Darwin… waiting for a Train.

Arrived in Darwin yesterday – had a lovely and uneventful flight.  Business class worth every penny (well, QFF points, but same/same) for the Tall Guy who for the first time had leg room to spare.  A couple of piccolo bottles of sparkling and the flight passed quickly enough.

Darwin is quite the change from my recent cool and relaxing trip to Tasmania. It’s hot and unpleasant, and feels very deserted – literally no one was around and the streets felt eerily empty, at both 2pm when we arrived as well as 8pm when we went out for dinner. 

There’s more CCTV cameras than central London and more massage parlours per square inch than Bangkok – together these give a palpable sense of imminent violence and/or criminal activity.  With signs that say children are not allowed in stores without being accompanied by parents (and similar), the local business owners aren’t exactly doing their bit to dispel this notion either…

Had a late dinner reservation at a place called, ‘Phat Mango’ – was widely and positively reviewed as being a ‘foodie favourite’ in Darwin but actually was a bit of a disappointment.  The entire restaurant smelled of burnt olive oil from the moment we walked in, and every dish seemed to be deliberately charred.  For whatever reason, this restaurant that prides itself on local produce had exactly three seafood offerings – some barramundi (smoked and served cold; wasn’t great), some king prawns (served charred with a nondescript creamy sauce) and peri-peri Spanish mackerel?! Go figure.  There was some kangaroo sausages (which of course, being kangaroo, fell into dry crumbly mince as soon as you cut it), a Brahman hump silverside bruschetta (served with some weird pickles that didn’t complement the cold grey silverside), a beef marrow dish (which had oil drizzled all over it because marrow isn’t rich enough?!).  For a ‘local produce’ restaurant – I was curious where all the buffalo, crocodile, emu the plethora of fresh fish options were?  We tried seven different dishes and shared them tapas style. None were super impressive. All up about 6/10, chef needs to buy a sous vide and branch away from the chargrilled everything.  

After our late dinner we wandered back to the hotel for a quiet night in… lest we be caught between all that CCTV, the heightened police and seemingly anticipated criminality of those visiting beautiful family friendly Darwin!

Thankfully, some friendly travellers named Mat and Iz left themselves logged into their Netflix account so we watched a rather good mini-series called ‘Anatomy of a Scandal’ (starring a rather sweary Michelle Dockery who we haven’t seen this angsty since Cousin Matthew was killed in an automobile accident).

Tomorrow… I have BIG plans, (HUGE!), for staying out of the heat while we continue to wait for our train.

PS: thanks so much to the Branch Da-Gideons for their in-room bible… it’s been super useful: as a support under our afternoon snackage of washed rind D’affinois, a block out for some annoying LEDs on the TV, a door stop for the odd plastic (?) bathroom door, a coaster and as a prop/chock to hold open the fridge cabinet which seemed to be overheating.


Adrenalin Reef Snorkelling Day Trip Review

I spent the week in Townsville for a conference and as much fun as industry conferences can be, I decided to take a day and head out to the Great Barrier Reef to spend a day looking at the fishes.  As it turns out, there is only one operator in Townsville that does snorkelling and SCUBA day trips and that is Adrenalin Snorkel Dive.  I was quite surprised a the lack of options, I thought there would be at least two or three operators taking visitors out to the Reef from ‘Queensland’s northern capital city’ (quote; Jenny Hill, Townsville Mayor), but alas… it seems to be these guys or head to Mission Beach several hours away.  So given that they’re the only mob in town, I thought I’d write up a detailed review that might be useful to future punters

I used to SCUBA dive in my early 20s and I was very tempted to do their ‘Introductory Dive’ for people who don’t have a PADI qualification, but was somewhat put off by the additional cost, the stress of trying to remember all that long lost dive shit, and hate dealing with hire snorkel equipment let along hire dive equipment (leaky masks, cheap inflexible snorkels etc – all leads to a less than ideal day snorkelling let along diving).  So I decided for the hassle free option of just snorkelling instead.

We were to meet at the Townsville Breakwater Marina, and given I don’t know Townsville very well, so I allowed myself heaps of time to walk there from The Ville Resort where we were staying.  Just as well, I was quite confused heading out there.  I saw one little sign that pointed from the pedestrian paths that head up the Strand, which read; “Adrenalin, this-a-way” and then was wandering through what felt like a gated community of apartment buildings?  It was not very clearly marked where we were supposed to go, so I was meandering through this residential area, and by the time I found myself at what looked like an abandoned demolition site, I was looking around for someone to ask if I was in the right place?!  Went past a strange set of shops – a barber and the Red Baron Seaplane place (none of which were open that early) and was about to turn back and see if it was somewhere else, when I then happened to see the Adrenalin boat through a chainlink fence… so happily was in the right place after all. Early morning confusion is not ideal.  Another sign part way through all those apartment buildings would have saved us, (myself and the German backpackers who were wandering around lost with me), a bit of ‘wherethefuckarewe’ at 7am.

