Australia

Pelicans

 

 

David Whitley heads out on a boat looking for dolphins and penguins, but finds that the sea lions and pelicans are the real highlights

A curiosity of travel is that the headline attractions often get upstaged by the things you’re not expecting. In advance, our boat trip out from Rockingham was going to be all about the dolphins and penguins.

Everybody loves dolphins and penguins, right? They pretty much top the animal kingdom’s cute list, and to combine the pair in a day out should be a wildlife-lover’s dream.

The Shoalwater Safari from Rockingham, around 45 minute south of Central Perth, combines both. It includes a 90 minute high speed dolphin-spotting boat ride, followed by half a day on Penguin Island. Which, as the name suggests, is home to around 1,200 super-loveable fairy penguins.

But our luck isn’t really in on the water. The dolphins are out – we find a group of them fairly easily, but it seems as though they don’t really want to play. That’s fair enough – they’re wild animals and don’t do tricks on command – but a few dorsal fin sightings followed by prolonged underwater swims is a little underwhelming. Particularly if, the day before, you’ve spotted dolphins swimming in the Swan River on the ferry from Perth to Fremantle.

That’s the luck of the draw, though. And much the same applies with the penguins. Over a thousand may live on the island, on nesting sites tucked into the dune vegetation, but you’re unlikely to see too many of them during the day – most are either in the nesting hole or out in the ocean, hunting for fish.

There are a few rehabilitated penguins inside the ‘Penguin Encounter’, however. There are feeding shows regularly throughout the day, and otherwise you can just wander in to watch them swimming and strutting about. One’s particularly endearing. It stands at the side like a woefully ineffective guard, honking at anyone who goes past.

But, unexpectedly, it’s the understudies that steal the show on this trip. On our way back through the bay from where the dolphins were, we stop to hover around what is known as Seal Island. It’s notable enough for the fossilised tree roots sneaking through the limestone rock, but it’s the sea lions that make it.

Australian sea lions are the rarest species in the world, so to find a group of 20-odd splashing around in the water or sunning themselves on the beach is an absolute treat. Apparently, they’re all boys, and they come down for a few months of the year outside of breeding season, leaving the ladies to themselves further north. It’s essentially like a group of mates heading off to a cabin in the woods for a beer, barbecue and fishing holiday. They’re remarkably chilled and unaggressive as there are no females to compete for.

But while the big silly lunks splash around in the water, the area’s other surprise star is flying above it. I’ve always thought of pelicans as comedy birds. 

They just look so ridiculous. But that impression evaporates when you see them in flight.

They soar across the water, at some points flapping their wings in a measured rhythm, and at others gliding like a dart, yet staying at exactly the same height above the sea. It’s like a cyclist veering between a considered pedal and a freewheel.

And while Penguin Island gets its name from the fairy penguins, the bird you’re most likely to see there (apart from the ubiquitous seagull) is the pelican.
A two kilometre walking trail, along boardwalks and beaches, leads visitors around part of the island. But the top half is not for footsteps. On top of the hill is a major pelican nesting site. Viewing it from the lookout, it looks like the ground is entirely made up of pellies. There are hundreds of them.

On the way round back to the start of the track, I keep an eye out for penguins on the land and dolphins in the water. No joy. But while I’m traipsing through the sea weed on the beach, a rather more impressive road block appears just in front of me. We’ve been told that, should we be lucky enough to see one, we should keep at least five metres away from any sea lions.

Well, there’s no chance of that if I’m going to get past. He’s strategically fallen asleep across the beach. I have to skirt by his head and hope that he doesn’t get too annoyed if I disrupt his slumber. The understudy has well and truly thrust himself into the limelight.

Disclosure: David went out to Pelican Island as a guest of Rockingham Wild Encounters (Rockinghamwildencounters.com.au)


Roadhouse


David Whitley braves the foul food and pricey petrol to discover glorious slices of Outback absurdity in the Northern Territory.

 

 

One thing that will become unavoidable if you decide to take on a big driving adventure through Australia is the roadhouse. These lonely outposts of expensive fuel, culinary horrors, country music CDs and porn mags in plastic wrappers quickly become something of an institution. They keep truckers in energy drinks, bacon rolls and staple-adorned libido appeasers - and tourists in reminders of how while remote Australia is great to visit, you wouldn’t want to live there.

