My Life in Motion

Archive for the category “Travel”

Darwin Delights

During the Top End’s dry season, the Mindil Beach markets run weekly, and having been recommended a visit, I was sure not to miss out. Returning to Darwin from Litchfield National Park, I asked to get dropped off there instead of my hostel and the place was buzzing. The sun was still up although lowering and there were crowds packed into the market itself as well as draped across the sand, which was now cool enough to walk on, many of them parked up with edible delights to watch the sunset. There was so much choice for food and the queues at many of them were long. Seeing as I was at the seaside, I opted for fish & chips, and was sadly disappointed with my choice. Nevertheless, I ate what I could stomach whilst the sky turned from orange through to red. Over three weeks into my Australian adventure, I’d been utterly spoilt with sunsets.


After the sun dipped below the horizon, I returned to the market which was amazing. Aside from the food stalls, there were some incredible craft stores, and I drooled over a lot of the stuff, wishing I had a big enough house and a lot of money to own it. I ate ice cream, and dutch pancakes, and drank iced tea as I meandered. I was told that Europeans are a great lover of Indigenous artworks, and true to my roots, I saw beautiful painting after beautiful painting. I was determined to find myself something made by an Indigenous artist that was transportable and affordable, and eventually gave in and bought an expensive satchel made by an Indigenous artist through a Co-op. It is so beautiful and was so expensive that I’m actually reluctant to use it, but it came with a photo and bio of the artist that made it. At the outskirts of the market there was entertainment in the form of fire juggling and whip cracking. Having gone round and round the stalls, darkness was now upon me, and being on a backpacker’s budget, I walked past the taxi rank and walked the streets of Darwin back to my hostel.


I had one final full day in Darwin and it was yet another scorcher. In fact the sun symbol displayed on my phone’s weather app for many days ahead on the forecast, and my whole time in Darwin had been a fairly steady 35-36oC. Despite the heat, it was going to be a day of walking. I headed to Cullen Bay marina, the picturesque and upmarket part of the city down the hill from where I was staying. There were some boaties eating and planning their race, and I people watched in the outdoor seating area of the cafe, against a background of boats. Nearby, a life-sized statue of a crocodile stands with its mouth agape, a friendly reminder that this is croc country. There are some boutique shops here and the Sea Link ferry to Mandorah on the far side of the immense harbour, and the Tiwi islands leaves from here.


I followed the path round the coast and back up the hill to a wasteland patch of grass that overlooks Mindil Beach. A black cockatoo strutted about near the top of a walkway through bush, down the hill to the beach. I walked as far as the bridge at the casino where more black cockatoos were causing a ruckus. Mindil Beach was deserted, partly because it was a weekday, and partly because the sand quickly gets too hot to walk on during the day. After admiring the view, I retraced my steps, happening upon some unusual birds as I returned to the bush.


I found myself back at Bicentennial Park, where I’d wandered on my arrival in the city a few nights prior. Overlooking the expansive Darwin Harbour, there are a myriad of viewpoints to look out from. I took my time, ending up at the war memorial and the lookout over Stokes Hill wharf. Round the corner from here is the Supreme Court, the Christ Church Cathedral, and the Smith Street Overbridge which crosses over Kitchener Drive a few stories below, and ends up at the Darwin Waterfront precinct where there is an incredible view and a lift that takes you down the drop in altitude.


On the hop-on, hop-off bus two days prior, I had spotted the WWII tunnels that dove into the cliffside, and had decided at that stage that I would go in them before leaving. However, now that I was here, I wasn’t overly fussed, my stomach demanding attention instead. Nearby, I took a table at Chow!, an asian restaurant. I regretted sitting outside as it was unbearably hot, but the food was incredible. I had seen laksa on menus everywhere in the city, and finally got hold of one to eat. I chose roast duck laksa washed down with a chilled cider, but between the hot weather and the spices in the soup, I was sweating buckets.


Winding my way to the end of the Stokes Hill wharf, I spotted a ray in the water below. I followed it for a while before it disappeared, and I pressed on to the recently opened joint venture of the Royal Flying Doctors Service (RFDS) and the Bombing of Darwin museum. I knew a little about the RFDS already thanks to an Australian soap called The Flying Doctors that aired in the UK when I was growing up, however like the cyclone that destroyed Darwin which I’d learned about at the Museum & Art Gallery of Northern Territory, I’d never heard about the bombing of Darwin that occurred in 1942 during the Second World War. On entering the museum, I was guided to a virtual reality headset experience which was incredible, and placed you right into the thick of the action via an animation. Although the exhibition was small, the videos and holograms meant it was easy to pass quite a bit of time here, and I was impressed with how well it had been done.


After indulging in some ice cream, I returned to the Waterfront Precinct and went to the Wave Lagoon. I’d made it here later than planned, and had somewhere to be in the evening, so I had only 40mins to enjoy the place. I couldn’t believe it when I saw someone in the pool who I’d seen regularly on my Queensland travels, and I managed to make an idiot of myself several times trying to get myself into the rubber tubes that are provided to ride the waves. I was only able to experience one cycle, and would have loved to stay there longer: the water was so refreshing. But I had booked myself on a sunset cruise and time was marching on.


I raced back to the wharf and boarded Sundancer, my sailboat for the evening. There had been a few options for cruises in the harbour, and I went for a mid-range price, which had included canapes and a glass of champagne in the price. However from the moment we left the wharf behind, not only was there a constant service of delicious nibbles, but the champagne was free flowing. After all the heat of the day, and the hours of walking, I found myself relaxing and frankly getting rather merry. I’m not a regular drinker, or a big drinker, but it felt great to let my hair down, and every time my glass ran dry, I was more than happy to accept a top-up. I did take photos of the passing scenery at the beginning, and then later as the sun was setting, but I spent quite a bit of time chatting with a fellow passenger, as well as sunbathing, and stuffing my face. I was positively pissed by the time we returned to the wharf which made for an interesting walk back to my hostel. Needless to say I woke up with a wicked thirst.


My flight out of Darwin wasn’t till the afternoon, so I had one last morning in the city. Long before I’d even booked my trip there, I’d heard about a place in the city where you could cage dive with crocodiles. Upon discovering of its existence, I told myself that if I ever made it to Darwin, I’d do it. Unfortunately, I had underestimated its popularity and didn’t bother to book ahead. When I was in Cairns, a few nights before leaving Queensland behind, I’d gone on the website to discover it was booked out for my entire stay. I was gutted. Nonetheless, I decided to spend the morning at Crocosaurus Cove, effectively a crocodile zoo, right in the heart of Darwin’s city centre.

I’m not a fan of zoos or aquariums, so didn’t have high hopes for the place, but it turned out to be bigger than I expected. I spent a good bit of time in the reptile house looking at the scaly creatures that inhabit the Northern Territory. The crocodiles outside were huge and included Burt, the crocodile star of Crocodile Dundee. I got to feed some juvenile crocodiles and watched as people took part in the cage-diving experience that I had wanted to do. Whilst I always leave these places a little sad at the enclosure sizes some creatures are kept in, it was still an interesting experience.


But finally it was time to collect my luggage, and jump on the shuttle to the airport. By the time I’d queued to check in my luggage, I didn’t have long to wait. At my gate, the flight was called and they requested row after row, but mine was never called. The gate emptied out and I sat there waiting and wondering. Suddenly, they announced the gate was about to close and I shot up and ran over. The ground staff crew gave me a curious look as I’d clearly sat there all along without boarding. I’m assuming I missed my row being called, but nonetheless, I was on my second domestic flight of my great Australian adventure, and another new region awaited.


Nature in the Northern Territory

Whilst it’s always interesting to wander round a new city, I’m really a lover of nature, wildlife and open spaces. So it was inevitable that my trip to Darwin would include a trip out of the city. Both Litchfield and Kakadu National Parks are within reach of Darwin, and I would have loved to have explored both, but alas, I really only had 1 day to spare, and that meant making the decision to do a day trip to Litchfield National Park, being as it was both smaller and that bit nearer to the city. Without my own transport, I looked around at the day tour options, made my choice and hoped for the best. My big bugbear with organised tours is being restricted to the itinerary that they set, meaning missing out on places, or not getting to stay for as long as I would like. I also hate being stuck with a group of strangers being ferried about the place, so if I have to use them, I’ll do my best to use a small group, locally run tour service, rather than a big group corporate tour company. Whilst this was an option for Litchfield, it meant an additional stop at the Adelaide river to go crocodile watching, something that I really wasn’t fussed about doing. It really came down to the choice between a big couch tour to Litchfield alone, or a small group tour to Litchfield and the crocs. In the end I chose the latter.

I waited outside my Darwin hostel in the early morning light, and was collected by my guide early. In fact everybody being picked up was ready early meaning we got out of the city ahead of schedule. There were only 7 of us which was great. As we were such a small group and had extra time, our guide decided to take us to the Window on the Wetlands visitor centre where we had time to peruse the display on the local flora and fauna, and have a look over the landscape from the upstairs viewing deck. Whilst the ground wasn’t as red here as I’d seen from the plane, there was definitely a frontier feel with forests bordering onto exposed arid ground. The access road to the Adelaide river crocodile cruise had a similar feel with a watering hole next to the road attracting wild cattle and a plethora of birds. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve visited Australia, but despite hiking out bush in every state I’d previously visited, I was yet to spot a snake in the wild. As we trundled along next to the watering hole though, a snake suddenly appeared on the road and rapidly shot across to the other side, disappearing out of view as quickly as it had come into it.


