We were slow to get moving January 1st. It was our last day with Kate and Garrett, and their last day on Phi Phi, so we knew we wanted to make it to Maya Bay, where The Beach was filmed. Eventually we got going, just in time to get on a 2:00 boat.
The boat out to Maya Bay is another organized snorkeling tour but we were hoping to avoid some crowds by going late in the day on New Year’s Day. The first stop was Monkey Beach. This is actually just a small beach that has aggressive monkeys on it. Tourists in bathing suits unload out of their boats to take pictures with monkeys eating snacks. It’s a strange sight and Kara and I weren’t so into it. Kate and Garrett got less into it after Garrett was ruthlessly attacked and bitten by a monkey! He had to get 12 preventative rabies shots when he got home. Sorry Garrett! Stupid monkeys.
Next up was a drive-by past a cave. Not too impressive, but the Phi Phi Leh island was beautiful to ride around. We stopped for some snorkeling and it actually was pretty nice. We jumped off the two-story boat into warm clear water and swam around with the fish for about half an hour. There were so many fish it was like swimming in a fish tank. The coolest part was probably the silver school of fish darting around near the surface of the water.
Then it was time for the main event. The boat turned a corner into Maya Bay and shuttled us to shore. There were still a good amount of people around so we did the quick walk through the jungle to the opposite side, which was more or less just a viewpoint out to another rock island and the sea. By the time we got back though the beach had started to clear out. It was nice that we were some of the last people on the beach; we were able to enjoy it without the crowds and boats everywhere. It is a stunning beach. You wonder if it’s really worth the hype, and it’s pretty damn near perfect. As the sun was starting to go down there was a glowing light coming through the entrance to the bay that created a beautiful, peaceful scene. We got back to the boat before the sun went down and were served fried rice as we started to go back home. Once the sun set it was instantly rocky and colder, and we were happy we hadn’t waited too much longer.
We had a low key night, fitting after the night before, and just hung out at a chill bar, Sunflower, near our hotel playing scrabble and sipping on crazy big frozen mojitos. The next morning Kate and Garrett stopped by to say goodbye on their way out. It was so fun having friends around for a little bit. It’s incredible seeing friends again after so long, and in such remote places, and feeling like it hasn’t been all that long. It felt weird how not weird it felt to see them. It was a perfect time to join together too; an epic New Years party, some chill time in Tonsai and Phi Phi, and an afternoon of snorkeling and beautiful beaches.
Kara and I had one day left on Ko Phi Phi. It was probably one day more than we really needed there but we took advantage of a nothing day to just chill. We had a gorgeous view from our hotel’s infinity pool and spent most of our time there talking about her upcoming wedding (yayyy!) and my thoughts on the next few months. It was more of that sister time that I was so excited to get when she arrived and it was a perfect setting for it.
That evening we ventured to the other side of the island to check out a different beach and again found a nice happy hour spot. This time we were sitting on reclining cushions listening to reggae watching the fire performers practice. We hung out there for hours, through dinner, and eventually got coaxed into the fire show. Kara’s guy had barely had time to practice but he didn’t need it; clearly the pro, he spun a firey stick around Kara in double time. My guy had the poi balls and as he spun them in patterns around me he asked about my single status and if I would wait for him. I teased him about needed to trap girls in fire to hit on them and told him just don’t burn me and we can talk. It was a lively way to end our time on Ko Phi Phi.
We had experienced some of the best snorkeling in the world in the Whitsundays, on the boat where we all met, Habibi. It was definitely one of the highlights of my time in Australia. So when we read that the Similan Islands “offer[ed] some of the finest diving in Thailand, if not the world” we had to check it out.
Apple, the wonderful woman who ran our hostel Riverside Guesthouse, got us some super secret discount for a day trip (2,000 THB) that included three snorkeling sites and lunch. The whole operation was larger than expected; we arrived to find a hundred other people snacking on muffins and coffee waiting for the boats to launch. We were given our color coded wristbands and told to wait until we were called. As soon as it was our turn we acted like kids and hurried to get on the boat first so we could sit outside up front; the boat was a 4-engine speedboat and the only rule of sitting up front was that you had to hold on at all times. You could tell this boat could really launch over some big waves if it wanted to, although disappointingly it held back on the ride out. We blamed all the tourists for killing the fun.
It was an hour and a half ride out to the first location and just being on the water made me smile. The boat was actually probably the highlight of the day. All the snorkel sights were honestly slightly disappointing. There was a variety of coral but not nearly as colorful as we were hoping and the fish were just ok. The most exciting sightings were a group of squid and one turtle who somehow got stuck in the center of a hovering group of tourists near the boats. At each location multiple boats unloaded dozens upon dozens of tourists into the same patch of water. We tried to swim further into space but nothing was quite as captivating as we had experienced in Australia. Plus there were some evil little jellyfish in the water that kept stinging us.
We stopped at an island for lunch which did have beautiful white sand and turquoise water but was so packed with people it was hard to appreciate it. Our last island stop Chris and I didn’t even bother to go in the water. We wondered if we’d become jaded with this kind of travel, having seen too many nice beaches and snorkeling spots in Australia. I had at least taken a bit of a break in Vietnam and Cambodia; they came from Krabi and Phuket, more of the same. Of course it’s not exactly the same, but at some point a beach is a beach.
