von Mark Burrows

His busy city lifestyle suffocates his comfort whilst sailing in the Whitsundays. With my nose gripped tightly my mouth takes a long intake of breath, I hold it for five seconds, then release slowly. The air rattles through my snorkel and sounds like I am breathing out of a scuba diving mouthpiece. I am hovering above the strange shapes of coral which flutter in the gentle waves. The colours of orange, red, purple and green appear through my cloudy goggles which add pressure on my face as I float further into deeper water. Fish of all different shapes, colours and sizes swim near me as if I am not there. I feel part of nature and for that moment the outside world was far away from my mind. Then a giant blue arm splashes to my left and my teeth slightly lose grip of my mouthpiece. I throw my head out of the sea spluttering the salty water out of my mouth and quickly move the goggles up to my forehead. Panicking about the thought of standing on something unknown, I turn around and splash the short distance towards the shore. Staggering out of the shallow sea, a blue wetsuit-ed figure greets me, ‘are you getting the hang of it now Mark?’ My wife Aneeta asks. ‘Yeah. That was the best go yet, I saw a massive purple fish – it was this big.’ My hands apart indicating a fish of at least four feet long! ‘Well done!’ Aneeta replies holding back her laughter. ‘Are you off in again?’ I ask. ‘Yes. I think one more go, I’m getting cold now. The others are over there behind that rock if you’re done.’ This small stony beach is on the remote island of Hook Island, one of the seventy-four islands that make up the Whitsundays, in Queensland, Australia. The coral is good here because it is so close to the Great Barrier Reef, our captain informed us early this morning. Five of us sit on our beach towels and look out to sea towards a clipper ship a few hundred yards away. A droning engine-noise pollutes the pleasant sound of small waves splashing against the rocky shore, and out from behind the clipper ship a small dingy speeds in our direction. We rise, roll up our towels, and emerge from behind the rock to join the remaining six wetsuit-ed people shivering towards the front of the beach. As the dingy arrives I feel like my freedom has been taken away from me. I had enjoyed my first snorkelling experience so much I had forgotten that I would have to eventually return to the cramped conditions of the ship. Down below deck I slide the door open of our three-berth cabin and squeeze into it. I stand sideways and reach up to the top single-berth to open up my backpack. My wife lays on the double-berth below reading a book. Suddenly Ger hurries into our cabin, ‘Hi guys . . . just getting something out of my bag, how are you both?’ He asks towering above me. I’m over six-feet tall, but Ger must be at least six-inches taller. ‘Not bad thanks,’ I reply. ‘Are you feeling any better?’ Aneeta asks. ‘No. I’ve come for some more pills. I’m telling you, you were so lucky having the three-berth to yourselves. Ours is just so cramped. There’s no way I can fit on our top berth.’ ‘Does Paul have much room sleeping in the same bed as you? Aneeta asks. ‘Erm . . . well, not really. But we have no choice. Only Siobhan is small enough for the top berth . . . I’m not going on that top berth. Anyway, see ya later honeys.’ Aneeta laughs as Ger slides back the door. ‘I can’t believe Ger thought these cabins were going to be en suite.’ ‘And with fitted wardrobes!’ I add. Before we boarded the ship a couple of nights previously, we were laying back on pool-facing sunbeds in the luxurious Coral Sea Beach Resort in Airlie Beach, sipping cocktails and discussing what the ship was going to be like. Ger would only ever leave his sunbed to cool off in the swimming pool. Siobhan would only move to order cocktails from the restaurant’s pool-facing bar. And Paul would only move to turn the page of his book. The city-folk of Sydney certainly had a relaxing time! ‘I will be happy if a group of sexy Swedish backpackers were to share our cabin with us.’ Ger announced. ‘Ooh yeah!’ Paul agreed. ‘Sure. Any sexy hunky backpackers will do.’ Siobhan added. ‘Do you think the cabin will have a Jacuzzi?’ asked Ger. ‘I doubt it. The cabin will probably have some sort of shower-room and toilet.’ Paul said. ‘I’m looking forward to having that bath, and looking out through the port- hole every morning.’ Ger continued. ‘And the Swedish backpackers.’ Siobhan added. As we watched our last Airlie Beach sunset whilst eating our grilled fish sipping it down with white wine, our minds continued to picture what the ship would be like on board in a couple of hours time. Aneeta and I only hoped that our cabin was un-shared as paid for, and not occupied with any surprise Swedes! The ship was moored in an unlit area of Airlie Beach’s marina. Two members of the crew led a group of us down a path in torch-light and guided us on board. As we sat on deck the other passengers were silent. We all faced the crew who were lined up next to the galley ready to greet us. As the last passengers were seated, we were welcomed and instructed to head through to the bar area where we would be given the number of our room. As Aneeta and I headed to our room first, Ger shouted down to us, ‘You forgot your key.’ ‘You don’t get a key darling.’ The member of crew told Ger. Then informed us, ‘hey guys . . . I forgot to tell you about the bathrooms. The one on the left is for men and the one on the right is for women.’ ‘No key! Erm . . .’ Ger looked at the floor with a puzzled frown, paused then continued, ‘the one on the left is for men?’ Aneeta and I slid the door open of our cabin, and clicked a switch. Six feet ahead was a small dim lamp attached to the wooden wall, and immediately to the left was the bottom double-berth, above that was the single-berth. ‘At least we have somewhere to put our bags’ Aneeta said. ‘I’d love to see Ger’s face when he sees there’s no en suite.’ I laughed. ‘And no porthole!’ As passengers were acquainted with their rooms there was a noisy echo of excitement in the corridor. Everyone gradually headed upstairs to the bar, so Aneeta and I left our room to join them. We firstly turned right to see if Ger and the others were coming, and we saw their door half off its runners. It looked like they had been burgled. ‘Ger?’ I shouted. No reply. Upstairs we purchased two beers at the bar and went out on deck to find them. ‘How come your door is like that?’ Aneeta asked. ‘Like what?’ Siobhan replied. ‘Hanging off its hinges!’ I said laughing. ‘Jesus . . .’ Ger said slowly. He jumped up and found the nearest crew member. When he returned he said, ‘When it’s fixed I’m off to bed. I can’t be arsed with all of this. And I’m not playing those pirate games either.’ At seven-thirty Ger went to bed. The sound of calm conversation drifted from inside where most of the passengers were. The deck became chilly as darkness arrived. ‘I’m not going into the bar.’ Paul declared. ‘I can see them preparing pirate games.’ ‘We don’t have to join in do we?’ Siobhan asked. ‘It said in the guest book that everyone joins in, everyone.’ Paul replied. I don’t know if it was the threat of pirate games, or the healthy sea air that made us all tired, but we were all in bed before nine. The noise from the bar echoed down to the rooms all night, and gradually increased in volume as it got later. I woke up to the sound of people shouting ‘Dolphin!’ and heard different people taking turns on the acoustic guitar. I felt like I was missing out. The last time I was woken up was around two-thirty. The last couple of people headed to bed, and the sound of the vibrating generator was turned off into silence. Every morning there is a briefing on deck where the crew inform us of the day’s plan. The passengers who were not already awake for breakfast are woken up by the shout of ‘Briefing on deck in ten minutes, ten minutes guys.’ by one of the crew. Everyone is seated except Ger. The captain, a tall man dressed in khaki shorts and a white T-shirt, his suntan the colour of the deck, starts his speech in a slow monotone voice. He has a strong local accent. His face with an unbreakable grin speaks without his lips moving, ‘In about half an hour . . . we will go over to that beach over there on Hook Island. It’s a stony beach . . . so you’ll need a towel. The coral there is good . . . because we’re pretty close to the Barrier Reef . . . it’s pretty good coral. We’ll have a good snorkel. So when you’re ready, we’ll start loading the first run on the dingy.’ Ger arrives at the end of the speech yawning. ‘Honeys? What’s the story?’ ‘We’re leaving as soon as we’re ready, you’ll need a towel and bring your wetsuit because we’re snorkelling this morning.’ Aneeta informs him. ‘Snorkelling? I’m not going snorkelling. I’ll bring a book and sit on the beach darlings.’ ‘Still not feeling well Ger?’ Aneeta asks. ‘Not good darling. Not good. I think I’m getting some sort of a cold.’ As the third and final night arrives after days exploring unspoilt wonders of the world; beaches which can only be accessed by boat or seaplane, coral with the most amazing colours and wildlife, and islands with no human inhabitants, it was the perfect night to celebrate. It was the night where the thirty-three passengers could all enjoy themselves with the crew. Let the pirate games commence! ‘I’m off to bed. The cold’s getting no better.’ Ger announces at half-seven. All night the crew seem subdued. I think we are too much of a mix for them. There are people of all nationalities and ages, English, Irish, French, South African, a local Queenslander, and . . . the Sydney City Three. The crew simply can’t cater for everyone, and the pirate games never appear, to some passenger’s disappointment and to some passenger’s relief. The next day, Ger is blowing the sails to get us back to Airlie Beach quicker. ‘All I want is the Coral Sea Resort again. What I’d give to be by that pool now. Could this ship go any slower?’ As the crew clean our rooms we dump our luggage in the largest room which accommodates six. That could have been Ger’s Swedish backpacker room, I think as I store our backpacks. He spends the rest of the sail back to Airlie Beach sleeping on one of the berths. As we dock Ger is at the front of the queue ready to depart. ‘Photo time, photo time. . .’ A crew member announces. ‘What is the point? Not one person spoke to anyone else on this boat.’ Ger says rather loud. ‘I just want that Coral Resort. I just want to leave this ship.’ We all pose for the compulsory photo then the five of us are off the ship first. Back on dry land we are ordering food and wine within twenty minutes at Ger’s beloved Coral Sea Beach Resort’s restaurant. His cold has suddenly been cured! He never saw one piece of coral in the Whitsundays, but this was the coral he preferred. It seems the contrast from the freedom of Sydney city life, to sailing the unspoilt natural areas of the Whitsundays was too large. As for tourists like Aneeta and I who had travelled thousands of miles to see this, we of course had the experience of our lives.