Australia

Bugger All

 


 

Cook is known, with typical Outback humour, as ‘the Queen City of the Nullarbor.’ According to a signpost outside the little village store it has a population of ‘4 people, 40 dingoes and 4,000,000 flies.’ It is fair to say that not much happens in Cook and the arrival of the Indian Pacific is still a highlight of the week. The railway has traditionally played a vital part in the ‘taming’ of the Outback and a rail journey across Australia remains one of the world’s epic travel experiences. Australians, accustomed to the mind-boggling distances involved in travelling their island continent, might tell you that the Outback is boring, that it’s empty, that there’s not much to see in what they call ‘The Great Bugger-all.’

 

But it is the immense scale that is often the source of fascination for outsiders. The great Never Never really does seem to go on forever and ever. And the best way to get a feel for this is in a coast-to-coast train journey through the wild Red Centre. The Indian Pacific takes two days and nights to travel between Perth and Adelaide and the distances are so great that you have to change your watch twice during the journey to take into account time zone differences. Leaving the Indian Ocean the train winds slowly into hills sprinkled with eucalyptus and ghost gums and by dark we had already entered the plateau for the long run towards the Nullarbor Desert. I fell asleep watching shooting stars flashing across the desert sky and when I woke the next morning we were in an ocean-like expanse of wilderness that stretched as far as the eye could see. Like a great silver spear piercing into the heart of the continent the Indian Pacific was tacking an almost perfectly straight trajectory into the rising sun. This is officially the longest straight section of railway line in the world and stretches for exactly 299 miles.

 In the twenty minutes it takes for the train to re-provision with water you can exhaust all the attractions of the ‘Queen City of the Nullarbor.’ My fellow traveller Bruce however had an unusual reason to feel affection for Cook. His father passed through here on the Indian Pacific during World War II. In one of those weird twists of fate the train was delayed in Cook and he missed his berth on a ship that was departing from Perth. The ship sank with all hands. Adelaide is the intersection for the Indian Pacific and an even more legendary rail route that runs north to south through the very heart of continent. Named after the intrepid Afghan cameleers who originally established this route, The Ghan is famous today as one of the world’s most iconographic rail journeys. The Ghan is now over eighty years old but it is only for the last few years that rail travel has been possible beyond Alice Springs, all the way up to Darwin and the tropical ‘Top End.’

We left Adelaide at 6pm and by sunset the ancient slabs of the Flinders Ranges were already looming on a shimmering horizon. By dawn the next morning we were already in deep the Red Centre. As the train clattered doggedly northwards a seemingly endless desert landscape flickered across the panoramic windows like some super-hypnotic technicolor wide-screen movie. A mob of kangaroos bounded away at our approach and a pair emus looked up from their foraging to gaze gawkily after us. A herd of camels lolloped away, descendants of the animals that were brought here almost a hundred and fifty years ago to help tame the wilderness.

Twenty-four hours after leaving Adelaide we crossed the great sandy swathe of the waterless Finke River and an hour later the craggy hills around Alice Springs appeared under a glaring desert sun. ‘The Alice’ is, for many, the most atmospheric of Australia’s Outback towns and the majority of the Ghan’s passengers choose to break their journey and spend at least a couple of days here, or to use it as a base for visits to Uluru (previously Ayers Rock). Alice is a friendly, welcoming town which has that typical Outback quality of being able to produce unforgettable fun with minimal facilities: two good examples of this are Bojangles Pub (one of the 10 best pubs in the world) and the wacky boatrace along the dry riverbed that is known as the Todd Regatta.

Leaving Alice, the Ghan rolled onward into the Northern Territory and the landscape began to change radically. The Tropic of Capricorn and the Tanami Desert slipped past in the night. By morning the eucalyptus forest was already beginning to thicken and suddenly I realised that the landscape is now spiked with the shaggy heads of tropical palms. Near Katherine I started to see real rivers with flowing water. It came as quite a surprise to realise how quickly I had become accustomed to the ochre hues of the desert.

