Published: August 30th 2005August 3rd 2005
YAD. Yet another Digression. Were there a World Championships in Bandwagon Jumping I'm sure the good people of England would stroll it this year, as they would have back on 22 November 2003, when for once our little '53rd state' actually won something. Hooray. My greatest sadness watching the current Ashes series is that we're watching it with my cousin James and his wife Heather. Through many years of Australia stuffing England's cricketers into a small box and sending them packing they showed admirable restraint and gloated very little, at least in our hearing. Now it seems unfair and probably unwise to take the rare opportunity to rub it in. Instead, prompted by Kim who, after several late nights watching, started to see Hobbits running all over the pitch, we spent much of the slow final morning of the fourth test pondering which cricketers should play which Lord of the Rings characters.
Matthew Hoggard was obvious as Sam Gamgee, after all it was watching him that sent Kim over the edge. Vaughan would have to be Elrond, without question. James volunteered Ricky Ponting as Gollum, a little harsh perhaps but no-one disagreed - "nasty sub-fielders my precious, they cheats us,
they tricks us, nasty English hobbits, miserable tricksters, they're mine, they're my ashes, my ... precious, gollum". Whilst we would have liked to have Flintoff as Aragorn we all felt he would serve much better as Boromir. Aragorn proved a stumbling block. I fancied Shane Warne, as a kind of Aragorn in a 'Prince Harry' style, but this was not popular. I suggested Glenn McGrath, but again not really, and we never really settled that one. Brett Lee seemed a possibility for Legolas with Gilchrist as a slightly underweight Gimli - "Baaawwolling Cheyenne". There were plenty of candidates for Merry, Pippin and various of the Rohirrim but we were really struggling to find Wizards. Then the idea of Geoffrey Boycott as Saruman occured, and this fittingly led to the casting of Richie Benaud as Gandalf, although at times I think Tony Grieg has sounded like Gandalf to Boycott's Balrog. No doubt many Australians would cast Aleem Dar as Sauron. Feeling happy with ourselves we went to bed, only slightly saddened that we hadn't found a Frodo (Michael Atherton?) and, like the Australian selectors, hadn't found a place for Jason Gillespie. Maybe something from Harry Potter?
It is said that
Britain is a nation of shopkeepers, and as such I feel it my duty to report back. Our first impressions of Australia on arriving at Cairns Airport were 'Yikes, it's expensive'. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not having a winge. There is no reason why Australia shouldn't be expensive. After all, the powers that be tell us it has experienced fourteen years of positive growth. And in fact, as I'll show, it is not that expensive. It is, of course, another question of expectations. Our expectations had been set by years of speaking to Australian travellers telling us how expensive Britain was, and how lucky we were to be travelling on the pound. Well, let's get something straight upfront. Britain is not London and London is not Britain. In fact I would go so far as to say that the cost of living where we live in Sheffield is probably half that of London. And that is what we were comparing things to. (On a side note, the constituency where we live, Hallam, is distinguished in having the greatest number of University graduates per capita in the country, and came second in a countrywide survey of levels of disposable
The aliens are coming
Bad editing, nice colours.
income some years ago. Well there you go).
Australia is famed for the number and quality of its hostels, and the number and quality of the visiting backpackers. It is almost as if the country invented backpacker culture and to be honest it probably did. It was a shock then to find that a double room in a backpackers in Cairns, many of which are extremely grotty, was costing upwards of 50 AUD (2.3 Aussie dollars to the pound at the moment). On top of this it was high season in Cairns and most places seemed to be full. Our luck was in as we found a very pleasant motel - the Queens Court - with satellite TV and a good breakfast for 63 AUD. The only problem was there was no kitchen, so we reverted to the techniques learned in Russia and China and supped noodles in our room every night. To be honest, accomodation in Australia is generally cheaper than in the UK but not necessarily by much. With the exception of the dilapidated Cairn's hostels, quality seems to be much better than the UK, which is generally a disgrace when it comes to price/value, unless you
happen to know a nice little bed and breakfast.
