Coathanger

 

The Sydney Harbour Bridge climb must be the most successful tour operation of its kind anywhere in the world. It is a complete human conveyor belt – an entire factory dedicated to elevating whole groups of people spiritually and physically skyward. The Bridgeclimb complex is erected in a series of tunnels where, until a few years ago, they did nothing more adventurous than sell Porsches. At the height of the season Bridgeclimb is now processing groups of up to 10 tourists, 24 hours a day.

 

You are prepared, kitted out and trained in a super-efficient environment. You are shown how to attach your harnesses and are fitted with earphones that instead of going in your ear rest on your cheekbones and send vibrations that your brain deciphers as your guide’s voice. This way your ears are also open to eternal sound. The whole atmosphere feels strangely like it will on the fateful future day when some of us (or some of you) will be selected for transfer to a less exhausted planet. 

 

And as you walk out beyond the giant support pylons you battle with what will presumably be the same feeling that there is a better than average chance that you might not return to earth in one piece. There is something bizarre in the human psyche that makes people pay a hefty fee for the privilege to climb to potentially fatal heights…the same heights that, on another day, they would demand a considerable premium to work at. 

 

In the end the trek to the 134-metre summit is much easier than most people imagine and, because of the sheer dimensions of what Sydney-siders call ‘the Big Coathanger,’ you never really feel like you are living on the edge at all. Even without the safety harnesses and the training you realise that it would be almost impossible to fall without putting some serious determination into it.


But the Bridgeclimb affords combines a feeling of adventure with the most spectacular views on the planet. You are standing on top of a 53,1440 tonne steel arch (pinned together with 6 million rivets – some of them up to 40cm long for any budding riveters out their) and you can take in a 360° view of what is very likely the most iconographic cityscapes in the world. It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and it is easy to see why so many people line up everyday to be ‘elevated.’ But the following day I was once again back at sea level. My week in Fiji had passed in a blur of ‘office work’ – battling with an overflowing inbox and magazine deadlines – but Hawaii had seriously boosted my appetite for waves. So I abandoned downtown Sydney and headed for Bondi Beach.

 

I paddled out into the line-up at Bondi and dropped into a couple of sweetly peeling left-handers. I had already been in the water almost two hours when I noticed what could only be described as a blur of activity on the horizon. It came closer until eventually it was only about 200 metres away and I could clearly see a huge flock of gulls and frigate birds diving on an immense school of fish. There were easily a thousand birds and they were churning the water up in a frenzy. It was impossible to imagine that all that thrashing and blood was not going to be enough to attract at least a few submarine predators.


“Never seen a feeding-frenzy like that in twenty years,” marvelled one grizzled old surf dude. Aussies are notoriously proud of their man-eating wildlife. I caught a few more waves and then paddled back in. After all tomorrow morning I had an early flight to Perth and then I would be heading into the great ‘Red Centre.’ It seemed right that after all this I ought to save my sorry carcase for the creatures of the world’s most fatal desert.

Australia’s most incredible sick bay

On the North Head of Sydney Harbour, David Whitley discovers the Quarantine Station that thousands would have passed through on their way to a new life

The shower block is gigantic, and feels industrial. This was the nice one, for first class passengers only, with barriers erected for privacy. The steerage passengers wouldn’t get such treats – they’d just be herded through and forced to scrub publically in water infused with heavy doses of carbolic acid. I don’t want to say where it reminds me of, but the guide steps in.

She says: “Some people coming here had come from the concentration camps in Germany and Poland. They would see people going into this huge shower block, smell the awful unnatural smell of the carbolic acid, and then not see the people again because they left through the back.

“It was like they had been sent back to what they had escaped from"

The Quarantine Station on Sydney Harbour’s North Head is a remarkable place. Bandicoots, kookaburras and cockatoos pretty much have the run of the place, the harbour views are exceptional and most of the old buildings there have been cleverly converted into hotel rooms. But the place is riddled with history. This is Australia’s equivalent of Ellis Island in New York – it’s the place where first convicts and then free-settling immigrants would have to pass through before starting their new life.

Only one person on a ship needed to be sick for everyone else on it to be quarantined. Most people staying here were healthy when they disembarked, but they had to stay healthy for 21 days. You could be in for 20 days, then come down with the mild sniffles – something hard to avoid in the overcrowded conditions. The clock would be reset – it’d be another 21 days before you could rejoin the wider world.

