Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Day 209 - 213: Onward to Brisbane

Travel was the order of the day, or rather, the next few days. We needed to make decent headway down the coast as there was a lot to pack in, and Australia was not going to get any smaller. After leaving Airlie Beach behind, we spent the next day travelling through Mackay and on to Rockhampton, but not without a much-awaited visit to a Mackay cinema to see The Avengers.

 I'm a huge Joss Whedon fan. Like most Joss Whedon fans I suspect, I don't think he's been given a particularly fair time in Hollywood. Most genre fans will be familiar with the Firefly cancellation debacle, his contribution to the film scripts of Alien Resurrection, Buffy and Titan A.E. wee altered significantly, and the promotion for his Firefly spin-off Serenity was noticeable in its absence. Respect appeared seriously lacking, but that will all change now. The Avengers is a masterpiece of comic-book film-making. Having taken four different Marvel franchises (Thor, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America and Iron Man)- all of which had successful films - he was tasked with somehow giving equal screentime to the main players, making the plot cohesive and, most importantly, making it an enjoyable experience. It's fair to say The Avengers succeeded on every level, and given that the film is now the third highest grossing movie ever made ($1.46 billion and counting), Mr. Whedon can finally rest easy that Hollywood is going to take notice. Incidentally, if you haven't seen the film yet, do so. We met up with Colin and Julie from the Whitsundays trip in the evening, as they happened to pick the same free camping spot as us, so a huge bowl of spaghetti bolognese and much wine were in order.


We headed along to the Capricorn Coast the next day, via Emu Park. This town is best known for its Singing Ship monument, and little else. However, we tracked down the obligatory museum (well, not so much "tracked down" as "happened to park outside and decided to have a look), and were greeted by an enthusiastic retiree called Peter who proceeded to waive the fee to look around the place, gave us tea and biscuits, and demonstrated some of the tools used on the railway lines to lay tracks.


It seems like politics is alive and well in Emu Park, as Peter told us that a rival committee wanted to take over the running of the museum. I'm not quite sure why, there's not really that much to see; it looks like an octogenarian's storage room, full of bric-a-brac, faded photos and unidentifiable things in jars. I felt quite sorry for the guy; he'd been made redundant from a factory he'd worked at most of his life, and due to his age was deemed unhireable by most employers, so was living on Australia's benefits system and volunteering at the museum. It seemed like a pretty lonely job for a single old man. He had a huge passion for Triumph motorbikes and took the one he built himself out on the road from time to time.

We left the museum behind and went up to the Singing Ship monument. This is named for the noise the wind makes as it passes through the monument's circular tubes, a clever feat of engineering.


Leaving Emu Park, we had to stop off for lunch and where better than at Kershaw Gardens. I wasn't aware that I owned any gardens in Australia, perhaps I should have a word with my estate manager. I'm pleased with what my gardener has done, though.




1770 and Agnes Water were the destinations the next day. 1770 is a town built on the site of the second landing of James Cook. Originally known as Round Hill, its name was changed in 1970 to mark the bicentennial anniversary of the landing. There really isn't much there aside from a few plaques and a nice view.


Agnes Water has even less to offer, other than a passable beach which obviously paled in comparison to Whitehaven which was still fresh in our minds.


Needless to say, we zipped through both places as time was pressing and drove on to Bundaberg. Home to the famed Bundaberg rum factory, we considered taking a tour...until we saw the price. None of us were that keen on rum.


Another night in a caravan park, and we were at the Steve Irwin Zoo (or Australia Zoo as it is officially known) early the next morning. I think we were spoiled by the Billabong Sanctuary, as our visit to the zoo was a day of disappointment and frustration. Aside from ticket costs being three times the price of our earlier brush with wildlife, we'd heard nothing but good things from people about the late zookeeper's former business. We were greeted on entry by a family bronze; it looked like Steve would have preferred wearing sunglasses so I obliged.


Before I talk about the zoo, here are a selection of snaps from the day:








The zoo is split into various continents, complete with their respective inhabitants. There are a number of shows throughout the day including a croc show, snake talk, bird show, tiger show, elephant feeding, and so on. There are also areas where you can stroll through and interact with the animals, such as two large kangaroo parks containing red and grey kangaroos. The animals seemed pretty healthy and well-cared for, which was good to see. The zoo has been in the hands of Irwins for years, and after inheriting it from his parents Steve, his wife and his brood turned it into a "larger than life" attraction, complete with cheesy shows, in-yer-face signage, and information boards bordering dangerously close to patronising.

