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June 16th 2006
Published: August 3rd 2006
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En route to the reef
Here it is finally, the report on my last 3 weeks of travelling in Oz before I got ill. It was a bit difficult to find enough motivation to write this from home but here it is anyway. It's a pretty long one. Enjoy!

The East Coast



The East Coast is one of the most famous backpackers' routes in the world. It is a long stretch (over 3000 km) from Cairns in the North all the way down to Sydney.

At first sight it's much like what I image the Spanish Costa's are like (haven't been there though): sun, young people with a lot of booze and drugs and party all the time.
There is happy hours, Mr and Miss Backpackers elections and wet T- shirt competitions, pub crawls, world cup parties...
For the more active people there's skydiving, rafting, surfing, diving, bungee jumping, etc.
And of course there are the natural treasures: Great Barrier Reef, Cape Tribulation, Fraser Island, etc.

My plan was to concentrate mainly on the last two. Most of the younger travellers seem to have their priorities set on the first.

Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef



When my plane was
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just popped up at the surface
approaching Cairns the weather changed very quickly from the dry sunny weather over the desert to overcast and humid weather.

Cairns is 'party central' of the East coast as I would soon find out. We went for a 'free meal for backpackers' into town. It looks a bit like a charity hand out for the homeless: long lines that spill out into the streets and people in 'dirty' clothes queuing to the kitchen. Only here, soon after all the food was gone, the place turned into one big party...

If you're not in Cairns to party then you are probably there for diving. Cairns is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. This diver's pilgrimage site is the biggest living thing on earth (the only living thing visible from the moon).

Despite its name as a diver's heaven, a lot of divers I met in Asia told me they were disappointed about it and called it 'highly overrated'. So I went under water with pretty low expectations. I was pretty much blown away by what I got to see. The coral was amazing and there was so much of it. We got to see it from all
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the green tree frog
angles while we swam above, next to and through it. Especially the cave like 'swim troughs' are amazing. As if you were diving in underwater 'art galleries' that have 'coral artwork' on the walls, ceilings and floor.

I found out that most people get disappointed because they go on the cheapest dive trips that visit a reef just off the coast. During these trips, often more than a hundred divers and (often first time) snorkelers are thrown into the water. As a result the reef has been heavily damaged. My trip was only 30 aussie dollars more expensive but took me to the outer reef (2.5 hours boat ride) where only about 15 divers/snorkelers were in the water.
So if you are in Cairns, a little extra investment might be really worth it. Also I regret only going on a day trip as the reef is definitely worth a couple of days diving.
This was surely another highlight of my trip!

Cape Tribulation



Cape Tribulations was the cape where Captain Cook stranded his ship on the reef and this would only be the beginning of his 'tribulations' there, hence the name.
Today this is the
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umbrella palm trees
place where paved roads (and pretty much civilisation) ends at the northern end of the East coast. Cape Tribulation is most known however for its tropical rainforests. These rainforests have been suffering a lot from the logging companies in the past. Now the area is a protected World Heritage site. The turn around came after some scientists discovered several trees and plants there, that had been considered extinct for thousands of years. Since the site became protected about 10 years ago, hundreds of new medicines have been found. But according to scientists they haven't even discovered more than 1 pct of the total potential. Some people believe that if a cure for aids and cancer will be found, it will be here.

Guides... I have had some bad ones and some very good ones but the bus driver/guide that did the ride to and from Cape Tribulations was really phenomenal. He was the perfect mix of a stand up comedian and a regular informative guide. He called it his 'sex, drugs and rock and roll' tour':
Sex: the sexual habits of the Cassowary birds. After sex the female leaves the male with the eggs of another male (previous partner)
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rainbow over the ocean
and takes off. It's the male that will be taking care of the eggs and the babies (that aren't even its own) until they are old enough to survive by themselves...
Drugs: all the drugs that can be found in the rainforest, both recreational and others.
Rock n' Roll: The music he put on when he was not talking. The music would usually not last much longer than the intro of a song, because he "just thought about something else" to tell us.

I wrote my notebook full of all the interesting things he was telling. Unfortunately too much to all mention here. En route we did another 'crocodile cruise'. It wasn't too exciting after the 'jumping crocodiles' at Kakadu. We did however spot a 'green tree frog' that everybody got really excited about. Not that spectacular to me.

We were dropped off at the accommodation and I went for some walks in the rainforest, the mangroves and the beaches. The rainforest basically starts as soon as you walk off the beach and the only way to get through it, is via a few wooden boardwalks through the Mangrove forest. As the weather wasn't so great the beaches were totally deserted. I walked for 3 hours and hardly met anybody.

