“Sometimes the weather [in Queensland], like its politics, is all over the place, making a trip to the reef not so much a bucket list item, as better get a bucket”. Picture: Tourism and Events Queensland.SIMON WALKER: That’s Life archive
A VISIT to the Great Barrier Reef is one of those things everyone should tick off their bucket list.
That’s because the reef is truly awesome.
But Queensland is not always sunny one day, perfect the next.
Sometimes the weather, like its politics, is all over the place, making a trip to the reef not so much a bucket list item, as better get a bucket.
And so it was on our particular “bumpy” day aboard a three-storey super cat with more than 200 passengers aboard – stoic Asian tourists in the main, the majority Chinese.
Not so much plain as hydroplane sailing.
Seasickness takes no prisoners in such conditions, and when the going got tough, the tough got throwing.
If he’d been there to witness the mass medical moment that unfolded, the late great Richie Benaud might have remarked, “not so marvellous”. But you take your chances when you travel.
The cold front that blew through southern Australia over Easter looked like it had missed us for the first four days we were in Cairns – leaving us hopeful we’d get a clean shot at the reef on our designated day.
But we soon learned that southern cold fronts sometimes get sucked back north, changing the chances of bad from “whether” to “probably”.
And so it came to pass the day before our journey: the swell swung round, the chop came up, the rain clouds loomed and the wind blew.
That was a bit of a downer on the ferry ride from Cairns out to Green Island, where we would launch our assault next day. And ominously for others, it was a bit of an upper.
But not so bad as what would go down, and up, 24 hours later.
For many that would be not only a trip to the outer edge of the reef but also to the outer edge of their stomach.
Sure enough, next day the weather swung from a bad joke to just plain ridiculous. Seasoned holiday staff termed it “squally”.
As I stood in line on the jetty unsheltered with 200-plus sullen types in high wind and vertical rain waiting for the daytrippers from Cairns to get off my boat so I could get on, I was thinking more “Cyclone Ida”.
Despite prayers through the night, the “bad whether” had proceeded through the “probably” to the “definitely” and now my sunnies and snorkel were in danger of blowing up to Port Douglas.
Mercifully, the daytrippers eventually got off and the reef trippers got on, via a dignified stampede up the gang plank reminiscent of the American evacuation of Saigon circa 1975, followed by a Confucian-flavoured game of musical chairs once aboard.
Complimentary tea and coffee flowed thereafter and at that stage you’d have to say the mood was buoyant.
Then the boat started moving. Or, should I say, bouncing. From there the atmosphere sank quicker than many digestive tracts as people started losing their tea and coffee and anything else they’d had for breakfast, like human popcorn.
To paraphrase Ron Burgundy, “things escalated”. Mainly up the oesophagus.
And there but for the grace of God did I, and those on sea-sickness medication, go.
By the 40-minute mark the vibe had slipped from “wretched” to “grim”.
The only humour to be found came from advice on how to use the sick bags: “Hold to mouth and follow instructions below.”
Top marks to the staff who kept it together while so many were falling apart.
The surreal situation was capped off by an air hostess-like demonstration on how to use a snorkel, delivered in rapid fire, cheese-grating “Strine” to an ailing Asian audience staring cross-eyed at the ceiling.
But what else could anyone do?
Thankfully we reached the outer reef without further aspew and the staff who had patiently tended to the sick transformed from a slick M*A*S*H unit into an impressive dive/snorkel/catering/glass bottom submersible/scuba-doing operation.
Obviously there were some empty tummies but people soon rediscovered their stomach for battle, in the queue at the all-you-can-eat buffet.
Yes, it would have been nice if we got a sunny day, because on the surface, the reef looked a bit post-apocalyptic, what with the wind, rain, white caps and Bladerunner-like commentary blaring over the public address system.
But it’s what’s under the surface that matters and once in the water we discovered all we’d been promised: beauty, wonder, coral and the entire cast of Nemo unaffected by any meteorological mishaps above.
Not to mention a frenetic photographer, whose task it was to snap every person who took the plunge in the hope that once back on board, they’d take the plunge on a happy snap.
And indeed we did. We’d come this far, we wanted proof.
It also gave us a deep insight into what is required to run a tourist operation to the Great Barrier Reef.
Intestinal fortitude on heavy days is a must.
But running with the wind on the trip back to Green Island, it was clear we’d all had a swell time.