 

 

You soon develop tactics to deal with the roadhouses. Filling up with petrol in towns is usually cheaper, and if using the roadhouse is unavoidable for refuelling, pick the one that is closest to a major population centre. Also, if you see a herd of caravans parked outside, you want to get out of there quickly before you’re trapped behind them. Much is made of the road trains being the slow-moving menace of the Stuart Highway, but they’re mere pussycats compared to the plague of old gimmers pottering around the country, towing their worldly belongings behind them. On numerous occasions, we have seen frustrated road train drivers working out how they’re going to overtake the caravan dawdling along at 75km/h in a 130km/h zone. 

 

As for the food, any attempts to do as the Romans do will be gradually beaten out of you. The burgers, chicken schnitzels, meat pies and vile monstrosities made of batter/ meat of unknown providence are tolerable once or twice. But when they’re bad, they’re really bad. After the burger at Curtin Springs, I gave serious thought to either vegetarianism or a starvation diet. It gets to a point when you start drawing up a list of your top five vomit-inducing lunches.

 

The smart alternative, incidentally, is to have an enormous fry-up breakfast. This at least has to be cooked from scratch, rather being produced from its four week, bubbling bain marie hibernation. From there on, a Cornetto will more than do the trick for lunch. Did I mention that you’re probably going to put on weight if you attempt to drive from Melbourne to Darwin?

 

Eventually, however, you begin to develop a begrudging love for the roadhouses. Once you get to the Northern Territory, in particular, they all seem to try so hard to win your affection. Kulgera boasts that it is the first and last stop in the Territory, and has an enormous map outside pointing out the distances to just about everywhere else in Australia. Erldunda, at the junction that branches off to Uluru, has a few emus strutting around in a pen outside. Mt Ebenezer sells aboriginal art, Stuarts Well offers camel rides and a singing dingo, while Larrimah has everything painted pink.

 

Aileron is particularly good. On the hilltop above the roadhouse is a 12m high man wearing a loin cloth, while a sculpture of a lizard in a bikini sits outside a petrol station and a coffin doubles as the spirits cabinet (geddit?) in the pub. Aileron also has its own pet wedge-tailed eagle, which struts around on a perch outside trying to look threatening, even though it’s clearly injured and can no longer fly. He may as well be squawking “come on then, I’ll nut you.”

 

But the undoubted king of the novelty roadhouses is Wycliffe Well. And for its unswerving dedication to novelty, we decided to grace it with our presence for the night. The motel rooms may be a little, er, prisony, but the schtick is great. Over the years, Wycliffe Well has carved itself a reputation as ‘The UFO Capital of Australia’. Numerous sightings have been reported at Wycliffe Well – a fact entirely unrelated to the amount of beer consumed there, of course. Owner Lew Farkas has developed a knack for marketing, and has thus covered his euphemistically-monickered ‘holiday park’ with little green men, Blue Peter-esque spaceships and cosmically-themed murals. 

 

The walls of the ‘restaurant’ are filled with newspaper cuttings about sightings in the area, and there is a sightings book on the reception desk where guests can make notes about their own close encounters. If that wasn’t gimmicky enough, the grounds have been filled with life-sized Incredible Hulks, Elvises and bizarre spotty animals that don’t really bear a resemblance to any real living creature. Oh yes, there’s also the world’s most half-arsed aviary and a paddock with vaguely psychotic emus running around and staring out anyone who cares to look over the fence. It’s beautifully desperate. But at the same time, if all of Australia’s roadhouses pulled off such ridiculous nonsense off so well, they’d end up as destinations in their own right.

 

More photos here

 

 

By David Whitley

Why Darwin?

 

It’s Australia’s best tropical city: Whisper it quietly, but the cities in tropical Queensland are a little underwhelming. Darwin, however, has bags of personality. This is partly due to population blend. It’s a weird mix of rough-and-ready, beer-swilling Northern Territory blokeishness, alternative lifestyle hippyishness and Asian migration. And somehow it works to form a small but enticing city with a distinctive attitude towards life.

Mindil Beach night market: During the dry season months, the Mindil Beach Night Market offers more than just shopping. Sure, you can go round the stalls buying trinkets, but it’s the food and entertainment that set the market apart. Food stalls represent pretty much the whole of Asia, while street artists and performers bring the place to life. It all stops for sunset, however – people pile onto the beach to watch the setting sun turn the sky an incredible range of reds, oranges and yellows.

Sitting through a cyclone: In 1974, Cyclone Tracy tore Darwin to shreds. The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory takes you through the experience, the highlight being a bone-chilling blackened booth where you can see nothing and listen to the recordings made at the time of the cyclone ripping through the city.

