Tag Archives: Australia

The Opposite of Outback

Just one of the residents of the Great Barrier Reef

It was not a recognizable word in any human language, but the exclamation that burst out of her snorkel moments after Sally had put her face under water was easily understood.  It was a gasp that said “Wow!”

Within seconds my mask and snorkel were in place; I joined her and probably made a similar sound.  Our traveling companions, Jen and Bryan, did too.  The scenery just below the ocean’s surface at Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is spectacular.  In contrast to the desolate expanses of the Outback, it is teeming with life.

In fact, Encyclopædia Britannica calls the Great Barrier Reef “the largest structure ever built up by living creatures.”  That refers to the coral polyps whose skeletons have accreted over many millennia to form the reef.  It is actually a chain of several thousand individual reefs (and several hundred islands) that extends for about 1,600 miles along the northeastern coast of Australia.

In places the reef is as close as ten miles to the mainland; in others it is as much as 100 miles off shore.  There are resorts on some of the islands, and there are many tour operators and boats that provide access to the Great Barrier Reef from towns along the mainland.

We were based in Cairns (pronounced like the first syllable of Kansas, to which it bears no resemblance).  The trimaran trip from there to the outer edge of the reef took over 3 hours, but that included intermediate stops the boat made to pick up passengers in a couple of other towns.  A straight shot from, say, Port Douglas would take about 90 minutes.

At Agincourt Reef there is a docking platform, and it wasn’t long after the Quicksilver VII had parked that we were in the water and hooting into our snorkels, as described above.  Among the attractions were many varieties of coral, one of which was cobalt blue.

The tropical fish one expects to see around reefs were here in abundance:  damselfish, butterflyfish, parrotfish, Moorish Idols, triggerfish.  Not only were there lots of them, they seemed to be larger than specimens we had seen in other parts of the world.  Maybe that was only an illusion because we were seeing them in unusually clear water, and because some of these fish came in colors that were as vivid as neon.

We also saw some giant clams that were 3-4 feet across, which presumably means they were quite old, like maybe a hundred years or so.  All of these life forms thrive inside a barrier reef, which provides protection from storms and waves and other threats to coastal habitats.  Barrier reefs tend to be close to the edge of a continental shelf, and the Agincourt Reef section certainly was.

The water where we saw all those beautiful things was perhaps 10-15 feet deep; from there we swam to the edge of the cliff, so to speak.  The wall drops off abruptly to a depth of something like 150 feet.  It was an odd sensation, like standing on the ledge of a skyscraper, except that we were floating above it.

It was only with great reluctance that we finally got out of the water that day.  We thoroughly enjoyed the down-under part of Down Under.

Blue View


“The Three Sisters” — The Blue Mountains, Australia

If you head east from Sydney, Australia, you’ll soon find yourself in the Pacific Ocean.  If you travel west, on the other hand, it won’t be long before you’ll be in another vast blue expanse.  This area is known as the Blue Mountains, and it is spectacular.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is several thousand square miles of sandstone peaks and chasms, eucalyptus forests, waterfalls, and a network of trails that connect them.

The Blue Mountains, however, are not actually blue.  Oh, they look that way from a distance, but that’s supposedly because evaporating oils in the eucalyptus trees disperse the light in such a way that the blue end of the spectrum predominates.  I’m not sure how much science there is behind that explanation, but that’s what the locals claim.  Whatever the reason, I concur that there is a bluish haze around them, and that the Blue Mountains are worth seeing.  Here are excerpts from my journal entry for April 30, 1995…

At 9:30 a.m. the four of us (Bryan Fryklund, Jen Reeder, Sally and I) met at Central Station in Sydney for a train trip out to the Blue Mountains, which are about 100 km west of the city center.  We got a sense of how big Sydney is as we rolled through suburb after suburb…

At Katoomba we bought tickets for something called The Blue Mountains Explorer, a double-decker bus which toured through the area and had specified drop-off points.  At the first place we got off the bus, we had lunch at a “kiosk” (snack stand).  Not to say the atmosphere was casual, but our waitress wasn’t wearing shoes.

