Saturday, September 29, 2007

island of sun and fun

Travelling to Fraser Island was a mad, bad rollercoaster of an adventure.

The world's largest sand island is accessible only by 4wd, and so it was I found myself piling into the back of a Landcruiser with a group of nine crazy Irish and another English lass, Hannah.

Booking through Beaches, they stuffed up and put me on the wrong day - meaning I had a spare day to cruise around dead-end Hervey Bay when I could have been lazing in 1770. I was not impressed. I kicked up a stink and said it would mean all the things I had booked after (actually nothing) would be stuffed up. They were unsympathetic, unapologetic and unsurprised by the error.

Infact, I found it had happened to my friend Dotti three days earlier and to countless other people.

However, I got up early on the day I was due to go and hung around to see if there were any no-shows. No luck but they ended up kicking off a poor Asian chappy and putting me on instead. Felt rather guilty but was secretly pleased - especially as we had an awesome group.

We drove in convoy with a second cruiser - this one with three Seattle lads, seven Canadian girls and an Aussie lass. Team (North) America and Team Ireland. We were honorary Irish for the weekend which meant one thing - drink. A lot.

After a ferry ride to the island on a miserable Sunday morning, we disembarked and were left to the mercy of the rough sand-tracks. Deep ruts run across Fraser and you're meant to manoeuvre across the island along them. It was not easy.

We were often inching along tracks in convoy and tilting at a frightening angle to one side. Cue everyone in the truck leaning the other way...

Our first stop was Lake Wabby - a green lagoon with rainforest on one side and high hills of sand rolling towards the lake on the other. It was a stunning contrast between the white, desert-like sands and the green of the forest and lake.

We spent a few hours rolling and running down the hills, playing catch and watching the catfish swim around us. As we made to leave, it started to rain so we all ran back into the waters and splashed around until it stopped.

Later, we drove along the eastern beach past a shipwreck, vividly coloured rocks and over washouts and creeks. We had to be at camp at 3.30pm otherwise the tides would be too high.

We just about made it, skirting the incoming tides and ploughing through the soft sand to Cathedral Beach Resort - our base camp. Luxury compared to most 4x4 trips - we had a showerblock, toilets and kitchen at our campground.

Starving hungry, we cooked up a barbecue, put up the two six-man tents and began an evening of drinking. When the lights were turned out at 10pm, we headed down the track to the beach (getting a lift with Team Korea in their pink van) and continued the party and drinking games. Starting early, we were in bed early and unafraid of dingoes, snakes and spiders...

Our second day, we headed to Indian Head - a high outcrop of rock where we could look along the beaches and down into the dangerous waters below to look for whales, sharks and rays. We saw humpbacks in the distance, heading south for summer, dolphins playing in the surf. But no sharks.

Then it was a long walk along the beach and up to Champagne pools. Here, the water crashes over rocks and creates pools of water - the bubbles created by the waves pouring over the stones.

After sunbathing, we headed to Eli creek and sunbathed some more before racing the tide back to base camp by 4pm.

We had a crazy evening - recruiting the newcomers to our teams to play tournaments of the drinking game 'flip cup' with the losers singing songs to the winners. It was a very funny and rowdy evening.

Our last day saw us packing up camp and heading out to some stunning lakes.

We visited Lake Birrabeen - where pure white sand ran into the shallow crystal waters before sloping quickly down into blackness and the lava at the bottom of the lake. The contrast of black, bright blue and white was simply stunning.

After a few games of frisbee, it was then to Lake Mckenzie, the picturesque spot on many postcards. It was far busier with plenty of families and backpackers splashing about in the (once again, crystal-clear) water.

Team North America and we then headed for our ferry. A long wait was cushioned by many games of volleyball/keepy-uppy in which I was generally out by the third or fourth hit... some people are just not cut out for sport...

Shattered, we made our way back to Hervey Bay to return our trusty 4x4s and have a farewell drink or two...