I had travelled about three thousand miles from the chilly beaches of Western Australia to the tropical reefs of the ‘Top End.’ Thinking back it was hard even to recall the kaleidoscopic variety of landscapes I had travelled through in this unforgettable trip across ‘the Great Bugger­all.’

 

Queensland

A kangaroo on the beach: The Australian cliché jackpot

 

David Whitley stumbles upon a magical wildlife encounter at Cape Hillsborough in Queensland

It’s that magical period of dusk where the moon is forming a perfect white circle in the sky, and the range of orangey pinks are layering stripes over the top of the water on the horizon. This would be pretty marvellous any evening; the massive 6.5 metre tide at Cape Hillsborough is on its way in, covering the bobbles made in the sand made by burrowing soldier crabs earlier in the day. Wedge Island provides a perfect backdrop, and the arm of the cape itself protects the almost unnatural glimmer of the beach. 

But it’s not just any evening. I’ve got company. There are a few children still on the beach, plugging away with their buckets and spades, but it requires a double-take to realise that one of the outlines isn’t child-shaped. 

We have been joined on the beach by a very special lady. 

One with a pouch and a very long tail. An eastern grey kangaroo has come to enjoy the sunset as well. I start off observing from a distance. She sits still for a bit, then hops over to what she must regard as a much more exciting spot on the beach. I don’t want to scare her off, so I approach gradually. She seems remarkably unthreatened – I guess that comes from growing up near a holiday park full of families with young kids – and I find myself getting almost within touching distance. 

She fidgets, trying to get a sandfly off her leg, but unperturbed by me. I move around to the side so that I’ve got the coloured sky and Wedge Island behind her. And then I just sit there on the sand, watching night come in. She’s not exactly the ideal model – she has an uncanny habit of moving her head just as I think I’ve lined up the perfect photograph. But after a while, I put the camera away and just lie there entranced. To get so close to such a magnificent wild creature, one-on-one, for so long and in such an incredible setting is one of those memory of a lifetime moments. And then she moves – not to hop away, not to go and investigate something more interesting, but to lie down on the sand less than a metre away from me. It’s around 45 minutes before I can bring myself to leave. It’s almost totally dark. 

I turn round to see the children still absolutely focused on building their giant network of sand canals. Philistines.

 

Rolling down the river

 

 

On a boat trip from Noosa, David Whitley quickly finds himself surrounded by rainforest wildlife and glimpses of the past

We say goodbye to the canoeists. They want to give their arms a workout, paddling up the Noosa River through the Noosa Everglades. And suddenly all is serene again. The tannins seeping from the trees make the water dark, perfect for reflecting the fluffy white clouds overhead. The lily pads are open and flowering.

It has been a slow chug getting to this point. Noosa is hardly the most throbbing hive of urban energy – indeed, its charm is that it’s so low rise, nature-packed and uncrowdedly dreamy – but you really don’t have to get too far out to feel you’re in the wilderness.

The Noosa Everglades Discovery Cruise heads deep into the Cooloola National Park along the river, and the slow glide is marked by various appearances from the bird life that lives in the area.

First are the pelicans. There’s always one standing guard while the others are asleep. One pelican stands on a nearby boat, proud and tall. Others glide into land, with exquisite grace until the moment they hit the water, from which point the putting down of feet is a masterclass in galumphing comedy.

There’s also the massive osprey nest on other side, where the same pair of ospreys have been resting for around 27 years. The cable ferry runs nearby, and that’s part of what keeps the area so quiet. There’s no bridge connecting to Noosa’s ‘north shore’, and that keeps the developers well away.

 

 

There are also ducks, white egrets and darters, which use their long necks to effectively spear the fish they’re hunting with their beaks. And then there’s the cormorant that follows the boat. “They’ve learned that the boats stir up the fish a bit,” says skipper Trevor.

