Australia

Scrub Hill

 

One person who knows the forests and swamps of Fraser Island intimately is Uncle Joe. Better known as Jo-Jo – or simply ‘Cuz’ – to his boss Norman at Scrub Hill Tours, Uncle Joe is certainly one of the best Aboriginal guides in Australia. He’s toured much of the country already Norman claims that he has been ‘head-hunted’ as a guide in the Top End where another mob was so impressed with his knowledge that they virtually tried to kidnap him. With his toothless grin and gnarled, oakwood features Uncle Joe’s infectious laughter also makes him a perfect guide.

Countries as far removed as Botswana, Guatemala, Algeria and Peru have trained many of their indigenous people to be spectacularly good guides but the Australian tourism industry in general seems to be overlooking one of its truly unique treasures: an immeasurably rich and mind-bogglingly ancient traditional culture. You can travel a long way across this great island continent without meeting an Aboriginal guide. Yet these are people whose ancestors managed the land so effectively for 50,000 years before the first white settlers arrived. Most tourists would be more impressed to hear the history of Uluru (once Ayer’s Rock) straight from an Aboriginal mouth. Recent Aboriginal history is perhaps even more astounding than tales of the dreamtime.

Uncle Joe has the rough, gnarled features that betray a hard life. Like his boss – and every other man on the community-run project – Joe has served time behind bars. “When we were kids there were very few corridors of life open to us,” says Norman. “Teachers ignored us and just naturally assumed that we would never amount to anything. So, of course, labelled like that it was very rare if any of us did. When Jo-Jo and I were teenagers we were automatically stamped as outlaws: every Friday we would head for remote beaches where we could hang out because if the police caught us around town on Friday they would just push us all into jail and keep us there until Sunday night. This was so the white people could enjoy their weekend without having to see black fellas around town. We were outlaws anyway so we began to look on jail as a trial we had to pass to be accepted.”

In effect jail-time became a sort of surrogate initiation to manhood. “Even today in this town it’s unusual to come across an Aboriginal lad who makes it to twenty without spending time behind bars. It’s a sad fact and something that we are still struggling to change. This was perhaps the most racist town in the country.” Norman tells a story of how he and some friends managed to catch three Klu Klux Klan members who were burning a cross in front of his Aunt’s house. Norman too was a boxer in his youth and the KKK men clearly had a bad night.

“Tensions run high at times. Our ancestors on Fraser Island were at the front line of the European invasion. It was our people who were among the first to die. Later we were sent away to missions. Few of us can be sure even of what our roots are. There were about five thousand Butchulla people when the Europeans came here. But after the stolen generation there were just two families here. My grandmother was the last of our people to be born in the old way, on the ground under one of the sacred trees.

Norman’s mother was one who, apparently, never doubted even after all this that her people still had a real future. A woman as tough as the harsh land that she comes from Auntie Francis, as everyone called her, seems to be the arch-typical Aussie battler. Among other things Auntie Francis was a prize-winning boxer in her youth who gave more than a few professional male boxers a thumping they didn’t fast forget.

Hearing from her son that teachers deliberately ignored Aboriginal kids she obtained permission to visit schools and sit in on classes to make sure her people were getting the education due to them. Scrub Hill Farm at the edge of the town of Hervey was her initiative too. She lobbied for a permit to buy the hilltop site which was then a poisonous aluminium mine and, with her sons, she worked to establish a bush-tucker farm that could not only offer tours and accommodation but also, eventually, supply home-grown Australian salads that could compete with introduced crops.

Walking around the project Norman shows me the sacred trees, the astounding variety of fruits and edible shrubs, the tree whose root is used to make boomerangs...His enthusiasm is infectious and I begin to wonder if I can change my itinerary entirely and learn more from Scrub Hill and some of the most interesting guides I had yet found in Australia.

But it was not to be. Norman had a community committee meeting to sit in on. More importantly, he reckoned that his mum was already there.

“...and she’ll probably thump me if I’m late!”

 

Reef

 

David Whitley recalls what was supposed to be his first day at a new job in Australia

 

It’s all OK. It must be something to do with flight paths, or the curvature of the earth or something. Everything’s going to be just fine. The little twelve-seater plane, powered by two particularly energetic hamsters, has chugged its way into the sky, and has just broken from the land to head out over the sea. Having looked at the map, it’s possibly not the route I’d have chosen to get from Bundaberg to Brisbane, but he’s the pilot; he knows these things much better than I. Besides, he has a very official-looking hat, and no-one would give one of them to someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. Would they?

 

There is something inherently delightful about Australia’s smaller domestic airports, of which Bundaberg’s most certainly is one. Everything is so lackadaisical that you half expect the air traffic controller to be simultaneously running the local post office and the check-in staff to regard a four-year-old’s drawing of Mummy and Daddy as perfectly acceptable photo ID. It’s this attitude that would go some way to explaining the somewhat scant security measures. There are only four flights all day, each heading to Brisbane, and when the first is called, everybody gets up, and walks straight onto the tarmac, cheerfully waved through by the chap at the door who can’t be bothered with niceties such as boarding passes. Never fear, though, as the pilot is doing a roll call outside the plane. That’ll foil those sneaky terrorist types.

