Lizard Island

Lizard Island is a small island on the Great Barrier Reef. It has a small resort (max occupancy about 80), a research station, and an airstrip. The flight from Cairns in a tiny Cessna is about 60 minutes, and the Macair flight costs — no joke — as much as half my LAX-Australia ticket. Because they can.

In retrospect, and I say this ahead of a huge rant about how Lizard Island’s the greatest place in the universe, I would have been better off booking at Heron Island.

Anyway, the whole point was that I wanted to see the Reef, which is one of the wonders of the world and which, despite my fervent donations of huge chunks of my income to environmental groups, might not be around for my kids to see. I’m a huge nature geek (I’m a geek in general, actually, let’s just be up-front about it). Plus, Mrs. Zumsteg isn’t into snorkeling, so being on the reef, I get to go swim with the fishies while she can read or wander around and we can still go to lunch together.

Part of my problem writing this chunk of the Australian trip is that I haven’t been able to put together an adequate description of what it’s like to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef.

I would put on my flippers and mask, walk out, and even in the shallows there were fish hanging out in small groups, darting in and out with the waves. The coral started after swimming out for only a few seconds, and that’s colorful and it’s exciting to see it up close. Coral’s beautiful in its natural state, and the more you know about coral, the more miraculous and interesting it becomes to look at (here’s the Wikipedia article)

And within the spires or speeding by the brain are fish so brightly colored it’s startling. I found myself stopping to stare from a distance at the fish regarding me warily, because I couldn’t believe it. It was nice out that day, and as much as photos you may have seen of these guys makes them look beautiful (or for that matter, looking at them in an aquarium) seeing them in the shallow water of the reef with sunlight pouring down, the only way I can describe it is that they glow a little. They’re truly radiant.

Enough about me staring at fishes, though. The important thing is the treat of giant clams.

When you read “giant clams” you might be thinking “ah, so perhaps two or three times the size of a normal clam.” I thought that too, once. And as I swam out, I saw clams that were that large, then larger, and then I came across one. There’s a picture in the Wiki article if you want to see what they kinda look like, and offers this “they weigh an average of 440 pounds and can measure as much as 1.5 meters across.”

I saw several that were that large. I understand why people think that giant clams might eat people. It’s hard to convince yourself otherwise.

“There’s no way it got that large filtering water,” I thought. “Every once in a while it has to eat a snorkeler.”

And I’d swim faster. They have giant maws, which were white with small patterned squiggles of bright color that matched their mantles.

There’s something about it, though, that reached way, way back in my brain and squeezed. It’s huge and alien and more than a little creepy.

I was always been disappointed that fictional aliens are frequently so close to human that you could wave off the difference. I figured that alien beings would look like a larger, weirder intelligent version of life that went down another path entirely:
– spiders (shudder)
– squid or an octopus that develops opposable digits

To which I now add
– clams

Lizard Island has this cool thing where they give you a little dinghy with an outboard motor for a day, and you can advance-order food (which was excellent!) and beverages for the trip. So in the morning, Jill and I turned up, and they scheduled us for “Pebbly Beach” (photo forthcoming), one of a couple of tiny beaches where they only let one boat out to. If we’d had more time, I’d have taken another trip and run round to to see other parts of the island, but because Lizard Island is horribly expensive, we had only two nights.

So I snorkeled and read, Jill read and watched me snorkel, and then we headed back.

Lizard Island is all-inclusive, with the exception of alcohol, which was reasonably priced.

Anyway, after that day, we came back and that night they were offering a seafood buffet — grilled lobster tail, sushi, all kinds of good stuff.

