IVS visits the Land Down Under!

Our long-awaited Australian excursion began as Team IVS started gathering in Los Angeles, our kick-off point for the cross-Pacific journey.  With folks from all aover the country joining us on the expedition it made sense to start the trip off from the left coast and just meet at Los Angeles International to board our Qantas flight.  The line was about two and a half hours long and winding, but we felt the effort would be well rewarded, so most of us got in line.  Ray Graff hadn’t arrived yet, being late to get off the Torrey Pines Golf Course, and I have a personal aversion to long lines, so I opted to wait for Ray in the quiet comfort of the Delta Airlines club room, enjoying the peaceful atmosphere and cold, free beer, while getting a lot of last minute work done (like updating blog entries!).  Well, the calls from the gang in the Qantas line kept getting more and more urgent, so I finally decided to stroll down to see what the fuss was all about.  Lo and behold, my delaying tactic had paid off, and the airline gods were smiling on me, as there was absolutely no one in line, and the only person to come in behind me was, of course, Ray.  And the only seat they had left for me was a reclining exit row with no seats in front of me, oh OK, I’ll take it! Ray & I headed up to the bar to meet the rest of the group, including Sandy & Dave Herbert, Tom Brennan, Camilo Romano, Bill Zyskowski, Donna Raleigh, Dave West, Sue Douglass, Butch & Bev Loggins, Don Yowell, and Barb Beck.  

We finally boarded for our 11:30 departure (that’s 2:30 a.m. for those of us who came from the east coast) and we took off for the longest leg in our trip – a 15 hour journey to the Land Down Under. Dinner and breakfast, plus free drinks, kept us occupied when we weren’t sound asleep on the flight. The sun came up while we were still over the Pacific, so we got some great views of the reefs and land before touching down in Brisbane. This was actually only an interim stop for us, as we had another two hour flight ahead of us to get up to Cairns. The good news is that we didn’t need to clear customs at this entry, so our bags were transferred to our Cairns flight and we just sauntered on down to gate for another taste of Ozzie great friendly service. In fact, that was the case all the way through customs, and Oz airport security – what a pleasant difference from the usual sour “I hate my job and everyone that comes with it” attitude that is so prevalent in US airports and especially with TSA personnel. Once we landed our coach awaited us and the first less-than-pleasant Australian was driving it. We filled up the bus and still had four of us standing on the curb – he said he has been driving for ten years and never saw any group with so much luggage – we wondered if he had never, in his ten years of bus driving, ever picked up a load of scuba divers!! So we patiently awaited a second coach, and found that the attitude of the first driver must be a job requirement, as the second bloke was as much of a nasty sort as the first. The good news: it’s a very short ride!

Finally through all that, we ended up checking in at the Novotel Hotel, and what a pleasant oasis of Aussie friendliness this place was. From the front desk staff to the pool bar hostesses, everyone was up for customer service, and we immediately took advantage of our first chance to finally relax in over thirty hours of travel. Some pool games, some beverages, some laughter and most importantly, some showers! After a pleasant afternoon we walked a few blocks to the beachfront esplanade, and took in some of the sights and sounds of this very active town. On the way we got a chance to experience another Australian delight, trees full of large flying fox bats right in the middle of town! And I mean large – these guys were the size of crows when they opened up and took off – very cool. Well very cool unless your car was parked under these trees, cause the guana was abundant! Whew! Dinner ended up taking place at Barnacle Bill’s Seafood House, and the owner and staff were just great with filling us in on the real facts about our destination and putting an end to lots of those myths that so many had shared with us. Nothing like getting the straight skinny from someone who isn’t trying to sell you something (other than a great dinner!) Afterwards, we enjoyed some handmade gelati Italian ice cream, and retired to our rooms to get ready for a great start in the morning!

They say this area is ‘Japan’s Florida’ and no where was it more evident than at the breakfast buffet today! More things that I could not name or pronounce or even more telling, know what aisle in the supermaket to find them, should say something of the exotic variety of offerings that greeted us this morning. I think I would starve if I moved there! But thankfully they eat chickens and pigs in the Land of the Rising Sun, so eggs and bacon were available! Whew!

Our shuttles arrived spot on at 11:30 to take us for the very short ride to the marina to board the Spirit of Australia. This 130 ft long 26 passenger vessel with a crew of 11 was to be our home for the next eight days. We pulled up to the boat and were met by Phil & Trina, the owner/managers of the Spirit of Freedom and TUSA Diving. We were introduced to the crew, shown our cabins, given the nickle tour of the boat, and got ready to head right on out. We had two dives scheduled for today and we didn’t want to be late! En-route, after settling in our cabins, we set up our gear, and got our general dive and ship briefings for the week. Very concise, well-delivered and with a taste of Aussie humor, they proved to be both informative and entertaining.