 

This small connecting flight is a fairly laid-back start to what should be one of the biggest days of my life. At noon, I am supposed to be in Sydney to start a new job, which was offered to me out of the blue just three days ago. With just two weeks left on a year-long visa, the job is also my passport to staying in Australia for good. It’s all very exciting, and slightly nerve-wracking. Especially when the Great Barrier Reef comes into view.

 

Forty minutes after take off, the plane touches down. It appears to be a delightful little island, fringed by sandy beaches and world class snorkelling. It’s got everything you’d need for a relaxing break away from it all, but there’s one thing it most certainly isn’t. And that’s Brisbane.

 

As those looking forward to a couple of days on a nice resort island disembark, it all finally hits. This is what happens when you’re too engrossed in a book to pay proper attention to airport announcements. The pilot turns round to see one passenger remaining, ghostly pallid and rocking back and forth in deep trauma.

 

“I-I-I th-think I’ve got on the wrong plane.”

It’s the pilot’s turn to go sheet white. “Wh-what? Oh my God. This has never happened before.”

 

Nobody quite knows what to do. Dealing with a stowaway/ kidnap victim is a completely new one for the resort staff, although they seem more concerned with whether I should technically be allowed to use the pool.

 

It takes a solemn pace around the rim of Lady Elliot Island (a whopping 20 minutes), before I can bring myself to make that phone call. Invited into what passes as the island’s headquarters, I’m surrounded by people desperately trying not to guffaw behind their hands as I ponderously dial for the Sydney office. “Erm, hi. You know how I was supposed to start work today? Well… you’re not going to believe this, but…”

 

 

Fraser Island

 

David Whitley embarks on a stand-off with one of Australia’s ‘native’ dogs.

 

It stands in front of us with an air of wary menace. It’s a stand-off. At one end of the path is a pathetic shower of wimps, clad in shorts and sun-hats and at the tail end of a substantial walk through the sand dunes.

 

At the other is a small dingo. It is stood to attention, stretching itself out as big as possible, preparing to face down a group of beings that must look as huge as giraffes look to us.

 

There’s a quiver and a girly yelp to my left. “We’ve got to go back,” says Gillian. “Let’s just walk backwards, slowly, and with our arms crossed.”

Such is the rampaging, vicious, baby-killing reputation of the dingo: a normally sane human being is prepared to walk a few kilometres backwards to avoid one.

 

In reality, the dingoes of Fraser Island aren’t really that much of a danger. When they do cause problems – and there have been a few attacks in recent years – it’s generally due to human habits. People leave food lying around and they attempt to get close to the wild creatures. It’s not really the dingoes’ fault – they don’t want to be around humans, but with Fraser Island being one of Australia’s major tourist spots, they don’t have a lot of choice in the matter.

The Fraser Island dingoes are thought to be the purest breed in the world. The island – off the south Queensland coast – has become something of a haven for them. Its relative isolation has prevented interbreeding, and Fraser is regarded as prime habitat.

 

The dingo is called Australia’s native dog, although it isn’t technically native to Australia. It is thought that they’re related to dog species in South East Asia and were brought over as hunting dogs around 4,000 years ago. But in many ways, they’re as Aussie as kangaroos and koalas. 

 

We’re at Rainbow Gorge – an almost lunar landscape of coloured sands, and one of Fraser Island’s more underrated attractions. Walking through on occasionally soft sand is a bit of a hike, but nothing too strenuous. We’re literally only about 200m from the beach at the end of the walk, but the blond doggie stands between us and freedom.

 

The girls are clearly terrified, and are genuinely suggesting walking backwards for a few kilometres as a suitable solution to the issue. Mercifully, testosterone wins. A couple of the male contingent starts to pace very slowly towards the canine terror. Arms folded across our chests as if we’re retards in the X Factor studio audience, we’re making ourselves look as big as possible without looking threatening. Will the dingo back off? It stares at us, assessing the situation (or, more likely, having a good laugh at the idiots in front of it). Then, the moment of truth... it makes to move... and it’s a slow pace into the trees. We breathe a sigh of relief, and then start thinking of excuses to make the girls walk back anyway.

 

 

 

By David Whitley

Campervan

 

 

I am sad to part company with Wicked Wanda. She looks like a bit of a minx but has been about as reliable a road-trip travelling buddy as you could ask for. And, with pretty much her entire body covered with acid-trip tattoos, she has certainly turned heads. There have been a few whistles and stares as we rolled through towns like Byron Bay, Surfers Paradise and Noosa Heads.

 

Now we are splashing through the last few water-logged miles of the aptly named Captain Cook Highway and will soon ease to a grateful halt at Clifton Sands on the coastal run-up to Port Douglas. I too am ready for a rest and am not disappointed to carry my kitbag into a refreshingly luxurious beachfront apartment at Clifton Sands (cliftonsands.com).

