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

In search of the sea dragons

 

 

In Victoria’s Port Phillip Bay, David Whitley goes looking for some very weird fish

The mercury may be well over the 40 degree mark, but Jacqui insists we put on the wetsuits. “The water in the bay is about 19 degrees and, trust me, you’ll feel it.”

The Great Barrier Reef may be Australia’s conventional snorkelling hotspot, but the stretch of Port Phillip Bay just off Portsea’s beach has something that Queensland can’t rustle up. It is home to a small colony of phyllopteryx taeniolatus – more colloquially known as the weedy sea dragon. Cousins of the seahorse, these little fellas grow to about 40cm long and look about as bizarre as it’s possible for a fish to get.

Through the wonders of evolution, they’ve developed things that aren’t quite polyps, aren’t quite fins and aren’t quite humps. Whatever they are, they protrude from the body, cunningly making them look like seaweed.

Subsequently, they can be rather hard to spot, even when you’re floating above them, keeping an intent lookout.

From the beach, we swim over to the buoy that marks the outer edge of the mini-marina. A small reef lined with luxuriant eel grass makes this area a prime habitat for all manner of temperate weather-loving fish, and a fair few stingrays that hang out on the bottom minding their own business.

The secret to spotting the weedy sea dragons, we’re told, is to stay still and just fix your gaze on a patch of grass. They’re most easily seen when they move across a patch that’s otherwise staying still.

And it’s using this technique that one’s cover is blown. It uses its slender body in a wave-like motion, gently gliding above the seabed.

From the top, they look entirely black, but duck down and it’s possible to see the vivid pinks and yellows that make up their bodies.

But these are not mighty dragons. In fact, they’re extraordinary weak – and hopeless swimmers. They can’t fight swells as waves come into the beach and are helplessly pushed along by them. That’s why they seek peaceful, secluded spots to live in.

Portsea, historically, has been one such spot. But a decision to dredge parts of the bay a few years ago has had character-changing effects. Now surf occasionally gets up, hitting the shore much harder than it once did.

This means its eroding much faster than it once did, and walls of sandbags are piled up alongside the slowly-shrinking beach. There are fears over the future of the village pub, which sits on top of a hillock right above the sea.

 

But the sea dragons may be in trouble too. Jacqui Younger, who guides the snorkelling tours for Bayplay Adventures. “If we’re honest, we don’t know what will happen to them. But the dredging has not been a good thing for Portsea.”

We finish off by swimming over to the pier, where seemingly hundreds of children are jumping off - partly to keep cool and partly to show off to their friends. Under the pier, crabs run up the wooden support poles and shoals of puffer fish flock around them like intimidatory gangs. But Jacqui spots what she’s been after.

“Here he is,” she says. “It’s the last one.” The dragon has some caviar-like blobs on its back.

“They’re eggs, and this is the only one that is still carrying them this season. The female will lay them on his back, and he’s the one that looks after them.”

Hopefully, when they do hatch, they manage to find a way to beat the ever larger waves.

 

 

Disclosure: David was a guest of Tourism Australia and Tourism Victoria

Picture credit 12

Handily, you can get Melbourne included as a stopover (plus get another 9 around the world) on a Navigator RTW We also love Australia (Go Aussies!) and sell very well priced breaks in Victoria

by David Whitley

  

Annoying Oz

 




If you’re going to Australia, it pays to be pre-warned about the country’s idiosyncrasies – so here’s what to brace yourself for.Australia is a great country, but that doesn’t mean to say everything about it is perfect. Though Australian culture may be similar to British or Irish culture in many ways, there are still a few differences that you only really start noticing once you’re over there. Some will charm – such as the willingness of people to give directions or the wonders of drive-through booze shops – but others will irritate. And, in no particular order, here are ten of the things that are almost certain to get on your wick.
 
A constant diet of rugby league/ AFL
Australia is a nation split by sporting codes. To a certain extent, cricket and rugby union cross the divide, but most states will identify themselves as either AFL or rugby league territory. Of the two, AFL (Australian Rules Football) is the most fascinating. It bears some resemblance to Gaelic football, and attracts gigantic crowds – sometimes up to 80 or 90,000 – yet the rest of the world couldn’t care less about it. It’s a fast moving game, worth at least one visit to see. Victoria is the game’s unquestioned hub.

Queensland and – in particular – New South Wales, are rugby league territory. For the uninitiated, imagine a load of Neanderthals constantly running into each other while the fans pretend they’re watching a sport of genuine international significance. You’re about there.What will get you riled up is that Australia’s newspapers can often feature little else but stories about AFL (in Melbourne) and rugby league (in Sydney).

Parochialism
If you want a pathetically one-eyed, regional focus on the world’s events, watch the Australian news. Coverage always tends towards the “One Australian and 473 other people have been killed in a bomb attack” approach. The country also shows itself up by fawning in the most feeble way imaginable every time someone relatively famous from overseas is kind enough to set foot in the country. Paris Hilton can drop by to plug something or other and it’ll be treated as if it was a Papal visit.
 
Television
Combining the American approach to having five minute long ad breaks every ten minutes with the programming budget of a small, relatively unpopulated nation, Australian TV is almost unremittingly awful. At best, you’ll constantly cringe, at worst you’ll want to throw bricks at it. There are a few decent homegrown programmes, but they’re very rare. Otherwise it’s a diet of painfully unfunny talk show hosts, ads and every derivation of CSI you can possibly dream up.

Overattentive shop assistants
If you’re the sort of person that likes to browse without being disturbed, the Australian shopping experience is not for you. You’ll be leapt on with a “how can I help you today?” as soon as you walk through the door. Of course, the person doing this is unlikely to know anything useful about the stock – they’ve just been told to be attentive.