We headed out about 30 miles to our first dive site, at the bottom end of the Great Barrier Reef. Our location was Turtle Bommie, a nice reef that rose right up from the sea floor, starting at about 70 ft and coming nearly to the surface. A great location for our first dives; a chance to shake the bugs out, get properly weighted, and make sure the gear was in order for the week. There was about a 15 knot wind blowing and 5 to 6 foot seas, so the ride out was a bit rough, and some of our travelers were looking a little green already! Not a good sign for the first day of a liveaboard trip! So out came the ginger tablets, Bonine, and various other recipes, and we hoped for the best. A little fresh air, a little vomiting, and things were looking much better overall! Finally we arrived at our destination, and everyone geared up and got ready.

We dropped in and headed over to the reef and within a minute or two we knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore! Napolean wrasses, Aussie groupers, cuttlefish, flounder, pygmy seahorses, butterfly fish of all sorts – this clearly was not Key Largo! The first hour long dive in the 81 degree water passed all too quickly, and we headed back to the mother ship for a short surface interval. Don Yowell’s new pony bottle set-up worked perfectly, and Donna Raleigh, Sue Douglass and Ray Graff all had new cameras out to get wet for the first time. After that, it was a twilight dive for round two, with some nice reef sharks, turtles, and more great critter sightings to confirm we had clearly made the right choice for this trip! Back on the boat, it was time for dinner, and then we started our 12 hour overnight journey about 120 miles north up the GBR for start of our “real” diving.

Tuesday morning we woke up to relatively flat seas and a light breeze, and our 6:30 a.m. wake-up call got us up and ready for our first dip of the day. A nice continental breakfast to keep the bellies from growling, and we dropped in to Wonderland, located on the 8th ribbon reef of the GBR system. Here we enjoyed about an hour long pre-breakfast dive. The max depth was about 73 feet, and the reef was teeming with life, large & small. Unbelievable expanses of staghorn coral and hundreds of other varieties made for a great backdrop for all the colorful sealife that greeted us. About 33% of the GBR has been classified as a “Green Zone”, with no-take / no-touch restrictions, and the results of this effort were obvious everywhere you looked. Tons of life, amazingly healthy corals, and everything in between! After an hour or so it was time to head back to the mother ship for our real breakfast.

And what a breakfast spread it was, with something for everyone and lots of it! A nice leisurely second start of the day, and before long it was time to head in for our second dive. This dive was a nice little drift dive on the opposite side of the same site, so we loaded up in the inflatables and motored over to the reef. The teams dropped in like Navy Seals, looking sharp and synchronized as we hit the water and dropped below. Sandy Herbert & Bev Loggins aced their first backroll entries with flying colors! We hit about 110 ft on this dive, breaking the first of many Queensland rules; this one about prohibiting reverse profile diving. Oh well, you know with Indian Valley Scuba that rules=guidelines, so we were OK with the process. Another nice hour long dive, and we drifted back to the boat mooring, making the return to the boat very convenient.

A little snack of fresh fruit served to us on the dive deck, and we went about the task of organizing our gear. The Spirit of Freedom is very well set up for diving, with cubby storage spaces at each diver location, and a tank filling whip system, so all you needed to do after each dive was disconnect your first stage, and the crew would re-fill your tank and you’d be good to go for your next dive. No humping gear anywhere, no need to pack & unpack, just very relaxing and pampered diving for all.

While we off-gased, the boat motored a short distance and we moored at Pixie Gardens, located at the beginning of the 9th ribbon reef. Another great dive, 52 ft deep and 80 minutes of bottom time allowed for many more great animal sightings. Back to the boat, and it was time for lunch, served up piping hot and delicious. While we ate, the boat moved again, and we anchored at Challenger Bay, a little further up the 9th ribbon reef. Our first dive here was great, depth in the seventy foot range and bottom times well in excess of an hour. More cuttle fish, more sharks, lots of larger predator fish, and all the great coral reef environment the Great Barrier Reef is famous for. Back on board, a delicious dinner, followed by our first night dive, still on Challenger Bay. This time we headed in the opposite direction, and the larger fish that seemed so nice during our earlier dive clearly showed their true hunter colors as they used our dive lights to light up their dinner and they nailed the reef inhabitants with frightenly accurate frequency and ferociousness. During one tussle while I was filming away, a reef shark shot straight up between my legs to get in on the dinner frenzy, adding to the excitement. We spent about an hour and a quarter on this sight, and finally headed in for snacks, after diving appertifs and an early bedtime.

