Australia

Gold Coast Zorbing

 

 

David Whitley goes rolling downhill in a giant plastic ball in southern Queensland

Welcome, my friends, to Teletubbyland. On top of the lush green, perfectly-sculpted hill, closely cut and rolling like a particularly vicious golf green, is a giant ball. About four metres high, made entirely of see-through, bubble wrap-style plastic, it bobbles around, reflecting the sun and looking quite, quite surreal. Suddenly it starts rolling towards us, almost squelching down the hill. It slowly gathers pace, but gives the impression of an old, fat Labrador gambolling along with its tongue out, ready to greet his master home from work. Oh yes, and there’s someone inside it, flapping around in a rather undignified manner.

This is a Zorb, a hi-tech method of rolling down a hill without the grass and mud stains. All the fun, but without the need to buy special washing powder or get treatment for grass-induced rashes. Now, the Gold Coast has many a weird and wonderful attraction, but this could well top the lot. Apparently it has been here for three-and-a-half years, but unless you’ve got a friend who just happens to live round the corner, you’re probably not going to find out about it. For a start, it’s way off the main strip, about 3km north of the Dreamworld theme park at Pimpana, and there appears to be no signposting for it. Even when you get there, it’s hidden behind a Go Kart track. Whether this is a cunning viral marketing push up there with Leonardo DiCaprio’s fabled Thailand beach or a stunning lack or organisation, I’m not sure.

Eventually, we find the site, and we’re greeted by a scruffy looking chap who looks like he’s just woken up next to a half-empty bottle of moonshine. He greets us with a chirpy g’day and then disappears around the back for ten minutes to do Important Things. We’re left staring into space, wondering which poor blighter has the job of pushing the gargantuan spaceballs up the hill. He returns from the pressing negotiations regarding the Middle East peace process to talk us through the options. Basically, there are two ways of rolling down a hill in a big, dumb, plastic globe – either strapped in with a harness or freestyling amongst a couple of buckets-worth of warm water – and both, we’re assured, are riotously good fun.

After being sucked in by the comprehensive spiel, I’m led to a battered old ute which looks like it has seen both world wars. The Zorb is shunted on top of the back with the use of a couple of poles. It seems as no-one’s quite stupid enough to attempt to push them uphill all day after all. “They’re only made in New Zealand,” I’m told, as we chug to the top of Mount Wiggle. “And they cost about $12,000-$15,000 each. Pretty serious equipment, this fella.” Apparently, it takes about 25 minutes to fully inflate one using a souped-up leafblower, and twice that time to get the air out. To attempt the task on lung power alone would be an exercise in extreme masochism.

On the crest, we’re greeted by John, who is clad in the corporate uniform of paint-splashed overalls. I’m taking on the harness first, and he briefly explains how to get into it whilst pushing the ball onto the pool of water on which it is designed to rest. I leap inside and get busy with the process of strapping myself in. Feet first, then waist, then chest, and, following the rapid dislocation of both shoulders, I get my hands in the handgrips behind me.

There are two options; go down forwards for the view, or backwards for the fear factor. Being both an admirer of the countryside and an utter coward, I choose the form… oh hang on, we’re off!  The supersized hamster ball slowly lumbers downwards, with me flipping over and over, entirely helpless and in bellowing hysterics. There’s no real adrenalin rush – far too slow motion and jelly-like for that – but the sensation is something approaching unbridled, childish joy.

Performing somersault number four or five, a mound appears in front of me. Ah… this could be a problem. There are a lot of nasty trees to the right, and should this send me off course towards them, it’s going to be a mighty tricky rescue operation. The Zorb lurches slightly that way, but gravity wins out and it’s a few rolls to the finishing line. I’m not sure whether they fill the plastic with nitrous oxide, but I’m almost in tears of laughter as I’m helped out of my psychedelic cocoon.

The water option is an entirely different experience, partly because you’re granted a limited bit of freedom, partly because you get soaking wet, and partly because I have company this time round. What will follow is an inelegant mess of flailing, tangled limbs, but first, the pipedream. The idea, we’re told, is to run the Zorb downhill, staying upright all the way. Keep the weight centralised along the radius, don’t lean too far in any direction, and go aggressively from the push off to get it moving properly. Easy, huh?