But there were more shocks in store. A coffee was 3 AUD upwards. A bus into town was 2.20 AUD (we walked). Bread in the supermarkets was 4 AUD a loaf, with other amenities priced accordingly. A pint of the cheapest draft beer in a pub was more than 5 AUD, a stubby in the bottleshop more than 3 AUD and double that if you had it in a cafe. An hour on the internet was 3 AUD minimum and more if you didn't shop around. Books were generally 25% more than in the UK, as evidenced by the pricetags on that famous Australian brand Lonely Planet. Camera gear is 25% more than on the UK high street, which is already one of the most expensive in the world. We tried to go to the cinema one night but were faced with 15 AUD to see a film, 50% more than most places in the UK. An average Gortex jacket will set you back 500 AUD, a set of 8 Gillette Mach III razors 29.50 AUD, a days ski pass 85 AUD upwards plus 30 AUD to just get your
car into the resort. And so on.
But all was not bad. We were to learn that Cairns in high-season was relatively expensive, and that some important things e.g. wine, can be an absolute bargain in Australia. We were introduced to the ideas of cleanskin's and Dan Murphy's wine supermarkets. Apparently the cleanskin is a way to get around the current glut and subsequent overproduction of Australian wine - sell off brand name wines at 25 - 50% off but don't put a label on them. Combined with the cost-cutting strategies of Dan Murphy's, Cleanskins meant that Kim and I were able to walk off with three bottles of quite reasonable wine and one bottle of really quite good wine for an average of 4gbp per bottle. Fantastic. Sadly, I'm told they are now owned by a big Australian chain (Woolworths I think but it may be the other one). No doubt constant drive for 'shareholder value' in a saturated or near-saturated market will inevitably lead to a place that currently stocks a great selection of wines following the path of many British retailers and stocking absolute rubbish, based on margin and sales volume, not quality. Unless of course
followed us around for several minutes.
the owners of Dan Murphy's are not publically listed.
Other great deals, particularly around Cairns although I guess it is similar everywhere where there are lots of backpackers, include car-rental and camper-van rental, although the latter generally need to be at least a week long and you need to sleep in the van to make it worthwhile. Strangely Domino's Pizza, with an deal of $8 for a large Pizza, proved to be less than half the price of the UK, where it is ridiculously expensive for what you get. In Cairns we got the same greasy base and tasty over-rich topping that made you feel a little queasy afterwards, but it was a welcome change from noodles.
The best deal for us however was our three-day two-night liveaboard on the Barrier reef with Pro Dive
. We came to Cairns to dive on the reef and for no other reason. Matt, a fellow passenger on our Exodus jaunt through Africa, had recommended the PRO Dive liveaboard trip wholeheartedly. As Matt is by nature a fairly inquisitive fellow we felt such an unreserved recommendation was of great value, so we booked the trip whilst we were in China. We didn't
Our 560 AUD each bought us two nights accomodation, eleven dives including rental plus a dive computer, and as many meals a day as we could manage. Also thrown in was an informative two hour lecture on the ecology of the reef withReef Teach
. The whole package was fantastic value, particularly given the reef is three hours in a fast boat from Cairns. Pro Dive are an extremely professional outfit with good safety procedures and excellent instructors, several of whom were German. The best bit however was the food. After three nights of noodles we feasted like kings of old, which was impressive since the cook had the tiniest of galley's in which to work.
Still, we needed it. Eleven dives in three days is no joke. If you knock out a day for travelling to the reef and back you are looking at eleven dives in 48 hours. To do this you've got two night dives plus another dive leaving just after dawn and one dive leaving well before dawn.
The schedule wouldn't be too bad in good weather, with lots of sunshine to warm you up between dives. Sadly our visit to Cairns
Worth a try at a bit of B&W maybe.
was amidst a lengthy bout of unseasonal bad weather, with high winds, grey skies and the occasional rain shower. Temperatures on the deck of the boat were generally down below 25 degrees, which may seem high but when you are trying to warm up a chilled core is not really high enough.