Another bright beautiful Australian morning greeted us this fine Wednesday, and we rolled out of bed at 6:30 once again for our pre-breakfast dive. Today we started at Pixie’s Pinnacle, another location off Ribbon Reef #9. We dropped in, and enjoyed more of the great life we have started to become accustomed to here on the great Barrier Reef. We had sharks cruising all around us, and all the small reef inhabitants coming out of their coral bunkers after the night. The pinnacle is just that, a straight column of coral and rock rising straight up from the ocean bottom at 115 ft to about 3 ft from the surface. Sheer walls added to the dramatic effect you would expect from such a site. Great dive and a great way to start the day.

Back to the boat it was time for breakfast and the crew once again served up a good one. Time for a little early morning sunning on the upper deck, while we motored a little further up the reef to the area known as the cod hole. This area supports a huge population of Potato Cod (that’s Australian for spotted grouper) and we could see them under the boat as we prepared to dive. The site starts at another very high reef structure, coming to within 3 or 4 ft of the surface, and from there it drops down in a series of steps to 40, 70 and 105 ft deep. Very nice layout for easy cruising up and down the reef. We had giant clams of all colors and sizes, and although I tried to get Dave West to stick his head in one, Siegfried & Roy style, he decided it was not his day to risk beheading. In fact, Dave had a bigger plan for today – he snuck up on a school of diagonal banded sweetlips, at first startling them, but the more he hung around them, he carefully studied their habits, until he finally turned his head into the current and hung motionless with them. The school filled in right around him, and you knew the moment was complete – they had truly accepted him as one of their own. For his efforts and achievement, David will always be known in our group as David “sweetlips” West. Make sure you call him by that next time you are in the shop!

Our next dive was at the same location, and it was a potato cod feeding dive. Although this event is a bit of a highlight on this trip, our group, who have collectively attended more than enough Slate’s Creature Features and chumsicle shark feeds in the Bahamas, the feeding of the cod (which of course are really groupers, but don’t tell the Aussies) was somewhat anticlimatic. Nevertheless, after some entertainment, we swam off and enjoyed the reef, finding 3 or 4 sharks, lots more groupers, more giant clams, some sting rays, and more. This is some very nice diving for sure!

Back on the boat, another meal, and another dive briefing. This time we moved up one reef to Dynamite Pass, on Ribbon Reef #10. The incoming tide was just starting to peak, and we ran up the reef in the inflatables for another hot drop. Three, two, one, go! and we were out of the boats and down to 100 ft. The current was absolutely head over heels ripping here, and we sailed right along for the first twenty minutes of the dive. Finally the current slowed, and we got to poke about and see so much more of what we came for. Lots more sharks, great coral formations, fellow divers, even a manta ray – all the stuff we love to see under the sea! Finally back to the mother ship, but alas, no dive tonight, as we need to sail to Lizard Island for the morning to rendevous with some new passengers and to let a few off, who had chosen to only take half the week-long trip.

Tonight’s dinner was a barbecue on the upper deck, with lots of great food, laughter, and Australian wine. After a few drinks and some de-gassing, the talk turned to how so many of us listened to so many well-meaning but mis-informed experts who warned us of how many things live in the ocean here with the sole purpose to kill or maim us. From toxic cone shells, to Steve Irwin’s stingrays, to deadly box jellyfish, sharks, and the lethal blue ring octopus, the odds of our group coming back home intact were not with us. Knock on wood, we are still healthy and kicking at this point! Only four days left if they are going to get us!

