Paradise finds

More so even than Brisbane, my trip to Surfers Paradise is one defined by coincidence. The place itself is pretty much what I had expected, long beach, lots of bars, and is too cool for the correct use of apostrophes, but it was what (and who) I found there that caught me by surprise.

Not quite palm trees, but still highly walkalong-able.

When checking out of my hotel in Brisbane I was told/warned that it would be the beginning of Schoolies week. As far as I can make out the closest comparison would be American spring break: young people on a break from school heading to a warm beach in order to drink, party, and whatever those go hand in hand with. There isn’t really a British equivalent as we don’t have the weather for it, but a Butlins adult weekend comes close. Basically it was my initial fears of Australia being full of 18 year olds on their gap years, but also worse. As far as busy weekends go, waiting an hour to cross the road isn’t actually that bad.

As such I stayed out of their way for the most part, and after getting some food in the town/city centre I went on a quick safari but was back at the hostel earlier than I would normally leave for a night out. I got a quick glimpse of what it was like, busy, loud, and was happy to leave it at that. While sat outside an Irish bar I also someone getting a ticket from the police for drinking in a public area. I don’t think he was a schoolie, he wasn’t wearing a lanyard and the amount of obvious tattoos he was sporting would be somewhat obvious on someone still at school, but he was still most likely the best part of ten years younger than me. Not one to laugh (intentionally) at other people’s misfortune, my merriment came from the adults wearing orange “Schoolies Official” T-shirts who got out their phones and were taking pictures of the whole thing.

Back at the hostel away from the hoards I had unknowingly booked to be in the same place at the same time as however, I was staying with another even bigger coincedence.

When you meet other backpackers, conversations often start with the simple question of “where are you from”, and will continue until you find the closest common ground. It’s not often that close as the answer is almost invariably “Germany”, but I have met people like myself who name Bristol as the nearest big place people will have heard of. There have also been one or two from Devon, even closer to home, and also where I once lived for a year, but this is about it.

Here however, I met someone who also shared a connection to the smallest of small Devon villages. In fact it’s so small it doesn’t even have a pub, and despite the fact that Icarus is hardly a name you hear everyday anyway, sharing a bunk bed this far away from home with someone who knows your ex-girlfriend’s parents by name isn’t something you experience everyday.

Keep trying Germany, but I don’t think you’ll break that record.


As anyone who watched the news was no doubt aware, this past weekend Brisbane played host to the G20 summit; more than likely the biggest gathering of important world leaders that you can get. The news probably didn’t give you an account of how it affected people on the ground though, so here’s how things happened from my point of view:

I arrived in Brisbane on a greyhound bus at the Roma street transit centre, which was full of police, and started on the short walk to the Base Embassy where I was staying. Following on from the further police presence I saw leading to, and around, King George square, the security posted outside my hostel was also rather immense. Technically it was there to guard the Hilton a mere two doors down, but it covered just about half of the block. To get to my hostel I even had to walk past a “Pedestrians Use Other Footpath” sign, which made me feel both very cheeky, and very important at the same time. Sometime later I also found out that apparently Putin himself was staying next door, but I bet he didn’t have a picture of Morgan Freeman telling him to wash up in the kitchen.

As well as the presence of both the Queensland Police and S.E.S. (State Emergency Service), barriers were also in place along certain roads, such as Adelaide Street between King George Square and Queen Street Mall, to make sure that pedestrians could only cross the road at specified points. Or in the case of Saturday afternoon and evening, not at all. This road was being used by the various motorcades as they were leaving the convention centre, the main location of the summit, which lies just across the river on Brisbane’s South Bank.

All in the name of world peace.

All in the name of world peace.

Not only was the whole road blocked off from river to river, but even the police and S.E.S. officers guarding it didn’t know exactly when and which motorcades would be coming through. Apparently this was a security precaution, but I reckon it was just the politicians being as awkward as possible, you know what they can be like. I arrived at about six in the evening and had to wait an hour for the rest of my two minute journey back to the hostel. This could have been worse however, as I heard someone mention it had been closed since half past three, and there were others waiting unable to get to work, and therefore not getting paid.

There were some making the most of it however, including a street performer who came to entertain us, but who was largely ignored, and another bystander trying to get the two sides of the road to compete in a mexican wave competition. He didn’t get much response either, but fair play to him for trying.

And to be fair it’s not like all this waiting was for nothing. I did see two motorcades coming from the convention centre, flying the flags of Belgium and Japan, which each consisted of two police motorcycles, a couple of limousines and minibuses, followed by two more police cars. Somewhat later, this time headed in the other direction, was the U.S. presidential motorcade.

I actually forget how many vehicles it comprised of, but at least three of the U.S.’s own limos, and he vehicles in front were probably a full minute ahead of those at the rear. No idea if Obama was inside it or if it always has that much security, but either way I can only hope that something that size, going back to where most others seemed to be leaving, was for more than just someone leaving behind their favourite pen. In fact for all the disruptions it caused, I hope at least the summit achieved something that will benefit us ordinary citizens to make up for it.

Whilst this massive precaution was at least understandable though, it was the closure of an intersection on Sunday night that had people baffled. At the corner of George and Elizabeth Streets, a police car drove up and stopped to announce that no cars could continue, and no-one could even cross the road.

Nevercross the road unless you're sure you can cross back again.

Never cross the road unless you’re sure you can cross back again.

This also included the other police officers who were there by coincidence, and were stopped on their way to get some dinner. So strict was this closure that one woman who even made it across the street, was told to go back to the other side, and yet we could see people crossing just as always at the other end of the block. It was reopened not long after with nothing occurring that could warrant such a closure in the first place, save a motorcade going past the next intersection at which people were allowed to cross. I’m sure there was a reason for this closure somewhere, but have no idea what it was.

