Byron to Cairns with a Random French – And The Return of Underwater Fear

At the risk of sounding like a total cheeseball I’ve been wondering lately about the meaning of life. That may be because I’ve been driving solo for hundreds of kilometers in scorching heat with no aircon, and my eyeballs are starting to melt.

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I ended my last post on such a positive note. I felt like Id finally found my calling, stability, and place in this world, to be a musician in a beautiful place, the land of milk and honey.

But there is something inside me that drives me onwards, and I don’t know what it is, or where it comes from. And I’m on the road again.

I don’t want to dwell on the reasons. In a way I felt like things went pear-shaped. I was going broke. Gigs weren’t paying enough. I was shuffling from place to place. Tourist season was on and Byron was full of dickheads. Or maybe I had just finished a chapter. I wound up my last few gigs, got the van ready (finally fixed that rust, fuck), ended on a high note having heaps of fun and busking my ass off, and said goodbye to some people I’ll miss like crazy. I might be back, I might not. Who can tell the future? Suffice it to say, that something inside me grabbed a hold of me and told me it was time. Do you have that inside you too?

From here on you will note that, just as the sombre and lost tone of my writing changes to excited and positive, as did my general attitude.

IMG_0032I put an ad up on a rideshare website, and took a totally random chance, I didn’t have time to meet the girl, but picked her up from the Arts Factory, where I had started my time in Byron almost a year ago. I literally had no idea what she would be like, I hadn’t even spoken to her Id been so busy wrapping everything up in Byron. Her name was Kristell, and as it turned out, was a beautiful young French woman who could drive a van at top speed and roll me the occasional perfect cigarette when passenger!

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We rolled outta town. First up to Brisbane to farewell my uncle with dinner at their house. God knows what my little cousin thinks of me, I had only been at their house 2 weeks ago for dinner with a beautiful American girl! I think they assumed more than the truth on this occasion though 🙂 After a delicious dinner we went out with my mate Pat, and crashed at his house. He refreshed my haircut in the morning with his clippers, and later that day, after much delay, we were off, to the North!

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Now Kristell was a good travel companion for another reason, she was a broke ass backpacker who had no money, so she stopped me from spending too much by hanging around aimlessly. We smashed it up the coast, generally stopping for an afternoon swim and a couple of ciders before doing another drive into the night. Then we would find some place to park up and sleep for free!

Swim in these bizarra mangrove tidal waters. Pretty fun, but possibly getting into Croc territory?

Swim in these bizarra mangrove tidal waters. Pretty fun, but possibly getting into Croc territory?

Unfortunately, Rainbow Beach had no rainbows. And Airlie beach was raining cats and dogs! We bought a bottle of Mount Gay Barbados Rum, and drank it with some other travellers. The next day, despite the rain, I wanted to do something, so dragged Kristell on a hike through these muddy tracks up to the top of a mountain, to drink champagne at the top. So warm in those parts, felt very adventurous with all the croc signs too. Was super fun and I am sure that Kristell’s face was put on… She wanted to see a ‘crocodeeeeel’ but we had no luck, despite leading her very close to the water and trying to lure one in. No one would miss just another French tourist anyway, there’s thousands of them.

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So we headed up the coast, had a debacle in Townsville, decided to push on in the bucketing rain, and almost made it to Cairns that night. You could tell we were getting into far north Queensland redneck country from the kind of bumper stickers…

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We went to sleep in the rain, and woke up in the rain. But by the time we got up to Cairns around midday, the rain had stopped! I got Kristell to navigate us direct to ‘The Lagoon’. These tropical towns often have a lagoon, or big man-made pool right next to the shore, similar to how you would have in a 5 star hotel. It’s because if you swim in the actual ocean, chances are good that you will get taken by a saltwater crocodile, or stung by an Irukandji jellyfish, which will most likely kill you too or at least ruin your will to live.

Now whenever I look for accommodation, like if I am going to stay in a hotel for a few days for a break from roughing it, a pool is on the top of my list. If I can sit by a nice pool, read my book, do some writing, and jump in the water every 20 minutes to refresh and get back to my pre-mammalian roots, Im happy as fuck.

So given that the pool was sorted, and paid for by tax dollars (a good use for once!), we found the cheapest hostel in Cairns, which happened to be right across the esplanade from the lagoon! $15 a night got you a squeaky bed in a  smelly room with 10 drunks from all over the world, speaking in tongues at all hours of the night like a bad episode from the Old Testament, broken powerpoints, a WASHING MACHINE, and the coolest staff to hang out with of pretty much any hostel ever! So basically, I had everything I needed from a 5 star hotel, for $15 a night!

