Travel: High on Sleep
Sleeping in the middle of the ocean on a marooned pontoon to explore the Great Barrier Reef is an extraordinary experience
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I can hear the wind whistling even as the crisp sea breeze and the sound of waves gently coax me to sleep. The moonlight on my face feels pleasant (“one could almost read a book,” a fellow traveller had quipped minutes ago) and the night sky — cloudy but still revealing multitude of twinkling stars is a treat. I inhale deeply inside my cozy ‘swag’ — Australian slang for bedroll — my luxurious bed for the night while gazing dreamily at the spectacular night sky. I wish for a particularly moody cloud — blocking the sliver of moonlight that streams into my “room” for the night — to go away. Just moments ago, after a hearty dinner of grilled prawns, barbequed chicken, fish and refreshing raspberry ice-cream for dinner, I watched the reflection of the white-silvery moon on the rippling waves and wondered if a similar scene inspired the famous music critic Ludwig Rellstab when he titled Beethoven’s famous sonata Moonlight — the profound, deep and graceful piece reminding him of the moon's reflection on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. Perhaps, he did.
I’m 40 nautical miles or 74 km away from land, in the middle of the ocean, on an isolated pontoon in the Great Barrier Reef. One of the world’s seven most spectacular wonders, the planet’s largest protected marine area, which stretches for 2,300 km (1430 miles) along the Queensland coast, the magic of the Great Barrier Reef lies in the wealth it supports — 400 types of coral, over 1500 species of fish and 4000 types of molluscs. Apart from a phantasmagoria of tropical fish, the reef is also home to whales, dugongs, turtles, reef sharks, dolphins besides being an important bird habitat. And it is precisely when you stare out to the horizon that you realise that spending not just hours but two days and one night on the Great Barrier Reef is a matter of accomplishment, tremendous triumph and success. And that’s why even sleep becomes such an adventure in this location. For starters, it’s a curated experience with only 12 passengers allowed on the permanently marooned pontoon on Hardy Reef. The one of its kind experience, offered nowhere else in the world, Reef Sleep, as it’s called, is chic and subliminal, magical and surreal, all at once.
Organised by Whitsundays Tourism what makes this activity so bespoke is that it allows all of your senses to engage with the destination in solitude, in peace and with an intense sense of meditation. Arriving in our high speed catamaran, organised by Cruise Whitsundays, which has departed from Hamilton Island, the largest of the inhabited islands of Whitsundays, with roughly 200 guests, it’s suddenly blissful and quiet to have, well, the Great Barrier Reef to ourselves. I engage in a “quiet” snorkeling session — a welcome contrast to the earlier one where there was so much activity in the water with people snorkelling, swimming, scuba diving and rescue boats incessantly — but necessarily — circling in the waters. Now, with all the quietude, one imagines the marine life feels more reassured to reveal itself in all its glory — I swim with a variety of vividly coloured fish, many of them zigzagging in front of my eyes in perfect harmony. From a sea turtle to the big and docile Maori Wrasse; from the black and white angel fish to a school of butterfly fish and several colonies of soft corals in the most spectacular colours and textures and designs, the exploration of the Great Barrier Reef in solitude is what makes it worth every penny.
Later, standing atop the upper deck of the pontoon, feeling the wind in my hair and the sun on my back, I stare at the horizon — from the time I’ve got up, close and personal with the marine life under water, the landscape is now changing. I see around me flaming red and orange hued skies with the setting sun in the background and the earthy brown texture of coral reefs getting revealed little by little as the low tide starts and it emerges from the water. The sight is breathtaking — aquamarine water, textured coral reef and the magnificent dusk lending a glow to the skies and the view around you.
What does break the quietude in the later hours of the evening are the harsh rattling calls of seabirds that our host tells us — and don’t get me wrong here — are brown boobies. I’m tempted to think this is a colony of brown and sooty black noddies but I could be wrong. At first they charm us but minutes later their constant screeching prompts us to make cheap jokes about this noisy lot. They’re also suicidal, several of them flying close to the barbeque area where chicken pieces are frying. “They hate one another,” observes another traveller and we agree given how enthusiastically they engage in beak fights. Given the size of the colony of these birds increasing by the minute, our group pays a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, the 1963 thriller / horror film about violent bird attacks. The last scene of the film is telling — the landscape of thousands of birds perching, quite possibly, to engage in more attacks.
It’s nighttime and we all proceed to the viewing deck where more horror film stories are shared. At around 9 p.m., I enter my swag and lie down. The birds have shut up (thankfully) and suddenly all’s quiet around me. Coming from Delhi, the most polluted city in the world, I cannot get enough of the night sky and greedily stare at it before drifting into a deep, delicious sleep. The next morning, I wake up feeling absolutely rested, fresh and bright. Back home, one feels invariably exhausted but here, in the middle of the ocean, the morning sea breeze gently coaxes me to wake up to a magical sight— the thick grey clouds glistening with the orange-hued rays of the sun. This is the best dawn.
ADVENTURE DOWN UNDER
When to go: The best time to visit the Great Barrier Reef is from June to November, when the weather is mild and visibility is generally good. Avoid visiting from December to March when northern Queensland experiences rainfall.
How to get there: You need to fly into Brisbane, drive two hours to Queensland and then fly to Hamilton Island. You can fly from India on Singapore Airlines or Qantas to Brisbane. Virgin Australia flies to Hamilton Island.
Visa: You can apply online for the Australian tourist visa and it can be processed within a day. There is no visa application charge for an ETA. However, a service charge of AUD20 applies for online applications only. If you are going through the conventional route of applying for the visitor visa, it takes not more than 15 days.
Where to stay: Hamilton Island is the largest inhabited island of the Whitsunday Islands in Queensland, Australia. The perfect base for exploring the Great Barrier Reef and world-famous Whitehaven Beach, you can opt for any of the comfortable resorts and hotels here. The Reef View hotel is perfect for couples and families offering incredible sea views. Go to http://www.hamiltonisland.com.au/ and book directly for best price guarantee.
Cost: The cost of the Reef Sleep experience is AU$ 699 (single) and AU$ 489 (twin-sharing). This will include your meals, snacks, drinks, snorkelling, semi-submersible, under water observatory and star gazing activity. Scuba diving, night-dive session (only for certified divers with two-week notice to be given), stargazing costs extra. Opt for the “heli scenic flight” to appreciate the size, scope and beauty of the Great Barrier Reef (AU$175 for 10 minutes)
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