Paddling on our kayaks off Palm Cove, Luke, our young kayak guide glides effortlessly beside us. He tells me he’s just been to Sagada, and says Filipinos are the friendliest and most generous people he’s met. I smile and nod.
We’ve been kayaking since seven in the morning, and paddle close to a deserted island where, according to Luke, a luxury resort used to stand. A lone dog gazes at us. Earlier we had paddled out, trying to get into the rhythm while enjoying the natural beauty around us. The ocean stretched endlessly ahead, and behind us, the palm trees lined the coast against the green mountains. It looked just like any island in the Philippines. We were in Cairns, a tropical paradise in the northeast coast of Australia.
We had stopped a few times between the shore and the island, to rest our arms, and listen to our guides talk about the recovering health of their reefs, a common concern back home. The water was clear enough to see the corals several meters below. It was jellyfish season though, so not one of us dared to jump in the water, even with our stinger suits zipped up.
Cairns, I was beginning to discover, was similar to the Philippines in some ways. We arrived on the first day of the rainy season, but the days were hot and humid, and evenings, windy and rainy.
We stayed in Machans Beach, a twenty-minute drive north from the city center, and ten minutes from the airport. Soon as we turned from the highway, we entered a narrow residential street towards the ocean. I peered out the window, and noticed immediately that there were houses, not apartments or buildings. Bungalows and two-story houses, with gardens and even some with picket fences. The beachhouse we rented had balusters, paneled walls and a wooden stairway that felt like home. The upperfloor had a wide porch overlooking the beach, and a cozy deck with a small dipping pool.
After Sydney’s busy streets and crowded beaches, it felt a bit strange but liberating to walk a few blocks with hardly anyone around. Trying to find the bus station in Machans, we ran into a bakery owned by a Filipino. The ‘halo-halo’ sign gave it away. We bought some adobo bread, and I excitedly got two packs of vegetable spring rolls, uncooked, for our lunch the next day.
We had two days to enjoy this relaxed beach village, before going on a boat to the Great Barrier Reef. We missed seeing Peter, the house owner but met his sister, Janet a lovely old lady who was living downstairs. She told us how the city center of Cairns used to be like Machans a few decades ago–a quiet, sleepy fishing village, with houses as quaint as their charming 40-year old house.
In the afternoon, we grabbed Peter’s bikes, and drove around the neighborhood. The Filipino bakery had closed as early as five oçlock, to our dismay, so we headed to the only shop in the area, the Machans Beach Store and Post, which was also probably the only gas station in the area. One couldnt miss the single shiny gas tank with the retro logo.
Looking for some drinks and food to take back home, we asked the lady at the counter if they had beer. She asked back, milk? I grinned and said no, beer? She said, yes, milk, it’s right at the end of the room dear. I kept grinning, and said no, not milk, beer. For the third time, she said slowly, what? Mii-llk? I shook my head again. Finally she got it, and with raised eyebrows told us they don’t sell alcoholic drinks, as a policy. We looked around a bit, and politely left the shop, more amused than disappointed. The unhurried, offbeat ways, in this part of town only made it more intriguing.
We felt a bit let down missing out on the white sandy beach literally a few steps away because of the jellyfish season, but this was entirely forgotten when we woke up the next morning to a sunrise, so beautiful and intense. It was the day we were heading to the Great Barrier Reef.
This massive marine park spanning an area of 348,000 sq km with more than 900 islands and over 2500 individual reefs is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The Great Barrier Reef contains over 400 types of coral, and 1500 species of fish, making it a scientific marvel, as well as a diver’s top-of-the-list playground. This was a dream dive for me, next to Tubbataha which I’ve been putting off too long. Some dreams I suppose happen when you least expect.
With my adventure-hungry cohorts, we boarded Oceanquest, a 5-deck, 30-cabin diving vessel. When I saw tanks lined up and suited up with BCDs, I remember thinking the pace was about to pick up triple-fold. Our group had signed up for a 2-day liveaboard on the Outer Reef. Among the six dives I did, surprisingly it was the shallow dive in Hastings Reef that stood out. At less than 10meters deep, we swam into at least fifteen huge bumphead parrotfish in a feeding frenzy. These meter-long humpheads (more than half my size), were crunching on the staghorns, oblivious to the divers gawking at them!
Swimming through the 8meter coral cave in Norman Reef was exhilarating. The big groupers, sweetlips, trevallies, blue spotted rays, cuttlefish, moray eels, even the triggerfish, all came out to play. The lobsters and octopus couldn’t be any cooler to see during the night dive in Saxon Reef. Sadly, we lucked out on the sharks. Rika, a Japanese diver said she saw a blacktip the previous day, and later showed me the photo. Two American guys who skipped the night dive on their first night, swore they saw sharks swim on the surface, while their friend underwater didn’t see a single one.
The coral beds, ‘bommies’ (how they call outcrops of coral reef) and walls were beautiful and seemed to go on for hundreds of meters. They were as lush as our reefs in APO Island, Pescador, or Balicasag, but knowing there were hundreds of other reefs lying in this 2,300 kilometer long reef system, blows one’s mind.
It was funny and flattering how Sergio, an Italian dive instructor, asked why I was there, when I was from the Philippines! Yes, our reefs and sanctuaries are just as impressive as the GBR, and the serious divers know this. A Japanese couple who had done a lot of traveling and diving around the world, had heard about our little island in Central Visayas! They were planning a trip to APO Island and Oslob later this year.
Getting off Oceanquest and bidding goodbye to the crew and some new friends we made onboard, was bittersweet. It had been two packed days of sun and nothing but the open sea in varying hues of blue around us. Leaving the beachtown was even harder. Cairns had been a curious discovery. We met locals who were as genuinely interested in where we came from, who spoke fondly of their own stories in our home countries. It’s hard to forget the random kind of hospitality we got from some guys who walked up to us, offered to call a cab, and gave us directions to their favorite steakhouse in town.
I’d like to be back for a longer liveaboard trip, swim in Machans when the jellyfish are in some other part of the Coral Sea, and maybe visit Peter and Janet in their lovely beachhouse. I’m not about to give up on the sharks too.