Australia

Moreton Island

 



David Whitley gets bitten by fish and a face full of sand on Moreton Island

The scene on the west coast of Moreton Island is one of devastation and tragedy. Close to the beach, the rusting remains of numerous ships form an orange-brown jagged rim. But while these wrecks may have been bad news for those who sailed on them, they’re wonderful for the fish that have decided to call them home.

Over the years, coral and barnacles have grown around the remains of the stricken ships, providing a bountiful feeding ground. Thus, the moment I dunk my head in the water, I discover that I’m in what may as well be a battery cage filled with sergeant majors and bream. It’s like swimming through a moving, fishy wall.

You don’t really expect great snorkelling just off the coast of Brisbane. The Great Barrier Reef, after all, starts a fair bit further north. But the wrecks of Moreton Island have created an aquatic hotspot.

Our guide hands us some bread, and a feeding frenzy begins. I hold some out under the water, and the fish swarm around my hand. The big breams, it seems, have a mighty pair of chompers on them.

It’s about an hour on the ferry from the Port of Brisbane to Moreton Island, and it’s the sort of place where you’ll get sand in everything. The main road is the beach, and the cross-island tracks are bumpy, compressed sand affairs that need a certain degree of skill to conquer. It’s a world of four wheel drive vehicles and back-to-basics camping.

It’s an island made of sand, and in some places this sand collects more than others. A fine example is �?The Desert’, a large bowl situated over the ridge from the coast. It acts as a sand trap, with prevailing winds continually blowing sand in, and the ridge walls catching it. The scene is almost Saharan, with huge dunes sweeping across the bowl. Some vegetation is managing to grow through, but it’s mainly a dazzling horizon of fearsome golden white.

Our Landcruiser pulls over at the fence, and our guide brings out some fairly basic strips of masonite. These, it turns out, are to be our transport for getting from the top of the dune to the bottom. Walking along the top, it quickly becomes clear that the largest dune is much steeper up close than it is from a distance.

He lines up one of the boards on the cusp after giving it a good wax. My task is to grab the end of it, stick my arms out like a chicken and keep my legs up. I’m pushed over the edge, and start hurtling down head first. It’s a tremendous rush – apparently speeds get up to 50km/h – and I fly towards the bottom, before heading up the next, smaller hill. I forget to keep the edge of the board lifted up and end up with a face full of sand.

The trudge back up the hill is much less fun. I’d struggle to think of anything more murderous on the thighs than trekking up a sand dune.

On the way back, we take the 4WD for a spin up the beach. We slow down suddenly and look out to sea. “Look,” our guide says, pointing at a grey object in the water. “A dolphin.”

We watch the dolphin flit around in the water and duck back to catch a fish. Meanwhile, a wildlife-watching cruise – which has set off specifically to see this sort of thing – passes by in the distance obliviously. One-nil to the sandlubbers.

 
Disclosure: David Whitley travelled on Moreton Island Adventures’ “Xtreme” Tour as a guest of Tourism Australia. In Brisbane he stayed as a guest of Brisbane City YHA , Mantra Southbank and Novotel Brisbane 

Whitsundays

David Whitley braves mysterious, deadly jellyfish to go paddling through some of the most gorgeous islands on earth – the Whitsundays 

I’m beginning to suspect that Mark is a double agent for Tourism New Zealand. He seems to have a never-ending barrel of tales about people being stung by irukandji.

“I’ve seen people who’ve been attacked by them, and I’ve seen people die from those attacks. They’re in agony, and all you can do is pump them full of morphine and hope their body manages to work through it.

“No-one really knows anything about them,” he says. “We don’t know where they come from, we don’t know where they go to and we don’t know how they work.”

Irukandji are tiny jellyfish, and it’s only in the last couple of decades that they’ve been generally accepted to exist. Their venom is 100 times more potent than that of a cobra, they’re the size of a thumbnail and transparent, so virtually impossible to see. And, unfortunately, they tend to be found in the waters of the Whitsundays in northern Queensland.

This is why Mark is handing us the deeply unflattering stinger suits. They’re like giant protective condoms that cover the body (although quite what happens if an irukandji gets you in the face, I’m not sure). The ‘season’ for the various stinging jellyfish in northern Queensland is supposedly over, but Mark isn’t taking any chances. “They’re here year round,” he says, it’s not worth taking the risk.”

