Footage of a death-defying ride

adventure, Danny Macaskill, Scotland, Cuillin Range, extreme sports, mountain biking

Danny Macaskill takes on Scotland’s Cuillin Range – with a twist. He tackles the 13km-long range on two wheels.

Don’t look down.

These were probably the words running through extreme cyclist Danny Macaskill’s head when he biked the Isle of Skye’s notorious Cuillin Range. The above video – streamed more than 12 million times since its debut on 2 October – showcases the professional athlete’s death-defying ride along the jagged mountain ridge.

It’s a feat that – for obvious reasons – not many people attempt. Scotland’s Cuillin Range is a dramatic and challenging ascent for most mountain climbers, let alone an adventurer navigating on two wheels. The 13km-long range is home to some 20 peaks, with the highest point reaching an intimidating 992m. The few winding trails that pepper the range are slippery and narrow. And as winter nears, some trails require the use of ice-axes and crampons – not to mention a hefty dose of courage.

But these challenging conditions did nothing to deter Macaskill, who hails from Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye. Perhaps the most famous stunt rider on the internet, Macaskill is good at what he does. His 12 years of practise are evident at the two-minute mark as he navigates the Cuillin’s steep, rocky ridges in a deceptively casual fashion. Then at 4:51, he vaults off the edge of a cliff and nails the landing. Watching as Macaskill hurdles, jumps and finishes the film with a trick flip, you just might feel as though the rider and the bike are one.

We don’t recommend that you follow exactly in Macaskill’s bike tracks, but well-qualified mountaineers can hike the Cuillin Range. Because of the mental and physical exertion required, climbing the ridge alone is suggested as a two-day trip, with one day used as a training day.

The eerie grave of 200,000 monks

Adam H Graham takes a spiritual retreat to one of Koya-san’s 54 shukubo: inns where guests are encouraged to meditate, commune and eat vegetarian cuisine with the monks or nuns.

It was dusk when we entered the cemetery. A stone path, faintly lit with lanterns, snaked under the towering hemlock and umbrella pine trees. We cautiously walked down it and plunged into the embrace of a sacred 1,200-year-old forest. Flickers of light bounced off ancient graves, shadows moved through the thick incense-scented woods and faces carved into stone eerily peered at us from the graveyard’s blackest corners. It felt like we were being watched. And perhaps we were. After all, this wasn’t just any cemetery. It was the misty and mossy Okunoin Cemetery, Japan’s biggest at 2km-long and home to more than 200,000 graves of Buddhist monks who are said to be waiting for the resurrection of the Future Buddha. It dates back to at least 816AD, and every inch of it is sacred. But right now, it only felt creepy.

Okunoin Cemetery is deep in an ancient forest (Credit: Credit: alq666/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Okunoin Cemetery is deep in an ancient forest (Credit: alq666/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Okunoin Cemetery is in Koya-san, an ancient village located in Japan’s mountainous Wakayama Prefecture. It’s just one of many sacred places in the Kii Mountain Range collectively inscribed on Unesco’s World Heritage list; also included are the region’s Shinto sites and the ancient pilgrimage paths that connect them to more recent places of Buddhist worship, introduced to Japan 1,500 years ago by monks from modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Koya-san is the epicentre of Shingon Buddhism, which is one of the few surviving Tantric lineages of Buddhism in East Asia and is known for its mysterious mikkyō: secret monastic teachings handed down orally through an initiatic chain. The sect was introduced to Japan in 805AD by poet and Buddhist master Kūkai, also known as Kōbō-Daishi, who studied with monks in Xi’an, China, during the Tang Dynasty and remains one of Japan’s most significant religious figures. In a mausoleum at the end of the cemetery, he’s offered ritualistic meals twice a day where he remains in eternal meditation concentrating on liberating all beings. Or as we say in the west: dead.

The Okunoin Cemetery is said to date back to 816AD (Credit: Credit:  Steve Silver/Age Fotostock/Alamy)

The Okunoin Cemetery is said to date back to 816AD (Credit: Steve Silver/Age Fotostock/Alamy)

My husband Ralph had arranged our visit to Koya-san as part of his two month sabbatical in Japan. Like most travellers to this remote mountaintop, he was interested in experiencing a spiritual retreat at one of Koya-san’s 54 shukubo: inns where guests are encouraged to meditate, commune and eat vegetarian cuisine with the monks or nuns. A stay here promised a tranquil antidote to the heavy drinking, eating, shopping and karaoke-ing we’d been doing in Tokyo.

Getting to Koya-san prepared us for the quiet to come. As with most places in Japan, bullet train is the most efficient way to get there. The five-hour trip from Tokyo transferred onto to the scenic Nankai Line at Osaka’s Namba Station, from where it left the frenetic urban flatlands of the Kinai Plains and climbed into soft green hills peppered with cherry blossom trees, Japanese ryokan(old-fashioned guests houses) and half-timber 9th-century buildings. The last leg of the journey was a scenic five-minute funicular ride from Gokuraku-bashi Station that shot straight up an 800m-high mountain, leaving the modern world and all its trappings below.

Okunoin is Japan’s biggest cemetery at 2km long (Credit: Credit: Adam H. Graham)

Okunoin is Japan’s biggest cemetery at 2km long (Credit: Adam H. Graham)

“It feels like we’re going to heaven,” I said, as we ascended into delicate mountain light.

It’s said that Koya-san’s eight different peaks resemble a lotus flower. I don’t know if that’s true, but after arriving, it was easy to see why this fog-choked summit was chosen as a spiritual place by early monastic settlers. An impenetrable stillness filled the cold spring air.

The cable car deposited us at the bus depot, where we jumped on a five-minute bus-ride to village’s east end. The bus dropped us outside two neighbouring but very different shukubo. One had a trickling mossy-banked stream worming through a gorgeous garden with elegantly gnarled cedar and sculpted topiary, while the other had a giant Korean tour bus parked in front of flashing electric screens bedazzled with rainbow Buddha and snarling Guru Rimpoches. Ours,Sekishou-in, was the one with the tour bus.

Okunoin Cemetery is in the ancient, sacred village of Koya-San (Credit: Credit: Adam H. Graham)

Okunoin Cemetery is in the ancient, sacred village of Koya-San (Credit: Adam H. Graham)

Buddhists speak frequently about the nobility of poverty, but the cost of this spiritual retreat, booked through the Koya-san Shukubo Association, was not for the impoverished. Our room, dinner, breakfast and meditation cost 32,000 yen per night, and a confirmation email reminded us it was cash only.

Sekishou-in was disappointing. The 60-room inn, one of town’s largest, was popular with groups, and visitors thundered through the creaky wooden hallways to the temple during meditation and meal times. Dinner was indeed prepared by the monks, but we didn’t eat with them, rather in assigned halls with other foreigners.