I’d seen pictures of these crocodile cruises where they entice crocodiles to jump out the water with bait, and I am uneasy at wildlife being manipulated for the sake of a tourist buck as much as I am about the association that these wild and deadly creatures will make between the food and the humans. I wasn’t really sure how I’d feel about this part of the tour, and I wouldn’t have done it in any other circumstance, but I duly boarded the little boat and listened to the skipper tell us about the local crocs. They’d been sailing this river for years and had named the crocodiles they saw. They knew their behaviour, their personality and had a reasonable idea of their age. Despite my reservations, I had to give them their dues: they really did have a keen interest in the crocodiles.

The Adelaide river is broad, and even this far upstream could have quite a tidal influence. The water itself was silty and brown and so there was no way of telling what was in there. It didn’t take long for us to find crocodiles. Unlike the freshwater crocs I’d seen at Kuranda in Queensland, these saltwater crocs, or salties as they are known, are huge. Stumpy who was missing part of a leg was the first to come over and investigate us. Like an iceberg, it is a mere fraction of the beast that is visible above the water, and that is why they try to make the crocodile jump, to show off its hunting style and sheer size. They explained to us that they were selective with who they tried to bait, making sure they didn’t pick the same crocs each time, and gauging their behaviour as they went. So although Stumpy came over voluntarily, they left him alone, moving further along the river.  Next we found Candy, a female and although smaller than the males, still a good sized croc. She eyeballed us, circling the boat, and when the bait was lowered, she demonstrated a shallow jump.


Despite the dirty-looking water, it was a lovely river to cruise down. Even in between croc sightings there was an ever changing bank to look at. Our third crocodile interaction was with Cassanova, the largest of the crocs that we had spotted. He was absolutely massive, and this was apparent even before he jumped out the water, but when he did leap upwards, the extent of his size became undeniable. These are definitely creatures not to be messed with. He demonstrated his jumping skills several times before we left him behind to cruise back along the river. As we did, the crew started throwing meat morsels up into the air and suddenly multiple birds of prey appeared, and these kites swooped in with great skill to catch the meat in mid air. They followed us for quite some time along the river until the meat ran out.


I had enjoyed the experience, and was glad to have seen some wild crocs up close, but I still wasn’t sure how I felt about the way they went about it. As we left, there was still plenty of activity at the watering hole. Now, there were water buffalo and a large black-necked stork amongst the crowd of fowl. After watching them briefly, we headed onwards towards Litchfield National Park. Our lunch stop was interesting to say the least, a random cafe in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere that was run by a nudist. The food was fantastic, and after filling up, it was time to get going.


100 kilometres (62 miles) south-west of Darwin, Litchfield National Park covers 1500 square kilometres (932 square miles) and is most known for its waterfalls and giant termite mounds. There was no way I was going to see everything in just one day, so this was always going to be a highlights tour, but it gave me plenty of desire to come back another time with my own transport. Our first stop was at the giant termite mounds. I’ve seen termite mounds in Australia before whilst out bush, but these were different. Within close proximity there were two types: magnetic mounds which were thin and on a north-south orientation to aid with temperature control, and cathedral mounds which were comparative giants. One of the largest cathedral mounds was surrounded by a boardwalk, allowing a 360o exam of it without being able to damage it. They might be built by tiny insects, but these structures were impressive.


With several waterfalls to choose from, I didn’t know which ones we were going to get to see. Our longest and first stop was at Wangi Falls, probably the more well-known and busiest of the waterfalls. It was exceptionally busy with groups of people in and out of the water. Whilst everyone else got straight in the water on such a hot tropical day, I took a quick wander along a short walkway leading round the pool edge, viewing the scene from a differing angle and coming across some rather large St Andrew’s Cross spiders. I’ve seen these in Australia before but none this big and their webs were laced across the gaps between the foliage.


The water temperature was perfect, but it was murky so judging the depth was completely by feel. After hanging around in the shallows, I started swimming across to the rock face, initially straight across the pool, then around the edge where I could hop between the shallower parts. I’m not ashamed to admit I have a fear of drowning. If I can see the bottom below me, even if it is out of my depth, I don’t have a problem, but like out in the open ocean, the murky waters made me uneasy as I didn’t know how deep it was. Once at the rocks, the side was exceedingly slippy and it was difficult to find something to hold on to without banging my legs against the rocks or slipping into the water. Myself and one of my companions for the day worked our way between the narrow ribbon waterfall and the wider waterfall, above which a group of guys in their twenties were unbelievably scaling the rock face quite high up and jumping into the water below. They had some balls climbing up the slippery rocks and as much balls jumping into the water when you couldn’t see where the rocks stopped or the deeper parts were.


Eventually we had to get out of the water, and we tucked into the tastiest watermelon I’ve ever eaten as we dried off, then we were off to the next stop. Florence Falls is a multi-tiered waterfall with a plunge pool at the bottom of the gully. We didn’t have time to go swimming here, instead we took the path to the lookout with a view down onto the falls from above. The guys who had been cliff diving at Wangi were already here doing the same thing and we watched again as they scaled the steep rocky sides, finding narrower and narrower ledges to jump from. I’m not sure how it came up in conversation, but I mentioned to the guide about my experience licking the butts of green ants in Queensland, and before I knew it, we were all letting green ants bite our skin in order to lick their abdomens. I remember thinking the first time around that it was a sentence I never thought I would say, and yet here I was, once again licking ants’ butts.


Our final stop in Litchfield National Park was the Buley Rock-pools. Here we had time to go swimming again, and I really didn’t need much persuasion to get back in the water. A series of small waterfalls cascading down a gradient created a myriad of little plunge pools, some of which were just deep enough to sit in, and a couple that were deep enough to swim in. I sat under one of the upper falls letting the thundering water massage my shoulders and back, before moving to the deeper pool at the bottom. Again the water was murky and the rocks were slippery resulting in me accidentally kicking the rock with my foot. The cool water helped to dull the throb a little bit, but unfortunately my toe nail had separated itself partly from my toe. It didn’t detract from the experience though, and lazing in the pools was a nice way to round off the afternoon.


I had hoped we would see Tolmer falls on the tour as well, but it was now time to leave the park behind and head back to the city. It didn’t take long for the head nodding to start as most of us slept our way back to Darwin. The light was getting lower as we drew into the city, but the day wasn’t over yet. I got dropped off at Mendil Beach, instead of back at my hostel, ready to experience a Darwin gem.

Terra Australis – Northern Territory

When faced with the choice between a cheaper indirect flight and a dearer direct flight, I would normally pay a little bit more for less airport time. Hanging around in airports, whilst good for people watching, is a bane of travelling that I would happily eliminate, with hours of my life having been wasted in these culture-less man-made boxes. However, on this occasion, the direct flight out of Cairns was first thing in the morning, and when I booked my flights many months earlier, I had naively thought I would want the extra time in the Great Barrier Reef‘s gateway city, and for that reason I’d chosen to book an unknown regional airline, Air North, which took off at a much more civil lunchtime slot. As it turned out, I really didn’t get Cairns, and found myself spending the morning before my flight at the hostel and the nearby mall, eager to get away from the rather drab city. But I didn’t regret my choice of airline, and although it meant more airport time than I’d needed, I was actually glad to experience the route it took.

Leaving Tropical North Queensland behind, we were soon to leave land behind, flying over the Gulf of Capricorn, a large expanse of water that separates the top of the state of Queensland with the top of the Northern Territory. When we next hit land, there was a lot of bush but also a lot of red desert. It was exciting to see the arid landscape I’d seen so many times on the television. Our indirect flight landed in a tiny settlement called Gove. The runway was surrounded by red desert and it looked like we were in the middle of nowhere in the Outback. The only annoying thing about it was that we all had to disembark, and go through security in the tiny Gove airport building before being allowed back on the plane. Despite having just come from Cairns, I was selected to be taken aside for explosives screening. I was surprised at how many people were getting off in Gove and how many people were getting on. It was clearly a transit hub for the local area. But finally we were on our way to a city that I had longed to go to for some time, the Territory’s capital, Darwin.


People in Queensland had told me to expect a massive culture shock when I got to Darwin. A comparatively small city, it has the largest percentage of Indigenous Australians compared with any other city in the country. The way people talked about the place, they made it sound like it was a poor and ‘backwards’ city, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to find when I landed. What I discovered though, was a city that I loved, and one that I would have loved to have had more time in. Over the course of 3.5 days, I packed as much of the local area in as I could, but with the benefit of a car on another occasion, I would love to go back and do more.

It was evening by the time I’d checked into my accommodation, and I was quick to dump my stuff and get out to the nearby Bicentenial Park where locals were out for an after work stroll. It was a well-maintained stretch of parkland with some views out over the wide expanse of Darwin Harbour. As the sun lowered, I wandered around passed packed bars, and up the main shopping street of Smith Street where I found a night market that the driver of the airport shuttle had told me about. There was a plethora of stalls selling mainly Asian-inspired food, and I tucked into a delicious meal of pad thai and sangria. The heat was worse than Queensland, and I struggled both outdoors and indoors. I escaped into the air conditioned space of a pop-up art gallery that was open late, hiding out there till I was guided towards the exit at closing time, sweating my way back to my hostel dorm, who’s air conditioning was wholly ineffective.


