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Published: December 22nd 2009
There are those who say you can have too much of a good thing.
But, let’s face it, they’re mostly boring old bastards who don’t get out that much.
Nine months of third-world travel, though, had definitely taken their toll, and on returning to Australia in October, we were glad to be back home at last. Arriving only served to remind us how lucky we are to have moved to one of the best spots on earth, let alone have had the chance to travel for a year and safely return.
Even so, after only a few days recuperation I found myself left with a sense of unfinished business. The year was not yet over. The few pennies we had left could easily have lasted us till Christmas had we chosen to stay in cheap foreign lands. Had we just piked out early and come home too soon?
The answer was No. Both of us had found our bodies telling us enough was enough in the last few weeks on the road. At the end of the day, it was the right decision.
Now, though, having thrown ourselves back into first world luxuries, we were both
back to A1 condition.
As usual, Debbie had played the smarty-pants and got her old job back from December, so we were assured of our Yuletide funds. The chances were I’d be kept waiting at least another year for that gift-wrapped Ferrari under the Christmas tree, though.
There was also the small matter of Debbie having one last appointment with her specialist before getting the all-clear from her kidney dramas or yesteryear. Not such a big deal, you may be thinking, but up here in Far North Queensland specialists are a rare breed, the nearest one being 1000 miles away in Brisbane... and you thought getting an NHS dentist was tricky!
To me, at least, the answer to this conundrum was clear. Sure, you could hop on a plane and get it all over with, but then again, why not go one better, add two and two to make five, and drive down instead, extending the whole visit over the next six weeks to cap the trip off nicely. One last Tour de Queensland to see us off with a final flourish. Well let’s just say it made sense to me, never one to turn down any
opportunity for further adventures.
We eased our way back into things gently at first, just to make sure we (not to mention the car) really were still up to it after all this time. Just a two-hour toddle down the road to the tropical oasis that is Mission Beach, and a chance to stay at one of the best hidden gems I know anywhere in the world at The Sanctuary.
I’ve deliberately avoided making too many recommendations in these blogs, figuring that’s what your Lonely Planets are for. In the case of The Sanctuary though, I’ll happily make an exception. Trust me; you must
go there, the epitome of what adventure travel is all about, stumbling upon somewhere genuinely different and all the better for it. The clues start as soon as you reach the car-park. Reception is reached either by a four-wheel drive pick-up or by a challenging uphill hike, seconds into which you’ll swear you’ve stumbled straight into a scene out of LOST.
It’s well worth the effort, as on reaching The Longhouse what little breath you have left is immediately taken away by the views out over the Coral Sea. The ambience may retain
a low-key traveller vibe, but the setting is pure class, the food exquisite, and the staff friendly and accommodating. There’s also no need to blow the budget, unless you really want to, which you probably will when you see what’s on offer. I recommend it unreservedly, the ultimate Rainforest Retreat.
Well okay, maybe I should add one caveat.
I recommend it unreservedly, as long as you’re feeling friendly.
And as long as you’re not fussy over the number of legs your friends may or may not possess.
I’ve no idea what they put in the water around these parts, but basically it’s Big Bug Heaven, crammed full-to-bursting with weird and wonderful critters that’ll just blow your socks off, and then proceed to crawl all over your feet until your skin crawls. If that’s not the kind of thing that floats your boat, you’ll probably not be comforted by the knowledge there’d probably be far more of the little buggers if only there weren’t so many snakes to eat them all up, keeping the numbers down nicely.
Before we’ve even left the car-park, Debbie will unfailingly invoke her famous bush battle-cry:
Into The Light
go first. There might be spiders!”
It’s a phrase I’ve heard it a thousand times before, trotted out whenever there’s the merest hint of web-based peril.
Somehow, in her twisted female logic, she seems to think that this will spur me on to dive headlong into the fray and take on the furry monsters, despite knowing fine well that I’m almost as arachnophobic as she is. And the really annoying part about that is that she’s right.
Who says chivalry is dead?
And of course, this being Australia we’re not just talking money-spiders. There’ve tarantulas out here, curiously called Whistling Spiders, though luckily I’ve never heard one nonchalantly strike up a tune. There are also Redbacks. Not to mention Funnel-webs. Any one of these three will kill you quite happily given half the chance. Luckily they don’t live in the rainforest (I’m not that
chivalrous!), but plenty of their close-cousins do. And the funny thing is, when you start reading up on Australian spiders, it turns out pretty much all of them can give you a damn nasty nip should the fancy take them, which it probably will should you so much as look at them
in a funny way. Some just sting like buggery, while others can make you really quite ill, or have toxic venom capable of dissolving human flesh. Nice! One of our friends was actually chased down the path here by a Huntsman not so long ago. If you don’t think that’s scary, check out the Title Photo once again while I tell you that, despite this being a close-up, he’s easily the size of your hand, and also bear in mind that it not only chased him, it actually caught him and proceeded to bite him on the foot. And this is a guy who runs triathlons!