The next day when I caught the bus back I was pleased to see the same guy would be driving us back and he wasn't going to shut up this time either. Topics: 'Post travel blues', 'diving with Keanu Reeves and Johnny Knoxville' and 'tips and hints for swimming with crocodiles'.

The last one I have to share with you. A couple of years ago some river guides had their xmas party (and a lot of drinks) and they decided (against all warnings) to go for a swim in the croc infested river. They were in waist deep water when one of the women at the party decided to just refresh a bit by throwing some water in her face on the riverbank. In a fraction of a second a crocodile swam in between the guys and grabbed the woman. She was never seen again.
A crocodile does not want to waste too much energy when hunting so she will always go for the easiest prey. So what did we learn here? According to our guide: "Guys if you go swim in a river with crocodiles...take
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Cape tribulation beach.
a girl with you. And girls... if you go for a swim... take a little child"!?!?

Mission Beach



After my return from Cape tribulation, I left Cairns and started my descent down the East Coast which should have taken me all the way to Sydney, over 2500 km down the road.

The first stop was Mission Beach. Mission Beach is considered by most as a spot to relax and chill out before or after hitting the hard party life in Cairns.
It has a nice beach that goes on for as far as you can see without any buildings visible. Unfortunately Cyclone Edward passed through this area earlier this year and did quiet some damage. Whole strips of forest got knocked over, big trees snapped in two like matches and houses that got their roofs blown off or that were totally destroyed by the storm winds.

My mission in Mission Beach was to spot the rare cassowary bird and do some rafting.
The cassowary bird is one of the biggest birds in the world. It's about the size of the ostrich. It is a really beautiful bird with nice colours and something that looks like a helmet on his head. Unfortunately it is also an endangered species. However Mission Beach is a conservation area and I hoped to spot one of them here. I rented a bike and went out for a couple of hours. Now the cassowary is something you want to see but preferably not from too close. They have razor sharp claws with which they can easily open up your stomach. Also they are pretty curious so they will come to check you out. The Tribulation guide gave us some safety precautions in case of contact with the birds: arms stretched above your head to make yourself as tall as possible, always keep eye contact while walking away and try to keep something solid (a tree) in between you and the bird. So with these in mind I went into the forests around Mission Beach. After 4 hours I had to stop my search without spotting the birds because the sun started to set. First mission failed.

Next day up early to go for a full day rafting. I never tried it before and it would directly be 'a big one'. The Tully river is a 'grade 4' river that
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Between Cairns and Cape Tribulations.
should bring some excitement. Our 'Kiwi' guide kept announcing the next rapid as the 'gaping jaws of death'. Good fun but maybe not as spectacular as I had imagined.

Magnetic Island



On the bus to Townsville I overheard two Dutch people discussing their holidays in Australia and I was pretty shocked. They were just exchanging stories about how they had ripped off other travellers by selling them broken cars for way too much money, etc. They seemed really proud: "ha-ha those stupid Germans, ha-ha".
I thought travellers were supposed to support each other, the way people did after I was in the bus crash. Maybe it's just not the case on the East Coast. Even though I really like Marco Van Basten, I decided I was going to cheer against Holland in the upcoming World Cup as my little revenge.

Anyway Magnetic Island is a nice little island off the coast of Townsville. With over 320 days of sunshine a year it must be a nice place to live.
The main reason I was there was because it has one of the biggest koala colonies in the wild in Australia. I really wanted to see these furry
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Kilometers of beach. Some of the damage from the cyclone is still visible.
creatures in the wild and the island has some really good scenic walking trails to try and find them.
Because they need all their energy to digest the toxic eucalyptus leaves they eat, koalas are basicly asleep during 20 hours each day. The rest of the time they spent looking for food and eating. So you are basicly looking for a motionless grey mass somewhere up in the eucalyptus trees.

The best chance to spot them on Magnetic is at the 'Forts walk'. The Forts are bunkers that date from World War II. They were built to protect the coast from Arial attacks by the Japanese. By eavesdropping on a tour group I was able to get a lot of information on how these defences worked. I also had a close encounter with a rock wallaby that was not shy at all. I did not see one koala however.
After almost 4 hours walking I was almost at my hostel and felt a bit sad that after the cassowary bird, I would also miss the koalas. But than for some reason I looked up once more and there it was. And it wasn't even asleep.
They may only have
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Rock wallabie comes to greet me.
a brain about the size of a peanut, they are cool to look at. They really look like 'teddy bears' in the trees. I found myself staring at this little one for quite some time before heading back to the hotel in a very happy mood.

