As a child growing up in Glasgow, Scotland, I was, from an early age, an avid reader. At one point (maybe I was 8 or 9 years old) I started reading adventure stories about kids travelling to interesting places and doing unusual things—like climbing a palm tree and drinking the juice from a fresh coconut, or collecting flying fish as they landed in the skiff. In cold, wet, miserable Glasgow the idea of just wearing swimming shorts and walking barefoot in the sand was enormously seductive (much later on, I did get to drink from a fresh coconut in the El Yunque rain forest in Puerto Rico and see flying fish off the coast of the Bahamas).
Another of the places I read about was the Great Barrier Reef, off the eastern coast of Australia. Thousands of exotic sea creatures swam these waters in an azure sea. To my sun-starved body, this was the culmination of my dreams. I vowed one day to go there and snorkel with the fish. It only took me 60 plus years.
On a recent business trip to Sydney, as a way of overcoming jet lag, I had intended to visit friends in Melbourne. But on hearing that the weather there was cold and miserable, I changed my plans and flew to Cairns in far Northern Queensland. In my mind’s eye, Cairns was this dusty colonial town with a few buildings and an occasional kangaroo hopping down a sandy street. Unfortunately, Cairns has turned into a tourist nightmare. It’s one of these, ‘shove them in, and shove them out’ towns. Everything is geared towards milking the foreigner, and it looks like any one of several beachfront towns around the world: numerous shopping malls, too many restaurants, lots of places to buy scuba and snorkeling gear, and an occasional didgeridoo shop.
One evening I came across a duo that was playing very haunting and rhythmic music. One was playing the didgeridoo and the other was playing a Balinese hang drum, a drum reminiscent of a Jamaican steel drum but played by hand. I listened for a while, as the music was hypnotic. When they stopped, I gave them a healthy tip and asked about their music. They told me that they had just met that morning and decided to play together. This was their first performance. Thinking they were local as the hang drum player was very dark skinned and the other well tanned, I asked,
“Where do you come from?”
“Portugal,” said the didgeridoo player.
“Israel,” said the drummer.
There is a train that takes you up to the village of Kuranda. It is a narrow gauge railway with old carriages pulled by a massive diesel train. It was built in the late 1890s as a way of getting supplies from the coast to the highlands of Herberton. It takes just over an hour to climb from Freshwater Station, at sea level to Kuranda at an elevation of 1000 feet. The train offers spectacular vistas of gorges and waterfalls as it meanders through the rain forest. On board we were served tea and scones as well as local beer followed by ANZAC biscuits, which are dense and delicious. They were developed during world war one as a high nutrition food that wouldn’t spoil on the long sea journey to the Middle East. The recipe uses rolled oats, sugar, plain flour, coconut, butter, golden syrup, baking soda and boiling water. Apparently it’s an old Scottish recipe.
Kuranda, like Cairns, was another tourist trap with stores selling Australian knickknacks (made in China). I did visit a butterfly farm and passed a Koala petting zoo but I was quite eager to return via the cable car that passed over the top of the rain forest. The vistas were spectacular, especially on the last leg, which dropped down quite dramatically with a view of Cairns and the Coral Sea beyond. Two young Chinese men from Guangzhou shared my cable car; their English was quite good and they told me they were students of Chinese Medicine. To tease them I held out my arms for them to take my pulse and see if they could find any ailments. One of them took my right arm and after a minute told me that I had a strong pulse and that indicated that I exercised regularly and that I was healthy (both true). The other took my left arm and spent quite a while feeling my pulse. He told me that my right ventricle was slightly stronger than my left ventricle.
“Did you have heart disease?” he asked.
I replied in the affirmative that I had had open-heart surgery over a year ago. His face brightened.
“You mean I am right?”
“Yes,” I replied
“I am so happy,” he said. “You are the first westerner I have touched and I can’t believe I got it right. Can I take a selfie with you?”
The next day I took a catamaran out to the Great Barrier Reef. The clientele were a mix of divers and snorkelers. I was in the latter group. I don’t think I have ever met a more professional crew—solicitous and very detailed about the rules of snorkeling. As I was old, they gave me a special colored life jacket so they could keep an eye on me—just in case.
The reef was disappointing. Instead of beautifully colored coral, most of what I saw was brown and sandy. But some of the fish were spectacular. I saw Surgeon Fish, Butterfly Fish, Groupers (big ones) and Parrot Fish. I really wanted to see a Clown Fish but they inhabit a certain type of poisonous coral and I missed them. Other travellers saw turtles and Trigger Fish.
On board, I made friends with a charming woman from Malaysia. She was intelligent, attractive, outspoken and amazingly frank. She was also seasick. She really hated the sea and boats but desperately wanted to see the reef. As she was so distressed on the way out, I talked to her a lot to distract her from being sick. This was, I must admit, a little self-serving, as I didn’t want her to wretch over me. At one point she felt well enough to go snorkeling. She suited up and took the plunge. When she returned, I asked her if she was okay. She said yes and handed me her waterproof camera to look at video she had taken. An array of eye-popping, multi-colored fish were gobbling up a mass of bright particles.
“What are they eating?” I asked.
“I vomited in the sea.”