We’ve parked our kayaks on a coral beach that is a fairly new readdition to White Rock. “It was wiped out by Cyclone Yasi,” Mark says of the 2011 cyclone that was the biggest Queensland has ever faced. “Yasi literally blew the beach over to the other side of White Rock.”

Normal service has resumed, with the build-up of coral regenerating a beach that’s much nicer to look at than stand on with bare feet.

It’s a gorgeous spot, but not technically one of the 74 Whitsunday Islands. White Rock, as the name suggests, is classed as a rock rather than an island. It’s excluded from the National Park area as a result. In theory you could just hop on over, crank up a barbecue and have your own little party there. In practice, only kayakers ever visit.

This is a shame. The views of the other, real, islands are fantastic from here. Standing on top of the rock formations, it’s possible to see the protective arm of the mainland sweep around a ragtag cluster of defiantly green islands. Some are used as resorts, others are popular with daytrippers wanting to visit world-famous beaches, others are left just as they’ve been for thousands of years.

Stinger suit on, I venture in for a snorkel. Mercifully, I don’t see any irukandji (not that I’d really see them anyway). I do, however, see plenty of fish scuttling around the rocks, while cries go up about dolphins and turtles spotted in the distance.

As we paddle back, a huge leatherhead turtle pops out in front of us. Evidently, this is a happy feeding ground.

Mark seems to be doing his bit to keep this scene of world class beauty to himself, though. I ask him whether they get crocodiles in the area.

“Yup,” he answers without missing a beat. “You’re lucky you’ve got a red paddle actually – they really like the yellow ones.” All those with yellow paddles start to look uneasy; I notice that Mark’s paddle is black.

Disclosure: David went out on the half day kayaking trip in the Whitsundays with Salty Dog Sea Kayaking

roundtheworldflights.com have some great deals on Whitsunday accommodation, cruises in a tea clipper and tours


Kangaroo

 


 

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.

 

Brisbane

 



David Whitley has some time to kill in Brisbane, and ends up thoroughly enjoying himself on a stroll through the city’s unheralded coastal suburbs

It’s a bit of a stat barrage. The Eastern Curlew, apparently, is the largest shorebird in the world. Around 20% of the world’s Eastern Curlew population spends its non-breeding time in Moreton Bay. And when they’re not there, they’re on epic journeys – travelling up to 25,000km a year. The biggest birds will sometime take on 6,000km without stopping. That’s the equivalent of an 80kg human running 16 million kilometres non-stop, and losing 32kg in the process.

There are signs telling you things like this all along the Esplanade trail from Manly to the mangrove boardwalk in North Wynnum. The walk goes for around 5km in total, taking in playgrounds, public pools, large parks and views out over the mudflats to Moreton Bay.

With the sun out, and a perfect temperature in the late twenties, this is always going to be nice. But throw in the interpretative signs, which rear their heads at regular intervals, and you’ve got an educational experience too.

It’s things like this that Australia is exceptionally good at. What would be merely pleasant elsewhere is turned good in Australia. Decent ways to kill a couple of hours are turned into highly enjoyable afternoon outings.

I’d got on the train to Manly from central Brisbane because I fancied going to the beach. I quickly realised why Brisbane isn’t known for its beaches. A look out to sea unveils plenty of sand, but it’s all on top of the big dunes on North Stradbroke Island in the distance. The islands protect the bay from the ocean, but nick all the sand too. Brisbane’s coast is left with boat moorings, mangroves, mudflats and massive tides.

It’s ecologically significant, but it wasn’t ideal for my original plan of a bit of bodysurfing. So I nipped into the small tourist information office. The lady there was exceptionally helpful, loading me up with all manner of brochures that covered every conceivable attraction in the area and numerous walking or cycling trails.

This is something you’ll see replicated all over Australia. Just about every area, no matter how far off the tourist trail, will make a concerted effort to present what it has got in the best possible light. Nearly every patch of bush is mapped with marked walking tracks, every country road is part of a scenic drive with wineries, artists studios and cheese makers marked on a leaflet, every hilltop is a lookout with a plaque explaining what you can see on the horizon.