Better than London's South Bank.

Better than London’s South Bank.

That said, there was more to the G20 that road closures and a heavy presence on the streets; cultural celebrations were also going on, which included street musicians all throughout the Queens Street Mall. By far the most impressive had to be Colour Me Brisbane though, in which old buildings and modern skyscrapers alike were decorated with coloured lights after sunset. More than this, there was also an interactive desk located on the South Bank from which members of the public could control the lights illuminating the city centre.

This was just the start however, as the Treasury hotel was also decorated with a looped video display depicting the history of Brisbane. At least I think it was the history of Brisbane, but it was very impressive nonetheless.

Steve Irwinning!

It was a bit of a special weekend in Brisbane, and it’s been pure coincidence that I ended up here while so much was going on. Ok, I say pure coincidence, at least it was a week ago when I found out and then made my arrangements to be here. Not that I was bothered about world leaders gathering for the G20 summit (more about that later), I just wanted to make sure I went to Australia Zoo on International Steve Irwin day.

Every year on 15th November, although I have no idea why this day in particular, Australia Zoo celebrates the life of Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin even more than it already does, with special events and stalls designed to raise money and awareness for the Wildlife Warriors campaign. I myself am currently sporting a special limited edition green “Crikey” wrist band to show my support.

Australian royalty.

Australian royalty.

Face painting and caricatures aside, for me the real bonus was seeing the world-famous crocodile show being performed by none other than the Irwin family themselves, Terri, Bindi, and Robert, along with best mate Wes. I should also point out that just prior to the show, Steve Irwin day at the zoo was in fact officially opened by John Edward, friend of Steve’s, and psychic medium. Despite being as close to Steve as he could get both spiritually (on stage with his loved ones) and physically (Steve is buried in a private part of the zoo), he somewhat sensibly didn’t try to send Steve himself an invitation.

I was working in WHSmiths when Steve Irwin was killed, and as a fan of his series I spent the day reading the headlines and stories of the newspapers with as much interest as sadness. One particular quote I remember, which sums up not just Steve but his relationship with those he was close to, was from a friend who said something along the lines of “well he wasn’t going to die in his sleep, was he.” Certainly can’t argue with that, and it was for that passion and, somewhat ironically his lust for life, that I admired him.

His death was about the last I heard of the Irwins, and as much as Terri was often seen with Steve in his TV shows, I knew hardly anything about Bindi and Robert, and was interested to see how much they had followed in their father’s footsteps. Something which as it turns out, is rather a lot.

Their names and images are plastered about the Zoo, and alongside their own book, DVD, and clothes ranges (Terri also has her own brand of Terri’s Cougar Wear 😉 ), it is obvious they have been brought up being no strangers to the spotlight; they were both as equally at ease with the audience of the Crocoseum as they were with the crocodiles inside it.

Like father, like son.

Like father, like son.

The last time I saw Robert was when Steve received much criticism for feeding a crocodile with his then one month old son in his arms. This weekend I saw that same child now just shy of his 11th Birthday in the very same arena feeding that very same crocodile. A big salt water (estuarine) crocodile called Monty. Although best mate Wes kept a tight grip on the back of his shirt, it was obvious that Robert knew what he was doing, likewise with Bindi feeding him from the small balcony set up to display his great leaping ability. The main attractions though (ie. The even more really dangerous stuff), including jumping in the water to illustrate the death roll and enticing Monty back to his cage, was left to Wes.

Behind the jokes and the daredevil acts though, there was a serious side to the display, namely showing just how dangerous these beasts can be. It is amazing how still the water appears when they’re gliding through it, and how quickly they can snap out of it on to the shoreline. It all leaves you with a feeling of wonder as to why people would risk getting anywhere near them in the wild.

The more active animals were definately on display.

The more active animals were definitely on display.

As for the rest of the Zoo itself, it’s smaller than you might imagine considering it’s reputation, but no less impressive for it. Unfortunately on a day which gets even Australians complaining about the heat, it seems that the favourite activity of several animals is to hide way in the shade, which isn’t so impressive but you can hardly blame them. I caught only a quick glimpse of a Tasmanian devil, but luckily there were a fair amount of zoo keepers parading animals for all the guests to enjoy, and to be distracted by when the Irwin’s are out in the zoo itself. Not that it worked the whole time, and all credit to Bindi, she hardly seemed fazed when people started shouting for a wave.

It is hardly surprising that on a day when it wasn’t just the children playing in the sprinklers, the Africa enclosure was perhaps the most active. They weren’t moving a great deal, but at least the giraffes and zebras were standing up, which is more than I can say for some others. Most active aside from the tigers at least, who also had their own show, and happily played with a zoo keeper whilst her colleague told us all about them and the sheer drastic levels of how endangered they are.

They really are just big cats.

They really are just big cats.

And that’s what Steve Irwin day is all about. It’s about the things that he himself was passionate about, not just saving wildlife and saving species from extinction, but educating others so that they can join in the fight as well. It was the statistic that there are 1,500 less tigers in the wild than seats in the crocoseum that really surprises the most, and leaves most experts wondering if there will actually be any tigers left in the wild at all by 2020.

And then whilst swimming in his pool, Clarence the Sumatran tiger did a big poo right in front of the glass for everyone to laugh at. He obviously knows how to entertain an audience as well.

Frasing the stakes

Like the Whitsunday Islands, a trip to Fraser Island is one of those things that many backpackers wouldn’t consider a trip along the East coast to be complete without. These trips vary from one day whistle-stop bus tours, to a three-day self drive camping expedition, as was the trip I went with. More than just three days and two nights however, it actually began the day before.