I prefer to do most of my city exploring on foot when I’m abroad, but in the tropical climate and with Darwin quite spread out, I acknowledged that this wasn’t going to be sensible here. With the rise of a hot sun the next day, I bought myself a ticket for the city’s hop on-hop off tour bus which gave me 24hrs use of their services. Up the length of Mitchell Street, packed with bars and youth hostels, the bus headed towards Cullen Bay, an upmarket part of the city with swanky apartment blocks overlooking a gorgeous marina. Round past the casino and Botanic Gardens, I got off in the suburb of Parap which has a Saturday market. The food options were almost the same as the previous night’s market and this was interspersed with fruit & veg and local crafts. After grabbing breakfast and having a wander around, I jumped back on the bus, completing its loop via Stokes Hill wharf and back around, getting off again at the Botanic Gardens.


I love visiting Botanic Gardens, some being better than others. There were some interesting patches within Darwin’s gardens, but exposed to the constant sunshine, I was going through water like crazy. Near the entrance was a beautiful fountain in a pond, and the vegetation was a mixture of colourful flowers and tropical canopies. Walkways wind through the various sections, revealing a waterfall and some trees I’d never seen before, including a chunky and nobbly boab tree.


Eventually I cut to the coast at Mendil Beach where I had my first interaction with some Indigenous Australians. I had already seen where some of the comments about Darwin by the Queenslanders had come about: there were many drunk Aboriginals wandering the city’s streets, and all the beggars that I had seen had also been Indigenous people. Here at the beach, a group of ladies sitting in the park said hello and I returned the greeting. They quickly went back to their native tongue as I passed. Under the beating heat the sand was too hot to walk on and it was deserted.


A path through some much desired shade brought me out a little along the coast at the Museum & Art Gallery of Northern Territory. Being one of the bus stops for the hop on-hop off service, I had planned on jumping back on the bus here and moving on, but at the last minute I decided to head inside. The museum is free to enter so I used this as an excuse to utilise the building’s air conditioning. In the foyer was a display of painted car parts by an Indigenous artist, and a little pond at the side had a resident hog-nosed turtle floating about. Apparently, Indigenous artwork is much-loved by European visitors. It is certainly a very distinctive style and I myself loved many of the artworks that I saw over my Australia trip. Had I been rich and a homeowner, I could have bought a whole personal gallery whilst I was there.


Aside from the gallery of artwork, there was a display of local fauna which of course included all the venomous creatures that reside in the territory, but what was most interesting to me was the area dedicated to Cyclone Tracy that devastated Darwin on Christmas Eve in 1974. I hadn’t heard about this disaster before, but living as I do in Christchurch, New Zealand, a city devastated by two earthquakes, many of the photographs of the cyclone’s damage looked all too familiar. This city too had suffered at nature’s grip and been rebuilt.

In the afternoons, the hop on-hop off bus has an added section to its loop of the city, heading past Fannie Bay to East Point Reserve. This was a popular area with locals, and one that I would love to come back and explore in depth. It was quite a way out of the city centre, and I was reliant on the tour bus to take me back. Unfortunately the last one left in daylight hours, and so I had just a couple of hours to explore. From the military museum where the bus stop is, I meandered to the cliffs of the coastline and followed the walking track back towards Fannie Bay. There was plenty of evidence of erosion along the cliff edges, and signs warned of crocodiles in the vicinity.


Once overlooking Fannie Bay, the skyline of Darwin was evident in the distance, and the beach was long here, being well used by families that were camped up under the trees cooking barbecues with friends and family. Most people were congregated around the strip between the beach and Lake Alexander, and presumably drawn by the smell of food, there was a mob of birds of prey swooping overhead. The smell of food was making me a little hungry and seeing the groups of people enjoying themselves together made me feel a tad lonely. By the time I’d wandered back to the Military Museum to catch the last bus back to the city, there was a lone bagpiper playing outside in memorium for a board member that had recently died. No matter where I am in the World, my little Scottish heart always bursts with national pride at the sound of a bagpipe.


Back in the city, I found a dumpling store down an alley and procured some yummy food to take to Bicentennial Park and eat. With the sun setting, it was just a matter of finding the desired vantage point to watch the sun go down. I’d been spoiled in Queensland with all the sunsets I’d witnessed there, so the Northern Territory had a lot to live up to. The sky burned a deep red as the sun’s orb faded below the horizon. It had been a good introduction to the city, and I’d made note of those places to go back to. But the next day I had an early rise to visit one of the nearby national parks. There was definitely much to see in the Northern Territory.


The Great Barrier Reef

Below the waves of the sparkling Coral Sea, stretching for 2300 km (1400 miles), the submarine landscape of the World’s largest coral reef system lies steadfast yet ever changing, off the coast of Australia’s Queensland. Over 2,900 reefs and 900 islands make it the biggest structure made out of living organisms, and unsurprisingly it is visible from space. For many visitors to Australia, a trip to the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is a given, but for me, it had taken 5 years and multiple visits to this vast country to come even close. I love being by the sea, and I love the creatures that dwell in the oceans, but getting into the open water and exploring them in person is not a natural activity for me. So suffice to say, I’ve never really been fussed about going to the GBR, but now, working my way as I had up the Queensland coast, it seemed only sensible to reach Cairns and see what all the fuss was about.

The health of the GBR has been a hot topic of late, with reports of invading species such as the Crown of Thorns starfish decimating reefs, pollution changing the fragile water quality and of most note, the devastation of climate-induced coral bleaching. Like many ecosystems, those of coral reefs are a fragile sort, with many creatures and plant life living in symbiosis with each other. In other words, the presence of one organism is crucial to the presence of another. Coral by nature is colourless. It is the algae that colonise their tissues that give coral their fabulous and ranging colours. But rather than being a parasite, these algae are the life source for the coral. Without the algae, the coral fade to white, and eventually they starve and die. As sea temperatures rise, or pollution alters the water quality, the algae are the first to suffer, the coral following suit. My first experience of the GBR was in its southern reefs off the Whitsundays. The snorkelling conditions had been magical, but the coral bleaching was very much in evidence across the whole reef. The reef floor was littered with a graveyard of white coral, and there was more white coral than coloured coral in large sections of the reef. It was sobering and a little disheartening to see. I was intrigued to see how the northern reefs were coping.

After an enjoyable day up in Kuranda, the next morning I had an early rise to meet my pick-up to drive me to the Cairns marina where I was to board my transport for the day. There is an unbelievable amount of choice when it comes to getting out to the reef, from day trips to overnighters, helicopters to boats, diving to snorkelling. It is almost overwhelming. I had booked myself on an overnight reef experience, involving a boat trip out to a moored mini-cruiser which would take me around a selection of reefs over the course of about 30 hours. Most of the people on the boat were just going out for the day, but those of us with a special ticket, got sent up to the wheelhouse where a bacon & egg roll and a platter of fresh fruit awaited us for breakfast. I love spending boat journeys out on deck watching the world go by as the wind whips my hair into the biggest tangle of knotted curls, so I was a little irked that we were confined to the cabin for a while as introductions, formalities, paperwork and liability forms were sorted: an inconvenient necessity that I was glad to get over with. It was a sunny day, and the loungers on the top deck were the perfect spot to soak up the rays as Cairns disappeared behind us, eventually disappearing out of view.


It took some time for the Reef Experience boat to finally reach the Reef Encounter, the floating ‘hotel’ that was to be my base till the following afternoon. The small group of us changed vessels, whilst the many day trippers moored a little way away. For my first experience of a floating ‘hotel’, the Reef Encounter was easy to like. Stepping into the lounge area which appeared both dated but yet retro, the crew were welcoming, smiling and eager to get us settled and into the water. We were shown to our rooms and I was delighted to discover that my twin-share cabin was all mine, and after living in backpacker dorms since I’d left Noosa behind, this was the most amazing news I could have been given. Better still, unlike some of the others, my room was upstairs so I had a sea view and looking out the large windows, I spied the Saxon Reef.


The days were divided around a schedule: early morning snorkel or dive, then breakfast; morning snorkel or dive; mid-morning snorkel then lunch; afternoon snorkel or dive; mid-afternoon snorkel or dive then afternoon tea; night-time dive then dinner; and amongst all this water activity, the boat would move between reefs offering 3 separate locations over two days and the opportunity to learn to dive or gain further dive certification. I’ve done a lot of adrenalin activities in my time but diving has never been something I’ve been interested in. I have a fear of drowning and so the thought of being deep under the water and having to rely on a breathing apparatus doesn’t fill me with much excitement. I was one of only 3 people on the boat who wouldn’t be diving, and as the water activities went on over the 2 days, I began to realise that perhaps the experience was lost on me a little. Undeterred, I was aware that I would likely only visit the GBR once, and I was determined to make the most of it.

Briefings and welcomes over, I got kitted up in a wetsuit and got into the water for the morning snorkel session. Straight away the difference between Saxon Reef and Hardy Reef in the Whitsundays was obvious: there was next to no coral bleaching to be seen. The fish life was incredible and plentiful and excitedly on my first trip out I saw an eel. The water may have been calmer at Hardy Reef, but here the ecosystem seemed so much healthier. I stayed in the Coral Sea for about an hour, bobbing around watching life go on below me before coming out for lunch. The chef on board was incredible and I tucked into the first of many incredibly delicious meals. By the time of the afternoon snorkel, I was surprised to see a swell had appeared and the sea conditions were suddenly quite different to the morning. Still at Saxon Reef, I made a point of exploring different areas than I had on the morning snorkel and I found massive shoals at the fringes of the reef. In fact I got so distracted by them that I got whistled at for having strayed out of the snorkelling zone.


