The Whitsundays: What sort of holiday requires instructions?
Our first holiday as husband and wife was a disaster. This is not counting the honeymoon obviously, because honeymoons must be resolutely remembered as blissful, otherwise the union is doomed. But our first holiday thereafter, still newlyweds, still getting used to life in tandem: disaster.
No one actually mentioned the word divorce so early in the piece but when you’ve got one sailing boat, five days of unseasonably appalling conditions and two captains overinflating their sailing experience and underreporting their bossiness, that’s the threat lurking behind every curt instruction.
What sort of “holiday” requires instructions? Well exactly. A holiday in which one person must necessarily take charge in a bossy-boots kind of way is no holiday at all. Add to this disgruntlement the necessity to yell to be heard over roaring winds while you veer dangerously off-course, and you start dreaming of a holiday to get over the holiday.
This is what we imagined: the becalmed beauty of the Whitsunday Passage, that spectacular collection of islands protectively nestled inside the Great Barrier Reef, safe from prevailing winds; bright blue languid days gliding over turquoise waters, taking turns at the tiller in our togs; finding our own private cove as the sun goes down; diving into warm pristine waters; the tinkling of intimate laughter; the fizz of champagne and the sizzle of prawns on the barbie.
This is what we got: driving horizontal rain (freezing); cyclonic winds (freezing); nasty, choppy, steel-grey water (freezing). A heaving boat, the relentless slap, slap, slap of the hull, no reprieve in quiet coves, and yelling from stern to bow. I’ll look at the map, you steer! No, I’ll steer, you look at the map! Release the cleat, I said, the CLEAT.
Our combined minutes of sailing experience brought us undone when we hit a reef on day two, with a sickening crunch and lurch onto that pale bit on the map that you’re supposed to avoid. Can’t you see the red lines? The RED LINES!
I’ll save you the pain of days three and four and take you straight to day five: a mayday call, a rescue mission, and a midwater transfer from lurching boat to lurching boat.
A friend of mine once said he reckoned the best test for any new relationship is the camping trip, but the yachting in cyclonic conditions with next-to-no sailing experience trip will do the trick too. If you can make it through that, calmer waters await. Lucy Clark
Tokyo: ‘Please do not be shocked by my appearance’
Before I got on the plane from Barcelona to Tokyo I emailed the friend I was staying with. “Please do not be shocked by my appearance. I look a little different. Also, I won’t have any money when I arrive, so if you can help me sort it out – appreciate.”
My appearance was shocking. I gasped with horror whenever I accidentally glimpsed at myself in the mirror – and that was before I even registered that it was me looking back. My face got worse on the plane ride to Tokyo – whether it was just the cabin pressure or the time that bruises take to bloom. But my friend, meeting me at a Hilton in Tokyo, blanched when he saw me. My eyes were black and swollen shut, one side of my face was also swollen and bruised and a long line of black, badly stitched thread ran down my right temple to my brow. The stitching looked like someone had killed a very black spider on my face but left the corpse there.
I had been assaulted and robbed in Barcelona a few days before, which resulted in two black eyes, a swollen jaw and fractured skull, now dented and stitched together by an exhausted intern who would never win a prize for the neatness of his craftwork.
My friend in Tokyo was a lawyer who dealt with the complexities of transnational airline leases and wore immaculately tailored suits. We made an odd-looking couple as we went from bank to bank with my passport, trying to get money out or get money wired or just access it somehow. In his flawless Japanese he negotiated on my behalf as I stood there – my face a grotesque mask. But each time we were rebuffed. In a chilled Starbucks my friend brought me an iced coffee, which I drank through a straw (my jaw still hurt) and said, “The people in the bank probably think I beat you up and am trying to drain your bank accounts. That’s what it looks like.”
We tried one more bank, and when they said no, tears burst with some difficulty from my swollen eyes, and the sight might have been so weird and sad that they finally said yes.
The rest of the time in Tokyo I didn’t leave my friend’s flat. I was anxious and exhausted, and had started to dream of the assault in shattered and jumbled fragments. In the day, when I should have been exploring Tokyo, I lay on the couch in the cool, dark flat and watched reruns of Dawson’s Creek. Brigid Delaney
New South Wales: Vomit and a blizzard
Holidays with children are wonderfully unpredictable. Our three-week international jaunt with a four-year-old and two-year-old, which included about 50 hours of flying time, was a dream, despite the horror stories involving toddlers and long-haul flights. It was a week-long trip to the snow that turned out to be the family holiday that would bring us to our knees.
We had it all planned. This would be a skiing holiday that would not break the bank. We borrowed gear, waited all year for Aldi specials on kids’ snowboots and booked a family room in the youth hostel.
The journey from Sydney to the snowfields takes about six hours, according to Google, but by the time we had stopped multiple times to intervene in children’s fights, change nappies and for plentiful snack breaks, seven hours had passed and we were only in Canberra. We booked a last-minute room at great expense in a hotel where there was a gathering of tax auditors or something, so the whole place was full.
