Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Cairns – Rainforest and Great Barrier Reef, all bundled into one.

(Where I am now: Calypso Hostel, Cairns) What time is it: Tuesday 11 Nov - 19:50pm - What am I listening to: Apologize, by One Republic from the speakers of the Zanzibar, the hostel’s bar) Cairns, in general.

First please get a map to understand where I am. I am not in Sydney and Nana, dearest, I am not in New Zealand either (yet that is). Cairns didn’t exist a while ago – it is all marsh/swamp land that has been filled in and recently built-up to accommodate the 4 million foreign visitors and +5million Australians that come every year to marvel at the amazing nature, the wonderful rainforest and the incredible Great Barrier Reef. Don’t ask me about the town or its people, I have no clue.
All the people I have met so far are either backpackers, or people that work here as part of their “refueling” to continue traveling. Canadians, Germans, French, Dutch, anyone you can possible imagine, all passers-by, all with their own personal story and background, all with one common denominator: the love for traveling and nature (or partying, I guess). It’s not a great town, not in the architectural or zone planning sense but it definitely will put you in holiday mood. Sweet warm weather, beautiful sunshine most of the time and with green, extremely lush vegetation around the city. Apologies if you won’t get detailed descriptions and photos of the city – I was too busy doing more important things… at least for me.

Rainforest, the oldest in the world.
I arrived around 15:00 and I even got a pickup from the airport from the hostel. It is a really great place –the real difference is the staff – it’s all travelers that have decided to stay in Cairns for “a bit longer”, super friendly but also very well informed on the different activities. I checked in 10 minutes before James, a younger, extremely tall English guy that eventually ended up taking a bed in the same room as me. Room 19.

Vee, probably the most experienced of all the people in the hostel, recommended a visit a visit to the Daintree Rainforest. I was visiting in any case, Katerina had strongly recommended this and she was very very right. James agreed to join so we set our alarms for 07:00 am the next day after heading for a short night into town. The town at night transforms itself into a bar-crawling area full of younger people making their way from one bar to the other. We ended up in the Woolshed, a truly “terrible place” where I wasn’t sure what was worse, the crap music and young crowd or the smell of dried beer on the wooden pub furniture. Who cared? I was about to visit the oldest rainforest in the world.

I don’t have my lonely planet guide handy to copy some of the facts on the Daintree rainforest but I can tell you that it is a UNESCO world heritage natural site – that means it is protected but most importantly it is an amazing area of biodiversity: it’ covers 0.1% of Australia and has +50% of all the species of birds and +30% of all trees and plants. I am sorry if the numbers are not correct, I might be wrong. The important thing is that this is a unique place on the face of this planet – something you shouldn’t miss if you are in the area.

We woke up very early – I am used to waking up early but what I realized in cairns is that if you want to do all the activities you got to be up early, every day… First stop Mosman Gorge, where we took a walk into the rainforest and even had the chance to jump into crystal clear (and cold!) stream water. We made our way to Cape Tribulation beach, wonderful, sandy with crystal blue waters. Warning! No swimming permitted, Stingers in the area. The heartbreaking thing with this part of Australia is that it has some of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen but you can’t swim in the water. It is either stingers or sharks or even crocodiles that actually rule the waters.
We sat on the beach and ate the sandwiches we had prepared the previous day, a cool alternative to the buffet that was planned as an option for the trip. This place is majestic: Just as we marvel with Halkidiki or some other areas of Greece where the forest “meets” the sea, in this place the rainforest meets the coral reef.

Off we go, to the Marridja Botanical Boardwalk, which is part of the rainforest. Our guide, Jonathon, a true nature-lover (not your typical “I am bored of my job” guide) tried to explain as much as he could on this miracle of a forest that we were crossing. Always with humor, always giving me the feeling that his hidden agenda was to actually educate us, make us more sensitive to the environment we live in, love the forest. “HUG A TREE” he shouted at some point, “but not THAT one!” pointing out a big spider coming down the tree trunk… I looked at him and wondered if this man is truly happy, taking people from all over the world, to see this unique, wonderful piece of planet Earth, secretly hoping that maybe next time we will recycle more, check the emissions in our car and change to energy-efficient lighting when we are back in our cities...
Last stop Daintree River, we got on a boat and cruised down the river to spot crocodiles. Our guide warned us that it will be tough. They’re busy because it is mating season and also the time didn’t help: tide was coming in. We did see them, people running from one side of the boat to the other trying to take photos. I relaxed under the shadow of the canopy and looked ahead at the glistening green/blue water and the dense green rainforest on all sides...

Dream it, Dare it, Do it.
I am not going to preach. I don’t want to tell you again that part of this trip was to put myself into new places, under new circumstances and meet new people. You know all that already. What I want to talk about is actually taking the effort and time to turn something from D1 to D3. I just invented the 3 D’s but they are so appropriate to talk about now. I love the sea but you already know that as well. What you might not know is that I also have tremendous respect for it, in other words I fear it. I am not a great swimmer, I never was and I always felt that the sea is a way too powerful force to deal with.