As was shown by the unfortunate death of Jade Fox on a self drive expedition mere days before my own, Fraser Island can be a dangerous place. For all the jokes about everything in Australia being able to kill you, nothing here is as dangerous as the underestimation you bring with you. After being introduced to the small groups we would be sharing a 4×4 with, we therefore had the all important safety briefings which covered two main topics: driving, and the wildlife.

Although the largest sand island in the world, Fraser is still part of Australia, only ten minutes by barge at its closest point, and so still contains many dangerous and venomous wild animals, including the four most toxic snakes in the world. Warning us about these, and how to avoid them, was Harps, who claimed both Maori and Aboriginal heritage, and whose family owned the land on which we would be camping. Although there is little that can be done if bitten by one if the four most toxic snakes in the world in such a remote location (but staying calm rather than panicking will help double your life expectancy to twenty minutes) he did point out the error on the driving DVD which advised us to remain safe from dingoes by covering our nipples and walking back slowly. If I remember rightly he described this as, and I believe it was a technical term, “bullshit”, and told us to be aggressive and throw sand in their eyes instead. As much as I wanted to see a dingo on this tour, I was glad this was information I wouldn’t need to use.

The following morning we awoke nice and early for a pancake breakfast before heading over to the hostel next door and our vehicles for the next three days. The loading of our chariots and another briefing from Harps later, and we were on our way to the ferry. Due to the dangers of the island, particularly those stemming from underestimating driving conditions, all self drive expeditions must now have a lead driver and tour guide, with our convoy of four 4x4s being headed up by Brendan.

Brendan. Also plays a mean kazoo.

Brendan. Also plays a mean kazoo.

Brendan is just the kind of guy you would want to lead a trip such as this. Old enough have the experience and handle the responsibility, but yet still young enough to be on the same wavelength as those he is leading round the island, and more importantly have a drink with them without looking like he’s having a mid-life crisis. Like all good tour guides he also has great taste in bad jokes, and his telling of stories from previous trips kept us just as entertained as warned of the potential dangers around every corner; the kind of stories that you know are behind every warning sign that should be common sense but people often need explaining anyway. He also has the mightiest beard I’ve seen travelling out here, possibly ever, which also gives him the added quality of looking like how you think a proper Australian Bushman should be. Not that Fraser Island can really be considered bushland, but it is certainly one of the wildest areas along Australia’s east coast. And that’s just the tourists.

Tours and hostels are often graded by backpackers on a scale of chilled out to party, and thanks to the Butchulla Aboriginals who allow the tour to camp on their land, we had no 10pm noise curfew like those who camp on National Park land. This resulted in drinking games that chanted the phrase “let’s get fucked up”, followed by a select few doing just that. In fact other than the common courtesy of helping inebriates to their feet and taking them back to their own tents and not your own, the only rules we were specifically told to follow were not to whistle, and not to spit in the fires. Not something you usually have to abide by on campsites, but the Aboriginals associate whistling with evil spirits and bad luck, and spitting is seen as a sign of disrespect to something which has kept them warm, fed, and alive for thousands of years.

This was more than a fair compromise for what the Butchulla people allowed on their site, and as someone who can’t remember the number of the National Parks I’ve hiked through since being here, yet can count sips of goon on just one hand, I have to admit that I did have doubts as to whether I was on the right tour or not. I’ve definitely been more attracted to the chilled out end of the backpacker scale, but my worries were unfounded and it soon became apparent there was enough room for all. Perhaps the crux of this was when we started the campfire. There were a few of us who tried to get it going and once it was up and roaring, just at as the goon drinkers couldn’t be pulled away from their fixation, neither could we from ours.


Not just beautiful, it also makes you beautiful too!

Not that the trip was all about drinking, as Fraser has plenty of scenic attractions which we explored during our three days on the island, the first of which was lake Mckenzie. A freshwater lake with a shore of silicon sand, we were more than happy to just wade and sit in the still water, and exfoliate our skin with the most natural treatment you can get. Although the majority of driving on Fraser was along its 120km eastern beach, the forest ‘road’ to and from the lake was somewhat more extreme, and the main reason I didn’t mind my driving licence being less than a year old and not allowing me to sit in the driver’s seat. I’m sure there was also more than one of my group sat in the passenger seats of car one who was glad that for the whole of the first day at least, that responsibility fell to Brendan.

The second day we switched cars with another group to spread out the driving, and found ourselves in a car that had been christened ‘Bruce’, and anyone who has been following this blog will know how happy that made me. First stop his morning was Eli creek, also known to the locals as Hangover creek, due to its ability to cure one. Whatever you call it though, Eli creek is a natural freshwater spring which flows into the sea, and is just about deep enough to either gently float down, or perform the most glorious impression of a salmon that anyone could ever witness.

Not the only dangerous  wreck that has landed on Fraser.

Just one of several wrecks I saw on Fraser.

Before we had chance to become too relaxed and beach ourselves in the shallow pool by the sea, we headed off to see something which had instead been beached since 1935, the wreck of the S.S. Maheno. Built in Scotland it was an Edwardian cruise liner which had later been sold to a Japanese company for scrap metal, but become shipwrecked thanks to a cyclone only four days after leaving Sydney.

From this maritime low we moved on to the dizzying heights of Indian head. Not one for the squeamish as it is a sheer drop cliff but with stunning views over the sea below. The area just behind the cliff face also has an equally impressive view of a whole host of tourists stood about a single pace past all of the ‘do not pass here’ signs.

Last and somewhat least on the day’s itinerary was Champagne Pools; natural rock pools large enough to bathe in, although during our short visit the champagne (bubbly sea water) was hardly flowing, in contrast to the wind which had picked up and brought along some clouds with it. This may not have met our expectations, but the day was rounded off by something that far exceeded them.

