Port of cool

If there’s one difference between the towns on the east coasts of Queensland and New South Wales, it’s that NSW is alot less touristy. And despite being a tourist myself, I like it this way.

For a start, it feels more like Australia. When I visited Port Macquarie I stayed at the Beachside Backpackers, which despite it’s mainly European (with even some Dutch and Scandinavian thrown in with the German) visitors, is one of the very few hostels I have been to where the majority of the staff weren’t just other people on working visas. Not only were Nic and Dan Australian by birth, but rented out surfboards, and with dreadlocks and a big beard respectively, they were also most definately Australian by nature. Admittedly Doug came from Luton, but he’s a nice guy so we won’t hold that against him. The fact that socialising was actively encouraged, combined with the decor and artwork, all adds up to this being the cosiest hostel of my travels.

Couldn't do that on canvas.

Couldn’t do that on canvas.

Ideally situated between Coffs Harbour and Sydney, Port Macquarie is great for backpackers, but seemed to not have many. Not only does it break up the journey but there are also a small number of attractions, and the outskirts offer a scenic hike along the coast. Dropped off by the lighthouse, I spent the best part of an afternoon enjoying this walk, rambling between dense forest and sandy beaches. As I got to the edge of town I also noticed another feature that added to the town’s individuality; the rocks all along the sea wall had each been painted by previous visitors, leaving their own artful mark long after they have left.

Some koalas just need a little tlc.

Some koalas just need a little tlc.

Of all the attractions on offer, it is has to be the Koala Hospital which is the most visited. As the name suggests it is a treatment centre for ill and injured koalas, but one which is open for the public to come and look at the patients whilst they are waiting to be rereleased. It also offers a daily tour, in part because of the fact it relies on public donations to help fund their work, and may be familiar to anyone who watched the BBC series John Bishop’s Australia. The Liverpudlian comedian also visited the hospital as he cycled from Sydney to Cairns, and it was here that he asked if koalas mate for life, having just been told how quickly chlamydia can spread through a koala population.

Another reason I enjoyed staying in a far more ‘normal’ town than somewhere such as Airlie Beach or Town of 1770 (which I have to say I didn’t visit due to time constraints and a recommendation not to), is that it gives you a chance to have a more ‘normal’ day out. Spending 8+ weeks travelling is a great experience, but sightseeing is hardly a full time activity in Port Macquarie, and even the fact that Australian cinemas have just as many adverts as British ones is a nice reminder of something familiar.

Not that I was simply pretending to be back home, the fact they have much more leg room is yet another bonus of being in a country with so much more space.

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.