Bringing all this information to bear, what I can garner is that Debbie appears to consider me a wholly expendable asset in our relationship, and that it’s a minor miracle I’m still here to tell the tale. And that’s before you even start to consider the snakes and scorpions, let alone the world of the crocs, sharks and stingers out to sea. In fact, given her love of the outdoors, I’m wondering how many husbands Debbie can be reasonably expected to go through in one lifetime.
Fortunately nobody’s told her yet that Drop
An entirely different sort of Golden Orb!
Bears only attack from behind.
At least, when my time comes, she’ll know what to put on my headstone.
You Go First: There Might Be Spiders.
Having survived the sumptuous Sanctuary we shuffled on to Airlie Beach, home during my Dive Instructor days, and gateway to the fabulous Whitsunday Islands. I won’t bore you with the details, but basically they’re heaven on earth, famous worldwide as the home of The Best Job in the World and looking as gorgeous as they always have. Town itself has been tarted up with a flash new marina, flanked by row-upon-row of brand-new credit-crunched apartments, going for a song. Let’s just say that prices at the entrance of heaven are unseasonably low, and that either camels must have shrunk, or needles grown. Sadly dress-making skills have never been my strong-suit (despite what you may have heard!), and we’ll just have to remain thread-bare a while longer.
From Airlie we headed inland, right into the heart of Queensland proper, ditching the crowds to strike out over the dusty plains towards Emerald, Rubyvale and Sapphire. Those still paying attention may have noticed a running theme here, a gem-fossickers’ paradise where every so
often some lucky bugger will stumble upon a coloured stone the size or your fingernail and pay off the mortgage with one scoop of dirt.
To my surprise, Debbie thumbed her nose entirely at the prospect of digging for buried treasure, and suggested we investigate the nearby Blackdown Tablelands National Park instead. And I have to say, I’m very glad she did.
While the trip may not have improved our finances, it certainly enriched our souls. It never ceases to amaze me how many unheralded oases lie in wait for the curious in Australia, little patches of paradise dotted around randomly amongst the never-ending scrub. Blackdown Tablelands, as the name suggests, is a raised rocky escarpment soaring up from the surrounding plains. This elevation ensures a cooler damper climate, and as a result it’s festooned with temperate woods and rainforest gorges, giving spectacular views out over the surrounding plains, which are basically one huge coalfield, an astonishing quantity of which is currently being dug-up and shipped off to China while they’re still allowed to burn the filthy stuff, an endless succession of mile-long trains snaking their way slowly towards the horizon.
Next day we moved on to
Carnarvon Gorge, a huge expanse of spectacular ravines which was secretly the prime motivation for the whole trip. Now, as I’ve said before, I don’t hold much stock by reputations, too often having been sorely disappointed in the past, but Carnarvon Gorge lived right up to the billing, and we happily passed three days traipsing along its valleys and clambering up its cliffs, leaving us contented but thoroughly knackered.
Quite why it’s called Carnarvon Gorge I’ve no idea, as it’s one of the few places on earth that manages to look even less like the land of dragons, valleys and vales than New South Wales. Maybe it’s just down to all that coal. There certainly aren’t many sheep about, and I’m guessing it’ll be a while yet before bushfires threaten the slopes of Snowdon.
Luckily here the flames didn’t reach the gorge itself until the day we left, just as well as being caught in them was one of the few ways we could possibly guarantee feeling any hotter.
On departure, our path continued in a similar vein, passing in rapid succession through Roma, Texas, Dundee, Bolivia and Prague, all of which bore no relation to their
namesakes whatsoever, and could never be mistaken in a million years for anything but Outback Queensland. Finally Warwick came up trumps, bearing at least a passing resemblance to an English village, complete with church spires and black clouds hovering above.
What we didn’t yet realise was that we were about to get a graphic demonstration that Queensland weather can be rather more full-on than its British counterpart. Over in Blighty these clouds would have been labelled Cumulo-Nimbus, the forecaster predicting ‘a reasonable chance of showers’. Here in South Queensland though, the 15 kilometre high monsters are called Supercells, and we were headed straight towards two of them about to collide. Despite being only 5pm, everything suddenly went very dark as the two fronts merged, and we were then treated to the mother of all electrical storms, an astonishing thirty thousand lightning strikes recorded over the next ninety minutes (yes, you read that right, 30000!). That works out at six per second, every second, for an hour and a half, accompanied by hailstones the size of golf-balls, rendering considerable property damage and stripping the leaves off every tree. Fortunately, my needle-threading skills must turn out to be not so bad
Came within Six Inches of Copping this Guy Full in the Face!