The clouds had gone by the time we had made our Generation Game style DIY self catering dinners, and we headed down to the beach for something which had escaped my attention for my whole life, a moonrise. Whilst these are obviously something that happen all the time it is not something that people pay close attention to, and this one was nothing short of spectacular. It shimmered with a red glow as it slowly made its way over the horizon, which being on Fraser’s east coast, couldn’t have been more setting if it tried.

From the most relaxing sight to the most eventful night however, as what followed could also be used as one of Brendan’s warning stories. I tell it you now only in the hopes that others may learn from my mistakes, and also because of my sincerest held belief that you can only laugh at others if you first laugh at yourself.

Although I never saw any dingoes on the island, there is more than just the wildlife travellers come to see. Rats for example, which being smaller were able to get past the dingo proof fence surrounding the camp site. Due to my own levels of underestimation/forgetfulness, I had also left some muesli bars in my bag, inside the tent, and despite someone else in my own group making the same mistake, was awoken by the sound of scurrying through the leaves next to my tent. It was at this point I took the situation as seriously as I should have done in the first place, scared it off as much as I could without waking those around me, and proceeded to move all my yummy items to the trailer far away from my tent.

So far, so my fault and I accept that, but take no credit for the fact that upon returning to my tent the already dodgy zip decided to break. Considering there was not only a rat that was interested in the contents (or what it thought was still the contents) of my tent, and that the very first thing we had to do upon arrival was check for spiders who also like the insides of tents, at 3 o’clock in the morning I decided to spend the rest of the night with Bruce. Three fidgety hours of on and off sleep later and I figured (hoped) rats and spiders probably weren’t interested in tents during daylight hours, and made my way back for one or two hours of proper sleep before the next day properly began. I managed one, until I was rudely awoken by the fact that daylight hours were more preferable to the Australian flies who decided to join me.


Inviting even without the hike to get there.

And so the day had begun and it was to be our last on the island, but the moon pulled one more trick and the higher than usual tides meant that we had to wait longer than planned on the beach to cross the high creek waters. After an early lunch spent waiting/relaxing, we made our way to Lake Wabby, which like McKenzie was inland and required a rough journey to get to, albeit this time on foot. The effort was worth it however, as the forest path soon opened out to a large sandblow, and the lake nestled nicely below the dunes. As if this wasn’t enough we also had another free beauty treatment courtesy of the nibbling fish who live there (Fraser seriously needs to break into the therapeutic market), and who were loving the now healing burn I gave myself two weeks ago. Walk back notwithstanding, I couldn’t think of a more relaxing way to end our time on Fraser island.

Although I can’t speak for the rest of the group, I personally boarded the barge back to the mainland with a car full of new friends, great memories I’ll treasure, and a rat sized bite mark in my journal.

The real Mackay

Remember how I said that good things happen when you actually talk to the people you meet whilst travelling? Well my recent trip to Cape Hillsborough proves it that little bit more, even if it wasn’t me who started the talking.

I decided to travel to Mackay as it was a place I had heard several people say they were going to, but knew very little about, and what better way to find out than by going there. I knew there was a National Park nearby (although where isn’t near one round here, Mackay even has two), but when I arrived at the hostel I was told that the tours weren’t running as there was not enough people interested. The receptionist also told me that one of my roommates did want to go however, and that it would be possible to rent a car, as long as we arranged it by nine that evening, and picked it up early the following morning.

If you can't tell, it's a squid.

If you can’t tell, it’s a squid.

Having arrived in the early evening and with other things to catch up on (you can’t put off laundry forever), there really wasn’t much time to arrange anything. Therefore I spent the next day just exploring a bit of the city, which included a sculpture walk along the river, ending at an environmental reserve for migrating birds. This walk also took me past an abandoned and somewhat derelict fishing port. Whilst I had got used to seeing as many empty shop windows as I did back home, I would have to say that what I saw in Mackay had to be the most run down area I had been to since coming to Australia. It is for this reason that I considered the yarn-bombed tree I found in the civic district to be even more charming. As long as its people could brighten their parks with multicoloured woolen decorations, then the city might be down but it would never be out.

Best. Tree. Ever.

Best. Tree. Ever.

And watching me watch this tree, was another backpacker recognising her own kind. She came up to me and started talking about Mackay, asking how long I was here for, and if I was as interested in seeing the National Parks as she was. Laundry done, I indeed was, and skip to the end, we agreed to rent a car together the next day. It even turned out that a whole car was cheaper than a single tour ticket would have been, and after speaking to my roommate again, were able to split the bill three ways rather than two. Cheaper transport, and a new group of friends to experience the park with; Bargain!

There was some confusion the next morning as Lisa had been offered a scenic morning flight round the area before we were due to set off, but not from the airport where we had to pick up the car. Philip, my roommate had also met another guy at the hostel who needed to go to the airport to catch a flight, and who, unlike the taxi driver, very patiently waited with us while Lisa literally ran to meet us. Another cab later and we were at the airport, in our Hyundai, and on our way. In the wrong direction, but on our way nonetheless.

A U-turn and closer inspection of the road signs later and we, or should that be me, were/was driving along the Bruce Highway to Cape Hillsborough. As a side note, obviously Australia has more than one comedy stereotype, and thanks to Monty Python in particular, I have to admit that I love the fact the main highway between Cairns and Brisbane is called Bruce. If I was going to drive on any road in the whole country, well I’m glad it was that one.

We got to Cape Hillsborough a little later than we had originally planned, but had made it and set about enjoying ourselves. Due to the time we began our walk along the beach, where there was an outcrop that became a separate island at high tide. We headed for this straight away, although took our time along the glistening sand. We waded in the waves not just because the sand was burning our feet, but also because of the fact that due to the combination of quite literally the sun, sea, and sand, it looked as though it we were walking amongst flakes of gold, it was that shiny.