This I can handle. Zoos are meant to be child-friendly, and this one was no exception. However, there are certain things that the zoo categorically failed at doing.

1.) If you're going to put on a shuttle service between areas, put up a timetable. We spent the best part of an hour waiting around for various trains throughout the day. It wouldn't have been a problem if we could walk everywhere, but the "Africa" section of the zoo was only accessible by train.

2.) Following on from the first point, if you need to close areas of the zoo, at least make it clear. We were told you couldn't walk to "Africa" but at the end of the day the path was opened up. It made no sense - no work was going on that we could see, but routes around the zoo were arbitrarily opened and closed at various intervals, without warning.

3.) Provide up to date maps. The ones we were given had incorrect show times, out-of-date information about the areas to visit, and was pretty much useless. Upon asking at the gate on the way out of the zoo, we were told that "all of the old maps had to be given out, as we have a backlog to get rid of." So the best thing to do in order to enhance the experience of the visitor is provide them with something that has no relevance to the place they are visiting? Brilliant.

4.) Hire more park staff. If you're going to give people duff maps, at least make people available to ask for directions once you end up in a completely different place than expected. I've never been to a zoo that had so few workers on hand, and the size of the park is not inconsiderable.

5.) Stop the irritating self-promotion. Unlike its unfortunate father, Brand Irwin is alive and well in the zoo and is thrust at you from all angles to the point of creepiness. Irwin's son squeaks out various zoo-related songs over the tannoy on an endless loop which I can only assume can also be heard by unfortunate souls occupying the many Circles of Hell (the CD is available to buy in the shop, natch). His daughter, Bindi, is plastered everywhere from signage, to videos shown during the shows, to - most disturbingly - dolls which can be found in the gift shop. That's right, you can buy a Bindi doll (or several if you desire) complete with accessories, modeled on a hyperactive teen whose only claim to fame is being the daughter of two crazy parents. The shameless self-publicity would make even Katie Price blush.

Could I recommend the zoo? No. There are chances to see some pretty rare creatures such as red pandas and the Aldabra Giant Tortoise - the world's largest - and you have the chance to feed elephants and pet koalas and kangaroos, but there's nothing here that stands out as essential if you've visited any truly interesting zoos like Singapore or the Billabong Sanctuary. The shows are OK but somewhat sterile, and the whole place is more like a theme park that just happens to contain animals instead of rides. At the end of the day, this is how I felt:

A real shame.

So, after a half day's travel we arrived in Brisbane. It's a much-maligned city compared to its more cosmopolitan "neighbours" of Sydney and Melbourne, but it is supposedly the hub of Australia's music scene and a decent place in its own right. We didn't really find out if that was the case; after trying to negotiate the horrendous one-way system in the city and becoming more and more frustrated at the lack of available and reasonably-priced parking, we ended up parking in the arts centre and having a look around GOMA (the Gallery of Modern Art). In fairness, it was excellent and had a large and diverse range of exhibits, some pretentious, some straightforward, most of them interesting.



That aside, we decided not to stay around in Brisbane much longer and carried on down the coast to the next holiday park. Weekends are perhaps not the best time to visit any city so I can't be too harsh on the place, and it's certainly somewhere I'd come to again if we visited Australia sans campervan, if only to see which bands were playing.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Day 207 - 208: The Whitsundays - Hammer Time!

We got up at some ungodly hour and dropped the van off at the backpackers' before walking over to the pier, where our vessel awaited: the sailing yacht, Hammer. This was a champion yacht, winning many sailing competitions in its time before it was retired from professional racing in favour of more recreational use. 


From the outside, it didn't look like much and we were unsure how it was going to fit 19 customers plus crew below deck. We needn't have worried; whilst not quite Tardis-eque, the yacht had a surprising amount of space.

After a tour around and introduction to the crew (Mick the skipper and Dale, with another being picked up en route), it was time to set off from Abel Point Marina and get stuck into sailing the Hammer. As there were only three crewmen, it was necessary for some of us to help raise the sails. I'm no sailor, but I've learned that you can do pretty much everything that needs to be done on a yacht by pulling one rope really hard until a bloke tells you to stop. Gilly and Paul took the first shift whilst Fi and I handled the important task of sunbathing.