...and at the size of your palm, you just know he's gonna bite!
after all, as somehow we managed to drive right through the middle while hardly even getting wet, despite encountering leaves and balls of ice strewn across the road on several occasions. We emerged unscathed, the only damage done being to Debbie’s frayed nerves. Amusingly they later interviewed the local panel-beater on TV, who expressed his dismay at the terrible carnage caused by the storm, while desperately trying to hide a grin from ear to ear.
Talk about an early Christmas present!
Forty miles down the road is Stanthorpe, famous as the coldest place in all of Queensland, which, of course, makes it not very cold at all. To give you an idea of just how icy it gets round here, they’ve a thriving wine-growing industry, so all-in-all a bit like the south of France then. That’s bloody freezing by Queensland standards, though! They even hold a Brass Monkeys festival in mid-winter to celebrate, when the crowds flood in from all sides, hoping finally to get some use out of that lovely jumper they were given last Christmas.
Stanthorpe is another one of these cracking spots you’ve never heard of, dotted with boutique wineries and gourmet delicatessens, and
surrounded by several spectacular national parks. Quite why anyone would want to suffer Surfer’s Paradise when you’ve got this only forty minutes inland I’ve no idea, though being the wrong side of forty probably taints my view of the wonders of the club scene. In fact, these days I’m so past it that I actually consider this to be the right side of forty. How sad is that!
We crossed the border just south of Stanthorpe into New South Wales, though this part, confusingly, is called New England. Honestly, were the early settlers in hopeless denial or what? Quite plainly it’s Australia, and why on earth they should be homesick for a country that locked them up and then deported them in the first place is beyond me. Anyway, appropriately it rained throughout our stay in New England so we didn’t stick around too long, ditching all this New Old World stuff and heading straight for the coast and the classic Aussie hotspot of Byron Bay.
Byron is one gem that every Australian’s heard of, even if its fame is not yet truly international. This I always find curious. Ask any non-Aussie to name an Australian beach and
he’ll unfailingly come up with just one answer:
Well, let me break this to you gently.
It’s rubbish, mate.
It’s not close to being the best beach in Sydney, let alone Australia, but for some reason it’s the one that all the visitors flock to. A clever ploy by the locals, you’ve got to admit. Keep all the best bits for themselves.
The main beach at Byron is so much better than Bondi it’s not funny, but even it’s not the best beach around here. Wattego’s is just round the corner, followed by an endless string of glorious surf beaches all the way to Ballina, forty kilometres south. And the beaches aren’t the best thing about Byron anyway, the town itself exuding a cool surfy vibe of hippy meets hip, Australia’s eastern-most point resembling nothing more than America’s West Coast scene, but without all the bloody yanks. Unfortunately this damn-near perfect scenario is reflected in the property prices, leaving it forever a place better to visit than reside.
Byron was as far south as we’d get, and after a few days of relaxed contentment we finally admitted the trip was done, and U-turned
to commence the long journey back home into ever increasing heat. Brisbane was dispensed with in all of five minutes when the specialist happily declared Debbie ship-shape. I’m sure she’d have been happier to have been compared to an hour-glass, and didn’t take too kindly to my subsequent references to her stern, but at the end of the day, it was still money well spent.
We bypassed the Gold Coast entirely, stopping off instead at the Sunshine Coast. Given our timing this proved a very good move, as our arrival coincided with the first day of Schoolies.
Back in Scotland my last day of school was a decidedly muted affair. Usually the final day of term was a great laugh, the teachers caving in and allowing us to bring our own entertainment, ensuring themselves a nice easy day before their seven-week holiday began. Tough Life.
In Sixth Year, though, there was no point in even pretending to teach, and once exams were finished we were basically shown the door, with only the vaguest hint that they weren’t just as glad to see the back of us as we were of them.
There was no real last
day at all, no High School Graduation or Prom Night, no real sense of closure whatsoever. Just the vaguest feeling, the last time you took off your blazer, that you probably wouldn’t be putting it back on again too often in the future, unless, of course, that future involved playing guitar for AC/DC.
Over here in Oz, though, it’s different.
The last day of Year 12 is a massive deal, the start of the traditional week-long rampage that is Schoolies. Its global epicentre is the Gold Coast, but up here on the Sunshine Coast they still give it a good go, and we were treated to box-seats on the main promenade at Maloolaba, finally a real Aussie town with a real Aussie name. Come midday the whole of Year 12 rushes headlong into the surf in full uniform and waves goodbye to double-maths and detention in the cool blue waters. And let’s face it, if that’s not a good excuse for a party, I don’t know what is.
