Journey Through the Earth

Travel Stories: Out in the Whitsundays, Bill Belleville explores the underside of Australian dreamtime

06.22.04 | 9:40 PM ET

Fruit bats. I am watching fruit bats with two-foot-wide wing spans zoom down from the mountain caves, stenciled like movie logos across the twilight. Next, come the rock wallabies at full dark, chest-high kangaroos in miniature, chewing the grass, hopping like giant rabbits, frightening the tiny bandicoots.

As the fruit bats settle in, chattering in the coconut palms, I head off for the night dive my new mates and I have just put together off the end of the ferry dock here on Long Island in the northern Whitsundays, a island chain of ancient, drowned mountains midway between the Great Barrier Reef and the Australian coast.

The sweetness of perpetual spring wafts down from the thick forest of hoop pines and eucalyptus, sweeping across the water.  Above, the dark sky is lit with stars of the Southern Hemisphere, much like I imagine it was when Capt. James Cook navigated here from Polynesia,  following Venus across the Coral Sea, just the lightest touch of his fingers on the sextant.

Aborigines hunted and fished long ago on these islands before white men came and drove them off, defining their nights and days by the myths of their ancestors, alive still in a dreamtime where they once sang all of life into existence:  rocks, islands, trees, fish.

Out here in the Whitsundays, the tide ebbs and flows 20 feet and more each day, frothing in from a distant horizon to reclaim a soggy bottom bristling with hard corals and seagrasses, clams and scallops gurgling in the soft mud.

We will dive on the island’s fringing reef from the end of a long,  narrow dock that stands bare-legged and mollusc-encrusted during the yin of ebb, but which is deep enough to float the thick-keeled ferry boat that brought me here during the flood of yang.  Because of the swift and marked tidal changes, we are left with only a narrow window of diving opportunity, scantly more than an hour of slack water between the strong surges of the every-moving sea.

Since I am the true stranger in this strange land, I have relied fully on my new mates—fit and congenial blokes with an affinity for the solvent-like local rum—to plan our dive down to the last minute.  Generally, I am the sort of solitary traveler who truly believes that goodwill and a spirit of adventure can conquer most anything, although admittedly, I’ve never tested it on tidal vortexes in the dead of an Australian night before.

Into the water we go, three Aussie divers, their bang sticks and me, Cyclamen rods glowing like bioluminescence from the backs of our tanks, hand-over-hand down a rope through the tricky current.  My tiny light—torch to you, mate—seems not quite up to the job of illuminating more than a few feet at once. And, so I move carefully,  testing the current for rips and unusual tidal swales.

I know that beneath my fins somewhere is a bottom-dwelling seven-foot-long wobbegong shark—a caricature of a sea animal,  Claymation gone bad with dagger-like teeth and a dull sloppy stare.  Our leader, John, had warned me: “Don’t step on him,”  as if I looked like the kid of guy who would go around stepping on odd-looking sharks.  “Bites down and holds on, he does.”

I hover along, just off the 45-foot-deep bottom, watching the green parrot fish asleep in its night clothes of spun mucous, the two-foot long spiny lobster prattling about under a rocky ledge, the coral trout motionless over the boulder-sized brain coral.  It is the underside of a life that has been quietly simmering on this ancient continent for millenniums, a dreamtime still intact.

Nearing the end of my air, I head back to the dock alone,  passing finally over the massive body of the ‘wobby’, who is prone on the bottom, intent on things known only to other wobbies. He barely shrugs.

I mark an X of light on his head with my little torch to let him know I’ve been here, and breathing easily, gently break through the surface of the water under a crisp black sky.

It is a sky hung with constellations in an order I have never seen before, strange lights that flicker and burn, just like the ones beneath me in the dark water of this lonely and exciting continent on the other side of the world.

As kids, we would try to dig a hole in the ground, one that would go all the way through the earth to China.  But the truth is, the geometry would have brought us out closer to Australia, perhaps not far from where I am now floating inside a gentle circle of ripples, soft night water moving thick around me, like mercury.

I have finally bored through the earth and emerged on the other side, fulfilling my own childhood dream myth from an era when all of life stretched out in front of me, a long, unending palisade of discovery that I would ride forever.  I thought of my own mates from long ago then, hoping they had gone on to bore through the center of their own dreams, on to wherever that ride may have taken them.

In celebration, I hang here by myself in the black sea, head back and regulator out of my mouth, breathing in the coolness of the deep sky now, treading water.

Bill Belleville is a Florida-based writer, author and documentary filmmaker specializing in nature. His book, Losing It All To Sprawl, was named one of the Best Books of 2006 by Library Journal.

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