The next day, we made it to our cosy room at the hostel. Then the projectile vomiting started. Our two-year-old had developed a high fever within minutes of us putting our bags down and was quite ill. Instead of marvelling at the snow swirling across the mountains outside, we were stuck in a room about the size of a small car trying to administer Panadol to a writhing toddler.
I stayed up most of the night worrying about how to drive in the snow to a hospital if things got worse – at one point he started convulsing. Vomit was on all of our clothes, the bedsheets, everything. We couldn’t turn the light on because it would wake our daughter so we had to use mobile phones to try to see what was happening (we hadn’t packed a torch). We couldn’t open the window to get rid of the smell because there was a blizzard outside.
The next morning, the conditions on the mountain were perfect but the little bloke was still very ill. Fresh white powdery snow was everywhere but we had to make the call to pack up and head home, fearing another night of temperatures in the 40s and no access to a doctor. While my wife packed up, I took our daughter to the snowfield to build a quick snowman and ride on a toboggan. In the end, we spent three days travelling, thousands of dollars probably (I didn’t want to add it up) and about 30 minutes – total – at the snow. Patrick Keneally
Sicily: Even shouting, we couldn’t hear each other
I’d pre-booked most of the accommodation for our driving trip around Sicily because with a five-year old the days of “let’s just see where we end up” were well behind us. But there was one day when I wasn’t sure how far across the southern coast we’d drive so I figured we’d just find something that night. “How bad could it be?” I thought. As it turns out, very bad.
Everything was full when we started looking in the late afternoon. Hours later, as the “I’m hungry” whine from the back seat turned into a meltdown, the tourism office in Sciacca said they had a “private rental”. We followed a bloke on a bike to a neat little terrace house near the port, paid him, promised to leave the keys on the living-room table, and wandered across the road to a trattoria for dinner, feeling quite pleased.
But as we returned we noticed the terrace next to ours was setting up chairs and tables on the pavement outside its front door and ours. Well-dressed young Italians were getting out of cars and a very loud sound check seemed to be emanating from our living room.
The terrace next door was a night club. The music began around nine, shaking the walls and vibrating through the floor. The pavement outside our front door was packed with screaming, dancing revellers. The “beer garden” included our back courtyard. Even shouting, we couldn’t hear each other. We drank some beers and tried to entertain our son who was hysterical with exhaustion. Finally, at 4am, the music stopped, but then the clean-up staff smashed bottles and sang football songs until dawn.
We left as elderly neighbours arrived home on the back of scooters, having obviously fled to sleep somewhere quieter. My husband may have thrown the keys into the harbour. Lenore Taylor
Sydney: A normal weekend day (in a bad way)
Our previous expensive family holiday had ended in disaster, so we decided to be smart and holiday at home this time. It would be cheap! It would be fun! We would save time travelling to our destination and just … be.
I would like to write that things went well initially, but they didn’t. On the eve of our staycation my daughter got a temperature and was up all night saying her tummy hurt. Exhausted, we scrapped plans to go fruit picking the next day and stayed local. It was like a normal weekend day. We even went to the supermarket.
The following day we made it to the peach farm and successfully picked two bags of fruit! It was to be the highlight of the holiday. Gastro struck the rest of the family down in the following days. Oh, it was a staycation all right – in the bathroom.
When we finally emerged, thinner, paler and jaded, we had one day left of “holiday”. We went to the supermarket. The car broke down on the way home. Bonnie Malkin
The Netherlands: Car trouble
At one point on this holiday we visited the Vaalserberg, a place where the borders of Netherlands, Belgium and Germany meet. So you can stand in three countries at the same time. That did not make it the worst holiday in itself, but I say that as a preface for a detail about this story. Which is that when we – my dad driving, my mum alongside, a 16- or 17-year-old fractious me in the backseat, my younger sister and brother – headed down a remote country road, I can’t remember what language the road sign saying DO NOT ENTER was actually in. Or maybe it was just a sign with no words. Anyway, the meaning was fairly obvious, in retrospect.
I remember the next bit, which was about 100m away: the wheels of the Nurofen-coloured Talbot spinning round in the mud, countryside flying everywhere like an outtake from Carry on Camping. Us getting out of the car while the local farmers – Dutch? Let’s say they were Dutch – watched amused and incredulous. My dad in his cords, out of the car, pulling clods from tyres. I think then a tractor, and a rope. And an exchange with the Dutch farmers about that sign back there, you know the one saying DO NOT ENTER in one (or possibly two, or none) of four languages. It wasn’t raining; I guess that was a silver lining.
And it also meant that when I became a driver myself I had learned my lesson. I’ve only so far since had to be pulled out twice by a tractor, when I was a reporter in eastern England, both times within weeks of each other. No one told me there was a ditch there. Or there.