Sekishou-in’s saving grace was our room, which was as old fashioned and elegant as a five-star ryokan, complete with tatami mat floors, sliding fusuma doors and floppy futon mattresses. A small deck with two small chairs overlooked a shared courtyard filled with maple and cypress trees and reflective ponds, making it near impossible not to meditate.

200,000 monks are buried at Okunoin Cemetery (Credit: Credit: John Lander/Alamy)

200,000 monks are buried at Okunoin Cemetery (Credit: John Lander/Alamy)

The next morning we set off to explore a few of Koya-san’s 117 temples and monasteries. We started with a five-minute climb to the Kiyotaka Shinto Shrine, perched on a nearby wooded hill and marked with a row of cinnabar-painted torii (thegateways that mark Shinto areas), before walking 15 minutes onwards to the main Buddhist temples in the Danjo Garan Complex, an active monk training centre and the town’s highlight.

The complex includes the 9th-century Konpon Daito, a vermillion-coloured double-decker pagoda decorated with 16 bodhisattvas, including the eight patriarchs of Shingon Buddhism. Unlike most of Japan’s understated Zen Buddhist temples, the iconography here featured wild depictions of deities and brightly-coloured mandalas more typical of Tibet, Bhutan and India. We also peeked inside Kondo – the Golden Hall where Guru Bhaishajya, the Medicine Buddha, is enshrined – and heard the deep “thung” of the copper Daito Bell, Japan’s fourth largest bell. After we got our fill of the complex, we walked across town to the 17th-century Edo-eraTokugawa Family Mausoleum, built for the famed father and son shoguns. Koya-san may be a major tourist draw, but its density of sacred sites helped us avoid the crowds we experienced in the ancient capitals of Kyoto and Kamakura.

The forest surrounding Okunoin Cemetery is 1,200 years old (Credit: Credit: Adam H. Graham)

The forest surrounding Okunoin Cemetery is 1,200 years old (Credit: Adam H. Graham)

Later that afternoon, we found ourselves inexplicably drawn back to Okunoin Cemetery to explore the paths we hadn’t the previous night. By day, Okunoin was everything the darkened cemetery was not. Bronze shards of light pierced through the canopy, illuminating the trees and moss and multi-tiered stupas lording over the gravestones. It felt as if it all belonged here for eternity.

The faces we had seen the night before were stone statues of the bodhisattva Jizo Bosatsu, who came in many sizes: tall and lean, short and stout, even miniature and hidden like Easter eggs in the crooks of tree-trunks. Jizo is usually depicted smiling, and sometimes, pink rouge is applied to his cheeks, making him as jovial as an anime character. Visitors who have lost children place red bibs on the Jizo statues so that he’ll watch over them.

Jizo Bosatsu is usually depicted smiling with pink cheeks (Credit: Credit: Adam H. Graham)

Jizo Bosatsu is usually depicted smiling with pink cheeks (Credit: Adam H. Graham)

There were hundreds, maybe thousands of fresh aprons flapping in the gentle wind around us. Even for a hardened traveller like me, it was hard not choke up over the quiet and heartbreaking dignity of it all. This was a landscape that had absorbed the pain and suffering of others. It was achingly beautiful.

At the end of the cemetery path was Torondo, the Lantern Hall, used as a gateway to Kūkai’s mausoleum and where 10,000 donated lanterns hang. Two of these lanterns have been burning continuously since 1088AD, one from a former emperor and the other from a peasant woman who sold her hair for a lantern to pray for her deceased parents. The hall was about to close just before we arrived, so we quickly slipped inside to admire its ornate woodwork and hand-carved lanterns while the sun began to sink and darkness once again settled around us.

But this time, the cemetery wasn’t spooky, and the difference between light and dark felt meaningless. I thought of the Buddha’s last words before beginning his own eternal meditation, “Be a light unto yourself”, and with that we walked back to the shukubo, finally illuminated from within.

A 77km hike that could inspire miracles

With Spain’s Camino de Santiago becoming a victim of its own success, Matthew Hirtes chose to walk this less-crowded, less-known version of the pilgrimage, 1,750km to the south.

Everyone’s heard of Spain’s Camino de Santiago, the 100km-plus Way of St James route that leads pilgrims to Galicia’s cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the saint’s remains are believed to be buried. But it will probably come as some surprise to learn there’s another Camino 1,750km to the south, on the mid-Atlantic island of Gran Canaria.

 

Gran Canaria holds the hidden Camino (Credit: Credit: Guido Haeger/Wikipedia)

Gran Canaria holds the hidden Camino (Credit: Guido Haeger/Wikipedia)

This pilgrimage is so unknown that even people on the island couldn’t seem to give me any information. The details provided by the island’s official tourist board proved sketchy; a pair of French walkers hadn’t heard of the trail and a toothless local suggested I walk along the main road instead. Undeterred, I did my best to keep on track, determined to finish what I’d started.

The world-famous Camino de Santiago had been on my bucket list for many years. I’d heard that its length requires an endurance that separates the hikers from the schleppers, and I was eager to prove my strength after a lifetime of trekking. But then I discovered that only 1% of it takes place on a dirt track; the rest is made up of roads and motorways. I also didn’t want to become just another roadie, one of the around 300,000 hikers who complete the epic trek every year. I was looking for a less-crowded, more spiritual pilgrimage – which was how I found out about this second Camino de Santiago, where 99% of the route is on a dirt track and only a handful of people walk it each year.

Gran Canaria’s Camino de Santiago historically ran between the island’s two major churches dedicated to St James: one in the south-central village of Tunte and the other in the town of Gáldar in the northwest. In 2011, the trail was extended southwards to create a coast-to-coast walk through the lush interior of Gran Canaria.

One of the two major St. James churches is in the town of Gáldar (Credit: Credit: Cristian Bortes/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

One of the two major St. James churches is in the town of Gáldar (Credit: Cristian Bortes/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

The island was colonised by the Spanish in the 15th Century as the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile sought to expand the newly unified country. The conquerors built a church dedicated to St James (their country’s patron saint) in Gáldar – the first Jacobean place of worship constructed away from the Spanish mainland.

Legend has it that Galician sailors ran aground off the coast of Arguineguín in the island’s southwest in the 16th Century. With them, they carried an image of St James on their shoulders as a way of giving thanks for arriving safe and sound on land. They placed this polychrome sculpture in a hermitage they constructed in the Valle de La Plata, before it was moved to the village church of Tunte in 1850. A pilgrimage from one church to the other soon developed, following the seasonal goat herds’ route from north to south and back again. This pilgrimage was originally walked by islanders who were looking for a miracle, or by those who had pledged to do so after their prayers were answered.