For the first time in four days we get a chance to set foot on land today as we take a little tour of Lizard Island. Pretty cool little resort island at the top of the Great Barrier Reef, some high-end resorts and really nice boats moored in the harbor, plus a little airstrip. While we were there six of our fellow passengers left the boat, while ten new ones came aboard. You can book this trip either northbound (like the past 3 days) or southbound (like the next 4 days). Not ones to let waters go un-dived, we managed to talk the crew into letting us do a drop right here in the harbor, and we enjoyed a nice little reef structure with a lot of cool little critters. It was the first time they had ever let a group dive during this “switch-over” morning, but is it a surprise that the first ones to do it were IVS divers? Nice dive, saw some coral munching Crown of Thorns starfish, and the usual cast of characters. Once the new folks were on board, we headed south again to the GBR, and did two nice dives on a site known as the Monolith. Lots of good photo op’s, including a large turtle that loved being filmed so much he crashed right into me with the video camera. Also enjoyed some other animal interaction, with a large trigger fish who felt compelled to bite something, and we got him biting the camera lens, and my fins, multiple times! All good! That night as dinner was served the crew came down and gave us the bad news – we had a 130 mile voyage across open water to complete tonight, and the key word there was ‘open’. Depths would average 1,000 meters, and at times exceed 1,800 meters – that’s well over a mile deep! Needless to say, the serious seasickness pills were distributed, not only to the passengers but to the crew too! This was big water for sure, and the wind action made the crossing very “nautical”. Waves hitting the bow and spray flying over the boat, and Bev and Sue standing on the bridge just daring Neptune to bring it on! It was a rocking-n-rolling night in our bunks for sure, but by morning we had arrived, unharmed, and ready to dive Osprey Reef, smack dab in the northern corner of the Coral Sea.

It’s Friday now, and our 6:30 wake-up call to dive came nice and early. After the rough night of sailing, our weary group assembled on the dive deck for our morning briefing. Our first site for today was called Around the Bend, and it was a nice wall dive with about 1,000 ft of depth down the face of the reef. Very lively site, lots of sea life, octopus, spotted and green moray eels, and sharks. We dove this site twice, both times as drift dives from the inflatables and back to the boat. On our second dive we were treated to a nice size manta ray, cruising right through our group – very cool!

Back in for lunch and a bit of re-positioning of the boat, and we jumped back in to the reef at a site called The Gap, aptly named because it was a cut through the fringe reef through which huge tidal flows passed to the lagoon within the center of Osprey Reef. Lots of fish of all varieties, hundreds of giant clams, some great swim thru’s and caves, and super healthy coral. Very nice!

Now we headed over to another site known as the Admiralty, named after the manufacturer of an anchor that was trapped in one of the swim thru’s on the reef – a boat must have dropped it and to their surprise, it managed to fall through a hole in the reef and got itself lodged in the cavern underneath. Sucked for them, cool for us. Neat site, lots of sharks, octo’s, and the rest. We stayed here for our night dive, and enjoyed another hour under the sea, this time with some great video footage of a four foot long very aggressive snake eel cruising about, turning to attack me not once, but twice, with blinding speed and accuracy! That, plus sharks, bumphead parrots, and marauding jacks feeding under the lights of the boat. And while we were diving, Butch Loggins managed to slice his foot wide open on a broken wine glass on the sun deck, and ended up spread out on the wheel house floor while the captain attended to his wound. It was stitches or crazy glue, and Butch opted for the latter, so we’ll see in the morning how well his treatment will hold up! Lots of great photo opportunities there, as you can imagine, by the always sensitive IVS gang.

Saturday morning dawned bright and blue, with no hint of the drama that was about to unfold. We briefed for our first dive, a drift along the east wall at the top end of Osprey Reef, at a point called North Horn. This was to be a wall dive, and the official current report from the crew was a brisk flow from the planned dive site towards the boat. Good plan, so far at least. So a portion of Team IVS geared up and loaded into tenders #3 & 4, and headed out to our drop point. Our immediate group included Bill Zyskowski, Dave West, Barb Beck, Donna Raleigh, Don Yowell, Ray Graff, and myself. Ominously, the driver of our boat observed the bubbles from the group just before us and noted that they (the bubbles) appeared to be heading in the wrong direction. Hmmm…was that a sign? So we got to our drop point, and it was 3-2-1-GO! and off into the sea we went. Except that as we fell, we noticed the wall passing before us, in the WRONG direction. Hmmmmm…was that another sign? So, OK, maybe it’s us, so let’s put some muscle into our fin kicks and make this a great dive. OK, maybe a little more muscle. OK, maybe evey single stinkin’ bit of muscle we have……wait….is this another sign? Finally, after twenty minutes of struggling and advancing perhaps 100 yards towards the boat, we opted to call the dive, head up for our safety stop, and go to the surface for a pick up. So that we did, and we hit the surface as a team, looking good and coordinated. Out come the big 8 ft DAN safety sausages, and we get them inflated, and start to look in the direction of the Spirit of Freedom for our inflatables to come pick us up. Wait, is that another sausage from another group over there? And another over there? Hmmmm…..I am thinking these are definitely signs! So we wait, figuring the crew has spotted us and will be over shortly. Surely they cannot miss this many big bright orange sausages on the open sea. Well, if perhaps anyone was looking, they probably wouldn’t. But, it seems that the safety watch doesn’t really start to look seriously until about 40 minutes into the dive, at which point we had been on the surface over twenty minutes and drifting quickly across the Coral Sea. The depth under our fins was about 3,000 feet now, and we were graced with a few of our dark gray friends circling below us as we waited…and waited. Our humor was good, lots of laughter, seven of us holding together and drifting across the south Pacific. “Take a look at the boat, do you see the tenders?” “No?” Hmmmmm…..definately a sign, and not a good one. We start to consider videotaping messages to friends and family, then decide to wait, and talk about how the movie rights will somehow make this all worth it! We drop our weights and watch them drop down into the bottomless abyss. Gee it’s dark down there…….we think. Staying close, checking that each of us are OK, sharing some air as the surface waves are consistently breaking over our heads. “See the tenders yet?” “No!” Hmmmm……we start thinking about the book, Barb Beck suggests the first title ‘ Hour one, day one’. The sun is hot overhead, and we think about dehydration…just kidding, at least for now, we are still cracking jokes and laughing in spite of the sharks, and the 3,000 feet of water, and the fact that the boat is getting smaller and smaller as it starts to slip over the horizon. Finally, someone spots a tender, an hour and 15 minutes after we first surfaced and inflated our sausages. There clearly was a disconnect among the crew between being assigned to watch for divers and actually watching for divers. It was fairly obvious that no one was looking for us, or we could not possibly have drifted that far off the reef into the open sea. In the end, we survived, made it back to the boat, and all grew stronger from the experience, but clearly it made us watch the crew with a bit more detail to see how they were going to man the tenders and pay a wee bit more attention to us.

