The Barrier Reef in the Rain


“Cairns experiences a tropical climate,” as Wikipedia reminds.

It was the wettest day of the wettest week in the month and a half that I spent in Australia. I walked in the rain to the terminal in what are known locally as boardies and thongs, or surf shorts and flip-flops as we would call them at home.

I had been in the city a few days by then, hoping for better weather that never came. I had wandered the streets to pass the time and to try to find something of interest. But if there were sights worth seeing, I missed them. If there were shops worth looking in, I passed them by.

It was the end of the road for my trip up the East Coast and I was there for the Barrier Reef. But, I wondered miserably, whether there was any point going out to it if the weather stayed the same. The girl at the hostel encouraged me.

In every stock image of the Reef, the sky is dramatically blue and the ocean a deeper blue with pools of turquoise, streaked with the greens and greys and browns of the coral. But on the day that I went, the sky was grey and the ocean the dingy green of a neglected watercourse downstream of a polluting factory.

There was a warning over the speaker that the crossing would be rough and all but about half a dozen of us stayed below decks. I idly watched a trawler coming in through the gloom and a crewman flicked me the middle finger. Yeah, G’day to you as well. Mate. 

The rain pounded down and the boat rolled and the wind howled and the waves flung themselves at the deck. Each one stung like a slap and wet me through afresh.

Image by yuejun gao from Pixabay

My eyes were screwed up against the saltwater but I knew from the banging of the door that the few other passengers out on deck had gone below. I tried, perversely, to tough it out. Then, eventually, inched my way, blinded by seawater, across the rolling deck to the cabin.

My teeth chattered, my knees knocked and I shook like a man in a shabby coat on his morning walk to the bottle shop. I have never been as desperately cold in my life, despite growing up in the North of England.

I wrung about a gallon of water from my t-shirt into the sink and lingered under the hand dryer to try to warm up. But I could not stop shivering and bought a souvenir t-shirt so as to have something dry to wear. I would have bought a souvenir jumper, coat, hat and scarf, as well, if they had sold them, but there were only t-shirts because Cairns experiences a tropical climate.


I begged the crew for soup, or coffee or anything hot but they refused because of health and safety. They had probably been told by a bullshitter with a PowerPoint presentation that I would have grounds to sue them if I spilled hot soup when the boat was rolling, whereas it was entirely up to me whether I exercised my right to die of hypothermia.

The boat docked at the pontoon on the Outer Reef, which is probably a nice place to be in better weather as you gaze at the natural beauty and feel the sun warming your arms. On that day, though, it was as pleasant as trudging through puddles to get to the end of the queue for the taxis in some left-behind town you are anxious to leave. 

I continued to shiver in the glass bottom boat, but it lifted my spirits to cut through the gloom of the surface and catch sight of the Reef with the soft coral waving in the current and the fish meandering between, around and among them.

Then I squeezed into a wetsuit, slung a weighted belt round my waist and lowered a heavy porcelain collar over my neck. I had a transparent sphere screwed onto it and oxygen was pumped inside. I walked down a series of steps and platforms under the surface and down towards the ocean floor.

A scuba diver appeared and handed me sea cucumbers and coral to feel and squirted out food to attract the fish. A kaleidoscope of fish swam around me. Brilliant blue surgeon fish with fluorescent yellow fins. Orange, green and purple parrot fish. Big fat wrasse. Little yellow butterfly fish.

I was glad, in the end, that I went, and I stayed below decks on the voyage back to Cairns.

© Richard Senior 2021

Brisbane: Bank Holidays, Barbecues and Biplanes


Brisbane was deserted. The bus pulled into an empty terminal. There was no one on the information desk, no one at the ticket counter, no one in the cafés and bars.

All through the city, the lights were off, the shutters were down, the plazas were empty of people. Even the bottle shops, the pubs, the adult shops and the “gentlemen’s club” were closed; the “topless hairdressers” must have had the day off.

My hostel had its usual Friday night barbecue on the roof, but it was soft drinks only because it is illegal to buy beer on Good Friday in Queensland, except in a restaurant with food.

It is a much bigger deal than it is in the UK, where office workers get a day off and the banks and public buildings are closed but the shops stay open, the town centres bustle, the roads are gridlocked and there would likely be a popular uprising if they tried to make it illegal to buy beer.


Brisbane will never be as cool as Melbourne, nor as glamorous as Sydney; but it is worth a couple of days. There are heritage buildings like the Italianesque City Hall and Treasury Building slotted between modern blocks, and botanic gardens, and public art, sited seemingly at random: a stainless steel alien standing at crossroads as if he were waiting for the lights to change before he set about colonising the earth; and a herd of kangaroo made from machine parts on and around a bench.

I divided a couple of hours between the Queensland Art Gallery and the Gallery of Modern Art, then sat outside with a Wagyu burger and espresso, watching a big monitor lizard muscle towards a man eating his lunch on a bench beside the river.

He tried to shoo it off with his foot but it ignored him, and he moved his legs to the other side of the bench and got ready to run. The lizard stayed where it was and kept looking at him and he realised, then, that it wanted a bit of his sandwich, so they shared it and both left happy enough.


The Queensland Museum has some dinosaur bones, a lot of stuffed birds, a big fat dead snake and dead cockroaches the size of matchboxes. But I only really went in to see Bert Hinkler’s Avian.

I knew about Hinkler already: an Australian who settled in England and became a test pilot with AV Roe & Co after the First World War. He was the first to fly solo from England to Australia, in 1928 in an Avro Avian, a little, single-engine, open-cockpit biplane made out of wood and fabric.

The biplane hangs from the roof, now, at the Queensland Museum and looks even smaller and flimsier than it does in photographs. I have flown short distances, as a passenger or with an instructor, in the similar but more advanced de Havilland Tiger Moth and it is a raw experience after even the most basic of modern aircraft. You are buffeted by the wind; it stings your face. Though you are wrapped in a fur-lined flying jacket and scarf, the cold still finds a way in – and it will be a great deal worse at the sort of altitude you would fly when crossing continents. There is the constant roar of the engine and the whistling of the wind in the wires and it would – I am sure – send me crazy after the first two hundred miles.


It is hard to conceive of flying the older, more basic Avian across the Channel to France, let alone the 11,000 miles from Croydon to Darwin across Europe and Asia and the lonely expanse of the Timor Sea, at a cruising speed of less than 80 knots, averaging the equivalent of London to Prague every day for fifteen consecutive days.

But once Hinkler had done it, a procession of adventurers followed him, CWA Scott, Jim Mollison, Charles Kingsford-Smith, Jean Batten, Amy Johnson; they shaved days off his time, until, by the late 1930’s, several had reached Australia in around five days.

I knew all this, yet still imagined it a great ordeal when I sat, two months later, in the economy cabin of a QANTAS jet on a 14-hour flight from Sydney to LA.

© Richard Senior 2016

Historic image: By Contributor(s): Queensland Newspapers Pty Ltd [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons