Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Harbour lights

I've reached Sydney, and spent yesterday being the cheesiest kind of tourist there is - great fun. I'm staying with my friend Keir somewhere to the north-west of the city, in the most idyllic apartment. He's right on the water (really - you can see the ferry stop three floors below), and I have spent much time soaking up the sun on his balcony, watching coxless fours being bullied across the water by men with megaphones and powerboats, and generally being cosseted with home comforts and bulging fridges. All in all I feel a bit like a baby seal, waiting on the beach while more grown-up and responsible seals head out to sea to forage for food, losing their bodyweight and leisure time in the process. Puritanism is battling hard with hedonism, and hedonism is winning.

The most energetic I've been so far was when I packed up my camera and a guidebook and headed over to the city on the ferry (great public transport!). I spent the day pottering around the Rocks (where the colony began), along the waterfront under the bridge, and down to the Opera House, where I hung out on the steps for a bit, soaking up the iconic scenery. Then it was down to the Botanic Gardens, Hyde Park, and through the business district, before heading back to the opera house for an evening of avant-garde ballet. Thank God I'd put on a dress - everyone was dressed to the nines in honour of the venue, which was as smart as the clothing.

The ballet itself was pretty great, too - it was a trio of pieces, the first one a response to dance in 16th/17th century Spain, with beautiful costumes and haunting music; the second was a comic piece with all the traditional Royal Ballet moves and scenery (my favourite); the third piece was frankly puzzling. It was by Wayne MacGregor, the top billed choreographer there, and was the kind of piece where everyone dances in white undies to discordant music and represents polar exploration. I admired the technique and athleticism, but the dance itself left me cold. Am I simplistic to prefer narrative and melody? On second thoughts, don't answer that.

Sadly the journey home brought me back to earth with a bump - first, my travelcard got swallowed by the ticket machine, and I've been waiting in all today for it to be returned to me (it's a weekly pass, and too expensive to let go); and second we were treated to more performance art from a former squaddie who'd wet himself, who bellowed "Waltzing Matilda" all the way from Darling Harbour to Chiswick. I was feeling sorry for him, too, until he weighed in about "the Muslims", at which point I just wanted him to get off. I felt right at home - just like being on the 149 through Dalston!

Now I've got my travelcard back Sydney is my lobster; tomorrow I think I'll head on out to Manly, or the Bondi clifftop walk if it's not too hot. More soon, folks...

Friday, 20 November 2009

Dead poets' society

I've reached Byron Bay, and spent the afternoon exploring the literary landscape - notably the plethora of bookshops (which I scoured for more in Shane Mahoney's Murray Whelan crime series; having picked up the first one for free in a hostel, I've fallen in love - again - with a literary character, and this one has a few film spin-offs too. Why is passion so expensive? Or is that just my passions? Still, Murray is the modern Australian Philip Marlowe, wisecracking his way through sinister situations that are none of his making, and he's my kind of hopeless gumshoe. How could I resist?).

The road names, too, have a certain literary air - they run the gamut from (naturally) Byron Street to Browning, Ruskin, Kingsley, Cowper, Tennyson, Jonson, Carlyle and Keats Streets. Sadly - unless I manage to find the Arts Centre, which apparently has a cinema with bean bags - that's about where the artiness ends. I know the place was set up by hippies as a radical art community, but it's long since become a seaside resort. A very nice one, though - and apparently there's a literary festival in August.

Still, I got some culture in on Brisbane's South Bank - seemingly modelled on London's, right down to the concrete monoliths and big wheel, but with warm weather and places to swim! The Art Gallery of Queensland, in particular, was superb - a wonderful collection of Australian art from a Western perspective, tracing its roots from the colonists to the modernists of the Sixties and beyond. Plus a lovely collection of international art (covering my darling Stanley Spencer, who seems to be something of a hit in Australia, plus Picasso, Matisse, Van Dyck, Hepworth, Rodin, Reynolds...) and the most informative labels I've ever come across in a gallery, with the minimum of pretentious art-speak in them. I did venture out of the arty area, but not for long - I have to say, I think that's the best of Brisbane (though it's pretty damn good).

Tomorrow I'm upping the alternative ante and heading out to Nimbin, plus a quick trip through the rainforest (again! Hopefully no leeches this time). And then I have another day to explore the beaches here, and some more of the walks around town. I'm a lucky girl...

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Don't let the bed bugs bite

So here I am in Brisbane, and I've had my first real hostel horror. As soon as I walked in to the Yellow Submarine late yesterday afternoon my instincts were telling me to walk straight out again - the dingy paintwork, the grotty sofa in reception, the abject mess in the room, the snapshots of people at toga parties lining the walls... All of this spoke of a place that would be my personal hellhole - but I put it down to being tired from the journey and pressed on. Until I sat on my bed and was bitten seven times within half an hour. I told the lady in reception that there were bed bugs, and after she'd insisted that they were mosquitoes (I know what mosquitoes look like, and it's not like that), she said that it was probably lice - certainly not bed bugs. When I answered rather dryly that I wasn't all that keen on sharing my bed with lice either, she got rather shirty with me and implied I'd brought them along myself. At which point (and buoyed up by a pep talk from Mum - thanks, Mum!) I cut my losses and booked in to the YHA down the road.

And what joy it has been. Spread over five floors with lifts and maps detailing all the amenities, it's a little like living in an airport lounge - I certainly wouldn't want to stay at places like this all the time, as it's not very friendly. But it's blessedly, blissfully clean, and the laundry room is so luxurious I was almost - almost - tempted to do some ironing. Tomorrow night is movie night, and tonight I'm going to stretch out in my little bunk to read by the light of my own reading lamp (fellow hostellers will understand the wonder of this).

I'm trying not to let my opinion of Brisbane itself be coloured by this: one dirty hostel (and more traffic than any other Australian city I've yet seen, plus the poor opinion of everyone I've yet met) shouldn't put me off. Tomorrow I'm going to go for the sightseeing like a demon and catch up with as much of the nice stuff as I can in a day, and then it's on to the next destination. Poor Brisbane - I have a feeling that it never gets a fair go. But onward and upward...

Monday, 16 November 2009


So here I am in Hervey Bay, having just had breakfast by the sea, sipping mocha coffee while the waves lap on the beach and the sunlight sparkles on the water. And now you all hate me, there's more, because over the weekend I went over to Fraser Island, the world's largest sand island. It was formed around an extinct volcano, and is now 124km long and covered in rainforest - absolutely amazing. Occasionally I'd catch myself thinking: "yes, but I've seen rainforest" and then realise that this one has taken root on sand alone. One of nature's true wonders.

And the island's beauty even shone through the mother and father of all headaches - one of those ones where you feel as though your brain is being squeezed through your nose. Consequent to this the first day passed in a bit of a blur - we went on a gentle (thank God!) rainforest walk, and saw the Coloured Sands (there's a great Aboriginal story to go with this: a princess was betrothed to a respected but old warrior and she was unhappy about it, so she used to go to this place by the beach to be by herself and think; one day she was joined by the Rainbow Serpent man, and they fell in love and continued to meet in this special place. One day the warrior caught them together and decided that if he couldn't have the princess no one would, so threw his boomerang at her; at the last minute the Rainbow Serpent threw his body in front of hers and saved her, but the boomerang hit him and he exploded into all the colours you see in the sand there today. To this day it's a sacred place for Aboriginal women and men aren't allowed there). We also climbed the headland on the only true rock on the island to watch stingrays, sharks and turtles in the water below, and paddled down Eli Creek, a crystal clear stream of water that flows from inland down to the sea.

The following day - after nine hours of sleep in my own room, luxuriously - I woke refreshed, relaxed and gorgeously free of pain. And it was just as well, because Sunday was much more action-packed. We went on a 2.5km walk (uphill, through sand) to get to Lake Wabby, which is populated by catfish and turtles and was formed when the sand blew across a creek to form a dam. Arriving at the top of a sand dune, looking down towards a sparkling blue lake, was like being in Lawrence of Arabia - complete with mirage. And that wasn't even the best, because in the afternoon we visited Lake Birrabeen, which was formed when vegetation filled a depression in the sand at the top of a dune, making it waterproof, and capturing the water for all time (known as a perched lake). This was absolutely sensational - first of all we were the only people there, and then the water itself was like nothing I've ever swum in before. It was as clear as if it had been drawn out of a tap, cool but not cold and so unpolluted it was potable. I could stand up to my chest in it and see my toes as clear as day, wriggling in white sand so fine you could clean jewellery in it. Yet another magical experience - I took photographs but they simply cannot do it justice, not least because the water is so clear on the island that you can't see it on film!

All in all, I had a fantastic time, and we even got in a bit of 4WD adventure when the bus got a flat (and our driver was nearly flattened when the jack collapsed in the wet sand), and then we got bogged down in the sand 10 minutes further on! Poor Ben, the guide, had several beers once we made it to our accommodation that night. There are no roads on the island, of course, and the beach acts as the main road - another amazing sight, seeing 4WDs obeying traffic laws as the waves come in up to their wheels.

And today I have a free day to swim in a sea that has no jellyfish in it (hooray! no stinger suits!), and then swing in a hammock on the verandah at my hostel. Tomorrow, Brisbane, and after that Byron Bay. I'm a lucky girl...

Thursday, 12 November 2009

The horror, the horror

Before I get back on the bus tonight, I have to share the last journey, during which I was trapped in a confined place with... "The Da Vinci Code". Films on the Greyhound aren't like on the aeroplane - it's not like you can choose to plug yourself in to listen, the soundtrack is just beamed throughout the bus and you have to watch. Hence I found myself on the Townsville leg watching "Troy", starring a disturbingly pneumatic Brad Pitt, and on the last one watching, horror of horrors, "The Da Vinci Code". And now I've actually seen it, I can - as I have maintained all along - confirm that it is indeed the quintessence of mediocrity. It's big and glossy and expensive, and it's still boring, which is unforgivable. Somebody put a lot of effort in to create something that has no passion, no spark, and the least charismatic leading man since Freddie Prinze Jr. Although I hated "Troy", at least it wasn't bland. Wrong, yes; cliched, true; an affront to anyone who knows and loves the Greek myths, sure - but it wasn't bland.

Well, *that* was weird

So I'm just back from three days of platypus spotting in Eungella National Park, and it was a truly surreal experience! I'd been feeling pretty smug on the Greyhound, when all the backpackers got off at Airlie Beach and I was the only traveller to carry on to Mackay - I've beaten the crowds, I thought; I'm not being a sheep, I thought; how original, I thought... And all of this was true - but possibly for a good reason. Mackay is not exactly set up for tourism, and on Monday it was teeming with rain (my curse is back - Queensland is being flooded at the moment). Once I'd fended off the advances of a teenager literally young enough to be my son and found the hostel, that was about my lot for the day. Apparently there's a nice art gallery here, but no time for that - we were up at 4am the next day to drive up to the rainforest to spot platypus.

And that was superb: first off, they're so much smaller than you expect. The male grows up to 50cm long, and the female only 40cm. They're also so at home in the water they don't look as odd as they should - they swim along with their bills scenting the air, then dive like ducks, leaving barely a ripple. It was another magical experience to see such shy creatures in the wild, ignoring all of us on the riverbank and carrying on with their daily lives.