Today’s extended Camino de Santiago’s route (a 76.9km, three-day, three-stage hike) starts at the Maspalomas Tourist Information Office, which confusingly is not in the holiday spot of Maspalomas but in the neighbouring resort of Playa del Inglés. There, on a gaudy parade of piercing studios and tattoo parlours, I spotted the first Camino-related sign. (Keep an eye out for Ruta Jacobea signs as well, as the Camino de Santiago’s also known as the Jacobean Route.)

In Artenara, many locals still live in cave houses (Credit: Credit: Siepmann/Alamy)

In Artenara, many locals still live in cave houses (Credit: Siepmann/Alamy)

More by chance than by design, given a general scarcity of signage, I ended up on the second route option of the hike’s first stage, heading through the Degollada de Garito, a sheer incline between ravines. I passed the eerie Arteara Necropolis, the burial ground of the Amazigh-descendingcanarii (Gran Canaria’s aboriginal people who occupied the island prior to the 15th-century Spanish conquest). My progress was largely a solitary one, save for a Jeep safari that created a whirlwind of dust. Dwarfed by the volcanic slopes that descended to the left and right of me, I felt humbled by the sheer force of nature.

Gran Canaria is celebrated for its light, but the sun goes down quickly. So, at 7 pm, I set up camp in an orchard close to the village of Fataga. The wind spookily whistled through the surrounding fruit trees, but I was comforted by the fact that I could see the odd car travelling along the nearby main road.

The next day, suitably refreshed, I was able to make up lost ground, reaching Tunte, where Gran Canaria’s original Camino de Santiago began, by mid-morning. Here, I paid my respects by stepping through the door of the church, which was constructed towards the end of the 17th Century over the former hermitage of San Bartolomé. Fittingly, an effigy of the saint, a missionary who brought Christianity to Armenia, still occupies the central part of the altarpiece. But I was more moved by the original statue of St James. Despite my not being particularly religious, I was awed by its presence.

The village of Fataga is located in a valley (Credit: Credit: Michele Falzone/Alamy)

The village of Fataga is located in a valley (Credit: Michele Falzone/Alamy)

The next section of the route was the 18.8km ascent to the heart of the island. My wife had packed my rucksack for me, and even trying it on in our living room, I’d stumbled under the weight. The burden became heavier as the path became steeper, and it was frustrating to see the odd cyclist whizz past. But my shoulders lifted with my spirits as I came to a clearing at the edge of a pine forest.

Ahead, I could see the distinctive shape of the rock formation Roque Bentayga; the mountain Teide loomed above it on the neighbouring island of Tenerife. To the left, I could make out  El Fraile, a rock so called because its shape is reminiscent of a monk, and La Rana, which looks like a frog. Tired by a day’s hiking, the heart-stopping vista felt like a godsend. It was almost as if the monk was sharing a miracle with me.

The mountain air might have been sweet, but it was colder than the lower-altitude valley of Fataga. Given the island’s variety of climates and landscapes, I was beginning to understand why it’s known as the Miniature Continent. And so I spent a chilly night sleeping rough in the hamlet of Cruz de Tejeda, named after its totem-pole-esque stone cross that marks the island’s exact centre.

The El Fraile rock is shaped like a monk (Credit: Credit: Lunamarina/YAY Media AS/Alamy)

The El Fraile rock is shaped like a monk (Credit: Lunamarina/YAY Media AS/Alamy)

The third stage from Cruz to Tejeda to Gáldar is the easiest, descending 1,548m through forest and farmland. But the hard part was the lack of signs to Gáldar. And so I found myself having to retrace my steps from Artenara, the island’s highest village where many locals still live in cave houses, to the Pinos de Gáldar, a viewpoint lauded for its waterfall of clouds. The wind makes the vapours look like they’re cascading from the pine trees down to the pastoral landscape below. Save for the odd car that stopped to admire the view, I peered down alone from this mirador (viewpoint) before returning to my monk-like solitude on the downward path.

Approaching Gáldar, the landscape changed from pines to agricultural land. I passed banana plantations before arriving in front of my destination, the Iglesia de Santiago de los Caballeros, situated in one of Gran Canaria’s prettiest squares.

Entering into the peace and quiet ­of the church, I spotted the font in which the Spanish baptized the early Canarian converts to Christianity, along with another figurine of Saint James astride his horse. My walk finally over, I sat down to rest and reflect on my pilgrimage.

The mountain of Teide is on the neighbouring island of Tenerife (Credit: Credit: Kreder Katja/ Prisma Bildagentur AG/Alamy)

The mountain of Teide is on the neighbouring island of Tenerife (Credit: Kreder Katja/ Prisma Bildagentur AG/Alamy)

If I’d walked the original Camino de Santiago in Spain, I’d have reached my goal. There are only remains of the one body, after all. But my feet were already beginning to itch, and I wanted to be exploring more of the island’s great outdoors. My new bucket-list entry: to walk Gran Canaria’s Camino again – this time from north to south.

Some of the world’s oldest cave art

Only a fraction of the country’s estimated 100,000 rock art sites have been documented, and as one traveller discovered, protection is patchy.

Away from the sun’s glare, my eyes needed a moment to adjust. I heard my daughter and husband making their way up the rocky trail behind me through the oppressive heat. “This better be worth it,” my daughter Maia called out.

I peered through the dim light of a shallow cave and spotted an array of centuries-old paintings. There was a red ray with white dots overlapping a crocodile. Nearby, I puzzled over sea creatures with feathery fronds. Then I saw the sailing ships: painted one on top of the other in shades of yellow, red and orange, they evoked old European galleons and Indonesian sailboats. Oh, it was worth it, alright.

Spotted ray and crocodile (Credit: Evan Gatehouse/Diane Selkirk)

Spotted ray and crocodile. (Evan Gatehouse/Diane Selkirk)

And yet, I was perplexed. We’d come to Stanley Island, off Australia’s Cape York Peninsula, to learn about the Aboriginal Australians who once resided here. But we found the main sign marking Flinders Group National Park concealed by mangroves and the guestbook had recorded only a handful of visitors each month. This place attracted thousands of visitors in the early 1980s. Where were they now? Why wasn’t anyone here to keep an eye on the artwork? And how had this 75-year-old park, with its historic rock art, faded into obscurity?

I suspected part of the answer had to do with the remote location. We were in a small, uninhabited island group 340km north of Cairns. Getting to Stanley Island – or Yindayin, as it’s called by the local Aboriginals – isn’t easy. While some visitors arrive here on small coastal cruise ships out of Cairns or on coastal ferries, we travelled up the coast on our own boat and anchored in Owen Channel near the spot where we thought the rock art might be. Rather than hire a tour guide through theCooktown and Cape York Peninsula Information Centre180km south, we explored the island on our own.

