Sea-faring Gypsies

I remember once passing a hitchhikeron the highway, stars and stripes on his backpack, sock and sandals on his feet, and in his hands a sign saying ‘The Reef’.

He didn’t need any more explanations to his destination, just someone with a penchant for his particular company over the next 2000 kilometres.

One of our iconic natural wonders, ‘The Reef’ has always been on my bucket list.

When pinned to the wall by the pommy backpacker tourist tout in Cairns, I found myself baulking at the sausage factory options though – crowding aboard a boat with 100 others and chugging noisily out to a well-trodden pontoon.

There had to be another way.

I found it on board BigMama. Chartering from Mission Beach, this three person sailing crew of mumLisa, dadStuand 10 year old Fletcher, all equally as brown-skinned and blonde-haired as each other, are about as down to earth (or ocean) tour guides as you could find.

Climbing aboard the 60 foot BigMama,a shell beaded Lisa ushers me and the other 11 guests below deck into their kitchen to help myself to a cuppa and scone. Taking it upstairs I find a beanbag on the top hull and snuggle in for the 90 minute sail.

The ocean is calm and the sea breeze just cool enough to make the sun feel like a shawl. Coco, the tiny sea dog nestles in beside me. I’m almost asleep when the call of‘whale’ jolts me upright in time to see two forked humpbacktails splash in unison.

Lisa comes over to chat. Since meeting Stu 20 years ago it has been life on the open seas; sailing and racing throughout Australia and Asia. Fletcher sits behind me doing his maths homework. Without a land base, BigMama is their home, school and workplace.

The sail is so enjoyable I almost forget about the destination.

Like a migratory bird finding its way back to the same tree, Stu drops anchor in what appears to beopen ocean athis pick of reef.

“It’s intuitive,” Lisa says, “He grew up on boats.”

Handed snorkel and goggles (fins can damage the coral), suddenly I’m there – in The Reef – and it is more spectacular than I imagined, a cacophony of colours, shapes, textures and sounds. Giant purple clams, schools of fluorescent blue fish at my fingertips, tiny spirals of fringed animal that recoil on touch, it’s as bright and strange as an animation.

I drift from the main group, and, as if hypnotised by this alternate reality, wonder for a second what it might be like to let go into the current, and join this watery world.

Poking my head above water, and seeing not a boat or land in sight, I am struck with a sense of what the earth might looks like from above, like astronauts describe, a blue bejewelled planet turning in space; the unlikely magnificence of it all.

Homebound the wind picks up and the spinnaker is raised. Without an engine, we fall silent and rest in the flap of sail, the swish of water against hull, in the captivating simplicity of life at sea.

“Some nights when whales breach in phosphorescence and you can hear the fizz of shooting stars – it’s just magic,” Stu says.

The fishing line dragging behind us brings in a large spanishmackerel, lunch for tomorrow’s guests.

I’ve seen the reef, but I’ve also had a peek into a way of life as free as the winds they travel on.