I neglect to mention, that I had hoped to do some diving on the Barrier Reef, so first thing I went to one of those fake “Information Stations” that are actually commercially run businesses who hustle tourists to join the various bullshit tours around town. I asked her if it was possible to book just one dive to finish my Advanced Open Water certificate, and she did all this ringing around of the dive centres for me. In the end it was easier for her to do that than me, and hell, I might have just gone out partying and not got around to it myself, so I haggled down the price about 75%, and booked a day of diving on the reef. So while I waited for diving day for a couple of days, I sat by the lagoon, reading my book, taking notes in a moleskin and trying to look like Hunter S Thomson, swimming, and going out at night with the hostel staff and guests.

One night I took my Mandolin and ended up busking, and even playing a set in a French restaurant with an accordion player. What the hell! I was drunk on goon like all good backpackers (only I’m getting a little old for that…). But look at the adventures that goon gives you! A festival of Dionysus in Cairns mate. What I like about the Greek pantheon, they had a god for every part of human nature, including that primal liberation of a wild festival, sometimes derived from letting loose on cheap wine. Is it not a part of human nature? Why should we feel guilty, feel as though that behaviour should somehow be excluded from the totality of being human? Is it not part and parcel of the whole package, good and bad, noble and wretched, of being human? Dionysus is not only the god of goon, but the god of all the crazy shit that happens after you drink 2 litres of it!

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That being said, the only thing is that some people’s problems rise to the surface after they drink too much. It gives an outlet for their demons. I wonder if there is anything in ancient Greek that could make that excusable too? To this end, we have laws to stop too much festivities in public. In an excellent piece of investigative journalism, I managed to snap some police fining some fellows for drinking a few beers by the lagoon. I guess the idea is to stop all festivities, lest a portal opens in the collective Cairns Lagoon psyche and everyone’s demons come flooding through at once!

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In fact, in Cairns I witnessed another example of this phenomenon. I had to get the hell out of the backpackers one night and get some solo observation time. So I snuck out past my new friends, and found my way, making sure to walk as though on a wind and meditate as I did so, letting my eyes go where they pleased, to an interesting scene. There was this public mall, and one part of it was fenced off with a low barricade about 40cm high. A symbolic barrier is all. On one side of this barricade were a shitload of drunk white Queenslanders and tourists, shouting smoking and drinking. On the other side of the symbolic barrier was a group of Aboriginal people, drinking smoking, and shouting at almost exactly the same decibel level as those inside the symbolic barrier (I measured it with my portable decibel meter).

Now the police arrived, and I thought the whole party was going to get shut down. But turns out, if you were within the “Drinking Yes” area, attached to a pub, you were OK. If you were outside of the line, you got your drinks poured out on the ground, and got fined. It just seemed crazy to me! Basically, drinks inside the pub cost 5 times as much as if you buy your drinks at a bottle shop. And most of that is taxes, in one form or another: liquor licences being the main one. Its like a protection racket if you look at it from the outside.

Many of the drunk dickheads inside the pub were being very negative towards the Aboriginal people outside the barricade, saying they were behaving like animals, just because they didn’t care to pay inflated prices for drinks? Otherwise they were identical in their behaviour. The whole thing was ludicrous. And I must say, the faces of those poor police, they looked like they wished they could have chosen a different profession but for one where they water plants with goon every night to protect government licencing fees. But they are really doing an important job, trying to keep that Dionysian portal closed so that the demons of the collective subconscious of Cairns don’t come flooding out at once! I really wished they would have kicked the ass of some of the racist bastards inside the pub with their hate speech though. But they had already paid their bribes.

Anyway, moving on. I had to sober up myself to go on a specialist deep dive the next day. One more dive to go to finish my Advanced Open Water certification, a small step towards becoming a certified dive instructor.

The Advanced Crew, looking tough as fuck...

The Advanced Crew, looking tough as fuck…

As you can see, there were quite a few sharks out there. Id never seen a shark underwater before, and Id always wondered how I would react. Getting nervous underwater is not a good thing. You use air more quickly. And if your nerves escalate into panic, you can fuck yourself up. In fact, worrying about getting nervous is enough to make things unpleasant. So how do you tackle this? You learn how to deal with nerves or panic as they arise, and know that you CAN deal with them.

The sharks as it turned out, were white-tipped reef sharks. They were beautiful, or perhaps incredibly graceful is the better words. One was big, 2.5 – 3m. And one was close too. When one started to swim towards me, it soon changed direction. They really do not want to be bothered, and like me and the authorities, just want to be left alone. I respected that and observed from afar. What a privilege! So, diving with sharks, done. I kept my cool, and I know I can do it next time too.