However, you can't look at platypus forever, particularly in the rain, and we soon headed off to the next stop - the historic Eungella Chalet (est. 1934). There, at 8.30am, Barbara and Karin (Swiss sisters) and I were left, bereft, to amuse ourselves for two days. Not what we were expecting at all - we'd been thinking there would be three days of bush walks and camping, guided walks and so on. And though the Chalet was a lovely place to stay - we had an ensuite in the room, and I got a double bed to myself; the luxury was indescribable - it was so empty it really did have a definite air of The Shining hotel. Thank God there were no lifts or I'd have had conniptions.

The horror movie feel only continued when we went out after lunch to explore the area. The place was surrounded by mist (I now know that Eungella translates as "Land of Cloud") and we could barely see 10m in front of us. Certainly the advertised beautiful view down to the coast was completely obscured! Still, we thought, the rainforest would be good, and we found a promising looking path up to Sky Window and Broken River. All was well for the first few kilometres, but then Karin noticed something attached to her ankle... and pretty soon we were overrun with leeches. Those bloodsuckers just kept on coming, faster than we could peel them off us. I've still got the bloodstains on my trousers from where one of the little bastards had a good munch. We were out of that forest so fast we must have set a record (another event in the backpacker Olympics, along with luggage weightlifting and speed eating?), and that was the end of the bush walking for the rest of the visit. There was something so disgusting about the way one end of a leech attaches itself to you, while the other end waves around blindly looking for something to hang on to - perhaps you had to be there, but I'm not keen to try that again! It wasn't the sort of wildlife we were looking for.

We got some more unexpected wildlife that evening, when three pissed-up Queenslanders on a work jolly (the only other people in the hotel apart from a Swiss couple and their son) decided to chat us up. Or, rather, not to - because they were married, they reassured us, "we're not trying to shag yous"; however, they couldn't promise not to "kill you and eat you, like in Wolf Creek". Actually, they turned out not to be such bad blokes when they were sober, even though Wolf Creek continued to be something of a theme. And they weren't even the most eccentric ones in the place - that was Susanna of the Hideaway Cafe, where we had breakfast on the second day after walking 10km to see the platypus again (along the road, naturally). She's a German woman who came to Eungella some years ago, and - judging by the newspaper clippings about her on the walls - was once a very beautiful woman. Now, however, she's held back the ravages of time with way, way too much plastic surgery - she is actually shiny and slightly misshapen, and I was so startled by her appearance I took a moment to remember my order. She's also got collections of woolly hats, and coloured button sculptures of peacocks and kookaburras in her garden. Her apple strudel is sensational, though - well worth the morning's hike.

And that was that. We'd seen all that Eungella had to offer (apart from the Natural Therapies Centre, which we didn't dare go in) by 9am. The rest of the time, we played cards in front of the fire and tried to get warm and dry. On the plus side, I have seen a wonderful creature in the wild (the platypus, not the Queenslanders); learnt the rules of poker; spent two days with a pair of great women; and had an experience that very few other backpackers will ever have had. Surreal, but rather wonderful. Jokes aside, the owners of the hotel were fantastically friendly, and we had some great chats with them - Tony used to be a farmer and had a whole different perspective on the country - not to mention that when the mist rose on the last morning the scenery truly was amazing! I wouldn't have changed the last couple of days for anything else. And now it's back to the major routes - overnight on the Greyhound down to Fraser Island.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Her name is Rio

I had a true Duran Duran moment yesterday, when I went sailing on a schooner called Providence. We were crewed around the island, stopping at Radical Bay (one of the most secluded beaches on Magnetic Island) for some snorkelling and a picnic lunch on the sand. The only thing that was less than glamorous was the stinger suit (de rigueur right now because it's jellyfish season)! I'm not sure I'll ever be much of a sailor - had it not been for the travel sickness tablet, I think the rather choppy water could have been my downfall - but there was a certain wonderfulness about lying under the rigging, listening to the waves crash against the side of the boat.

