Alternative Australia



Don’t want to get caught by the tourist traps? Well, David Whitley has a few Aussie alternatives that are probably a better bet for what you’re seeking.


Rainbow Beach

Alternative to? Hervey Bay


Hervey Bay is seen as the main jumping off point for Fraser Island trips, and has turned into something of a backpacker party capital as a result. That’s great if you want to drink cheap lager in backpacker bars to the tune of the Black Eyed Peas, but Hervey Bay isn’t exactly blessed with bags of charm. The mistake, of course, is to believe that the only way of getting to Fraser Island is via Hervey Bay. It isn’t. In fact, it’s not even the quickest way. The ferry crossing from Rainbow Beach is much less time-consuming, and Rainbow Beach is arguably a much better jumping-off point for Fraser. To call it a town would be pushing things a little too far, but it’s a laid back little settlement surrounded by colourful sand dunes, and feels like a much nicer spot to kick back in.


Montague Island

Alternative to? Philip Island


Philip Island is one of Australia’s greatest tourist traps. A short drive from Melbourne, the whole world rocks up there every evening to watch the Penguin Parade. This is an incredible experience – the little penguins toddle in from a day at sea and waddle back to their nests. The problem is that the crowds totally depersonalise things, and you feel like you’re at a sporting event. Not a lot of people know that Philip Island isn’t the only place in Oz where you can watch the penguins coming in. Montague Island off the New South Wales coast is also home to the little penguins, and the viewing experience is much more intimate. This is partly because only small numbers of people can get across in the boat from Narooma, and partly because it’s just less accessible. If you really love penguins, you can volunteer to stay for a couple of days in the island’s lighthouse cottages, taking part in the penguin conservation programme.


Mission Beach or Darwin

Alternative to? Cairns


Cairns is almost always seen as the final destination when heading north to the Australian tropics, but as a city itself it has little going for it. That’s a statement that will be seen as sacrilege in some quarters, but Cairns is far better used as a base for exploring the surroundings than as a standalone destination. In truth, there’s not much there and the city just feels lacking in something. If you’re after a north Queensland base where you can still do all the adventure sports, go to the Great Barrier Reef and head into the rainforest, then Mission Beach is probably the best bet. It’s relaxed, has an enormous stretch of sand to stroll across and most of the adventure sports companies (especially the rafting and skydiving chaps) operate from there as well as Cairns. The Reef is within spitting distance too. More importantly, it feels like you’re a part of the local community it rather than in a giant tourist barn. Alternatively, if you’re really wanting to spend time in a tropical city, then Darwin in the Northern Territory is a much better choice than Cairns. It feels real rather than manufactured, has a bizarre mix of the Bohemian and the crocodile-wrestling Outback stereotype and has far more to keep your interest within the city itself. 


Ningaloo Reef

Alternative to? The Great Barrier Reef


If it wasn’t for the Great Barrier Reef overshadowing it, the Ningaloo Reef would be a household name across the world. Stretching along the Western Australian coast, it sees far fewer visitors than its East Coast rival – and that’s part of the attraction. You’ll not have to fight the crowds of tour boats for the best spots, and you can even go whale shark-spotting from Exmouth. The only problem is that it takes a lot more effort to get to the Ningaloo – Western Australia isn’t nearly as well served by flights and public transport.


Mt Augustus or King’s Canyon

Alternative to: Uluru


Uluru is always billed as the world’s biggest monolith or rock (despite the fact that no-one’s ever gone round the world measuring all the rocks properly). But it’s not true. In fact, it’s not even Australia’s biggest monolith. Mt Augustus in Western Australia is much bigger, if perhaps not quite as spectacular when hit by the light. Getting there is a serious effort, however – it’s in the middle of absolute nowhere, and there are none of the (outrageously overpriced) tourist facilities that surround Uluru. Uluru is still unquestionably worth visiting, though – rip-off though the Ayer’s Rock Resort may be. But it’s wise not to see it as the be all and end all. King’s Canyon is in many ways more spectacular and while the walk to see the best bits may have its arduous stretches, the savageness and variety of the landscape makes it the most underrated of the Red Centre’s big three (the third part is Kata-Tjuta).


Lennox Head or the Hinterland

Alternative to: Byron Bay


Byron Bay is painted as some kind of mythical alternative culture hang out. It may have been at one time, but it certainly isn’t now. Byron might not have a McDonalds, but in every other respect it’s a mainstream resort town. Walk down the main street and you’ll be bombarded by people from backpacker bars and tour operators handing out flyers – and that doesn’t make for much of a chilled out atmosphere. But a lot of the villages around Byron still have the vibe that the hordes are seeking. Lennox Head is essentially still a laid-back surf village, while the Byron Bay hinterland is gorgeous. Step away from the coast and you’re surrounded by rainforest and National Parks. This is where the real hippies live, and you’re unlikely to be attacked by people offering drinks promotions.



Disappointing places



David Whitley looks at the places he’s most willing to launch into a diatribe about, and questions whether he’s really being fair.


