Australia

Yamba

 

Paddling out the back of the surf as the sun hits the East Coast of Australia, it’s easy to think you’ve entered nirvana. The waves curl in perfect sets to the shore, there’s an offshore wind steadying the swell, a pod of dolphins flipping around in the surf and barely anyone else competing for the waves. For surfers, it’s bliss.

 

Hidden off the Pacific Highway and tucked behind cane fields, Yamba sits on the mouth of the East Coast's largest river system. By some magic touch, the town has managed to escape the overexposure and large scale developments that scar glossier resorts like Byron Bay and Coffs Harbour, the two tourist Mecca's that bookend its location on the North Coast. Instead, Yamba has an organic feel, retaining an old town sleepiness that other beach breaks have lost.

 

While there are five or six beaches you can easily walk to from the centre of town, Yamba's most famous beach break is undoubtedly Angourie. Immortalised in the seventies cult surf film Morning of the Earth, the right hand wave attracts surfers from around the world. Angourie has also been made one of Australia's first Surf Reserves- a Department of Lands Initiative that recognises the history, culture and natural splendour of the break, ensuring it is preserved for generations of surfers to come. Sadly, the day we visit Angourie, the waves are closing out. Only one desperado on a short board braves the unfavourable conditions. At least he can say he had the break all to himself. Given the surf isn't working, we settle for a dip in Angourie's lesser-known swimming holes instead. Simply known as Blue and Green pools, both are located in bushland down a short goat track. They were originally deep rock quarries, until workers ruptured an underground spring.

 

When we arrive, a group of teenagers are performing acrobatic flips from the side of the quarry, about 12 metres up. They earnestly assure me that it is safe to jump, pointing out the best ways to clamber up the sheer rock face (Later, I'm told by a bemused local it isn't safe at all: the local ambulance does weekly trips out the spot to collect the injured). I find out the hard way that it is easy to clamber up the face of the quarry, but it is very hard to work up the courage to jump. Eventually, screaming, I hit the water with so much force my costume is knocked off, rising up out of the cold depths to the laughter of the kids as they scamper off on their BMX bikes. Apart from surfing, there is fantastic whale watching in the winter months, kayaking and a surf school. And then there are the Dolphins- and they are very cheeky.

 

Three times now I've dived into the icy Clarence River in an attempt to get up close to them, and twice they've disappeared. I'm treading water a little further off the beach than I want to be. My head twists from side to side, trying to work out where they're going to surface next. I hear the others yelling "Right! Right!" from the riverbank, and I turn just in time to see dorsal fins loping casually back into the water just a few metres away. The dolphins have circled behind me, sized me up and snuck off.

 

The local pod of eight are a common sight around Yamba's waterways, distinguished by the matriarch's split dorsal fin. At dawn and dusk they surf the waves with the surfers at Pippi's Beach, but they feed with the tide in the Clarence. A wall of fish simply washes toward them with the outgoing tide. It’s a lazy dinner that is far more interesting than me. It's this sort of unexpected, natural experience you can find in Yamba, a town well off the beaten track that is definitely worth a look.

 

The author travelled courtesy of YHA Australia (yha.com.au)

 

By Shaney Hudson

Gold Coast

 

David Whitley reins in his prejudices about frightful commoners, and throws himself into Australia’s mass tourism hotspot.

There are many ways to see the Gold Coast, in fact it’s doubtful that any method of milking the tourist dollar or yen has not yet been stumbled upon, but the Aquaduck has to be the most bizarre. A former military amphibious assault vehicle, it has been dressed up to look like a cartoon duck. It’s the size of a bus, it travels on both land and water, and most importantly, it quacks. Which if you speak duck is extremely handy, as with the motor running and the wind howling through the back, you’ve got no hope of hearing what’s going on in any other language.

It’s the sort of thing that inherently belongs on the Gold Coast, Australia’s primary domestic holiday destination. It stands for many different things to many different people, but one thing it is not is boring. Strapped in, we make our way through the streets of Surfers Paradise, the main hub of this packed coastal strip. In a way, they characterise what the stereotypical Gold Coast is all about. Cheap and nasty souvenir shops line up directly opposite icons of ostentatious wealth such as Louis Vuitton, whilst a wooden kangaroo and emu dart around the tackiest clock face in the world.

