Pelicans

 

 

David Whitley heads out on a boat looking for dolphins and penguins, but finds that the sea lions and pelicans are the real highlights

A curiosity of travel is that the headline attractions often get upstaged by the things you’re not expecting. In advance, our boat trip out from Rockingham was going to be all about the dolphins and penguins.

Everybody loves dolphins and penguins, right? They pretty much top the animal kingdom’s cute list, and to combine the pair in a day out should be a wildlife-lover’s dream.

The Shoalwater Safari from Rockingham, around 45 minute south of Central Perth, combines both. It includes a 90 minute high speed dolphin-spotting boat ride, followed by half a day on Penguin Island. Which, as the name suggests, is home to around 1,200 super-loveable fairy penguins.

But our luck isn’t really in on the water. The dolphins are out – we find a group of them fairly easily, but it seems as though they don’t really want to play. That’s fair enough – they’re wild animals and don’t do tricks on command – but a few dorsal fin sightings followed by prolonged underwater swims is a little underwhelming. Particularly if, the day before, you’ve spotted dolphins swimming in the Swan River on the ferry from Perth to Fremantle.

That’s the luck of the draw, though. And much the same applies with the penguins. Over a thousand may live on the island, on nesting sites tucked into the dune vegetation, but you’re unlikely to see too many of them during the day – most are either in the nesting hole or out in the ocean, hunting for fish.

There are a few rehabilitated penguins inside the ‘Penguin Encounter’, however. There are feeding shows regularly throughout the day, and otherwise you can just wander in to watch them swimming and strutting about. One’s particularly endearing. It stands at the side like a woefully ineffective guard, honking at anyone who goes past.

But, unexpectedly, it’s the understudies that steal the show on this trip. On our way back through the bay from where the dolphins were, we stop to hover around what is known as Seal Island. It’s notable enough for the fossilised tree roots sneaking through the limestone rock, but it’s the sea lions that make it.

Australian sea lions are the rarest species in the world, so to find a group of 20-odd splashing around in the water or sunning themselves on the beach is an absolute treat. Apparently, they’re all boys, and they come down for a few months of the year outside of breeding season, leaving the ladies to themselves further north. It’s essentially like a group of mates heading off to a cabin in the woods for a beer, barbecue and fishing holiday. They’re remarkably chilled and unaggressive as there are no females to compete for.

But while the big silly lunks splash around in the water, the area’s other surprise star is flying above it. I’ve always thought of pelicans as comedy birds. 

They just look so ridiculous. But that impression evaporates when you see them in flight.

They soar across the water, at some points flapping their wings in a measured rhythm, and at others gliding like a dart, yet staying at exactly the same height above the sea. It’s like a cyclist veering between a considered pedal and a freewheel.

And while Penguin Island gets its name from the fairy penguins, the bird you’re most likely to see there (apart from the ubiquitous seagull) is the pelican.
A two kilometre walking trail, along boardwalks and beaches, leads visitors around part of the island. But the top half is not for footsteps. On top of the hill is a major pelican nesting site. Viewing it from the lookout, it looks like the ground is entirely made up of pellies. There are hundreds of them.

On the way round back to the start of the track, I keep an eye out for penguins on the land and dolphins in the water. No joy. But while I’m traipsing through the sea weed on the beach, a rather more impressive road block appears just in front of me. We’ve been told that, should we be lucky enough to see one, we should keep at least five metres away from any sea lions.

Well, there’s no chance of that if I’m going to get past. He’s strategically fallen asleep across the beach. I have to skirt by his head and hope that he doesn’t get too annoyed if I disrupt his slumber. The understudy has well and truly thrust himself into the limelight.

Disclosure: David went out to Pelican Island as a guest of Rockingham Wild Encounters (Rockinghamwildencounters.com.au)


WA praise

 

My trip to the south west region of WA left me with bruises all over my legs and reduced me to tears - for all the right reasons. Located down the bottom of Australia where the country looks like it’s had a big bite taken out of it, the south west is a backpacking hotspot for two very good reasons. The first is it is home to one of Australia’s best wine regions - offering plenty of seasonal work for backpackers on a working holiday visa.  But more importantly, protected and preserved by desert on one side and ocean on the other, the south west region provides a living window to a natural environment not found anywhere else in the world.

The whale watching isn’t that bad, either. On the day we go out, there are at least 50 whales splashing in the bay off Augusta. Located at the tip of the country where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet, Augusta plays host to the whales for three months during their annual migration north - with great whale watching in Geographe Bay when they start their migration down as well.

I tear up a little the first time I see them up close. Three humpbacks surface in unison, calm black shapes rolling in the water. It’s humbling to be in the presence of such ethereal creatures. For two hours we’re treated to displays of tail fluking, flipper slapping and spy hopping, with the whales surfacing just metres from the boat.