The shoes had to go back on in order to make our way across a stretch of rocks to the outcrop, but you can’t have everything. Once here we were surprised at just how long and strong some spiders’ webs can be, climbed the gentle cliffs and saw sea turtles down amongst the crashing waves, and had lunch with a nice Australian family who lived nearby. Not that I can blame them at all, if I lived nearby this is where I’d choose to spend a large portion of my time as well.

There was still enough time to take a photo.

There was still enough time to take a photo.

We said good-bye as they made their way back to the beach, and we continued exploring some more. We climbed higher still and saw what had to have been a shipwreck hidden in the rocks down below. Looking back at the beach we had been walking along not an hour ago we saw the family had made their way back across the now slightly thinner stretch to the mainland, and we all had fun waving and making loud noises at each other across the distance. This new path we had chosen was a short one however, and soon we were making our way back to the thinning stretch ourselves. Or at least we would have been if it was still there. Instead we were making our way to the two faster than we had realised incoming tides, that had now joined in the middle.

Our pace quickened as soon as we noticed this, and needless to say our feet, ankles, and legs got wet as we wade our way back to the mainland. The family was there on the other side waiting for us, and it we began to wonder if their earlier shouting and waving at us was actually a warning rather than just simply being friendly? Either way they were friendly nonetheless, and for the next stretch of our walk we had a six-year-old tour guide, showing us the way along the hillside path that ran parallel to the beach. In fact so eager was she to help us on our way, she wondered why we were stopping at the “dead-ends” when the path went of in another direction. As much as the path did indeed not go anywhere when we got to these, I think I still prefer our definition of calling them “amazing views”.

Luckily the rest of her family caught up with us about the time we began to wonder what they might think of her going off so far with three strangers, and all of them continued on their way when we reached another outlook. By the time we had made it back to the beach it is fair to say that we were somewhat exhausted by our hike (how kids can have so much energy I’ll never know), and much use was made of a picnic bench.

Well it's definately a marsupial.

Well it’s definitely a marsupial.

Unfortunately by this time it was getting darker and also a little colder, so we were unable to cover any more trails, but all agreed that what we had seen had been more than worth it, and set off back to the car. This small walk involved seeing either a small kangaroo or wallaby (we couldn’t agree on which one), but the drive back to Mackay involved the more alarming sight, and heat, of a rather tall fire by the side of the road. Unsure what to do we reasoned that if it wasn’t a controlled fire then the fire service would have already been called by the occupants of either the nearby house or parked up jeep, but we would mention it when we got back to Mackay.

We arrived back at the airport ready to drop off the car and grab a taxi back, which is exactly what we would have done if the airport wasn’t actually closed at half past seven in the evening. Luckily the rental was for 24 hours and 59 minutes, as it looked like I’d be coming back tomorrow morning.

Lazy Whitsundays

When I first bought my ticket out to Australia, taking a sailing trip round the Whitsunday Islands was first on my list of things to do whilst out here. Like almost everything I’ve done since arriving, it hasn’t disappointed. I actually started writing this post onboard the Ragamuffin II, moored at Stovehaven Bay having just watched the sunset across the ocean. I know I’m still behind in posting on this blog, and by the time you’re reading this it will have been a few days ago, but it’s one of those places where it just feels right to write about it whilst being here.

You had to be there.

You really had to be there.

I can’t fully explain the atmosphere here tonight, but it should help if I were to tell you that we also listened to Lonely Island’s On A Boat whilst the sun was in its last moments of actually setting behind the horizon. Hopefully this gives a more typical view of what this trip has been like: beautiful, serene, and just a really good laugh.

Picking out an individual highlight would be hard, but obviously snorkeling over the coastal reefs was an experience not to be forgotten. “Sea Turtles, I met one” says Marlon in Finding Nemo, but I floated there quite comfortably on my noodle as a family of five gently swam underneath minding their own business, fish feeding off their shells as though they were nothing more than extravagant dinner plates. Three of us have also been scuba diving, although I can’t say this is something I was particularly adept at. Whilst it was amazing to be so close when watching the schools of multicoloured fish swimming between the coral, it’s not as relaxing when you’re either sinking too close to it (in some cases accidentally kicking it with your flippers) or floating too much the instructor has to pull you back down. Whilst I’m sure pollution is playing it’s part, I’m now almost convinced that humanity’s biggest impact on the Great Barrier Reef is inexperienced tourists like myself who can’t quite balance properly.

You should relly hve been here, too.

You should really have been here, too.

We also had an excursion to Whitehaven beach, which is so white it stands out even by Australian standards. It is made up of between 95% – 98% silicon (exact figures vary according to the source), most likely originating from a large quartz deposit that was eroded away over time. Having spent a few hours here, believe me when I say this is a natural beauty that even an unflattering stinger suit can’t detract from.

More than this though, a large part of the fun has just simply been living with a group of mostly strangers in such close quarters; there’s ten of us on this trip with a crew of two, although with a couple of spare bunks. Most of us are in our twenties (*I later found out it’s more like twentysomething looking thirtysomething year olds, must be something in the sea air?), and there is a mixture of native English and German speakers, but not one of us hasn’t enjoyed spending three days and two nights together in a small space that anywhere else would be described as cramped. Some of us have steered, and there are those of us who have helped heave the ropes to the barking orders of Arnold Schwarzenegger when the sails needed raising, but even without these, just through the spirit of adventure, it felt as though we came together as a crew.

The Ragamuffin lived up to its name.

Us Ragamuffins lived up to the name.