Doing what it says on the tin is something of a curse for tourist attractions. It’s a natural human reaction to talk up our own discoveries – we’re always more likely to want to talk about the places that aren’t stonkingly obvious rather than rave about the same spots that everyone else bangs on about. The surprises stick out in the anecdote bank; anything that’s great that you expected to be great before you got there manages to slip back into the pack.


Hence, for me, the Hoover Dam always comes to mind before the Grand Canyon, even though the Grand Canyon is clearly better. The same applies to Darwin and Melbourne. I’ll sing the former’s praises first, even though I know I’d probably enjoy going back to the latter more. But an opposite knee-jerk applies to places you’re expecting great things of that turn out to be mildly disappointing. If it’s not as it has been sold, then an irrational desire to paint it to be far worse than it actually is develops.


Hence my somewhat vitriolic responses when anyone asks me what Byron Bay on Australia’s East Coast is like. Objectively, it is a seaside town with plenty of things to do, with a couple of cracking beaches and an occasionally admirable alternative ethic. In my head, it is somewhere to die by a thousand paper cuts from flyers handed out by backpackers, stand around in the rain and get annoyed by people who think having a terrible haircut equates to being some kind of spiritual earth child. Basically, I went expecting some kind of sun-drenched, laid-back paradise, and I didn’t get it. Therefore, it’s rubbish.


The same applies to Queenstown in New Zealand. It’s in an extraordinarily beautiful setting, there are unfathomable riches in terms of things to do, but I was expecting something that at least vaguely resembles a real place. It’s not, it’s a resort town infected by some truly awful people who measure their worth to society by how high they’ve bungy jumped from and precisely how many adrenalin activities they can pack into a week. Ask me about it, and it’s an enforced fun hellhole. It’s really only partially that.


And it goes on. Bali is a basket case ruined by the worst aspects of Australian mass holidaymaking (translation: most parts are lovely, avoid Kuta), Vancouver is as satisfying as an all-Ryvita diet (it’s got a lot to like, but lacks edge) and the whole of Malaysia is not worth bothering with (I’ve only been to Johor Bahru, and it’s a predictably grim border town).


Such grossly distorted opinions are ones that will get expressed a little too regularly. Ask me about Canada, and I’m far more likely to harp on about Vancouver’s blandness than the general agreeableness of Toronto – a city I expected to be generally agreeable.


It’s not fair; it’s just the way it is. I’m sure people I know who grumble about the rubbishness of the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China aren’t being entirely fair either. And in terms of reputational management in travel, it pays to fly under the radar somewhat.


Go on – get it off your chest. Which places to you have a perhaps unjustly harsh view on just because they weren’t what you expected?


How to choose the right dive school


So, you've picked where to learn to dive, and you're asking around town to find the right school. There's more factors than cost to consider – here's a few points to look for.

Small Class Sizes

PADI, the world's most popular diving certification agency, allows one instructor to teach as many as eight students. Ideally, though, you'll want only a couple of students in the class – or additional assistants in the water to help you practise skills. You'll learn more if you're not waiting for seven people to complete each skill in the water before you have your turn, and it's safer.

Well-Fitting Equipment

Particularly with junior divers (children as young as 10 can learn to dive) but also for petite women and larger guys, equipment fit can be key to learning to dive. If you're a non-standard size, try on a wetsuit and investigate BCD (inflatable diving jacket) sizing before you commit to the course. A wetsuit should fit snugly, with no baggy bits, but not squeeze: a fully inflated BCD should feel snug on the shoulders and mid-section, and allow easy access to your weightbelt. All dive stores carry BCDs in S, M and L sizes. Petite women might need XS or XXS, slight children might need XXXS, while bigger guys might need an XL or even an XXL.

Good Safety Standards

Is the gear checked regularly? Is emergency oxygen available on shore or on the boat? Most importantly, will a store let you dive outside your training? Any shop that will take a new diver into a deep, dark wreck or an open site with washing machine currents is not a safe place to learn.

Minimal Sales Pressure

Learning to dive is a lifelong process – even divers with thousands of dives continue to learn. So it's generally best to bank a few “fun” (non-training) dives to get more of a handle on key skills like buoyancy and air management without an instructor hovering beside you before you move onto a new course. If a store is pushing you to move from Open Water to Advanced Open Water to Rescue Diver in a couple of weeks, they're doing it wrong.

The Right Instructor

Not all instructors are created equal. Scuba instructors got into teaching because they love diving, and some loathe teaching with a passion. Chat to your instructor before you commit, and try and get a feel for their personality and teaching style.

Reasonable Course Length

Some shops will try and get you through an Open Water course in as little as two days. Initial courses include not only practical skills in the water but an entire book's worth of learning: unless you've started studying online already, look for a course that runs for longer.


A Good Course

The majority of divers around the world train with either PADI or SSI. Some consider that CMAS and NAUI, cards that are also accepted worldwide, provide more rigorous, in-depth training, including self-rescue skills: if the store you decide on offers alternatives to PADI and SSI, have a chat to the instructor about what they recommend.




Published by Stuart Lodge

The best places in the world to learn to dive



Diving is the closest most mortals will ever get to spacewalking, an almost-free pass to the underwater world. But.... Where in the world to learn? Here's a few suggestions.