Dive #2 today was scheduled to be a more relaxing, laid back dive – a shark feed! Into the drink we went, lined up with our backs to the wall of a natural cutout in the reef at about 45 ft. As with most animal behavior modification programs, the sharks clearly knew what was going on, and had started to gather in great numbers. Mostly gray and white tip reefs, plus a few silver tips, along with a solitary hammerhead, all came early to get a good seat for the feed. The setup for this feed was kinda unique, the crew hooked a pulley system up to a spot on the bottom, then ran the line up to the surface where they attached it to a trash can full of tuna heads strung together. Then over the side with the trash can, the diver holding the end of the line thru the pulley swims like hell, and the can comes down into our midst. A second crew member pulls the release on the can’s lid, and shazam! it’s shark feed frenzy all around! Big and small sharks, and the ever-so-aggressive groupers, piling in the fray, grabbing whatever they can get or steal from each other, snapping at each other to make room – kinda like a Michael Vick home video of his puppy training! Ten minutes later, there were no tuna parts to be found, and life returned to normal on the reef, with the sharks going about their daily routines and the smaller fish breathing a sigh of relief that this human-induced insanity was over, at least for today. And, unlike dive #1, we all made it back to the boat this time!

The boat makes a move while we enjoy lunch, and we find ourselves at a site known as Silver City. This was a nice protected side of Osprey Reef, with minimal current and nice relaxing conditions as the wall rose to about 8 ft from the surface and dropped down to ledges at 100 ft or so before dropping off into the abyss. Did two nice dives here, just great reef conditions.

Sunday now, and during the night we have sailed during the night back down the GBR to Ribbon Reef #3. We are moored at another pinnacle known as Steve’s Bommie, and it is just a coral covered rock that rises straight up from the bottom to within about 15 feet of the surface. Lots of fish life surround it, and we had some curious octopus, leafy scorpionfish, and some large Australian Stonefish out to photograph. Two very nice dives.

In for lunch, and as we are sailing towards our second site for today, suddenly we are thinking our very own John Scott must have snuck on board, cause it’s “man overboard!” Actually no, it is an unannounced crew training drill, and based on our earlier experience, we estimate they’ll start looking in earnest in about an hour. But much to our surprise, the crew is right on it, and they toss the throw ring, launch the tender, keep the eyes on the victim, and bring her back alive. Well done!

After a short sail we are moored at our next location, a site named Grumpy’s, named after a quite large Potato Cod that lays claim to the area. For those of you familiar with our Key Largo diving, this fellow was much like Bruiser from the City of Washington. Large, intimidating, friendly and not shy at all! Nice dive, more clown anenome fish, beautiful corals, etc.

Now we motor a short ways to our final mooring for the week. Our last dive, plus a nice bonus dusk dive added by the captain to offset the morning dive fiasco from yesterday, are scheduled for this spot, known as Flair Point, also on Ribbon Reef #3. This was a nice sloping site, with a good flat top reef at 6 ft of depth, dropping off to about 60 ft at the bottom. Lots of life, very healthy, major fish population. Nice!