Alas, no. Two seconds later we’re both sloshing around in a pool of water, banging arms and legs into each other in a desperate attempt to get upright. As our spherical plastic cage gathers pace, I desperately try to regain my footing. Up again, I wobble, slip and crash backwards, my landing cushioned by a nice, bouncy stomach. From here on in, it’s a desperate scramble for dignity, hands clawing at the walls, knees and feet going every which way in the pool beneath us. The comic roar is doubled this time. Whether it’s a release of delight and energy that has been hidden away since early childhood, or the wartime spirit of keeping up the grin during impossible adversity, I really don’t know, but pure glee is splashed across our faces upon exit, despite just having suffered total humiliation.

 

Fit freaks

 

 

David Whitley tries to rectify his overindulgence in Noosa, Queensland, and finds that he’s got an enormous game of catch-up to play.

 

It was probably an error to look in the mirror in the first place. After all, the steak had just looked too good to resist. Same with the dessert. And all those ice cream stalls. And the fudge bought at the market. What I was presented with was not so much a six pack, but a big wobbly bag of wine. I was in shape, but that shape was round.

 

This is the major problem with tackling Noosa the way that most visitors tackle it. For many, the Sunshine Coast’s upmarket hotspot is all about lounging on the beaches, mooching around the shops on Hastings Street and eating out.  In a place where the restaurants are mighty fine, having breakfast on the terrace is part of the quintessential experience and the heat demands ice cream, a kilo or two extra can be expected.

 

But the little piggy doesn’t necessarily have to turn into a big piggy. And it’s only when you decide to throw yourself into action for a remedial exercise binge that you see the other side of Noosa. My plan was thoroughly wholesome. I would get up at 5am, and go for a good old bushwalk before everyone else rose. The Noosa National Park is just over a kilometre away from the main drag, and a series of walking trails are scattered throughout it. Most go through the forest, while one follows the coast like an overzealous stalker.

 

Anywhere else in the world, this place would be deserted so early in the morning, save for the odd koala having its mandatory hour of leaf-munching before going back to sleep again. Not Noosa – on the way, I’m overtaken by a fleet of joggers. It becomes immediately apparent why I’ve not seen a scrap of fat on any of the locals – this is an early to bed, early to rise kind of place, where the health kicks are permanent rather than a token effort for a couple of weeks after New Year.

 

Aside from the odd fitness freak motoring past, however, the Tanglewood Track is exceptionally peaceful. It’s not named ironically – many of the tree branches act like vines, and others entwine like a rope. It’s as if the different species are all auditioning as contortionists for a woodland talent show. 

 

The real joy is not to be had with the eyes, though – it’s with the ears. Hidden away amongst the canopies are all manner of birds talking amongst themselves over breakfast.

 

There’s the Grizzling Baby Bird, the Cheap 70s Sci-Fi Movie Laser Gun Sound Effect Bird, the Machine Gun Bird, and many more with proper names as well. All compete above the sound of the sea crashing in the near distance, but it’s the most peaceful racket imaginable.

 

The Tanglewood Track joins up with the Coastal Track to create a circuit, and the second leg reveals more sporty types up obscenely early. The surfers monopolise Winch Cove and Tea Tree Bay at this time of day. In truth, they don’t really have much competition at peak hour either – the two beaches are jaw-droppingly beautiful, but most visitors stick to the main one, largely because it’s patrolled.

 

But the whole Noosa cult – and for the uninitiated, those who live here tend to think they’re in the best place on earth – begins to make sense. They’ve got the weather, they’ve got the lifestyle and they’ve made the choice to properly enjoy what nature has provided them with. You still want to see the joggers suffocated by a giant cheeseburger though...

 

 

 

By David Whitley

Maryborough

 

David Whitley rocks up in the Queensland town of Maryborough to find it suspiciously deserted...

