It’s not so grim up north


The kestrel soars on the updraft, slightly frantic wings betraying a sense of cool. Suddenly it dives down, presumably having spotted a skink on the rocks. Bad luck and RIP, little lizard.

Theoretically, we’re standing on the Long Reef headland looking for whales. They migrate up the coast in June and July, coming back between August and October. But in the absence of the big boys, it becomes clear how much wildlife there is, sneaking into the gaps between the flash seaside houses of Sydney’s northern beaches.

For most visitors to Sydney, there is no real call to head north of the harbour. Perhaps the ferry to Manly, then back again in the evening. Or an afternoon outing to Taronga Zoo. Beyond such tickboxes, there’s little apparent reason to venture upwards. It’s not just visitors either – the harbour provides such a natural barrier that those living south of it tend to regard northern Sydney residents as “living overseas�?.

Damien McClellan, who runs Eco Treasures Tours, is Northern Beaches born-and-bred, however. And he makes a living of showing off the bits that many people don’t bother to go to. The beaches themselves are clankingly obvious – anyone with a functioning pair of eyes can see they’re better than the more lauded ones in the eastern suburbs – but it’s what’s in-between that proves to be more interesting.



The Long Reef headland is a mini-nature reserve, and an excellent indication of how the coast works around here. It is not one of the more dramatic headlands – it offers a relatively gentle, tapered slope down to the crashing Tasman Sea. Brown sediment in the water shows how the rock is weathered away. It’s a gradual, relatively smooth process, due to the type of rock. The big sandstone cliffs on other headlands work differently – they’re cut away at from underneath and eventually the overhangs crash into the water.

“The indigenous people of the area divided the year up into seven seasons,�? says Damien, reaching for the wattle plant. “When it flowers in September, for example, it usually coincides with mullet fish running. It’s a good indicator of a change of season - and plentiful food.�?

Looking down towards Dee Why beach, Damien explains how the rhythms of nature affect the entrance to the small lagoon lying behind it. “Small waves gradually build up sand and close the gap. Then a storm comes along and knocks it down again.�?

He’s a man who spends a lot of time studying waves. Surfing is his real love, and the Northern Beaches has a strong surfing scene. Narrabeen is arguably the most beloved hotspot, but the best breaks can vary from day to day.

The surest sign of dedication is when someone prefers to surf. Logic would dictate that the summer months and warmer water are the best bet, but McLellan spends more time on his board in the winter. The prevailing winds are more conducive to consistent breaks, and if that means donning a wetsuit, so be it.

Being close to the sea is a fundamental part of Northern Beaches life. The inconveniences of getting into the city are happily traded off for the chance to hear the waves crashing. The further up the coast you go, the more detached from the rest of Sydney it feels. There are fewer commuters and more self-employed businesspeople working from home. The houses, some bought by rich blow-ins, others passed down through the family from the days where this was a cheap place to live, get ever more spectacular.

It all ends at Palm Beach, better known to international audiences as Summer Bay, the fictional setting of Home And Away. The gloriously long stretch of sand goes up to the lighthouse on the Barrenjoey Headland, while the Bouddi National Park on the Central Coast can be found on the horizon.

The place has a smug contentment about it, the knowledge that it’s about as far from hardship as it’s possible to get without entering the world of private helicopters and superyachts. Novice surfers attack the waves at the relatively tame southern end of the beach, dozens of dogs walk their owners and residents with seemingly not much to perturb them graze on flat whites and eggs benedict.

It is at the same time very separate from Sydney and the absolute embodiment of it. If you’ve got the money, the Northern Beaches have the dream. Well, unless you’re a soon-to-be devoured skink, anyway.


 by David Whitley

 Australia travel expert David Whitley answers questions about holidays in Australia at


First Fleet




David Whitley raises a glass to the unwilling pioneers who first settled in Australia back in 1788


Captain Cook wasn’t, as many people believe, the first person to discover Australia. The Aboriginal people who’d been on the continent for 50,000 years might have something to say about that, but Dutch and Portuguese explorers had been here way before Cook arrived in 1770.


It was Cook’s timing that counted, however. The industrial revolution was just about to properly kick in, and there was both massive population growth and urbanization. People were moving to the cities to find work, then discovering that no work was available. Many had to steal food to survive. 