Finally we pull anchor for the last time, and we head back to port to end the first phase of this journey. Bill Zyskowski, Donna Raleigh, and Tom Brennan are heading back to the America, and the rest of us are heading into the outback!

Well our first full day on land, and clearly not one to relax! A 6:30 breakfast call, and we are up, bags are pulled up from our rooms, we get a quick brekky as they say here, and it’s time for photos and final goodbye’s and hugs to the crew. Then onto the 7:30 shuttle bus, and back to our Cairns hotel for the day, except this is only to drop our bags off at this time. As soon as we unload the trailer, and put our bags into the hands of the bellman for the day, it’s time to board our 8:30 shuttle bus to the Sweetwater Train Station for our big day planned in Karunda! We arrive in good order, and get our tickets for the day, and have a chance to relax and have a little snack before our adventure begins. Soon we hear the toot of the whistle and we know it’s time to head to the platform and great ready to board. The train is pretty cool, probably about 75 years old, very nicely maintained, with two diesel engines and a dozen passenger cars behind.

Everyone boards, finds their seats, and we begin the hour and fifteen minute ride up to the village of Karunda. The scenery is majestic as we travel along, through sugar cane fields and small towns. We begin to climb, and the view changes as we leave civilization and truck upward and onward towards the rainforest. Amazing vistas, terrifying drop-offs, fifteen tunnels and twice that many bridges hundreds of feet over gorges, this is quite a ride. We pass the site of a the largest field hospital from World War II, and head up to an intermediate stop at a beautiful waterfall. Very cool indeed. We get out, stretch our legs a bit, snap a few hundred photos, then re-board to complete our journey. We arrive at the Karunda rail station and a few of us (no names mentioned) head immediately into the local pub for a pint or two to start the day! The rest begin the tour of the town, a really cool little tourist town in the middle of the rainforest. Lots of cool shops, neat things to buy, our chance to support the local economy, and we do well at that! Finally it’s time to board our next bus and head over to the Rainforest Field Station, and so we do. Once there, we are treated to a really well done tour of some of the cool creatures of the area, including kangaroos, wallaby’s, wombats, koala bears, alligators, crocodiles and lizards, to name a few. Nice nature park, really well informed ranger staff, lots learned. Then we board a restored WWII amphibious DUCK and head for a tour through the rain forest, including a little cruise on the lake where we get to see what made these DUCK’s famous – the ability to turn into a boat! Once we are done this tour, we have a little time for Dave W and Ray G to try their hand at boomerang throwing (key word: TRY) and it’s time to jump back on the bus and head to the Skyrail station. Here we board the Skyrail, a ski-type cable gondola system that runs right over the rainforest for almost 20 miles – very cool indeed! We stop a few times along the way to sneak in some last minute rainforest walks, and finally we are at the base. There, we board our last bus, for a quick ride back to the hotel and some more cold ones! Whew – what a light day – it was almost easier doing five dives a day!

It’s Tuesday morning here now, and we have said our goodbyes to Bill Z, Donna R and Tom B who caught a 3:30 a.m. shuttle to the airport and an early flight back to America. The rest of us catch a leisurely 9:30 shuttle over to the Cairns airport for our flight to the interior middle of the continent at Alice Springs. Two and a half hours in the air, and we can’t see the reef at all – not a good sign for a dive trip! Oh well, can’t travel all the way to the land down under and not see a bit of the rest of the country, so we suck it up and look forward to seeing a bit of the interior. Landing in Alice Springs, one of the dryest places on earth, we find ourselves smack in the middle of a thunderstorm, and as a result the airport shuts us down on the runway, unable to begin unloading. Get this – it has not rained here for nearly two years – yes, two years, and today it decides to break that dry streak with a hellacious downpour, complete with booming thunder and bolts of lightning. Here we thought we have done our planning and completed our pre-trip worries about all the things that can kill or maim us here – sea snakes, blue-ring octo’s, box jellyfish, aggressive triggerfish, sharks of all sorts, deadly land snakes, kangaroos crashing through the windshield, being allowed to drift away unnoticed across the Coral Sea [recent addition to the list] …….but now we need to add getting hit by lightning to that list! Geeesh! So our gang patiently awaits a break in the weather so we can deplane. And patiently wait……and wait……..finally, we get the word that it’s OK to go. Wooo hooo!