Bank holiday Mondays are usually quiet affairs, but the one I arrived in Maryborough on was suspiciously so. The tourist information office was closed, the streets looked deserted and it was as if everyone was tucked up at home nursing a hangover. The reason for this soon became clear upon looking at the newspaper headlines. The previous day, Maryborough had entered the Guinness World Record books for hosting the world’s biggest ever pub crawl. This may seem a little odd. After all, Maryborough is just a small country town, and previous record holders have included London and New York. It’s also a rather genteel place. It is known for its historic buildings, riverboat cruises and railway heritage. It’s universally agreed to be an exceptionally pleasant place.

It’s the sort of place that attracts Australia’s many grey nomads – it’s an afternoon tea rather than a boozy session crowd. In fact, if you need one indication of what Maryborough is about, check out the statue of Mary Poppins on the corner of Kent and Richmond Street. This may seem somewhat incongruous until you realise that P.L. Travers, the woman who wrote the books about the famous nanny, was born in Maryborough.

The town also has a wholesome, family-orientated Mary Poppins Festival, which takes place during the first week of July and includes a sing-a-long movie screening. The town’s other claim to fame is its concentration of ‘Queenslander’ houses. As the name would suggest, these houses are fairly unique to Queensland and are raised on stumps to both avoid flooding and help circulate air through the building.

The buildings are often wooden (although more lavish ones drip with wrought iron) and have large verandas. They’re really quite gorgeous – especially when the sun is out. The town likes to boast that it’s the Queenslander capital of Australia, and it’s hard to dispute this. It’s one of those places where going for a stroll around the suburbs, checking out the houses and the well kept gardens, makes for a fascinating afternoon out.

But none of this really tallies with the world’s greatest pub crawl, does it? The recent attempt was Maryborough’s fifth bash at the crown. The rules stated that every participant had to drink at – and get a card stamped at – at least 10 pubs during the crawl. This was no casual affair – bus transfers were laid on for getting to some of the more out-of-the-way pubs, and a pink fancy dress code was both installed and gleefully adhered to. By the end of the day, the town – population 26,000 – had managed to smash the record, with 4,657 making it to the end with card intact.

And for such an achievement, you can probably forgive them for being a bit quiet the next day.

 

 

 

By David Whitley

Magnetic

 

 

David Whitley takes a ferry to one of Australia’s most popular holiday islands, and discovers that there may be more wildlife than he bargained for.

 

The earnest German chap is trying to be helpful but, in reality, his efforts have the opposite effect. “Be careful on the track,�? he says. “I just saw a snake.�? Marvellous. Absolutely marvellous. It may, of course, be a friendly snake, but there’s more than a decent chance that it’s a death adder. Which, as the name would suggest, is very much a Naughty Snake. It makes for an interesting dilemma. You see, the wildlife I actually want to spot along the track generally hangs out above eye level. So I can either keep my eyes glued to the ground, missing any koalas but getting plenty of advance warning if I encounter a death adder. Or I can look up, merrily gawp at the koalas and realise that it’s not a twig I’ve stepped on until too late.

 

Magnetic Island is a curious combination of made-for-tourists and properly wild. The Base backpackers resort is where Australia has its take on Thailand’s full moon parties, the ferry over from Townsville is generally very busy indeed and it’s a popular stop on the East Coast backpacker trail. But you also get a lot of families coming over on day trips or short breaks. And it seems to be a fertile breeding ground for opinion-splitting pantomime villains/ crusaders for the truth – Wikileaks frontman Julian Assange spent a considerable part of his childhood on the island.

 

If you’re wanting true wilderness, Maggie is not really the place to come. It’s technically a suburb of Townsville – a sizable city and the capital of northern Queensland – but it doesn’t feel at all urban. Where Magnetic Island excels is climate – it’s almost permanently bathed in sunshine – and general wholesome pleasantness. You can happily spend hours walking around the island, not particularly caring where you’re going and how long it’s going to take you to get there.

 

Maggie also has a reputation for being overflowing with koalas. Believe the hype, and you’ll be tripping over them the moment you open your hotel room door. This reputation, it’s fair to say, is a little overplayed. If you want to see the cutesy critters in the wild, then you’re going to have to keep a keen eye open and look for them.