Airlie Beach and The Whitsundays



Next stop was Airlie Beach. This little (not very cosy) coastal (party)town is the jumping point for cruises to the Whitsunday Islands. Pictures of amazing pristine beaches and blue water of the Whitsundays are all over the Australian tourist brochures. These islands, which are a major destination for honeymoons for Japanese people, are also a must see on the backpackers trail.

And so I found myself on a sailing boat with a nice mixed nationalities crowd on our way to these paradise islands. The first hours were nice relaxed sailing and we had a really nice sunset.
What we didn't realize was that we would not see the sun back too often during the next 2 days at sea. As soon as it got dark, the wind picked up and the sea got pretty choppy. While I was standing at the bow I saw the 1st
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View from one of the World War II bunkers.
people getting sea sick. We anchored in calmer water for dinner and sleeping.

The next morning I woke up at 5 am by a terrible noise. It seemed the boat was getting ripped to pieces. It turned out that they were just getting the anchor in and would start sailing. When we got on deck a couple of hours later it was cold and rainy. That's how we discovered the paradise 'Whitehaven beach'. I have to admit that even though it was pouring down, it was still pretty spectacular. Must be incredible on a sunny day. After lunch we would go for some snorkelling and diving. It was amazing: lots of fish in all sizes, some sharks, some stingrays and a turtle. No jellyfish! As it was still 'stinger' (the killer jellyfish, I talked about before) season, we all had to wear a full protective suit and there was lots of vinegar around. No one saw a jellyfish.

The last evening there was some discussion on 'American politics'. I felt sorry for the cool American guys who were apologising for a guy they didn't vote for.
The rest of the evening most people played drinking games. I was introduced in the world of chess, got to hear the new 'Tool' album (finally) and had fun watching all the others get drunk.
Last day another snorkelling round. More great coral and fish. There was one special attraction here: Elvis. Elvis is a huge fish, about 1.5 m long and 1 m high, green/blue colour and has a face that looks like the faces of the tattooed Maori warriors. Of course everyone was looking for him. I saw him swim by a couple of times and it was definitely a great sight.

On the way back to the mainland the sea got really rough. I don't have a lot of experience with sailing but I thought the waves were huge. I saw that even the crew, that had done this trip all the time for years, were getting a bit impressed. At one point a huge wave hit us from the side and just went over the boat. I really thought there our boat was going to capsize but somehow it swung back.
I must say that my admiration for Thomas Siffer (Belgian author who went sailing around the world with hardly any experience) increased in a more than
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The koala that made my day. Cute isn't it?
exponential way. This was just a small storm, nothing to do with the big ones, you can find on the open oceans.
I don't think you will be surprised that I was soon feeding the fish with my freshly devoured lunch...and I would continue to do so until we reached the land. Great feeling...

After the sailing adventure, I had to spend one more day in boring Airlie Beach before catching a night bus to Hervey Bay, about 13 hours down the road.

Hervey Bay and Fraser Island



I spent a whole day in bed to recuperate from the overnight bus ride so I didn't get to see a lot of Hervey Bay town. Just like Airlie Beach this town is just a jumping point for Whale spotting trips or 4x4 safaris at Fraser Island.

Fraser Island is basicly a huge sandbank (one of the biggest in the world) before the coast. The most popular way to discover the Island is by hiring a 4x4 and cruise along the beaches and in the centre of the Island.
The hostels just make up groups of 9-10 people, select the designated drivers and provide the vehicles and all
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Arcadia bay with the mainland in the back ground.
the camping gear. Before leaving the group needs to make 1000 AUD deposit/bond which will not be returned if something is wrong with the vehicle. "If the group gets along it can be an incredible experience, if not it's a loooooooong 3 days", my guidebook said.

You know how some nationalities for all kind of reasons have a really bad reputation among travellers. One of them, I had heard a lot of people complain about are the English travellers.
I don't tend to believe those generalisations. Moreover on all my travels before, I had met really cool and friendly English people. Unfortunately all that was about to change on this 'nightmare' trip.