Even TV crews had turned out to witness the event, which seems to get bigger with every passing year, as wave upon wave of teenagers screeched to a halt
and dived from their cars, dashing unabashed into the ocean to frolic with their mates.
The drunken excesses of Schoolies never fail to generate a good deal of hand-wringing and bad press, and I’m sure such scenes in the UK would have been accompanied by a good deal of tut-tutting, busy-bodies disclaiming it as a disgrace, so I was touched as I stood there when my neighbour, a man well into his seventies, simply turned to his wife and muttered “Good on ‘em”, before happily toddling off with her arm-in-arm, a big-fat grin etched across his face. Indeed, had his legs worked a bit better, I’ve no doubt he would have just dived in and joined them.
By nightfall we were in Noosa, our final target, which is a bit like like Byron Bay’s stylish older sister. The two sit almost equidistant from Brisbane, north and south, and compete with each other as the perfect weekend getaway. If Byron is still young, innocent and full of fun, Noosa is a sassy thirty-something, refined, elegant and sophisticated, albeit with a slightly snooty air. Still charming enough company though, and this chic sense of class has been enough to lure
our good friend Emma and her husband Chris, from South Africa, to up-sticks from Cairns and relocate there permanently. Or maybe they just fancied moving somewhere a very long way away from us. Cairns, I suppose, in this imaginary family of towns, would be the fun-loving brother, an ageing lounge lizard with whom you’d be able to sneak out for a cheeky pint or ten.
Since we last caught up with them, our friends have had their first daughter, Olivia Mei, an energetic little bundle of fun who looks uncannily like a bloke called Steve I used to know. Perhaps an unfortunate comparison, as if she’s anything like him she’ll be drinking her mother under the table by this time next year. Anyway, as with all good friends, it was just like we’d never been away and we had a great weekend together, though I have to say, Chris, after two years in upmarket Noosa you haven’t half lost your Saffa accent!
In order to provide some respite from 48 hours of constant boozing, we’d wisely booked an activity for Sunday morning, and so three of us found ourselves bleary-eyed riverside come the allotted hour. Emma stayed on
shore to look after her pint-sized bundle of Steve, an amused spectator as the rest of us prepared for our first attempt at Stand-Up Paddle Surfing.
The world of Extreme Sports these days seems to know no bounds.
Ever since the Red Bull rocked up and made the X-games unspeakably cool, some new idiot will pop-up every few weeks announcing new and exciting ways in which to hospitalise yourself.
And frankly, long after Extreme Ironing was condoned as a bona fide pastime, it’s all getting a bit silly. It seems to me folk are just rummaging around in their sheds until they come up with a few random items with which to invent a new sport. In this case they’ve taken an old-fashioned Malibu surfboard and a canoe paddle with one end fallen off, and decided that paddling along on your surfboard is a radical new form of recreation. Just to make it really cool you Stand-Up, all without the need for a microphone and a dodgy list of jokes.
What’s next do you think?
Cycling a horse?
Actually, before you get too excited, I think someone else
might have beaten us to that last one already.
But surprisingly, once you give it a go, Stand-Up Paddle Surfing turns out to be really quite easy, a whole heap of fun, and a really good way to relax and yet get a great core-body workout all at once. Then again, I’m sure that’s exactly what Tiger was saying right up until the moment he got caught too! Clearly the way forward for a grown man hoping to make a living doing something he really loves.
The difference is you can get away with Paddle Surfing even when your wife’s watching, and you don’t mind if she decides to have a go herself. Also, despite some initial expense, it’s never going to cost you your house and half your future earnings. So if you do wander down to the canal this weekend and happen to see David Beckham and Shane Warne paddling on by, you can be rest assured they’ve finally decided to change their ways. Either that or they’re just looking for somewhere truly out of the way to send out some more of those secret flirty texts.
Stand-Up Paddle Texting must be in the advanced
Why didn't we do this in Scotland, again?
course, as we were never taught it.
Just as well, as I have enough trouble texting even on dry land.
Debbie can rest assured that any further forays into the world of extreme sports on my part will be purely down to pathetic attempts to recapture my youth, with no ulterior motive whatsoever.
Now, where did
I put that flyer for the naked tandem bungy swing?
First three lessons free, apparently, intense one-on-one personal attention from your expert instructor, so dedicated that she gave up her shot at Miss Universe to train full-time for that X-games Gold medal. Looked very capable in the brochure, I must say.
On the other hand, if I do ever get round to booking up, I know exactly what Debbie is going to say.
You go first, there might be spiders.
Now that's really gonna hurt.
Tot: 3.47s; Tpl: 0.073s; cc: 25; qc: 126; dbt: 0.1443s; 3; m:saturn w:www (184.108.40.206); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.8mb