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Just Keep Swimming

Well if I will insist on leaving it so long, no wonder my emails are so long!

I know, it's been ages - and a tumultuous time for me, not all of which I intend going into, you'll be relieved to know. I have been requested to stick with starting my mails with a synopsis, for the busy/lazy amongst who do not have the time/inclination to read the whole thing; I shall endeavour to do so:-

What's that you say? That's too brief? Well hard cheese - you'll have to read the whole thing then! On with the show...

My time came to leave Byron Bay in all its laid-back, colourful glory behind me, and head to Brisbane in order to fly to Melbourne. I stayed one night - in a 32 bed dorm, my personal biggest yet. I've worked out the secret to staying in a big dorm; be the first to leave in the morning. That way you are the one rustling plastic bags and waking others up, rather than being woken by 31 rustlers. The afternoon I arrived, my friend Vanessa kindly came into the city to see me. Vanessa and I first met five years before (almost exactly, we worked out) in Byron Bay, and then caught up again in her home town of San Francisco. She now lives in Australia with her boyfriend, whom she met in Byron when we were there. Now here's a girl who reads and digests my emails - she can recall my adventures almost as well as I can! It was great to catch up with her again, and we had a cool afternoon and evening.

Early the next morning, rustling away, I made my way to the airport for my Virgin Blue flight to Melbourne. I love Richard Branson, and think he should become ruler of the universe. He's done similar wonders to Australian fares as he has at home, and may all the divine beings bless him for it. I was expecting to have to pay big heaps for my excessively excess baggage. Once it were dragged onto the scales, I was told that my 42kg would incur a charge of $30 - not as bad as I had feared. Babbling away, as is my wont, I mentioned that I really should have shipped my dive gear straight to Broome, as I wouldn't be needing it before then. "Dive gear?" Said the girl. "Well if it's sporting equipment, that's different. $10 please". Super news. It actually got better on the next flight, when the girl told me that she'd have to warn me that I was overweight (baggage-wise, that least I think that was what she meant!), and I would probably have to pay a charge on a future flight, but she would let me off.

On arrival at Melbourne I caught the shuttle bus to the station - and may I just say what a very cool mural they have there of transport through the ages. If you ever find yourself in Spencer Street station, don't forget to look up. A three hour train ride took me to Wangeratta, naturally shortened to Wang by the locals, where I was picked up by my cousin Royston, whom I'd not seen since I was last down under. The air was fresh and sweet with the relaxing smell of eucalypt as he drove me to the tiny township of Stanley, where he and his family live. There I was greeted by his wife Carmel, and children Shannon and Dylan, and made to feel right at home. They live in a beautiful part of the world, surrounded by the sights and smells of nature. The area is also steeped in history from the goldmining days, and their nearest town of Beechworth has strong connections with Ned Kelly; I wandered around the court where Kelly was once tried, and stood in the small cell where he lay bleeding.

I brought the hot weather with me on my visit, and temperatures were unusually up into the 40s. I was sitting on the wide wooden veranda one morning with Royston when a slight breeze sprang up. My initial response was to think how lovely and refreshing it was, but to Royston it signalled other things; an increased fire risk. In rural areas such as this the fire service is voluntary, and consists of nigh on the whole community, banding together to protect their own and each other's properties as well as a wide area around them from the devastatingly destructive force of fire. In the normal course of summer, they would expect to encounter a number of fires, but the previous year they had encountered such terrible fires that their township was nearly destroyed, saved only by a three day battle by the community, and maybe a bit of luck in a last minute change of the wind direction.

Royston drove me around the numerous hills that had been engulfed by the inferno. While the pine plantations had been razed, leaving a barren expanse where forests had been, the native gum trees fared much better. Blackened scorch marks rose high on the trees, but they were now "wearing green dresses", as Dylan put it, where new growth sprouted out from the trunks. The undergrowth looked healthy and green, and belied the seriousness of the blaze that had savaged it the year before. He showed me some of the pictures of that time, and the landscape was so different; dark grey, covered in ash, the air thick with smoke for days afterwards, orange glows in the sky from encroaching flames. In everyone I spoke to, the lasting effects of those days were evident, the profound impact witnessing and fighting such a force of nature has had on the community, and the sense of camaraderie surviving such times has given them. The thing I found most shocking though was the fact that this were not merely a force of nature; the fires had been deliberately set.