The top deck of the Reef Encounter offered the perfect sunbathing zone, and armed with a book from the library in the lounge, I pretended to read in between getting to know my fellow passengers and soaking up the sun. The boat had a bit of a rigmarole to go through to leave its anchorage and move on to a new spot. We anchored at Norman Reef offering a change of scene for the next water session. Here though, things were very different. The reef was not right next to the boat but a bit of a swim away, and the sea was quite choppy now. The sun was still shining but the sea did not look in the least bit inviting. I was nervous before even getting in the water, and one of my companions on the boat who was also a little nervous asked to buddy with me so that we could keep an eye out for each other. Unfortunately for her, I turned out to be the worst snorkelling buddy ever.


As fine as I am in the swimming pool, being in the open ocean can be a bit hit and miss for me. If conditions are calm and there is something to grab my attention, I can overcome any fear I have and push it to one side. A couple of years prior I had a panic attack whilst snorkelling in the open ocean off the Galapagos Islands. The sea conditions there had also been choppy and my guide at the time had thought the sensible thing for me to do to stop panicking was to stick my head under water and look below me. Little did he know that the sight of a deep oceanic abyss with no bottom in sight would be the catalyst for my fight or flight mechanism kicking in. It had taken all the resilience I could muster to stay in the water that day and complete the snorkel.

So now in the Coral Sea, I wasn’t far from the boat when I started to have water splash into my snorkel, sending me into a bit of a choking fit. My buddy suggested I alter my swimming technique which worked for her but didn’t work for me, and as she swam ahead of me oblivious, the choppy water repeatedly splashed into my snorkel, and as I failed miserably to clear it, I began to swallow water which sent me into a blind panic. Now, part of our welcome briefing had included a run down of emergency signals to give if you get into trouble, but it is incredible how even when I was struggling to clear my throat and breathe properly without taking on more water, the underlying thought process going through my head at the time was that I didn’t want the embarrassment of being a bother to the crew and so I stubbornly didn’t call attention to myself and just allowed myself an attempt at drowning in silence. Wearing large flippers generally makes treading water a relatively easy experience, but in full blown panic mode they weren’t quite enough and for one brief moment, I felt myself slipping under the surface and it finally dawned on me that I would actually drown if I didn’t get my act together. It was a terrifying experience, and my heart was thudding up into my mouth by the time I reached the steps at the back of the boat. When I signed myself back on board, I’d been out in the water for just 5 minutes and when asked why I’d come back in so soon, I was still too embarrassed to admit what had actually happened.

Sheepishly I hung around the lower deck for a while watching the others in the water, before grabbing myself a calming cup of tea and retreating to the sundeck to take stock of what had just happened. Afternoon tea came and went, and as the evening wore on, a few of us headed to the hot tub at the bow of the boat. What more could you ask for on a floating ‘hotel’ but a hot tub. It was a little cramped with us all in it, but it was just what I needed at the end of the day, and it was a great place to get to know the others on board. Dinner was a social affair with crew and passengers eating together. Everyone had such incredible stories to share and even the Captain who was a Kiwi, joined our table, and once again the food was delicious. By the time bedtime came around, there was a gentle rocking and rolling to send me off to sleep.


It felt amazing waking up in the morning after a blissful night’s sleep on an exceptionally comfortable bed. I’d requested a wake-up call for the early morning snorkel but decided to skip it, moored as we were still at Norman Reef. During breakfast, we raised anchor once more and moved on to another reef, known as Fingers. It was actually still part of the large Norman Reef but not only was the reef right next to the boat here, the positioning of our mooring relative to the wind direction meant the sea wasn’t looking quite so unappealing. We spotted two turtles at the surface as we anchored and this was encouragement enough to get back in the water. The conditions were not how I would have liked them to be, but I did my very best to quell the fear of drowning, and focused on the amazing reef below me.


From a snorkellers perspective, as amazing as the reef life was, I had been surprised at how drab a lot of the reef looked. A lot of the coral is a range of browns with the odd splash of purple or pink for good measure. I know that with depth, the colour spectrum becomes limited, so I wasn’t sure if this depth was dulling the colours, in which case diving the reef would be a much better visual experience, or if the reef actually was just this dull and every photo I’ve ever seen is heavily photoshopped. Perhaps the change in sea conditions favours the more drab-coloured algae. Either way, the fish life was probably the best of any snorkel experience I’ve ever had, but I felt that perhaps the coral wasn’t. Maybe my memory was tricking me, but I felt that the coral in Fiji had been rather more colourful than what I was looking at here.


Following a spot of sunbathing and more turtle spotting at the surface, I was surprised to see that a tidal change by the time of the mid-morning snorkel meant that the coral was suddenly much closer to look at, and in places I had to try very hard not to be bashed against it in the choppy surface waves. I was finally relaxing into the snorkel again, and I spotted a cuttlefish which I watched for some time until the strong current made me aware that I had a bit of work to do to get back to the boat. It was easy to dry off between snorkels by heading to the top deck to sunbathe for a bit, and I was quite dry by the time lunchtime came around. By now I’d got to know the other passengers reasonably well. Some of them would be leaving with me that afternoon, whereas a few others were working on their diving certification so were staying another night. One guy had been on board for a week and had dived at every single dive site that the boat was allowed to visit.


Finally it was time for the last snorkel, and the wind had picked up once more creating the undesired surface chop. I sought out the cuttlefish again, watching it dart around the seabed, then I watched the divers exploring below me before being mesmerised by some large fish that were hanging out under the boat. I was both sad to get out of the water and glad all at the same time. Snorkelling the GBR had been a mental challenge, one that nearly got the better of me. I think had the water been as calm as it had been at Hardy Reef, the experience would have been utterly amazing, but there was part of me that was always fighting off the fear, and so the experience was a little tainted.


I showered, gathered my stuff together and transferred back to the Reef Experience which had by now berthed right next to the Reef Encounter. We were again ushered into the wheelhouse where we were plied with wine, cheese and crackers, and feeling like I was at a VIP party with those that I had gotten to know over the previous day, I was quick to get just a little bit tipsy. The trip back to Cairns was a very different experience than the one out had been. The wind and chop meant that we were buffeted the whole way with a cross wind and waves that pushed us from the side, such that we rocked and rolled and dropped over rising crests. I thanked my trusty stomach for holding firm, and embraced the experience, knowing that I had experienced the roughest boat trip of my life between Isabella Island and Santa Cruz in the Galapagos Islands, and therefore nothing could ever be as bad as that.


Twenty-one days prior I had landed in Queensland, and now I was on my last night in the state. I marked the end of the first stage of my great Australian adventure with some ice cream on the esplanade. The next day I was to head to the airport, leaving Queensland behind, and flying deeper into the tropics.


The Village in the Rainforest

If it hadn’t been for 2 incredible excursions over 3 days, I would have really hated Cairns. The city itself was soulless and a real let down after all the beautiful places I’d stopped at on route up the Queensland coast from Broadbeach. After being left with nowhere open to get breakfast before heading off, there was a 30 min drive round various hotels for pick-ups and out of Cairns to the lower station of the Cairns Skyrail. The village of Kuranda is nestled amongst the rainforest outside of Cairns and is perfect for a day trip away from the city. It can be reached either by train from central Cairns, or via a cable car from north of the city, and everywhere you read about Kuranda it is recommended to go there one way and come back the other. I decided to take the cable car there and come back on the train, both of which need to be booked in advance to save disappointment.


With no eating allowed on the cable car and a timed slot to ride it, I shovelled a muffin from the cafe into my mouth as fast as I could stomach it. The ride up through the rainforest is estimated to take 90 minutes including a couple of stops on route, so I wasn’t sure when I’d get to eat. I had a mother and daughter in the cable car with me, and from the moment we left the station, we were all in awe looking out of the window. The lower portion of the ride starts the climb up into the trees, with a view over the rolling hillside and out over the coast behind us. From the very beginning, I loved this experience and it was well worth the money.


Once up the initial hill, the first stop was Red Peak station at 545m (1788ft), surrounded by rainforest. Here, there was a raised boardwalk taking you through the mid-layer of the canopy. It was short to walk round it on your own, but I opted to wait for the guided tour that ran at regular intervals, which was informative and added a whole new level of interest to the surroundings. Life in the rainforest is all about competition, with the plant life competing against each other for sunlight and nutrients. It is incredible to see the amazing adaptations that some plants have undergone to out-do their neighbour, from growing into them, to literally strangling the life out of them.


The next section of the cableway was the longest, and here the line was just above the top of the canopy. It was a stunning sight, with the green of the rainforest disappearing in all directions over the nearby hills. Below us, there was the occasional gap in the foliage allowing an insight into the forest below, and there was a constant thrum of the forest life mixed with the workings of the cableway. The total length of the cableway is 7.5 km (4.6 miles), and there was so much to take in. As we approached the next station, the waterfall that it is named after came into view. I can imagine that after a tropical storm, this cascade would be amazing to view in all its glory, but when I was there, it was a relative trickle compared to some of the photos I had seen of it at its best.


