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.

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.

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.