By 1788, the American Revolution had ensured that the convenient option of sending criminals to the States was no longer an option. With prisons chock-a-block, the powers that be decided that it may be worth investigating the mysterious landmass on the other side of the world that Cook had claimed for Britain.


And so the First Fleet was sent, in what must have been an incomparable journey. No European had visited what was then known as Botany Bay since Cook 18 years earlier; these people were being sent completely into the unknown. It’s like being sent to the moon in order to set up a colony, but with even less knowledge of what to expect than we have about Neil Armstrong’s conquest.


Also, if we were colonizing the moon, we would probably send those with the skills to do so. In 1788, this was about getting rid of undesirables rather than providing the talents needed to complete such a task. Aside from a few military types whose job it was to keep order and the odd trained craftsman who had ended up on the wrong side of the tracks, most of Australia’s first settlers were unskilled labourers.


These people were being sent, almost certainly permanently, to somewhere that had nothing. All they had to go on were tales of strange creatures; it wasn’t known whether the land would be suitable for farming, there was zero infrastructure and it could have been a disease-ridden hellhole for all they knew. 


Think about it; these people spent months at sea in horribly cramped conditions – many would die at sea in later voyages until the Government started paying by the convict safely landed rather than the convict taken away. And they didn’t know what to expect when they finally disembarked. No-one knew what to expect, even those nominally in charge. It was one of the greatest leaps of faith in history, and most of those taking it were not doing so by choice.



As it happens, there was good land (although not at Botany Bay as first expected – the First Fleet hit lucky by going slightly further up the coast to Port Jackson – now better known as Sydney Harbour). The diseases were also largely brought in by the Europeans – far more Aboriginal Australians died as a result of imported disease than skirmishes with the settlers. It is still less than 250 years since these unwilling pioneers arrived – tens of thousands were to follow as the transportation system kicked in – and how Australia has changed since is remarkable.


Many indigenous Australians now regard January 26th 1788 as Invasion Day. To other Australians, January 25th is Australia Day in commemoration of when the First Fleet landed. Leaving aside the race politics and moral issues, it’s a day to raise a glass. Not to the system, not to the repercussions and not necessarily to the country itself – but to those undoubtedly terrified petty criminals who were unwillingly sent completely into the unknown. There will probably never be another journey like it.


The Immigration Museum in Melbourne gives a decent overview of the transportation system, as does Port Arthur in Tasmania. But if you want to properly read up on it, then The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes is magnificent.


Australia travel expert David Whitley answers questions about holidays in Australia at


Swimming pools - and why Australia has a much better version



In Newcastle, NSW, David Whitley goes all gooey for Australia’s magnificent ocean baths


On the New South Wales Central Coast, David Whitley discovers the grizzly truth about where antivenom comes from


On the New South Wales Central Coast, David Whitley discovers the grizzly truth about where antivenom comes from

 The funnel web spider is clambering around a little too freely for my liking. It may be surrounded by a Perspex square that’s too smooth for it to climb up, but nonetheless, I’m not getting any closer than I have to.

Kayleen, however, seems considerably braver. One of the professional venom milkers at the Australian Reptile Park on the New South Wales Central Coast, she is prodding the tips of its legs with a pipette. It’s attached to a suction system, so she’s effectively using it like a vacuum cleaner, sucking up the venom.

The Sydney funnel web spider is not to be messed with. Kayleen says a bite can kill an adult human with 76 minutes, and a child within just 13. “But we’re pleased to say that there’s been a fatality rate of zero since we started our programme.”

That programme involves a roomful of highly dangerous spiders in plastic tubs being milked once a week. The venom is collected, then sent to a biopharmaceutical firm called CSL in Victoria, where it is used to make antivenom via the medium of rabbits.

Antivenoms, it turns out, are not made using chemistry sets. They come about via a six month process of injecting the poor bunnies with increasingly high doses of the milked venom. They gradually build up a resistance to it, and then their blood is centrifuged – the red blood cells go back into the rabbit, and the resistance-carrying white blood cells become the key ingredient in the antivenom that’s injected into humans. A similar process is used with snakes – although the taipans, tiger snakes, death adders, eastern browns and black snakes have their fangs pressed into plastic film covering a shot glass, and horses are used instead of rabbits.

The Australian Reptile Park has a substantial snake milking operation behind the scenes, but it’s the spider milking that’s on public view – they hold special displays every day that less arachnophobic visitors are welcome to gawp at.