Pretty much the only signs of human habitation on the way in are a little island owned by Richard Branson, a somewhat scraggy-looking campsite and a few jetties owned by prawn fishermen. But by the time the canoeists depart by the now unmanned Kinaba Information Centre, there’s a tremendous air of peace and tranquillity.

The region became a National Park in 1975, and most of the remnants from before that time are now gone. Forest has regrown to replace most of the logging camps, and Harry’s Hut further upstream was the last one standing. Now, there are a few information boards there, plus some tent sites and open-to-all barbecues.

It’s also where the big goannas like to hang out. They snuffle along the leafy floor, clearly intent on sharing everyone’s food.

The question is whether to go for a swim or not. Trevor says he’s caught bull sharks in the river, but he’s never seen them this far up. We’ve also seen snakes swimming across, but apparently they can’t do any harm while in the water.

As the canoeists catch us up, and pull alongside the wharf, one decides to just leap in the water. The rest of us, shamed, decide it’d be rude not to go in too.

 

Again, the water is murky due to the tannins seeping in. But it turns out what this is what makes the Noosa Everglades far more pleasant than their Florida counterpart. Mosquitos don’t like the water, so they don’t show up. No buzzing, no bites, no worries…

Disclosure: David was a guest of the Discovery Group and Tourism Australia You can get a 5 day Fraser Island and Sunshine coast tour here

  

The kitschest street in Australia

 

 

David Whitley take a detour to Bee Gees Way in Redcliffe, Queensland

The bronze statue of three bare-footed young boys, one with guitar in hand, is dedicated to Bodding, Basser and Woggie. Behind it, yellow plaques bear seemingly random phrases. “Nights On Broadway”, “Run To Me”, “Woman In Love”…

The link becomes more apparent when the eye scans over the better known song titles. “Massachusetts”, “I Started A Joke”, “How Deep Is Your Love”… The three boys are Robin, Barry and Maurice Gibb, who would go on to achieve worldwide fame and fortune as the Bee Gees.

On its own, the statue and song titles combo would be a subtle little tribute to a band that was founded and named in Redcliffe, Queensland. But it comes as part of a quite marvellously OTT laneway that has been entirely given over to the local boys done good. Redcliffe is enormously proud of the Bee Gees, and Bee Gees Way is its way of showing off that pride.

The Gibb Brothers were born on the Isle Of Man, but spent their early years in the outskirts of Manchester in England. The family moved over to Redcliffe in 1958, when Barry was 12 years old and the twins were just nine. They had been playing music together back in the UK, but it was in Redcliffe where things started to happen.

At the entrance to Bee Gees Way, which is just off the shore-hugging Redcliffe Parade, there’s a huge glass plinth on which Barry’s recollections of playing at the Redcliffe Speedway are printed.

  

“Back then we talked them into letting us sing in between the races – whether it was the gnats or the stock cars. We sang through the PA system on the back of a lorry, the crowd threw money on the track and we gleefully ran out and picked up the change.”

It was while doing this that racing driver Bill Goode and radio DJ Bill Gates spotted them, and signed the boys up on their first contract. It was signed at the Gibb family home on Oxley Avenue, on March 16th, 1959 – and we know that because a replica of the contract, signatures and all, has been blown up and placed inside the glass plinth.

They became the BGs (which comes from the initials of Bill Goode, Bill Gates and Barry Gibb, rather than the usually assumed ‘Brothers Gibb’). And as they started to make TV and radio appearances in Australia, that became the Bee Gees.

The boys of the initial bronze statue became the men of the new bronze statue opposite, which shows an altogether more recognisable Bee Gees. Barry has his long mane, Maurice his hat, Robin his earring. And behind that is a 70 metre mural featuring stencil-like images of the brothers, and more of Barry’s thoughts. ‘Mo’ was the extrovert, who always had a gang of kids running behind him in the schoolyard; a “magnetic personality” who was “never off stage”.

Robin is portrayed as a dichotomy, two people in one, who was as obsessed with history as music.