Everything was wrong with that holiday. Night terrors. Family dynamics. Me. Flat as a pancake – the land and the atmosphere. It was the family holiday you vow not to go on again – and you don’t until you get older, when you find that your parents are just the sort of people you want to spend time with like that. Strangely enough it produced one of the best all-family pictures we ever had taken, us all smiling. It contained a broader truth but in that week was a hideous lie. My dad had a very dry wit and was not great with cars.
A year later, or before, we got off the motor-rail in Milan and – bang – the exhaust fell off. So we saw not so much of the Piazza del Duomo, quite a lot of the Talbot dealer in the less fashionable outskirts. And he had a line about inventing a new Olympic sport: Battery-carrying on the Pembrokeshire coast. We didn’t think it was much of a goer, but that was before they allowed synchronised swimming, and golf. Will Woodward
The Whitsundays II: Sea rescue in failing light
Tears of terror rolling down my children’s cheeks are the most enduring memory of my worst holiday ever – a sailing trip in the Whitsundays in April 2014 that turned into a sea rescue in fading light.
We probably should have twigged that something was wrong when the outboard motor on the dinghy failed on day one. An engineer was dispatched to repair it and we sailed north towards Hayman Island in a blustering 40-knot easterly.
After lunch the catamaran’s port-side engine failed. Powerful gusts – or “bullets” as they are known locally – tested our anchor overnight as we waited for another engineer. Surely day three would be better.
In the late afternoon we set off for a sheltered overnight mooring. After 10 minutes, the starboard engine’s gauge ran hot. My son came up from the cabin saying he could smell smoke as black clouds billowed out of the stern hull.
If a boat is on fire, you get off – they tend to go up (or down) very quickly.
I deployed the fire extinguisher as my husband lowered the dinghy into the water. The kids, aged eight and nine, sat silently, frozen with fear. I don’t think they had ever seen their parents in emergency mode.
I asked them to find their precious bed teddies – items I knew we could not live without. They say that’s when they knew we were really in trouble. The scraping sound that followed was unmistakeable. We had drifted onto the reef in a falling tide with no idea how much damage had been done … by the fire or the coral.
Eventually the harbourmaster at Hayman Island came to our aid as night fell – but catamarans were permanently struck off our holiday list that day. Alison Rourke
Corsica: ‘It is forbidden to pee in your wetsuit’
Corsica, Zonza in particular, was, according to every person I knew who’d been (two people), a brilliant location for canyoning. You couldn’t go to Corsica and not canyon.
Our tour was jam-packed with outdoorsy types, the true kind– not the kind who only do outdoorsy for one day on one holiday per year. They looked fit, had hiking gear and, unlike us, had brought lunch. As the only non-French speakers, we felt alone and outcast. We went off to find a sandwich, contemplating for the first time that we may have got ourselves into a semi-dangerous situation. Or worse. A just plain dangerous situation.
When our guide told us to “try on” our abseiling gear and that he would check it for safety, I weighed up in my mind the pros and cons of the day as I now saw it.
Pros: Zonza was a great place to try canyoning. And the guides were cute!
Cons: we look like absolute fools, or worse – die! And that would be in front of the cute guides.
Perhaps had I been a bit more careful while hiking down to the canyon, instead of practising in my head all the words I knew in French that I could possibly put together to impress upon the guides and fellow travellers that I was not a complete fool after all, I would not have tripped on those stones, lost balance, fell over and then rolled sideways down the rocky hiking path.
We hadn’t even got to the dangerous part yet. I started to wonder if my £10m travel insurance policy would cover a helicopter coming in to get me right about now when my friend Helen enquired:
“Why didn’t we find out exactly what canyoning was?”
“I don’t know.”
A guide started giving instructions in French. He seemed to be saying pretty important stuff. People were watching him and looking serious. Every now and then some nervous laughter broke out. Eventually he looked at Helen and me and said: “Mathieu will tell you in English.”
After roughly five to seven minutes of watching him talk, Mattieu did. “So in canyoning you jump like this. You take one step forward and push off with the other foot, almost like running. Use your arms to get your balance and then do this.”
He crossed his arms across his chest. That was it. The other guide’s pep talk reduced to three sentences.
Before we left, our guide made one more announcement in English: “It is forbidden to pee in your wetsuit.”
We reached our first drop quite quickly, and were there met with a choice: a two-metre or four-metre jump. So this was canyoning: jumping off rocks into water you can’t see and abseiling down rocks at ever-greater heights.
My first jump turned out to be quite exhilarating and I began to believe the hike may have been the scariest part of the day. Then Helen said there was no way she was jumping off a nine-metre high waterfall. “I probably should have thought that my fear of heights may have affected my ability to do this,” pondered Helen, as she swam through the canyon’s fresh stream, face white and heart pounding.
Let’s just say, the next five hours were long. I’m glad I’ve done it, but I’ll not be canyoning again any time soon. On the plus side, we never had cause to call in that helicopter. Gabrielle Jackson
Tell us your experiences in the comments section below and with pictures and stories via GuardianWitness