Friday, 10 January 2014

The final stretch - Chapter 17

I'd heard that Airlie Beach was a cheap place to get certified as an open water scuba diver so that's where I headed next. To be honest I wasn't really sure if I would like scuba diving but there was no way that I was going to leave Australia without diving on the Great Barrier Reef. That would be like going to Egypt and not seeing the Pyramids.

I wandered around the town looking for a cheap deal and eventually my efforts were rewarded. For a few hundred dollars I got a package which would get me certified, plus free accommodation for the duration of the course. This equated to a few days in a hotel and a few days on a boat out at sea. The company was part of the PADI organisation (Professional Association of Diving Instructors), although most people liked to say that the acronym really stood for Put Another Dollar In, in reference to their intense marketing policies.

The course broke us in gently with a few days in the classroom for the theory and an outdoor swimming pool for the practical. Then it was off to the Great Barrier Reef for the real deal. My dive instructor, a Kiwi called Dave was a real joker and this made things so much more relaxed. For example on our first dive he grabbed a large sea cucumber (Google it) that was floating past him, which he then placed between his legs so that he looked like he had an enormous penis. It sounds a little juvenile now that I am writing it back but it was funny at the time, believe me.

The underwater kingdom was beyond anything that I was expecting. Despite all the Jacques Cousteau or David Attenborough documentaries that I had seen nothing could have prepared me for the beauty and tranquillity that I experienced 18 meters beneath the surface of the ocean. At one point I turned around and looked up at the bottom of our boat with rays of sun shining down through the water and hundreds of multi-coloured fish swimming in every direction, and I thought to myself - you are one lucky bastard! I clicked my mental camera and captured the moment forever.

Despite the fact that practically everybody who pays the money gets the certificate it still felt like an achievement to become certified. Knowing that I had paid for this by picking melons made me even more proud of my accomplishment. Still reeling from my successful diving trip I boarded a bus and headed to Hervey Bay some 10 hours away. I was becoming used to these long bus journeys by now and was actually starting to enjoy them.

Hervey Bay is the stop off point for Fraser Island, which is considered to be the largest sand island in the world. I'd signed up for a four wheel drive trip around the island during my stay at the Hervey Bay backpackers. A group of random individuals were thrown together and given a map, food and tents. It was our responsibility to allocate a driver and organise the trip. This would have been all good and well if we didn't have two extremely dull and whiny German girls in our group. "Ve must make better plans guys!" are six words I never want to hear again in my life.

Fraser Island is named after Eliza Fraser who survived a ship wreck and ended up living on the island for six weeks until she was rescued in 1836. The island is home to some stunningly beautiful freshwater lakes which are some of the cleanest in the world. On our first day we visited Lake McKenzie and I have to say I have never witnessed anything like before or since. The lake was a perfect shade of blue and made for a wonderful swim. The waters are so pure that only a few species can live in them and it was surrounded by beaches of pure silica.

Lake McKenzie was also our first stop for a picnic, or should I say it would have been had a dingo not run off with half of our picnic stuff. I'd never seen dingoes before but this place was absolutely full of them. I've since read that dogs are not allowed on Fraser Island to prevent cross breeding because the dingoes on the island are some of the last remaining pure breeds.

By nightfall a division had opened up in our group with the two German girls doing their own thing. Earlier in the day I had angered the girls greatly when I drove through a puddle too fast which resulted in the vehicle coming to a halt in a cloud of steam. We had to wait for a mechanic to come out and we lost two hours of our trip. As you can imagine this went down like the Hindenburg. The rest of the group didn't care at all though and we spent a cultural few hours relaying stories and telling jokes.

The trip had been fantastic but by the time it was over I was ready to break away from the group to do my own thing. Next stop was Brisbane which I remember practically nothing about apart from the 15 Gold phones in a row at the bus station. Excited by my new trick that I had learned on Magnetic Island I vowed to get free phone calls for everybody who came to use them. For a period of about two hours I ran up and down the bus station connecting people for free. One elderly Australian lady even had a tear in her eye when I connected her to her sister in London. She told me after the call that it was the longest that she had spoken to her sister for over twenty years. For a moment there I felt like Jesus.

One of the weird things about travelling is that your experience in a place can be altered by so many variables. The people that you meet there is obviously important and the weather can also have a huge bearing. But there are so many other factors too such as the amount of money that you have to spend in a place or maybe you are feeling ill at the time and just want stay in bed. By the time I arrived in Byron Bay I was ready to leave Australia. It had had been good and all but I was ready for a change. To be honest I was really looking forward to meeting up with my parents in New Zealand on the next part of the journey.

I am sure that my journey to Byron Bay would be much better if I went back there now because it was undoubtedly a beautiful and relaxing place. The hostel that I stayed in was run by a lovely hippy lady who made me feel chilled out with her calm aura. I didn't really do much in Byron Bay to be honest with my only physical exertion coming in the form of my attempts at body boarding. With no instruction on how to do it however and even less patience to learn I gave up after the third wave. On each attempt I had ended up being smashed head first into the sandy ocean floor and I didn't find this a pleasant experience.

After Byron Bay the rest of my time in Australia was also rather uneventful. I headed back to Sydney to say goodbye to my friends and family there and then I headed to the St Kilda area of Melbourne for four days of sight-seeing in the city. Once again Melbourne was a vibrant city but I really wasn't feeling it. My 10 months in Australia had been good to me but I was itching to leave.

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