It looks like shark territory.
If I were a shark I’d be here. It’s warm. The water is deep, clear blue and a bunch of Aussie blokes are convinced there are fish about. I’ve done my research. Sharks are fish.
I’m off the coast of Cairns courtesy of an experiment by the Great Northern Brewing Company. They commissioned study of 1000 Australian men – carried out by Maidstone Consulting and APD Research – which showed that 85 percent wanted to do more outdoor leisure activities. 89 percent said there was some type of hindrance to getting outdoors, with 40 percent citing the lack of time to escape the ‘daily grind’ as a factor.
Nearly a third of those surveyed said one of their favourite childhood memories involved an interaction with the natural Australian environment. Well, we’re definitely in a natural Australian environment. And I’m staying well inside the boat.
Seven lines trail, some suspended on thin, outrigger arms, and the engine hums as the boat cuts through the ocean. It’s too loud to talk over the noise but we don’t mind. We’re blokes and we’re here to stare stoically at the sea and monitor the lines for any signs of, gee, I don’t know, maybe a 1000-pound marlin having a nibble? That’d be alright.
“This is your line!” yells the skipper over the roar of the engine. “If you get a bite, grab the rod and we’ll attach the belt to you.” The belt has a rod holder on the front. I gather the idea is it helps support the rod when the 1000-pound marlin decides it’s not keen on having a hook through its mouth for the three hours it takes to wrestle it to the deck, and dives for the ocean floor like a torpedo, sending you catapulting irretrievably into the ocean at breakneck speed with only the barest of splashes. I imagined the other blokes looking around, seeing just a pair of thongs on the deck where I used to be and saying, “Hey, where’d Ricky go?”
So it’s almost a relief to reach Flynn Reef, one of the 3000 individual reefs that make up the Great Barrier Reef, without the on-board addition of sea life.
I’m looking forward to snorkelling on the reef, but it’s not without trepidation. Australia really is the country that has it all when it comes to fauna and flora that will kill you painfully and efficiently. Crocs, snakes, spiders, octopi, centipedes, ants – there’s even a benign-looking shell that will gladly do you in. And let’s not forget those miniscule inducers of catastrophic pain, irukandji jellyfish. As we start to don snorkelling gear the deck-hand reassures me there are no irukandji this far off-shore. I reach for my notebook and put a line through that one. “What about sharks?” I ask, moving my pen down the list.
“Oh, there are sharks all over here,” he says, noticing my grip tightening on the gunwales and adding, “but nothing that’ll hurt ya. I mean, it’ll happen one day, someone will get taken, but there’s too much other food for the sharks around the reef. They generally leave you alone.”
It was generally not the world’s most comforting speech, but the other blokes had all jumped into the water without a second thought, so of course I had no choice but to follow. “You gotta get in there,” says the deckhand. “Wait till ya see it. It’s beautiful country, it really is.”
And he was right. In the water, face-down and snorkel up, it was another world; someone else’s world. The fish swam along oblivious to the strange, googly-eyed humans, some of whom sported majestic board shorts which almost rivalled the colours of the fish. Why are the fish such brilliant, fluorescent colours? I’d never thought of fish as being beautiful before, but up close, on their home-ground, they were prettier than the birds of the Kimberley. The coral bloomed like flowers from a surrealist painting, and canyons opened up fathoms beneath me, like I was floating on a cloud above a mountain range. Under the sea was the closest I’ve ever been to flying, and an experience so different to what I expected, so utterly transcendent and unforgettable, made all the better by the fact I didn’t see a single shark.
It was something I never thought I’d do. A weekend away with mates, doing outdoors stuff I would usually had not considered I had time for. For once there would be no multiday hiking, no long days plodding uphill or exerting myself in the name of conquering some overgrown track through impenetrable bush, or scrambling up some mountaintop in the rain, in time to pitch a tiny tent in a howling gale. The problem with all that fun stuff is that often it’s hard to find mates who consider any of that stuff fun. Weird, huh? But suggest a few days by the water, a spot of fishing and maybe some camping under the stars, some beers in the sun when the activity is done, and suddenly you might find you have more friends than you ever thought.