The problem, however, is getting enough male spiders to milk. “We rely on people handing them in, but a lot of people are so terrified of them that they don’t get this far,” says Kayleen.

The males are smaller than the females, but six times more venomous – and that makes them better for milking. “But part of the problem is that they – and we – don’t know they’re males until they’re two-and-a-half years old. They only live for a year or two after that – and their life is spent hunting a female to mate with.”

So while the females are happily burrowed in the ground, the males are crawling around trying to find them. The boys, when they’ve found a likely sweetheart, will twang away at her web until she thinks she’s caught some prey in it. He’ll then hold back her fangs, do what grown-ups do when they love each other very much.

Once they finish, he’s stupid enough to walk away. She then attacks him, kills him and feeds him to her children. Who said romance was dead?





Handily, you can get Australia 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 Coastal New South Wales


by David Whitley


 Australia travel expert David Whitley answers questions about holidays in Australia at










The best town in Australia?

David Whitley takes a detour on the road north to find the surfers’ magical fantasy land that is Yamba

It doesn’t take long after veering off the Pacific Highway to realise that there’s something a little bit special. Sugar cane fields appear, interspersed with cobalt blue channels branching from the Clarence River’s fabulously messy delta. Enormous pelicans glide along the water, unaware of how marvellously ridiculous they look.

And at the end, as the Clarence finally meets the sea, is Yamba. It has long been a sleepy little surf town, with basic cabin and holiday park accommodation along the river shore, but in the last five years or so, people have begun to take notice. In 2009, Australian Traveller Magazine named it the best town in Australia, and since then more upscale restaurants have opened, while backpackers have started to trickle in.

Shane Henwood, who co-owns and manages the Yamba YHA with his family, says he initially came to the town for the surfing. He’s not the only one – Angourie Point is one of the world’s most feared and salivated-over surfing breaks, while the founder of the Billabong surfwear empire has a huge mansion on the hilltop.

Big waves make Yamba a key surf spot, but having ten beaches rather helps too. Four of them can be reached within a fifteen minute walk of the main street, and the crucial thing is that they’re all facing in different directions.

“Locals call Yamba the Byron Bay of 20 years ago, or the real Surfer’s Paradise,” says Shane. “And we’re proud to say that we get the longest stays out of any YHA in Australia.”

Many of those long-stayers are people who get bitten by the surf bug, but Yamba does have that magical traveller gravitas to it. Not everyone has head of it, it’s not quite on the obvious backpacker trail, living is relatively cheap once there and it’s just hard enough to get to for visitor numbers to stay relatively low.

For the newcomers, however, there is the rather jolting introduction of Shane’s ‘legendary’ $15 tour of the area, which includes feeding fish and – more pertinently – cliff-jumping. The man is rather unnerving, largely because he has far, far too much energy. “I never, ever get sick of pushing people off cliffs,” he says with excitable zeal. “But if someone cries, they ban me from the Red Bull for a few days.

“Yamba is a relaxing place, unless you’re hanging with me and I’ve had Red Bull. I do stupid stuff when I’ve had Red Bull.”

This becomes apparent when he spots a snake. “If it’s a brown, it can kill you within 47 minutes. If it’s a red-bellied black snake, you’ve got a day.” He then throws himself into a little cavelet, Steve Irwin-style, to see if he can catch it.

It would be fair to say that the tour is far more about what isn’t advertised than what is. At the first cliff, a relative tiddler, he’s absolved from pushing anyone off. Everyone’s game enough to take the heels-first plunge into the pool created long ago when townsfolk quarried out the rock to make breakwaters.



When it gets to the 12 and 18 metre cliff jumps, however, it’s an altogether different story. Without adding spoilers, let’s just say things don’t quite go as billed.

On the way back, we stop by the waterside tavern to feed bread to fish – “Clarence River piranhas”, Shane says not altogether convincingly – and drop by the golf course. Forget the water traps and bunkers – there’s an altogether more Australian hazard for Yamba’s golfers. The course is absolutely riddled with kangaroos, and they’ve frankly no intention of moving on the cry of “fore”.

They’re not the only locals that are difficult to budge either. The residents of Yamba seem, almost universally, to know they’re on to a good thing. The mission now is to stop the entire world finding out about it.


by David Whitley 

Disclosure: David stayed at the Yamba YHA as a guest of YHA Australia. 




Australia travel expert David Whitley answers questions about holidays in Australia at

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

Image credit 1 2