The other side of Lady Elliot Island

Having announced last week that we were travelling to Lady Elliot Island, I find I now can’t easily get away from telling you a bit about it. So here comes Travelogue #2, this time about our time on a tropical island at the south end of the Great Barrier Reef. Sadly, this piece may not do my latent travel writing career any good, but you will end up with a more rounded picture of paradise.

Day 0. Let’s start with Friday night, just before we are to fly out to Lady Elliot. We sit up for a good while with Patricia, our fabulous airbnb hostess, who is glued to the TV watching as Cyclone Ita, dubbed Category 5, heads toward Cairns, 1500 kilometres away, where she owns property. “But you’ll be fine on Lady Elliot,” she says. “It’ll hit Cairns tonight and will dissipate within a few hours after reaching land.”

Lady Elliot IslandDay 1. We’re loving the flight on our little 12-seater plane, over blue ocean with Fraser Island in the distance. After a half hour in the air, the pilot points out a spec ahead. That’s Lady Elliot Island, he announces. It’s microscopic. And the thing is, it doesn’t get much bigger as we get closer. It’s still a spec when we descend—a spec with a green belt across the middle, which must be the runway. Clearly the peak of the island must stand only a few metres above high tide. You can’t help picturing even the most benign of tsunamis saying, “Whoops”, and sliding right over the island.

An hour or two later, we find ourselves in an orientation session. “Welcome to paradise,” our hostess tells us, and then runs through the patter. We learn that you can walk around the island in 40 minutes, that it’s an island that generates all its own solar power. It desalinates all its own water. It flies in all its food. You can purchase internet. You can snorkel everywhere, and sign up for glass-bottom-boat tours. The cafeteria is buffet-style.

We can’t wait for morning.

Day 2. Today is our anniversary. We lay in bed for awhile, listening to rain pummelling the roof and winds lashing the palm trees. Could this be Cyclone Ita? I reflect briefly on the imaginary tsunami but decide not to go there.

Later, we sit in the resort’s lounge. I can see the windsock by the runway standing Wind sock tells the storystraight out to the side. We’ve been watching TV and have had our suspicions confirmed that Cyclone Ita is to blame. She’s caused plenty of trouble in the north but didn’t actually set out across land with her full force. Instead, she’s romping down the coast, down-graded to Category 1 but still lashing her tail as she loses momentum. She’s a long way north but we’re feeling her impact.

Confined as we are, our facilities take on a new ambiance. An eco-resort? Hmmm. Heavy on “eco”, light on “resort”. More like an eco-camp, although that might not read well in the brochures. At a resort you get a hair dryer and shampoo in little bottles, and sit in over-stuffed chairs. At camp you queue to put your empty dishes into the clearaway zone and have skinny towels. This was camp all the way. In fairness, I have to say you’d never notice these things if it weren’t a camp at the fringe of a cyclone, if we’d been able to have our daiquiris on the banana-lounge chairs overlooking the lagoon after snorkelling on the glassy waters.

I start to feel a little vulnerable. All of a sudden those eco-features aren’t quite so exciting. On an island that generates all its own solar power, what happens when the sun hasn’t been out for days and everybody’s using their devices and burning up power? That desalinated water—what’s the energy source that produces it and how big are the supplies? Those tiny planes—how do they handle 45 knot winds, and what happens if food runs out and they can’t fly in? Fine that you can purchase internet but not so happy-making that it doesn’t work in bad weather. Not having phone coverage becomes a liability rather than an asset. I try to keep my brow unfurrowed.

I watch as dry towels and umbrellas become the new currency, with theft occurring everywhere. Everything is wet. Umbrellas fall out of favour when most of them turn inside out and become as useful as broken spiders in keeping the rain off.

I decide I’m not going to miss out completely. Rick trudges through driving rain to help deliver me to my snorkelling destination in a cove with a little shelter from the fierce winds. I see a number of wonderful fish and swim with a turtle for a while. It’s sort of a pathetic snorkel but nothing is as pathetic as poor Rick huddled under his broken umbrella trying to protect himself and the towels. It gives you a picture of how this marriage has lasted so well for 35 years.

You’d think on our expensive anniversary holiday Rick and I wouldn’t have to entertain ourselves. But we do, and we manage. It takes teamwork. Rick makes sure we get pre-dinner drinks and canapés and I make sure we get to the naturalist briefings. Rick finds movies on the iPad and I arrange the pillows so we’re comfy. We smile at each other over our Kindles. We walk around the island in 45k winds during a lull in the rain. We pass the camera back and forth. We talk about our kids and a thousand other things of mutual interest. We cuddle on the wicker lounge in the guest area and huddle under the broken umbrella as we trudge to our cabin. It just feels like real life; not so bad on an anniversary.

Day 3.The weather’s even worse: what’s left of Cyclone Ita has found us. Kids are having cookie baking (who comes up with these ideas?); adults are reading newspapers, books, anything they can get their hands on. Ear-buds abound. A few people are watching the steady stream of news on the lounge’s one television. The ping pong table is in constant use, as is the pool table. I watch two crazy snorkelers out on the lagoon, white caps crashing over them. Rick is grateful I’m not quite that crazy.

I read a terrific novel, recommended to me by a friend with impeccable taste: Ruth Osaki’s A Tale for the Time Being. It’s the best book I’ve read for ages and takes me far away from this battered island.

Day 4. We awake to a patch of sunlight and grab our gear.

Beautiful blue tangAnd suddenly there I am, hanging idly in the water, watching as blue wrasse, surgeonfish, anemonefish and butterflyfish drift by—all the fish I’ve learned about in the information videos. The colours and the variety are amazing. I am somewhere between an engrossed naturalist and a yogi in suspended animation.

It’s a perfect moment in time. This is why I’m here.

We are scheduled to leave at 11:00, by which time the blue patches of sky outnumber the clouds. The banana lounges are in full use and the lagoon is peppered with snorkelers, orange and yellow fins slicing the water. Lady Elliot is back in stride.

As I climb on the plane, it seems important to figure out if I’m lucky or unlucky.

Days later I’m still chewing away at that. But, whatever. Either way, Lady Elliot Island owes me one and I’ll be back to collect my time with the blue wrasse and the daiquiri in the banana chair.




5 thoughts on “The other side of Lady Elliot Island

  1. “ I love your phrase “ I try to keep my brow unfurrowed”

    You are a true writer…. I was right with you on Lady Eliot Island…..…..

    Happy Easter Heather and Rick…..

    Sent from Windows Mail

  2. Ah, these are the things that travelers’ memories are made of. And married couples’. When you figure out whether you’re lucky or not, you’ll know whether you’ll continue to be a traveler in this strange world of ours, populated with even stranger fellow-travelers. Glad you’re well and survived to tell the tale! Have you considered flogging the movie rights?

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