Australia journal - June 1999

The tropics, at last

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The 11 am snorkel boat was for experienced snorkelers only and the water was judged too cloudy, so we did not get aboard.  The wind was from the west today, so we got in the water at the jetty and drifted all the way back up to Shark Bay, a mission of about an hour's duration.

For the first time, we felt like we were on the Tropic of Capricorn.  Thirty miles away in every direction were billowing white clouds behind thick banks of dark gray clouds, but all around Heron Island the sky was an unbroken blue.  There were sunbathers on the beach!  People were in the water all around, and the breeze was gentle and pleasant.

The water was clear enough that we could just hang there, floating hand in hand on a gentle wind-blown current, enjoying all the life below.  We were a few dozen meters from the shore, where the water was maybe three feet deep.  All the various corals that thrive here, and clams, countless gnarly black sea cucumbers caked in white coral sand, with their little heaps of excreted sand behind them.  Thin white fish with brown markings (the young are pure white) that seem to live in small family units in holes dug in the sand, hanging out nervously near their houses and ducking back inside at the slightest hint of disturbance.  Later, Dominic told me those are gobis, and in most cases their holes are dug by blind shrimp; the two species live cooperatively.

Atop the bommies were large varieties of fish - butterfish, butterflyfish, beaked coral fish, surgeonfish(?), moon wrasse, and other stuff we couldn't find on the plastic identifier cards they sell at the dive shop.  I swam among a hundred or so tiny iridescent pink fish and alongside a couple of their much larger cousins.  There was one fish, maybe a three-pounder, with a mother-of-pearl border along its back and belly, like the inlay around the top of an expensive guitar.

We caught a look at a ray swimming by in a shallow and regrettably murky spot.

It was heavenly.  Warm, sunny, tropical.  We were in no hurry to get out of the water.

And it was a good thing we had such a long and pleasant experience, because the afternoon snorkel boat was cancelled due to rough seas and low visibility in the water.

We consoled ourselves with a long, peaceful afternoon in the sweet sunshine.  We wrote in our journals, walked on the beach, had a pina colada at the bar; I recorded the gulls; we threw in a load of laundry.

As the sunset drew near, the deck outside the bar grew more populous.  Some of our fellow instant villagers had departed today, but there were many familiar and friendly faces out there on the deck, taking in the amazing tropical sunset.  Several off-duty employees were there, and on-duty workers ducked out too catch a glimpse now and then, too.  Matt started a solo set, playing soft and sweet ballads to suit the mood.

While the sun was still farly high in the sky, the clouds arranged themselves in an impressive exhibition of their various possibilities: cottony billows; stressed streaks; gently smeared washes; corrugated panels; an astonishing section that looked as if the gods had scraped a line of paint across the sky with a palette knife; heavy gray strata - all laid out above the western horizon in time for sunset to light the fuse and start the show.  As the natural wonder kicked into technicolor overdrive, Matt was singing "Here Comes the Sun" - which fit perfectly, even though it was more literally a "there goes the sun" moment: this was the end of a day that had seen the return of the sun after several dismal days of heavy weather.

By the time the sun hit the water the entire western sky was ablaze, and the tableau continued to thrill the assembled guests for another half hour or so, while Matt Zarb provided the sound track from his spot inside the lounge - which did afford him a view as well, by the way.  The various cloud forms interacted gorgeously as the light source moved lower, throwing shadows that radiated from the horizon to add more texture to the mantles of blazing gold and the blankets of red and the gathered brows of black.

This luxurious extended moment was worth every inch of the rain that blew into our faces and roiled the seas all week.  It made up for all the canceled snorkel boat trips, all the gloomy afternoons and the goddam hailstorm that greeted our arrival.  This sunset was worth the entire cost of the trip.

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