Blessed to be a witness

Sunday, 7th August

Freezing in the tropics

The Whitsundays: beautiful but damn cold

The next night we fared no better, but this time it was really the fault of the weather.

Another day's drive, during which we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, brought us to Mackay by about four. Our experience in Hervey Bay taught us that it is vital to arrive at these campsites during daylight hours, and since it gets dark at about five thirty, four is a good time to arrive - and it started to drizzle. Mackay was meant to be a small-but-happening town, but we didn't give it a chance to prove itself. We sat in our campervan reading, occasionally playing cards, and generally doing nothing. We were asleep by nine thirty.

The next day bright and early we made our final push for Airlie Beach, the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands. Airlie seems to back up my growing belief that it's all or nothing here. Either the place is dead by an unspeakably early hour, or it's all-out backpacker mayhem. The town of Airlie sports a gigantic backpacker pub that features Ibiza-style 'foam parties', pole dancing competitions, and jelly wrestling. Still, there were some cafés and restaurants there that stayed open beyond ten.

On day two of our visit, we booked a boat trip to the Whitsundays and the Reef, and early one morning set our to sea on a nice catamaran. Unfortunately it was really damn cold, and we huddled inside the open-sided cabin for two hours until we got to our snorkel/dive site.

Being only a recent PADI graduate, I had a bit of trepidation about going on a proper dive without my extremely good instructor Linus. Even though this would be my sixth proper dive, he had accompanied me and my buddy, keeping a close eye on us. Here it was every man for himself (within the confines of the rules of PADI). There was one other certified diver on board who hadn't dived for four years, and another diver came on board from another boat. I forgot a couple of the safety rules when quizzed, but once the equipment was on, and we were in the water, it felt very natural. And down we went to the reef, and my buoyancy control was great and though the dive master zoomed off ahead, not looking round at us much at all, I felt perfectly safe and happy.

While we were in Vietnam we had a running joke that every time our friends would mention anything, we'd say "it's not as good as on Phi Phi". Even though not on the Barrier Reef proper, I expected the diving to be awesome. However it was pretty pedestrian stuff - a lot of the coral looked dead, or perhaps beaten up by the winter currents. The light from above was very dim, and the fish scarce. We did see one absolutely huge barracuda, which was the highlight, but I'm afraid that it really wasn't as good as on Phi Phi. And it was freezing. My dive computer - something I'd never used before, but a well handy object - told me the water temperature was 20C, but despite the two wetsuits I was wearing, I was shivering uncontrollably when I got out, and my hands were numb for a good hour afterwards. I declined a second dive, and I think the dive master was pleased that I did: "it's just more of the same, mate", he said. Still, I was delighted to have dived in a proper fashion, and I am starting think I might already be addicted to this sport, albeit definitely only as a fair-weather diver.

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