We hiked down to the Katoomba Cascades.  By the time we got back up to the top, we had missed the bus, so we walked the trail toward Echo Point.  Much of the Prince Henry trail was along the clifftops, which presented many magnificent vistas along the way.  We’d round a bend, and there would be an even better view of The Three Sisters than we’d had a few minutes before.  Bryan usually rushed to the railing at the viewpoints, but I tended to approach with my customary caution, so as not to lose consciousness.

We reached Echo Point about 2:15, along with a lot of other people who had gotten there on tour buses.  Since our next Explorer bus wasn’t due until about 3:00, we had plenty of time to catch our breath, take pictures, and watch the progress of some rock climbers who were scaling the middle column of the Three Sisters.

When the bus came, we knew we only had time for one more stop, so we decided on the Leura Cascade, a beautiful mountain stream which found its way over boulders and through ferns and eventually threw itself off a cliff.  From one of the vantage points, we looked down — way down — and saw the remains of a Volkswagen Beetle lying on its side on the canyon floor.  It should not have attempted to be a waterfall.

The Middle of Down Under


Uluru (Ayers Rock), Australia

Uluru (Ayers Rock), Australia

Because Australia is so far from North America, it’s not the sort of place you can conveniently go for a long weekend.  Even if you could, it wouldn’t be advisable: there is simply so much to see and do there that you’ll need more time than you have, no matter how much that is.  When we planned a visit in 1995, I was determined to pack as many sights as possible into the two weeks we had.  Sydney was a must, we knew… and Melbourne… and the Great Barrier Reef, of course… and the Outback.  Even with a hurry-up-let’s-go schedule, we were only able to sample a small portion of Autralia’s unique charms.  What follows is a portion of one day there, as noted in my travel journal.

I should mention that we began the day in the city of Cairns — the staging area, so to speak, for visits to the Great Barrier Reef.  We had been there for a couple of days, and now I had us headed into the Outback for a visit to Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock.  Located in the center of the continent, it is an enormous red monolith that rises from a flat plain extending many miles in every direction.

This excerpt also makes reference to the digiridoo (there are alternate spellings, but I’m going with this one).  It is a musical instrument, usually made from the branch of a eucalyptus tree that has been hollowed out by termites.  The digiridoo is typically several feet long — sometimes up to ten feet.  The musician blows into it, and it produces a deep, droning sound.  Trust me — it won’t have you snapping your fingers and tapping your toe.  OK, so here’s some of what I wrote about our day on April 26, 1995:

…Our flight to Ayers Rock was via Alice Springs.  On the way, the man who was sitting next to Sally defiled Scotch by mixing it with (shudder) Coke.  In the Alice Springs airport, a gift shop employee occasionally gave performances on the digiridoo.  It’s a small enough airport that it was filled with the droning sound of that Aboriginal instrument.  At one point I had to go to the counter and say, “Excuse me, but because of the digiridoo, I couldn’t quite hear that last announcement.”  First time that’s ever come up.

The flight from Alice Springs to Ayers Rock takes 37 minutes, and the flight attendants must set some sort of speed record.  They managed to distribute sandwiches and fruit and beverages on a 37 minute flight. 

We checked into the Sails In The Desert Hotel, which is part of a group known collectively as The Ayers Rock Resort.  We made arrangements for a taxi service to take us on a sunset drive around Ayers Rock.  The driver picked us up at 5:00, along with several other travelers.  Seen from a distance, Uluru (as the locals call it) reminded me of the back of an enormous whale emerging from a flat sea.  The rock is the only thing that breaks the horizontal plane of the plain for many miles around. 

We made a circuit of the rock, stopping once or twice for photos.   Whenever any of us got out of the van, we were swarmed by small black flies, who particularly seemed to be interested in the mucous membranes of our eyes, noses, and mouths.  The driver has apparently gotten used to them, but the rest of us found them quite annoying.  Swiping your hand in front of your face to shoo away the flies is known as The Ayers Rock Salute.

We got to a sunset viewing spot around 5:30.  There were perhaps 50 or 60 cars already there, along with quite a few motorcycles.    As we stood watching Ayers Rock change hues of red with the setting sun, our driver Peter served us each a glass of champagne…