Obsession with house prices
Auction (incorrectly pronounced as ‘ock-tion’) prices are what passes for news in these parts. A house in a relatively uninteresting suburb sold for 5% more than a similar house did two months ago – hold the front page. Alas, this attitude leads estate agents to think they’re genuine celebrities, and doing you a favour by behaving like egregious arseholes on a constant basis.

Bacon, sausages and chocolate
On the whole, most Australian produce is of a higher standard than its British counterpart. But there are some notable exceptions. Those who like a meaty breakfast will probably be facing disappointment – Australian bacon and sausages tend to lack any taste whatsoever, as any expat living over there will tell you between the tears. Chocolate is another bugbear – it just doesn’t taste right. The usual argument for this is that they have to put special preservatives in to stop it melting in the shops, but nobody’s quite sure whether this is an urban myth or not.

Beetroot with everything
A far greater culinary crime is Australia’s obsession with ruining perfectly good food by putting a slice of beetroot on it. This is particularly the case for burgers, for which beetroot is no more suited to than custard or iron spikes. You’ll get your burger, sink your teeth in, recoil in revulsion and then realise that a beetroot slice has infected it. Remove said beetroot, and everything else will have been stained by it. It’s best to loudly bellow “NO BEETROOT ON MINE PLEASE” as soon as you enter the shop/ restaurant.

Pokies
There are plenty of great pubs in Australia, but too many fall into a sadly identikit mould. You’ll find a basic range of fairly nasty beers, a food menu that’s chicken parmagiana or steak and little attempt to disguise that the real money is made from gambling rather than drinks. A large section will be devoted to the TAB (sports betting and horse racing on multiple screens) whilst the real goldmine is the poker machines. The area with the pokies (as they’re universally known) is invariably a tragic scene, with people thoughtlessly pouring their money into a game without skill, hoping against odds and logic for a payout.

Flies
Forget the sharks, crocs and snakes – it’s the flies that will drive you to the brink of insanity.

Casual racism
Australia has a perhaps unfair reputation for being a massively racist place. Like everywhere, racism certainly exists, but it is arguably overplayed. What you will probably discover, however, is a higher degree of casual racism. It’ll not be naked aggression, just a series of ignorant throwaway comments about all Asians being bad drivers or Aboriginal people being workshy. In many ways, Australia is like your slightly embarrassing granddad; it hasn’t learned that some lazy opinions are best not voiced and it would sooner stick to them than assess the evidence. It by no means affects the whole population; it’s just slightly more prevalent.

 

 

Sydney’s Martian Embassy

 

It’s startling to step from Redfern Street into the Martian Embassy.

Outside, the architecture is 19th and 20th century shopfronts, the standard look of a shopping strip in inner-city Sydney. Inside, however, it’s… different.

As the name suggests, it feels as if you’ve stepped into a different world, of sinuous alien curves rather than old-fashioned right angles. It’s as though the interior of the shop has been grown from the ground up, decorated with a series of curved wooden panels painted a livid green.

In a cosy seating area at the front, visitors sit around a huge globe of Mars, while browsing such handy books as The Intergalactic Traveller’s Guide to Saturn. Nearby stands a large silver telescope which claims to provide views of street life on the red Planet – if you use your imagination.

On the shelves farther in, past a statue of a Martian emperor,  is a mish-mash of quirky exhibits along with products created specifically for the shop.

Novelties for sale to the discerning space traveller include cans claiming to contain “bite-size” oxygen; melted ice from the Martian polar caps; a reflective Martian cape; gravity created in a factory on Pluto; and emergency space food. There are also T-shirts bearing such timeless messages as “Take me to your leader”.

There is method to this madness, as it turns out. The Martian Embassy is actually a front for the Sydney Story Factory, a non-profit writing centre.

“Our focus is on marginalised young people, with about 25% Aboriginal kids coming in,” says Craig New, one of the organisation’s managers. “Everything we do is focused on creative writing. The kids not only create short stories, poetry and scripts, but also short films and podcasts.

“The products we sell are fun, quirky stuff the kids enjoy as well. We’ve got Martian capes, ‘puny humans’ that Martians might want to eat, spaceship repair kits. My favourite thing in the shop is the tin of gravity. We have long arguments with the kids as to whether there is actually gravity inside it.

“We also use the stuff in the shop as prompts, especially if they’re struggling for what to write about in a workshop: ‘What would happen if my character had a black hole in a tin?’”

 

 

 

 

For the traveller, the Martian Embassy is not only a novel place to shop, but a way to help out – all profits from sales go straight to funding the reading programs. On sale alongside the novelties are books by the kids themselves, with titles like I Met a Martian.

When you’ve finished your extra-terrestrial shopping, Redfern is worth exploring. There’s good coffee and food to be had along the street at Barn Doors (108 Redfern St) and Baffi & Mo (94 Redfern St).

And though Redfern is off the standard tourist trail, its streets are lined by interesting emporia.

“The antiques shop across the road is a bizarre place, it often has a cockatoo sitting in a big wheel out the front,” says Craig. “There’s a place further up selling flowers and antiques, which is full of taxidermied animals. There’s a tradition of weird shops in Redfern already, so we slot into that nicely.”

 

The Martian Embassy is located at 176 Redfern St, Redfern, an easy walk from Redfern train station. Open 10am-5pm Monday to Thursday, 11am-3pm Saturday & Sunday.

 

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Destination NSW and TFE Hotels.

 

 

You can get Sydney included as a stopover on a Navigator round the world or on our Discoverer round the world

 

 

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.