The Barron Falls station had a walkway to 3 different lookouts. I could see over to the train line on the far side of the large gorge that I would be taking to go back to Cairns later that evening. Unlike the last station, this one felt busy with each lookout a jostling match for the prime spot to take photos. I took my time but was overall a little unawed with the view. That said, it was still a good opportunity to get out amongst the trees of the rainforest and the depth of the gorge was still impressive.


The final section of the cableway cut over some more trees before swinging down over the wide Barron river, over the train line and into the Kuranda cableway station. The main street of Kuranda is just a short uphill walk from the station, and it is full of artisan and craft shops, lending the place a slightly hippy feel. There was some beautiful art here, and had I had my own place and a lot of money, I could have gone to town here. Instead, I had to be satisfied with just ogling at it. I’d been told by the driver of the shuttle bus about mango wine, so when I came across a woman selling the stuff out of a window, I took no persuasion whatsoever to set about sampling the stuff, eventually settling on a bottle of mango sauvignon and a bottle of sparkling mango. It had seemed like a good idea at the time until she handed me the bag containing the two giant export boxes and I realised that not only did I have to carry these for the rest of the day, but I also had to carry them around Australia for the remaining 18 days of my Australian trip.


Undeterred and a little tipsy on the mango wine in the heat, I kept going round the shops, eyeing up the various food options to choose from. Everywhere was busy, and I was looking for something unusual. Inside the Rainforest Market I found a creperie that made savoury crepes and settled on one of the many choices to have for a much-needed meal. Afterwards, across the road there was another market, the Heritage Market, out the back of which I stumbled across a plane wreck being swallowed by the jungle. The sign next to it explained that it had been staged, but it looked like a genuine plane wreck, and reminded me of the movie Crocodile Dundee. Peering inside it, the vegetation is doing a good job of claiming the wreckage as its own, and just shows how nature will always adapt to its surroundings, even when a man-made structure is dumped within it.


Australia is famous for its large proportion of the world’s most venomous creatures, and in Kuranda there is a Venom Zoo. I passed it by on my way to a walking track that would lead me through the rainforest of Jumrum Creek Conservation Park. I was totally in love with the rainforest here. I secretly hoped to stumble across a Cassowary, one of Australia’s large flightless birds. This was the part of the country where they could be found, but unfortunately they are an endangered species, so it would be pure luck if I saw one. Following a boardwalk, even though the streets of Kuranda were never far away, the vegetation was so dense that I felt like I was deep within the rainforest. An avid bird watcher, there was plenty of life flitting and singing amongst the trees to keep me occupied, and I took my time meandering down to the bank of the Barron river.


When I’d left the skyrail station behind on arrival, I had seen a sign advertising a river cruise. I hadn’t been going to bother, but now, realising I had enough time, I followed the river walkway upriver, under the cableway and round the bend till I found myself at the small boat tied up on the bank. There was just a small group of us on board, and amusingly a pair of swallows had built a nest amongst the lifejackets that hung from the boat’s roof. The birds flitted around the boat and above our head as we both idled at the bank of the river and cruised slowly along the water.


On the opposite bank of the river we passed the still form of a freshwater crocodile that was sunning itself on a rock. Much smaller than their saltwater equivalents, the locals deem these guys safe enough to get in the water with, the boat driver telling us that the locals swim in the river here amongst them. They might be small, but they still have a good set of teeth on them, so I’m not sure how comfortable I would have been with swimming there. In a little bay just past the croc, was a plethora of turtles. Initially hidden but coming to the surface in a feeding frenzy, there were also a lot of decent sized fish here, and we idled for a while near the bank watching the turtles and fish in the murky water.


We could see a good way down the river from here, and it was a pleasant cruise downstream and underneath the cableway. We spied two more crocodiles and more turtles, and the driver told us about a male cassowary that was sitting on its nest just a short walk into the bush. I would have loved to have gone to see it, but this was when they were at their most dangerous, the male being very defensive when they are brooding. Between the changing view of the rainforest as we drifted along the river, the flitting of the birds around us and the crocodile spotting, it turned out to be a very enjoyable spur-of-the-moment addition to the day’s excursion.


By the time we returned to the river bank to disembark, it was time to make the short walk to the train station to board the scenic rail back to Cairns. Unlike the Skyrail, the train was packed, and although I was lucky enough to get a window seat, the windows were compact and awkward to look out of. I also was hemmed in by young children who wouldn’t sit still, and the general vibe from several of the people around me was one of disappointment. I could hear people grumbling about how cramped the train was, and how poor their view was, which considering it was supposed to be a scenic train ride, was a little disheartening.


Despite this there were some incredible views where gaps in the vegetation allowed. We stopped at the Barron Falls lookout which provided a view of the falls from the opposite side of the gorge to the cableway. Overall, it was a downhill meander, in and out of the bush, and eventually crossing the flat plain back to Cairns. The whole journey took around an hour, and although it was nice to have done both journeys, the Skyrail was by far the better experience. It had been an incredible day, and I was a little sad to be back in the banality of Cairns. Thankfully I had another excursion away from the city lined up for the next morning.



I remembered seeing a road sign outside of Noosa stating Cairns was a staggering 1600kms (994 miles) away, and now, nearly 10 days later, I was finally traversing the final kilometres to complete the distance. Queensland is huge, and with Western Australia being closer to Asia than it is to it’s own country’s capital, some appreciation can be given for the size of the country as a whole. My Greyhound bus pass had seen me follow the Queensland coast north, and the final hours of driving were ticking away. We stopped briefly in Cardwell which had a beautiful view across to Hinchinbrook Island, and made a detour off the highway to Mission Beach which seemed to be a popular place. Then finally we were nearing the end of the Bruce Highway as it wound its way into the outskirts of Cairns in Tropical North Queensland.


Apart from Hervey Bay, which I had arrived in in the pitch darkness, every other place I’d visited in Queensland thus far I had loved from the moment of arriving. But Cairns from the beginning was completely underwhelming, a criss-crossing grid pattern of soulless streets and absent character. I trundled from the bus station to my hostel, and was quick to dump my stuff and get out to make the most of my time there. I had the afternoon to explore, and so I cut my way back through the main streets towards the esplanade. As I wandered the streets I was touted repeatedly from the doorway of a multitude of travel agents, and it seemed that Cairns’ main thoroughfare was filled with nothing more than souvenir shops and travel agents. The gateway city to the Great Barrier Reef and the rainforests to the north, it felt like Cairns’ sole purpose was to sell you a trip to get away from Cairns. It was as if the city itself knew how soulless it was, and it just wanted you to leave.

I found myself at the Esplanade Lagoon which was being well used in the intense heat that day. I’m confident that Cairns gets much hotter than it was when I was there in August, but I was really struggling each day in the tropics, and there was only hotter weather to come for me as my Australian adventure continued. At the far end of the lagoon was the seawall, and beyond it, unlike every place I’d been so far, there was no beach, only a tidal mudflat that looked not just unsightly but also perfect crocodile territory. There was, despite this, plenty of bird life milling around, and I watched as a white heron skillfully speared a fish in the shallows. Looking at the map of the city on my phone, I decided to walk to the Botanic Gardens, a place I try to visit in any city I go to. It meant a long walk along the esplanade which allowed a good bit of bird watching. Eventually, a narrow strip of sandy beach appeared, and next to it a sign warning not to venture down to the water due to crocodiles in the area. I kept walking north but Cairns was failing to grow on me.


It took over an hour to walk to the Botanic Gardens, through the outskirts of the city and away from the tourist-driven city centre. Down a long avenue, the trees were thick either side and paths disappeared into them at varying intervals. It was overcast here but I was parched, and had to make a stop at the cafe in the visitors centre for water before proceeding. The Botanic Gardens are one of a few gardens next to each other that provides some green space within the city. It was my first introduction to the local rainforest as boardwalks took me through thick vegetation of vines and strangler trees. In the undergrowth, there was a constant scurrying of birds digging around the leaf litter.


At the bottom end of the gardens was the centenary lake, a large dark-water lake that felt like it could hide all sorts of mysterious creatures within. Like the mudflats at the esplanade, there was plenty of bird life here and it felt more like a city park with traffic driving by and the airplanes taking off from the nearby airport. After weaving in and out of the waterways, I made my way back to the esplanade for the long walk back to the city centre. It was evening now and the locals had come out after work and were out walking dogs and catching up with friends.


There was a winter festival taking place in the city so near the Lagoon there was a stage set up with performers playing. It was near the main strip of eateries so there was a lot of people about. The music wasn’t to my taste so I didn’t hang around for long. Instead, I wandered into the night market hoping for something that I didn’t get. Having previously been to the Queen Victoria night market in Melbourne, I was hoping for something similar, but the food hall looked like what you’d find in a mall, and the shops were all souvenir shops.


Out the far side, I took a few turns to reach the Cairns City Council building which was lit up in a Vivid Sydney-esque manner with changing light patterns to the sound of music. It was a nice idea and looked good, but the effect was slightly lost when it was only on one building in the whole city. I stayed with the gathered crowd for a while, watching it go through the full cycle before my stomach dragged me away. I’d read a recommendation for a burger joint near the hostel and wasn’t disappointed. In fact Jimmy’s Burger & Co. was probably Cairns’ only redeeming feature of my whole stay there, which doesn’t really say a lot for the place.