 

 

It’s not until the somewhat surreal tour gets to the beach that you start to realise that you should really look beyond crowded skyline though. No matter how many high-rises there are around it, no matter how much neon you rig up, you can’t take away the fact that is a stunning stretch of sand. The name Surfers Paradise is not some ironic twist along the lines of redheads being called Blue or gangly basketball players dubbed Shorty. As sunbathers dot around on the shore, wetsuit-clad wave enthusiasts pack the ocean, crashing down on break after break. Surfing is almost a way of life here, and it’s no coincidence that many of the world’s best come from this south-eastern corner of Queensland.

It’s easy to forget amongst the glittering and glaring tourist attractions that it was the simple things that made this part of Queensland the nation’s primary holiday strip. Turn a blind eye to the development, and you’ve got a beautiful place. The Gold Coast, believe it or not, is more bio-diverse than Kakadu National Park. The rainforests of the hinterland, the meeting of tropical and sub-tropical waters in the sea; it all mixes for a heady cocktail.

Of course, the development is there though, and it’s impossible to pretend that the natural beauty isn’t somewhat sullied by it. While to the left you’ve got a truly gorgeous beach and lilting palms, to your right there is a constant stream of ugly motels and apartments. It’s testament to Mother Nature that these are just a mild blot rather than a complete ruination.

Before reaching the boat ramp which will take this trip onto a whole different plane, we pass Seaworld, the giant theme aquarium. Fittingly, there is a sign on the roundabout next to it informing us all that we should all save as much water as we can, because we’re in a drought, you know. Seaworld is a Gold Coast institution, and is one of many theme parks that help make the area a family favourite. It’s a cross between a fairground, theatre and aquarium, with everything from performing seals and the chance to swim with dolphins to rides that encourage the regurgitation of popcorn. It’s extremely Americanised, but the kids don’t care when the sea lions are pulling off their tricks.

As we head past, we reach the water. Apparently there is only one way to safely enter the water, and make the Duck swim rather than waddle; that is at full pelt. Revved up, the ex-army vehicle charges down the ramp, creating the sort of spray not seen since Luciano Pavarotti attempted the high dive. We are sailing though, and the waterways of the Gold Coast add another, often overlooked, aspect to it. The snaking converted swamps here are nine times longer than the canals of Venice. Again, the reaching for the sky on every spare bit of land can’t disguise the natural wonders here, and all around are intriguing contrasts. The pretty to the ugly, the rich to the poor, the frenetic to the lazy. A towering, gold-plated hotel sits in front of a grubby college building; a powerboat rushes past a balcony on which an orange woman lies reading a gossip magazine; glimmering sunshine over the water meets the dark clouds hanging over the land.

A combination of awe and pure jealousy flashes across the passengers’ faces as we pass the homes of the squillionaires. The sort of money on show is astounding; every home-owner here could probably own their own fleet of Aquaducks, should they so desire. Moored outside every home is a yacht. They’re all gleaming white, of course, and probably have their own postcodes. It all makes you want to dig out your keys, lean over the side and scratch away with malevolent glee.

The flashy one-upmanship knows no bounds, though, and amongst all the barely-used status vessels stands a shimmering silver helicopter, perched on top of a jetty converted into a helipad. The owner probably employs three full-time staff members to keep it clean, let alone pilot it. It’s not just a playground for the millionaires, however. Amongst all the elitist grumbling about tack, overdevelopment, spoiling nature and being rampantly commercial, there is no denying that kids love the Gold Coast. There is so much here for them to do, whether we care to approve of the activities or not.

Whilst the commentary is inaudible and the Aquaduck tour nothing more than a quick flit around town with a clever gimmick, children don’t see with that level of cynicism. Called up by the captain, a small lad can’t disguise his joy as he’s given the chance to steer the daft cartoon bus/boat under the bridge and towards the up ramp. This is really what it’s all about, just going with the fun, no matter how forced it feels.