As if to shut us up, the weather decided to give us something new: rain. We, along with everyone else, ran back to our boat and hid underneath the covered back section waiting for it to pass. It was a quick downpour that had some lingering drizzle but Pascal and I came prepared with raincoats. What’s a little water? We resumed our positions up front and on the ride back really felt the speed of the four engines. A couple times I flew off my seat into the air, and learned to appreciate the “must hold on” rule. When the rain briefly picked up again it felt like little daggers stabbing me in the face. At least it didn’t last long.
We made it back to shore not regretting going for an instant, it was still a fun day, but perhaps a little less enthusiastic than I though we’d be when we booked the trip.
When I left Cairns on an overnight bus for Airlie Beach I was excited. It was time to start my adventures. First stop: a 2 day, 2 night sailing trip around the Whitsunday Islands.
I boarded Habibi with 19 other travelers from Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, England, Canada, and France, as well as our Aussie skipper and 3 crew members. Together we sailed off into the expansive blue ocean. Or more accurately, we motored off. The wind wasn’t in our favor so the skipper mainly used the motor to get around. We were convinced that the few times the sail went up was more for show than practical application. I didn’t care either way though, we were still out at sea living on a boat and it was amazing.
The boat was an older model with wood benches above and even more wood bunks below. As we set off we were told our sleeping arrangements. Claire and I apparently won the lottery; we were given “the orgy bed” – it was almost the entire back of the boat and could have easily fit more than just the two of us, but we were happy to be able to starfish and not even come close to each other. Our boatmates that were assigned the small bunks were not as happy as we were.
I got lucky with a good group. There’s always an element of risk when you book a tour like this, especially as a solo traveler. As I walked to the boat I wondered what kind of group I would be with: partiers? couples? awkward people? What I got was a friendly group who was happy to hang out on a boat in nature. By the end of our few days together I wished we could keep the group together for the rest of my time in Oz, and I know I’m not the only one who felt that way.
The Whitsundays are paradise. Deep blue sea dotted with uninhabited, green tree-covered islands lined with thin white stretches of sand. In one case we stopped at an island that was only a thin white stretch of sand. It was quiet, relaxed, sunny, warm, beautiful.
Our days on Habibi went as follows: Day 1 was spent just getting out to where we would spend the night. We played a get to know each other game but didn’t stay up too late since we knew we had a full day ahead of us.
Day 2 we were woken up around 6 am for breakfast and then shuttled off to the island that was home to Whitehaven Beach, famous for being the most pristine beach in the Whitsundays. We were first to the island and from a viewpoint above the beach we saw it empty, devoid of the throngs of tourists that would soon catch up with us. We had 3 hours to play on the beach. We walked in the shallow water with sting rays all around us, took pyramid and jumping pictures in our attractive stinger suits, played soccer, and lounged on the sand. Some people practiced yoga and I took my now-traditional cartwheeling picture.
We returned to the boat for lunch – Habibi has really great food – before our snorkeling afternoon. Stop 1 was all about fish. From a school of striped fish right at the boat to George the gigantic parrot fish, we were never alone. Stop 2 was all about turtles. We had seen some turtles bobbing their heads up around our boat where we stopped the night before, but at the second snorkeling location we actually got a chance to swim with three of them. There’s not a single person who wasn’t smiling after this encounter. On our way to where we would drop anchor for the night we learned how to summon eagles from an island we were passing: whistle very loudly and wave some meat. Twice we were able to successfully throw a piece of meat in the air and watch an eagle swoop to catch it. This is entertainment in the Whitsundays.
We watched the sunset, sending it below the horizon with a cheer, and in the darkness we played a game and watched for shooting stars before another early bed time. I slept on deck with a handful of others. My bed was a bench covered with a yoga mat that cocooned me like a wooden hammock. Surprisingly I slept pretty well.
Day 3 we had one final snorkeling stop before motoring back to shore. This ended up being my favorite location. The reef was colorful, varied, with tons of different coral and fish to keep me entertained for the entire hour or so we were in the water. I even saw Nemo! Or at least the blacker cousin of Nemo. If it wasn’t for the jellyfish we had to swim through to get out and back it would’ve been a perfect location. We just hoped they weren’t the kind of jellyfish that could kill us (they do exist in the Whitsundays).
As we made our way back to Airlie Beach everyone was quiet, gazing out at the water or napping in the sun. I sat with my feet dangling off the side of the boat and watched the islands pass by, soaking in the happiness of the past few days on Habibi.
The Whitsunday boat was a last-minute decision when I got to Cairns and turned out to be a highlight of my time in Oz. It was a relaxing few days with great scenery, nature and people.