The Forts Walk is supposedly one of the best routes for seeing them. It’s a 4km round walk that essentially heads to the top of the island. The forts were built during the Second World War, when Townsville came under attack from Japanese Flying Boats. The complex was constructed in 1942, with the idea of defending Townsville harbour from naval attack.

 

At the start of the walk, a couple of signs give an idea of what wildlife to expect. One says to look out for rock wallabies and koalas and not to try feeding them. Another warns you to stay on the track as the death adders tend to stay under leaf litter or sand during the day. Nice.

 

It’s uphill, but hardly a slog, and it becomes immediately apparent that the best way to spot koalas is to keep an eye open for small clusters of humans cooing and pointing. It’s a sure sign that a sleepy eucalyptus-muncher is in the trees.

 

Realistically, koalas are quite boring. But the walk isn’t really about them at all. Once up at the top, the views out over the island and mainland are beautiful. There’s a tremendous sense of peace and contentment. And, frankly, I couldn’t care less how long it’s going to take me to walk back.

 

 

 

By David Whitley

 

Cape Trib

 

David Whitley manages to ruin someone’s kayaking adventure on one of Australia’s most incredible beaches

 

Strolling down the beach, we encounter a small group that has just returned from kayaking. They’re pointing at the water, and suddenly a turtle’s head pops up. We’re concentrating more on a long strip of rocks; one that appears to be moving. Soon enough, the turtles disappear and the 4ft long chain of rocks makes off down the coastline. “Do you reckon that’s a croc?” I ask the kayakers. They haven’t seen it, but worried looks start to spread over their face. It’s the look of someone who realises they may have just had a narrow escape.


Ah, my mistake. I’ve got that wrong. It’s the look of a kayaker who hasn’t just got out of the water, but is about to get in it, and has been told they may be sharing it with some prehistoric killing machines. A nervous debate with the instructor ensues, and we toddle off down the beach having clearly put an adventure to a possible early end.

 

It’s at this point that we start thinking that, yes, we’d prefer it if we were hallucinating too. It was just some rocks. Some rocks looking like they’re moving because of the way the almost indiscernable waves are breaking. After all, if crocs are happy nabbing turtles in the sea, they’re probably just as happy nabbing people on the beach whilst strolling out of the mangroves. Walking across the creek that empties into the sea is certainly an ‘interesting’ experience.

 

Still, the experience is part of what gives Cape Tribulation its edge. The beach is one of the most beautiful in the world, but it’s unmistakably wild. It backs straight on to the rainforest, while the two headlands at either side remind you just how close you are to the Great Dividing Range.

 

Cape Tribulation is more of an area than a focused destination. It spreads for a few kilometres along where the coast meets the World Heritage-listed Wet Tropics rainforest. In the last ten to twenty years, Cape Trib has become a bit of a favourite for both backpackers and daytrippers from Cairns and Port Douglas, although its first visitors didn’t particularly appreciate it.

 


 

Cape Tribulation was named when Captain Cook’s ship, the Endeavour, struck the Great Barrier Reef. It was something of a miracle that it survived, and the crew had to spend seven weeks ashore making repairs to the hull. Had the ship sunk, Australia’s history may have been rather different – this was the back end of the journey in which Cook ‘discovered’ the country.

 

Cape Trib is, however, one of those places that’s a little bit special. Sometimes the relative isolation can be true isolation – often during the wet season, the road in will flood and Cape Trib will be cut off from the rest of Australia. It’s the sort of place that you only live in if you really want to live there, and a rough-and-ready, hippyish ethic has emerged amongst the smattering of self-sufficient local residents.

 

The guesthouses at Cape Trib make no attempt to pretend it’s somewhere else. Most are surrounded by thick forest, and you’ll almost certainly have to walk past a few gigantic golden orb spiders, sat menacingly in their webs as you head towards your hut. Signs plead with guests not to feed monitor lizards, as they can become quite aggressive, while the birds provide a regular symphony to listen to. They should consider shutting up – the ‘rocks’ might get them.

 

 

 

By David Whitley