A brief digression
My brother and I, when we’re both in town, often head to the Anthony’s Home Port in Des Moines which, for reasons unknown to us, continues to offer a crab feed for some high price. My brother and I then eat ridiculous amounts of crab. When we’re in Alaska, we usually have at least one opportunity to go crab-wild and blissfully gorge ourselves. I have no idea why Anthony’s doesn’t have our picture posted somewhere, or at least show it to the servers every once in a while (“It’s holiday season, and that means those Zumsteg kids are likely to be in town…”) because we put on a crab-eating clinic. Our servers go through many stages:
– helpful
– amused
– a little annoyed
– annoyed
– bored
– resigned
– greatly amused and helpful

This concludes our digression.

I loved Lizard Island. I liked all the people, I loved the snorkeling and the natural wonder of it all. That it was outrageously expensive was, when I wasn’t enjoying myself totally, a faint background noise, beneath the movement of sand and wave on the beaches, but still there.

I walked into the dining area, saw what the night’s dinner would be, clapped my hands together, turned to my wife, and said “Let’s show these Australians how we treat a seafood buffet back in Seattle.”

Then I set about my task.

On our last day, I went for a walk, first up to Chinaman’s Lookout (I did not name it that) and then on to the other side, where there was a long beach with many boats anchored in the bay. Small cruises, maybe, for snorkelers? I had thought the only way to get there was plane, but if it was only an hour’s flight, that doesn’t put it so far out from Cairns that you couldn’t day-trip it in a pleasure boat.

Anyway, there was a crescent beach, a long, flat grassland, and then a marsh with bat-filled mangroves. To keep the mangrove forest from growing up and filling the marsh as it went, the aboriginals (and now the Australians) burned the whole thing down every couple of years to start the growth over from scratch. It’d been a while since the last one. It made for a great hike, walking through these cramped and varied ecosystems, seeing interesting birds and broken termite mounds. Then I got on a Cessna and headed back.

Lizard Island was in a way unfortunate. By saving and reaching so high, we got to have a brief stay in a great resort in a wonderful location and it made me content and happy. But also… discontented and unhappy. Because the only reason I couldn’t have stayed for a reasonable length of time was money, and knowing that was like having an giant hourglass filled with silver dollars measuring the time we had left.

And I so want to back, but… there’s a five night special there right now for the same kind of room I had, and it’s $4,200.00 AUD which I think works out to $725 a night US. $725 a night! Plus the flight in and out! I booked through some random SE Asia discount travel site (which meant there was an awkward moment over who had paid what, and when, and which I’m not going to link to because they suck) in order to get the lowest price possible and I still think that’s about what I paid per-night (for a much shorter stay).

This is why people engage in white-collar crime like stock fraud. I almost launched a fraudulent IPO just to stay a third night. A long time ago, I started to make a comfortable living, and I knew I’d done it because I could go to the store and if I really wanted Redhook and Redhook wasn’t on sale, I could afford to buy it anyway. I know that kind of seems trivial, but once I got to the point where I could pay rent, keep the lights on, and provide for my basic needs and had enough left over that I could drop a small amount of money randomly, without worrying about it, it was a great relief.

I found from working briefly for Expedia’s luxury consumer brand that there was a whole other level of quality that I hadn’t experienced before, where money buys you service, time, and the best components. At the Fairmont Orchid, the Gold Level (or whatever it’s called, I love the Fairmont Orchid but I don’t remember) gets you a little lounge on your floor, where breakfast is served, and there are snacks and free beverages all day long. Headed out to the pool? Snag a bunch of water. Sure, the rooms are far more expensive, but you don’t have to buy water from the little deli, or flag down a pool-side attendant and then tip them when (if) they ever come back.

Lizard Island reminded me of this. To me, that’s the next level from edging out a comfortable margin in life, where you stop worrying constantly about overdrafts if you miscalculated the utility check. It’s what I think of as affluence: where the money it costs to get something truly wonderful, like a week on Lizard Island, is maybe not as easy to come across as the coin for a six-pack of your favorite beverage, but isn’t cause for conern.

As you may have noted from my carping about the cost of the really good office chairs, I’m a long, long way off from that.

Next up: Port Douglas, where I learn that I say my name wrong! Ja! Ist zutreffend!