However, I love the Big Blue and everything around it. I remember when I was a kid I used to watch the Cousteau documentaries about the sea, the divers and his boat the Calypso crossing the oceans, discovering fascinating life in the bottom of the sea, far away from where humans live. It fascinated me how a man can take a bottle of compressed oxygen, go several meters below sea level and pretend he is one of the rest, one of the thousands of fish and other marine life and (just for a while) pretend he is equal to them. Diving was never my thing, the thought of being underwater, with no way to breathe but the bottle, simply didn’t go well with me. I know, “so many people do it and so can you” but a fear is usually something you can’t explain rationally.

I don’t know why I agreed to go to the Open Water diving course. I just wanted to try it. I was still in D1, dreaming the fish and it could have stayed there but I guess being in Cairns, with the Great Barrier Reef, one of the most amazing places in the world for diving helped me. It’s a 4-day course, which includes quite a bit of theory, 2 days of practical exercise in a swimming pool (under the water…) and 2 days of diving. Once you have completed all the necessary underwater exercises in the last two days, you are certified to dive in any place in the world down to 18 meters below the sea level.

I won’t tell you about the pool part and the theory. Not that it is boring but it has nothing to do with the rest of the experience. I guess, I should mention though a couple of things. First my diving instructor, a genuine Aussie, had over 1500 dives in his record. Given the fact that you can have a maximum of 3 dives per day, it means that you have to be diving for about one and a half years non-stop (it is impossible). The truly fascinating thing (and frightening for me) was that he was only 25… The other thing that has by now stopped being a surprise for me is that I was (by far) the oldest person in the group. Again, I guess this means one of two things. Either people of my age are “too old” to do this or I am lucky enough to want and be able to do all this. I think I will chose option too, thank you very much.

A small pause… To further illustrate the age point I just made and as a slight diversion to the 3D story I am currently writing, here’s the following little tale that happened yesterday night after our “graduation party” with from the scuba team. We had gone out for drinks and I also met up with James and another couple Neil and Simone. They have a truly awful happy-hour system in one of the bars in Cairns. You can drink for 10 AUD between 22:00 and 23:00 as MANY drinks as you want. The perfect prelude to alcoholism and entry to binge drinking, I decided to follow but keep my own pace. We left the place at 23:30 andheaded back to the taxi pickup spot. As we walked the streets, we passed in front of the infamous Cover Girl club. This had nothing to do with the respectable P&G cosmetics brand (…) on the contrary it is a “gentlemen’s club” as you could euphemistically describe it. Opposite the club’s entrance, on the pavement there was a bench, and a beautiful, petite blond girl dressed in a short pink dress was sitting on it, smoking. Maybe it was the alcohol or maybe I am still very naïve, it seemed I was the only one in the group that didn’t realize that the girl was working in the club (you idiot), nevertheless, James sat next to her and said – “Hi I am 17, can I get in?”. “Get lost”, she said more with a friendly smile than anything else. I decided to try and start a conversation: “Well I am 32” I said with a big smile on my face.
“That’s impossible”, she said, smiling at me… “Why’s that?” I asked full of curiosity.
“Because you are a traveler. And travelers are young people”… I smiled and walked away thinking then that means I’ll just never grow old…

Back to diving...

On board the OSPREY V, a diving ship, we headed on our first day out on the Great Barrier Reef. For those that are not familiar with what I am talking about, this is one of the nicest formations of corals on the planet. This beautiful coral it also this is the house of Nemo the clownfish and hundred of other species of fish and other marine life. Dan the dive instructor admitted that the Disney film has done miracles for the diving industry in Cairns – everybody comes to see Nemo the superstar and his friend Dorry. And so did we…

Diving requires some very specific equipment preparation and rigid routines before and after you enter the water. This is necessary to avoid any mishap that would put you in the situation of being 12-18 meters under water without no air and no way to come up. The more you think about this the more you feel afraid and the only way to avoid this and actually enjoy the whole process is to stick to the rules and routines and let the rest follow. Diving also requires at this level a buddy system. This is a person that dives with you and sticks to your side in case something comes up. The challenge is what can you really do if you buddy has exactly the same diving hours as you, zero. I had a buddy for the whole course, Kevin, a 21-year old from Paris also travelling for a few months and his age and weak English was far from reassuring on the positive outcome of the dives. I ended up (trying to) explain in French some basic stuff but crossed my fingers hoping all would go fine. It did. Off we go into the see in a “great giant stride” as they call it, which is actually a step into the sea looking straight ahead, 7.5 kilos of weight around my waist, a 15 kilo tank of oxygen on my back, fins on my legs, mask on my face and breather (please work) in my mouth.

