We had to be up early. We were collected for our cable car ride at 7.30am – and we had to be on the boat for the Great Barrier Reef cruise at 9.30am!
The gondola took us over the rainforest canopy as far as Baron Falls. Our guide, Sam, pointed out the various trees and landmarks, and we were able to get off and use the purpose-built walkways at each station.
To be honest, the rainforest was a bit of a disappointment. Hundreds of exotic native birds squawked and chattered beneath the canopy – out of sight of the gondola. Baron Falls was also less than spectacular, as the area was suffering from a drought.
By now we were running late. We had to run to catch the ferry out to the Reef. It was surprisingly packed, but we found a couple of seats in the stern, and reapplied our sunblock.
First stop was Fitzroy Island, where numerous passengers disembarked for a snorkeling lesson in the shallow waters off the beach.
The Great Barrier Reef is a National Park, and the tour operators lease a small area where they are allowed to set up a semi-permanent pontoon. The area is strictly fenced off, and the tourists must keep within the cordons. Also on offer are glass-bottom boat rides, a ‘semi-submersible’, and helicopter tours.
We donned our snorkels and fins, and (because everyone else did) buoyancy vests! However, it soon became clear that the majority of the party could barely swim, let alone snorkel, so we handed our vests back and duck-dived beneath the thrashing hoards. In fact, we missed nothing by not being able to scuba dive. Beside the pontoon, the Great Barrier Reef was only about 10m deep, and snorkelling worked very well.
Before lunch, we took the opportunity to go on the glass-bottomed boat (much under-rated) and, while Brigid did some more swimming, John went out on the semi-submersible.
Despite the obvious commercialism, and limited access to the Reef, the exotic fish were diverse and plentiful, as were the other marine species and corals.
The cruise operators have devised a clever ploy to ensure that passengers stay in their seats for the end-of-day head-count. Photographs taken of us all throughout the day were displayed on video screens around the boat.
Back at the hotel, Amanda (the receptionist) had been in touch with the Outback Pioneer hotel in Ayers Rock on our behalf. The news was not good. A basic double room was going to cost us AUS$348 per night. Alice Springs was cheaper, but we would have to hire a car to get there. We had a stab at changing the flights, but to no avail. In the end, we booked the room in Alice Springs, and hoped for the best.