After landing our dinghy, we headed up a designated trail through a fragrant orchard, past metre-high termite mounds and rugged cliffs. When we finally reached a beach on the other side of the island, I searched for the trail leading to the rock art.

Coming ashore on Stanley Island (Credit: Evan Gatehouse/Diane Selkirk)

Coming ashore on Stanley Island. (Evan Gatehouse/Diane Selkirk)

“There might be salties!” my husband Evan called to Maia each time she strayed close to the water’s edge. He was referring to saltwater crocodiles, of course – the kind that eat humans. Fortunately, we didn’t see any.

Once I found the trail, we trudged into the bush to find the artwork. The wind dropped and the humidity increased, and I began to wonder if the park had been forgotten for a reason. Then I stepped under the overhanging rock ledge and entered the shallow cave.

I couldn’t believe what I saw. There had to be hundreds of  paintings on the rock face: images of ships, canoes, birds and turtles. Each time I turned my head, looking up to the ceiling or deeper into the shelter, I spotted something new. The cave, which was almost big enough to hold one of the ships painted on its walls, was like a window into the past. Gazing at the white and ochre paintings, I was filled with wonder.

Ships on the wall (Credit: Evan Gatehouse/Diane Selkirk)

Ships on the wall. (Evan Gatehouse/Diane Selkirk)

The Aboriginal Yiithuwarra, or “saltwater people”, lived throughout the Flinders Islands for more than 2,900 years, until about 70 years ago. We don’t know how many people there were, exactly, but at one time dozens of multi-family settlements dotted the small islands. I thought about the Yiithuwarra who painted these ships. Each image was so detailed. Had the artists seen the ships from up close? Or just from afar? The only solidly identifiable image of a European ship was from 1899, but most of the images probably pre-date that.

We know that some ships landed on the island and carried people away. Even before the first European ship sailed past in 1606, a number of fit young men were coerced aboard Indonesian sailboats to fish for sea cucumbers in the rough local waters. In the 1880s, still more young men were recruited to work on small luggers, or fishing boats, in the highly lethal pearling and fishing industries. Records indicate that some local women were even traded for goods with those aboard passing boats.

And then it all came to an end. Details are sketchy, but by the late 1930s, Yindayin was nearly empty of its traditional people. Authorities soon removed remaining Yiithuwarra, taking them to missions on the Cape York Peninsula for fear they might lead an invading Japanese force to food and water.

As Evan and I studied the ships, Maia searched the walls and overhangs for the last image that was reportedly painted here: a dugong, the endangered sea cow that was once central to this Aboriginal culture. It was painted roughly 60 years ago by the last Aboriginal man born on the island. Then she spotted it: a bulbous, deep red creature with bright white stripes. She seemed to meditate on it for a moment.

“They’re almost all gone now, too. Aren’t they?” she asked.

My initial excitement over seeing the art faded to sadness. We still took turns pointing out images that captured our imagination: a bird’s single footprint, a kangaroo (on an island that has none), a boomerang (I guess they really did use them). But the thrill of discovery was overshadowed by the reality of the situation. Not only were the artists missing, but the seascape they recorded was also disappearing.

After an hour or so of studying the rock art, we wandered deeper into the island, noting former indigenous cooking sites, sleeping locales and other sacred places filled with yet more art. Despite the boardwalk that had been constructed under our feet, it was hard to shake the feeling that the inhabitants had just stepped out for a while. If only.

I thought about all of the extraordinary paintings out here, unprotected. They’re hardly alone, unfortunately. Only a fraction of Australia’s estimated 100,000 Aboriginal rock art sites have been documented, and protection is patchy.

Noelene Cole, an archaeologist and rock-art specialist, points out that many sites in northern Australia are endangered because rock art concentrations tend to be found in regions with mineral deposits, making the areas targets for mine developments. Even Yindayin is at risk. An underground coalmine and port facility has been approved for Cape York’s nearby Bathurst Bay, located on the mainland just a couple of kilometres from the islands. When the mine is built, the island could see more visitors, including miners out for recreation. They may not all appreciate the area’s cultural heritage.

Cole points to the well-publicized and recurring graffiti and vandalism damage that’s occurred to ancient artwork over the past several years after a gas processing plant, port and other industrial facilities were built on the Burrup Peninsula in Western Australia.

To date, officials have focused more on promoting economic development than  protecting cultural treasures, she said. But she hopes that will change.

Tranquil Australian waters (Credit: Evan Gatehouse/Diane Selkirk)

Tranquil Australian waters. (Evan Gatehouse/Diane Selkirk)

The risk to the irreplaceable rock art was on my mind when we sailed away from the islands the next morning. There is, I realized, cause for hope. In recent years the Cape York Peninsula Aboriginal Land and national park system began including the traditional Aboriginal owners in the care and control of national parks where they have resided.

Resources tend to be scarce, and in places like Yindayin, where the traditional people haven’t lived for decades, it’s difficult for them to find a role for themselves.

But perhaps in time, decedents of the Yiithuwarra will again greet ships that arrive on their island – and care for the ships that their ancestors painted so many years ago.

A trip back in time to old Dubai

Supercars may be Dubai’s current transport of choice – but a spice-scented dhow trip will take you worlds away from the modern Emirate’s shiny skyscrapers

It was early evening in Dubai and the sky was streaked rose and peach as the sun dipped towards the horizon. At the edge of the salt-water creek that splits the city in two, the water glowed with reflected light, and the scent of cinnamon, cloves and frankincense drifted across from the spice souk.

I was in Bur Dubai, the emirate’s original trading hub and its commercial heart until little more than 100 years ago. Today, it may not have the flash of new Dubai further inland, but it remains a busy site of Middle Eastern trade, packed with vibrant souks and bustling jetties.

Bur Dubai, the emirate’s original trading hub (Credit: Credit: Joseph Mortimer)

Bur Dubai, the emirate’s original trading hub (Credit: Joseph Mortimer)

The Arabian Peninsula has a rich maritime history. Wooden boats, or dhows, have been used in the region for centuries, and were key in developing thriving fishing, pearl diving and trade industries. Dhows were a way of life for the coastal tribes of Dubai, who strode the sandy shores long before the five-star beach bars arrived. Today, the Emiratis may deal more in stocks than fish – but this traditional mode of transport still plies a handsome trade on the main waterway of Dubai Creek.

Before me, a busy scene unfolded: docking stations on either side of the creek were lined with huge, multi-coloured cargo dhows, packed with crates bringing merchandise from Iran and beyond. Meanwhile, commuters crossed the waterway onabras: short, nippy wooden dhows with open sides and simple roofs that act as water taxis.