But, we found the boat and were met by the crew.  There was Achim, who was obviously our Tour Leader for the day (you could tell; he did all the talking), two other dive instructors, and Jeff, our somewhat surly, hung-over looking, and somewhat disinterested ‘Captain’, who was driving our boat for the day.  After sorting out some equipment for sizing etc, we all dutifully climbed aboard and tried to find a spot to sit and chat with our fellow travellers.  The boat heads then to Magnetic Island (about 30 mins ride) to pick up more pax before heading out to Lodestone Reef.  The ride was, in my opinion, extremely rough and uncomfortable, even though the ocean was not particularly choppy and there were no white caps or anything like that.  It just felt like Jeff was hammer down to get us out to the reef asap, and don’t spare the horses.  Yes, it’s a two hour ride, and yes, everyone wants to get the max time out of the reef, but it was no two hour pleasure cruise – it was hang on and if you want a cuppa, half fill your cup.  There was sufficient warning about potential seasickness (take a few preventative tablets if you get motion sickness!), which of course no one heeded, and then at least three or four people who were looking mighty green around the gills when the Crew were offering fruit and bikkies as a bit of morning tea.

My initial impressions of the boat were quite positive – it’s a typical dive boat, equipment down the middle, quick dry padded seating along the sides, shoes off, quick dry marine carpet on the deck.  But I think it could use a bit of TLC.  The carpets in places are pulling up and could create a trip hazard, the toilet door which is held open by a tattered rope is a bit odd, the space for passengers to put their personal gear was also full of extra rental equipment, so all our stuff was a piled up mess.  The ‘Dry Area’ was anything but – the floor was wet, there were wet towels left about on the floor and the benches, and the later the crew were getting changed out of wet wetsuits in there too?!  What was the point.  Little things about the boat made me feel like I was on a predominantly blokey worksite – grubby handprints on all surfaces, paint flaking off, mould on nylon screens, water and cordial dispensers that need a good scrub… things that don’t matter to people who primarily care about function I guess. Anyway, the whole boat feels like it needs a lick and a polish – or at the very least a visit from an overly officious mother-in-law who likes to clean while everyone is busy at work.

So after two hours of bumping along with very halting conversation – did I mention how loud the engines were on this boat?  Four hours of droning in the day and I was yelling at Mr K when I got back; gave me serious pause to be concerned or the employees who are working with that noise four hours a day, six days a week, however many weeks a year… they’ll all be deaf by 45 (hey, wait… maybe that is why Jeff the Captain seemed so disinterested – he’s just gone deaf!)  Huge unaddressed Occ Health and Safety issue for sure.  Meh.  We eventually get to the Reef and it was a fantastic spot – after the long bumpy ride, I would not have imagined that 80kms off the coast, there would be a calm, lightly lilting haven to drop anchor and go diving.  The SCUBA peeps got their various briefs yelled at them over the engine noise on the way out there – no briefing for the PADI qualified, minimal briefing for the ‘working through their log books’ and what I strongly suspect is an insufficient briefing for the Introductory ‘have a go’, non-qualified divers (I’ll come back to that later).

The snorkellers who need the least briefing, and you would have thought would be easiest to kick off the boat and get them in the water quickly, were somehow last to leave the boat after the divers spent a bunch of time pfaffing around with equipment checks etc, and taking up space.  The Crew did a great job of helping everyone get sorted for their diverse activities given their varying levels of skills, ability and familiarity. Actually, I think the Crew are the strength of this whole outfit.  We did our first dive/snorkel at around 10:30am and stayed out on the reef until about 12pm when we were called in for some lunch.

And it was gorgeous – lovely weather (after setting out with it looking very cloudy and overcast, the sun came out for us), warm water (around 23-24C), light waves which didn’t hamper swimming, minimal current and about 25m visibility.

lodestone-reef-4lodestone-reef-3 lodestone-reef-1


I took these pictures on my day out with my dinky little Olympus TG3 Tough underwater happy snapper… the place is far more beautiful than I could capture with that.  Lodestone Reef has kilometres of simply stunning corals and a plethora of fish and marine life.  We saw more fishes than I could list, some small black tip reef sharks, starfish, sea cucumbers, an eel, some crustaceans – it was everything the Great Barrier Reef is talked up to be.  I was buddied up with one of the German backpackers – and he had never been snorkelling before, and I think I can say that this is as good as it gets anywhere in the world. It was truly spectacular.