The burden of proof was on the passenger, who had to prove he or she was free of disease. This usually involved being methodically checked over for smallpox rashes and other such indignities.

In 1918, there was panic over the Spanish influenza pandemic, and the solution was to send 40 people at a time into an ‘inhalation chamber’. To all intents and purposes, it’s an empty room that would be pumped full of steam laced with zinc sulphate. It was designed to cleanse the throat and airways, but given that zinc sulphate is now used as an emetic, it’s no surprise to learn that the treatment made more people sick than it cured.

  

Another building contains the autoclaves. They’re huge, industrial oven-like machines, connected to the boilerhouse by pipes. Steam would come through, and trolleys full of luggage, bedding and other belongings would be dumped inside for a high temperature steaming. Given that a lot of the luggage was essentially cardboard, many people had vital documents, photographs and clothing destroyed.

Only about 580 boats ever came here. The idea was to not let disease on board at the point of embarkation in the first place. There are no accurate numbers for the number of people who stayed at the Quarantine Station, but it is known that at least 572 died here. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a lot of ghost stories. And during the evening ghost tours, that shower block is the creepiest place of the lot.

 

Disclosure: David stayed at and visited the Quarantine Station as a guest of Tourism Australia.

 

by David Whitley

  

  

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

You can get the Australia included as a stopover on a Navigator RTW

The Light


David Whitley heads east of Perth to view one of the world’s great engineering achievements, but finds himself wowed by one of Australia’s natural wonders 

Around 45 minutes east of Perth, there is a dam. A decent-sized, but unremarkable dam, if compared to enormous projects such as the Hoover Dam in the US, or the Aswan Dam in Egypt. But it is the pipes leading from Mundaring Weir that should inspire awe.

Before the 1890s, Western Australia was a bit of a struggling backwater. The Swan River Colony – as it was originally called – was only founded because the Dutch and French were snooping around the continent’s west coast and the British thought they should stick a flag down to stop the competition making a claim.

In 1829, Perth was founded. It’s an older city than Melbourne, Brisbane or Adelaide, but the other colonies grew a lot quicker than poor, bedraggled and forgotten Western Australia.

But in the 1890s, gold was found way inland at Kalgoorlie. There were fortunes to be made there, but many paid the ultimate price in trying to make them. It was desert, and you can’t drink gold. Many ambitious would-be miners didn’t even make it out there. There were no roads, and over half who attempted the 600km walk over dry bushland from Perth died of thirst.

Enter CY O’Connor, an Irishman with a reputation for handling massive infrastructure projects. He came to a tragic end, committing suicide under pressure from constant media carping about the costs of major achievements such as standardised rail gauges across the state and a new port at Fremantle.

He never got to see the finished version of the pipeline that would be, by any measure, one of the greatest engineering achievements in history. It runs for 560km from Mundaring Weir to the Kalgoorlie goldfields, uphill and through the desert. It required loans of what would now be billions of dollars, and what was then the largest single order of steel in history.

Stood on top of the dam, however, it’s not the engineering achievement that strikes. It’s something that’s hard to convey to anyone who has not visited Australia. It’s a stunning sight – the water of the lake created by the dam is a rich blue, whilst the rocks that make up the banks look gaspingly dry.

But the dazzling scene is made by the light. It’s the thing I missed the most when I returned to Britain after five years in Australia. Even on the sunniest days, Britain only ever gets a muted, hazy light. In Australia, however, the skies seem so much more vast, and the light so much more intense. There’s an invigorating, almost fearsome brightness during the day that turns into an enhancing, hugely flattering illumination at dawn and dusk. It’s only when you leave and lose it that you start to realise just how powerful and energy-giving it is.

On the way back from the weir, we decide to drive up to Kings Park, the giant 404 hectare green lung that overlooks the Swan River and central Perth. The road in – Fraser Avenue – is lined with tall gum trees. They’re striking at the best of times, gloriously pink-tinged white trunks soaring skywards with no branches on the lower levels to sully the majesty. But as the day draws to a close, the fading, marvellously complimentary light gives the honour guard of trees an entrancing, magical appearance.

And no man-made achievements will ever be able to top that.

Disclosure (and recommendation): For a great overview of Perth’s history and future, the two hour Perth Urban Adventure walking tour around the city with Two Feet And A Heartbeat (Twofeet.com.au) is an excellent choice. David did the Two Feet tour as a guest of Tourism Western Australia (Westernaustralia.com).


