Published: September 5th 2006September 4th 2006
I know it's winter here but last week was still a bit of shock to the system. Of the five full days I spent in Brisbane, it rained pretty much solidly for four of them. Not just a bit of drizzle, but clothes, shoes and bag-soaking downpours of monsoon proportions. While Australia desperately needs the rain, I don't and needless to say it put quite a damper (hee hee, pun totally intended) on my sight-seeing plans for the week.
Luckily though, it didn't stop me going out on a boat to do a spot of hump-back whale watching. At this time of the year, these amazing creatures are migrating down the east coast of Australia, from the Great Barrier Reef where they calf and spend the winter, back to their feeding grounds in the antarctic. From the comfort of a specially-designed boat, I was able to watch as a pod of five humpbacks swam alongside us in the open waters just outside Moreton Bay, their natural curiousity and seeming love of an audience, causing them to grow in confidence until they were surfacing just metres from the boat and even swimming underneath it to ensure they could
check us out from all angles. Despite their size, they're incredibly graceful and athletic, and occasionally leaped right out of the water, turning their bodies in mid-air to land on their sides. It was a really incredible experience, and certainly the most unforgettable wild-life encounter of my trip.
Although this trip was my closest encounter with the humpbacks, it wasn't actually my first. Two weeks earlier, I'd spied a mother and baby about 500 metres from the yacht I was on while cruising around the Whitsunday Islands. This trip is practically obligatory for anybody travelling the east coast of Oz and while this means it's far from being a unique experience, it's no less enjoyable for all that. Most of the cruises start from Airlie Beach, a small community (it's not really a town, more a main road) that seems to exist solely as a base for the tourists, backpackers and yachties heading for the Whitsundays. At the moment, this means it's got a nice, laid-back vibe perfect for whiling away the hours in a juicebar or lying out by the man-made lagoon waiting for your Whitsunday trip to begin. Unfortunately, developers (including Ivana Trump!) are already moving in
Our home for three days sailing around the Whitsunday Islands.
and there are a number of fancy apartment blocks and 'lifestyle developments' going up along the coast overlooking the recently spruced up and expanded marina. Presumably the idea is to bring the area upmarket and attract a new and rather better-off clientele, prepared to spend rather more than the $6 your average backpacker will fork out for a meal. No doubt this would be good for the local economy, but I'm glad I got to visit Airlie while it's still a 'drinking town with a yachtie problem'.
As for the trip to the Whitsundays itself, I chose to go out on a boat called Broomstick, a Maxi class racing boat designed and built in South Africa where she won the Cape Town to Rio yacht race and competed in other blue water events including the Sydney to Hobart race. She was retired from competitive life in 2000 and turned into a charter boat for the likes of me to stooge around on. I can't say it was the most comfortable 2 days/2 nights of my life (Maxis being built for speed rather than comfort, the living arrangements where pretty basic to say the least) but it was great fun.
The weather on the first day wasn't great which meant visibility for snorkelling on the reef was pretty poor, but with our heads under water we could hear the humpbacks out in the open ocean, which was both beautiful and very eery. On day two, the weather improved considerably and it was lovely to just sit back and admire the scenery as our crew did all the hard work.
From Airlie Beach, I caught a night-bus down the coast to Hervey Bay from where I was supposed to do a 3-day safari of Fraser Island, the world's largest sand island. Like sailing around the Whitsundays, a trip out to Fraser is one of the 'must-dos' on the east coast and I was looking forward to a few days bombing around in a 4x4 and camping out in the rainforest. Unfortunately, when I checked into my accommodation it turned out there had been a mistake with my booking and I wasn't on the list to go on my expected departure date. Having spent a couple of hours exploring the delights of Hervey Bay - one beach, one esplanade - I decided against the tour operator's offer of hanging around for
a couple of days to see if another space became available and cut my losses by accepting a refund and booking onto a one-day trip instead. Unique and interesting though the island is, this turned out to be more than enough time to feel that I'd done the experience justice. The island itself is over 120km long and 20 or so kilometres wide. And it's made entirely out of sand! In fact one boffin has calculated that at over 600m deep in places, Fraser Island contains more sand than the entire Sahara desert. That's a lot of sand!! What's more, it isn't just one big sand dune as I half expected; it's covered in mountains, rainforests, lakes and rivers, is home to the world's purest-bred population of dingos and provides habitat for a wide range of birds and wildlife. It's also one big, giant sponge, that has soaked up, filtered, purified and stored rainfall for thousands of years and now leaches pure drinking water back into the sea at a rate of millions of litres a day. A cruel irony considering that just a few short miles across the Bay, Queensland is fast running out of water for it's ever-expanding
75 mile beach
Sand as far as the eye can see on Fraser Island.
population. Considering this, it's very lucky for Fraser Island that Australia's current drought kicked in after 1993 when it was designated a world heritage site by Unesco. This designation means nothing, absolutely nothing, can be taken off the island, including water, something the Australian government must at some level bitterly regret.
My change of plans in Hervey Bay meant that I arrived in Noosa Heads, my next stop down the coast, a couple of days head of schedule. A lucky break as it turned out because the weather was fantastic and I'd booked into a hostel only 50 metres or so from the very lovely beach. Noosa is actually a collection of small, rather posh communities spread out along a few kilometres of the Sunshine Coast. If Hervey Bay is Bournemouth, then Noosa is San Tropez (the town in France, not the fake tan). Actually, it's not quite that exclusive, but it's definately the fanciest resort on the East Coast and perfect for a few days rest and relaxation. In fact, apart from eating and drinking there isn't much else to do in Noosa except lie on the beach so as you can imagine, it's a place perfectly suited
The wreck of the Maheno
The once luxury cruise ship Maheno was driven ashore during a cyclone in 1935. It's slowly being consumed by the island - 5 decks are already below the beach.
to my tastes! The only other diversion was to take a walk in the very pretty area of national park that lies at the end of the main beach. I made two visits to the park, not just to burn off latte and muffin-related calories but also in search of one of the koalas I'd been assured lived there. My first visit went completely koala-less but my second was more successful, and I got to see my first ever honest-to-goodness, fair dinkum, in the wild koala, even if the cuddly critter was right at the top of a very tall tree.
From Noosa it was down to rain-sodden Brisbane and now I'm in Bryon Bay, home of that other rare Australian wildlife: the Greater Crusted Hippie. Long-established as a centre of alternative lifestyles, Bryon is absolutely lovely. With beautiful beaches all around the Cape on which Bryon is established, it's also become a mecca for surfies who can find good conditions regardless of the prevailing wind. This means no visit to Bryon is complete without a surf lesson. I took my first foray yesterday, taught by the inimitable Terry: looks like Gerard Depardieu, sounds like Paul Hogan, an opion
The beach at Noosa
It's a hard life all this travelling!
on everything from the war in Iraq to the penalty against Australia in that
match. It was great fun, and although I didn't manage to catch a wave on my own, I did at least stand up and ride a few waves for 50 metres or so. Next stop Bondi!!
There are more photos below