Amed, Bali
At the heart of the Coral Triangle, Indonesia boasts many of the world's iconic dive spots – Raja Ampat, Wakatobi and Komodo among them. Amed, Bali, home to one of the world's most famous and accessible wreck dives, the USAT Liberty, is a great place to learn the basics – although there are plenty of challenging dives, too. Note that, unlike the more popular Gilis, nobody's blown up the coral by dynamite fishing.

Cairns, Australia
Second only to Thailand's Koh Tao as the world's favourite place to learn to dive, most Cairns dive courses include trips out to the legendary Great Barrier Reef. Prices are high; visibility, though better than at Byron Bay, varies widely; and platform dive sites can be crowded. Still, many divers love completing their training with a liveaboard dive trip including day and night dives on the Barrier Reef.

Cozumel, Mexico
A tropical island off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, Cozumel's gin-clear waters, great reef and stellar marine life provide plenty of dive sites that are suitable for learners – and the island has a classic dive town vibe. Prices are higher than in Utila, but it's a place some people dive again, and again, and again: the wall diving is famous.

Dahab, Egypt
A very cheap place to learn to dive, with very little current, great visibility, pretty coral and plenty of marine life, the beauty of Dahab is that almost all dives are from the shore – so you can go straight from lolling on cushions on the waterfront to hanging out with clownfish and back again. Rental gear, particularly depth gauges, can be ropy at cheaper shops – consider renting or buying a dive computer.


Koh Lanta, Thailand
Koh Tao may be the most popular place in the world to learn to dive, but this makes for large class sizes and heaving training spots, while bleaching has seriously impacted the coral in many sites that students dive. If learning to dive is on your Thailand bucket list, opt for Koh Lanta, with plenty of lovely easy lagoon dives, pristine coral and underwater life, as well as some world class dive sites.

Malapascua, Philippines 
Rapidly recovering from the typhoon, Malapascua is an island idyll off the north coast of Cebu, inside the Coral Triangle. The biggest draw are thresher sharks – though you'll need advanced certification or an instructor escort to see these extraordinary creatures emerge from the deep – but the island offers plenty of easy, shallow dives with lovely coral and marine life of every shape and size.

Utila, Honduras
Whale sharks, the world's largest fish at up to 12m long, are the major draw in Utila – March and April are peak season, although the behemoths do visit year-round. One of the cheapest places in the world to learn to dive, with most sites a very few minutes from the island, Utila offers lots of coral, plenty of things to see and a laidback, mellow lifestyle. Most operators include lodging in course prices and throw in a couple of fun dives after qualification.



Published by Stuart Lodge

Conservation flipside



David Whitley takes a look at when attempts to save wildlife have unexpected results 

On my last trip to New Zealand, I had an eye-opening visit to the Otago Peninsula. It is home to one of the few remaining colonies of yellow-eyed penguins, the rarest penguin species in the world. Elaborate attempts have been made to protect their nesting sites and get breeding pairs to produce offspring that survive. Yet numbers were still going down.

The problem was that the wildlife sanctuary around the harbour is perhaps too effective. The penguins are protected, but so are the albatrosses and other sea birds. More importantly, the sea lions are protected too – and they prey on the penguins. So while sea lion numbers increase, the penguin numbers go down.

To me, this showed how noble efforts to protect wildlife can often have unforeseen effects. All wildlife is part of an ecosystem, and trying to manage part of that eco-system will always have effects further down the line.

The classic example of this is bufo marinus – better known as the cane toad. It was introduced to Australia from its native South America as a non-chemical means of controlling the cane beetle, which savaged sugar cane crops. The toads didn’t really have much impact on the beetles, but spread across Queensland with no natural predators to keep them in check. Anything that did eat them was poisoned, and native fauna started declining as the competition got too hot.

Other controversial conservation measures in Australia involve the saltwater crocodiles. From the 1930s to 1970s, the big salties were hunted and shot dead in their thousands. By the time hunting them was banned, the population was perilously small – they would have almost certainly died out if the men with shotguns were allowed to keep going.

But since they’ve been protected, numbers have ballooned to the point where some residents in areas where the crocs live are calling for safari-style hunts to be reintroduced. In the Northern Territory in particular, saltwater crocs are encroaching on territory they’ve never previously inhabited, forcing freshwater crocodiles further inland and changing the ecosystems of the creeks and rivers they venture into.

In Queensland, the croc problem is less pronounced, but numbers have undoubtedly grown. And that has led to some interesting theories. One guide I spent a day with reckoned that the increase in saltwater crocodiles had also led to an increase in deadly box jellyfish and irukandji. He reckoned that the crocs eat the sea turtles – which has led to a decline in turtle numbers. Whether that is the reason that the turtles are struggling is open to debate – coastal developments are arguably more likely to reduce turtle numbers as they affect breeding grounds. But it does seem increasingly likely that the turtles were what kept jellyfish numbers down – they’re immune to the toxins, and eat them.

So, fewer turtles means more jellyfish. And the efforts to save the crocs may have something to do with it. When it comes to saving wildlife, nothing is quite as clear cut as it may initially seem.