Find Your Spot
With the continent quickly ripening under the spring sun, and before the full-on mayhem of summer hits, it’s not a bad time to consider a weekend away with mates, no matter what part of the country you call home. The great thing about Australia is that we live largely on the coast, but that doesn’t mean you can’t head inland. In fact, a lazy weekend away on the river is something of a way of life for Aussies. You’ll hear that phrase all the time: I know a spot. And if you don’t know a spot, you need to find someone who does knows a spot. When I was growing up we would often tag along on weekends with my uncle’s family to go waterskiing on the Shoalhaven River, on the NSW South Coast. It sounded almost privileged and decadent, especially when you come from a town in New Zealand where watersports consist primarily of watching the local kids jump off the rail bridge into a murky river. To some Australian ears it probably sounds bogan. The truth is that it was neither. When we got to the Shoalhaven river we saw how ordinary the families were and how natural this type of weekend activity was. Pack the Esky with some sangas and a slab of beer for when the skis are put away and the sun sinks over the western hills. Yes, there’s no doubt that a cold beer on a warm day when you’re relaxing and getting away from the big smoke is not the worst idea in the world – cheers to whoever came up it: I’ll drink to that.
It’s not a purely Australian tradition, of course. Americans have a fondness for beer growlers (like me, you may have to Google this) and – get this – packets of powered beer for their outdoor needs. The average Aussie is still very much your slab and Esky kind of guy. I heard a rumour up north that there was an Esky that would keep ice frozen for two weeks, so long as you didn’t open the lid (I think we’ve just identified the major flaw). If you’re a Kiwi like me, the traditional way of keeping beer cool in the bush is to hold your cans captive in an enclosure made out of rocks in the river (it helps that most New Zealand rivers are approaching the temperature of liquid nitrogen). There are a couple of reasons why this doesn’t work in Australia. One: the rivers are generally room temperature; and two: many northern rivers are guarded by custodians known as crocodiles, whose management of riverside activities is stricter than Sydney’s licensing laws. Incidentally, I also met someone who claimed that beer is best drunk at room temperature. The guy was clearly a nutter. Beer is best drunk cold, in the great outdoors on a hot afternoon. I can attest to this after many years of experimenting and documenting the results in boisterous rants round the campfire.
Beer also adds to the sounds of nature, in ways you might not expect. We were up early to get into the tropical rainforest just over the Great Dividing Range on the Cairns hinterland. We were in that most iconic of Australian modes of transport, the ute. Yes, we packed lunch and water, but the good, old Esky took up a fair chunk of the boot. We must have taken a wrong turn or something because before long the ute was climbing barely-there dirt tracks with an angle of attack normally associated with a jet take-off. The bottles in the Esky banged and sloshed among the ice, as though trying to escape, creating a symphony not unlike a group of toddlers banging blokes of wood and shaking maracas. Ah, the sounds of the Australian bush.
We passed snakes sunning themselves on rocks and stopped under the most spectacular strangler fig that had taken over the entire host tree, killing it and cementing thick, veiny roots into the ground, or wrapping its killer coils around hapless nearby trees. We encountered a pack of wild pigs – a serious environmental menace up here – and watched monitor lizards ascend through tree-orchids to the highest reaches of bungalow palms. It was thirsty work, all this unwinding, and by the time late-lunch rolled round we were ready for whatever the ute boot had to offer.
We managed to ‘knock back’ a couple under the shade of rainforest canopy, as a rope swing dangled enticingly over a swimming hole. We were far enough inland for crocs not to be an issue (according to someone who seemed like he knew what he was talking about). But instead of swimming, we sat on a thick branch that spanned the river and watched turtles glide under our legs. Blokes on a branch, beer in hand. It was liked I’d joined a club. I know a spot.
If that isn’t a damn good end to a weekend away then I don’t know what is. And if I can have a great few days away from work spending time fishing and barbecuing, perhaps all those blokes who consider this par for the course should be considering something a little more… wild?