Posts tagged ‘Queensland’

There’s sand in my bellybutton. Fraser Island, Australia

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when we decided that the world-famous Whitsundays had nothing on Fraser Island. It could have been on our first day when, after a long sweaty morning of tackling potholed dirt tracks in a 4×4 with no suspension, we finally reached Lake Wabby. At the end of a long trek through a rainforest (Fraser Island is the only place in the world where rainforest grows on sand) and across pristine, untouched sand dunes we found the lake hiding in a hollow between one towering dune and hundreds of thriving trees. Exhausted, parched and covered in a gritty layer of sand and salt, we ripped off our clothes and hurled ourselves down the dune and face-flat into the ice cold water. Streaming through the hot air with delicious anticipation tickling our skin, we knew there was nowhere else on earth quite like Fraser.

Then again, it could well have been the company that made Fraser Island so perfect. In that case, maybe the defining moment of our trip came in the middle of the night when we were sitting around with our 19 new best friends with tears streaming down our faces and into our mugs of goon (cheap Aussie wine-in-a-box). One of the two Italian stallions had just admitted to havin, eh, “relations” (in Clinton-speak) with his cousin while one of the effervescent British girls had let it slip that she had once fallen over in a nightclub and, in her headlong fall to the floor, knocked a disabled person out of their wheelchair. The Frenchmen may have made similar revelations during our game of I Have Never but no-one could make head nor tale out of the heavily accented strings of “I ‘ave nev-air uh-hu-hu-HU” that were pouring out of their mouths.

Then again our last day on Fraser was probably the nicest. Having done the rounds and seen the sights we finally had time to just laze on a beach for a few hours at the spectacular Lake Birrabeen. With its fine white sand and shimmering green water as well as its wonderfully remote location in the centre of a desert island, one of the Austrian girls deemed it prettier than Whitehaven Beach. While I wouldn’t go that far, it was definately the most striking part of Fraser (and there was some stiff competition) and it felt pretty damn good to lie in the sun chatting idly with a big group of friends once again. We had kind of started to forget what it felt like to be a part of any group to be honest and after six months of travelling and six months of having the same “Where have you been? Where are you going?” conversations with new people every day, it was nice to move a little past that on to real conversation topics like “What do you think is worse – pooing in the snow or pooing in the sand?”

The advantage of having a fresh water lake to dive into wasn’t lost on us either. For three days we had done little else than drive up and down the beach highway and look at the sea – a rusty old cruiseliner shipwrecked in the sea; Indian Head where the headland stops abruptly and the shark, sting tay, dolphin, killer jellyfish and whale-infested water begins; the Chamapgne pools where huge waves crash over the coast and fizz like gallons of champagne into the cracks in the rock pools; Eli Creek where some of the runoff water from Fraser makes its way over a riverbed, through a creek and into the sea; burned orange sandy pinnacles perched right along the beach; and of course, campsites tucked behind sand dunes only metres from the sea. But for all the time we spent judging tides, searching out marine life and looking at the sea, we weren’t allowed to get into it.

We got none of the benefits and all of the disadvantages of our seaside location – salty skin, dry frizzy hair, crusty sunglasses and sand just about everywhere. We had sand in our tents, in our shoes, in our underwear, in our dinners, in our jeeps and in our bellybuttons. As the guy from Fraser Roving had warned us we would, we had sand in places we didn’t even know we had. Add to that our lack of access to running water for washing or shaving and what lay sprawled out on the beach at Lake Birrabeen was a pile of smelly, sweaty, hairy bodies surrounded by a potent whiff of stale alcohol. No, having access to fresh water for swimming, washing (and would it be wrong to shave in a freshwater lake?) was not lost on us at all…

Scenic spots aside though, a lot of the fun of being on Fraser Island is just the daily challenges of being on Fraser Island. Things like having to dig your 4×4 out of the sand as the driver revs his/her way deeper and deeper into the floury surface before finally freeing it with that last 18-person push; burying, pegging down and hiding everything (shoes, cameras, watches, babies…) to save the dingos from stealing them even though they’ll probably hardly ever even use them; cooking dinner for seven in a tiny, overflowing pot on a gas ring; parking and leaving your jeep without being sure that it will still be visible above the sand when you return; struggling to keep the coolers, pots and stoves from crushing the passengers in the back of the vehicle on ridiculously bumpy inland roads; meeting a traffic jam on a deserted beach; and driving around in a hot pink jeep with no brakes, no radio and a sticky clutch which may at any given moment, take a notion to roll in the sand.