Dhow tours ply Dubai Creek

Dhow tours ply Dubai Creek

Amid all this action floated the sailing dhows, the glamorous vessels that most people associate with old Arabia. Nowadays, these vessels, with their slender hulls, shallow bodies and soaring masts, are usually motorised and used for tours. But thanks to traditional local craftsmanship, they retain the gravitas and elegance of old, particularly when viewed alongside their humbler cousins: the abra and the cargo dhow.

I was after a more authentically Arabian boating experience.

Although there’s a slew of organised dhow tours available across Dubai  – including lunch, dinner, moonlight and sightseeing cruises ­– I was after a more authentically Arabian boating experience. Just before sunset, I headed to rickety Bur Dubai Abra Station, next to the souks along the creek’s banks, where jewellers, pastry vendors, tailors and spice sellers were gearing up for the hustle and bustle of evening trade – a lucrative period in a country where daytime temperatures can reach 50C. This is the perfect time to make the cross-creek abra journey to the famous gold and spice souks in the Deira neighbourhood on the opposite bank.

At the dockside, a series of wooden ramps led down to floating jetties. The bustling area was filled with passengers pushing their way through the muggy, spice-scented air to secure a seat on the next abra, while men hurried past pushing carts piled with cloth and silks en route to the nearby textile souk.

Abras act as water taxis in Old Dubai

Abras: short, nippy wooden dhows with open sides and simple roofs that act as water taxis (Credit: Joseph Mortimer)

In centuries past, this waterway would have been full of dhows from across the region, bringing jewels, exotic foodstuffs and handicrafts from Persia, China and India. Today, the jetties were busy with commuting traders, kohl-eyed ladies in full burkas, Emirati men in pristine white dishdashas (the ankle-length white garment worn by local men across the region), sharp-suited businessmen and wide-eyed tourists, all cheerfully vying for space on the wooden benches.

This trip is a bargain in a city that tends not to believe in such things.

At a cost of one dirham, this trip is a bargain in a city that tends not to believe in such things. Pushed forward by the waiting crowd, I hopped from the jetty onto the next boat that pulled up, and took a seat on the broad, central bench. Moments later I was joined by a young local family, the mother loudly chastising her two sons in Arabic for playing around.

As the boatman called for everyone to pass their money to him down the line of seated passengers, the creaking boat set off, making its way slowly upstream towards the souks. It was an aural journey as much as a physical one, with a soundtrack of gently lapping water, snatches of laughter from passing boats and the thrumming of the tiny engine accompanied by the haunting Muslim call to prayer that echoed over the water. Crossing at this time of day was magical: as the sun dropped and the skies deepened to orange, Bur Dubai’s traditional wind towers and minarets were thrown into sharp relief on the skyline. The fragrance of exotic spices grew stronger as the abra drew closer to the opposite shore.

This highway once connected Dubai to the east (Credit: Credit: Joseph Mortimer)

This highway once connected Dubai to the east (Credit: Joseph Mortimer)

Up ahead, the creek’s meandering curves were lined with buildings that steadily increased in size, from the soft, low domes of the Grand Mosque, past the consular district to the distinctive ridged towers of the Radisson Blu Hotel and onto the sparkling inland skyscrapers, including the pyramid-shapedWafi Mall; the vibrant Downtown district, with its numerous hotels, shops and restaurants; and the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa.

As the sun sank and the skies darkened, hundreds of tiny lights covering the Al Mansour Dhow – one of Dubai’s oldest dhows that has been turned into an iconic travelling restaurant – ­flickered on, and the elegant old ship lit up on the water, allowing us to admire the statuesque vessel in full evening attire. There was lull in the conversation on our little boat, as all eyes turned to the brightly lit dhow proudly setting out on its evening excursion. The local woman next to me hugged her little sons close as they watched with round eyes. The passengers on that grand boat might be heading out for an evening dinner cruise, but we were the ones who got to watch it happen.

The last vestiges of vermillion dissolved in the night sky and warm darkness enveloped us like a shawl. Night had settled on Dubai Creek.

Too soon, the abra pulled up at the Deira Souks Abra Station, depositing passengers to explore the intoxicating avenues of the spice market or barter their way through the glittering stalls of the gold souk. The water taxi trip lasted just a few minutes, but had taken us worlds away from the shiny buildings and flash cars of the modern Emirate. For that brief trip, travelling across the waters that were once the highway connecting Dubai to the east, I felt like I had stepped back in time.

Peru’s other lost city

Larger than Machu Picchu and far less known, Choquequirao still makes you feel as though you’re practically the first to arrive.

The trek to the lost Incan city of Choquequirao is one of the most difficult in Peru. From the town of Cachora, located 161km west of Cusco, it’s an 18km walk to Capuliyoc Mountain, then down to Playa Rosalinas, where travellers camp for the night. Waking early, trekkers then have to cross the Apurímac River and traverse 8km of gruelling uphill switchbacks to reach the campsite close to the ruins. Then, the next morning, it’s another 2km hike up to the ruins themselves, 3,100m above sea level. To get back? Well, it’s the same way you came.

“I’ve had people in their 60s and 70s do it,” said Juan Barrios, a guide from the Adventure Life trekking company. “[But] some people come out thinking that because it’s only 28km from the drop off they can do it in a day. Six or seven days for the trek is best.”

Tackling the trek (Credit: Cynthia Kane)

Tackling the trek. (Cynthia Kane)

It makes sense, then, that Choquequirao draws only about 30 people a day during the high season (June through August). Compare that to the 2,500 people who arrive each day at the famed Incan city of Machu Picchu.

But for those who make the strenuous journey, the rewards are plentiful: lush wilderness, sweeping mountain views at every turn, and the chance to explore fascinating ancient ruins nearly alone.

Believed to be created around the same time as Machu Picchu, in 1445, Choquequirao is actually larger than its better-known, higher-trafficked counterpart. But very little has been written about Peru’s other lost city and archaeologists are still uncovering new parts of the ruins, leaving life on the mountain relatively untrammelled. Only about 30% of Choquequirao has been restored.

Exploring Choquequirao (Credit: Cynthia Kane)

Exploring Choquequirao. (Cynthia Kane)

But the crowds may not stay away for long. Officials estimate that construction on the first cable car to Choquequirao will be finished sometime in 2016, shortening the several-day trek to a 15-minute tram ride. As a result, the handful of hikers that currently make the journey each week could turn into 3,000 visitors per day.

And campsite owners are already seeing an influx of trekkers following the August 2014 completion of the Puente Rosalina bridge, which spans the Apurímac River. Now tour operators can easily cross the bridge on horseback, instead of using a hand pulley system to transport them across the river one by one or hiring another set of horses to be waiting on the other side.

