“Robin Ayers Rock?”
“I’m sorry, did you say Ayers Rock?”
“No, E-S. Rock.”
My grandmother once told me how people from Australia thought she was joking when she gave her surname. It never struck me how similar Esrock is to Ayers Rock, but throw in a few accents here and there, and no wonder locals this week raised an eyebrow. It was something I got used to pretty quick during my visit to Australia, along with the fact that you don’t have to tip, and fast food joints charge you for ketchup pouches.
After the comfortable flight into Brisbane via Auckland on Air New Zealand, well deserved of airlineratings.com Airline of the Year Award, I breathe the warm, tropical coastal air of northern Queensland on my patio at the Thala Beach Resort. Humidity hugs me as I gaze out over the forest canopy and picturesque bay, listening to the songs of birds and frogs. Parrots flutter about in the trees adjacent to the windowless dining room, with the natural assets of tropical north Queensland on full display. My first introduction to the Great Barrier Reef is on Quicksilver’s wave-piercing catamaran, which delivers tourists to a permanent pontoon on the outer barrier reef. Beyond snorkelling, I soak up the time in a semi-submersible boat ride, an underwater observatory, in the skies with a helicopter ride (the view is extraordinary) and my personal highlight - on an underwater platform with a fish-bowl like helmet on my head, petting a friendly and unnervingly large Maori wrasse. Well, that’s one way to experience the reef. Another is by sea kayak, launched the following day from Thala Beach in the early morning hours. Sea turtles pop their heads out the water to see what the fuss is about, but I’m more distracted by the lush costal mountains framing the coastline.
Back to Cairns, which serves as the gateway to the northern barrier reef, I hop on a small plane for an hour-long flight to Lizard Island National Park. Home to an important marine research station, Lizard Island also has glitziest resort on the reef, with 48 luxurious villas facing a turquoise bay and white sandy beaches. Re-opened after two cyclones caused havoc, the resort is the epitome of elegance – white walls, wooden boardwalks, palm trees, an azure pool, fine dining and spa. It’s also on many a diver’s bucket list, especially the Cod Hole, where giant potato cod swim with curious sharks and technicolour fish on the outer reef. It’s my first scuba dive in some time, and as I descend beneath the surface, surrounded by hundreds of barracuda, I’m reminded of previous visits into the weightless underwater wonderland of ocean diving. I chase reef sharks, stare into the eyes of the giant cod, navigate reef canyons. “Damn!” I exclaim back on the dive boat. “The Great Barrier Reef delivers!”
A raucous farewell party on the beach (maintaining my perfect record of skinny dipping in warm oceans at night under the stars), fly to Cairns, fly to Gold Coast, climb a building, storm watch from the 27th floor balcony of the stylish Peppers Broadbeach, and I’m in the co-pilot chair on the 10-seater plane to the most southerly resort island on the barrier reef – Lady Elliot Island. Renowned for the manta rays and turtles that visit the island home year-round, Lady Elliot is the most accessible reef island for Australia’s southern capitals, popular with families, divers, weekenders and daytrippers. I pick up snorkel gear at the dive shop, take a few steps from my cabin into the lagoon, and the reef explodes with life and colour. The small, coral cay island is surrounded by reef, and with excellent visibility, regarded as one of its best dive and snorkel spots. I submerge through the Blue Hole, an underwater tunnel that opens up into marine world beaming with life. Look at the size of that white tipped reef shark! Hello Mr Curious Turtle! Check out the grace of that manta ray! With just one opportunity to dive, I’m deeply jealous of the divers who are here for a week, but grateful to have the opportunity to be here in the first place. Still, snorkelling from the Coral Garden to the Lighthouse is so rich with turtles, coral, fish and manta rays that anyone can enjoy the reef, no scuba certification necessary.
The Great Barrier Reef is not only one of the world’s natural wonders, it’s one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. It’s also surprisingly accessible for a wide range of budgets, and as you can read above, offers a wide range of experiences, some that even allow you go underwater and keep your hair dry. Accommodation and meals are uniformly outstanding, the weather reliably co-operative (even when it rains or is overcast, the reef is open for business!), and the locals famously cheery. Even if your surname sounds like a prank call, that’s something every visitor can appreciate.
Lizard Island here I come!
I recently did an interview with CAA Magazine and was asked what's at the top of my bucket list? It's a question I really should expect, being the author of bucket list books. And yet... I stopped actively pursuing my bucket list some years ago, when I accepted that I'd done everything I'd ever imagined (and then some), and bucket list experiences that continue to pop up are icing on the cherry sundae. Although, to be fair, there has always been the Great Barrier Reef along the East Coast of Australia.
After Sydney's Opera House, it is the most popular tourist attraction in the country, and one I narrowly missed years ago when I veered south towards Tasmania instead. That was before I started diving, and we are talking about the world's largest coral reef, a rich eco-system known as one the world's great natural wonders. Plus, I've heard great things about the cities of Gold Coast and Cairns, so the attraction is not all underwater either.
Knock on the door of the universe, and sometimes it answers. For a limited time, Air New Zealand is offering an economy rate of just $1,575 from Vancouver to 7 major Australian gateways, including Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Sunshine Coast and, you guessed it, Cairns. Together with Tourism Australia, they asked if I'd help them promote both the fare and the wonders of Australia. Since Air New Zealand is one of my favourite airlines and Cairns is a gateway to the bucket list of barrier reefs, I dinkum thought about it for sixty six seconds, which is how long it took me to locate my PADI dive certificate.
Scuba is just one aspect of it, however. How does one take on a 344,400 km2 marine park with 600 offshore islands, 1500 species of fish, 134 species of shark and rays and 150 inshore mangrove islands? There are countless experiences to be had, but what belongs on the bucket list? A wave-piercing catamaran? A luxury reef escape? A micro-brew on the busy beaches of Gold Coast?
My journey will touchdown in Auckland via LA before continuing onto Brisbane and Cairns. True story: The last time I flew AirNZ was the first and only time I've been upgraded to a business class flatbed seat on a long haul. Unfortunately, my travelling companion was not so fortunate, and since we were dating, I made the ultimate romantic gesture. I took the business class seat.
Air NZ's Economy Skycouch
Just kidding! I declined the upgrade and spent 12 hours in the company of a beautiful lady who would later agree to marry me. Not quite as cool a story as finding your doppelgänger seated next to you, but flights can still change your life. This time I'll be on my own, so I hope my wife doesn't mind me cuddling up to a fellow passenger on Air New Zealand's nifty Economy Skycouch. Right on AirNZ. Seating innovations are too few and far between, especially for those of us in Economy.
The All Blacks recently nipped the Wallabies in the World Cup Rugby Final bud, but it's inspiring to see how these two beautiful countries work and play together, including their airlines. Next post will be about my adventures down under. There might be an encounter with a giant potato cod, and hopefully, a shark or two. The Barrier Reef, and the bucket list, awaits.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.