Australia

Noosa

 

David Whitley tests out a new sport as he hits the waterways on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.

 

 

Stand-up paddle surfing is pretty much what the name suggests. It’s a cross between surfing, kayaking and manning a gondola (albeit without singing the song from the Cornetto adverts). The sport originated in Hawai’i, as did Chris de Aboitiz, who has decided to bring it to the Sunshine Coast.

 

Chris, unsurprisingly, is sickenly fit and prone to getting up early. My jaunt around the water starts at 7am, but I arrive to meet the 6am group returning. The boards are much bigger than your average surf board, and thus theoretically easier to stand on. I’m wobbly as we go round in a quick tutorial loop, but it seems relatively straightforward. Stand with the feet close together, paddle with straight arms and avoid overcorrecting. “Oh, and remember that speed is balance,” says Chris. “It gets trickier if you stop paddling.”

 

It also helps if you look straight ahead of you, rather than gawping at all the rather expensive housing that lines Noosa’s waterways. It may be fascinating to ogle the millions on display, but doing so does nothing for your stability.

 

It takes one look at a gleaming yacht, then a glance at where on earth I’m putting my paddle for the first involuntary swim of proceedings. It’s a cycle that is repeated with irritating regularity. Chris, meanwhile, sails along nonchalantly with Lani the dog acting as a gleeful figurehead on the front of the board.

 

It takes three quarters of an hour for another member of the group to show any solidarity by falling in themselves. That said, by the end Lani has enough confidence in me to jump on my board, run through my legs and sit in front of me as I paddle to shore.A slightly less wet workout on Noosa’s convoluted watery arteries can be done in a kayak. Kayak Noosa in Noosaville runs kayaking tours, but is also quite happy to give individuals a vessel, a paddle and a map, then send them on their merry way.

 

From a kayak, you get views that are impossible on any other mode of transport. You’re at water level, looking up and out. Things look bigger than they would do on, say, a cruise. The pelicans that sidle up alongside appear far mightier than they ordinarily would. When they open their mammoth bills, or spread their wings, they look magnificent rather than comical. 

 

The other great thing is that it’s largely as easy or as hard as you want to make it. On the way back to base, I’m fighting the current, so I have to put a bit of muscle in. But for most of the hour-or-so on the Noosa Sound, it’s a lot more relaxed.

 

A leisurely float along with the odd momentum-maintaining paddle-dip in the water allows you to take everything in properly; the kids challenging each other to jump from the bridge, the fishermen with a beer in one hand and rod in another, the Toblerone-like hills jutting up over the forest.

 

It’s also the best way of indulging in a bit of property porn. The waterfront houses form a millionaire’s circle, and there’s an evident mine’s-better-than-yours approach to the decor. Gleaming glass frontages and yachts moored to private jetties are the norm.

 

You’d have thought that anyone who spent that much money on a house would live in it, but apart from a big barbecue fest going on at one of them, the properties seem remarkably quiet. It’s like peering into uninhabited show homes most of the way round.

 

But this is part of the Noosa vibe as much as the shopping and the food. Speaking of which, after all that physical activity, the full three course pig-out is entirely justifiable...

Mission Beach

 

 

 

Landlubber David Whitley gets a taste of sailing without leaving the beach in Northern Queensland.

It’s a wonder that everyone in Mission Beach doesn’t have one of these babies. The four villages that make up the area are spread four or five kilometres apart, and the most direct path between them is straight down the 14km-long beach. As I stand on the shore, considering the post-pub transport possibilities in a one taxi town, Chantelle pulls up her Blo-kart. It’s an enormous contraption that she somehow pulled out of a bag half the size of a surfboard. At the bottom, there’s a metal frame with wheels and a seat. On top of that, there’s a big sail.

She seems a little apprehensive. “There is enough wind, although it’s a little flaky,” she says. “It’s possible, but there’s a big but...” What she means is that there’s a big butt. “Well, you saw how fast I was going,” she dithers, eyeing up my somewhat ‘sturdier’ frame. “The problem is that the bigger, heavier and taller you are, the more wind you need.” I’ve come this far, and I’m not backing out now. And if that means trundling across the sand like a pensioner on a stairlift, then so be it. I slide down into the seat, and Chantelle tries to show me the ropes. Or rather, rope. I’ve got one to which controls the sail, plus some bicycle-style handlebars for steering.