The Puente Rosalina bridge (Credit: Cynthia Kane)

The Puente Rosalina bridge. (Cynthia Kane)

Considering the bridge took six years to build, some locals believe that the construction of the cable car is still a ways off. In fact, the completion date has already been pushed back two times. “Too much fighting,” said Julian Cobarruvias, the owner of the Santa Rosa Baja campsite. “Ego. One side wants this, another that.”

But one thing is for certain: Choquequirao is spectacular now because of how untouched and remote it is. Even though the lost city was discovered (by Spanish explorer Juan Arias Díaz in 1710, and excavations began in the 1970s, the ruins still make you feel as though you’re the first to find them. (In comparison, Machu Picchu was discovered in 1911, and excavations began the next year.)

Exploring Choquequirao (Credit: Cynthia Kane)

Exploring Choquequirao. (Cynthia Kane)

As I sat in the stillness of morning, looking out over the ruins and the Apurímac Gorge, surrounded by snow-capped mountains of Ampay, Panta and Quishuar, I was amazed, not just at the beauty in front of me, but also with the power of the Incan Empire. I admired the detail of Pachacutec’s unfinished royal estate, which was divided into a lower and upper half. Everything was built with such precision: the water fountains made of large rocks, so they wouldn’t wear away; the houses with double doors to announce the wealth and power of their inhabitants; the flat slabs underneath the windows to store food for refrigeration.

The attention to detail continued down the stairway off the main plaza, where each terrace was decorated with white rocks in the shape of a llama. Llamas were used to transport food and supplies to the slaves, and the images were created to show the Inca’s  appreciation. Archaeologists have determined that slaves from the neighbouring villages, likely in the north, built Choquequirao, using vertical stonework and small stones (limestone and granite).

Terrace decorations (Credit: Cynthia Kane)

Each terrace was decorated with white rocks in the shape of a llama. (Cynthia Kane)

There will certainly come a time when Choquequirao will change; when cable cars are built, facilities are expanded and tourism is burgeoning. But for now, Choquequirao rewards the adventurous few who make it there with an intimate look at a lost city that almost seems never to have been found.

Practicalities
The ideal way to reach Choquequirao is with a guide. Adventure Life offers five-, six- and 12-day treks with groups of up to 12 people. Most tour companies provide nearly everything that trekkers need: tents, food, snacks, water, sleeping bags and walking sticks, and horses are used to help carry most bags.

‘The ice had a heartbeat’

A British cyclist, who has been biking the length of six continents for the past five years, tackles a daring – and freezing – route in northern Mongolia.

The most disturbing part of walking over Lake Khövsgöl in northern Mongolia wasn’t the sound of cracking ice. It was the thuds.

The thuds meant that water was on the move, bubbling up through fresh rifts in the metre-thick ice that lay under my boots, three pairs of socks and numb feet.

My hope was to cross the frozen lake by bicycle and camp out on its surface – although the soundtrack was highlighting some icy holes in my plan. This was the latest in a series of two-wheeled adventures, having spent the last five years cycling across six of the Earth’s continents.

Walking on frozen Lake Khövsgöl (Credit: Credit: Stephen Fabes)

Walking on frozen Lake Khövsgöl (Credit: Stephen Fabes)

At first glance, Lake Khövsgöl – the sprawling home to 70% of Mongolia’s freshwater (and a full 1% of the planet’s stash) – was mesmorising. Measuring 136km long and up to 35km wide, the blue-green lake lies at the base of the permanently snow-capped Sayan mountains, an extension of the bolder Altai range that trails into Central Asia.

Mountains in northern Mongolia (Credit: Credit: Stephen Fabes)

Mountains in northern Mongolia (Credit: Stephen Fabes)

What drew my eyes most was the intricacy of the ice itself. I lay down on my belly to get a better look, peering into a web of silvered fissures, like reams of tinfoil suspended in glass. Inside the ice were solar systems of snow and vertical trails of one-time escaping air bubbles impounded by the winter chill. It was impossible not to wonder what might twitch and jink beneath the ice, but the water was eerily still.

I strolled a couple of kilometres back to the small town of Khatgal where I was staying in one of the tourist gers on the lake’s southern shore. A local guide, Ganbat, and I sat hunched over a rumpled map from Mongolia’s Soviet years, when Russian oil would be taken across the lake by ship in the summer and by truck when the ice was thick enough. Siberia lies just 20km from the lake’s northern shore.

Summer is the time most travellers come to Khövsgöl, to ramble, splash, paddle or gallop about. But I was here in March, meaning it was dry, sunny and cold enough to marvel at the ice that seals the lake from December to June. During this time of year, the nightly temperature dips to the un-Spring-like depths of -20C (still toasty compared to the -40C bite of mid-winter), and the ice can bear the weight of cars and trucks – as well as bikes. If you smashed a hole in it – like the ice fisherman do every day on the fringes, or like Russian tourists do before launching their vodka-fuelled bodies into the water – the ice would begin to re-accumulate at 5cm a day.

Ice cracking beneath the surface (Credit: Credit: Stephen Fabes)

Ice cracking beneath the surface (Credit: Stephen Fabes)

An estimated 40 trucks have fallen through the ice over the years, and in the early 1990s – at around the same time that Khövsgöl was incorporated into a national park – authorities banned heavy vehicles and the transportation of oil over the lake to prevent further pollution. Some sunken trucks were extricated by the military; divers have since found others, their gallons of oil resting on the lakebed. Ganbat pointed absently to the spot where, two years ago, he’d lifted a bunch of Russians from the roof of their car as it slipped underwater on sinking fragments of ice. “City types”, he said with a wry smile, “they don’t know the weak points.”

Forewarned about weak points (they form around spits of land and river mouths), and with studded tyres in situ, I returned to the lake with my bike, passing the harbour containing two aging ice-packed ships. Since various local industries were shut down, the area has become a celebrated wilderness, with tourism growing appropriately year on year. As if in declaration of this shift, a Jeep carrying a few Mongolian tourists careened over the ice in front of the derelict ships, and I pedalled off from the southern shore.

Parked on frozen Lake Khövsgöl (Credit: Credit: Stephen Fabes)

Parked on frozen Lake Khövsgöl (Credit: Stephen Fabes)

My plan was to ride north over the ice, staying close to the eastern shoreline until the lake became wider, and then to cross from the east to the west, where I would camp out on the ice.  There were some bumps in the ice, but my tyres held firm and soon I was skittering along, tailwind assisted, grinning madly and indulging in the matchless joy of riding without a road to follow. In the distance, the remaining ice sculptures – eagles and mermaids from the annual March Ice Festival – glittered under Mongolia’s stubbornly blue sky.

