Before I came to Australia, scuba diving appealed to me about as much as lumpy milk.

Divers look so comically clumsy with their big, Chaplin-esque feet. Plus I’d stuck my head under the bath water and there wasn’t much to get excited about (stop that).

However, you can’t be in Australia for long without snorkelling. There really is a whole new and very wonderful world down there. I was hooked, and it wasn’t long before I’d completed an Open Water scuba diving course.

But diving is for the Great Barrier Reef and the Ningaloo Reef right – not Sydney? I was wrong again.

Sydney has some 33 dive sites. You can see wrecks, reefs and all sorts of miraculous marine-life, from huge grey nurse sharks (at Magic Point) to adorable weedy sea dragons and plenty more weird and wondrous things.

Even so, I thought, you wouldn’t want to dive in the winter, surely (brrr)?

I couldn’t have been more wrong if my name was Mr W Rong, of Incorrect House, Erroneous Avenue, Not At All Correctville.

Ugly Monster

I wasn’t feeling too special as I boarded the boat at 8am last Sunday. I was hungover, plus Saturday night had been stormy. So, I presumed, visibility would be poor.

There didn’t seem much to be happy about. Yet everyone on the boat, especially the smiley staff, seemed remarkably cheery.

I decided they were either taking something I can’t get from my doctor, or they knew something I didn’t.

After a choppy 20-minute ride up the coast to Long Reef, near Home and Away’s Palm Beach, we got kitted up. “Let’s try and find you some of the locals”, said Mike, my heavily-qualified dive buddy.

As I tried to remember those important hand signals, we lowered ourselves towards the sea-bed.

Surprise number one: visibility was excellent, around 20 metres. Surprise number two: there was one ugly mother-flippin monster in front of me.

It was a red-brown, jelly-ish thing, half my size with tentacles hanging from its face – if you could call that a face – waving in the current like a beard. It was a cuttlefish. But it looked like the floating head of Gandalf the wizard.

It sure was ugly – I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Then I glimpsed a couple more of the fascinating, grumpy-looking buggers near by.

Then an odd thing happened. One of them transformed its shape, its back half becoming like an arrow, and sped off, backwards.

Shortly after, the water seemed to adopt a golden hue. There was a swirling cloud of pomfrets, hand-sized and gold-fringed, billowing out of a small canyon.

We glided through the canyon until we were surrounded by them. They would only move a few centimetres away from my touch – we were completely cocooned.

Crotch grabbing

Not long after, blue gropers, some 70cms long, with their strangely big lips, came to check us out.

It was all pretty amazing. I don’t remember the Great Barrier Reef being this good for curious marine life.

The water was 20 degrees. I had a hood on and I wasn’t cold at all. Visibility is often better in winter and the water doesn’t get any colder than 15 degrees – at worst (add gloves and boots and “she’ll be right”).

Back on the boat I couldn’t stop grinning and after a welcome hot soup and biscuits break, we walked off the back of the boat again, at Blue Fish Point.

Mike had said this spot was the home to the weedy sea dragon, which, to be honest, didn’t get me over-excited – I had no idea what they were.

Easily camouflaged against the seaweed, the sea dragons are half seahorse, half fish, with a long thin snout and only found in southern Australian waters.

The adorable little things do the “you can’t see me if I just stay still” trick and let you come really, really close.

Then Mike started grabbing his crotch. “Time to get out of here”, I thought.

But I realised he was explaining that despite the eggs it was carrying, which seemed to glow luminous yellow, it was a male sea dragon.

Then I had a magical moment. We spied another one and I let myself drop to the ocean floor and move with the current.

It came slowly closer to investigate, looking me right in the eyes, from barely 30cms away. “You look very strange”,
it seemed to be saying, and, “will you be my friend?”. (Yes!)
Now I knew why the crew had seemed so happy. There’s a serious amount of fun and wonder to be had down in the Sydney waters.

I may indeed be as clumsy as Charlie Chaplin (newsflash: rocks can hurt you underwater too), but I’ll be going to meet my new aqua friends again, as soon as possible.

The damage & the details: Two dives, including all equipment hire, cost $189 with Pro Dive Manly (Ph: (02) 9977 5966. They also do Open Water courses and whale watching trips.

While trying to drive across the Simpson Desert, LIZZIE JOYCE and her partner were forced to hitch a ride with some dodgy truckers.

Early one January morning my boyfriend Dan and I set off on our trip across three states, covering 3,000 miles on what would turn out to be the best trip I have ever done, not to mention the most dangerous. We were attempting to cross the Simpson Desert on our way to Alice Springs from Sydney. We were fully prepared and set off in our 4WD loaded with equipment, including 60 litres of water, a double swag, a laser beam,
and an Epirb signal.

After 10 hours of driving, watching the landscape turn from highways and tall buildings to red earth and eternal horizons we glided past an old mining town called Cobar, stopped for a wee and drove on through, thankful that this ‘Hicksville’ town was not our destination. But while driving at an average speed of 120km per hour, the trusty car (which I was assured had “just had a full service and was made for driving across such terrain”) was disintegrating and the entire wheel was about to fall off.

Ugly mothertruckers

Suddenly, the brakes started to fail and smoke started pouring out the front passenger tyre. We were 120km from the last town and with at least 100km to the next, Dan decided we should drive on (without brakes) and see if we could make it to our destination. Luckily it didn’t last long anyway as the car stopped in defiance and we were forced to pull off the road in the middle of nowhere. Within minutes two semi-trailers driving in convoy by brothers, pulled up to offer us help and I’ve never been so glad to see two spectacularly ugly truckers before in my life. Freaky Brother One then began to undress me, with his eyes, almost frothing at the mouth at coming in such close proximity to someone of the opposite sex, while Freaky Brother Two was pretending to be a mechanic and baffling Dan with his bullshit. It was turning into Wolf Creek.

Nothing could be done with the car, and we had no choice but to accept a lift from Freaky Brother One to the nearest roadhouse 13km up the road. But then he said there wouldn’t be enough room in the cab so Dan should travel with his brother and I should hop into his cab by myself. By this point I was close to hysteria and there was no way I would be getting in that lorry by myself.

So we both hopped in with Brother Number Two. Dan settled in the middle of the very spacious cab which had enough room to house a small Albanian family! Relieved to be on our way to a phone box and in relative safety, (even if we were in being driven by an axe wielding maniac I had enough faith that Dan could knock him out if it came to it) I thought it would be plain sailing from here. After a couple of minutes on the road Brother Number One starts becoming agitated – he thinks he has lost his keys as he can’t use the radio to contact his brother. He pulls into the side of the road and asks me to hop out to see if he had left them in the door lock. This forced me into ungraceful acrobatic maneuvers in order to hang myself out the door and reach round to grab the keys, with freaky brother one more than enjoying the view of my ass in the air. The keys were there, so off we set again in stilted silence.

Roadhouse blues

Finally we caught sight of the roadhouse and saw our escape was only minutes away and we made a sharp exit from the freaky brothers. Good riddance!

The roadhouse turned out to be a petrol pump and a shop that was about to close. They had a phone though and we arranged for a tow truck to pick us up and take us back to the nearest town… Cobar (the Hicksville town we drove through scorning) where we would have to wait for the next three days for the car to be repaired. How ironic that the town we were laughing at turned out to be our refuge.

So we skipped the Simpson Desert and took another route to Alice Springs where we arrived two weeks later with the biggest smiles and the best memories!

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