There were two cars with each 9 people: 13 English, 2 Swedish, 2 Belgian and 1 German. From the start it went wrong. The day before we left we were supposed to make a shopping list for food for the 3 days. Almost all of the English guys and girls were not interested at all and were just getting drunk and loading up for the first England World Cup game. Ok, no problem, it's the World Cup after all. It became a problem however when the
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Sunset on the sailing boat.
day after, in the shop, these hung over Brits started discussing every item on the list and complained it would cost too much. We came out with a bill of 18 AUD/person for 3 days of food !?! Even for a budget traveller like me that was a real bargain but they didn't stop complaining. I should mention that most of them bought alcohol for another 20 AUD but that wasn't the point according to them.
More problems arose when it was time for lunch or dinner. Every time all of a sudden almost all of them would disappear and reappear when everything was ready. No driving for them either. Mostly because they were too hung over (or still drunk) from the night before.This way this little gang got themselves a nice little 'all in organised tour' instead of a 'self drive camping tour'.

These people were getting really 'I don't remember my name' drunk all the time. One of them was proud to have been drunk every night in Australia. He had been there for 3 months...
I don't care about drunk people. They can do whatever they want as long as they don't do it to me.
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'White Haven Beach', even when it's raining it's still an awesome view.
But these people were horrible when drunk.
When the ranger asked us to leave the camping ground and go to the beach to party after 9 pm, they all said OK. But at 9 pm all of them were drunk, very noisy and too lazy to leave. When we reminded them that this was a family camping ground and some people wanted to get some sleep, their reaction was: "who cares?", "We'll stay here until somebody complains and then we'll maybe leave". AAAAAAARRGGGH!!!!!

I don't know if this was the typical English mentality, I had heard about or if it was the age (almost all these guys and girls were between 19 and 21) but these were surely the most anti social people I ever met travelling.
Luckily I know not all (young) English people are like this. I must admit however that I almost fell out of my hospital bed from joy when I witnessed England being kicked out of the World Cup (that they would surely win this time). 😉

But it was not all bad.
I met some really cool people. Tobi my German co driver and Anna and Jenny from Sweden.
The nature of
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It's Ninja boy! Showing the full 'stinger suit'.
the island is pretty amazing; long stretches of beach, rainforest in the centre and lakes with the clearest water I ever saw.
Quite a lot of wildlife too; dingoes, all kinds of birds, sharks, dolphins, etc. The sea is a definite 'no go' area; if the rip tides don't get you, it's full of man eating tiger sharks that will attack when you're waist deep in the water.
I thought driving the 4x4 was great too. It gives such a great feeling of freedom especially when driving on the beaches. It's also remarkable that you always have to check the rear view mirrors for airplanes as they also use the beach as a landing strip.

This trip must be great if you have a cool group. Even though I really enjoyed the nature and driving, I was very happy to get off the island and get rid of those people.

Noosa



To relax after the Fraser island experience I went to a little coastal town called Noosa. I had had pretty bad weather for a 1.5 week now, but when I arrived in Noosa the sun showed up again. So that's why they call it the 'Sunshine
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Cruising on the beach of Fraser Island
Coast'.

My plan was to take it easy and relax for a couple of days. The first day I stuck to my plan and did basicly nothing. I didn't even make it to the beach until the evening.
However the next day I couldn't stay still anymore and went for some walks in the Noosa National Park. A great place to walk or just enjoy the view. I was observing the surfers from the cliffs for a while and every now and then a dolphin would jump out of the water in the background.
The surfers are pretty amazing to look at. The way they move with and against the waves. It's such a divers crowd: male and female and all ages. I saw little kids that could not be older than 6 out there, catching waves with guys that must have been over 70. Some of them arriving in a 70's hippy van while others jumped out of their German cars and changed their business suit for a wet suit.

The next day I decided to give it a try myself. I enlisted for a beginner's class with a surf school. Soon I was out there in
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Ship wreck on the beach of Fraser Island.
the ocean with a huge long board (beginner's board). After some appetizers on my stomach, the instructor asked me to try and stand up. And you know, I was standing on my first attempt. But before my hopes of a professional surfing career even had a chance to emerge, they were smashed to pieces by the ocean. It went down hill fast as soon as I tried to catch a 'green wave' (one that did not break yet). Most of the time I was just drinking sea water and taking 'nose dives'. The waves were pretty big by the way. One of them hit 'clumsy me' right in the face and I can assure you the impact was harder than any punch I ever had the honour to receive.
That afternoon I decided to give surfing a break and just went to lie on the beach and read.
The next morning I would go for an early morning run...and you all know the rest.



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Another unusual traffic sign. The beach is also a landing strip.


4th August 2006

Brits Abroad
Come on Jan, you surely must have known by now that the only reason us Brits go travelling is for cheap beer! Like those dutchies looking to make money and the Belgians looking for, well I never worked out what you Belgians were looking for, maybe some excitement! Hope things are sorting themselves out now you're back in Europe - drop me a note if you're ever over in London and I'll try not to get too drunk and obnoxious! E

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