WA Wombats

 



David Whitley professes his undying love for the grumpy little pig-bear-tanks that seem to enchant most visitors at first site

One of the things Australia does very well is wildlife. In fact, it could be said that I’m marginally obsessed with Australian wildlife. Koalas are undeniably cute, kangaroos are just magnificently built, while other things cram the scale from odd to gorgeous. Kookaburras are funny-cute, rainbow lorikeets are beautiful, cockatoos are cheeky, quokkas are loveable and crocodiles are tremendously calculating and fearsome.

But, for me, one Australian creature has an absurd magnetism that the others just can’t compete with. The wombat somehow manages to get everything right by getting everything wrong.

For those unaware of the wombat’s majesty, imagine a small pig, cross-bred with a bear and a tank. They can occasionally look cute, but delightfully weird would be a better description. They’re adorable in the same way an unfortunately ugly puppy is adorable.

Elegance is not their forte either. They shuffle about with the wobbling waddle that comes from having a big body on tiny legs (although they can actually scarper quite quickly if they have to). They often have snuffly noses and can be found sleeping in the most ungainly manner imaginable. Look at one inside its hollowed-out log, and it’ll often be flat on its back, legs in the air.

However, it is impossible not to have enormous respect for any creature that utilises its substantial backside as its major weapon. If you’re a dingo trying to capture a wombat from its hole, expect to feel the full force of a peculiar arsenal. The wombat will back into the dingo’s face, using its unbelievably sturdy bum like a punching shield. It’ll then claw backwards – and the claws on those feet are mighty sharp.

As much as I really, really want my own wombat, I secretly know that they’d be appalling pets. They’re generally blessed with a curmudgeonly, grumpy disposition – as if they’ve permanently just woken up and really can’t be bothered with the niceties of keeping everyone happy. They’re also the world’s largest burrowing animal. And that means that give them a couple of days, and they’ll dig massive holes all across your garden.

But it’s not just me that wants one. When my wife first visited Australia, we went to a wildlife park, ostensibly to look at a few kangaroos and koalas. As we turned a corner, the cry went out: “What’s that? I WANT ONE.�?

It was, of course, a portly scuffling wombat.

Four years later, and in Perth, we had heard a rumour. There is, so legend has it, a place where you can cuddle a wombat. If ever there was a justification for hiring a car and taking a 40 minute detour out of the city centre, then this was it.

We pulled up outside the Caversham Wildlife Park almost panting with excitement. “Where can we cuddle the wombat?�? we asked at the ticket booth, more than prepared to skip everything else and rush over there.

“Well, you can’t exactly cuddle it,�? the woman at the counter announced to quickly crestfallen faces. “But you can get up close and touch it.�?

That’ll do. We charged past the enclosures of roos, dingos and exotic birds to what’s essentially a giant barn. And there was the magical queue.

At the end of it was a happily smiling member of staff, holding a giant hairy-nosed wombat. She weighed around 30 kilos, and she was lying back in his arms without a shred of dignity or shame. Her little paws were waving in the air, her eyes veered between sleep and dozy awakeness and her face bore what looked like a contented smile.

Her name was Big Bubs, and I got to sit next to her and stroke her tummy. Given even the faintest sniff of a chance, I’d have kidnapped her and taken her home.


Fremantle

 

 

David Whitley gets an insight into how prison life used to be in Western Australia – and vows to be a good boy from now on

If the Australian government really wanted to cut crime, then the best thing they could do would be to put Old Fremantle Prison back into use, and from there broadcast a reality show on prime time TV. From tax return ‘massager’ to murderous psychopath, everyone would think twice. Sharing a tiny room with a violent criminal and a bucketful of festering human waste - in 40 degree heat with no fan or air conditioning – is no fun.