If you've never been on a racing yacht before, it's a little different to a catamaran. The boat is built for speed, so you're not going to get too much comfort on the deck. Firstly, forget sunloungers and cocktails; you'll be too busy making sure you don't smack your head on the mainsail mast as it swings around. Secondly, in order to get up to a decent speed, the yacht sails at an angle. This is usually between 30 - 40 degrees but when they're racing along, it can get up to almost 90 degrees with the sail nearly touching the waves.


We collected our third crew member - Chopper - from the Young Endeavour on the way.


Lunch was self-service with sandwiches, salad and quiche prepared by Dale. The water was practically dead calm and there wasn't a cloud in sight. Mick said that we'd picked a fantastic couple of days to come on a cruise as the weather was likely to remain as good for the rest of the trip.

We'd stopped in Cataran Bay, which was a decent stop to do some snorkelling. Even after a significant number of dives, I'm still no good at snorkelling. I'm not sure if it's to do with the mask, the lack of pressure to keep it glued to my face, or a combination of both. Every time I took a look underwater, the mask would fill within 20 seconds. Despite that, I managed to take a few shots with our cheap disposable underwater camera from Laos, which may or may not turn out OK. After about an hour we were starting to turn wrinkly, so came back to the boat for an afternoon snack of some fantastic nachos.

After some more cruising, it was starting to get dark so we pulled into Tongue Bay for the evening. We'd only brought a 2 litre box of wine with us unfortunately, so a crazy party was off the cards. That didn't stop us all having a great time and making some new friends, in particular Colin and Julie from Ireland, James from England, and Sam, Guillaume and Lola from France.

Sleeping on the boat was easier than expected. Planted as we were in a bay, and with little to no movement on the water, it wasn't difficult to drift off to sleep - even if the mattresses were those plastic-coated kind that you only really see larger versions of in the sports cupboard at school.

The next morning after a decent breakfast we set off to Whitehaven Beach. The walk up to the beach was interesting in itself, as we spotted this huge lizard hugging a tree.


The first sight of it once you climb up through the trees and reach the pinnacle of the hill overlooking it is breathtaking.



The sea is home to stingrays happily swimming in the shallow waters along with some lemon sharks, both of which you can go and swim with. Steve Irwin aside, stingrays are fairly docile and won't bother you as long as you don't box them in or kick them in the head. Similarly, lemon sharks aren't bothered about humans.


The beach is as close to paradise as you can get. Perfect white, cool sand (something like 99.5% fine silica), a wonderful breeze and not a fag end in sight. The things I dislike most about beaches are a) the sand getting *everywhere* and b) the heat-retention of the sand making it too hot to lie or even walk on. Thanks to the consistency of the sand on Whitehaven, neither of these are an issue.


Due to the time of year, you have to wear stinger suits for safety if you want to go swimming. Box jellyfish are sometimes found in the area, and they can be fatal if you're unlucky enough to be stung, though it's more of a precaution on behalf of the sailing crew than any real likelihood of danger.

I can honestly say that Whitehaven is the best beach I've ever been to; it's obvious why it wins so many awards. We spent a good 3 hours there in excellent weather and swam with a few stingrays but didn't see any lemon sharks, sadly. As you can tell, everyone enjoyed the trip:


Funnily enough, I was suffering from a cold through the entire trip so I was probably the only one on the beach in 24 degree weather who was sneezing and sniffling. Despite this, the time to return to the boat came up a lot faster than expected, and we reluctantly left Whitehaven behind, and took the 4 hour journey back to the mainland. On the way, we found out that Francois Hollande had become the new French PM which went down very well with our new French friends. Paul also became a temporary captain on the way, and took the wheel for a while:


We'd only ever really done one "relaxing" cruise before, in Skiathos. The Whitsundays were another level: sublime surroundings, crystal clear turquoise water and not a wave in sight. I can't really say I'm a boat person, but I couldn't fault anything with the trip in respect of my lack of sea legs; it was as enjoyable as I'm ever going to get without jumping onto a huge P+O ferry (which is unlikely to happen - too many people for my liking).