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007


It is pretty much impossible not to have a good time on the East Coast of Australia. Well that is my experience of the past few weeks anyway. I am truly having a ball.

Since writing about my Whitsunday sailing trip I have flown a plane, driven a chopper (the bike not the whirly kind), sunbathed on stunning beaches, swam in pristine lakes and driven along miles of beach in a 4x4 with some mad Irish people.

1770 is a tiny town where Captain Cook first set foot on Australian soil (in 1770, natch). He may have anchored in Sydney first - but he personally never went ashore. So this stunning spot was named after that historic landing.

The town itself has a permanent population of less than 100, and most tourists stay in the nearby (also very small) town of Agnes Waters.

I arrived with my Chilean friends JP and Claudio, who I met diving, and headed for Cool Bananas hostel. Here, the atmosphere was laid-back and friendly. You could lay in the hammocks all day if you wished, or take part in the plentiful activities. Here, for example, you can learn to surf for $16.50 or take a trip to pristine parts of the barrier reef for very reasonable prices.

I chose to take a 'walk on the wild side' - a jaunt through the bush talking about tucker, snakes and spiders with Scott or the Clay King, as he is self-named. We visited stunning, untouched coves near Agnes Water and learned about the celebrity residents living nearby along with his conspiracy theories of differing degrees of ridiculousness. He painted us with a clay mask which we washed off by jumping from lava rocks into the surf below.

A strange but very nice man, he brought a carpet python he had found the previous week to the hostel that evening for us to see.

Chilean lads JP, Claudio and some Irish lads I met at the hostel all went in for a scooteroo tour of the landscape around 1770. This involved learning how to ride a chopper (motorbike) and chugging around the hills looking for roos. We then hotfooted along a fast road (just 70km an hour mum) to 1770 where we watched sunset with a basket of potato wedges.

The fun didn't end there. The following day, JP, Claudio and I went up in a tiny Cessna plane. Just the three of us and our pilot, Bruce, fit inside. The runway was a stretch of grass...

Bruce was great fun - nose diving the plane and allowing me to take the controls and actually fly the plane. I learned how to bank and go up and down... all the time we were flying over the stunning 1770 estuary - as beautiful as Whitehaven beach at the Whitsundays, watching for whales, sharks and mantas in the seas and looking at the surf below us.

After a while we landed on a pristine and deserted beach on Middle Island. The only was to it is by plane or boat.

After tasting fresh oysters from the rocks, we swapped positions and Claudio took the front seat. My fun wasn't over yet.

I was instructed to unclip my safety belt, put my knees to my chest and wrap my arms about them. Bruce then sent the plane hurtling towards the ground - I was weightless, floating up to the roof of the plane like a spaceman...

My adventures don't stop there. It was off to Hervey Bay next for my Fraser Island adventure but I will post pictures and tales tomorrow...

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Sailing the Whitsundays

I used to dislike doing anything that involved much effort. I liked holidays that involved sunbathing and little else other than a wander to the local bistro or the beach.

Oh, how things have changed. Everything is action-packed at the moment and I'm loving every minute of it.

I decided to chill out at Airlie Beach for a day and check out the options for the sailing trips after the dizzying fun of the wreck dive.

I started looking into being a hostie on a trip, as I did in Cairns, but there seemed to be fewer options for people just passing through. After a bit of research and stress, I opted to go for a more expensive boat trip - but the one which was my gut instinct to join.

And so it was that last Sunday (Sept 16), I set sail on the Matador - the largest maxi yaught ever built and which was undefeated in the races it sailed around 10 years ago.

I say set sail. There was absolutely no wind. The sea was lake-like, glass-like, as flat as a pancake and all the other cliches for really no wind or waves.

The sun was scorching hot and we lay out on deck soaking up the rays and chatting to the crew. There was aussie Pete the skipper, kiwi Ferg as deckhand, Tom our dive instructor and our Canadian hostie Erin.