It was wonderful to spend time with my cousins, and enjoy the beauty of the surroundings, swim in local swimming holes, explore the woods by the house and meet up with Royston and Carmel's friends for a barbie. A week later though, and I had to go, back to Melbourne and on to Sydney. Here I met up with Matt, whom I'd first got to know in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, a mere week or so into my first big adventure five years ago. I had managed to catch up with him in his home town of Wellington later on that trip, and was pleased to have the opportunity of seeing him again in Sydney, where he was coming to the end of a three month stint in the YHA there. We hung out and had a few drinks, discussing past adventures and the prospect of new ones. He managed to wangle a harbour cruise for us, and we joined the much older passengers, giggling un-maliciously at the woman giving the commentary's posh accent. Once we got off, Matt had to go to work, while I wandered around the big city, head tilted upward marvelling at the tall shiny buildings like a village idiot, predictably taking pictures

After a few days it was time for me to say goodbye to the East Coast, and head over to the eagerly awaited West Coast. As I expect I have already mentioned, it was my intention to work for the last three months diving the Ningaloo Reef. In view of this I got the email addresses of all the dive companies from Exmouth and Coral Bay, and had forwarded my CV to each of them, introducing myself and enquiring about work. I only had a couple of replies, but one of these was with an actual job offer - I was thrilled, and wrote back to the company accepting and saying I would see them soon. I flew to Broome full of excitement at what the future would hold. The flight itself was fun and bizarre, with the cabin crew getting bored half way through, and applying copious amounts of make up, turning themselves into French chorus girls...even the boys.

Broome was not at all what I expected - beach aside there is really not a lot to the place, the other main tourist attraction being the Japanese graveyard dating back to the pearl diving days. Keen to get to Exmouth, I stayed only a couple of days, and booked myself onto a trip via the Karajini. The first day took us to Port Headland, and a lovely backpackers establishment there. The next saw us to the Karajini National Park, and a swim and hike through the gorges - a bit of a challenge with my wobbliness around heights, and I managed to dehydrate myself, but very pretty, and I was glad I had made the trip. We stayed that night in the small town of Tom Price, named after a man who had spotted the potential of iron ore as he flew overhead, and then died on the toilet a couple of hours later. From there we drove to Exmouth, getting in early enough to go for a snorkel at pretty Turquoise Bay, and a brief trip to the lighthouse. The evening began with a piss up and ended with swigging vodka straight from the bottle - not something I'd recommend.

The following day, despite a horrendous hangover I managed to score cheap digs - $50 a week, though I had no bed - with a really loud (no, Megan, not as loud as you - but still!) Ozzie girl, and a really nice couple. The town of Exmouth itself is small and dusty, and lacking in beauty, though the emus wandering through the town were pretty cool. It's a drive away from the beach, and anything else pretty like the Cape Ranges are similarly a drive away - a bit of a bugger when you have no transport. Still, the diving is why people come, and I was keen to meet up with my new employer. I guess it was from that point that things started to fall apart. The new job was not all I had hoped for. The pay was less - $60 for 7/8 hours, the equipment was poor, the vehicles were unroadworthy, and we were expected to drive them without the proper licences (and let me tell you when you have a sister in insurance, the potential ramifications are at the forefront of your mind). We also had to work a week for free before we would start earning money.

From day one alarm bells were ringing for me, and my internal conflict began. I wanted to give it a fair shot, and did my free week, then started the next week for which I would get paid. On a daily basis things cropped up which made me uncomfortable in the work, and unhappy with conditions. Talking to people around town I soon realised that the company had a bad reputation, and started to put my CV in elsewhere, hoping something would crop up. I am not known for my ability to keep my mouth shut and my opinions to myself, and within a week I had walked out. Whether it was then that the white rabbit appeared waving a bottle of grog under my nose, and beckoned my down his hole, or whether that had already happened, I'm not sure - it's all a little hazy, you see? I did manage to score a job in the pub where I went to drown my sorrows, so it seemed that all was not lost, and indeed it may not have been had I drunk less and thought more about my actions.

The long and the short of it, folks, is that Exmouth was not a good place for me. It stifled my creativity and was bad for my soul. Maybe I should have stuck it out longer, but I felt compelled to leave - without even seeing a whale shark. Regrets are pointless, so let's not even go there. Done is done. I've come to Kalbarri to dry out for a week and get my head together. It's pretty here, and a good place to chill for a wee while. My new plan is not to have a plan. I've only got two months left here, and don't reckon I'd have much chance of getting employed in diving for that time. I hear there is some good diving south of Perth, so may head down there, but I'm basically at a loose end until I leave. If anyone has any suggestions, feel free to chuck them at me.

Before I do go, both in the interest of balance and to finish on a bit of a happier note, I would like to mention some of the great things I saw on my dives, like wobegong sharks, frog fish, scorpion fish, stone fish, cow-tail rays and seven big fat white tip reef sharks hanging out together. I got to touch a bull ray, a sea snake and also an octopus or two. The highlight has to be a glimpse through a shoal of trevally of a dolphin - that was pretty damned awesome! So it's not all bad - life seldom is.

I hope each and everyone of you are coping with life and making it work with you. If times are good, that's great. If they are bad then trust that they will improve. Experience every emotion, ride the roller-coaster.

Until next time, folks, take care of yourselves, aaaaand each other.


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