We stopped for a lunch of sandwiches with cold meats and salads around midday and I noticed that of the five people doing the Introductory dive, (one was working through is PADI dive log so had dived before; for the others this was their first SCUBA experience), two of them had gone down, and come back up to switch to snorkelling instead.  It seems that they felt somewhat overwhelmed at being ‘thrown in the deep end’, so they ditched it.  I can understand that – breathing underwater is a unique experience and it can feel quite weird at first, but what you’re not prepared for is the inability to communicate and many people will freak out when they suddenly realise they are in this isolated situation, with very little preparation, and no way to adequately communicate if they have a problem… which is exactly what they both said when asked why they abandoned their Introductory dive.  Most people learn to dive in controlled water conditions – swimming pools, off piers or beaches, not in open water 80kms off land.  I’m not sure if it’s wise to be throwing European tourists into SCUBA gear after a 20 minute talk; it’s probably putting them off the activity for life.

Over our lunch break, we had a very comprehensive and informative talk about the different corals and different species we were observing on the Reef.  Even though I grew up in Queensland and have been skin-diving in Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and loads of places around Australia, I found this presentation to be really helpful.  It was definitely useful to many of the foreign visitors who have never seen this sort of marine life, and they had a much better understanding of what they were looking at in the afternoon dive after having the opportunity to hear this information from the Tour Leader.

After lunch, we had another dive/snorkel for about an hour and a half before the horn was blasted to come back to the boat for the ride back.  Now, the divers were all back on board by the time the horn was blown and most of them were dry and changed and happy – the length of their dive having been dictated by their air tank capacities, or the dive instructors telling them it was time to go; who knows, but they were all aboard.  It was the half a dozen snorkellers who had to rush back to the boat and were barely hauled aboard when the anchor was pulled up and the Captain gunned it to head back to land.  Which meant no time to rinse the salt off, no time to change into dry clothes, no time to grab a cuppa, before we were being thrown around like rocks in a lapidary tumbler for the next two hours.  I made the mistake of wanting to change out of my wet things for the long uncomfortable trip back, and was jostled around mightily in the only change space available – the dinky little toilet.  I should have just sat through the trip in my wet, sticky bathers because I hurt myself attempting to change with one hand holding onto a grab rail and the other trying to pull on clothes feeling like I was being agitated in a washing machine.

The ride back to Townsville was exactly as the trip out, bumpy and uncomfortable, and sitting sidelong to the boat, rather than facing forward or backwards, really doesn’t help you maintain your balance.  We did slow down a couple of times when the Captain spotted some humpback whales which was a cool and unexpected bonus for the day.  The Crew were circulating with more fruit, biscuits and fruitcake for everyone – diving, swimming or snorkelling is exhausting business if you are not used to it, so those snacks were much appreciated, but again, having a cuppa was a seriously questionable decision.

At the end of the day, we were given feedback forms and I was happy to tick all the 4 and 5’s for ‘Very Good’ or ‘Excellent’, but there was limited opportunity to provide any substantial feedback, especially considering you are 1) attempting to write while being thrown about as the boat bounced along and 2) you are handing the form right back to the guys you are reviewing and there’s less than 20 pax, so not hard to see who has written what.  Almost immediately after the feedback forms were handed in, I was disappointed to see a ‘tip jar’ placed on the table and a bit of spruiking encouraging people to leave a tip if they had a good time.  Like most Australians, who are unaccustomed to tipping, I was not impressed.  We have all shelled out somewhere between $240 for the snorkelling day trip to $350 for introductory dive daytrip PER PERSON and here we are being pressed for a tip.  Anyone reading this from the United States… in Australia, we have award wage structures that cover people working in hospitality and service industries, including the tourist industry, which ensures a decent living wage.  Tipping is not required to ‘supplement income’ the way it is in the US where people get paid a pathetic $2.15 an hour to work in a restaurant.  The fact that American tourists have trained tour operators worldwide to EXPECT tips at the end of an expensive tour is getting really tiresome.  I fully believe ‘when in Rome’, and pay my tips like a good little girl when travelling in the US, but if Australian service providers start expecting tips when we know staff are well paid for what they do, then they can get stuffed.  We tip when and if we want, for exceptional service only, where we feel staff went above and beyond what is expected for the price of admission.  /ENDRANT

Other than that slight unpleasantness, I have to say I had an amazing day out.  I was ill prepared for how rough the ride out to the Reef would be – but that is probably due to my more recent ocean going experiences all being on enormous cruise ships, with the occasional tender boat ride.  I would highly recommend this trip as a great way to see the beautiful Great Barrier Reef, and the experience has me looking up ways to renew my PADI dive qualifications.  🙂