But something else got me. When I first started diving years back in the Caribbean, I was shitscared. During my first lesson I breathed in a lot of water trying to complete one of the skills, clearing your mask when its full of water (read about that here). And my body learned the sensation of drowning. It took me a long time to finish that course. I did one lesson a week, and had to psyche myself up every time. But since then I have done another 10 dives of so when I have been completely comfortable. Not reckless, but completely comfortable and confident. This day I got a taste of the old feeling. Its fucked.

So I finished my one dive to get my Advanced cert, but I was getting along with the team so well, and loving to diving, that I stayed for another 5 dives. Haha I know, another 5. What the hell its the Great Barrier Reef! So on the second day, we were qualified and did not need an instructor. Different kettle of fish so to speak. I was chosen to lead the first one. We made a plan, to descend to 16m, find the reef wall and a landmark to remember as being near the dive boat, swim northwards along the wall, check our air as we went, then double back when it was time to return, and find that landmark. Also, saving time for a decompression stop at 5m for 3 minutes.

Well I tell ya what, it’s a different thing leading a group. We got down, checked everyone was OK, found a landmark and I pointed it out to everyone. Then we cruised off. There was some really great stuff, and it was hard to resist following sharks and stuff as they swam into deeper water. I tried to communicate to the others to watch their depth gauges, but as we were all quite inexperienced, it was hard to maintain above 16m. One of the crew went heading down… Now the problem is, the deeper you go, the longer you have to spend coming up. Also, you use air quicker. And we were along way from the boat. I had to follow them and get their attention but they had by this point descended to 18.5m, technically a deep dive which we had just been qualified for, but placing limits on our time to get back. You would not believe how hard it is to communicate underwater! Checking everyone’s air with hand signals, turned out a few of us were running low, so it was time to return. I started to feel nervous here. We had gone too deep, and we didn’t have much air. I signaled to start a slow ascent and tried to remember where the fuck the boat was. I felt that trade-off, to swim fast to get there, or swim slow to conserve air. I had to slow down because I was starting to panic and the air was getting harder to suck out of my tank as it ran lower. But by focusing on my breathing and on the environment around me, coming back into the moment and forgetting about this and that possibility flooding my brain, I got control of my breathing. There was a moment when I thought I would give anything to just be back on the surface again, but there was no option to ascend. I HAD to stay in control, or fuck myself up and possibly the others too.

Anyway, I got control of it, and led everyone back to the landmark, slowly ascending. We cruised along at roughly 5m depth for a few minutes to decompress, and found the landmark, bang! Relief. We ascended a little more and stopped for a few more minutes at 5m, to emerge at the surface all safe and sound, having had a great dive. No one had seen my stress, and I had got through it and got us back to the boat, within safe limits of decompression.

What a feeling! Diving was a challenge again. On the next dive Soph had a problem with her ears, and looked like she was going to panic. I looked her in the eyes and started a dialog with her, held her hand and managed to calm her down until the problem had subsided, and felt very proud. I had come so far, is it possible that I, who thought I wouldn’t be able to finish my basic course, could now look after others in the water? As of today, I’ve booked to do a certified rescue diver course in Zanzibar in July, with some fucking dodgy-ass company that takes you out on a leaking wooden boat. Ive learned just in the last few years that whatever scares you is worth doing.

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So that was it for Cairns, although I could have stayed. Went out with the dive crew that night. Went to the lagoon one more time with Kristell the next day. Then headed outta town. It was time for a solo leg. Thinking time across the wide open spaces.

I went and picked up my van from its shady parking spot under a beautiful fig tree that had been strangely vacant when I was looking for a park. But before I followed that inner desire and headed once more into the great unknown there was one more thing to do…

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Clean the Fruit Bat shit off my van.

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2 thoughts on “Byron to Cairns with a Random French – And The Return of Underwater Fear

  1. Wow beautiful what an amazing growth experience. Thankyou for sharing and baring your soul. I was right there with you on the dive, it brought back memories of the night dive in the caves with Mumu on the border of of melbourne and adelaide. Its so important to stay calm under water. When stress does enter and show its mulitple faces, the mind chatter downloads all the fears of the cosmos so incredibly convincingly. Down there in water deep below, humility is learnt. Reality is revalued and you feel how small you are and in the scheme of life. What an adventure to return to the surface and take a breathe life, to be reborn in full appreciation. I look forward to hearing more adventurous tales. Blessings and magic on your way STAFFORD SHIRE

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