Fragrant Harbouring Feelings

Eventually my time in Australia came to an end, but that didn’t mean my trip was over. Without being able to fly back without a stop off somewhere, I also had a few days in Hong Kong.

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I can’t speak for everyone, but my “wise old Chinaman” was wrong…

I arrived in the “Special Administrative Region of China”, to give it its official designation, just prior to the Chinese New Year, and although I wasn’t there to enjoy the full festivities, I did get to see the city decorated and celebrating the time of year. Not only did I see displays in shopping centres honouring each of the animals of the Chinese zodiac, but I also discovered Dragon performances whilst wandering the streets, and was even given the chance to hold one when visiting the Happy Valley Racecourse. I was also told that doing so would bring me good luck, although my wallet at the end of the evening told a different story.

Although I obviously won’t complain at being there during this time, it was also hardly needed as the former British colony had its own sense of style regardless.

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Didn’t see his son, Luke, aged 5…

No longer part of the Empire and yet not fully Chinese either, Hong Kong’s uniqueness is around for all to see, with attractions such as the Avenue of Stars boasting its own home-grown film and TV talent, including Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. Located on the waterfront of the main harbour, not only does it also offer a great view of the world-famous skyline on the opposite shore, but the way it is lit up at night effectively offers two for the price of one.

While their unique architecture ensure they are even more impressive than most found in other cities (despite all my time in Australia it was here I found a skyscraper designed to resemble Koalas), when lit up they all combine to become one instantly recognisable dazzling display.

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It’s even bigger up close.

Although the city may have embraced the modern as much as any other, it is also one which still appreciates the more traditional as well. On Lantau Island is the Tian Tan Buddha, a Bronze statue which has dominated the landscape since it was built in the early 90s not just due to its 34 metre height, but also because of the 268 steps it takes to reach it.

It was built next to the Po Lin monastery, and the entire site is such a great contrast to the hustle and bustle of the main city. Not only are there various walking trails throughout the woodlands around the site, but there are also cattle which freely wander the ground. Despite being used to tourists and locals alike, they also are also at home enough to make you realise that you should be the one to move around them, rather than vice versa. Although this is all located some way outside of the city, it is easily reached via the metro and bus routes, or there’s also a cable car for the more adventurous, but will take up the better part of a day trip.

Although I had always wanted to stop off somewhere in a similar way to Kuala Lumpur on the way out to Australia, one reason I chose Hong Kong is that a housemate from university is now living over there, who I hadn’t seen since his wedding some four and a half years previously. Although we were only able to catch up briefly, it was still great to share a meal at a street market restaurant, and have someone a little more experienced than me when haggling for souvenirs to take home with me.

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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.

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.