Last September I found myself in one of my favorite places: Yellowstone National Park. I spent a little over a week there, camping, looking at thermal features, and hiking all over the park.
It had been an interesting summer prior to my arrival: two park visitors had been killed by grizzly bears. The first, apparently, was by a female who was defending her cub. The second, and more disturbing attack, was on a solo hiker, and no one knew the motivation on the bear’s part. Worse, the bear actually fed upon and partially buried the kill, which is unusual as bears are generally more interested in your lunch than you (humans being big, more-calorie-burning prey). Sadly, that bear will be tracked and destroyed.
It was into this country that I went hiking. Solo.
I should hasten to point out that in neither of the cases above were the hikers carrying the best defense: bear spray. A form of pepper spray that has several times the amount of pepper as that of the spray used on humans, bear spray has been shown in studies to be the most effective deterrent available.
Most gunshots, you see, just piss a grizzly off.
So I went trekking into the wilderness, which starts about 10 feet off any paved road, with bear spray on my belt. I moved loudly, talked and sang to myself, and yelled “hey, bear!” around blind corners. I knew there were bears nearby, grizzlies and blacks. I never saw them and, if they saw or heard me, they had enough warning to move off.
Frankly, that’s okay by me.
So, what does all that have to do with swimming the Great Barrier Reef? Its all about fear.
In the Rockies, walking through active bear country with my pack and a can of pepper spray, I felt pretty confident. I’m an experienced hiker, I’ve dealt with injuries before, I knew the dangers, and had taken steps to be prepared.
Swimming in the ocean? Totally terrified.
It didn’t help that during my time in Sydney I viewed a display of the most deadly creatures in Australia at the Sydney Museum (and there are a lot of ways to die in Australia). One of them was a mollusk that, if you pick up the shell, releases a neurotoxin that causes paralysis. You can survive… if you’re given continuous CPR for 24 hours while it works its way out of your system. Or the jellyfish whose sting causes death within 4 minutes. You can survive… well, actually you’re kinda screwed on that one.
Oh, and did I mention that it’s active jellyfish season right now?
So it was that, with said knowledge in mind, I boarded a boat early one morning and headed out to the Great Barrier Reef. Where the head of the snorkel group advised not to touch anything because, well, anything might kill you. And recommended the stinger-proof wetsuit rental for eight bucks.
Did I rent a wetsuit? You bet your sweet bippy I did.
The boat steamed out of Cairns Harbor and I was on the open top deck, making conversation with two young Austrian girls who had ridden over in the shuttle bus from the hostel with me. We talked and joked around a bit but they were young university kids, well traveled but not wholly worldly. As the boat left the mainland and entered choppier waters, one of them felt a little seasick, so I headed over to the other side of boat, facing into the wind and forward the length of the boat as it plowed through the water.
Another girl was also sitting there, sunning herself in her bikini top and staving off motion sickness as well, so I said hello and chatted with her for a bit as we approached our first put-in point for snorkeling. As it turned out, she was Australian, up for a holiday weekend from Melbourne.
The boat stopped, we donned our incredibly unflattering stinger suits, and slipped into the water. I’d never been snorkeling before, and was surprised how comfortable I felt breathing through the snorkel. It didn’t hurt that I was instantaneously surrounded by the beauty of the reef, with schools of brightly colored fish swimming around me and fascinating plants growing on the reef below. It was easy to become distracted, floating in the current away from the boat, every so often realizing that I was drifting towards the reef (coral cuts become infected) or some plant on the coral with, naturally, stinging barbs. A few moments of panicked swimming later, all was peaceful again.
That’s how the remainder of the day was spent, as the boat took us to another two locations on the reef. Each time we stopped, slipped off the end of the boat and into a foreign world. Whatever potential fears I might have had about all the things that might kill me quickly dissipated, replaced by enjoying the reef and the company of the girl I had met that morning. It was a grand way to pass the day: swimming over the reef, or spending time on the boat joking and laughing with her, then back into the water.
Late in the afternoon, the boat started to head back for Cairns, and P (as I’ll call her for the moment) and I made plans for dinner later that evening, a much needed-shower to rinse off the salt water being necessary for both of us. As it would turn out, we spent the rest of the night together, talking about everything from music to hobbies to prior relationships. There may have been a wee bit of making out as well.
The next morning, I had to catch my early flight out of Cairns to my next destination: New Zealand. Such is the nature of travel, particularly when you have flights booked in advance until the end of April: you meet people, spend an intense amount of time with them, then move on.
But such is the nature of having not booked a Round-The-World-Ticket, in which all of your destinations are set in advance, that one has the freedom to change one’s travel plans. So it is that, after the end of April, I’ll be changing my original itinerary slightly, in what may be little more than a fool’s errand.
I’ll be flying back to Melbourne.
To see a girl.