 

I spread out my rumpled clothes, have a hot shower, grab a frosty one from the fridge and turn on the goggle-box. Now I can spend another lazy hour trying to make sense of the complete chaos that is Aussie rules football. Outside Wanda shelters alone under a corrugated iron roof upon which the last fearsome blast of an excessively violent rainy season is pounding. By now she has taken on a character all of her own and I feel vaguely sorry for abandoning her out there.

 

But she is a fickle wench and it’s hotwired into Wanda’s character that she has forgotten me already. Almost before her carbs have cooled she will be running off with some aging German hippy or a group of over-excited Japanese students. Wanda is a Wicked Camper van and – like a veteran streetwalker – she has already spent the majority of her life trawling the blacktop strip of Australia ’s eastern seaboard. 

 

At first glance she woos you with her grunge-kitten rose tattoos and the gothic charm of her pixie-chinned face. By the time we had rolled over Sydney Harbour Bridge – trying to decipher the pinball machine neon that signifies various lane changes and attracting (or provoking) a couple of horn-blasts from passing motorists – I was already confident that we were going to be a good team.

 

Vaguely recalled names from surf magazines and the beery yarns of other surfy travellers beckoned from the shoreward direction: Dee Why, Narrabeen, Avalon, Palm Beach...

 

But we had a long way to go and I kept Wanda’s nose pointing stoically northward as we covered those first miles up the Pacific Highway. You hit wilderness pretty quickly after leaving Sydney and much of that first afternoon of driving was through protected forest. It was already almost dark when we stopped to camp for the first night in a sleepy little campsite on Fenningham’s Island. We pitched camp under an aerial bombardment of twigs from infuriated local possums (eats roots and leaves) and woke to the bushman’s alarm call of a cackling kookaburra. We take an hour or so to rearrange baggage in Wanda’s cargo hold and by the time we hit the road again Wanda already feels like a home from home.

 

 

By Mark Eveleigh

Campervan 2

 

Wicked Wanda rolls us steadily northward through a brief and (ultimately) friendly run-in with an Aussie highway patrolman. You have to watch the gas on the Pacific Highway though – the road is well-maintained, clear and (for the most part) un-crowded, but compared with European speed limits you are expected to go excessively slow.  Wanda spent a couple of restful nights at Byron Bay while I surfed a wave that I had long heard about. Then we took to the hills again on a beautiful looping drive to Nimbin. The vibe in Byron is pretty much chilled to perfection but nearby Nimbin – Hippy HQ – seems to be trying just a touch too hard to maintain its laidback reputation.

We head on northwards, cruising through some long driving days up to Coolangatta, Surfers Paradise and Burleigh Heads. We stayed in campsites almost every night so that we had the freedom to barbecue. Kangaroo steaks are probably better even than beef on a barbecue and over the course of the next week we did our best to help out in a small way with Australia’s over-population of ‘roos.  Then, near Surfers Paradise, we arrived late at night. Too late to check into a campsite. So we found a spot for Wanda near the beachfront and were soon moved on by a police patrol who were, nevertheless, as friendly as they could be. In poorer backstreets – away from the million-dollar beachfront mansions – it is apparently fine to sleep in a van.

The coastal strip right up to – and past – Brisbane is built up these days and it was a relief when we finally got far enough north to start seeing semi-wild coastline again around Maroochydore. We camped in the burnt copper glare of a spectacular sunset on the banks of the Maroochy River and char-grilled another few hunks of ‘roo.  Then it was another run up to Noosa Heads for a last Aussie surf session before the dash to Rainbow Beach and Fraser Island. By now Wanda had earned a rest and we abandoned her at the Colonial Village YHA campsite in Hervey Bay while we temporarily shifted our allegiance to a Hummer for a 4x4 tour of the world’s largest sand island (see www.fraserexperience.com).

Rejoining Wanda we were soon on the Bruce Highway. This was a harsh land when Cook first explored this coast and it is still a region where the elements occasionally wreak serious havoc. Near Mission Beach we would drive through the devastation that had been left by Cyclone Yasi just a couple of weeks before. We veered off the highway again to visit the town of 1770 (perhaps the only town in the world named only with numerals). 1770 was the year that Cook landed on this spot but like his visit ours was necessarily a fleeting one. We still had a long way to go before Cairns and we hit the road early and drove until dusk watching the kilometres clicking over as we pressed on still farther northwards towards our last stretch on the Captain Cook Highway. The Wicked Camper ‘rule book’ is fundamentally against night-time driving in the Aussie bush: “Nights are for lovin’” they say.

By the time Wanda’s tired tyres hit Townsville tarmac we had done a lot of mileage (when we finally reach Cairns the trip-meter will be topping 2,500 miles). Even so by Townsville the great open spaces of the Outback were beckoning and it was a serious temptation to swing the steering wheel westwards towards the bubbling tarmac and mirages of Mount Isa and the Northern Territory.  But that’s for another trip. For now both Wanda and I are in need of a rest. But I’ll be back so watch this space!