Like proper travelling should be, we’re getting to know and enjoying the company of people we’ve never met before, mostly from other countries even if we are all European. I also learnt to play Backgammon sitting on deck underneath constellations of stars I had never seen before, but light pollution aside this is something that probably doesn’t happen as much as it should anymore. Whilst my travelling round America ten years ago was a fully organised trip rather than the plan it as I am going along I am doing now, it is amazing just how much has changed with the introduction of modern technology. At first I was annoyed at the lack of available wifi in certain hostels, but now, other than it’s rather useful ability to organise and book where I’m going next, I enjoy not having to rely on it. Or I should say that it’s actually only relying on it in an old habit dying hard kind of way, and it’s been nice to be taken away from that.

There have been too many occasions where, like real life, people sit and communicate with their screens rather than each other; something I can’t say I’ve been immune to as there have been evenings where I sat with my tablet when I could (should?) have instead introduced myself to other backpackers. Maybe it’s just me being on the run, but isn’t travelling meant to be something more than real life?

Either way, cameras and GPS aside, screens weren’t something that people paid attention to during our time together on the Ragamuffin II, and that is something I will always take away from my trip.

The Wolverines were also singing What A Bloody Great Day To Go Sailin’ as the sun went down. Good for them, but we had three.

The attractions of Magnetic Island

The story goes that Magnetic Island was given its name after Captain Cook believed it was full of iron deposits that were causing problems with his ship’s compass. In reality, I think he just made it up as an excuse to stay there longer, and I really can’t say I blame him.

A small island which is a suburb of Townsville on the nearby mainland, aside from a few small pockets of residential areas it is made up primarily of National Park. A single bus service runs from one end of the island to the other, but for many people the most preferable way of getting around was the network of hiking trails. Far from paved pathways, they often involve traipsing and even climbing over outcropping rocks, but are more than worth it. Particularly the fort trail.

A commanding structure.

A commanding structure.

Back in WWII, Magnetic Island was home to troops who manned the communication and control towers built to aid Australia’s defences in the Pacific. High up in the island’s hills, they now offer tourists the same spectacular views that first served the armed forces. The buildings still stand, and although the gun turrets and most of the equipment no longer remain, there is still plenty left, complete with information boards along the walk to tell the fascinating story of such a small outpost. Once you reach the communication tower there is also an audio display offering a brief oral history from those who lived through it, but the island’s wildlife has also taken back what has been left behind; I saw a small family of bats nestled inside the powder keg.

As Cook didn’t have the opportunity to sample this tower’s 300 degree view, it is this wildlife, of which the bats are merely the tip of the iceberg, that people have been delighted at for years and decades. I myself saw wild rock wallabies in more than one location when exploring the coastline, and with thanks to an Australian family who pointed them out, wild koalas in the trees near the Sphinx Outpost.

You don't see these just anywhere.

You don’t see these just anywhere…

Something that I personally found fascinating as a foreign tourist, it seems that it was no less breath-taking to those who have spent their whole lives in this marvelous country. Whilst watching them I also began to chat with a man from Melbourne, discussing my delight at seeing wildlife much more exotic than Exmoor ponies, and even his at seeing them in the wild, despite growing up next to a koala sanctuary. He even chose not to go out drinking with his friends in order to save the money he needed to make trips like this; surely the biggest sacrifice an Australian can make.

Magnetic Island is one of those places that makes me glad I grew up playing RPGs which taught me to hunt for treasure in every nook and cranny. (Yes, the koalas had to be pointed out to me, but you have to keep an eye on those stones you’re climbing over as well.) More than chests containing potions and accessories though, I found countless lizards rustling through the leaves on the ground, each no bigger than a spider hiding under the bean bags at the YHA hostel. In comparative sizes yes the lizards were fairly small, and yes the spider was massive. Not that I should be surprised at this abundance, as the YHA seemed to house, or at least feed, as many animals as the woodland. Aside from the koala sanctuary (but who needs a guided tour when you’ve seen them in the wild?) which was also situated on the hostel grounds, I saw a possum feeding on left over pizza crusts, and I can add an entire flock of Rainbow Larokeets to the list of animals I’ve hand fed since being here. Certainly it was the most memorable, although the scratches seem to have healed nicely.

It was another discovery that was to be perhaps the most unique however. It goes without saying that surfing is a large part of Australian culture, and I’ve always thought highly of the fact that water safety is as much a part of that as the sport, although I guess it has to be in a country where everything can kill you. And it was whilst walking along, admiring the Surf Live Saving Club building in Alma Bay (it has a really nice mural), easily the furthest place I have ever been away from home, that I was quite surprised to find another Coomber.

Saying I met Brian Frederick Coomber may not quite be accurate, but I later found out that the plaque describing “the last resting place of” was about as close as I could get, his ashes were actually placed inside the wall. And I found this out after briefly meeting his wife, Lynn, when going to the island’s Cane Toad Races, organised and held by the SLSC.

Going once....

Going once….

Something I attended merely out if curiosity, I have to say toad racing provided a great evening’s entertainment, as well as converting tourist dollars into charity donations, even if the rules aren’t quite what you’d expect. Each race consists of eight toads kept inside a small circle, which are then released, and the first to leave the larger outside circle, wins. So far so simple, but rather than simply placing traditional bets, the toads are auctioned off to a single bidder before the race starts, and the total money raised is then split between the ‘owner’ of the winning toad and, in this case, the Magnetic Island Kindergarten.

So at least my $30 went to a good cause.

Falling about all over the place

When I got back to Cairns the first thing I did was collect the debit card I had been waiting a little over a week for. Naturally the second thing was to spend well over a week’s worth of money. Not that I was just squandering it because I could, now it was time to book trips and tours and do the kind of things you come to the East Coast of Australia for.