Swim with crocodiles: At Crocosaurus Cove, it’s possible to do something you can’t do anywhere else in the world – strip down to your swimmers, enter a glass box and then get lowered into the enclosure of a hefty 5m-long crocodile. It’s not a challenge for the feeble of heart. But if you’ve ever wondered what shark cage diving is like using some of the biggest crocodiles in history instead of sharks, this is your answer.

Or watch them jump up the side of your boat… If swimming with saltwater crocodiles for some reason seems like a bad idea, then a marginally less intense close encounter can be found on the Adelaide River. Around an hour’s drive from Darwin, this is where a number of ‘jumping crocodile’ cruise operators ply their trade. The premise is fairly simple – it’s a boat trip down a crocodile-infested river. The twist is that the crew hang pieces of meat out of the boat on fishing rods. The crocs spy a meal, saunter up, then jump out of the water right next to the boat in order to get their feeds. They are, to put it mildly, somewhat intimidating.

Litchfield National Park: Just to the south of Darwin, the Litchfield National Park offers an accessible slice of Northern Territory ruggedness. It’s full of towering sandstone rock formations, daintily pretty waterfalls and enormous termite mounds. Safe swimming holes – ones that crocs have been chased out of – offer welcome respite from the heat in a region that makes for a perfect day trip.

You can get Darwin included as a stopover on your RTW here

Oz Pub


In the Northern Territory, David Whitley finds the antidote to Australia’s disappointing drinking establishments.


There are a lot of rose-tinted myths about Australian pubs. The idea that they’re all magnificent places where everyone’s your mate and will buy you a beer as the good times roll is utterly absurd. The sad truth is that most Australian pubs are on a sliding scale of awfulness.


In the big cities, at least, there is variety. But your choice will often be one of the following:

A)     A cavernous barn of a place where all sense of character is sapped away by the sheer amount of people in it – most of them drinking nasty lager (or VB as it is better known) and mentally preparing for a nice fight later on.

B)      A grotty dive inhabited by lifeless shells of human beings, pouring every cent they’ve got into the pokies. For the uninitiated, pokies are gaming machines (like fruit machines without the element of skill), and in Australia they are a desperately sad plague inflicted upon just about every drinking establishment. Many lives are wrecked by them, but the pokies are what make the money – not the drinks sales.

C)      Self-consciously cool wankerbars full of preening princesses, slimeballs in suits and image-obsessed rich kids paying absurd prices for drinks because it’s the place to be seen. Their evening will be soundtracked by god-awful ‘funky’ music that belongs in lifts, but is deemed insipid enough to be chilled and fashionable.

Of course, it is possible to find genuinely good pubs – you just have to look extremely hard.

At this point, the usual cry goes up from the Australians who drive utes, only eat steak and spend their spare time playing banjos. To find a great Aussie pub, they will say, you need to leave the city behind and head to a country town.

The sad truth is that pubs in country towns can be even worse. They usually have a room devoted to sports betting and horse racing which suck out the last traces of life that the pokies missed. The drinks range will be even more pathetic, the menus almost identikit and the atmosphere curiously hostile.

Again, this is not always the case, but it’s the general rule.

To find a truly great Australian pub, you usually have to look a little further afield. It doesn’t apply all the time, but generally if there’s only one pub in town – even better if there’s only one pub for miles and miles – then that’s when it starts getting interesting.

These are the places where you’ll get a bizarre mix of oldies passing through in caravans, backpackers stopping for the night because it’s the only feasible option, hard-bitten locals armed with tall stories and hat-clad types from the nearby cattle stations stopping by for a skin- full before driving home over bumpy tracks in the dark.

Some of these pubs are the stuff of legend. The William Creek Hotel in outback South Australia, the Silverton Hotel near Broken Hill and the Birdsville Pub in South-East Queensland are legendary.

And so too is the Daly Waters Pub. Situated a couple of kilometres off the Stuart Highway in the middle of nowhere, Northern Territory, people will drive across Australia to drink in Daly Waters (population: 9).

Outside - by the fuel pumps - is a rusting helicopter, while a set of traffic lights billed as the most remote in Australia sit next to the pub. The lights are permanently set to red, and the gag catches a new mug on an almost daily basis.

Inside, the pub is a ridiculously cluttered, beautiful mess. But at least the mess is in themed sections. Above the bar hang scores of bras donated by visitors inspired by drink into a sudden burst of old-school feminism. They dangle above hundreds of ID cards, student cards and YHA membership cards that would surely be missed by their owners later down the line.

