As anyone from Scotland will tell you, there’s nothing that can so dampen your spirits as bad weather abroad. This is an awareness I have always had, but never more so than on the morning of our scheduled trip to the Whitsunday Islands, off the North East Coast of Australia.
We had woken in our hostel to the sound of rain against the window, and, for the first time in weeks, wind.
“Sounds like there’s a storm brewing,” the receptionist had said chirpily, as we emerged into the foyer to wait for our pick-up. Then, spotting our day bags – and the green hue of my face – he changed his tune: “I’m sure it’s just passing through.”
As if on cue, an almighty blast of rain lashed against the window, causing us all to jump. “I wouldn’t worry – those boats will go in anything.” I’m not sure if this fact made me feel better or worse – though on eventually seeing our vessel, a sweet but basic catamaran, I was definitely leaning towards worse.
As we pushed off from the harbour, leaving the relative safety of land (albeit wet land) behind, an uneasy feeling began to swell in the pit of my stomach. Behind us, the town of Airlie Beach seemed to cower beneath a blanket of mist; ahead, the rain fired from all angles. It was immensely difficult just to open my eyes, as I struggled to listen to the safety briefing from our guide, a flamboyant man with an uncanny similarity to Russell Brand.
As our boat clambered furiously over the waves, I scanned the water to find something to focus on. Then, as if on cue, something large and green emerged like a great sea monster rearing its head. Almost as soon as it appeared, it was gone. Then came another, and another. Perhaps it was just the seasickness taking effect, but it took an inordinate amount of time to realise that these mysterious shapes were not creatures at all.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Bellowed our guide, through the relentless spray. “Welcome to the Wetsundays!”
And with that, our spirits were lifted.
An hour later, after navigating our way through this network of mysterious mist-strewn isles, we anchored down at Border Island. It wasn’t until the boxes of masks and stinger suits emerged on deck that I remembered what we’d actually come out here for; finally, we were going to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef.
The feeling of seasickness which had once filled my body had now subsided, and in its place lay a much worse sensation. I had only been deep sea snorkelling once before, and I’d always sworn that time would be the last. I find snorkelling difficult for two reasons; the first is because I’m asthmatic and find the breathing difficult (read more about my fear of snorkelling here). The second is because, like many people, I find the ocean bloody terrifying. This became increasingly evident as we were given a safety briefing on sharks in the area; there seemed to be a universal draining of blood from faces as we learned that this spot was known to be a breeding ground for tiger sharks.
“It’s ok love,” I was reassured by an elderly Swiss man. “You’re ten times more likely to be killed by a bus than a shark.” I felt like poking him in the eye and pointing out that unlike this scenario, I don’t make a habit of throwing myself in front of busses. I should probably point out that I didn’t poke him in the eye. I’m pretty sure that instead I nodded politely and thanked him for his kindness.
In the end, only two things were able to persuade me in; the fact that this would be my one and only chance to see the Great Barrier Reef, and that the only alternative would involve spending an hour on board a very rocky boat with a particularly vomitty Chinese lady. Certain that she would not have made the best company, I opted for the water.
After taking the plunge, however, all feelings of braveness I had managed to gather seemed to disappear in an appalling display of disloyalty. My immediate reaction was to get the hell out of the water, climb back up the ladder and join my spewy comrade on board. Unfortunately, a rather sizeable arse belonging to an equally unwilling German lady was blocking my escape route. I was stuck.
“Trust me”, said my boyfriend, holding my arm for support. “Just put your mask on and stick your face in the water. It’ll be worth it.” He was right.
When I got the courage to finally open my eyes it was like looking in to another world. In contrast to how I was feeling, the aquatic city below seemed so calm and serene. Schools of colourful fish meandered casually around the swimmers. Below us, the seabed was home to an endless variety of coral, which seemed to open and close like blinking eyes. Entranced, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing as I swam amongst clown fish and spotted starfish upon the rocks. You could easily have played a game of ‘Spot the Cast of Finding Nemo’ bingo.
It was amazing how close the fish would come, although we soon learned that this was not always a good thing, as a giant jellyfish blobbed its way in front of Stuart’s mask. I had just popped my head out of the water to see how far we had drifted from the boat, when I felt an almighty thrashing by my side, and the muffled cry of “JELLYFISH!” emanated from Stuart’s snorkel. Despite the panic, I found his reaction deeply amusing, and had already begun imagining how I might one day replicate it for friends. My smugness, however, was shortlived, as shortly after this episode, I had an unfortunate encounter with a rapidly ascending swimmer, whom I mistook for a shark. FYI, if you will shoot up at me from the depths of the ocean, dressed head to toe in grey, you will receive a flipper to the face – and a few choice words too…
After an exhilarating – albeit terrifying – time in the water, the weather had begun to worsen and so we were forced to make our way back to the boat. Next up on the itinerary was Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island – rumoured to be one of the world’s most beautiful spots. Although I was excited to see it, it was pretty evident that we weren’t going to get the postcard experience. The rain was so heavy that we could barely see beyond a few meters, and many of the group had begun muttering about turning around and finding the first heated pub in Airlie. Still, in true Aussie spirit, our crew were determined to get us to Whitehaven, and so onwards we went.
“Watch out for the white sands – you can see them from a mile away.” Our guide called out.
“Even in this?” We cried.
“Even in this.” He was not wrong.
Just like the sun breaking through the clouds, a strip of indescribably bright sand became visible through the mist. Even through the murky conditions, we could make out the turquoise blue of the water below. As we dashed from the boat to the relative shelter of the trees, we felt the softness of the silica on our feet which was surprising, as we had been warned that it was actually so sharp it had a dermabrasic effect.
The group huddled in a small clearing, amongst the tropical trees and shrubbery. Despite the rain, our crew laid on an incredible spread and just as we sat down to eat and began reflecting on how odd it was to be eating al fresco in such weather, we were joined by a couple of giant monitor lizards to make the scene complete:
Then, as though it were some kind of reward for passing an endurance test, the rain drops began to lessen and the sun broke through the clouds. It’s amazing how something as simple as this can reduce a group of adults to a state of childlike buffoonery; with our arms in the air and our bellies still full, we raced down to the water faster than you can say ‘Stinger Suit’. Any fears we once had about being gobbled up by sharks were momentarily displaced, as we frolicked in the water with giant silver fish swirling around our feet. As we looked back to shore, with the sun on our shoulders and the sand glowing like snow, we knew that however fleeting, we were lucky to be here in this moment – and that, my friends, is the kind of feeling that no amount of rain can destroy.