So we start disembarking, and as everyone stands and grabs their carry-on’s, I turn off my computer, figuring we’re heading out. Hah! April Fools, Aussie style. Another bolt of lightning, and it’s “cancel that OK to deplane”. Everyone gumbles, we head back to our seats, I open the computer and re-visit the blogging. So, where was I..oh yeah, we patiently await the opportunity to disembark…..and await…..OK we get the word again, and without a moment’s hesistation, we are off and running towards the terminal!

Once inside, we gather our luggage and connect with a shuttle for a little tour through town and to our hotel. They have a river that runs through town, and once a year, it flows – and guess what? Today was that day for this year! It flowed, so much in fact that our roadway across at one point was underwater and we needed to detour to a higher bridge. Hmmm, we’re thinking, we might get a wreck dive in here! We finally arrived, safe and sound, at the Alice Springs Resort, and unpacked a little bit for our short stay here. Alice Springs is really the launch point for our motorcoach tour across the outback to Ayers Rock, so we’re only here for the evening, just a chance to relax, get a local dinner, and rest up for tomorrow’s activities.

Well that rainstorm event was quite the major news here, and they are closing bridges across the river left and right! Our hotel is located right on the banks of the River Todd, and the water is lapping at the parking lot. Pretty cool, even more so when you hear that the river has not flowed this way since the 90’s or even earlier. Neat to be part of a historic event!

We headed into town for dinner, walking across one of the still-open bridges, and ended up at Bojangles, one of the first bars in the world to add an internet presence and video cams to the place. Pretty cool knowing your antics are up there in the big information superhighway for all to see. Really helped us tone it down a bit – NOT!  Finally, it was time for bed and an ungodly early 4:30 a.m. rise tomorrow for our cross country motorcoach ride. 

We got up and loaded our bus at 5:30 in the a.m for a scheduled 5 hour bus ride to Ayers Rock. True to form, our driver shows up and it is clear he has been cut from the same cloth as our earlier bus drivers [colorful but inappropriate comment deleted here to maintain the ‘G’ rating!] Never the less, our bags are finally loaded, and we begin the journey to the center of the Red Continent, as it is called. We’re not five minutes into our journey when we need to slam on the brakes and avoid a kangaroo jumping across the road – you know we’re not in Kansas anymore!

Well let’s just say that 5 hours later, we were in agreement that our driver Leo was a little over the top. Mindless trivial drivel about facts and myths Australian left us longing for silence throughout the bus. Sure, there was some good stuff, but the far-less-than-good stuff more than compensated for it. We had some nice photo stops, saw some big wide open country, and got to Ayers Rock Resort in one piece. Oh the joy of getting here. Oh the sorrow upon finding out that Leo is our designated bus driver for tonights sunset tour to see the sun fall on Ayers Rock. Another 4 hours of blue-hair bus tour experience, and some of us, starting with me, are ready to blow a gasket. We ended up enjoying a nice sunset experience on a big rock in the middle of a large continent – need I say more?

Upon disembarking the bus, we learn that Leo is our driver for the sunrise experience, and guess what? Eleven hands went up for the vote of NO to this continued torture. So shift to Plan B – let’s rent some cars and do Australia’s outback on our own! I get on-line, reserve us a couple of 4-wheel drives with huge kangaroo deflector bars in front, and we go to bed, planning our morning events.

We get up, enjoy a leisurely brekky, and Ray and I head out to get the cars. The process is a tad slow – they are still using carbon paper here in this corner of Oz – but finally we arrive back at the resort with a couple of rides. It’s not a good sign when Ray gets in his truck on the left side, and realizes it might be a challenge to drive with no steering wheel – this is a “wrong side of the road” country! OK, re-organize a bit, climb in the right side, pick up the group, and we head out to Ulura Park, home of Olgas Rocks and Ayers Rock, and the Aboriginal Cultural Center. We start our tour at the center, and it’s pretty neat to learn of the history and stories of the tribes as passed down over time. Then it’s time to head out and begin our climb on Ayers Rock! Ten of us show up at the base, 4 bail immediately, six of us start up, three more drop out, finally another, until it’s only Dave West and Ray Graff heading up. But Dave can’t keep up with the AARP Poster Boy, and he drops back, leaving Ray on his own, to climb completely up this rock to the top – way to go Ray! The others, in the meantime, have decided to do some level-grade hiking around the base, and we spend the morning seeing a bit of what the Northern Territories of Australia are made of. Finally it’s time to return, and as we start to load up into our vehicles, two young folks approach us, seeking a ride. Turns out they were on Leo’s sunrise express and felt compelled to bail, taking the risk of being alone in the middle of the desert over continuing the ride with the South African turned Australian madman! We gladly gave them a ride, and in the course, found out they went to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and now live in New York City – 10,000 miles from home, and we bump into neighbors – amazing!