The next morning I had just a short walk round the corner to the train station where I was to be collected for a ride out of the city for one of the day trips away on offer. I was frustrated with Cairns once more to find nowhere in the vicinity open for breakfast. Everywhere opened at 9am which seemed incredible, and I was starving by the time I eventually reached somewhere to eat. The trips away from Cairns were very much the city’s saving grace. I spent a spectacular day away in the rainforest, followed by an average evening back in the city. Then I spent 2 days at sea out on the Great Barrier Reef.

On my return to the same hostel as my first few nights I was amused to find one of my roommates had been the same as one I’d had in Hervey Bay the week before so we caught up on each other’s trips since we’d last seen each other. When I’d originally booked my time in Cairns, I was worried I wasn’t going to have enough time there. In reality, I was more than ready to leave, having wished I’d booked the morning flight out instead of the lunchtime flight. I spent my last morning killing time at the mall before being picked up finally to head out to the airport. The shuttle bus driver asked me how I’d liked Cairns, and I found myself wording my answer carefully so as not to offend him. In truth, I really didn’t like Cairns, and in fact I was completely underwhelmed by it. It’s definitely one of those places who’s existence is built around getting away from it, and thus it has no character. It was a shame that this was my ending impression of Queensland, a state who’s coastline had beguiled me for days now. But it was time to move on, and take in a part of Australia that I had been eager to visit for some time.




When I was torn awake by my alarm, I was in two minds whether to get up or not. Staying in a hostel dorm there was almost an obligation to get up having probably woken my roommates up at the same time as myself. But when I’d made the decision the night before to get up early to hike back up Castle Hill at the back of Townsville at sunrise, I hadn’t given consideration for a wave of tiredness and laziness that swam over me at stupid o’clock in the morning. In the end, after some silent deliberation, I hauled myself up and took off towards the hiking trail. It certainly wasn’t a drive for exercise, merely a want to make up for the poor lighting of the night before, but as it transpired the rising sunlight created even more shadows than the falling sunlight had done the night before, and although there were plenty of people on the trail as well as me, it felt a little pointless. Nevertheless, it was a good wake-up for me.


After a quick shower and change, I made my way to the ferry terminal to catch the ferry to Magnetic Island. This was one of my must-dos on my trip and it is a popular place to go amongst locals and tourists. I’d done a lot of reading about what to see and how to see it, and had a plan in place to optimise coverage. It was a smooth sailing across, watching Townsville grow smaller behind us. Sailing into the quaint harbour of Nelly Bay, I was quick to hop on the bus to head to Horseshoe Bay, the largest bay and settlement on the north side of the island. It was a surprisingly hilly drive through the bush to get there, but before long I found myself stepping out at a stunning expanse of beach with a little local market taking place. It was a Sunday morning and there were plenty of people milling about. I bought a locally handmade bag as I perused the stalls before cutting down to the sand and walking barefoot along it.


It was already very hot, and I was sweating early on as I ploughed the soft sand near the surf. A few other people were out doing the same thing, but the distant end of the beach was almost empty in comparison to the section near the village, and the sand quality changed as the bay curved, making it exceptionally hard work to get traction. It was tiring, and eventually I decided I had walked enough, turning back just shy of the boulders at the far end. In some places in the world, I get the sense of innocence, and either naively or rightly assume that the people there are honest. Knowing I would be doubling back, I had left my belongings some way back along the beach unattended, and they had thankfully been left untouched. Collecting them again, I headed into the village to get some supplies and some lunch. It was a little early to eat, but I was going to be away from the main settlements for some time, and I didn’t want to go hungry.


The east coast of Magnetic Island is littered with bays that are linked either by road or by walking track. Ever keen to get around on my own two feet, I planned on spending the rest of the day hiking down the coast back towards Nelly Bay. I had a bus ticket for sections if needed, but I was sure I’d make it back in time for the ferry on my own merit. Rejoining the beach at Horseshoe Bay, the eastern end of the beach had a sign pointing into the bush leading to both Balding Bay and Radical Bay. The shade of the bush was welcome, but I was dreaming about going snorkelling later in the day in one of the recommended snorkelling spots on the island. When the turn-off to Balding Bay came, I took it to pick my way through a mix of rocks and undergrowth, and was surprised to come across a sign stating it was a nudist beach. Undeterred, I kept going, committing to the long track down to the beach, and when I came out onto the sand, I was very glad I had. This relatively small bay was beautiful, quiet and the sea looked calm and inviting.


I was quick to spot that it was indeed a nudist beach. To my right I could see some naked people in the water, and a few others hiding out in the shade created by some boulders. They all looked to be in their 60s, but to my left there were a couple around my age who were unashamedly sunbathing in the nude. I’m not particularly prudish, but whilst I’ve skinny-dipped in the past, I’ve never openly partaken in nudism. I wasn’t the only one clothed, with a few others arriving after me that didn’t strip off. There really weren’t many people around, and after mulling it over, I decided that the temperature was too hot, and the water so inviting that a swim was on the cards. I had my swimming togs with me, but figured that as I was at a nudist beach, I might as well join in: when in Rome, and all that. So after stripping off, I strode into the water as confidently as I could. I don’t think there has ever been as perfect sea swimming conditions as there were in that bay. The temperature of the water couldn’t have been more perfect if it tried, the sea was calm, the waves not too large, and there was nothing in the water brushing against my skin to creep me out. It was bliss.

I could have happily stayed in that water all day were it not for the awareness that there was so much I wanted to see, and whilst I’d been in the water, more and more people had arrived at the beach, all of whom remained clothed. A group of young women in their early 20s sat near my stuff and I was acutely aware of the need to walk almost right up to them to get my clothes. I sat low in the water for a while, until I mustered up the confidence to strut naked back up the beach towards them. As I came out of the water, one of the older nudists made a beeline for me. I assume my decision to join in the nudist movement had drawn his attention to me, but suddenly sandwiched between an older naked man and a group of clothed younger women, I felt awkward and quickly started pulling my clothes on, still dripping wet. I think travelling is an extraordinary insight into different people’s lives and I’ve met all sorts of interesting and crazy people over the years. The exchange that took place between myself and the naked man was one of those bizarre situations that can only happen when you take yourself out of your comfort zone. His actions as we spoke made me rather uncomfortable at the time, but now it is one of those funny travel stories that are shared amongst friends.

It was time to move on, and after backtracking to the main trail I continued through the bush speckled with boulders to Radical Bay, an altogether busier beach due to having road access. There were many people swimming, but after the quiet of Balding Bay, I wasn’t fussed about spending much time here. Leading from the back of the bay, the access road cut through bush until a parking bay denoted the access to Florence Bay. This rather large bay meant that the people were spread out enough as to feel quiet and secluded. Families were snorkelling in the water at one end and I toyed with the idea of going in too. I’d read that the next bay round the coast was the best for snorkelling so despite the temptation to get back in the water here, I decided to hold off, instead sitting on the beach for a while enjoying the sunshine and the view.


From here, I had to continue on the road which was of a poor quality. It was interesting watching some of the people negotiate the deep ruts and potholes in their little hire cars as I trudged up the hill. The bus had had to climb over a ridge to reach Horseshoe Bay so I’d known a climb was inevitable but in the tropical heat I was conscious not to exert myself too much in case I induced heat stroke. At the brow of the hill though was a gorgeous view down over Arthur Bay. I was eager to get down to it and get in the water, and carefully picked my way down the guttered and potholed hillside. There were many people here, and I had to find a hidey hole to change into my togs before getting in the water.


With my snorkel gear, I stuck my head in the water and was quick to spot a weird looking creature in the water. I don’t know what it is called but I’ve seen them on a wildlife documentary before. I was sure they were harmless but the way they moved in the water creeped me out a little and I was quick to move away from it. A second one was spotted so still I moved on. All of a sudden I felt a stinging sensation on my elbow and I swung round in a panic. Although it was out of season, I’d been told so much about the venomous stingers that can be found in Queensland’s waters, and with the stinging sensation building up, I flung myself out of the water. I gave a warning to a woman swimming nearby and she commented that her partner had just been stung too. His leg had a large red mark on it and he asked me how concerned he should be. By now the sting had reached its peak, and although the sorest jellyfish sting I’d ever received, it wasn’t excruciating so I assumed we’d be okay. Just to be sure, I located a group of locals to confirm my conclusion. It was disappointing though, as having held out for this bay after reading about it, I now wished I’d spent more time swimming in any of the previous bays I’d been to.


The road eventually climbed back up hill to the main road that transects the island. Just a little from here was one of the main walks on the island which cuts across the hill top to the Forts, the remnants of World War II outposts and lookouts. It was later than I’d planned on being there, and most other people were on their way out. I passed under colourful rainbow lorikeets and with the help of others on the trail I spotted a mother and baby koala hanging out near the track. It was a little disappointing to see some tourists climbing into the trees to stick their camera close up to the baby. There was plenty of viewing points along the walk, and amongst the trees in places, signs noted historical sites of interest. A third koala was spotted further along, and finally at a peak, a circular track loops up and around to give a variety of viewing points over the island. In Queensland with no daylight savings, the sun sets early in the evening, so by now the shadows were growing long and the temperature was finally beginning to drop a little. I took my time wandering around the circuit before rejoining the main track to return to the main road. All 3 koalas had not budged and I stopped to look at them all again on the way back.