We returned to Airlie Beach Backpackers around mid-afternoon for a well-deserved shower followed by some excellent fish and chips, before returning to Flametree Park in the evening.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Day 205 - 206: SS Yongala and Airlie Beach

The SS Yongala was recommended to us by Roxanne, a keen diver we met on Rabbit Island in Kep. The Yongala was a passenger ship which got hit by a cyclone between Melbourne and Cairns in 1911 (the year before the Titanic sank) and ended up at the bottom of the sea just south of Townsville, killing all 122 people on board. It cost £102,000 to build at the time, which these days would barely get you a council flat in Bristol. A century on, and it is one of the world's most intact shipwrecks hosting a diverse variety of marine life and penetration diving is still forbidden.


Getting to the wreck was done via a small catamaran, over some exceptionally rough seas.


If you have any predisposition to seasickness, you will definitely get hit with it on the way to the dive spot. Having said that, it is far preferable to leave from Ayr than Townsville. We went with a company called Dive Yongala based in Ayr, and the journey was around 30 minutes. The same stomach-clenching journey from Townsville will take you the best part of two and a half hours, and I can only thank TripAdvisor reviews for alerting me to the options otherwise I doubt either of us would have been in a state to dive by the time we arrived. On the first dive, the seasickness and head-high waves must have been too much for one of the other girls diving, as she had a panic attack just before descending and had to be brought back to the boat. Since we only had two dives on the trip, it's not a position you want to find yourself in.

It's a shame you don't get three dives, as there is lots to see around the ship. We ran into some stunning Kingfish (giant trevally), a loggerhead turtle and two huge marble rays on the first dive. It was the closest I've ever been to a big ray and the spotted colouring was superb. They glided effortlessly through the water, their entire bodies shimmering. It was like watching a piece of silk gently floating along.

On the second dive we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a bull shark just before we were about to ascend. These are one of only a few species of shark that are actively aggressive towards humans (the tiger shark and great white being the other two). It was heading in the other direction, fortunately!

I enjoyed the Yongala dive more than the Great Barrier Reef dives in some respects. There seemed to be a lot more variety in sea life, and the wreck itself was really interesting. I even got to hold the ship's wheel, which was exposed to the elements, and we got to see inside the kitchen and bathroom areas as the ship is on its side in a 45 degree list against the ocean floor. It was definitely the best wreck I've ever dived, but we could definitely have done with a third dive, given the relatively expensive cost of the trip.

We drove to Flametree Park in Airlie Beach in the evening, where a couple of possums kept a watchful eye on how much food we were leaving.



I fed one of them a bit of chilli cheese which probably didn't agree with it too well, as a couple of minutes later it left us a "present" all over the table. I guess spicy food doesn't really agree with them.


In the morning, we took a trip down to the beach proper, which was no great shakes as beaches go. Hundreds of yachts lined the harbour; Airlie Beach is the main jump-off point for cruises around the Whitsundays.


We had a walk around the town and I sold a couple of books before the four of us went to look at the options for a 2 day cruise. We were in luck - a boat called Hammer was short of people, and we managed to negotiate a good deal with Airlie Beach Backpackers which allowed us to keep our vans in their secure car park, and they would let us use the showers when we returned (their are none on board the boat). On top of this, they offered a free night's accommodation - Gilly stepped up and asked for the cash alternative instead since we had vans, and they duly agreed!

The Whitsundays were supposed to be one of the nicest places in the world to take a boat around, and we were also looking forward to Whitehaven beach - consistently included in lists of the top beaches in the world.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Day 204: The Billabong Sanctuary

Whilst we were in Perth, Rob had recommended we visit the Billabong Santuary. Since it was only 30 minutes down the road from Townsville, we were perfectly placed to pop in. The park itself is pretty small. This in no way detracts from the experience; in fact, the staff cram more hands-on experiences and information into a day than zoos ten times bigger can manage.

After missing seeing a cassowary in Cape Tribulation, it was great to be able to get up close with them here. They have quite remarkable colouring and an amazing ability to swallow large pieces of fruit whole which I'm pretty envious of.



All of the visitors (totalling about 10 - it gets pretty quiet as it approaches "winter", another reason the park was so enjoyable) got to feed the cassowaries, who ate the best part of half a bucket of fruit each.