It’s worth mentioning that this is where I met Pascal, Chris and Marie, three Germans who were doing pretty much the same trip as me. We had actually all been at Asylum in Cairns at the same time but didn’t know it; we met on Habibi, where we figured out we’d be on the same Fraser Island tour, and that our timing would align in Byron Bay and Thailand for Christmas too (minus Marie who had to go home after Fraser). When we returned to Airlie I spent the day with them before our overnight buses to Rainbow Beach, where we would reconnect in our hostel before Fraser Island. Their names will come up again in future posts. I was no longer alone in Australia.
From day 1 I knew I wanted to scuba dive the Great Barrier Reef. On Wednesday Nov. 5th that day had finally come. And then I fucked it up.
Let me rewind for a minute. I booked my boat and 2 introductory scuba dives through Poseidon, a company that had been recommended to me by my kayaking buddy Martin; it had good reviews and reasonable prices in comparison to some other places (this is not a cheap adventure) so I went with it. Error 1: if I’d booked it through my hostel they could’ve given me a discounted price and I would’ve gotten a free night accommodation. Things I didn’t know. But I’d been anxious to book this tour since it was the only thing I knew I wanted to do for sure. Oh well.
The day before they called to tell me that the Poseidon boat had to be serviced, so was I ok with being put on Silversonic, an identical trip that was actually a little bit better; newer boat, more time in the water, better food included. I’d looked at this one too but the dives were more expensive; they said they weren’t going to charge me more so I said ok.
I was picked at 6:30 am from Asylum; for an extra AUD 24 the package came with a ride from my hostel to the pier in Port Douglas and back. Maybe this early departure is why I wasn’t thinking clearly when I boarded the boat and filled out the medical information form for scuba diving.
“Do you ever get dizziness, loss of vision, blackouts, or faint?” Yes, this happened just two weeks ago. In truth, this happens to me all the time – I frequently lose vision for a few seconds when I stand up, but I don’t usually faint (minus the one time when I woke up on the tiled bathroom floor of my childhood home happy that I hadn’t seriously injured myself). I always figured it had something to do with dehydration or my awful circulation, even though I’m not always dehydrated when it happens, but now that I know it’s not as common as I thought maybe I should get it checked out… I recover quickly though so I never thought it was a big deal.
Australia thought it was a big deal. Why did I check this box? I don’t know. I had a momentary lapse of judgement and told the honest truth. They didn’t let me dive. I tried to protest, saying it really wasn’t a problem, I’ve scuba dived before, and I shouldn’t have even checked the box. It was too late. My dream of scuba diving the GBR was gone and I was stuck with just snorkeling for the day. At least they promised me a refund for the dives.
I sulked upstairs and took a seat at the back of the boat, watching the ocean race by underneath us as I listened to my iPod. What the hell was I thinking? How could I let my dream go like this? I stewed for about 10 minutes, letting myself be angry at myself, and then I let it go. I was going to be refunded over $100 that I could use for other parts of my trip. That’s a lot in backpacker money. And I still had the chance to snorkel at three different locations. I’d heard snorkeling was actually better here than diving, so maybe it would be ok.
It was completely ok. Not just ok, but it was actually an absent-minded blessing. At our first location of the day I eagerly jumped into the water, determined to make the most of my snorkel time, and within seconds was inches from the reef and its inhabitants. We had an hour and a half at this location and I spent almost all of it in the water paddling around the reef. I also used this opportunity to teach myself to dive without inhaling snorkel tube mouthfuls of water. As I did this, I caught sight of the introductory divers. They were nowhere near the reef; they were over by the boat holding onto a rope, practicing breathing and clearing their masks.
I realized something: the reef is not a place to introductory dive. The point of the day was to see the GBR, and the introductory divers had just a fraction of the time that the snorkelers had to do this. Between going through the learning process of how to use the equipment and only having 20-30 minutes of air in their tanks, their time to see the reef was minimal. I, on the other hand, had well over an hour in all three locations to see the coral, fish and one shark. The reef was my playground while the scuba divers were in class. (If you are certified though it’s probably worth it; you don’t have to go through the lessons and get to actually swim around the reef at a lower depth. Although really most of what you want to see is so close to the surface that I’m not sure it’s even better as a certified diver.)
So how was the reef? Expansive, interesting, full of a variety of coral and its residents – fish, giant clams, sea cucumbers, anemones, starfish, at least one shark, and apparently turtles, although I wasn’t lucky enough to see one. The three locations that we explored all offered something different, the third being my favorite due to it being the most colorful underwater landscape of the day. All in all though, I admit, I was a bit disappointed.
The GBR is supposed to be breathtakingly gorgeous, and it didn’t quite have that effect. It was beautiful and I’m so happy to have seen it, but this section of outer reef honestly wasn’t my favorite diving site (something I would discover in the Whitsundays). And the fish weren’t nearly as numerous and vibrant as I expected them to be either.
So in the end, with the impression I got from the GBR and the realization that learning to dive is better done not at a Natural Wonder of the World, my lapse in judgement to say I get blackouts ended up saving my day.
And it didn’t hurt my budget either. Remember how I said I’d booked through Poseidon, which had cheaper dives, but was actually sent out with Silversonic? Well they refunded me for the Silversonic prices, so I actually ended up with a cheaper day than they even offer just to snorkel. I’d count that as a win for me.