For all your 14,000 foot skydives, bridge climbs and massive red rocks in the desert, it’s not actually the big headliners that make Australia so special to travel around. What makes the country so thoroughly enjoyable is the effort that goes into making days that would be unexceptional really rather good.

I end up on the mangrove boardwalk, and the tide is well and truly out. I’m stood, staring between the grey branches and looking for kingfishers nabbing worms from the mud. Make no mistake, I’ve not come all the way from the other side of the world to do this; Manly and Wynnum are not likely to feature in anyone’s top ten – or even top 100 – of Australia list. But I’ve spent a gloriously low key afternoon with a big smile on my face.

That’s the secret, though. In Australia, the off-days can be blissfully happy.

 

Jetskiing

 



David Whitley mounts a jetski on Hamilton Island in the Whitsundays, thinking he’s in for an easy ride. A shock awaits 

The curse must have been laid when I turned down the lanyard. “It only costs $8,” they said. “It’ll keep your sunglasses on.”

Given that my glasses only cost $10 in the first place, the odds seemed in my favour. And how hard could it be? You get the jetski, you pootle around for a bit, and then you give the jetski back.

Tristan, alas, has other ideas about the pootling thing. His safety briefing on the jetty of Hamilton Island’s marina is disturbingly feisty.

We have to stay in his wake, we have to stay 100 metres behind each other or someone could die, and we’re not allowed to slow down when taking a corner. “Momentum is your friend,” he preaches.

These jetskis are clearly not for weaklings. Apparently they’re limited to 30 knots, which equates to around 65km/h. But I notice the speedo hitting 77km/h on the straights and 71km/h whilst turning. They’re the sort of speeds that, should you knock a kid down whilst driving at them in a built up area, will ensure a hefty jail sentence.

Starting off, I’m jittery, massively oversteering in both directions as I try and get it under control. Despite the advice to the contrary, I slow down around the corners through fear. And then I fly off the side and take an unwanted bath.

Tristan pulls alongside. “Look mate, we’re not going into the waves until you’ve shown you can handle the corners properly. Remember rule number 3? Don’t slow down for the corners.”

Suitably chastened, I remember some of the other advice – to stand up rather than sit down, and suddenly it becomes a lot easier. I creep up to full speed, and start keeping the throttle fully engaged around the bends. It becomes increasingly less scary and more of an enjoyable thrill.

And it is at this point that we leave the duck pond…

The channel between two islands is decidedly choppy. The swells come charging in and controlling the jetski becomes a much more strenuous physical effort. I feel like I’m just holding on, using all my strength to rein it and hang tight. Hit the bigger swells head on, and it’s lift-off.

Soon enough, I hit a swell as I’m turning. Turning fast. Momentum is no longer my friend – it sends me flying over the side as the jetski flies into the distance. I climb back up and Tristan spots something. “Not looking good for those, sunnies, hey?”

He’s right. They’ve been consigned to the bottom of the ocean. Which means that my protective barrier against the lashings of salt water has gone. As we head into rougher waters, it becomes a deluge. I feel like the few drops of the Pacific I’m not swallowing are going in my eyes. My body aches too – riding one of these things is surprisingly demanding. My arms are stiff, and my legs are begging for rest. I’ve given up standing by this stage – it’s too precarious for my tastes. Then my hip locks and I howl in pain.

The idea is to go around the island over the ‘fun’ waves, but even Tristan decides that the most exposed stretch round the back of the island is too much. We turn back, and by the time we reach the placid waters again, I’m just praying for it to be over. It’s all I can do to stop myself from openly weeping. I’d need considerably more practice before this can realistically be deemed fun.

When we do return to the relatively safe haven, though, it’s genuinely enjoyable. The full speed turns on the flat have a genuine rush to them; rendered considerably less fearsome by the toughening-up process of flying above waves then disappearing beneath them.

The rest of the group seems more than happy whizzing around near the marina. If only we communicate that to Tristan…

After an hour, we dismount. I can barely walk, my legs have seized up so much. But I manage a feeble hobble, straight to a shop to buy another pair of sunglasses for $20.