The pool was 3m deep, with slightly grimy tiles and dirty water - suddenly I was going down 5, 9, 10, 12 meters into the beautiful ocean, fish all around me, beautiful sunlight passing through, the only sound to be heard in this state of wonderful weightlessness being my breathing and the bubbles when I exhaled. I was diving! I was one with the fish.

The scenery is fantastic, a whole new world unfolded right before my eyes , forget what you have seen on TV, even if it looks more colorful, the feeling of being under the water, touching the sandy bottom and marveling at the colors and variety of the fish was simply breathtaking. Two dives a day, four in total the last day, as we made our way up to the top, looking at the oxygen tank near the red zone, I realized I was now a qualified open sea diver. It doesn’t mean I am not afraid of the sea. I will always respect it. I guess it just means that if you Dream you can Dare and the just Do it…

Speaking of 3D, on the same day, my (almost 35years-old)best man Ody, managed to complete the grueling Athens marathon at 5h28m. That’s almost 20mins faster than my first flat-land Geneva marathon, the one I ran in when I was only 29.

I guess “old people” can dive and run as well…

Photos from CAIRNS
WARNING - Stingers. Use Vinegar (not only for salad)
Mangrove tree: lives in salt water environment. Normally it would be dead from the salt - the tree chooses one leaf and sends all the salt to that leaf. One leaf dies, the tree lives.

Umbrella tree, opens to catch sunlight - when really bad weather is coming up it "folds"!
Strangler fig tree: grows around the tree, feeds from it and then kills it. At the end it just becomes hollow inside.
Water world... My photo!
Water world, hundreds of fish
Giant blue clam, touch it and it slowly closes!
Nemo and Friends!!
Under our boat
Water world
Yellow fins, for fish and humans
Kostas signaling he is OK (at 16m below sea level)Dan, our instructor
Down Under Diving Team
Formation diving (we're trying)
Napoleon Fish and friends
More underwater worldThis is not a joke: White tip reef shark, at 3 meters, they don't bite!
Ok, it looks funny but it is actually navigating with a compass (it's on my left hand)

Certified Open Water Diver
(and proud of it)


George "Teriax" T. said...


I did not read the post yet...You do not need to read the post...the photos say the whole story better than words i guess !!!

I missed diving...Of course when i did diving it was not in the Great Barrier Reef (THE place to dive!!!!!!) but the sensation of freedom, relaxation, the fish and the lot...

Nice, nice, nice !


Here the temperature has gone down to 17 C during the day... Night time it is chilly but not cold as such...

Suprisingly, TOKYO weather is very similar ! Now in Tokyo is 19C down to 12C at night... not bad !

I was afraid that we might face a bloody snow storm !!! :P

Anyways, keep feeding us with photos !

On the 17th I get internet !!!! woohooo !

George "Teriax" T. said...

Comment 2

The bar crawling place: Beer, young people, dried beer on wood etc ? My God it sounds exactly like a typical English University Students Union night !!!!

Loved the comment of the little "working girl" !!!!... :) My sister would have smiled Kostaki !!!!

Beyond that Cairns sound like the best place so far you ' ve been...

As far as the three Ds is concerned.... I LIKE IT ! you know I am not even close (only exception maybe the skydiving I did) but you are soooooo right !!!!

My friend.... enjoy it !

odevoted said...

Thanks for the heads up bro! we probably wouldn't have made it without your precious long-distance last minute crash course

I can only begin to immagine the beauty of the nature that your eyes have captured till now!

From my personal experience with Nature over the years, all I can say, is we need to get out of our housesmore, we need to make time to be as close as possible to Nature, whether it's for an afternoon, a day, a weekend, or something longer like Kostas's adventure. Let's all get out, go somwhere in the woods, near a lake, watch a river!

Chris W said...

Congrats Man !
I know what it means to have respect of something - although for me it's height, not deep sea (the photos of the Sydney bridge almost killed me by just looking at them).
And I realize we all should do more 3D in our lives ! Let's start with ZKY :)

Read this only if you're ready for some reality:
I just did the level 0 floorplan for January with Rosie - and one seat is assigned to Kostas :)

All the best, C.

katerinak said...

Congratulations diver!

crossing one item off the list to 'D-o'-now let's see if you go through with the sky dive! :p

ps-and your licence has you with the beard, nice!

Κατερινα Εσσλιν said...

your underwater adventures suit you (you look very relaxed and handsome).

I was amazed by the tree that eats the other tree and then becomes hollow and the other one that uses natural choice to send all the salt in one leaf. how national geographic.

also, you reminded me of something I have completely forgotten -growing uo with the adventures of Cousteau...we were lucky kids to have that (and "omileite ellinika") on tv.

kleisimo matiou kostaki mas.