The next show was a wombat talk, where we came face-to-face with a 3.5 year old called Tonka who was an extremely tame wombat and loved being handled. So much so, that when there was a renovation of the park after the cyclone which meant that he didn't get cuddled each day, he went into a kind of "wombat depression" and lost a shedload of weight. As soon as normal handling duties resumed and he was getting a decent amount of lap time, his weight went back to normal. Amazing.


Wombats are surprisingly agile creatures who can run at up to 40km/hour and dig 2m/hour. After the talk, we got to stroke Tonka. His back was incredibly tough; tapping it was like knocking on wood. There's a reason for this hard bone: when predators try to chase wombats down their burrows, the wombat simply crawls as far as it can and then sits with its back to the pursuer, be it dingo, wolf, or whatever. The attacker can hammer and bite all it likes against the wombat's back but all it will do is damage its own teeth. There are reputedly stories of wombat holes which have been found with crushed skulls inside, from where wombats have waited until the animal biting it has got into just the right position, and then lifted its back up to smash the offending creatures head into the tunnel wall. How true this is I'm unsure of, but it sounds brilliant.



Jacko, a sulphur-crested cockatoo was next. She loved eating sunflower seeds from the kangaroo food we'd bought (she wasn't keen on the rest), and was happy to screech "Hello!" at us every few minutes if she thought she'd get some food.


We moved on to the Koala pens where we met a number of cute bears including Ray Charles, a blind koala. Even so, he had a knack of knowing where the camera was, and was more than happy to pose for us.




We were taken to the reptile hands-on next, where we got to hold a boa constrictor, blue-tongued lizard, and a baby croc.




As well as this, kangaroos are prevalent throughout the park and we were able to feed them whenever we liked. They were happy to hop over and nuzzle into our hands looking for food. Here, Gilly proved very popular with a kangaroo and its joey.


We also got to feed fish to some turtles.


The dingoes were gorgeous, and had obviously been looked after well given the shininess of their coats and their happy, lolling tongues. We were introduced to Allira who I could quite happily have taken home.


Saltwater crocs were good fun, with one called "Psycho" living up to his name as one of the handlers fed him up close.

I can also proudly say that I've been bitten by a crocodile and survived the traumatic event. OK, it wasn't perhaps the largest specimen, but a croc's a croc...right?


His teeth were like needles and actually drew blood. My wound lasted for at least two days after this horrific attack.


Alligators were on the agenda and we got to see a great example of their rolling attack, which they use to drag their prey underwater and drown it. We were also treated to a bird show and a snake show. The former included favourites such as the world's most widespread and common bird (the barn owl), a black kite, and a barking owl.


The latter had the handler getting to grips with the planet's three deadliest snakes: the king brown snake, the eastern brown snake (which accounts for half of all snake-bite fatalities) and the coastal taipan (which has venom 50 times more powerful than the indian cobra). We were also shown how to treat a snakebite through the use of compression bandages, and assured that snakebites are more often than not non-fatal because it takes a while for the venom to get around your body. The handler told the tale of someone who got bitten, wrapped a bandage around the bite, then went and watched TV. He somehow forgot about it until a couple of days later when he removed the bandage - at that point, the venom started circulating and only then did he start feeling dizzy and decided to go to hospital. Just goes to show how effective bandages can be. Personally though, I'd probably have sought medical advice straight away. Maybe that's just me and my crazy common sense.

The Billabong Sanctuary was a fantastic day out. You can get a whole heap of information and enjoy up-close encounters with many native species. I think wombats, kangaroos and dingoes are my favourite of the native animals here. Wombats are fat and lazy and a lot cuter than koalas. Kangaroos are pretty cute (even when they've got a pink foot sticking out of their torso) and dingoes...well, they're just big fluffy dogs. And I love dogs.

On a side note, they also sell what is possibly my favourite ice cream discovered so far on our trip: Heaven Chunky Cookie. I've not yet found anything that can beat it.

That evening we drove to a free campsite in Home Hill, a wonderful place next to a train station which had a large kitchen, fully equipped with BBQs, sinks, power and water - all for public use. Basically, the kind of place that would get trashed if it was in the UK. Australians certainly know how to look after their amenities. We rustled up some grub and had a good evening; the trains didn't wake us up too much at night (there's always a catch!), which was good as we needed to be up early the next morning to go scuba diving around the wreck of the SS Yongala.