The first day, we pootled around and got used to the boat as it motored slowly through the 74 islands of the Whitsunday group. It is so called because when Captain Cook sailed past, he thought it was Whitsunday (it was actually Monday).

We moored up at a spot only accessible on days as calm as this and geared up for a 'free' dive. All the certified divers went down together to explore some caves. The coral was a bit lacklustre and it was all a bit rushed and lacking in fish. Being somewhat claustrophobic, the swimthroughs are not my favourite.

After a quick sunbake, I jumped in for a snorkel with Maltese Pete and we found that there was no need to dive. The brightly coloured corals and interesting fish were a metre or less from the surface.

The following day was just as beautifully hot. We motored to a bay on Whitsunday Island and walked through the bush to overlook Whitehaven beach. It has been named the third best beach in the world (who decides these things?) and it is stunning.

Pristine white sand bars swirl through turquoise waters of the bay with the mountains of Whitsunday Island as a backdrop. In the distance are other islands, the gully between two where the pure, immensely fine sand is created.

Down on the beach, the sand squeaked as we padded through it to the waters edge. The sun was scorching down, even at the early hour of the morning. We all ran into the warm, shallow waters and played frisbee.

When the novelty of that wore off, I took myselt back up the beach to sit and ponder and stare. I saw stingrays and mullet patrolling the pools of water left by the outgoing tide. I looked up and saw one of the most beautiful beaches I have seen and reflected on other wonderful beaches I've visited, other sights which have taken my breath away in the last 15 months of travelling. There have been so many and so many moments when I felt so grateful to get the chance to see them.

Back on the boat, we lunched at another bay and then snorkelled more brightly coloured corals - some vivid green, others deep purple. There were soft corals blowing in the gentle current and big boulder-like brain corals and dozens of fish all darting around.

That afternoon, the wind picked up enough to hoist the sails and turn off the motor. We all lent a hand, grinding up the heavy mainsail and the boys pulling up the front one. We leaned gently to the left and all scrambled to the right side of the boat and we were off - cruising gently in the late afternoon light until the sun began to set and we saw its spectacular colours highlight the sky over a mug of goon. And then it was dark and we ate our barbecue on deck, huddled in jumpers with the plates balanced on our laps. Giggling and finding out about each other.

I was lucky - the group were great. There were fellow loners Esther and Peter and French Olivier, Irish couple Anita and Fergal, Danny and Laura from Manchester with mates Liam and Pete, four English girls who had met at uni, a girl from Hong Kong and three Taiwanese.

Our last day was probably the highlight of the trip. Esther, Peter, Olivier and I snorkelled in the bay were we had slept where the area of coral was large and wonderful and hundreds of fish congregated. They included some huge Napolean maori wrasse (around 1m long) which were frightening to catch in the corner of your eye when out snorkelling alone.

Back on board, we began to motor away from the site (which was fast becoming peopled with other pleasure and charter boats)when we saw a mother whale and her calf edging along the shallows of the island. We followed them for a while, watching the bay breach again and again and the mother once throwing herself out joyfully, then overtook them and killed the motor.

Within a few minutes they were swimming our way, surfacing at the rear of the boat - the mother vast and barnacled - far huger than those I've seen anywhere else. She was a giant.

We followed them for some time and then set sail back to land. That day the wind had picked right up and we were able to stream along at a speed of around 12 knots - the boat tilting far over to the right so that the wire rails skimmed the water and we had to hang over the other side to balance.

My first introduction to sailing was an immense amount of fun. If anything, we just wanted to stay on the boat and swim and snorkel in the perfect weather for longer.

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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Diving the SS Yongala

I left Cairns on Wednesday - a little worse for wear due to the previous day being my birthday. 26. I'm now closer to 30 than 20. Oh god.

But I managed to haul my granny arse onto the Greyhound bus and make the seven hour trip to Ayr, a tiny town south of Townsville.

After an interesting taxi ride (I had $29.60 on me but the cab driver took me the whole way - despite it being about a $35 ride - oops!) to the dive lodge, I discovered the owners hadn't left me the key to the accommodation...

But after searching spider-webbed boxes, ashtrays, under plants and over ledges, I banged on the door and was let in. The accommodation for divers at Yongala dive is great - polished wooden floors, soft cream sofas, fluffy blankets and character-laden features. Already staying there were hostie Paulina, Chilean guys JP and Claudio, fellow Brit Laura and Israeli Dotti - all young and fun.

The dive day began early with a bit of breakfast and heading downstairs to the dive shop to choose our gear. We met the rest of the passengers - some older aussies - and after a bit of a briefing ("don't go inside the wreck", "don't get eaten by sharks", "do have fun"), we made our way to the beach in an old, bumpy landcruiser.

After a bit of dune bashing in the truck, we saw the boat levered off the trailer into the water on this deserted and totally unspoilt beach.

The boat is tiny - a little turquoise speedboat - which took us off the beach at between 25-30 knots.

The weather was perfect. Low winds of about 10 knots, and virtually pancake-flat seas. The sun was hot but not blisteringly so.

As we hurtled out to sea, we saw whales playing in the distance. The were throwing themselves out of the water and thumping down into the water on their backs. Flicking their tails out as a final flourish.

When we reached the dive site, we geared up in the tiny space and rolled backwards off the sides into the water. We had to haul ourselves along the mooring line because the current was so strong.

And then we were descending into the blue, pulling ourselves downwards on the line as we faced into the strong current. Deeper and deeper until we could see the top of the wreck looming below us. And there it was - the stern of the ship as she lay on her side. She is absolutely covered in corals.

It was hard to take it all in on the first dive. The current was strong and we battled against it while trying to comprehend the amount of fish, the colours of the corals, the size of everything.

Huge Maori wrasse swam inches from our faces, large shovel-nosed rays skimmed the sand below us. Bat fish darted around us and huge parrotfish nibbled at the corals. A two metre shark rested inside the hull. We swam through schools of smaller fish like yellow-tailed fusiliers as they swam around the mighty wreck.

As we approached the bow of the ship, the current was ridiculously strong but we battled it to get to the mooring line at the front of the boat - hard work but worth it. When we turned around we saw a huge grouper looming over the bow. He was enormous - at least 5ft long.

After an interval with tea, cakes and plenty of fruit, we descended for the second time. This time the current was not so strong but the visibility had worsened slightly. This time we could get up close to the corals, look inside at the toilets and bath and explore over and around more thoroughly.

And then it was over and it was back up to the boat and to whisk us back to the beach in the hot sunshine.

After dropping off and washing off the gear, we had a lovely barbecue in the sunshine. The older divers left and us younger ones were left to chill out in the sun and enjoy the accommodation before having a few drinks to celebrate an awesome day.

So thanks to all my family who contributed to my birthday present - you're the best

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Friday, September 07, 2007

Rainforests and reef

The landscape around Cairns is truly beautiful. While the city focuses on partying and thrills and spills of rafting, bungy jumps, skydives and diving the barrier reef, there are more peaceful ways to spend the days.

And so, last week, I hopped aboard a Jungle Tours bus to Cape Tribulation. There were just five of us and our guide Shane, a true Aussie bloke - mad on his beer, the outdoors, going crazy.

We stopped off at Mossman Gorge and walked a short way through the rainforest on a warm but wet day, looking at strangler fig trees and the weird and wonderful canopy before jumping up and down across an unsteady rope bridge and taking a dip in the freezing, fast-flowing river - much to the surprise and amusement of the tourists walking past.

After passing sugarcane fields being cut and the mountains covered in forests, we stopped at the Daintree river for a croc-spotting cruise. We floated past exotic birds in the rainforest, salties sunning themselves on the banks and spotted a small tree snake before meeting our driver by the river ferry.