Remaining sculptures from the annual Ice Festival (Credit: Credit: Stephen Fabes)

Remaining sculptures from the annual Ice Festival (Credit: Stephen Fabes)

The bite of my studded tyres kept me vertical early in the day when the temperature remained below zero, but in hindsight, only a Fat Bike (the monster-truck of the bike world) with much chunkier tyres would have coped in the warmer afternoon, as a film of invisible water layered the ice and I was soon sent sliding about, tumbling twice.

Luckily, beyond the western shore of the lake, a good trail runs through larch forest. So I changed my plan, retreated from the ice and pedalled over a bed of fallen needles, hoping to catch a glimpse of wolves, moose or wild sheep. Khövsgöl is within the realm of the taiga – the vast boreal forest that encircles the Earth in these northern latitudes.

A view frozen Lake Khövsgöl (Credit: Credit: Stephen Fabes)

A view frozen Lake Khövsgöl (Credit: Stephen Fabes)

By the evening, I’d covered 60km of ice, trail and more ice, cycling a quarter of Lake Khövsgöl’s length, as well as crossing from the eastern side to the west. The ice had warmed now, grown cantankerous. The most soul-chilling snaps came from towards the lake’s centre, and were chased by thuds as though the ice had a heartbeat to rival my own.

Setting up camp (Credit: Credit: Stephen Fabes)

Setting up camp (Credit: Stephen Fabes)

Dusk upset the colour scheme: the ice soured to almost black, the snow turned a glacial blue. I set up my tent on the most fetching, limpid ice, shuffled over its quivering reflection, and climbed inside.

A Mongolian boy, festooned in a fox fur hat and woolly wine-toned deel (traditional robe), had spotted my tent from his nearby ger and abandoned his horses and yaks to investigate. My less-than-pidgin Mongolian quickly turned to mime: “riding bicycle”, “sleeping here”, “beautiful”.

A curious local (Credit: Credit: Stephen Fabes)

A curious local (Credit: Stephen Fabes)

“It is,” he nodded. Lake Khövsgöl, with its ever-evolving cracks and freeze-thaw and shifting hues through day, month and season, could be a metaphor for the mutability of life in Mongolia, a country strewn with one of largest nomadic populations on Earth.

I slept well, ensconced in three sleeping bags, lulled by the thuds, gurgles and cracks. I woke to a gold band seaming the taiga to a royal blue sky and thought about those oil trucks languishing in the deep, about the all too common marriage of fragility and beauty in the wild.

Before I packed up camp and cycled back to Khatgal, I snapped a few photos of the sunrise, pitching some creative curses to the wind. To use my camera I had to remove my gloves; the temperature was still -20C and my hands were approaching the colour of Mongolian ice.

When cities rise from the depths

“There are hundreds of submerged cities around the world. We are only just beginning to discover what they have to tell us about the prehistoric human past.”

The world’s smallest kingdom

When he’s not fishing for squid or gardening outside his squat bungalow, the king of Tavolara lords over this tiny island’s 11 part-time residents and 100 nimble mountain goats.

Just south of Sardinia’s world-famous Costa Smeralda, the lonely island of Tavolara rises wildly from the cerulean sea like a jagged mountain. There are no roads or hotels, and the only inhabitable stretch is a white-sand tongue that’s best measured from end to end in steps.

Tavolara's jagged 565m limestone stack (Credit: Credit: Eliot Stein)

Tavolara’s jagged 565m limestone stack (Credit: Eliot Stein)

This is where I found Antonio Bertoleoni as our ferry sputtered to a float. Better known as “Tonino”, the 83-year-old former fisherman owns Tavolara’s only restaurant and is the reigning ruler of the island, which happens to be the smallest inhabited kingdom in the world. For the past 22 years, Tonino has commanded this 5sqkm mini-monarchy in shorts and sandals.

I’m probably the world’s most ordinary king.

“I’m probably the world’s most ordinary king,” Tonino said, burying his feet in the sand and looking toward his restaurant. “The only privilege I enjoy is free meals.”

The Kingdom of Tavolara is currently celebrating its 180th anniversary and actually predates Italy by 25 years. Forming your own island nation might sound like the kind of thing you’d dream up when you’re marooned in the Mediterranean, but the story began in 1807 when Tonino’s great-great-grandfather, Giuseppe Bertoleoni, became the then uninhabited island’s first settler. Described as a “half shepherd, half pirate” in the book Tavolara, Island of the Kings, the Genovese immigrant had recently married two sisters and was seeking a safe haven to escape his bigamy charge.

King Tonino outside of his restaurant (Credit: Credit: Riccardo Finelli)

King Tonino outside of his restaurant (Credit: Riccardo Finelli)

Giuseppe and his small harem soon realised that they were sharing their island paradise with a rare species of wild goats whose teeth were dyed a golden-yellow colour by the seaweed and lichen they ate. Word of the gilt-toothed goats eventually spread to Sardinia’s ruler, Carlo Alberto, who eagerly travelled to Tavolara to hunt the animals in 1836. Giuseppe’s 24-year-old son, Paolo, guided the hunting excursions.

“When he landed, Carlo Alberto introduced himself by saying, ‘I’m Carlo Alberto, the King of Sardinia,’” Tonino said. “And so my great-grandfather replied, ‘Well, I’m Paolo, the King of Tavolara.’”

After killing several goats and feasting for three days at Paolo’s home, Carlo Alberto was so delighted that he said, “Paolo, you really are the King of Tavolara!” before sailing off, according to Tonino. Joking or not, Carlo Alberto later confirmed that the far-flung island had never officially been part of the Kingdom of Sardinia, and he sent Paolo a scroll from Carlo Alberto’s royal family, the House of Savoy, that certified the monarchy’s status.

A rare species of wild goats roam Tavolara (Credit: Credit: REDA &CO srl/Alamy)

A rare species of wild goats roam Tavolara (Credit: REDA &CO srl/Alamy)

Paolo promptly created the Bertoleoni coat of arms and painted it on the wall of his home. He also drew a royal family tree and built a cemetery on the island for himself and his descendants. When he died, he insisted on being buried with a crown cemented atop his tombstone – something he never wore while alive.

In the years that followed, news of the island’s sovereignty spread beyond the Mediterranean, and tiny Tavolara even formed a handful of political allies.Giuseppe Garibaldi, one of Italy’s founding fathers, soon became a trusted advisor of the Bertoleoni family; and the King of Sardinia at the time, Vittorio Emanuele II, went so far as to sign a peace treaty with the stamp-sized island’s 33 residents in 1903.

