Australia journal - June 1999

Heron Island, day 2

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Tuesday morning (June 29) the wind was still whipping and the sky was still heavy, but these was some sun silvering through a few thin patches in the cloud cover.  We stood on the deck overlooking the "Gantry," an entry point for island snorkeling, and listened to some other visitors telling their tales of rocky passages.  People who came over on Sunday were stranded outside the Heron harbor when one of the engines on the catamaran broke down.  This wasn't the boat we came over on - it was a substitute craft being used while the RAII was being painted or something.  But with one engine, they couldn't maneuver safely into the harbor - so after making their way across in TEN-foot seas, the Sunday arrivals were ferried in to the dock on dive boats, with no cover at all.  People and baggage were all exposed to the bitter elements and soaked clear through.  They got lunch delivered to their rooms, since no one was able to dress for the dining room.

Rita rented a "shorty" wet suit, planning to do some snorkeling from the "Gantry" right outside our suite, and signed us up for the Wednesday snorkel boat - which the dive shop operator doubted would actually go out.  We planned to sign up for Thursday's boat as soon as it was available for booking.

We heard from a fellow guest that the day's catamaran trip from Gladstone and back had been canceled.  A German visitor told me he was going out by helicopter today.  We were still optimistic about the weather clearing up a little in a day or two, but the published forecasts were not so encouraging.

By 10:00 Tuesday there was enough tentative sunshine through a hole in the clouds that we could feel a little warmth on our faces.  We stood there, happily squinting in the bright sunshine on the white coral sands.  A group of hardy souls, Rita among them,  decided to walk a few hundred meters up the shore so they could go in the water and drift back down to the Gantry on the very swift tide.  I heard Rita say "Brrrrr!' as she stepped into the water; while she was adjusting her mask and snorkel the sun disappeared again, but in she went.  I walked along the shore,  shooting the breeze with a woman from Oklahoma whose husband was also in the water.  A few kilometers offshore, the sea and the sky were the same gray color and the horizon was lost somewhere in between.  Upwind from our position there was some blue sky, which seemed promising.  I was wearing my reef shoes, so I rolled up my jeans and waded into the water to walk on the rocks.  The water was pretty cool.  Rita stayed in for about half an hour, and by the time she got out the sun wasn't shining any more.  By the time we were back in the room and she was in the shower, the wind was whipping through the palms again and the vague promise of sunshine was forgotten again.

By 11:30, it was raining again.  By 12:15, it was pouring again.

After lunch Matt and I went over to the bar to run through some songs for our performance that night.  He was telling all kinds of people how much he liked my playing and my songs, so folks were starting to come up to me to say they were looking forward to hearing us.  Matt was bowled over by the Gram Parsons and John Prine songs I showed him, and I promised to send him some of their CDs when I get home.  He also liked my song "River and Drown" enough to learn a harmony part and rehearse it with me.  His repertire included a slew of hokey old favorites from my steak-and-lobster days: "Margaritaville," "Me and Bobby McGee," "Take It Easy," some Cat Stevens songs, and so on.

In lieu of the 3:00 reef walk, a marine biologist staff member named Dominic took a group over to the University of Queensland's research station and showed us some of the local marine life in a large aquarium and an open tank in which we were invited to touch the sea cucumbers, starfish, hermit crabs, clams, etc.  The staff of the research center has adopted an abandoned noddy - a black bird with a pure white crown, black webbed feet and a long pointed beak.  This baby was abandoned by its parents, who followed their instinctual imperatives  on to other shores; the baby flew in, expecting that the crowd of people at the tank was there to feed it.  Dominic picked the bird up and cradled it in his hands for quite some time, and all the while the bird emitted a plaintive, persistent, piercing cry.  When Dominic put the bird down, a boy in our group picked it up and held it some more.  The bird cried constantly.

After Dominic had finished describing the reef animals and answering everyone's questions, Rita and I gawked at the sea anemones and anemone fish, various types of coral, etc. for a while and then took off to circumambulate the island.  The wind was blowing pretty stiffly out there, causing our legs to be sandblasted.  We didn't see any whales, though they were rumored to be frequenting the strait between Heron Reef and Wistari Reef, but we did see a pale rainbow appear and fade in a few minutes' time.  We rounded the tip of the island at Shark Bay and headed back down the other side, with the sandblasting joined by wind-whipped droplets of rain.  We were in screened sunlight, watching major squalls in the distance.  By the time we reached the Gantry, near our building, the wind was carrying a pretty heavy squall right into our midst.

It takes about thirty minutes to walk all the way around this tiny island.  The reef goes out another 150 yards or so, the edge marked by breaking waves.  It's pretty amazing to contemplate, this tiny speck of solid ground in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef, a living organism of sorts.  At low tide it's possible to walk out quite a distance, but the tide flows pretty swiftly across the bommies and during our time here it had not been sunny enough to make this a pleasant environment.  People were out there snorkeling near the shore, but the turbulence in the water made things pretty cloudy and I guess the top-billed animals haven't been too abundant, either.  We were signed up for the snorkel boat Tuesday, but all trips were canceled.

At 5:00, the wind was howling and the sun was behind clouds, but there were blue sky and some fluffy white clouds behind the wet gray ones to the east of us.  We continued to be optimistic about the weather for the balance of our time here, though we were also accustomed to disappointment.

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