It was now very clear that there was no way I could walk back to Nelly Bay in time to catch the evening ferry. I decided to catch the bus down the hill to Geoffrey Bay where rock wallabies reportedly came out at sunset to graze on the grass. There was a little wait for the bus, and with the sun falling out of the sky fast, it was already well into dusk when I got off. The best rock wallaby viewing spot was down a road to nowhere, and conscious of the advancing time, I made the decision to forego it, and just follow the coast back to Nelly Bay. The place was deserted as I trudged the length of the beach. I would have liked to have seen it in the daytime, but there just wasn’t enough hours in the Queensland day to cover all of Magnetic Island. At the far end, a boardwalk led round the headland to Nelly Bay, and now in the pitch black, I became aware of fruit bats flying overhead.

Once in Nelly Bay, it was just a matter of grabbing some dinner. On route to a pizza house that was at the back of the village, I came across a couple of what I’m pretty sure were bustards. They are strange looking birds: their bodies the size of a cat, on long stilts and with evil-looking eyes and a sharp beak. They ran scared from me and I couldn’t get a photograph of them. I got my pizza to go and ate it back at the ferry terminal. It was eerie and quiet with no-one else around. Eventually in the darkness, the ferry’s lights appeared out of nowhere, growing larger as the ferry drew into the harbour. Suddenly a flurry of people emerged and we packed onto the boat ready to return to the mainland. Exhausted, I was grateful to sit down. Magnetic Island hadn’t disappointed and although I’d run out of time, I’d had a fabulous day.


Back in Townsville, I took a detour to get some much-needed ice cream. Even in the total darkness, there was still a good bit of warmth in the air. By the time I reached the hostel, my feet were terribly swollen. I was eager to sleep though as in my life there is no rest for the wicked. Never one for taking it easy on holiday, I had an early rise the next morning to catch the bus north. The Queensland adventure wasn’t over yet.


Into the Tropics

It was by now a familiar route as the ferry left Airlie Beach behind and headed towards Hamilton Island, the main island in the Whitsundays archipelago. The sun was shining, the sky and sea were both a brilliant blue, and as with previous days, the humpback whales were around with two spotted on route. The Audi Hamilton Race Week was still in full swing so the marina was once again abuzz and full of racing yachts, as well as an inflatable Super Mario Bros icon and some people in fancy dress. My destination for the day was Whitehaven Beach, one of the regions most-photographed locations, a white sandy shore on the eastern side of Whitsunday Island. After picking up more passengers, we set off again to sail through the passage between the two islands, passing one of the humpback whales again that appeared to be dozing on the surface.


The biggest of the island chain, Whitsunday Island is covered in a lot of bush, and it was a beautiful sail through the channel and round the headland. After a while, the distinctive white sandy stretch came into view and everyone on board started to pile up to take photos on approach. There was a mix of half-day trippers and full-day trippers on board, identified by a wristband and we were ferried on shore according to our groups. I was there for a full day and this included a couple of walks on the island, so we were divided up further to allow us to be ferried around the coastline as required. After being transferred to the beach and taking in the vista, I was in the first group to go to Hill Inlet, along the coast and around the headland.


Despite the clear skies over Whitehaven Beach, the clouds were more built up over the far end of Whitsunday Island so it was overcast when we went ashore. A walk through the bush brought us to a series of lookouts over the tidal sandbar that marks the northern end of Whitehaven beach. This was the much publicised view and even with the cloud cover it was beautiful. The sun broke through for brief moments though giving a mere hint of the brilliant blue water that the view is famous for. Unfortunately the lookouts were quite crowded as most people reached it as part of a group, and everyone was jostling to get the perfect photo. It is the one bugbear of modern travel, as it is often very difficult to escape the crowds these days.


We took the path down the opposite side of the headland to the sandbar where juvenile stingrays ploughed through the shallow water. Several people paddled around trying to follow them and a few of the fish were spotted going up a little river. It had completely clouded over by this point, and we only had a little bit of time to kill before we would be picked up and returned to the main beach. A large piece of driftwood was a good prop for photographs, but before long we were boarded back on a small transport boat. The sea was a little rougher under the cloud, and I had an awkward seat on the edge of the RIB meaning I had to hold on for dear life as we sped along the coast, lest I fall in. But the sun was still out at the other end of Whitehaven Beach where I had some free time to explore before the next scheduled walk.


Most of the visitors remained around the boat drop-off point, so after exploring around here and taking some photographs, I took myself away from the crowd and headed north. I’m a lover of peace and quiet so prefer to explore on my own and get away from the noise of other people. A recent cyclone had damaged the bush at the back of the beach and a tidal causeway had been created forming a sandbar within the stretch of beach. It was an easy paddle across to follow the sandbar to its end where I plonked myself down on the sand to eat my lunch. It was lovely and hot but the wind meant my lunch ended up being a little sandy. By the time I was ready to head back up the beach, I discovered that the tide had come in and the water that I had paddled across was now thigh-high and had to be waded through. As I was now wet anyway, I figured I might as well go for a swim, and spent half an hour swimming along the coastline before it was time for the next hike.


Hardly any of the people I had arrived with were interested in the hike, most people choosing to sunbathe on the beach, so there were just 6 of us that boarded the RIB boat to head round to Camp Beach. The route involved going through a tidal whirlpool zone and there was a good bit of waves to negotiate in such a little boat making for a very bouncy ride. The direction of the wind meant we were surged onto the beach at the end of it and got splashed. I loved this place, and probably preferred it to Whitehaven Beach simply because we were the only ones there. It was secluded, private and all ours. Walking along the beach gave us a good prospect across to Pentecost Island which was the inspiration for Kong Island in King Kong. Just back from the beach was a campsite hidden amongst the trees, and amusingly the camp toilet had no door meaning an alfresco toileting experience looking out onto the bush.


We were led on a guided bush walk which was to take us across the island back to Whitehaven Beach. We spotted some skinks and our guide described the many uses that the Aboriginal people have for the local flora and fauna. It amazes me the ingenuity and expanse of knowledge that the Indigenous people have for the land and its creatures. Their culture understands the ecology in a unique way that most Westerners can’t even comprehend. We came across a green ant nest and in a rather surreal experience, were encouraged to pick them up and lick their butts. It was a sentence I never imagined I would ever say or write but by letting the ants bite me and latch on (which was barely a prick in sensation), it was possible to hold the ants still and lick their green abdomens. Aside from the sharp tingle on the tongue, the taste was like limoncello, a zesty citrus taste that the Aboriginals make use of in their food.


By the time we made it back to Whitehaven Beach, the various set-ups were being packed up ready to return to the boat. Once more we were all ferried back on to the main boat to head back to Hamilton Island. There was just enough time to take in the white sandy beach before it disappeared around the headland as we headed back to Hamilton Island. Another humpback whale was spotted, this one slapping its pectoral fin on the surface as if waving at us. The sunset that accompanied our return to Airlie Beach was especially yellow, a beautiful end to my Whitsundays experience. Back at the hostel, dinner was accompanied by the tiniest little gecko about the size of my pinkie that sat on the underside of the bench as I ate. A couple of the guys from my K’Gari tour turned up in my hostel dorm and we had a catch up on each other’s respective trips since we’d last seen each other. As most backpackers were plying the same tourist route, it was not unsurprising to see some of the same faces at varying places.


I had an early rise to catch the bus north in the morning. I wasn’t feeling on top form when I awoke so was worried about the ride making me worse. I’ve suffered some horrendous food poisonings whilst abroad, including one which resulted in hospitalisation and several months of recovery, and can have a sensitive stomach at the best of times, so I’m wary of a repeat incident whilst travelling. Thankfully the feeling dissipated as time went on and I arrived in Townsville feeling better and ready to go. With the distinctive mound of Castle Hill behind it, I had a good feeling about the place as I got off the bus, but it was exceptionally hot. I was really getting into the tropics now and the temperature was reflecting it. My plan had been to hike up Castle Hill on arrival, when the sun would be above me, reducing shadows for taking photos at the summit, but the temperature gave me second thoughts and when the host at the hostel advised against it, I decided to explore the city at sea level first and leave the hike till the evening when the temperature would have dropped.


Townsville’s other great feature is the Strand, a long walkway along the coast with a vista towards Magnetic Island which sits off shore. There was plenty to look at with the marina, sculptures and a collection of beaches as I followed the esplanade towards Kissing Point, and the views inland to Castle Hill and outwards to the island were a constant companion. I had naively thought I could walk to the Conservation Park past Palleranda on the headland, but it turned out to be far too far away and I tend to limit myself to places I can walk to rather than having to get a lot of public transport. In the heat, Kissing Point was effort enough.


Being a Saturday, there were as many locals out as there were tourists, and an open-air swimming pool at Kissing Point was being well used. Up the hill here onto the mound was an old battery with the remains of war outposts and a cracking view inland and out to sea. Past the outline of the fort, the path headed back down the hill at the other side from where a boardwalk hugged the coastline round to the coastal entrance to the Aboriginal Botanical Trail, a sculpture trail that circled around a small hill. In the baking sun I admired both the sculptures and the view, whilst being conscious of the time, ever aware of the early Queensland sunset and my want to get up Castle Hill.