The sheer array of attractions available, enticing or not, becomes clear as we return to dry land. Space simulators, the tallest residential building in the world, shopping centres, water slides, you name it. Flashing and bleeping away out of the window is a horrific-looking beast called a Vomatron, in which people are thrown through the air as if strapped to a windmill sail. Someone else is leaping from a high platform attached to a bungy rope, others bounding to the heavens on an industrial-sized trampoline. There’s crazy croquet, Egyptian-themed mini golf, and all manner of big screens you can shoot at with plastic guns. Should you have that child-like energy and deep pocketed parents, you never have to stop. Riding a duck around town is one option in a thousand, and that, as they say, is entertainment.

 

 

 

Australia travel expert David Whitley answers questions about holidays in Australia at AustraliaTravelQuestions.com

Wombat

 

 

David Whitley attempts to conquer the rapids in Kangaroo Valley, hoping he can add a wombat to his collection of goannas.

 

You have to admire the Australian attitude towards health and safety at times. Sat in a car park by the castle-like Hampden Bridge, I’m told that I shouldn’t take anything valuable in the kayak with me. “The bit at the back isn’t 100% waterproof,” I’m instructed. But what on earth should I do with my car keys? “Leave ‘em on top of the back tyre. No-one will nick it round here.”

 

It’s fitting that this advice comes from a man who’s about to rent me his kayak, let me head downriver for a few kilometres, battle the odd rapid and meet him at a camping ground at the other end. Anywhere else, I’d be asked if I’d used a kayak before, given some level of instruction and gently babied through the rapids by an experience guide. In Kangaroo Valley (a couple of hours south of Sydney), I’m allowed to pay when I return, and just go and enjoy myself.

 

Pushing off into the Kangaroo River, it becomes immediately clear what an excellent idea this is. The current will probably take me all the way to the designated meeting point without me lifting a finger. The paddle quickly becomes an object reserved for making sure I’m facing the right direction and the occasional guilt-prompted sliver of tokenistic exercise.

 

The river is just beautiful. Trees clamber up the steep hills to either side, and large boulders make incursions from the banks. They’re worth paying closer attention to. While there may not be any kangaroos living by the river, there are plenty of enormous lizards. I double-take as I see my first one – a chunky great goanna, sat with his head up in meerkat-ish alertness, basking in the sun’s warmth. I’m consumed with glee, thinking I’ve seen something special. It quickly turns out that I haven’t. There’s a big goanna on pretty much every rock as I paddle slowly downstream. There are some slightly - but not much – smaller lizards scuttling along the banks and there’s even the odd snake taking a swim in the water.

 

I appear to have entered a reptile wonderland, but the creature I’m really interested in is being rather elusive. Wombats – the tank-like furry pig-bears with a penchant for shuffling about and generally looking extremely clumsy – are nocturnal creatures. If you spot them during the day, they’re probably poorly or dead by the side of the road. But, from the river, the traces of them are easily identifiable. Wombats are the biggest burrowing animals on the planet, and their holes make sizable dents in the river bank. There are scores of them, tunnelled into the earth, and I keep pulling over to see if I can catch a glimpse of a wombat inside. On several occasions I think I may have got a peek at one having a sleep, but I’m never quite certain. I wish they’d come and swim alongside the kayak rather than the snakes...

 

Of course, it all gets rather more interesting when I hit the rapids. They’re only baby rapids but the water’s still flowing pretty fast, and there are all manner of rocks to crash into and scrape the bottom of the kayak along. It comes as something of a jolt. I’m going to have to paddle and steer hard to avoid coming a cropper. I splash away frantically, trying to forge some sort of safe course without clattering into an enormous boulder. It just about works, but that I’ve been allowed to tackle this through trial and error is astonishing.

 

It’s quite the experience, however. Sun out, wildlife on the banks, and a spot of adrenalin rolled into the tranquillity – I’d be hard-pushed to find a more perfect way to spend the morning.

 

 

 

By David Whitley

Freak Bros

 

Byron Bay’s Great Northern Hotel is situated just a bare couple of miles from mainland Australia’s most easterly point.  The obvious paradox in the name is matched by the fact that the Great Northern is not even a hotel. In-keeping (no pun intended) with old-time licensing laws that restricted the sale of alcohol only to hotels, the Great Northern is one of many thousand Aussie bars that still call themselves hotels.