 

“There are no brakes, and it’s currently in the stop position, facing directly into the wind,” Chantelle explains. The principles, I’m told, are close to those of sailing. Keep the sail at roughly right angles to the wind direction, and maintain momentum by zig-zagging (or tacking) across the sand. It takes a few episodes of shamefully slumping to a halt before the idea clicks, but before long, I’m carving across the sand, picking up speed and performing hairpin turns. Dog-walkers on the beach shoot looks of abject pity at the slightly slow child attempting to play King Hoon.

 

Everything feels faster than it probably is – in the same way that going 30km/h on a motorbike can feel faster than going 50km/h in a car. But when the wind hits the sail and the kart flies through the wet sand, it’s virtually impossible not to grin like a glee-infused simpleton. It’s fun in the way that a well-made family comedy film is fun, even though instructions inscribed on the sail insist that Blo-karting can be a very dangerous sport. Those wanting a proper hardcore adrenalin activity are advised to look upwards. 

 

At one point, Chantelle plonks a flag in the middle of the beach. I operate under the impression that this is for performing doughnuts around, but she soon indicates that I shouldn’t be going past it. “The skydivers are about to land,” she says. Sure enough, five parachutes are flitting through the air, with Dunk Island in the background. Those who have descended from 14,000ft are pumped-up whooping like the audience on the Jerry Springer Show.They may be getting the rush, but I’m deliriously content with my somewhat unique soft option; tugging on my sail rope, pootling across the sand and making a mental note to steal one in time for the Friday night post-pub taxi scramble.

 

 

David went Blo-Karting with the Mission Beach Adventure Centre (00 61 4 29 469 330). 

 

 

 

By David Whitley

The Big Wet

 

 

Contrary to popular belief, orienteering skills are not an important part of hitchhiking across Australia. Having found the Stuart Highway out of Sydney we simply went straight on across the Blue Mountains and the miles of desiccated, lizard-baking wasteland that is bizarrely known as ‘The Accessible Outback’ of South Australia.

Two weeks, and 1,500-miles, later a sign outside the Kulgera Pub advised us that we had finally reached ‘The Real Outback.’ This was the Northern Territory and any self-respecting ‘Top Ender’ will tell you that any other part of the Outback is strictly for Sheilas. Besides being illegal (‘technically’) in most Australian states I had read that hitching could be very difficult anywhere near urban centres. Since we had been about as far away from urban centres as it’s possible to get on this planet we’d had no problems…though we had had some nerve-racking rides. The driver of one of our first lifts had taken such an immediate liking to us that he felt compelled to blurt out that he’d been ‘out of circulation’ for the last 30 years. “In those days they’d lock you up for things that they just fine you for today,” he said, as Dougee and I exchanged worried glances.

Our next lift had come quickly – very quickly – in the form of a teenage delinquent who was driving his classic Holden sports car to Orange to pick up some parts that would apparently help it to exceed even the phenomenal speeds than he was currently making as he straightened the curves and hummocks of the Stuart Highway. “It’s pretty sleepy where you guys are heading,” he warned us. “I was out that way myself, few weeks back. Sat outside a pub for three hours and six cars passed…two of ‘em went both ways.”

Then shortly after dawn one morning we were on the Barrier Highway, patiently shoving our thumbs towards the unexpectedly gloomy clouds above South Australia. We were all set for a long wait because, beyond the garbage depot at the edge of town, there was little of any consequence before the desert met the salt water of The Spencer Gulf over three hundred miles away. So traffic was scarce and we were happily kicking a hackysack around on the blistering tarmac when a loaded estate car pulled up and with scant formality we were invited to chuck our stuff into the back.

Gali and Shirley were celebrating their liberation from Israeli military service with a happy-go-lucky Outback odyssey to a seemingly endless soundtrack of Shania Twain. Several hours later, as the Stuart Highway and headed northwards across Australia’s Red Centre, Crocodile Dougee was still roaring in on the chorus – “MAN! I feel like a women” – with an enthusiasm that I feared might not go down too well in the hard-bitten roadhouse where a hand-painted sign offered us the ‘Last Fuel for 300 Miles.’

We took the sign at face-value and joined a group of truckees guzzling icy cans of VB as they tuned into the TV traffic report: “The Stuart Highway, south of Alice is flooded and roadtrains carrying vital supplies have to wait. The rain’s still creating havoc for tourists. Many who have got this far, on their way to the Northern Territory, have simply got to turn around.

