Australia journal - June 1999
 

The trip to Heron Island
 

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It was raining hard in Brisbane when we got into the cab that would take us to the Ansett domestic terminal at Brisbane.  It was raining when we walked out on the tarmac and boarded the tiny prop plane that would take us to Gladstone.  It was raining when we took off from Brisbane and rose up above the thick gray clouds, and it was raining when we descended back through the clouds and landed at Gladstone.

The rain had let up some when we left the terminal and jumped into the taxicab that was chartered to deliver us to the harbor, where we checked in for the boat ride to Heron Island.

"Do you get seasick?" the woman at the counter asked.

"Not usually," I replied.  "Is this going to be a rough ride?"

She nodded portentously.  "It's two hours to Heron Island, and seas are two and a half to three meters."  I accepted the anti-nausea pill, and so did Rita, who had moments before avowed her resistance to seasickness.

It was raining when we walked out to the jetty and boarded the catamaran Reef Adventure II for the perilous, choppy, nauseating, thrilling two-hour trip to Heron Island.

The first half hour of the boat trip was choppy but not frightening.  Then we cleared the sheltering islands and were out on the open sea.  The sky was thick and low with many shades of gray, spraying rain at various intensities, which caused visibility to vary from a few hundred yards to a few kilometers. "You know the trick for avoiding seasickness?" Rita asked.  "Keep our eyes on the horizon."  Yes, but that trick only works when you can see the horizon.  And for a large portion of this voyage, the view out those big catamaran windows was a sort of muted Jasper Johns panorama, with grades of gray above and below a blurred horizon line. Close in, the sea was sickeningly beautiful, a very deep blue-green-gray constantly heaving on all sides, with whitecaps and an almost alligator texture crosshatching the swells.  I've never had such an extended opportunity to view an angry sea so closely.

From time to time the catamaran would slam down onto the water's surface, with a solid crash like the suspension of an ancient bus on a rutted dirt road.  The window right in front of the captain's chair had a wiper going straight across, back and forth ha ha ha, back and forth why bother, as the sea hurled great splashes of wet onto all the forward windows and the wind-whipped streams made handsome crazy patterns on their way back into the drink.

It was awesome.

I wasn't really worried about being seasick, but there were some butterflies as the RAII leapt about in the rain and wind.  I wasn't comfortable trying to read, as Rita seemed to be able to do without batting an eye.  I felt most comfortable standing, with my eyes on the sea ahead, holding on to a waist-level rail and one of the overhead rails.  At times it felt almost like dancing: my knees were bent and my hips swayed in response to the heaving of the boat, with the salutary effect of keeping my stomach from traveling as quickly and as far as it would have had I stayed in my seat.  Now and then I sat down, but I couldn't close my eyes.

I didn't start getting sweaty and nervous until about 90 minutes into the trip, after the captain had informed us that we were about to enter the lee of Erskine Island.  After ten more minutes of really bad seas, we were promised ten minutes of relatively smooth sailing, and then we'd be back out in it - in a region they call "The Cabbage Patch" - for another ten minutes, after which we'd be in between the Heron Reef and the Wistari Reef, calm and safe.  I spent those Cabbage Patch Minutes in the most forward and starboard booth, looking out at the now-deep-blue chop as it loomed up in my face and slammed wetness on the window a few inches from my nose.   I felt dizzy but not nauseated, and somehow, suddenly, I found myself most comfortable with my head down on my forearms, resting on the seat back facing across and to the rear, where my stoic bride sat reading a magazine.  I actually slept that way for a couple of minutes; I know because I dreamed briefly and was startled when I woke up and realized where I was.

And where I was was in the relatively calm waters of the Heron Reef, still pretty active but nowhere near the intensity of chop we had been through in the Cabbage Patch - which if anything was worse than the hour-long ride across the open shipping lane.  And now the water was a much warmer blue; you could see the line where the reef dropped down, 'cause the water color changed drastically above it.  All of this was taking place in a very narrow range of light, attenuated by the heavy sky and drenching rain that made the day look like one long meditation on the nature of twilight.  I could imagine how this would all look on a bright sunny day - and if all goes as promised, I'll get to see that in 48 hours or so.

I stepped out onto the open rear deck to get a little sea air as we made for the harbor.  I stuck my head around the corner and got a face full of salt water - not spray, but a big splash of sea.  I ducked back behind the cabin  just in time to catch a glimpse of a whale several hundred yards away on the other side.  The dour female resort employee, Nona, had brightened considerably when she saw it, and several of my fellow passengers saw it before I did; I waited, alongside half a dozen other excited passengers, for it to reappear - and reappear it did: I saw the huge great back of the whale break the surface, glide up into the air for a long moment, and gracefully disappear back below the surface.

It was hailing when we stepped off the boat onto the jetty at Heron Island.  One of the employees of the resort was handing out large plastic trash bags, advising the users to poke a head-hole in the bottom.  At the end of the jetty, another employee was opening umbrellas and handing them out to the new arrivals.  He opened one for Rita -- oops, sprung and useless.  Same for the next one.  The third umbrella was intact, so we gratefully took it -- not that it did a hell of a lot of good -- and joined the procession of instantly-soaked individuals to the reception area.  "Welcome to Heron Island!" said several employees, with a sort of ironic cheerfulness that I actually found charming under the circumstances.
 
 

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