I pulled a battered stool up to the old timber bar and ordered a bottle of Coopers. The organic beer leaves residue at the bottom of the bottle and it’s a tradition that you must roll the bottle backwards and forwards over the bar. I had just opened the screw-top bottle – with that satisfying tsshhhhhhhh! – when a man who was sat just along the bar started up conversation, with typically easy-going Aussie camaraderie.

“Stayin’ in town or are yus just passing through...?” Bruce (name changed to protect the – allegedly – guilty) had lived quite a life. He was a board-shaper and aging beachboy but according to his stories he had been at times a successful pro surfer (at the height of his brief fame having vanquished Nat Young and the great Mark Richards), a minor dealer of dubious substances and a mafia hitman. Dispite Bruce’s talkativeness, the full facts of this part of his life were not forthcoming in the limited amount of digging I was able to do during the course of a single Coopers. He alluded briefly to friends whose professional lives formed the basis for the popular Aussie mafia series Underbelly...then he formed the two fingers of his left hand into a pistol shape and winked knowingly. I supposed that mafia hitmen were trained to be men of few words.

Hearing that we were just passing through Byron, Bruce expressed his condolences. Byron Bay is a seriously addictive place and few people who visit feel that their stay is sufficiently long. Some, like Bruce, never leave. However, on learning that our next stop was the legendary Nimbin Bruce brightened markedly. “Oooooh, you’ll lurrrrve Nimbin. Oh yeah! You’ll like Nimbin...a LOT!” He added another knowing wink but refused to give me even a hint as to just what it was that I would like so much about Nimbin. Bruce was a man who was able to imply entire oracles of information without ever telling you anything. “...you definitely wanna go to Nimbin!”  

Only a handful of people had ever heard of this little declining dairy village when, in 1973, the Aquarius Festival was held there. After the event the village’s ‘headcount’ suddenly quadrupled when many of the students, hippies, bohemians and random eccentrics refused to go home and founded communes in the pretty valleys.

It was raining hard when we drove into town but through the steamy windscreen I could see the garishly painted signs on the front of venerable old stores: Happy High Herbs, MardiGrass, Hemp Embassy, Bringabong.com. Cannabis is illegal in New South Wales but in Nimbin the hippy culture is alive and well and pot is sold freely in the alleyways and smoked openly in some of the cafes. There are periodic crackdowns and in 2008 a police sweep put many of the dealers out of business. But on an average day the village ‘High Street’ is like a slice of Amsterdam slipped into a gritty Dodge City backdrop. At times there might be too many day-tripping tourists and over-excited teenage backpackers but it’s a refreshing place and freedom of thought and counter-culture are still a big part of Nimbin. In the patio at the back of the Rainbow Café a blackboard was chalked up with such legends as ‘Jesus wore hemp’ and ‘Freedom of choice: I’d rather sell pot than be a cop.’

The Hemp Embassy (Help End Marijuana Prohibition) is where you go to ‘get the dope on’ cannabis awareness and also sells a crazy range of hemp related fashion goodies and everything in the way of paraphernalia (but the actual dope is not available here). Most tempting is a book of every Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comic-strip ever done (but priced at 60 dollars it’s for bread-heads only). The Hemp Embassy also promotes the annual Nimbin MardiGrass, which takes place every April and features events such as the Hemp Olympix, the Pickers Ball, joint-rolling contests and the dance of the Ganja Faeries.

Nimbin Museum is full of bright colours, dubious artwork and hippy propaganda. It’s a fascinating place to walk around and occasionally shows old documentaries on the hippy days here. A disgruntled Nimbin farmer’s wife faces the camera and complains about the influx of naked, free-loving youngsters: “Well,” she tells the interviewer, “they seem happy...but really they’re all on drugs. The freely admit that. Maybe that’s why they are happy...”

She was very straight, very solemn. An upstanding pillar of the community...she was definitely not happy. Nimbin these days is worth its weight in gold for ‘freak value’...but twenty minutes down the road you find the pretty little town of Mullumbimby – ‘Australia’s Biggest Little Town.’ As I got my caffeine fix outside the ‘japunumop’ cafe (read it upside down and it makes sense) it occurred to me that Mullumbimby probably has the sort of sleepy charm that Nimbin had when the hippies first fell in love with it.