“A man who spent the last four days stranded on a remote track drinking water from puddles has made it home. He’s had a hot shower and a few beers to celebrate.” The last report inspired a chorus of ‘Fair Dinkum Mate!’ and brought a smile to all faces as the screen flashed to a drunken bushman, in ‘Oodnadatta Sunday-best’ (singlet and Blundy work-boots), struggling to set up a deckchair in his flooded backyard. We’d flown halfway around the world and set out to hitchhike 3,000 miles - driven by that frantic Pommy quest for sunshine - only to find that Australia’s ‘Red Centre’ had turned green and the mythical Great Australian Inland Sea was quickly becoming a reality with almost a third of Queensland underwater. The brief spell that Crocodile Dougee and I had chosen for our holiday was about to make Outback history as ‘The Big Wet.’

I took over the driving for a while as The Track rippled on and on into the heat haze and by the time we reached the Lasseter Highway to swing left towards Australia’s most famous icon I’d literally forgotten where the indicator lever was. As we drove onwards - past the rising swamps of the Lasseter Desert - I lost count of how many times I slow down or swerved to avoid mirages that I would not have believed in a few days ago.

Uluru has got to be the most photographed rock in the world and you would have to go a long way to find anybody who would not immediately recognise it if they tripped over it. Uluru is the local Aboriginal word for the delicate flutes that run down the side of what a colonial explorer had, with somewhat less poetry, named Ayer’s Rock in honour of a South Australian Premier. These smooth, shadowy ulurus were now streaked with ribbons of water that were combining to form a landscape that was more reminiscent of Gibraltar Rock than of the world’s largest monolith.

Average yearly rainfall on Uluru is 203mm but more than half of that fell in the single miserable night that Crocodile Dougee and I spent shivering in our tents there. Queen Elizabeth is renowned throughout much of Central Africa as the ‘The Rain Goddess’ on the basis of far less impressive statistics than these…but we didn’t wait around to find out what the local Pitjanjatjara people were calling us. Besides we still had 1,000 miles to cover and we had timed our journey perfectly so that we could fly out of Darwin just before the rainy season began!

Outback

 

 

 

You can count the miles down the Stuart Highway from Alice to Urldunda in dead kangaroos. There’s not a helluva lot else to look at though and my eyes began to glaze over somewhere after the thirtieth ‘roo road-kill. These road-kills have had a horrifying effect on Australia’s biggest bird of pray. The wedge-tailed eagle, with its eight-foot wingspan, is irresistibly attracted to this transcontinental smorgasbord and, having no natural predators, it is quite ready to do battle with any vehicle that has the audacity to try to scare it off its meal. Trackside roadhouses are full of yarns about drivers who were terrified to see a half-dead wedgie coming through the windscreen at him. “He was all torn and bleeding and spitting feathers when he turned up here,” they tell you. “Funniest bloody thing you ever saw!”

 

Outbackers have a wry sense of humour. They continue to see themselves as pioneering characters and in a sense they still are. This is the forbidden land that the first settlers knew by such mysterious names as Beyond the Black Stump, The Never Never or simply the Red Centre. The Northern Territory is ‘the real Outback.’ Southern roadtrains are not considered worthy of the name here in the Top End where they have five trailers, stretch to over fifty metres and are capable of sucking the windscreen-wipers off your car as they pass.


Even ‘roos wouldn’t be seen dead on the Lasseter Highway from Urldunda to Uluru. This is the real desert and feral camels are more likely here. There are said to be as many as half a million wild camels in Australia and they are of such pure and hardy breed that some have been sold to Saudi Arabia for racing stock. Territorians in general seem to be delighted at this proof that they also even have the world’s toughest camels. (Although they never got around to feeling that way about the rabbits).


This is dingo country too and even in the resort around The Rock you will often see semi-tame dingoes searching through the bins. The trouble is that the dingoes have mated with dogs from the Aboriginal camps and they are not as shy as they used to be. In some camps the Aboriginals live in fear of what one little girl described to me as ‘cheeky dogs.’ She said she was frightened to go outside after dark because of the dogs. But these dogs are cheeky in a way that only Outback animals can be cheeky: there have been reports recently of people who were actually killed and eaten by ‘cheeky dogs.’


Up here termite mounds grow to cathedral-like proportions and ‘dunny budgies’ (flies) are so thick you get tennis elbow shooing them off. Legend has it that at times the flies can carry small children away. Territorians are immensely proud of their fearsome wildlife and will warn you that the snakes here are so smart that if you drive over them they’ll wrap themselves around your differential so that they can follow you into your house.