Up until 1991, when it closed, this is what conditions were like at Fremantle Prison. Holiday camp it wasn’t, as you can see at first hand as everything has been kept intact. When it closed down, after lots of thumb twiddling, the State government decided to keep it open as a tourist attraction. A rather ghoulish one, admittedly, but a fascinating one nonetheless. The refreshing thing about the tour is that there’s no romaniticising the prison life. You get the full details in all their guard-bribing, fist-fighting, drug-smuggling, soap-dropping horror. First up, we’re taken through the check-in procedure. We’re told how prisoners were stripped naked, had their belongings put in a bag, and were issued with the prison uniform.

As we’re guided through the chapels, cells and exercise yards, we’re bombarded with interesting titbits of information. Whether it’s the mundane stuff about how mail was read and luxury items bought or daring tales of escapes and riots, you get a real feel for the prison life. You learn things too – drugs being smuggled in through tennis balls being hit over the prison walls; the wing for non-violent prisoners being more violent than the wing for those up for bashing grannies; the wannabe artist who whittled his button into a pencil and covered up his incredible cell artwork with porridge every morning. It’s unexpectedly gripping.

What really comes across is the barbarity of the system though. Not from the prisoners, mind, but from the authorities. We’re taken to the flogging post, where misbehaving convicts would be whipped until they’re hospitalised, and then to solitary confinement, a hellish prison within a hellish prison. Eeriest of all though is the gallows. The last man hanged in Western Australia was Eric Edgar Cooke, a serial killer, in 1964. Amazingly, the death sentence was only abolished in 1984, but the tour takes you through what would happen if it still existed now. A rope round the neck, the sinister crank that opens the trapdoor, and you’re dead within two seconds. Strangely enough, silence fills the room after that.

 

ps Tours of Fremantle Prison run from 9am to 5pm every day, and candlelight tours are also available. You’ll need to book in advance.

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

Rolling down the river

 

 

On a boat trip from Noosa, David Whitley quickly finds himself surrounded by rainforest wildlife and glimpses of the past

We say goodbye to the canoeists. They want to give their arms a workout, paddling up the Noosa River through the Noosa Everglades. And suddenly all is serene again. The tannins seeping from the trees make the water dark, perfect for reflecting the fluffy white clouds overhead. The lily pads are open and flowering.

It has been a slow chug getting to this point. Noosa is hardly the most throbbing hive of urban energy – indeed, its charm is that it’s so low rise, nature-packed and uncrowdedly dreamy – but you really don’t have to get too far out to feel you’re in the wilderness.

The Noosa Everglades Discovery Cruise heads deep into the Cooloola National Park along the river, and the slow glide is marked by various appearances from the bird life that lives in the area.

First are the pelicans. There’s always one standing guard while the others are asleep. One pelican stands on a nearby boat, proud and tall. Others glide into land, with exquisite grace until the moment they hit the water, from which point the putting down of feet is a masterclass in galumphing comedy.

There’s also the massive osprey nest on other side, where the same pair of ospreys have been resting for around 27 years. The cable ferry runs nearby, and that’s part of what keeps the area so quiet. There’s no bridge connecting to Noosa’s ‘north shore’, and that keeps the developers well away.

 

 

There are also ducks, white egrets and darters, which use their long necks to effectively spear the fish they’re hunting with their beaks. And then there’s the cormorant that follows the boat. “They’ve learned that the boats stir up the fish a bit,” says skipper Trevor.

Pretty much the only signs of human habitation on the way in are a little island owned by Richard Branson, a somewhat scraggy-looking campsite and a few jetties owned by prawn fishermen. But by the time the canoeists depart by the now unmanned Kinaba Information Centre, there’s a tremendous air of peace and tranquillity.

The region became a National Park in 1975, and most of the remnants from before that time are now gone. Forest has regrown to replace most of the logging camps, and Harry’s Hut further upstream was the last one standing. Now, there are a few information boards there, plus some tent sites and open-to-all barbecues.

It’s also where the big goannas like to hang out. They snuffle along the leafy floor, clearly intent on sharing everyone’s food.

The question is whether to go for a swim or not. Trevor says he’s caught bull sharks in the river, but he’s never seen them this far up. We’ve also seen snakes swimming across, but apparently they can’t do any harm while in the water.