 

Fraser Island tours

 

“A lot of strange versions have gone around concerning the history of Fraser Island...but I like mine best. So sit back, fasten your seat belts and listen closely. Here we go.” With his ruddy northern European complexion and his strong Austrian accent, Fritz Leeb is not the typical Aussie bush-guide. Thirty-odd years living in Queensland have done little to mellow that accent but there can be few people who know Fraser Island better than Fritz.

So I did as he said and buckled up as the powerful Hummer rumbled up the ferry ramp and onto a completely unique coastal wilderness. Fraser Island is the world’s largest sand island. “It measures 120km by 15km,” said Fritz, “and is the only place in the world where tropical forest can be found growing directly on sand.”

I had been trying to think just what it was about this jungle trail that seemed slightly ‘off-kilter.’ I had been feeling that there was something strange about it ever since we drove off the ferry. It was not just the barrage of heavy rain. (It was ‘the big wet’ in Queensland after all and I had spent enough time in jungles around the world to be left in o doubt whatsoever as to why they are so often referred to as rainforests). And now I realised; we were driving through a dense tangle of rioting vegetation and yet the Hummer’s tyres were rolling over the sort of soft ‘brown-sugar’ sand you more often equate to deserts.

Fraser Island has evolved over the last 700,000 years and really is a unique place. Life would have been tough for most of Australia’s Aboriginal inhabitants but you soon get the feeling that the Butchulla people (whose territory encompassed Fraser) would have been one of the luckiest ‘mobs’ around. It was with good reason that they called the island K’gari, which roughly translates as ‘Paradise.’ The island is still covered in sacred Butchulla sites, which are unfortunately now known more commonly by the names they were given by the first European explorers or by early settlers: Cathedral Rock, The Pinnacles.

We stopped for a picnic lunch towards the north of the island where Fritz brought us a carpet python and we stopped again after a quick swim at Lake McKenzie. I had taken part in a few fairly extreme 4x4 expeditions in the last few years but this was my first with a champagne and strawberry high-tea. “Fraser is never the same to drive two days in a row,” Fritz was saying as he navigated the Hummer cautiously over the bare patch of sand that was left between the brutal waves and the dunes where the first tender shoots of grass were fighting to stabilise this shifting landscape. It has always been a treacherous coast.

“I found the remains of a shark on the high-tide line a few months ago,” said Fritz, “It must have been about 6 or 7 feet long at one time but the entire back half had been bitten off by a shark that must have been immeasurably bigger.” Few people would risk these sharky waters and the Butchulla themselves only took to sea on the sheltered westward side of the island. Many a ship captain regretted passing too close to these reefs and rips. Near the top of 75 Mile Beach we stopped to check out the rusting wreck of the S.S. Maheno. She was a beautiful cruise ship of the Titanic class (and a holder of the Sydney to Wellington speed record) in her day but was already decommissioned in 1935 when she broke loose from the ship that was towing her and smashed her hull on Fraser Island. Over the next few years the constant smashing of the waves did their best to smash the rest of her...and the Australian Navy helped to speed the process by using her for bombing practise.

A little to the south along 75 Mile Beach we finally saw the sighting that we had really been looking forward to. Fritz, of course, spotted it first. Just a sandy coloured dot foraging along the edge of the dune grass. It was so well camouflaged that even when Fritz spotted it another vehicle, up ahead of us in the distance, was driving past oblivious.

I had once had a very fleeting sighting of a dingo near Uluru (Ayers Rock) but this was the first time I had seen one up-close. This one was young, not much more than a puppy, but he was not intimidated at all as we drove closer. The dingos of Fraser Island have gained a, mostly unwarranted, reputation for ferocity but it often stems from a combination of hunger and habituation to people. We saw another dingo in our drive down the beach but this one was scrawnier and was gnawing the remains of a coconut that had washed up on the high-tide line. The dingos, like most of Australia’s natural inhabitants, are tenacious survivors.

It was a fantastic experience to see these beautiful dogs in their wild habitat. Even more so on Fraser Island which, among its many other claims to fame, boasts the most pure-blooded dingos in Australia.