Bush

 

 

David Whitley becomes a temporary part of the family at Bullock Mountain Homestead near Glen Innes in New South Wales.
 
Containing the sort of energy usually associated with a nuclear reactor, Cruiser bounds down the bank, ploughs through the water and digs his paws in to climb up my chest. My new friend indulges in a frenetic bout of face-licking; a sure sign that he’s not planning to leave me alone for the rest of the stay.  I’ve been out in the bush for less than a day, and I’m evidently part of the family already. Cruiser is the younger of the two dogs at the Bullock Mountain Homestead, and the boisterous Labrador-cross comes everywhere, be it on a scramble down the river, a drive through the forest or pre-dinner kangaroo hunt. He’s after rabbits rather than roos, however.

His weary cohort Tooheys – all the homestead’s animals are named after alcoholic beverages – normally follows with a little less enthusiasm. He’s happy enough to humour Cruiser, but is clearly glad to see his young protégé lavish attention on some other poor mug for a few days. Bullock Mountain is one of those glorious places that can be all-action or ridiculously lazy, depending on whether you’re more in the Cruiser or Tooheys mindset.

Fishing, yabbying, birdwatching and bushwalking are amongst the options on offer, but it’s clear that the heart is with the horses. Twenty-or-so roam freely around the property’s 12,000 acres, but are rounded up and saddled when guests wish to go for a ride. The horses are cared for with an almost maternal verve by co-owner Alison Wood, and they’re clearly in good condition. I’m presented with an absolute beauty – a giant grey called Belle (as in Bell’s whisky) with film star looks.

Unfortunately, she blatantly has T-Rex blood on one side of her family, and getting up without an ice axe and crampons should be something of a challenge. Alison points at a tree stump. “We’ve thought of that,” she says, ushering Belle towards nature’s pedestal. Once up and plodding through the trees, it’s pretty obvious to see why the Woods use the property for horses and tourists rather than agriculture. It’s rocky, rugged and rather overgrown. Some of the trails disappear beneath a sea of wispy green scrub, while the paths are crossed by fallen trees and other obstacles.

We break into the occasional canter, but for the most part, it’s a tentative walk through land that doesn’t seem all that close to habitation. But suddenly we emerge at Beardy Waters, and a beautiful blue pool flanked by two thick rows of gum trees. Pelicans debate whether to scatter or stand their ground as we approach. It’s exactly what the Australian bush should look like, and it’s warm enough for a swim. Cruiser agrees whole-heartedly.

Once we’ve made our way back to base, it’s time for an altogether different water activity. This part of NSW’s New England area is notoriously rich in minerals – particularly sapphires. Most of them are mined these days, but fossickers still try their luck in the rivers and creeks. Unfortunately, doing it the traditional way is rather hard work. Scrabbling around at the rock to get enough to sift through is not much fun, so the Woods have come up with a better plan. They get bags of cast-off material from the mine, and take their guests through how to find the jewels amongst the junk.

Part of the bag is emptied out into two large trays, which act as sieves. They’re lowered into a water vat, and the cleaning process begins. The trays are dunked, shimmied, swivelled and shaken in the water in order to clean the dirt off and separate the bigger stones from the little ones. There’s a clear technique to it, with the aim being to get the heavier stones – and hopefully the sapphires – to the bottom. Alas, that technique isn’t immediately obvious to a rank amateur.

The trays are then flipped over onto old barrels and the rubble is picked through with tweezers. I strike lucky immediately – a small blue speck glimmers amongst the black stones. I hold it up to the light to check, and then pouch it. The hunt is surprisingly fascinating. A second pair of eyes can spot potential sapphires that the first pair misses, and after a while everything starts to look bluer than it is. I end up with a film canister half full of potential gems, although the elation wears off when they’re surveyed by an expert in town. Apparently only one is really gem quality.

But for all the activities, it’s the family atmosphere that makes Bullock Mountain special. The highlight of the day is a lamb roast in the evening, then beers, tall tales and dirty jokes around the campfire. And, of course, making sure that Cruiser has his tummy suitably tickled.

 


Disclosure: David was a guest of the Bullock Mountain Homestead (Bullockmountainhomestead.com) and tourism New South Wales (Visitnsw.com).

 

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