As the canoeists catch us up, and pull alongside the wharf, one decides to just leap in the water. The rest of us, shamed, decide it’d be rude not to go in too.

 

Again, the water is murky due to the tannins seeping in. But it turns out what this is what makes the Noosa Everglades far more pleasant than their Florida counterpart. Mosquitos don’t like the water, so they don’t show up. No buzzing, no bites, no worries…

Disclosure: David was a guest of the Discovery Group and Tourism Australia You can get a 5 day Fraser Island and Sunshine coast tour here

  

Pittwater

There really is no escape from the wildlife here. One of my friends hides in the hammock to avoid the one metre long lizard as it walks across the deck. The wallabies bolt across the track as you head down to the water. It’s a battle to keep the possums out of the rubbish bin. And forget about leaving your breakfast unattended for even a moment- the cockatoos will swoop in and take it from you.

You’d think I was in the bush in the middle of nowhere. But I’m not. I’m still in Sydney.  Pittwater, in the north of Sydney, is one of the city’s stunning and often overlooked jewels. About 90 minutes on the bus from Central Railway station, the collection of inlets, bays, coves and islands makes it feel as if you are a million miles away from the city that lies just over the hill.

While the waterline is rimmed with multi-million dollar mansions and holiday homes on the coastal side, a series of small communities nestle into the bays around Ku-ring-gai National Park accessible only by water.  Hiding there amongst them is one of Sydney’s best-kept backpacking secrets: Pittwater YHA.  

Donated to the park back in 1950s, the hostel is an old rustic building nestled at the top of the ridge overlooking Morning Bay. It is only accessible by public ferry from Church Point, and all food and drink needs to be brought in. The hostel is about a good 15 minute walk uphill from the wharf, which means that often you’re sweating once you’ve finished dragging your groceries up the hill. There are multi-share dorms, a larger shared room, and one double room.

Heading up behind the hostel, there are a series of bushwalking tracks through Ku-ring-gai National Park, which spreads out for kilometres on the edge of the city. It’s the perfect way to experience the Australian bush without straying too far from the city.  One of the favourite past times is to take a kayak and paddle across the bay to the other side, where there is a small white beach that comes and goes with the tide. If I’m feeling more intrepid, I’ll paddle up past the private wharfs and follow the cove as it curves into the mangrove swamps.

During low tide, the mangroves reveal a different world. Small shoals of fish flicker between the upturned roots, and on the exposed sandbanks, bright red crabs scurry out to catch their dinner. To see them, it’s an exercise in patience. You have to stop paddling, stay still and they’ll emerge from their holes. When you sit there on the kayak, you begin to hear it: the sound of the Australian bush- the ticking hum of the cicadas, the whooping cry of the currawong, the haunting laugh of a kookaburra and the crack of a eucalypt branch as it snaps off into the brush.

Pittwater isn’t the place to come if you are wanting to party until dawn. But if you’re the type of person keen to watch the sunrise, often the managers will walk you up there with torches before dawn to watch the sun come up across the water. It’s an incredible sight as the water glows pink and gold, accompanied by a rising chorus as the bush wakes up. If you’re keen to explore the other communities, the ferry sets off from the mainland once an hour or so during daylight, completing a loop around the bay and island. The trick is that you have to hail it, by sticking a bright red flag in a pole at the end of the public jetty (in the past, many an unknowing passenger have waited for a ferry that never came). Nearby, there are Aboriginal rock carvings and bushwalks to waterfalls and rocky outcrops, surfing beaches and coastal communities.

Most of the time, though, I’m just happy hanging out on the desk in the hammock, reading the book. The wallabies nibble on the front lawn, the cockatoos screech for food and eat the decking, and if I’m lucky, the lace monitor might scratch along the deck.  The place is special. It’s not about what you can do there, it is about doing nothing much at all- just appreciating being in the middle of the bush…even if you are still in the city.

 

 

By Shaney Hudson