Even a relatively short roadtrip from Alice to Uluru, just 5 hours each way (a mere jaunt in the scale of the Outback), shouldn’t be undertaken without proper preparation and a reliable vehicle. This simple journey to The Rock once took me three days when I was stranded by torrential rains and trapped in the little settlement of Curtin Springs. The population of five swelled overnight to almost fifty and some people were attacked by a herd of feral camels that were driven crazy by the excess of water.


Even a relatively short roadtrip into the Outback remains an adventure. The camels and the cheeky dogs might not get you but there are countless terrible things that could happen to you on these remote highways.…and whatever it might be there will always be an Outback ‘character’ who will see the funny side to it.

 

 

Stuart


David Whitley hits the Stuart Highway, and feels humbled by Australia’s vast, dry interior.

 

You can quickly go off kangaroos. Don’t get me wrong, under normal circumstances I can happily watch them all day. But at 6.30am, when I’m bleary eyed, behind the wheel of a strange car and tentatively inching my way through the minimal dawn light, they are less welcome. At this time of the morning, kangaroos are a ruddy nuisance. They come out in force, leaping nonchalantly across the road from all angles and making driving a test akin to The Gauntlet on Gladiators.

 

Emergency stops are as regular as gear changes at this time of the morning around Wilpena Pound, but it’s worth the test of nerves. Wilpena Pound is a huge natural amphitheatre in the Flinders Ranges, and all around are fabulous walking trails, scenic drives and 360 degree lookouts. But the landscape is far too varied and jagged to be proper Outback. And today’s drive was our first foray into Australia’s vast, inhospitable interior. The cross-continental adventure really starts at Port Augusta, a deeply unattractive town that is billed as the Crossroads of Australia. From here, the major highways head east, west, south and – more pertinently for us – north.


Port Augusta lies at the head of the Spencer Gulf. From here, the Stuart Highway ploughs its way up to Darwin and doesn’t cross a permanent source of flowing water until Katherine – 1,500 miles away. To get an idea of how remote the territory the Stuart Highway crosses, bear in mind that the road has only been properly sealed for 23 years, and the train line from Adelaide to Darwin was only completed in 2004. Interruptions include four settlements that would be regarded as villages or small towns at the most in the UK, with a roadhouse every hundred to two hundred miles dispensing fuel and awful food.

 

And if it sounds a tough drive, then think what it must have been like for the man the highway is named after. John McDouall Stuart* led six expeditions into Central Australia, eventually becoming the first person to successfully cross the country from South to North and back again in 1862. Each time he was walking over brutal country into the complete unknown, tortured by searing heat and often going days without water. His story is well worth reading – and some of the rest stops along the way cover the basics of Stuart’s incredible achievements. But the surprising thing for us on our first foray along the Stuart Highway was how fascinating the landscape was. We had been prepared for long, tedious slogs up a gunbarrel-straight road, but our first eight hour stretch of driving had us gripped.

 

This is partly due to the occasional stop-off along the way. At one point, we pulled over by Lake Hart. The railway line separates the road from what is usually a dazzling white basin. Hart is one of the ring of vast salt lakes that dot the interior of Australia. It’s a mere baby compared to the giants such as Lake Eyre and Lake Torrens, but it still gives a glimpse into what makes Australia’s outback so unique. The salt lakes are usually dry, as are the creeks that run into them. But a few times every century, it rains spectacularly in the north of the country and the creeks brim with water. They flow into the salt lakes, which fill and suddenly turn from barren landscapes into amazing scenes of life. Millions of birds flock from miles around to feast.

 

This year has seen one of those heavy rains. Lake Hart looks relatively full of water, while charter flights have been running to let tourists see the incredible scenes at Lake Eyre. What has taken white Australians decades to understand, however, is the complete unreliability. The central Australian landscape is best thought of as being like a dormant volcano – it can appear dead for years, and then will suddenly explode into life for brief, irregular periods. But what really grips is the vastness of the stark landscape as you drive through it. Despite the abnormal level of rain, the horizon looks unbelievably dry. And, importantly, it also looks so big. There’s little option but to feel very, very small indeed and just submit to something more powerful than you could dream of being. 

 

 

*Stuart was a Scotsman, and unquestionably the least incompetent member of the famous Stuart dynasty – which ruled Britain for many years with varying levels of bunging inadequacy.

 

Disclosure: In the Flinders Ranges, David Whitley was a guest of the Wilpena Pound Resort (Wilpenapound.com.au) and the South Australian Tourism Commission (Southaustralia.com).

 

More photos here