“OMG, we are trapped on a pontoon in the middle of the ocean!!!!” – reads my email to my concerned family after three days of no contact.
Our group of three women journalists scored the highest, most coveted adventure assignment off Airlie Beach: a night spent in the middle of the coral reef. Our brief was to write about what would be like to spend a romantic night on a floating platform, miles away from the mainland (like the couple in the photo below). Stories were to appear in a high-end bridal publication, a popular women’s magazine (let’s called them Worldly Bride and Mary Jane) and an airline glossy.
Think ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ and you get the idea of what our team looked like.
We snorkel more out of determination than real thrill as the seas are quite rough and the sky is cloudy. When the day-trippers go back leaving the whole platform to ourselves and the staff, is time to check the accommodation. What we have is: one double-bed cabin (taken by an elderly Scottish couple celebrating a wedding anniversary) and just one other with four bunk beds.
We score the latter, for the obvious reasons. Mary Jane and Worldly Bride are not impressed: four of us (we have a PR representative too) in a cabin, which, in Mary Jane’s words is ‘no bigger than a walk-in-robe’. No en-suite either. Worldly Bride is appalled. Mary Jane tut-tuts as she tries to get her things out of a suitcase bigger than her bed.
Had the weather been good, we would have come to the bunks only to sleep after drinks inside the stunning underwater observation chamber and a glorious sunset dinner in the middle of the coral reef. But things don’t go to plan. Later in the afternoon the weather turns.
The following day, after a stormy evening that has no signs of abating, no boat or chopper dare brave the waves and driving rain to bring us back to the mainland. The next three days and nights –the plan was ONE night- we spend in the confines of either the ‘walk-in-robe’ or the staff’s room-cum-kitchen: four of us and four crew; cooped up; waiting for the weather to improve; doing nothing…
No rescue in sight
Well, that’s not quite true. Every morning there is a call for packing as a helicopter might be deployed to get us out. We don black rubbish bin liners as ponchos (protection from rain but where have all the fashion outfits gone?) and hastily push stuff into our bags. This process takes about an hour since we have to do in relays; not enough room for all of our exploding bags and us.
I am partial to lipstick myself, so I also have some biggish toiletries bags (yes plural). Invariably, after this exhausting exercise, the chopper pilot’s voice comes over the radio saying he can’t find a big enough hole in the clouds to risk coming in for us. This scenario gets replayed three consecutive mornings.
There is nightly entertainment though: noddy terns (‘naughty terns’ for us) invade the toilets and showers every night. Exhausted and bedraggled, these flapping, defecating birds take refuge from the vile weather outside, inside our bathroom. Blood-curling screams from those who venture in unawares pepper the stormy nights.
Alfred Hitchcock comes to mind every single time. These birds look mean…and hungry. Their genus, I find out later, is Anous stolidus. Yes, the mind boggles but Anous -WIKI tells me- is Greek for stupid or unmindful and stolidus is Latin for impassive. So there, it was not what came to mind first, was it? True to their genus, afraid these birds are not. Fierce jostles for position to use the toilet facilities ensue nightly. Woman vs Birds.
Saved by the chopper
On the 4th morning, after we nearly run out of food and water (hair definitely not up to standards by now) we hear the chop-chop-chop of a helo’s blades overhead. At this miraculous sound we all scream, grab our bin-liners as if this was the most natural thing to do (we are well drilled by now and past caring about appearances) and clamber up the chopper with the alacrity of fleeing kangaroos.
This is more Apocalypse Now -to the Valkiries tune- than The Devil Wears Prada.
Would I return to this destination? Absolutely. Not long ago, the venue morphed into the appropriately called Reef Sleep where you can dive and snorkel till sunset, down a few cocktails among the starfish before a BBQ dinner over the reef and spend a night under the stars sleeping in swags -or if you prefer, you can book the only double bed cabin.
This is no luxury but it is a unique adventure.
Next time though, I’ll check the extended weather forecast for the region before booking.