Then it was onwards towards Cape Trib with a quick stop for lunch at Cape Kimberley. I stayed at Cape Tribulation Beach House - dozens of huts nestled into the rainforest - about as far as you can stay into the wilderness.

The beach was right next to the accommodation - a long stretch of sand fringed by the rainforest and with mountains plunging into the trees in the background. Cape Trib - the tree-covered outcrop was to the right, behind mangroves and a short walk away.

Jedd, Yanika and I explored the beach and walked through the forest to another beach. The skies were stormy but it was still warm.

There was very little to do at Cape Trib but relax. The following day, the three of us set out on a walk to a swimming hole but ended up hitching a lift in the back of a ute up to the creek - it was a hilly 5km walk otherwise and even my games couldn't encourage Yanika and Jedd to enjoy the walk.

We were pretty much alone at the swimming hole - which was in a secluded part of the creek a few minutes walk through the forests.

Downstream from the road were plenty of crocs, but upstream, the cold, clear waters were safe to swim in with the sun glinting through the trees. We clambered upstream for a bit, me getting freaked out by a weird dead spider that I needed about 15m space to get around.

We hitched a lift back in a camper driven by a couple from Adelaide - just in time as the heavens opened and it poured down.

Jedd and Yanika left and I spent an evening reading, relaxing and eating followed by a similar thread the next day - sunbathing when the sun shone on the beach, and running to the virtually open-air restaurant when it poured down.

The cassowary bird

In my last few minutes at Cape Trib I saw the famed but endangered cassowary bird - an ancient emu-like bird which is my height, quite fierce and which can rip you guts out if it feels threatened. It was just sauntering along the path through the huts at the beach house.

Returning back to Cairns saw a celebratory return to civilisation with a big night out...

On Sunday (Sept 2), I woke up feeling shocking - a bad throat and sore ears - not a good day to start hostie-ing on a dive boat. I rocked up to Deep Sea Divers Den nonetheless and kept my fingers crossed they would let me join the trip and dive.

The next few days were tough - I was ill, tired constantly and not myself but I still managed to have a ball on the boat. The crew were just awesome and I discovered that diving actually helped my tonsilitis - must have been the salt water.

We stuck mainly to Norman Reef as the winds were too high to move to Saxon or Hastings reef. Ocean Quest is their large liveaboard boat which stays out at the reef while Reef Quest ferries passengers from Cairns to the outer reef.

The first dive was pretty awful - I was shattered - the winds were high and we had to swim on the surface quite far to the mooring line. My fins were loose, my mask leaked and I wasn't weighted properly. My buddy was panicking and the vis was bad.

But I righted the situation with a guided night dive - a calming swim through the blackness which ended perfectly - looking up the mooring lines and seeing white tip sharks circling under the boat's spotlight and, as we ascended, watching them swim past just a metre or two away.

Other dives were just as awesome with some spectacular corals and wonderful fish. Not all were great visibility but those that were, were stunning dives. We saw huge potato cod, huge pufferfish, dozens of triggerfish, clown fish, sharks, lionfish, rays etc. There wasn't the diversity of Phi Phi in Thailand, but the corals were often so so beautiful.

The last dive, I went in early with the chef Lurch and he guided me around the twin Peaks site at Saxon reef - a wonderful wonderful dive where we saw so much becuause no one else had disturbed the site and we were able to see sharks lying on the sandy ocean floor - quite unbothered by us.

Sadly, after 12 great dives, it was over and back to land. I had done some great diving, eaten delicious food and slept in the crew cabin under the water for three nights in return for a bit of washing up, making beds and cleaning a few bathrooms.

It took me about two days to stop feeling like I was constantly on the boat and to get back to normal and feel better.

But now it's time for the next adventure - on down the East Coat - to Ayr for a a dive at the SS Yongala wreck...

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