Add to that that some dives had only an hours surface interval and cold could become an issue. One hour is not a lot between dives - you emerge from the water, stow your kit, change, grab a cup of tea and a bite to eat and it is time for the briefing for the next dive. Then straight away you are back donning your cold wet kit and jumping in the water.
The bad weather also accounted for relatively low visibility and poor conditions for photography, although mid-way through day two the sun began to poke out and things started to improve.
This may all sound a little negative but in fact we had a great time and, thanks to the unique geography of the reef, learned an awful lot. Much diving on tropical reefs involves either drifting along in a current or swimming
along a reef wall. In either case navigation is fairly straightforward, but due to the fact that it is the big bad ocean it is best to be with someone who knows the area well. Diving on the barrier reef can be more forgiving from a safety point of view as the outer reef wall effectively blocks out the worst of the ocean. The reef is wide enough that there is a 'safe area' behind this wall that is neither too deep nor too riddled with currents. These areas are populated with 'bombies' - isolated towers of reef ranging from the size of a small car to the size of a very large house. Finding your way around and between these bombies was great fun and fantastic navigation practice.
The fact that we were in a relatively isolated pool for each dive meant that Kim and I did all but two of the dives entirely on our own (as a buddy pair). We couldn't get too lost - if you go east(ish) the water gets shallower until you hit the surface, if you got west(ish) it gets deeper, and if it is too deep turn around and come back.
The areas we dived were chosen so that North and South were bounded by big chunks of reef or bombies.
This experience, using dive computers and compasses to manage ourselves underwater and navigate through fairly complex terrain made for fantastic learning. We even managed our second night dive on our own, safely navigating around several bombies and finding the places our dive supervisor had told us to look for.
Apart from this what were the highlights? Well, Kim saw a hammerhead shark, but I missed it. Although dangerous no divers have yet been killed on the reef by sharks - you have more chance of being hit by lightning .... although a diver was dragged off by a Great White in the cooler waters off the coast of South Australia last week. On our first night-dive we saw a flat-worm swimming, one of the more bizarre underwater sights we have yet seen. The flatworm is like a circular disk of flesh, and it propels itself by curving its surface so the edges ripple like a wave from front to back - this photo
should give the idea.
We came across giant clams, lots of large Potato Cod
(grouper), turtles, stingrays, mackerel and barracuda, trumpet fish, box fish, unicorn fish etc etc etc. We found some fun swim-throughs in between bombies, where large grouper hid away in the darkness. The second night dive yielded three of the biggest turtles I have ever imagined, the biggest having a shell of a good 2m length. Sadly, aware that these pesky divers appear every night, she slept with her head well hidden in a cave tucked under a bombie, but we could still see enough to gasp at the size of her. Nearby we found two more turtles only slightly smaller and sleeping out in the open.
Perhaps the best dive involved entering the water at dawn, with the sun rising above the horizon whilst we were underwater. At this time much of the reef life is either still sedentary or has just woken up and is feeding wildly. We saw several schools of large Parrot Fish that sleep clustered together to form a single mass several metres across, in order to deter sharks and other large predators, as well as several reef sharks circling around looking for food.
Our last dive was spent gently idling around the shallower
sections of the reef with the sun poking through the water, watching the shrimp gobys and the goby shrimps. The latter is blind, and so requires the services of the former - a small fish - to keep watch. The shrimp burrows a tunnel into the sand where this unlikely Eric and Ernie live together, the shrimp bustling around cleaning the house whilst the goby hangs suspended vertically, its tail in the burrow, its eyes wide looking for danger.
We came to Cairns to dive and dive we did. Sadly we chose to spend three days killing time prior to the trip in case we had picked up some stomach bugs in Bali, and we had to spend another day after to let the Nitrogen leave our bloodstream before flying. All in all it was worth it.
There are more photos below