It’s hard to imagine, but Augusta has gone from whaling to whale watching in less than 40 years. Given that 50 humpbacks will be hunted and killed for scientific purposes this summer in Antarctica, it sends shivers down my spine that the whales we’ve seen today might not return next year to these waters.

In the background another pod of attention-seeking juveniles leap, desperate for recognition. Eventually we head over, much to the delight of the bloke next to me, who’d been out whale watching 12 times in 6 days in search of the elusive “breaching whale” photo.  A full breach is the spectacular moment when a whale becomes airborne, leaping out of the water like an obese acrobat.

But if you like to have a play in the water yourself, the surfing spots between Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin are some of the best in Australia and include the world-famous Margaret River break. On the day we’re out, there are enough 8-10 ft liquid tubes to make a surfer melt his wax. Back home, I think to myself, there’d be fifty guys in the water jostling for them. Here, the waves are empty at break after break, save for the occasional pod of dolphins. But my local mate Dave explains it casually with a shrug, “The surf’s just better somewhere else”.

Back on land, there are plenty of other natural delights on offer. A short drive from Augusta is Jewel Cave, one of four major caving systems open to the public in the region.  Above the caves is a giant Karri tree forest. Rare, wild, intimidating and beautiful, Karri trees grow to over 70 metres high with 12 metres of earth, mulch, reconstituted seashells and Karri tree roots separating the ground from the cave below.

Karri trees are only found in an area near Augusta just a few kilometres wide.  The Karri trees are important part of the area’s unique ecology and help make the south west of WA one of only 35 biodiversity hotspots in the world.

This classification means that this small area hosts species of plants and animals found nowhere else on the globe. Unfortunately, the classification also recognises that 70 percent of the natural habitat has already been lost. Inside the caves below, even if you don’t know your stalactites from your stalagmites, you’ll be left speechless by what you see in side. Some of the formations are the size of trees and the shape and colour of cauliflower that’s been left at the bottom of the fridge for a bit too long.

Descending the steel walkways the formations warp to look like frozen streams, caramel-coloured jellyfish tentacles and washed-out sandcastles. We pass a camel and what looks like a screaming face stuck in the wall. Obligatory girlish giggles greet the very distinct human shapes that penetrate the cavern at suggestive angles, long before the guide cracks jokes about them.

Discovered in 1967, Jewel Cave was originally flooded with chest-deep water, but nowadays is almost completely dry. Fossils have been found of animals who have dropped through from weak points in the cave roof, including one of a giant, prehistoric wombat with big chomping teeth.

 

In a more serious tone, the guide explains that farming, forestry, drought and tourism have all contributed to putting extra pressure on the water table. Instantly, I feel guilty for lingering under the hot water at my hostel that morning.  The fact that this cave has dried up in less than 40 years is a bit shocking- but comic relief is on hand. With a little warning, our guide hits the off switch and we’re left in total darkness. I can’t see a damn thing. Ever the wise guy, he turns the lights back on quickly, and we all look like lunatics waving our hands frantically in front of our faces.

 

The south west region of WA is a part of Australia not to be missed, giving the visitor an incredible geographical snapshot of just how fragile Australia is.

 

Disclosure: The writer travelled courtesy of YHA Australia. yha.org.au

 

 

 

by Shaney Hudson

Kings Cross




David Whitley starts digging away at the often sordid secrets of Sydney’s ‘entertainment’ district, Kings Cross 
 
Under the largest advertising billboard in the southern hemisphere, it is lashing it down. But it’ll take a lot more than this deluge to wash the stains away. The Coca-Cola sign – so famous as a landmark and meeting place that it is now heritage listed – marks the gateway to Kings Cross, a place of notoriety, history and everything else in-between.

The squall of wind and rain seems fitting. To our right is Darlinghurst Road, long Sydney’s epicentre of fun and filth – the adjectives always depend on which side of the fence you sit on. It’s a place of 24 hour bars (some classy, some less so), strip clubs, shambling junkies and backpacker hostels. One person will be looking for somewhere to stay, another for somewhere that’ll still serve them when they can barely stand, another will be trying to entice all and sundry into a live sex show.

Yet, according to our guide, Kim, the Cross has dramatically cleaned up its act. “When I came here 30 years ago,” he says. “Everyone had a story about crook cops. I thought they were all too fantastical, then one by one they turned out to be true.”

He’s not claiming for a second that the Cross is squeaky clean – nightclub shootings, the legalised injecting room and the heroin-wrinkled dead stares of the prostitutes still out through desperation at 9am would make that a fanciful boast - “but you don’t hear those stories on the street anymore.”

The story of Kings Cross is one of debauchery. It can, says Kim, “be told through the criminals who ran it.”

And the first two major criminals were women. One, Tilly Devine, took advantage of a law that stated it was illegal for a man to make a living off the immoral earnings of women. There was nothing to say a woman couldn’t make a living off those immoral earnings, and she set up a series of brothels in the area. The taxman eventually caught up with her, and she had to sell the brothels off to a ruthless tough who had no family. When he died, most of his estate was left to the RSPCA. “They suddenly found themselves with 24 brothels – not exactly their core business,” says Kim.

