Visiting the Great Barrier Reef

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Beautiful also from the surface, the Great Barrier Reef can be seen all the way from space

Diving is like dreaming. Everything is a little blurry, movements slow and sounds muffled. The corals glide past me when I float forwards observing the life around me. I’m not really part of this strange world. I’m just visiting. When I break the surface, it is like waking up.

It has been six years since my previous time scuba diving. Way too long. It is high time to go visit the ocean again. And it would be a shame to leave Australia without saying hi to the Great Barrier Reef. Who knows how long it is going to last. Last year some reporters already announced the Reef to be dead, but that was a false announcement. The warm water temperatures have been enforcing the bleaching and large parts of the reef have lost its colour, but it is not yet dead. (Here is an interesting article about the current state of the GBR)

The 2 300 kilometres long Great Barrier Reef lies off the coast of Queensland in the northeast Australia. We head to Cairns, a popular destination for those who wish to visit the GBR. Summertime is not the best time to visit tropical north as the temperatures reach nearly 40C and the beaches are closed because of the stingers. Air condition and public outdoor pool are truly appreciated. Locals say that the winter is nicest time in Cairns as it is usually +25C then. However, late summer is fine as well: the shops are open, restaurants full and people out at the pool.

To get to the Reef one has to go with a diving company. We didn’t book in advance but manage to get places aboard Down Under for the day after tomorrow. Full day on board of a large modern vessel, two dives, gear & stinger suit, lunch& snack (although we were always the last ones to finish the dives so there was barely any food left) = 209AUD. 150 people packed into a luxury yacht does not sound ideal to me but there are no smaller, less flamboyant options available. Luckily not all the passengers go diving. Half of the people snorkel, some just chill, some do intro dives and only 10-20 people dive knowing what they are doing.

After a bumpy ride out to the reef half of the tourists are seasick. I feel sorry for them, but I’m getting excited to go diving. Snorkellers rush into the water and create a happy colourful mess that the crew is trying to look after. Divers take turns. The crew fixes the gear and I just need to put the vest on and jump in. Because we have only one dive master diving on board those who want can go wander around the reef in pairs. Those who want can go with the dive master as a group. I follow the pink mask and yellow fins of the dive master and check out the things he points out. Colourful fish, beautiful coral, sea sausage, jellyfish… there is a lot to see, but frankly, I expected the reef to be livelier. After two dives and some snorkelling its time to call it a day and head back.

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Down Under is a fine dive tour/cruise company, but it has its downsides. My brother spent another day with Quicksilver and said that they were more diver-focused. Less hassle and more interesting diving locations. And the food was better. But then again, it is a bit more expensive.

Hot Stuff

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New Zealand consists of active volcanos: it is constantly boiling and steaming underneath the pretty surface. In the middle of the North Island is especially active volcanic area Taupo Volcanic Zone. The largest city in the area is Rotorua, which is an interesting travel destination with redwoods, spas and geothermal parks. There are several places around Rotorua where one can go goggle boiling water and bubbling mud. Some are very expensive, some free. Some are better than others.

Orakei Korako

Geothermal Park Orakei Korako is 45 minutes drive away from Rotorua. Lonely Planet has praised it as “the best thermal area left in New Zealand”. Adult ticket costs 36.00AUD. Ferry takes the visitors from the visitor centre to the other side of the river where steaming water runs down the rocks. I can feel the heat radiating from the ground. Tough algae enjoys the heat of the rocs decorating them with the shades of orange and green.

The route through the park takes one to two hours. It visits hot springs, mud pools and the Ruatapu/Aladdin’s Cave – one of two existing caves that have been found from a geothermal field. There are up to 23 active geysers, but I do not see any of them erupting. Along the way, wee info boards provide information on the plants that surround geothermal spots. The ferns and trees provide shade and an escape from the volcanic smells. Look out points give a beautiful view over the colourful rocky fields and lush vegetation. There are some twenty others in the park while we explore it, no crowds or lines.

Te Puia

A circle of arching pillars by the road on the edge of Rotorua marks the entrance of Te Puia where the visitor can spend all day and all his money. Te Puia combines geothermal wonders and maori culture: national art and craft schools teach and practice traditional wood and stone carving and weaving there. The centre offers a selection of experience packages which include dinners and maori shows. The basic ticket to the area costs 52.00AUD. That gives access to geothermal field and Kiwi house. One can also have a look at the maori style buildings, waka boat and see art students performing.

When Pōhutu, the largest active geyser in the southern hemisphere, erupts it spits out white water up to 10 meters. Sometimes it can reach 30 meters but even 10 is impressive. Droplets around it sparkle and the water hisses and fizzes. People lean on the railing taking pictures while a miniature train hauls more tourists to admire the geyser. The ground is hot. Are my shoes melting?

The geyser is great but the Kiwi house is a big disappointment. Dark room with red lights is separated into two: one for the people and one for two Kiwi birds. Night and day are reversed in the room to allow people to see the nocturnal bird. However, the glass is dirty and reflects the room so that it is extremely difficult to see through the glass. When you add in the people who come in with flash lights and crying babies, there is no point even trying. I have to go there twice to see the butt of the Kiwi waddle in a corner.

Kuirau Park

If spending around 50AUD for a ticket to see a few hot springs feels ridiculous, you can head to Kuirau Park. This park is located in the centre of Rotorua and it is completely free. It is a little outdoor area with mud pools, hot springs and a crater lake. In other words: much of the same stuff as the others. Just on a smaller scale. In addition, there are free thermal foot baths for tired feet. There are also picnic tables and benches if you need a rest (or a breather, like they say here) or want to have a picnic lunch. The park is a green grassy park but the paths are paved and the springs and pools have fences around them so the park is safe and easy to get around.

Wether it costs or not, it is not guaranteed that you’ll see everything that is promised. Some geysers erupt every hour, some once a day and some prefer sleeping. They are rarely pedant and can not be forced to erupt when the tourists ask for it. Geothermal activity depends on the rainfall and during the summer the geysers tend to be smaller and mud pools dryer. But they are still pretty great.