Yep, The Whitsundays have nothing on Fraser Island.

There are more pictures from Fraser Island available in the gallery


May 10, 2010 at 3:04 pm 5 comments

Pitching a tent in Muff Creek. Mission Beach, Australia

Mission Beach was exactly what I had imagined a small Australian town to be like – endless golden beaches, locals stopping every few feet to greet neighbours and strangers alike and elusive wildlife always threatening to make an appearance. What I hadn’t expected was just how appealing that beautiful stretch of sand and that warm welcome would be.

Three or four hours after arriving it felt like we had been in Mission Beach forever. The driver of the sole public bus knew us by sight, we knew our way around North Mission Beach pretty well and a visit to the local information centre had left us well versed on the area. We were on the lookout for cassowaries, a type of huge wild bird not dissimilar from an ostrich but with a dash more colour in its feathers. Word on the street was that the best place to spot the creatures was on the town’s many walking trails so we picked out the longest, the Kennedy Trail, packed a lunch and started walking.

Four hours later we had managed to trod on a surprising amount of fresh cassoary poo but were no closer to spotting the birds in the flesh (or feathers). Cassowaries or no cassowaries though, the walk was worth every second that we spent stumbling over stoney coves, wading through marshes and trekking the narrow path that skirts the headland when we rounded the last clump of half-broken trees and came across our first real-life abandonned beach. Hugging the edge of the national park the beach stretched on until infinity, its pure golden surface littered with brilliant orange leaves – the last signs of autumn. After all of our searching in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia and East Timor, I had never expected to find our own quiet slice of sand in Australia.

Our hostel was quitessential Mission Beach too. A quiet wooden structure sitting proudly above the rainforest near Muff Creek, The Treehouse was the perfect place for us to unroll our brand new tent for the first time. It had all of the ‘rustic’ appeal that you want in a place like Mission Beach. The floor of the pool was covered in sand and mud blown in during the last storm; you had to chase all of the oversized bugs out of your hammock before you settled in for the day with a beer and a book; dishes had to be washed clean of any stowaway earwigs and cockroaches before use; and we made a game of dodging the massive toads as we crossed the deck to watch another spectacular sunset. We joked about it with the other guests but secretly relished our status as real, hardcore backpackers. It would take more than a few 15cm long bugs and a couple of overgrown toads to scare us!

In the end Mission Beach hit exactly the right note after a forgettable spell in Cairns (forgettable excepting the Great Barrier Reef of course). With its glittering lagoon and countless tour operators Cairns may be the star of the show but Mission Beach is, in its own unassuming way, every inch as attractive and heaps more inviting.

There are more pictures from Mission Beach available in the gallery

May 4, 2010 at 5:49 am Leave a comment

Diving into Oz. Cairns, Australia

Cairns was, predictabley, a bit of a shock after Timor Leste and much of Asia – clean streets, nice cars, trimmed lawns, quiet pedestrian-only squares, a shiny shopping centre and so many swimming pools. It’s a nice town full of mostly two storey buildings with a conscious small town feel. The centre of everything is the esplanade – a beautiful manicured stretch of boardwalk flanked on one side by the sea and on the other by grass and a street full of Billabong shops, Baskin Robbins icecream stores, restaurants and beauty salons. The jewel in the crown, as in so many other Aussie towns from our limited experience, is a small pool-cum-lagoon where children splash as their parents watch them from beach towels on the grassy verge. Here is where all the action happens in Cairns (well, during the daytime anyway. Nighttime is a whole other kettle of fish.) Here the young, toned, tanned and beautiful stretch out under the sun, serruptitiously checking everyone else out and discussing plans for the night as a guy a few feet away strums away on his guitar.

