--diving is hard to get used to, with all the equipment you're wearing (I'm not a fan of weight belts, necessary though they are) and things you have to remember. Also the dive buddy I ended up with couldn't swim. She didn't have enough weights and kept floating up and away. The second day out diving I gave up looking after her--it's exhausting work to tow someone else around. Despite rough seas, the second day went much better. I wasn't worried about my dive buddy (we were all swimming around in a big group anyway, it's not we really needed to be in pairs) and, more importantly, I had a mask that didn't leak. Swimming around and seeing the coral and the fish was lovely, it really is kind of like flying. And I love swimming. The number and colors of fish was amazing, and it was really cool to see all the different kinds of coral, some of which were really colorful. I didn't see any turtles or sharks, unfortunately, and while it sounds kind of weird, I did see a really cool clam. It was probably a foot wide, maybe more, with its shell partly opened so you could actually see the membrane inside, which was covered with brilliant blue stripes. In all I had a great time, and can't wait to go diving again when I'm in Tahiti.

I left on the following day, Friday--I'd had to change my flights in order to finish the course, because you risk decompression illness if you fly too soon after diving. My last hour in Cairns was great: I walked up to Baskin Robbins and had two scoops of ice cream for breakfast. It melted all over my hands and face (though I wiped that off periodically) to give me that really cool 5 year-old look. It was great. Then it was off to the airport and Brisbane. More on that later.

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