The first of these was for the very next day with a company called Barefoot tours. The driver/tour guide of which, Brett, was indeed barefooted. Not far from Cairns is an area known as the Atherton Tablelands, and this was where our small group would spend the day exploring, sightseeing, and most importantly, swimming. But not before picking up our final passenger however, Steve the pet rock.

Inside the Cathedral.

Inside the Cathedral.

After a quick stop at the rather impressive Cathedral Fig Tree we arrived at Lake Eacham, which had formed in the crater of a long since dormant volcano. Dipping my feet in the almost cold water I decided the only way to immerse myself was indeed by jumping in at the deep end. Maybe the water by the pontoon wasn’t quite as deep as the deepest point of 70m, but deep enough that I could dive in, not reach anywhere near the bottom, and still take a much longer time than expected to surface. While not everyone joined me swimming in the refreshingly cool water there were others who decided to jump in via the overhanging tree off the shore. The tree that Brett told us we weren’t allowed to jump from, whilst nodding his head somewhat emphatically. This carefree swim was followed by a brunch of fresh fruit, muffins, and Tim Tams, before we drove on to our next destination, Dinner Falls and The Crater.

Not needing much more of an explanation, it is also known as the Mount Hypipamee Crater, but pretty much is The Crater. Like Eachem it was a dormant volcano that had filled with water, but the lookout at the top of the crater is as high above the surface as the Sydney Harbour Bridge is above its own harbour.

Dinner Falls is served cold.

Dinner Falls is served cold.

Somewhat colder than Lake Eachem, at Dinner Falls we all took turns cringing at the yelps of those in line ahead of us, before adopting comical poses and jumping in ourselves. We then swam across to the waterfalls, sitting underneath which was not unlike receiving a massage from someone with cold hands.

Really cold hands.

So perhaps not that fabulous afterall...

So perhaps not that fabulous after all…

Millaa Millaa falls was next, which despite not actually being the waterfall from Peter Andre’s Mysterious Girl video as we had been told (I checked when we got back, that one’s in Thailand), it was still the one from the Herbal Essences advert. As much as I couldn’t gloat to all the Peter Andre fans I know back home, at least my fabulous hair flick photo was still valid.

Before reaching our final waterfall however, there was an unplanned stop that surprised all of us when the bus ran out of fuel. It would have been nice if the bus had done this at one of the waterfalls we came to enjoy instead of by the side of a road in-between, but I guess you can’t have everything. A few of us got out to stretch our legs whilst at the same time letting them get bitten by mosquitos, and waited for the RACQ to come and lend a hand. One with a Jerry can in it. As much as it was an inconvenience, I merely adopted my attitude of not worrying because it’s no worse than anything that’s happened back home, and still smiling because at least I was in Australia. And not just Australia, but north Queensland also has some of the most breathtaking scenery I have ever seen.

Despite being so near the coast, the Atherton Tablelands actually reach up to 1,200 metres above sea level, and are part of the world heritage listed Wet Tropics. Our day consisted of driving through pasture lands and rainforests, and more than one national park. We only stopped in the middle of a patch of tall grass that wasn’t that exciting, but was still tall Australian grass.

Luckily there was still enough light to enjoy Josephine Falls, and the small natural water slide that had formed on one of the smooth rocks. Not as long here as we had hoped, but it was still enjoyable nonetheless, as was having our afternoon tea on the party bus back to Cairns. It had neon lights and everything.

It’s worth waiting around Four

To help break up my time waiting for something which I had assumed would be sorted for me (it seems that both red tape and my incorrect assumptions are the same the world over), when my initial week in Cairns was over I decided to spend a few days in Port Douglas; a small town just to the north, and travelling to which involves one of the nicest coastal drives in all Australia. Not having seen much of the country so far I decided to give the local bus driver the benefit of the doubt when he proclaimed this, and I was not disappointed. Besides, even if he was just being biased, then I could easily live with this stunning view being mediocre in comparison to even better ones yet to come.

Scenic drive over with, the town itself was also well worth seeing. Although the Port O’Call hostel was about 20 minutes out of the main town, a 20 minute walk along Four Mile Beach just wasn’t long enough in my opinion. But then when a beach is this exotic, four miles isn’t anywhere near long enough either. There’s probably not many people who can claim to have walked in a straight line from Australian coast to Australian coast either, especially in a single day, but thanks to Port Douglas being situated on a small peninsula, it is something that technically I can say I’ve done.

Native to Australia, obviously Cassowaries can kill you as well.

Native to Australia, Cassowaries can of course kill you.

One of many towns on the Great Barrier Reef coastline it also offers snorkeling and diving trips, but the main attraction unique to Port Douglas is most likely the Wildlife Habitat. An open plan animal park in which the dangerous animals, such as the cassowary, are fenced off, but everything else is open plan. You’re free to wander through at your own pace, birds flying freely over your head, and wallabies scratching at your pockets in search of the $2 bag of roo food they can no doubt smell. This can be bought from the entrance desk or cafe, and can be used to hand feed all manner of animals in the grasslands. Most popularly kangaroos and wallabies as the name would suggest, but also the ducks and geese, many of them wild, who have learnt the easiest way to get an easy meal.

In fact rather than animals escaping, it seems that species entering the Habitat’s three different environments, grasslands, wetlands, and rainforest, are the bigger problem. On a guided tour we were told of eels that are able to swim into the Habitat’s waterways, and apparently it’s the unpaid interns’ job to catch them and feed them to the crocodiles also living there. They have both fresh water and estuarine varieties (the latter more commonly but inaccurately known as salt water crocs), although these were most definitely wanted and fenced off inhabitants.

Judging from the lack of signage around it, I’m also guessing the rather large tent spider nest was also an unplanned addition. A presumption that was added to when I saw a similar nest, what I can only describe as a cloud of webstrings with no less than a dozen occupants, situated quite happily in a bush located between someone’s front garden and the pavement. I never did check if they were venomous though.