It’s this personal, reminiscing approach that plays a big part in making Bee Gees Way so odd. It could have been a lionising tribute, and it could have been an outdoor museum, but it’s neither. It’s more an extended interview with an old man, possibly a few glasses of wine to the good, taking a misty-eyed look back at the past.

Opposite the mural is a wall covered in lots and lots of photos, covering everything from the brothers’ parents getting married to them hauling Grammy awards and Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame inductions. On the way, there are sweet childhood pics, and ludicrously camp disco-era silver-costumed promo shots. Each is accompanied by a caption from Barry, who generally resorts to half-hearted jokes such as “Was it a hit?” under recording studio photos rather than any real deep insight.

Larger panels give a touch more sense of the Bee Gee story, particularly the one where Barry recollects arriving in Southampton in 1967. They had returned to the UK in a bid to make it big internationally. They were quickly told that “groups are out” and “You have to be an Eric Clapton or you don’t stand a chance”.

“We heard this constantly but we never listened,” are the last words. And they were proved right not to, as later that year Massachusetts became their first smash hit.

A big screen plays footage of Barry being interviewed, interspersed with videos of Bee Gees songs, with the air of justifiable if mildly daggy indulgence tempering the overall kitsch daftness of the lane’s very existence.

But Redcliffe is more than happy milking its claim to fame, and Barry has happily obliged with a few memories from his short time there. “I have changed, but the child inside me has not,” are his words immortalised on the wall. “I am still here on Redcliffe Beach, fishing for that tiger shark.”

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Hamilton Island



David Whitley heads to the most developed island of the Whitsundays, and is surprised to find himself loving it

There are two cockatoos sat on my balcony, enjoying the view out over the beach and islands between mildly comical struts. I sit down next to them, and they’re too brazen to fly off.

As far as I’m concerned, pretty much any sin can be forgiven if you get two pet cockatoos on your balcony.
Read most guidebooks, and you’ll be presented with a list of sins that Hamilton Island commits. But if your book reels off the dated and overdeveloped standard lines, I’d be tempted to question how recently the author has visited. And then I’d take everything else in there with a pinch of salt.

Hamilton Island is the sort of place that most guide books get sniffy about. It’s not ‘real’ travel – most people book on packages, it’s essentially a town-sized resort island and they’ve had the audacity to build a hotel that has more than 30 rooms in it.

I can only conclude that guidebooks, as a rule, don’t like the idea of anyone having fun. Because, to me, that’s what Hamilton Island offers in buckets. Not enforced fun – the sort of “wahey! It’s 8am, we’re all going paintballing! Lads! Wahey!” hell that some people deem fun. It’s more simple than that – it’s a case of providing almost limitless stuff that you can do if you want to.

I could, if I had wished, have spent the time walking on the hilltop trails. For all the hoo-ha about development, 70% of Hamilton Island is retained as National Parkland. We’re not talking anything like Cancun or Benidorm here – it’s only ‘overdeveloped’ in comparison to the other 73 islands that make up the Whitsunday group. Most of them have nothing at all on them; it’s hardly a fair comparison.

Hamilton Island offers something that you can’t get anywhere else in Australia. In fact, I struggle to think of anything similar worldwide. That’s partly because millions and millions of dollars have been pumped in to transform it from the forlorn, bedraggled thing it reportedly once was. Even the roads – almost exclusively populated by golf buggies – feel like paths through a big garden. The place looks really, really good. And, to me, a place that looks good and has loads to do is a winner.

You know what? I like getting around by golf buggy. I like being able to wander down to the beach and take my pick from snorkel, windsurfer and mini-catamaran. I like being able to fill an hour by going bowling or playing mini-golf or taking to the tennis courts. I like having the option of bombing around on a quad bike, or racing go-karts, or ambling towards a little wildlife park and cuddling a koala.

I wouldn’t want to spend a fortnight there. But I wouldn’t want to spend a fortnight anywhere that size. As a three or four day break from doing ‘proper travel’ around Australia? It’s brilliant. It’s OK to have a bit of fun every now and then, even if it deviates from the guide book prescription.

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