By Robert Macklin
It was our first big adventure. Four of us 13-year-olds in Grade 8 had been signed up by our parents for a Young Australia League tour from Brisbane all the way to Cairns. What they didn’t tell us was that we were headed for another planet, another world.
The journey by train took us overnight – passing the girls’ train returning in Rockhampton - through endless fields of sugar cane to the very neat ‘camp’ of dongas where older chaps in officers’ caps took charge. Another train took us up the escapement via the Barron Falls and that was pretty good.
But next day came the wonder that in the blink of an eye transported us to that other world. I guess we’d glimpsed it in the YAL brochure and of course we’d learned the bare facts of it at school. But when we climbed down the steps of the Green Island underwater observatory and found ourselves in among the Great Barrier Reef we were simply overwhelmed.
It was like Aladdin’s Cave filled with sparkling jewels but all the wondrous colours were alive and moving, the tiny fish darting in formation, the shy ones peeping from the waving coral tresses, the big fellas like policemen on the beat, and occasionally the really big groupers with chubby lips and mouths like caves. They cruised by the glass window and they were all unafraid, even the tiny ones, even gorgeous coral cod with their wild fans and tentacles.
Back on the surface we were all a bit dazed but when the officers said some of us could put on their sandshoes and wade in from the beach with goggles we all jumped at it. When my turn came I took a very big breath then sank into that alien globe.
I never wanted to leave. I’d be there yet but I bumped into an officer who was standing in the deeper water to save us from ourselves.
We talked about nothing else – except girls – for the rest of the trip and thereafter we always had snorkeling gear in the house. But while we occasionally dipped into the chilly waters of the NSW south coast, it wasn’t the same.
However, three years ago when a holiday in Cairns became the trigger for my Castaway book, we joined a big boatful of tourists on a trip to the reef. We knew that heating events had damaged part of the coral but the captain assured us we were in for a treat so we signed up for the glass bottomed boat and the snorkeling.
So sad. Even as I write these words, my glasses mist. It was another planet all right - it was the colour of Mars, a dirty brown-grey with white stalks of coral and a few patchy fish that ducked away as we reached them. And who could blame them.
No doubt there are other areas where it’s in better condition, but when UNESCO warned that the reef was in danger through climate change, I applauded the opportunity it offered to add international momentum to action that would save the planet and all its wonders. It might even spur the Morrison government into action.
Well, it certainly did that. Morrison not only sent his Environment Minister, Susan Ley on a no-holds-barred mission to kill the warning, his people spread the word it was all a Chinese plot. And last week they celebrated a great success. The warning was withdrawn.
The damage remains, along with the denialist policies that will spread the desecration. But let’s give credit where it’s due – hat’s off to a ringing triumph for the marketeers of planet Morrison.