What $18?

What $18?

The Habitat is also one of several places (but only in Queensland) to offer holding a koala opportunity, but for $18, I was more than content to ask a passing stranger to take a photo of me hand feeding a kangaroo. It’s cheaper, to me at least it’s just as Australian, and according to another backpacker at the hostel afterwards, koalas have sharp claws and smell.

The ticket I was given in exchange for my entrance fee was also valid for four days, although the fact that the “four” was written in pen over the top of the printed “two”, leads me to assume this was an off-season special. Not in any rush to head back to Cairns, and quite content where I was, I extended my stay, and took full advantage of the even more extra days on my habitat ticket. After this second visit I walked the long way back to the hostel, again taking a relaxing stroll along Four Mile beach.

To say this was the most tropical beach I have ever experienced is somewhat of an understatement. On one side you have the clear waters of not just the Pacific Ocean, but also the Barrier Reef, and on the other you have dense foliage of palm trees. I’ve been to beaches in Florida and even Kenya, but the one advantage Four Mile has over all of these, is that the only thing it was lacking was other people.

Still should have been longer.

Still should have been longer.

Every now and then there was a couple taking a similar stroll in the opposite direction, and sunbathers dotted around every couple of hundred metres or so, but that was about it. Most people stuck to the north end between the main high street and swimming area, but other than that, almost nothing. Certainly nothing even close to the built up-ness you might expect, and which somewhat spoiled other beaches I’ve been to. Until the day I die I can only hope that Butlins never discover it.

And it’s not just the view, but also the general atmosphere of the place. Walking along I could only hear two things: the gentle waves lapping at my bare feet as I was walking, and the tropical James Bond motif that popped into my head. The one from You Only Live Twice that Robbie Williams stole for Millennium.

In fact I have to say that beach was rather inspiring in terms of songs just singing themselves in my head, as the first day I arrived it had been R.E.M.’s Living Well Is The Best Revenge. Can’t disagree with that at all.

… and (lack of) exercise

My one night in Brisbane was merely a stopover before starting my proper journey along Australia’s East coast in Cairns; I figured I’d begin in the north and make my way down towards Sydney and Melbourne where I would catch up with some friends over here. This time of year I’d also be enjoying the sun, but keeping one step ahead of it as it got hotter and brighter. Although I was heading south for the winter as far as not being in Britain was concerned, I also wanted to make sure I wouldn’t overdo it in the Australian summer. As much as this plan is still pretty much in tact, and although I had booked a full week in Cairns to begin with, my southbound plans took a while longer to get off the ground than I had expected.

I booked a package deal which included membership to Job Search Australia along with several other benefits, one of which was an Australian bank account. Arriving at the Calypso, the Base associated hostel in Cairns, early on a friday evening meant I had the weekend to relax after my flights, which I thoroughly took advantage of. I went to the Job Search desk early monday morning, where my induction to the world of job seeking in Australia was unhindered by the Labour Day public holiday. Thanks to things like data protection however, I had to sort out my bank account myself, although was told how to do this. Thanks to the holiday, I also had to wait until the next day to sort this out.

Tuesday morning though I went to the Cairns branch of the Commonwealth bank, and also opened a savings, and superannuation accounts alongside the general current account into which I deposited my travellers cheques. Old fashioned I know, but online transfers weren’t really the thing last time I went travelling, and at least the cheques didn’t come with transfer and/or currency conversion fees. But one thing they did come with, was a three business day clearing period, and I was also told my debit card would take seven to 10 days to arrive. Despite this however, I’d done more to plan for a pension in a long weekend in Australia than I had in 29 years back in Britain. As much as I had to wait to get to the money in this account, I did still have a British debit card, and also an STA travel card, so wasn’t completely without access to any money, just limited as to how much I could spend. Time to get comfy, and enjoy Cairns for a while.

Cairns Lagoon.

Cairns Lagoon.

In Down Under, Bill Bryson describes Cairns as having a “devotion to the tourist dollar”, which is pretty accurate. “Every second business offered reef cruises or snorkeling expeditions, and most of the rest sold T-shirts and postcards” sums up the centre almost perfectly, although whether they are merely a new addition or Bryson chose not to mention them, there are also a number of adult shops and dancing establishments. I saw one particular climbing frame and slide in the street just in front of a store with a large “erotica” advertisement, and thought about taking a photo of this strange juxtaposition. Aussie laid back nature notwithstanding, getting noticed with a camera in a children’s play area before my trip even began probably wasn’t worth the risk though, and so I decided against it.

Having to survive on my own rather limited supply of tourist dollars, I instead spent my time in Cairns doing not much other than relaxing in the hostel, chilling by the lagoon, and dining on $5 pizzas from the Pizza Hut across the road. Needless to say, it probably wasn’t the best week in terms of working on my beach body, but then it’s not like I had one to begin with anyway.

Notice the tape round his mouth. And the blood.

Notice the tape round his mouth. And the blood.

The Calypso, like many hostels over here, has its own swimming pool, and also arranged different activities and entertainment during the evenings. These included bar pong tournaments and lizard, snake, & crocodile handling, all of which were in the open air bar/communal area which was also just a great place to meet and chat with other backpackers. Although this technically included people from all over the world, I think everyone except one girl from Canada was from Europe, and 90% of which came from either Britain or Germany. Not that I minded, as despite everyone’s ability to speak great English, it also gave me a rare opportunity to practice and show off my A level German.

For a city (not much more than a town really, just the biggest place for hundreds of miles) famous for its opportunities to do everything from riding classic steam trains to skydiving, there are certainly worse places to spend a week doing next to nothing.