But we weren’t in Cairns to sunbathe. It’s a nice town but not exactly a calling in its own right. The real star of the show is of course the Great Barrier Reef. After all our training in Thailand and Timor Leste we reckoned we were ready to bring out the big guns. The Great Barrier Reef would be amazing, it would be mind-blowing, it would be…. Well what would it be? We had heard so much about this great natural wonder without ever learning anything. Everyone who talks about diving here just assumes that you know what fish are there and what the coral looks like and just proceeds to repeat over and over again how great it is with out divulging any details. Yet the tour agent wanted us to part with AUS$250 each for three dives on the outer reef. We didn’t pay much more than that for the whole course in Thailand! But we had come this far and we could hardly go home without diving the Great Barrier Reef, when would we ever be here again? Plus the price was pretty much in line with absolutely everything else in Oz – cheap my ass. It would have to be the expensive outer reef too. Word on the street is that the inner reef is destroyed by tourists who punch and kick their way through, bringing home samples of the coral with them.

So with absolutely no idea what to expect we boarded the Silver Swift, lamenting the stormy weather which would inevitably stir up the tides and reduce underwater visibility. Once onboard we met the rest of our dive group – the effervescent Pearla and Hillary from Oregon, Napoleon the friendly and hilarious pilot from New York and Ulrika, the smiley Swede.

We weren’t under the water long before we decided that the Great Barrier Reef was worth every penny. Huge towers of freestanding reef mushroomed up from the ground offering a fantastic mix of detailed hard coral and colourful soft coral swaying in the tide. There were loads of anenomes, crowded with anenome fish – most notably a group of beautiful clown fish who were doing their little Nemo thing, swimming out of the anenome and then reversing back in repeatedly in an almost obsessive compulsive attempt to bond with their home. Nearby Dory flicked her yellow tail and zipped past in a blur of electic blue.

The best however, was yet to come. Since our first underwater outing we had been promised turtles but they had never materialised. “They’re very shy but this is the first time we haven’t seen at least one,” was the common refrain. Not on the Great Barrier Reef though. Making up for its failings in the visibility stakes, the reef produced not one but four turtles. And what’s more, they were stoned turtles so they were on their most chilled, sociable behaviour – letting us pet their shells, eating out of my hand and hanging around until we were done with our photos and became distracted by something colourful in the distance. DUDE! Apparently turtles eat a lot of this purple/red weed they find in the reef and it has a narcotic effect on them so the later in the day that you encounter them, the more wasted they are going to be.

As if that wasn’t enough we got to hold a pineapple sea cucumber (not actually found in the fruit and veg section of Tesco), we saw two sting rays and we even got up close and personal with a giant clam. And when I say giant, I mean giant – the thing was around two foot long! Bet it would taste great in garlic butter….

On our third dive as our awe at the towering coral and milling fish was starting to wear off we finally caught a glimpse of the main act. We were just pottering about, playing with some soft coral and making it close over our hands when we heard this muffled yell, like someone being suffocated with a pillow. Panicked we spun around expecting to see our guide Jun with a manta ray’s barb through his chest á la Steve Irwin.

What we saw instead was a huge grey shadow circling around us 5ft or 6ft away. It was a shark! A real life black tipped reef shark. Awe-struck we stopped dead, afraid even to breath. Suddenly none of us could remember – did black tipped reef sharks eat people? Could one eat six people? I shuffled behing Gary just in case. After having his sniff about and figuring out that we weren’t the small fish that usually made up his diet the shark swam off, leaving us all to do our best mime impressions of utter exhileration and dying for the dive to be done so we could get to the surface and cheer. A real life shark! Mad.

Note: It has to be said that we just can’t reccomend the Silver Swift enough. The food was incredible, the staff just the right mix of fun and responsibility, the gear up to scratch, the boat beautiful and the sites well-judged. They were definately by far the best outfit we have dived with and Jun and the crew made what could have been a dissappointing day ruined by lousy weather conditions, something to remember. And while we’re gushing, The Northern Greenhouse Hostel in Cairns is one of the best we have ever stayed in, if a tad expensive.

More pictures from Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef are available in the gallery

April 28, 2010 at 6:08 am 1 comment


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