On the other side was Kate Leigh, who took advantage of laws that shut pubs at 6pm, setting up “sly grog shops” across Kings Cross. The two had razor-wielding gangs that did their bidding throughout the 1920s and 30s. It culminated in a 40-man slashing brawl at the bottom of Kellett Street, now an odd little back lane where red-lit ‘Gentleman’s Clubs’ rub shoulders with restaurants and antique dealers.

Their era ended with master corruptor Abe Saffron in control throughout most of the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. Through blackmail and bribery, Saffron had an uncanny knack of getting those who had the power to shut him down in his pocket. Age and tax bills brought Saffron down, but the police ably filled the void of vice, drug-dealing and corruption themselves. The most alarming stories on the tour are of what the coppers got up to – such as the gauntlet of batons that drunken brawlers were forced to run at the back of the police station as they went inside from the van.

These days, Kings Cross is beginning to embrace its past. The pavements tell the stories of the blood spilt on them through a series of special golden paving slabs. Euphemisms about the ‘characters’ are out in force, but some tell the tales of the victims. Outside the Empire Hotel, a slab commemorates Juanita Nielsen – a local journalist who had the temerity to campaign against developments on Victoria Street. She went to a business meeting at what was then the Carousel Club, was herded up the stairs that can still be seen from the entrance today and was never seen again. All those who could possibly reveal the truth have since died. Darlinghurst Road wears many of its secrets on its sleeve; but it holds many more back forever.

Disclosure: David stayed at the Altamont in nearby Darlinghurst as a guest of Tourism Australia (Australia.com). He did the Kings Cross tour with Two Feet and a Heartbeat (Twofeet.com.au)

Greatest beach

 

 

David Whitley heads north of Byron Bay to learn why Australians are so proud and protective of their beaches

Australia’s attachment to the beach is something that cannot be explained in adequate terms anywhere else. The rest of the world likes the beach, but nowhere else is it such an integral part of the psyche.  Australia is a country where people will happily give up their weekends to volunteer for lifeguard duty, and surf-lifesaving clubs bicker amongst themselves about which was set up first. 

If you want to rile an Aussie, um and ah about the quality of Australia’s beaches. Say that they’re good, but no better than elsewhere in the world. After all, there are great beaches in Asia – or the Pacific Islands, or South America, or the Caribbean, or… 

You won’t get that far, of course. Equivocate for a couple of seconds, and the diatribe will start. “Aussie beaches are the best in the bloody world, mate.” Then they’ll reel off a list of brilliant beaches; gradually wearing you down until they find one you’ve never been to or heard of. “What, you’ve never been to Bungabunga Cove? Well go to Bungabunga Cove and then tell me that Aussie beaches aren’t the best in the world.” 

Of course, a lot depends on how you define a great beach. Miami’s South Beach is world class for people-watching. Others go by whiteness of sand, size of waves and length (incidentally, the world’s longest beach is in Bangladesh). And in truth, it’s often the case that the most famous beaches aren’t the most impressive. This is certainly the case in Australia. Bondi Beach tends to underwhelm if you’ve had it built up – it’s famous because it’s the closest to central Sydney rather than Sydney’s best. Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsundays is absolutely stupendous for its looks and squeaky white sands. 

But it’s clogged with daytrippers getting their photo taken, and you can forget about swimming or surf. Neither of these really represents the Great Australian Beach. For that, you have to get in a car and veer towards the coast when you realise you’re safely out of tour bus range. Just north of Byron Bay, I pulled the car up outside the Brunswick Heads Surf Lifesaving Club. I walked through the gap in the vegetation on top of the dunes, and emerged on the Brunswick Heads Main Beach. There were a couple of people doing yoga, and a couple of people walking their dogs. They were barely noticeable in the grand scheme of things, though. The epic sweep of the sand dwarfed them. 

To my left, a breakwater in the distance signified the entrance of the Brunswick River to the Pacific Ocean. To my right, I could see Cape Byron. Well, just about anyway – the sand stretched for miles and miles. It was too early for the surf lifesavers; there were no flags up to swim between. Instead, there was a raw majesty in the savage waves, breaking multiple times before they hit the shore and spray spitting off them as they hit a climax. The sand wasn’t raked, there wasn’t a sunbed in sight, and the only building to be seen behind me was the surf lifesaver’s hut. 

This is what people mean by the Great Australian Beach. Something so wild and ferociously mesmerising, on such a scale, yet with only the barest nods to human ‘improvement’. I stood entranced, losing all sense of time. I’ve no idea if it’s really the best beach in the world or even Australia – there are many along the coast that are similar – but the power and the edge-of-the-world aura does it for me.

Disclosure: In Byron Bay, David stayed in the very cool authentic Airstream Trailer at the Atlantic Guesthouses as a guest of Destination New South Wales 

 

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