All about the Bass

When planning my journey of Australia’s east coast I specifically chose to travel south for a number of reasons, the main one being that I would here during the summer. Australia is generally hotter than back home regardless of season, and I didn’t want to be confronted by heat squared; heading into the summer, AND towards the tropics.

Check out that Bass

Check out that Bass.

Another reason is that I also have a few family friends down in Victoria who I wanted to visit. Unlike my big trip to North America 10 years ago which I began by visiting friends, this time I wanted to jump in on my own first, and then meet them as part of my journey. And so it was that the end of my East coast road trip took me to Victoria’s Bass Coast.

I first met Ollie and Mike when they moved just around the corner from me about 15 years ago. Despite being young at the time, and they closer to the age of my parents, I still enjoyed spending time with them and hearing their exotic tales of life on the other side of the world. They also got on well with my parents, and would often tell tales of their British exploits together when introducing me to their own friends and family over here.

I spent a week with them and they showed me the sights of their local area, somewhere not generally visited by backpackers due to being off the main tourist trail. This was a welcome change and allowed me to experience a slice of life in ‘actual’ Australia; whereas I had spent weeks meeting almost exclusively other travellers, now everyone I met actually came from the country I came to see.

It was also nice to spend time in some spectacular places and not have to share them with too many other people. In addition to this Mike had previously worked for Parks Victoria and was very knowledgable about the area. This meant I had the best of both worlds of being shown round by both a friend and tour guide.

Disused Lime Kilns. Or what's left of them.

A disused Lime Kiln. Or what’s left of it.

We went on several hikes, the first along the George Bass Coastal Walk. We drove to the Punch Bowl and walked the first section together, which included some great coastal views, people ignoring the no fishing signs on the rocks (as well as the don’t go on to the rocks signs in general), and a rather unique pink and triangular house that despite being architecturally impressive, stuck out like a sore thumb. I then continued along the trail on my own, taking in the scenery of the hills, beaches, and cliffs, and making sure the proper Aussie hat that Mike very kindly gave me didn’t blow off in the wind. Another similar trip took us to the aptly named Walkerville where we ambled along what remains of the Lime Kilns, and we also went for a bike ride along the Bass Coast Rail Trail.

I have to admit I was somewhat surprised at the presence of a rail trail in Australia. Although I have walked on the similar Tarka Trail back in Devon, I had mistakenly figured that the western history of Australia didn’t go far back enough to cover the building and dismantling of the railway lines. The Bass region had previously relied on railways to transport the materials being dug from the mines however, which were no longer operational and now only open to visitors on day trips.

Better than a mole digging up your lawn.

Better than a mole digging up your lawn.

One of the biggest highlights however, like the rest of my trip, was the wildlife. In Mike and Ollie’s garden alone I was lucky enough to see an Echidna, Wallabies, Wedge Tailed Eagles, and Possoms living their nests. Driving around we also saw a mob of Kangaroos, although unfortunately the only Wombats I saw were dead at the side of the road, but you can’t have everything.

In true Australian style I also got bitten during my time here, but luckily it wasn’t the magnificent Huntsman spotted by the front door. Bull Ants aren’t that bad, and it’s not like I hadn’t been shown/warned about them beforehand; really it was my own fault for walking through the grass barefoot.

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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.

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.