Today has been pretty wonderful too, starting with a brisk bush walk up to the top of the island where the remains of the Second World War fortifications and gun emplacements are gradually mouldering away, being overtaken by eucalyptus and gum trees. On the way I spotted a koala and her baby, cuddling into a tree and majestically ignoring the tourists and their cameras. And then on top of the hill somehow I managed to lose everyone, and was alone with the beautiful landscape, and an eagle flying overhead so close I could see its markings, and the distant sound of the waves on the beach hundreds of feet below. A truly magical moment.

Tomorrow it's on to Townsville, and then down the coast to Eungella National Park - fingers crossed I get to see a platypus in the wild...

Wednesday, 4 November 2009


I can't believe it - I missed the Melbourne Cup. It all comes of listening to three Sydney ladies who told me that it was run at 3.30pm. And of course it is - in Sydney. In Queensland, however, we're in a different time zone and I missed it! I just can't get my head around the fact that one country has four different clocks. Not to mention some of the states doing daylight savings and others not. It's all too much for my little brain to cope with.

Still, nil desperandum. I did get to see some of the celebrities in their finery (to my horror, one of the ones being interviewed was at school with me). And now I'm on to the next destination - Magnetic Island. I'm fresh off the bus and haven't explored yet, but I'm looking forward to breaking out the snorkelling gear tomorrow and having a look at the Reef. The accommodation is all in these cute cabins amongst the trees, and there are apparently masses of koalas in the wild here. If I hear any shrieks and grunts during the night, they tell me, it's the female koalas getting attention - not British backpackers doing drinking games...

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Trials and tribulations

Well, no trials really, except ones of endurance! I went straight from the boat to the after-dive party - I suspect I drank my own bodyweight in booze, though it was the gin and tonic at some backpacker bar that finished me off for good. I'm proud to report, though, that the people left standing at this stage (only about 1am, but we'd all been at sea for three days which takes it out of you) were all in our thirties or more, and Ken is 70 this week. The youngsters had all caved and gone to bed long since. Vive les oldies! I was feeling pretty seedy, however, when the alarm went off the following morning to wake me for my next tour, up to the Atherton Tablelands and the rainforest village of Kuranda.

When I got to Skyrail, though, I felt immediately better (that and the ham and cheese croissant worked wonders). This is a cable car ride above the rainforest canopy, going up past Barron Falls and as high as 55om (, before you reach the artsy village at the top. Along the way you get to stop at various boardwalks and lookouts to see the rainforest at ground level too - it had been raining that morning and there was a beautiful loamy smell, with faint traces of sunlight just filtering down through the canopy. It's all wonderfully peaceful - I was going to say still, but it's never that; even 10m above the trees you can hear crickets and birds singing away like mad. It felt even more luxurious because I had a car to myself, and I could just sit back and soak up the scenery.

And the village itself was great too - OK, it's a tourist trap; once it was an artists' colony and now the only arty thing about it really is the smell of patchouli in the street markets. But it was still great to wander around (I succumbed to a Kiwi guy selling some gorgeous smelling salt scrub - his patter was too good to resist, and though I absolutely do not need a luxury salt scrub in my life it does smell wonderful!). I also headed to some of the best attractions - the koala gardens first, where I finally got to cuddle one. I have photographic evidence of it, too - a picture of me looking rather uncertain (they look and feel lovely and soft but smell appalling!) and a female bear looking terribly bored. Still, I can add it to the growing collection of pictures of me with wildlife - along with a friendly sun conure parrot perching on my finger at Birdworld, the next stop.

This was fantastic - an aviary filled with native and exotic birds of all kinds. There were parrots and parakeets, emerald doves and galahs, finches playing about in the waterfall, black swans and cockatoos... I spent nearly an hour just wandering around and listening to the bird song and watching them fly about, then went on to the butterfly sanctuary, which was also packed with beautiful creatures. They were everywhere, fluttering about the place and landing on your hands or backpack, the most sensational colours and sizes. Sadly I didn't have time for the venom zoo, but perhaps I'd had the best of the wildlife that day!

