I am now as far East as I have ever been, I am getting on for half way through my journey but I am physically moving further from home, whilst the language and culture (but sadly not the climate) are becoming more Western. It is great to be in a country safe in the knowledge that when I don't know what's happening, where I'm going and what should be happening, it is easy to express my concern, even if its not easy to solve the problem.
My first challenge in Australia was to get to the Australian Air Ambulance Base (Royal Flying Doctors), simply at the other end of the airport (speaking of airports, Changi airport in Singapore is the most ridiculously amazing airport possibly place in Singapore, with free internet, swimming pools, gyms, cinema, gardens, tours of the city, spas and gardens, you could just go on holiday to the airport). I went about achieving this in a mindset that should really be reserved for traveling in Asia, being horrendously suspicious of the taxi driver, knowing that I had only a short distance to travel I negotiated the price in advance, forced him to use the meter and questioned his extremely long route. I felt slightly bad as I realised he was beginning to take offense at the lack of trust I placed in him and I should perhaps have more faith in the basic standards of Australian services. The price of something here is what it costs and not an example of someone trying to rip you off, at a minimum of 200% of its value and such an opportunity to negotiate a better price. This is a huge shame because I certainly feel although all these principles still apply. Australia is expensive relative to Asia, but its also incredibly expensive relative to Singapore and the UK! When unsure of the local price, I'd decide my maximum UK price (although for food I may use recently passed countries) and make a quick conversion, this usually consists of dividing the price, 30,000 in Vietnam, 20 000 in Laos, 50 in Thailand, 10 in China, 5 in Malaysia and 2 in Singapore. Here its as if you get a small discount in an expensive shop at home, reduce the item by 1/3 and you're there, then you get hit by the disbelief, £1.50 for a small pot of yoghurt, £8 for a sandwich, £12 for a kilo of bananas, £40 for a pair of shorts. It seems thinks are just particularly expensive here!
As I am in Cairns I couldn't leave without a visit to the Great Barrier Reef. Of course at considerable expense, but it seems that its not possible to visit the Great Barrier Reef without a luxury boat, en board entertainment, several tour guides and an Australian BBQ lunch with wine and cheese. To save some money I was going to simply snorkel, but on realising that I was saving a fraction of the considerable overall outlay and with the experts rating the dive as so much better than the snorkel I decided that maybe I should go for it, I have always wanted to scuba dive.
I woke up jet lagged at 7.37am, 7 mins after I was due to be at the port, I hurried but wasn't too concerned, realising that the town lives off reef tours I wasn't likely to be the only one who'd be trying to check in. The port was heaving with hundreds of people queuing for similarly large boats. The boat left at 8.30, to tea, biscuits and some paperwork. It must have been around 8.45 that I was informed I wouldn't be diving. Simply ticking a few boxes related to generic medical history, naturally checking a comprehensive number, chest surgery, pnemonathorax, spinal surgery, metallic replacements. At first I thought the guy was joking, the questions revealed little, no level of seriousness, current health or recency, as far as I was concerned I'm fit to dive, but it seems the form is black and white, tick a yes box and your game is over, without physician (which I'm informed by the guide is a doctor!) consent. I'm immediately considering how I can get medical consent, come back and prove that I'm healthy enough to do this, but before I say anything the guy drills, there's no doctor on board, even if we call one, with a pneumoathorax it will be a blanket 'no'. I struggle to comprehend that the challenge that a generic dive for absolute beginners, barely in control of their air supply, probably not making it below 20m and with no questions about general level of fitness would be something that was going to stress my lungs to the point of it being unsafe, several morbidly obese and two wheelchair bound guys were cleared. Apparently CT scans and Xrays would all have to be on the cards in order to certify my fitness to dive. I'm thinking that perhaps I should have just ticked no to all of the boxes, or maybe I should have dived in Thailand or Malaysia, where safety procedures are probably secondary to economy (where I prefer them).
So I remained seated with the OAPS whilst my peer group headed upstairs for a dive briefing, we were cheesely run through the basics on snorkeling. I was not especially impressed by the reef, having snorkeled (swum around with goggles) in Malaysia and Thailand the natural abundance of fish appeared to be much higher and the smaller sections of reef looked in better condition. Here the overall colour was brown, a few oranges and blues but a lot of coral death and not an overwhelming number of fish. I spent the day being continually whistled at by the lookout on the boat, calling me closer. Tracking a shark through the water, a guide comes swimming out with a red ring, he calls me over and asks 'Where are you going?' What?! Clearly I'm just swimming around, looking at the reef. 'Can you not see the boat?' Well obviously yes, the boat was about the only thing on the horizon, large and white and we were less than 200m away! A string of white buoys' was supposed to mark the limit of the snorkeling area, my day just got worse, we had 3hours tied to this location but we were expected to swim in an area the size of a 50m pool with OAPs whallowing with woggles, floats, rings and propulsion systems that prevents you from exerting any effort bar lowering yourself into the water. This area was covered in around 15mins, so it turned back into a game of evading capture, when called swimming back towards the boat, then diving down and U-turning at full speed back out to the more interesting sections of reef. I did manage to see around 7-8 turtles and a couple of sharks and noticing back on board when a turtle came close to the boat, on the guides pointing it out preceded a mad rush, clearly not so many turtles fancied the swimming pool today.
A couple more striking differences about Australia is the slow moving traffic, the cars look like snails and people wait to cross the roads, even when the cars are miles away, the urban speed limits in Asia are still around 60-90km/h. Although drivers do look confused at the gradual creeping across the road technique rather than waiting for the traffic lights. I have also yet to see one motorbike or moped, it is strange not to hear the buzzing sound everywhere you go. The relaxed and calm nature of the traffic is suspiring given the poor reviews of the attitude of drivers to cyclists from Australian riders met so far, but I suppose we shall have to see how that goes on the major roads.
I hate to continue plugging but I am now in a new continent -if you haven't already donated: