A Long Walk off a Short Pier

I am a person notoriously known for the fact that I hate being right, and that I have ample opportunity to hate specific instances of being right on a regular basis.

My first time of being right and hating it since we came to Australia was when Na'ama, searching for ways to keep us amused and busy on our Sydney stay, pointed out the fact that there is a great deal for a combination ticket of the Sydney Aquarium with a whale watching tour. I told them, quite clearly and emphatically, that whale watching is not a good idea.

As so frequently happens, however, I was completely ignored regarding this.

It took Na'ama quite a bit of looking in order to find the right place to buy these tickets, and I was beginning to hope she'd give up on the whole idea, but in the end we found the pier and stood in line for the tickets. There were two types of tickets: a two-hour whale watching tour and a four-hour tour. In both cases, "see a whale or get your money back" was the claim. In small print it added: "Yes, seeing a spout from a distance means that you saw a whale."

On the matter of two-hour vs. four-hour, I insisted. I told them that I was getting sea-sick merely standing there on the pier platform, and there was no way I was going to be hauled off into a boat for four hours. It was either the two hour trip or zilch. Sadly, they chose the two hour trip. We bought three tickets: one for Na'ama, one for Orit and one for me. Barak was unable to join us, as the trip was scheduled for Monday, a week-day.

So, early Monday morning, we came back to Darling Harbour. On the way we passed a Tony Roma's steak restaurant, and Orit and Na'ama were wondering whether we should reserve a place there now, or wait until we're hungry and only then decide on a place to eat lunch.

I told them not to make any lunch plans. They didn't believe me.

Soon enough after that, we were on a small boat

All smiling happily

(except for me, of course, as I was feeling my stomach floating rhythmically up and down) on the way to our impending doom.

If you take a look at the whale watching subsection of the Sydney gallery, you will note that the pictures there continue almost as the frames of a film. We approach the harbour bridge from afar.

Soon, we are so close to it, that it's possible to make out the details of the flag at the very center of it,

and the group of people climbing it.

There are, at any given time, roughly four teams of people climbing over the top of "the old coat-hanger". They're very difficult to spot, because they are all dressed in gray. This is considered by the general population of Sydney to be a great improvement, compared to their previous costume: all orange. This earlier costume tended to (a) make the climbers more prominent than the bridge itself; and (b) make them look like escaped convicts. Hence, the change to gray. Either way, this is considered an achingly difficult climb, and takes more than three hours with no bathroom stops.

Soon, the coat-hanger makes way to the other great attraction which Sydney is known for: the opera house.

But that is, more or less, where the pictures end. The last picture on this set is this one,

where you can just make out a smile without a cat.

But, ladies and gentlemen, I ask you, what does this smile hide behind it? Why are there no pictures of Fort Denison? Pictures of whales? Pictures of anything at all after we left the confines of the bay? To lift these great mysteries I am here, for I alone survived to tell the tale.

Call me Ishmael.

The secret of why the opera house is the last of our pictures of this day has to do with the fact that shortly after passing the opera house, our little ship left the bay in favor of the open waters. There, it was slightly windy, and there was nothing to stop the waves from piling up and the boat from rocking to and fro, at which point our venerable, long-time camerawoman had to excuse herself, went to the underside of the boat, and threw up breakfast, then the dinner of the day before, and then even earlier foods. It was not until we were back in the harbour that we saw her again, pale-faced but noticeably thinner.

As there was quite a bit of that going on around us, the captain, on his P.A. system, felt the need to encourage us all, that if you haven't thrown up on a boat, yet, you can't call yourself a real sailor.

We were half an hour out of the two hours of our whale trip into the tour and barely out of the bay, when the captain announced that another ship radioed from ahead, and told them of a whale they had spotted. The captain speeded over to get there before the whale goes elsewhere.

That, combined with the rushing winds, had the immediate effect that hats started being flown straight off people's heads. My cap did the same, but luckily I managed to catch it in time and retrieve it to its place, fastening it as hard as I could onto my head.

After a while I felt that the speed was tapering off. Then, the captain apparently got an update regarding the whale's position, and with a fast turn of the boat and a heavy foot on the metaphorical gas-pedal, he whirled us into yet another roller-coaster ride. My hat disengaged from my head again, only this time I was too busy hanging on for dear life to be able to do anything about it. The waves played with the boat as if it was a toy, and people were thrown from side to side of the deck (except for one family from Scandinavia, who seemed not to mind. They stood on the deck without even holding the rails and chatted with each other in tones that can only be used to describe weather). This time, my hat was lost forever, and it is to this day swimming with the fish in the South Pacific ocean. (This explains why later on in the trip I was compensating by buying hats. Altogether, I bought three during the five weeks in Australia.)

Then we were stopping again. The engine was switched off as we reached the place where the whale was last seen, and the boat started rocking freely to the beat of the ocean. This time, it was not only rocking right and left in a regular motion, but was taken to random directions, so one was unable to tell whether the next hit will be forward, backward or to the sides. This is when Na'ama gave her own gastronomical criticism, by losing her breakfast.

Her description of the situation is that she saw a woman on the deck walking around with a plastic bag meant exactly for people in her state. Na'ama asked the woman where she, too, can find such a barf-bag for herself, and the woman started explaining how, just below the stairs, if you turn left, then go into the lower deck, and... but that's just as far as she got before she saw Na'ama beginning to lose all color from her face. That's when she said: "you can have mine". Na'ama would have offered some speech of gratitude in return to this magnanimous offer, but was by then too busy actually making use of the plastic bag to be able to put the words together.

I, meanwhile, though still sick to my stomach, was trying to look around, keeping a good view of the horizon, in order not to share the most preferred activity on board, which was practiced by everyone except for those annoying Scandinavians who just stood there with smug smiles and kept on chattering.

What I saw, between the crest of one wave and the next, were four of five different boats gathered around us. One of them was so close, you could see the tourists, their cameras still at ready, throwing up on it. It was a regular convention. One person called in the appearance of a whale, and all of them, not wanting to give anyone any money back, were gathering in like sharks.

But the whales were no-where to be seen, and I was beginning to comment to anyone who would listen that no self-respecting whale would show himself in this weather, when there are so many spectators around. Why would it?

We were already an hour into our two-hour trip, and the captain's voice was heard over the loudspeakers again: "Two whales, a mother and a child, were spotted here a few minutes ago, then they dived. Now, these whales can't submerge forever. They've got to get up in order to breathe and they can't hold their breath for more than twenty minutes, so we're just going to wait here until they resurface."

You gotta love how they're making up these stories, I remember thinking to myself. So, now it's a mother and child. The next whale, they'll probably know by first name. As long as the whales themselves remain invisible, they can tell any bloody story they like.

But what really kept me going, holding my stomach down, was the calculation of time. I knew that one hour already passed, and that half an hour is the time it took us to get to where we were. Summing this with an additional twenty minutes of idly waiting until giving up on seeing any whales, we were almost at the end of our two hours and were home free.

So we waited. First twenty minutes, then thirty, then forty. My watch told me that the captain would have to speed back in order to get us into the bay in only twenty minutes, but still we waited. Then the wait became fifty minutes long, and still we didn't move. The only sound were the waves, the wind, and the mad chattering of the annoying Scandinavians.

Just then, the captain's voice came again on the loudspeakers, and I allowed myself a moment of hope that he was going to say we were out of luck for today, and had to head back to shore. Instead, he said: "Eh, does anyone have any pressing obligations to be back on shore?"

Now, I won't lie to you. I wanted to say "yes". I wanted to stand up and say "yes, I'm on my way to sign a two-million dollar deal right at ten-minutes past the hour, and if I'm not back there on time, I'm going to sue you for everything that you've got", but in the end, I was just petrified into place.

A moment later the captain's voice was heard again: "Well, as no one seems to have any need to return to shore soon, we'll just cruise around this area some more trying to spot that pair of whales. They must be out here somewhere, so we'll just look about some more."

I don't think he got as far as turning the engine back on, though, when he needed to update his message. It now said "Oh, apparently there is one woman here who does need to go back, so, I'm sorry folks, but it looks like we're turning around and heading back." All around, of course, were quiet "oh, shucks" from pale-faced, haggard-looking individuals.

The long trip back started. Slowly, gradually, the engine's roar began again and the wild back-forward rocking subsided in favor of the more-regular and less stomach-agitating left-right pendulum motion. The boat turned around and we were on our way.

For about two minutes.

That's when the bad news came. Some woman, quite preposterously, came up to the captain and said that she saw a whale's spout off in the distance. (My first impulse was, of course, to blame the Scandinavians, but I don't think they would have noticed a whale if its dorsal fin would have lifted the boat in the air, they were so busy chatting with each other.)

