This is not a metaphor: yesterday i woke up at the end of a rainbow.
Normally being awoken at half past six would not go down to well with me, but when you've slept under the starlight on the roof of a katamaran in the Whitsunday Islands it's really no hardship. Our sailing cruise was the final day of an adventure which has seen us travel from Sydney to Airlie Beach via stunning scenery, amazing wildlife, brilliant parties and amazing people. But it's better if i start this story at the beginning...
Byron Bay is probably the hippy capital of Australia. It's also one of the most popular: so much so that when we arrived we couldn't get a roof to sleep under for love nor money. Instead we resorted for the quiet town of Lennox Heads. There was very little to do there, but after the hubbub of city life it was nice to rejuvenate in the country for a while.
Our hostel was close to Lake Ainsworth, a beautifully serene expanse of water stained the colour of weak tea by the trees which grow at the water's edge. It was here that i decided to confront one of my fears - deep water! While Rachel slept i gingerly tip-toed into the water until only my head was visible above the surface. At this point i splashed, flapped and flopped my way back to the edge - the first time i'd swum in years. I'm not sure why the thought of not touching the bottom bothers me so much - a family bereavment at sea, a lack of ability in the water, my own body image? Probably all three have played a part. But the more aquatic trips i attempted the more assured i became. It's a good job - the next few days would see me spend almost as much time in the water as above it. And as an added bonus the tannins in the water made my skin feel amazing.
After a combination of hitch-hiking and coaches we arrived in Noosa, a collection of small towns clustered around a beautiful beach and stunning rainforest. After Rachel and i fell out spectacularly (for only the second time, suprisingly) i spent a day wandering around Noosa's stunning national park. The scenery was absolutely breathtaking - gnarled trees, burnt bush, knotted vines and vast shrubs towered on either side of me as i made my way through the greenery and the koalas to the beach. Here, the vegetation melted away into colourful cliff faces and azure waters. I thought it was paradise. I was wrong...
Further up the coast we arrived at Rainbow Beach - the gateway to Fraser Island. We decided to self-drive around the world's largest sand island - a decision we'll always be glad we made. Teamed with eight other backpackers we were schooled in island life and the perils of sand (it really does get into places you didn't know existed) before being left to bond over a few beers. Rather than drinking these in the hostel we carried a crate to the top of Carlo Sandblow, a natural lookout point. After climbing a steep hill through the trees we emerged to something which shocked us all: on top of the cliff stood an enormous, steep-sided valley of sand. Formed as the wind picks up the sand and throws it further up the dunes, the sandblow is marching relentlessly up the coast. The trees which stand in the way are reduced to withered stumps. At the bottom of the valley the sand falls away into rainbow hued cliffs and raging tides. A brilliant precursor to an even better trip.
Loaded with food and alcohol, our 4x4 trundled off the barge and onto Fraser. Racing along the wet sand we headed almost a hundred kilometres, bumping over the washouts as we went. Pausing only to view the rusting wreckage of the Mehona shipwreck we pulled up to Indian Head, a beautiful cliff spur which points out into the ocean. We hiked to the top and spent the next half hour gazing into the foaming waters looking for (and spotting) sharks, turtles and rays swimming beneath the surface.
That night's campsite was erected after joining with four other jeeps of travellers and we cooked for each other, scared dingoes away, and became one with nature - not least when i was mildly surprised to see a two inch long spider inches from my face as i urinated up a tree. Thank heavens i was wearing my head torch. With a complete lack of artificial light the sky above us was a magical carpet of more stars than you can imagine.
After the sun rose, a bumpy, treacherous journey inland saw us descend upon the most amazing lake in the world. Lake McKenzie is crystal clear and the water is completely fresh: so pure infact that there are no nutrients in it to support life. The water is flitered by the pure white sand which retains any impurities. For the second time in a matter of days i immersed myself, swimming underwater with my eyes open and enjoying every single second of being in what seemed like heaven on earth. Later that day a three-foot long goanna (a massive lizard) came to pay me a visit. Smelling me with his tongue, he licked me several times before deciding he didn't want to eat me. As he wandered off into the scrub i felt humbled to have had such a close encounter.
Further lakes, sandblows, arachnids and lizards followed, including close encounters with catfish and a headlong dive into Lake Wabby. Sadly there is very little pictorial evidence of this as i have broken my second camera in three weeks - a lense full of sand has put the brakes on my ambition to become the next David Bailey.
After little sleep on a red-hot, mosquito ridden island we hopped onto an uncomfortable overnight bus to Airlie Beach. Another sleepless night meant we were exhausted upon our arrival, but within minutes we were back on the adventure trail, leaping onto the Tongara - the aforementioned katamaran which would take us on a two day cruise of the Whitsundays: 74 islands with no inhabitants other than the ones who evolved there thousands of years ago. They are practically untouched by human hands, and all the better for it.
In my stinger suit, i again plunged into the water, walking amongst sharks and rays as they skimmed through the surf. I saw enormous turtles surfacing for air from the deck of our boat. I was soaked from above and below as a storm broke - saltwater splashing over my legs as the boat sliced through the ocean, fresh water soaking me from above as the rainbow disappeared behind torrents of rain. Eventually we arrived at the moment i'd been both dreading and looking forward to - diving into the open water and snorkelling. Initially fear gripped me every time i forget to breathe through my mouth - my panicky face broke the surface of the water every ten seconds or so. But eventually i adjusted to life face down in water, remembered that my nose was superfluous and began to enjoy myself. Swarms of fish and coral so inviting you almost wanted to touch it were absolutely everywhere - an accidental kick in the face from a fellow snorkeller became my biggest worry. A fear well and truly conquered. And i got deservedly hammered afterwards.
Travelling can sometimes be a lonely business. Friends come and go. People become very important to you very quickly and disappear just as fast. But drinking on the deck of the Tongara in the Whitsundays, many of those transient, temporary feelings faded away for a while: sandwiched between backpackers from Austria, Ireland, Australia, Germany and elsewhere, differences of language, religion, culture and all the other barriers which prevent people touching each other melted away... Our new friend Jerome plucked an acoustic guitar and held the whole group in rapture as he sang a song about the most French of institutions - the Champs D'Elysee.
The reason we travel.
Thanks to absolutely everyone who has made our time is Australia so amazing: Sam & Seals for your hospitality, the Kanga Crew who made our festive season so memorable, everyone we met on the Great Ocean Road, my two favourite Norwegians ever (Ole Solskjaer has been relegated to third) and absolutely everyone who has shown us kindness, hospitality and goon. All the best to every single one of you in your onward travels and let's hope our paths cross again.
And as we wave g'bye to the Aussies, it's time to say g'day to the Kiwis. New Zealand here we come...