A quick return to the hotel, a refreshing dip in the pool, some even more refreshing pints at bar, and we’re ready to head out to the highly recommended ‘Sounds of Silence’ dinner experience under the stars in the desert. Yes, another bus ride, but this one turns out to be quite the treat, with a very knowledgeble astronomer there along with three high powered telescopes so everyone had a chance to learn a bit about the solar system, with a southern-hemisphere twist! Not too late a night, and we got back in time for some rest before our sunrise 4×4 journey to the desert in the morning.

5:30 a.m. found the hardened core of IVS sunrise worshippers gathered in the lobby, and we piled into one of the jeeps with our own little continental breakfast feast, and headed out to see the majesty of rising sun and how it paints Ayers Rock and the Olgas with a rainbow of colors and shades as it brightens the day. Very cool to see, we’re glad we went, and all was going well until our own Dave West violated the sacred Aboriginal grounds by tossing his half-eaten muffin into the spinefix grass. Barb Beck wasted no time in straightening this young man out (captured on video, none the less), and we dutifully gathered the crumbs from Dave’s errant act and restored the desert to it’s original state. Whew!

Back to hotel and it was time to freshen up and pack for the 3-hour plane ride to Sydney, our final stop on this adventure. Another (yes) short bus ride to the airport, and another opportunity to see just how friendly and efficient an airline can really be, with the folks at Qantas checking us in and the no-nonsense (and no TSA) security at the airport. This is the way it should be run, that is for sure! our flight down is uneventful, and finally we can see some ocean from the windows – my gills are flapping with excitement! We land, and meet up with our shuttle driver, who has obviously been cloned from the same laboratory petri dish solution as our earlier drivers – this is something that Australia needs to work on, friendly & courteous shuttle drivers!  The van is woefully undersized for our group and large collection of cargo, but we manage, packing the folks in the van in layers between layers of bags and suitcases.  Once we’re all piled in, we start to head out and the cries from the back come for some air conditioning, to which the driver replies – “oh, that just broke this morning!”  Oh well, we head off to the Menzies Hotel in downtown Sydney, enjoying a steamier ride than expected, but never-the-less, it beats walking.  We arrive at the hotel, unload the crew & bags, and freshen up for an evening on the town.  What an exciting city Sidney is!  We enjoyed drinks & dinner and the sights before retiring for the evening.

Saturday morning our group splits up and heads out in different directions to take in the town, and Dave West, Butch Loggins and I head over to Dive Centre Manly to do some southern Oz diving in search of weedy Sea Dragons, a very unique sort of seahorse that only lives in this area.  We get to the shop, an amazingly busy place this morning, meet the owner RIchard, get our gear together and some tanks thrown on the van, and head over to the dive site, a beach entry known as Shellys.  Well everyone knows the reputation IVS has for finding boats that like to break down, so we figure we’re safe today on a shore dive.  Well, as odds would have it, since we don’t have a boat to break, the dive centre’s van decides to blow a head gasket as we’re approaching Shellys Beach.  Who’d have thunk, eh?  Oh well, we laugh, pile out of the van, and haul our gear the last few blocks to the dive site.  Once there, we enjoy winds gusting to about 45 miles per hour, and a nice brisk 59 degree ocean temperature – we’re definately not in the Coral Sea any more!  Still, the site, is great, with lush kelp beds, playful octopus, large fish, and Wobegon sharks, called swimming carpets for thier unique body coloration and fringes that make them cryptic in the kelp forests of southern Australia.  Cold, windy, but still a neat dive.

After that exhilirating experience, we head back to the dive shop, say our goodbyes and meet some of the gang at the Sydney Harbor ferry station, where we enjoy a scenic ride back across the water to our hotel.  Perfect blue skies and pretty views all around, make this a photographers delight.  One more night on the town, and we head out in the morning for the airport for the trip home.

We’ve a fourteen hour ride to look forward to, but thanks to a little Qantas computer glitch, our flight was canceled and then rebooked on another flight, making for major confusion at the airport. Still, spirits are high as we board, figuring the worst is behind us, but little did we know we’d get to add another four hours to the enjoyment of our comfy airline seats as they load, then unload the entire baggage hold, pulling bags off and putting others on, to finally match the passenger list with the checked bags.  What a SNAFU for sure!  But finally, we are off, and we have a chance to review some of the travel statistics for the trip – 7 airplane rides, 42 hours in the air, 30 dives, 2 oceans, and 22, 600 miles covered during our adventure!  Wow!