Now, if we analyze this situation from a logical point of view, that shouldn't have been bad news. It should have been good news: our two hours were up. We have, allegedly, been able to see a whale, and it was now high time for the captain to order full-speed back to the pier. But logic was never one of life's strong points. Instead, what happened was that the captain turned the boat back around, and started chasing the whales along the Tasmanian sea, shouting, every once in a while, sentences of deplorable credibility, such as "I see them now! It's a mother-and-baby group! Wait, they're diving ! Oh, there's a third one now, much closer to us! Look at how big it is!", etc. etc. etc.. Exclamation marks are in original.

The truth of the matter is that there were just spouts to be seen, just water gushes like little geysers, and these were far off next to the horizon and coming once every few minutes. The boat, meanwhile, was chasing these at full speed, just as they, it seemed, were running away. We were, as you may have guessed, by then a whole armada of tourist boats, no more than a few meters apart, so that not even a kamikaze whale would have ventured anywhere near us.

This went on for roughly an hour more. I won't bore you with the details. Near the end, I even managed to see a tail - just one, just once, just for a second or two, hardly more than a speck on the horizon, but a bona-fide whale's tail just the same. Shortly after that, the captain announced that we will be going back and we did.

I was fully expecting having to hold my lunch down for another half hour, as this was the amount of time it took us to get this far into sea, but the captain wasn't sightseeing this time, and less than ten minutes later, we were already disembarking from the boat to the platform, and finally to - good heavens! - rock solid land. The entire trip took a full four hours, exactly that experience that I wanted to avoid to begin with.

So we were, stranded like three shipwreck survivors, trying to get to grips with the fact that we were still alive. Everything was aching. The whole world wouldn't stop moving. And we couldn't go home.

We couldn't go home because there was no way any one of us was going to get on a bus in this state. We were hardly able to walk.

As I had warned in advance, all lunch plans were out the window, but not so our dinner plans... Earlier in the week, we made a dinner reservation at a local restaurant called "The Belgium Pub", and this was scheduled to be two hours in our future. There was no point in canceling it, as we knew we had to get something into our stomach in order to steady the world and because we knew that from an objective point of view we must be starved. A juicy steak at the Belgium Pub was possibly the best thing for us.

Therefore, we started making our long, slow way, on foot, meandering this way and that on legs that seemed to be made of rubber, until we reached the Belgium Pub. This was three quarters of an hour before our official reservation time, but we didn't care. We just wanted a place to sit down and drink some water, hoping that by the time Barak joined us we'll all manage to get some color back into our faces and stop the world from swinging to and fro.

Let me point out, at this time, that the whole of the Belgium Pub was decorated like a large ship, equipped with rudder and all, and I was not enjoying the irony of this one bit.

Barak was the other reason we couldn't cancel our reservation. Two days earlier, when Barak made the reservation in the first place, he was oh-so-keen on choosing the Belgium Pub of all places, and as part of our reservation, he even ordered his food. This may sound strange to you, to order your meal forty-eight hours in advance, but that's what the Belgium Pub requires you to do, if you want to eat "Suckling Pig". It's an item that they require 48 hours of pre-warning in order to be able to serve, and Barak always looked forward to eating it, but never had the opportunity to be so well-planned in advance, to allow him to actually order it.

He even offered me to join him in a second suckling pig, as he was on the phone, but I didn't, because he was not able to describe to me what this is or why it is so good. Apparently, Barak never even saw anyone order a suckling pig before, let alone taste one. His joy was not in the meat, but rather in the difficulty of ordering it. I had different views regarding what constitutes a good meal, and so decided not to order a suckling pig of my own.

As we were sitting in the pub, waiting for Barak to arrive, I was coming to grips with how lucky that choice had been. My stomach was in no mood for anything experimental at this time, so I knew I was going to have the most ordinary of ordinary steaks.

Barak finally joined us, and, somehow, we managed to pass the evening: the three of us were holding on to the fake rails that were part of the decoration of the pub, in order to keep ourselves from falling off; Barak was being Barak. Being Barak, for that evening, consisted of

  • Ordering the suckling pig and eating it, celebrating how wonderful it is with every bite. (I had a taste of it, and was glad I stayed with my entrecote.)
  • Accompanying the suckling pig with a beer sort that, too, was the weirdest the pub had to offer. The strangeness of this choice had to do with the glass it arrived in. This was shaped like a figure eight (meaning it had two round compartments for the liquid, one on top of the other). Barak was able to explain why this shapes makes the beer better than any other, but I was too busy trying to keep my balance to listen.
  • Adding the final touch to the meal and the drink, by talking non-stop about how much he, himself, is not at all prone to sea-sickness, and oh-what-a-shame that he was not able to join us, because he would have probably had a wonderful time had he did.
  • If I had known any rude words in Scandinavian, I believe that this would have been the time to make the best use of them.