Low blow

Back in the mid 1980s I was holding down three and four part-time jobs, and running some business endeavours on the side, in an attempt to get the kind of income I could’ve achieved had I been able to get a decent full-time job. In that town, at that time, full-time work was hard to find and so there was an informal group of work companions and we’d ring each other to share work news in an effort to stay afloat. I’d managed to get work in a restaraunt helping out one night and was good enough, and lucky enough, for that night to grow into a regular four nights a week. It meant I was working all the hours I could and I was getting exhausted. Winter arrived and in the middle of all this my mother had surgery that went wrong – all rather stressful.

One night I served some Australians from Rockhampton, and I told them of my dream to visit Cairns. ‘Cairns is a dump,’ they told me without a second’s thought, ‘Townsville is where it’s at. It’s the best ever – there’s a casino, it’s fantastic.’ And so, in the middle of winter, I packed up Mum and we headed off on a direct flight – Auckland>Townsville.

Townsville in winter is fabulous, no doubt about it. To this day – the best part of twenty years later I can still remember the delight of the warmth, the fragrances of the tropics, and the sounds of the palm fronds out the window. We scored a room right on the waterfront and it was just beautiful.

I rented a car from Rent-a-Rocket. I see they’re still there. The guy running it then didn’t want me going all the way to Cairns (‘a very dangerous road’) with me Mum in a wreck, so for the second week he got us a car that was a Ford Cortina body with Falcon engine. That car rocked. We felt very aussie as we screamed away from the young hoods at the lights – the look of Mum, the nana-mobile, and the Fal-coon engine concealed. When later we saw a newscast on tv commenting about how driving standards had gone down in Townsville – we knew it was us – we were (ir)responsible. We had the best time.

We drove up to Cairns – carefully on this ‘most dangerous road’. Clearly, the rental guy had never been to New Zealand, because the road was wonderful. We stayed in Cairns a week – it was pre-Japanese invasion, and so it was rather rural and rustic – but still loveable. Fruit bats in the mango trees, warm days, freezing nights – i.e. down to 15o. In Townsville we’d gone over to Magnetic Island, which is more rocky than coral, and I wanted to visit a real coral-type island. Green Island off Cairns delivers the goods on that front. The beach on the waterfront of Cairns is not very encouraging, but the beaches on Green Island – the stuff of dreams. At that time you could go down under the wharf at Green Island and peer though glass at the coral and fish – and I was in the 6th heaven. It was there I learned it was possible to get a bus day trip up to Port Douglas, and from there a boat trip out to the marine park off Low Island.

Without further ado we made the arrangements and off we went – from memory about an hour to Port Douglas – in those days pretty much a wharf and some scungy shops. It’s probably all resort-arised these days. We had a great trip on a quickcat out to the island, a great lunch and then we were able to go ashore in glass bottom boats – even for the folk not swimming they got a chance to look though to the fish and coral (I did), do a reef walk (I did), and then if you felt you wanted, there was free snorkel gear if you needed to get up close and personal (I did). If you wanted you could hire an underwater camera as well (I did).

I can’t swim. It was mid-winter – August from memory. I was completely devoid of a tan, and so wore a tee-shirt while swimming. I got badly burnt on the back of my legs, and across the small of my back. I came out of the water shivering. I went back in. Again and again. I took photos of everything not tied down. I demonstrated how to swim at 200k.p.h when I accidentally discovered a sea snake. I got frightened by the sudden appearance of a large angel fish – I’d never seen a really big fish underwater before. I nearly drowned myself laughing at how silly I felt, and how delightful it all was. I was inspired, besotted, head over heels in love. This was a dream absolutely come true – this was 7th heaven. I can still hear the noise of the fish underwater (who knew?), the fantastic profusion of colours, fish and other marine life. I really understood – finally – the reality of the reef, its delicate beauty, and how it must be protected. And one of the ways of protecting it is to share it through television. People care about something when they know what it is, when they’ve seen it, and when the interesting and beautiful parts are explained. I would love to do that – maybe one day. It takes a very special person to make it real for people.

And that’s why I was shattered this afternoon to read of Steve Irwin’s untimely death by blow from a stingray while filming off Low Island. What a mixed feeling – yes, taken; but in a most authentic manner, doing what he loved. Enviable, in many respects. Far better than the bureaucrat face first into the deskpad. I feel that horrible sad fear of loss for Terri and family, and their work family as well – a larger than life personality like Steve’s is not something quickly found again. As I thought about it all this afternoon, my memories of my experience snorkelling off Low Island came flooding in – and I realised that had I seen the Crocodile Hunter shows as a kid I would’ve probably done my utmost to be Steve Irwin. I would’ve loved the chance to get alongside the various wildlife, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. I bet there’s kids (and adults) who’ve been inspired to look at wildlife and to get involved with its protection. Good on them. To get the chance to work with doing what you love most in the world is a blessing.

When you get the chance to share what you love with other people, and they get inspired to make a contribution for the good of all, that’s beyond a blessing, that’s a gift. Thanks, Steve.

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