There’s a sports shirts section, running the gamut from Gaelic football to ice hockey, while boxer shorts and skimpy g-strings hang from a roof beam.

German firemen have donated their badges, passport photos fill the gaps and a United Nations of banknotes completes the display near the pool table. The wooden shelter outside is decorated with thongs (flip flops to you filthy-minded non-Australians) and a stuffed effigy sits languorously on a toilet up some scaffolding in the beer garden.

It’s unquestionably cheesy, but once darkness falls, the beef and barramundi barbecue anchors the increasing beer intake and you start swapping war stories with the next table, it feels spectacularly right. The Great Australian Pub isn’t a complete myth – you just have to go some way to find it. And when you do, it is likely to be covered in underwear. 

 

More photos here

 

5* hostels



 

It’s now almost seven months since I left London for Panama and began this little jaunt around the world. Seven months living out of a backpack, eating in cafés and cheap restaurants. Seven months of working on magazine stories (more stories than I can remember now) in what must by now be a couple of dozen ‘hijacked offices’ in the corners of cafes, bars, airports, hotel lobbies, private sitting rooms and even railway carriages.

 

Seven months sleeping in such a motley mingled mishmash of different accommodation that it is almost impossible to recall them all now. There have been nights lately when I’ve woken up in the complete darkness of the wee hours and literally struggled to remember where I am: well I can remember going through X…and the night before last I slept in Y…therefore I must now be in Z. One night I lay in bed unable even to reach for a light switch because it was impossible to conjure up a picture of what the inside of the room looked like. Don’t imagine that I’m complaining. Swap this variety (or ‘insecurity’) for the predictability of the 9 to 5…? Not on your nelly!

But it would be reassuring sometimes to have a nice clean room, a comfortable lounge to chill out in, a few friendly faces to share a beer with in my own language, even a kitchen where for once I can do some cooking for myself. So, even before I arrived in Australia I decided that the best option – and very likely the cheapest too – would be to stay in YHA hostels. The Aussie Youth Hostel Association (www.yha.com.au) has a network of more than 140 hostels all over the country. They range from the big Sydney Central hostel which is more like a business class hotel in many other countries (with comfortable en-suite rooms, round the clock wifi, rooftop pool and spa and even a mini cinema) to quirky and charming little ‘boutique hotels’ where you can relax in your own self-contained apartment complete with kitchen and a barby on the terrace!

It seems that things have changed since my school holidays backpacking through the hostels of Northumberland, sleeping in cramped dorms that have been impregnated by decades of sweaty socks. Dorm accommodation is still available in most Australian hostels and you can still often find a bed for as little as eight quid. Since the hostels have fully-equipped kitchens you can end up saving another fortune on restaurant bills. (The bigger hostels have rows of fully-equipped individual kitchenettes so that you cook in your own space…and don’t have to climb over other people’s dirty dishes).

The YHA has just opened a spectacular new hostel in Sydney’s most historic quarter. It is the first budget accommodation in The Rocks and it is very likely the most ecologically friendly and environmentally sensitive hotel in Australia. It is built on top of the remains of the first settlement that date back to 1795. But the entire 106-room hostel is raised up on specially designed pillars so that less than 2% of its area even touches the ground. Other hotels might talk about their carbon footprint but this unique building barely has a footprint at all.

My room in the Bondi hostel had wonderful views over the beach and there was a killer rooftop terrace for a stubby or two at the end of the day. In the big Perth hostel I was able to set up a temporary office in one of several quiet chill-out lounges before having a quick workout in the hostel’s gym and then a couple of beers in the company of a pretty Japanese yoga instructor who could get spectacularly tipsy on kahlua and milk. I headed down to Margaret River on a mission for some frosty and feisty surf and booked into an entire family apartment (could sleep six) where I could barbecue thick steaks in Margaret River olive oil and wash them down with local ‘Bare Rooted’ vino. In Adelaide I was lucky enough to coincide my visit with the arrival of a touring Aboriginal drum group (and then travelled on with them as far as Alice Spring). The hostel in Alice is built in an old building that was once an outdoor cinema – the scene of many a dramatic evening no doubt. Now there is a tempting swimming pool here too and in the evening cultural films are still shown to backpackers who want to understand something about Outback history and Aboriginal society. (Most importantly the hostel is just down the road from Bojangles, which on any given Saturday night remains one of my favourite pubs.)

By my reckoning I figure that if I continue at this rate it would only take me eight and a half months to stay in every hostel in Australia. Am I tired of living on the road yet? Don’t be silly.