The following day was another early start, though at least this time I wasn't hampered by a hangover. My tour was heading up for a day trip to Cape Tribulation (finally you get to appreciate the dreadful pun of this post's title), and because of how much we were fitting in to one day it was a bit of a tick tour - I've seen the rainforest meeting the beach at Cape Tribulation, tick; I've seen Mossman Gorge, tick; I've seen Port Douglas, tick; I've seen the world heritage route from Cairns up past the Daintree River, tick. That said, I have seen all these things now, and they were beautiful. Plus, we had a guide who amply made up for any hastiness in the itinerary. Billy had a typical Queenslander drawl and didn't stop talking and joking around from 7.30am until 6pm. This sounds trying but absolutely wasn't - sometimes day tours can be a bit po-faced because people don't get to know each other at all. Billy, however, could remember all 20 names and was introducing us to each other, ribbing us (me especially, being the only Pom) and getting everyone laughing; in the meantime he was giving us some really knowledgable commentary on the history and surrounding landscape. I suspect he might be Australia's top tour guide - he's a tough act to follow, certainly.

And now I'm off down the east coast towards Brisbane. Tomorrow night I arrive at Magnetic Island, off the coast of Townsville, and after all the excitement of the last week I'm looking forward to spending a few days lying in the sun and snorkelling intermittently. This is definitely the life! Now for those horses...

In search of Nemo

It's been a full-on week or so here in Cairns, but I'm finally catching my breath, just before the Melbourne Cup starts - the world has fallen silent here, which is actually quite eerie! Still, I'll be tuning in shortly, and my (metaphorical) money is on Roman Emperor to win by a head.

So much to catch up on, but first was the diving. I had two days of dive school in the swimming pool and classroom - I nailed the theory, but struggled underwater. It turned out later, after I kept getting water up my nose and choking, that my regulator had a hole in it and my wetsuit was too small and restricting my breathing, but by that time the damage had been done - I was panicked. Still, I pressed on because I wanted to get out to the Reef and see all those lovely fish (Nemo! Sweetlips! Sharks!) and figured that the worst-case scenario would be if I couldn't manage the diving but snorkelled for three days on the Great Barrier Reef instead - and how bad, really, is that?!

The boat itself was amazing. We had cute little cabins, a sun deck and six meals a day, prepared by an authentically sullen French girl - but boy, could she cook. Plus, and more importantly, the company was fantastic - in particular Debbie, one of my classmates, who had come aboard with her brother and his partner, both diving, and her dad Ken, just snorkelling. We all hung out in the evening playing cards and having a giggle, joined by whoever was around, and had an absolutely excellent time.

Sadly, I didn't get on so well with the watery deep. The first dive we started before the engines had even properly stopped from our three-hour journey to the outer fringes of the reef, and I was standing on the side of the boat still feeling queasy and wondering what the hell I would do if I was sick underwater. The water, too, was choppy, and we were hurried off the boat into it with waves slapping our faces and going down our snorkels and people pressing up from behind and wanting us to go faster... The idea with diving is that you use your breathing to rise and fall, but by this stage, caught in a log jam and under terrible pressure, I was sucking in so much air it was a wonder I didn't rise out of the water like a helium balloon. I certainly couldn't get under, and the instructor had disappeared beneath the waves long since, so I cut my losses and went back to the boat.

After 10 minutes clinging to the steps and bringing my panic attack under control, everything looked much brighter, and the next dive I did complete - I insisted that I was going first with the instructor and at my own pace; oddly enough that all went much better! Still, I was still terrified under the water - the fear was making it difficult for me to breathe - and I decided to stop torturing myself and snorkel instead. Once I'd made peace with my decision - and despite the dive instructors, who spoke not another word to me once I'd told them - I had a fantastic time, and have absolutely no regrets. There's an extreme sport out there with my name on it, so I just have to keep trying them all! And I did get to see Nemo; and sweetlips; and sharks...