King Tonino's restaurant is the only one on the island (Credit: Credit: Realy Easy Star/Alberto Maisto/Alamy)

King Tonino’s restaurant is the only one on the island (Credit: Realy Easy Star/Alberto Maisto/Alamy)

 

While collecting photographs of world leaders, Queen Victoria commissioned a British naval vessel to stop by the island so that officers could photograph Tavolara’s “royal family”. For years, the gold-framed photo was displayed in Buckingham Palace with the caption “World’s Smallest Kingdom”. Today, a giant copy of it hangs in Tonino’s restaurant, which is appropriately called The King of Tavolara and adorned with the royal crest that King Paolo I first designed.

After 126 years, the installation of a NATO base in 1962 effectively ended the kingdom’s independence, and made a quarter of the island off-limits to its handful of residents. Yet, like San Marino, Tavolara has never been formally annexed into modern Italy, making Tonino the fifth king in a kingdom that the world no longer recognises.

These days, when he’s not fishing for squid or gardening outside his squat bungalow, his majesty lords over Tavolara’s 11 part-time residents, 100 nimble mountain goats and a few species of endangered falcons that live atop the island’s 565m limestone peak. For the past 40 years, Tonino has been personally escorting visitors to his family’s island palace – first by rowboat, and now via a 25-minute ferry that he operates from Porto San Paolo.

“My family may have had a beautiful past,” Tonino said in a soft voice, “but we work hard and live simply, just like everybody else.”

In fact, running the kingdom is very much a family business. While the king and his nephew, Nicola, captain the summer ferry, the prince and princess in waiting, Giuseppe and Loredana, now run the beachside restaurant. Giuseppe’s nephew, Antonio, wakes up early to go fishing every morning and supplies most of the clams, lobster and fish that fly out of the kitchen each afternoon and evening.

Tonino likes to greet guests at Tavolara's dock (Credit: Credit: Realy Easy Star/Alberto Maisto/Alamy)

Tonino likes to greet guests at Tavolara’s dock (Credit: Realy Easy Star/Alberto Maisto/Alamy)

Thanks to a wave of tourism to the island, the kingdom’s GDP has been strong recently. Ironically, Tavolara is now the crown jewel in a protected Italian national marine reserve that has one of the highest levels of biomass in the Mediterranean. As a result, the island has quickly become one of the top diving destinations in Italy, with visitors flocking to swim with tortoises, sperm whales and basking sharks before coming up for air at the al fresco restaurant.

For me, it’s a privilege just to live here. Who needs a crown when you have a palace.

While Tonino still likes to greet guests as they come from the dock, his favourite part of the day is before the swell of sun worshippers and scuba enthusiasts descend on his empire. Just after dawn, he likes to walk past Tavolara’s handful of sunset-coloured homes and along a dusty path to visit the royal cemetery. Since King Paolo I passed in 1886, the plot has grown to hold every noble member of the kingdom – most recently Tonino’s wife, Queen Pompea, who passed away several years ago.

“I like to bring her plastic flowers,” Tonino said. “If I brought her fresh ones, the goats would just eat them.”

Like most of the Bertoleonis who came before him and the prince who will one day succeed him, Tonino is technically an Italian citizen. He once vowed to make an appeal to Vittorio Emanuele IV, the son of the last King of Italy and the self-proclaimed Duke of Savoy, for the royal family to once again recognise the Kingdom of Tavolara, but then had a change of heart.

Rare access to an Australian wonder

A live-aboard boat affords travellers a much closer look at the country’s psychedelically beautiful Great Barrier Reef – without any of the day-tripper crowds.

Standing on the sun deck of the Spirit of Freedom, a live-aboard tour boat on the Great Barrier Reef, I noticed something was missing: land. The shoreline had disappeared overnight and now there was just sky and sea – nothing else – for 220km in every direction.

Also missing were the crowds, a nearly unavoidable part of the more popular day trips that launch from Cairns, the gateway city to Australia’s most popular natural attraction. Every day, tour boats bring hundreds of holidaymakers to the mega-pontoons stationed on the reef, offering a Disney-fied experience of the world’s largest living structure.

I chose instead to board a live-aboard boat and tour the Coral Sea over a number of days and nights. It’s a holiday that evades the day-trip crowds, allows for more than a day’s diving on the reef and affords travellers a much closer look at the pulsating, psychedelic-looking, 2,300km-long ecosystem that scientists predict could be overrun by seaweed by 2050.

After a three-hour flight from Sydney to Cairns, and an hour-long flight to Lizard Island (so named by Captain Cook for its suitably large population of monitor lizards), I motored out to my new home for the next four days, joining 26 other passengers and 10 crew on the decks of the 37m-long Spirit of Freedom.

Lizard Island, home to a large population of monitor lizards (Credit: Ethan Teas)

A large population of monitor lizards earned Lizard Island its name. (Ethan Teas)

Once we settled in, the small cabins didn’t matter. Days were spent on the deck, with passengers draped over every available surface, napping or holding up a book to shade their eyes. The boat’s close confines meant making friends was inevitable.

Three Chinese students, a German veterinarian, an elderly Kenyan free diver – our group came from a wide range of backgrounds and cultures.

Of course, the one thing that most of us had in common was a love for diving and a desire to see the Great Barrier Reef like no day-tripper ever would. We got below the surface nearly five times a day.

Rarely did we dive in the same place twice. More often, each excursion explored a new section of the reef’s coral-covered walls, which dropped off into to unexplored shadows, the sea floor resting 2,000m below.

There was always something new and exciting to see – blue spotted ribbontail rays, clownfish nestled amid the noodle-like tentacles of their anemone, mind-bogglingly big manta rays and bursts of colour and light from schools of iridescent fish suddenly changing direction. Four dwarf minke whales appeared during a dive on our second-to-last day and lingered for two hours, passing improbably close to those of us who were suspended in stillness, staring.

Schooling trevally (Credit: Spirit of Freedom)

Schooling trevally at the Great Barrier Reef. (Spirit of Freedom)

With the right currents, divers could drift along the wall, passively enjoying the changing scenery while surrounded on three sides by the unbroken blue of open ocean. Closer to the surface, sunlit pinnacles of coral pierced the gently sloping beds of sand.

Eventually, when our eyes just couldn’t take anymore beauty – and our tanks ran low on air – we would kick towards the light and climb back aboard the only dry surface for miles. After a shamelessly lazy hour on the sun deck, I was always ready to do everything all over again.

Practicalities
Spirit of Freedom and Mike Ball Dive Expeditions offer four-day live-aboard trips to the outer reaches of the Great Barrier Reef and the Coral Sea year round. They also have the permits needed to bring divers close to dwarf minke whales – the whales migrate to the area between June and July to mate and calve in the warmer reef waters.

Cyclone season lasts from November to May. The wet season is from December to February but can offer up great visibility and calm waters because of low winds and warmer water temperatures.

Peak season is during the dry months of June to October. June to August is the winter season with cooler air and water temperatures (bring a jumper for brisk nights).