It felt like a long, although scenic, trudge back to my hostel to change into my hiking clothes. It is possible to drive up to the summit of Castle Hill, but with no transport I set off to the back of the city where the Goat Track picks its way up the slope. Although a little cooler, it was still fully exposed and it was an exhausting hike up in the heat. The trail had more locals on it than tourists, many of whom were jogging up it and putting my fitness to shame. As expected in the lowering sunlight, the long shadows that had formed meant the lighting for photography was not that great, and whilst the view was most definitely worth the effort, I would have preferred to have been up earlier in the day.


There were a variety of lookouts to choose from and between those that had walked or jogged up and those that had driven up, there were plenty of people around. From one aspect to the other, I meandered around to the western end where I sat down to watch the sunset. The early timing of the Queensland sunsets meant it was easy to be outdoors to watch it day after day. As daylight turned to dusk, I peeled myself away from the summit and headed back to the city. Round the corner from my hostel there was a neat little fish bar where I had some dinner accompanied by a busker who was pleasant to listen to. Once I was satiated, it was time to retire for the night as I had a long day of walking ahead of me the next day, with one of the area’s biggest draws calling my name.


Exploring the Whitsundays

It had been difficult to get comfortable enough to get much sleep on the 12hr bus ride north from Hervey Bay. I had planned a lot for my 5.5 week Australian adventure with the location for each night planned in advance. Originally I was supposed to be breaking up the journey with a day in Mackay to catch up with someone I knew, however when that fell through, I was left with a day to spare and a conundrum: go to Mackay anyway, or find a new destination. In the end, I cut my losses and opted to have an extra day in Airlie Beach by the Whitsundays. As the bus neared its destination, I knew I’d made the right choice. Airlie Beach was stunning and with the sun shining in a near-cloudless sky, it was the perfect weather too.


I was finally on a high after a fantastic day at sea the day before, and despite the lack of sleep, I took no time in checking in, freshening up and getting straight out again. I booked a day trip for the next day and bought myself a return ticket to Hamilton Island, one of the main islands in the Whitsundays archipelago. Sailing amongst the islands of the group was stunning and we passed two humpback whales. I was being spoilt with all the cetacean sightings I’d had by this point and there would be more to come. It turned out I’d arrived during the Audi Hamilton Race Week, a sailing event that drew crowds of sailors, their support crews and the corporate sponsors that came with them. There were are a lot of well dressed people milling around. But despite the heat, I was here to hike and explore the island. The main resorts are linked by a free shuttle bus and most people get themselves around on golfing buggies: they were everywhere. In fact the only cars appeared to be Audi vehicles, all plastered with advertisement for the race week.


Nipping first to the resort for a trail map, I then sweated my way up through the bush to Passage Point, passing some skinks and a legless lizard on route. Up on the ridge, the views to the neighbouring islands and over the coastline below were beautiful. Parts of the trail and bush were under maintenance and I wondered how the workmen could cope with the heat which was exceptionally hot that day. Ever aware of being in Australia, I kept a close eye out for snakes as I trudged through the bush to the lookout at the far end of Hamilton Island, but saw none. I had the place to myself for the most part and from here I could see over several of the nearby islands, and aside from the buzzing insects and the occasional sound of a nearby workman clearing away vegetation, it was still and peaceful. It was the perfect spot for some lunch and I was in no hurry to leave.


I took a detour on the way back to go to another lookout that overlooked the resort. It really was too hot to hike, and I’ve suffered mild heatstroke in the past from overexerting myself in a tropical climate, so I really shouldn’t have been out there, exposed on the ridge under the relentless sun. But I was intent on making the most of my time there and it was nice to look down on those below me, knowing that I was one of a mere handful of people that wasn’t in the resort right then. The thought of an iced coffee drew me back to society though and I headed first back to the resort, finding it crammed with socialites at a Heineken-sponsored pool party. Catching the bus back over the hill, I meandered around the waterfront, admiring the boats in the marina, sipping on a much anticipated cold drink.


The crowd for the return ferry was like a mob and it became obvious that there wasn’t space for everybody on board. We were divided between two different boats, but the one that I ended up on was too big to berth at Airlie Beach now that the tide was low. Halfway back to the mainland we had to do a boat to boat transfer whilst bobbing on the ocean. For me this was all part of the adventure, but I could see some others were a little less pleased about it. But as we got on our way in the second boat, the sun was setting and I indulged in what was becoming a regular occurrence, watching the sun lower and the sky change colour. I had little energy left by the end of the day, and settled on convenience food for dinner and flaking out at the hostel.


Thankfully I slept very well but had an early rise for that day’s excursion. My last day in the Whitsundays was to be spent on Whitehaven Beach, a much-photographed part of the region. This was supposed to include snorkelling but the tour company had emailed me a week prior to inform of a change to inclusion and this would no longer be part of the trip. With a spare day following Mackay not coming to fruition, and with a snorkelling deficit on my agenda, I had decided to take a day trip out to a floating pontoon that sits over a coral reef. The reef here belongs to the southern aspect of the Great Barrier Reef and this would be my first experience of the World’s most famous reef. I’d heard a lot about coral bleaching and ecosystem disruption so was intrigued to see what I’d find there.

The boat was packed and with the pontoon being far out past the outer reaches of the Whitsunday island chain, it was another beautiful sail through the archipelago on route. Unbelievably after such incredible sightings in Queensland so far, we saw 13 humpback whales on route to the pontoon. This was truly turning out to be the most successful cetacean spotting holiday I’d ever had. Not only that, but one of the whales breached repeatedly for us, giving us a display and then without warning it appeared right beside the boat and launched itself out of the water, breaching right next to us. The boat was so packed that everyone was jostling for a viewing point, and I nearly missed it, turning round just as it was halfway out of the water and catching the splash and the excitement from those that had witnessed it. It was shaping up to be another incredible day.


Eventually though, with the islands disappearing behind us, and with the sea being calm ahead of us, the pontoon became visible and the reef was evident below the surface as we pulled up and berthed next to it. Although it wasn’t the season for them, we were advised to don stinger suits before getting in the water. Snorkelling for me is a mental challenge. I have a fear of drowning and whilst I’m more than happy swimming in a pool, my fear is at its height in the open water. A couple of years ago I had a panic attack snorkelling in the Pacific Ocean whilst in the Galapagos Islands, and although I’m always eager to snorkel to see the wildlife, there is always a varying degree of trepidation when I get into the ocean. But not only was the sea exceptionally calm, the reef was not far from the entry point and I never really felt threatened in the water or uneasy. In fact I was so comfortable, I had a boat chase after me to tell me I’d swum too far away and had to turn back.


Surprisingly, the water out here was relatively cold and after an hour of snorkelling I was feeling it. There were plenty of fish around with a steep drop-off at the edge of the reef drawing large and small fish alike. A giant wrasse was hanging around and inquisitive, a trait that is common in this species, and the in-water photographer was giving me commands that I couldn’t understand when one came near, resulting in me looking a little idiotic. But I didn’t care because it was the closest I’d ever been to such a big fish. What was extensively apparent however, was the widespread coral bleaching. I had heard it was bad, but this was a reef that seemed in a poor state of health. The seabed was littered with white and decapitated coral and it was evident throughout the full length of the reef as far as I could see.


Following a much-needed lunch enjoyed basking in the sunshine on deck, I headed back into the water for another hour long snorkel. There was plenty of fish activity no matter where I looked and I was even able to find some ‘Nemos’ or clown fish which I hovered above and watched for a while. Again I grew cold, and although it had been the easiest and most relaxed snorkelling trip I’d ever experienced, the temperature and the expansive bleaching made me feel a tinge of disappointment. But after coming out the water, the most incredible thing occurred. I remember watching the movie The Life of Pi in which there is a scene when the main character is floating on the ocean and the sea is so calm it’s like glass. I’ve always believed such a thing impossible, but after drying off and changing out of my clothes, I looked out at the ocean and was astounded to see the sea was so incredibly calm as to look like a glass surface, and with an unusual haze on the horizon it was almost impossible to tell where the sea stopped and the sky began, the two appearing as one. I have never before seen such a phenomenon and I couldn’t stop looking at it. Unfortunately the effect was such that my camera wouldn’t focus properly to take a photo of it, and even when it did, it didn’t represent the effect that the my eyes saw. The vision more than made up for any disappointment I might have felt about the coral.


After many hours bobbing around on the ocean, it was time to head back to the mainland. The glass-like surface made for as beautiful a return sailing as the outward trip had been. The whole Whitsundays experience was turning out to be one of those ‘pinch me’ moments. It is a part of the world that I never really thought much about visiting, and here I was feeling like it was the most beautiful place in the world. We even came across another humpback whale on the way back as we negotiated the passages between the various islands. Stopping first at Hamilton Island to drop people off, we continued on to Airlie Beach, where once again the sun was dipping towards the horizon as we sailed. I couldn’t get enough of the sunsets in Queensland and was happy to watch them day after day after day. The fresh air was certainly helping me sleep too, which was just as well with another day in the islands ahead of me.


Finding Happiness in Hervey Bay

For many months now, I have been struggling with the symptoms of, and consequences of, poor mental health. Robbing me of energy, enthusiasm and enjoyment for things that I normally love (including writing this blog), I hadn’t realised how much it was affecting me until this day, nearly 2 weeks in to my 5.5 week Australian adventure. I hadn’t felt my usual flutter of excitement at the airport, and although I had enjoyed many things on the trip so far, my heart wasn’t in it. I’ve loved travelling and exploring new places my whole life, and despite doing just that, something wasn’t right. I’d woken up in a slight grump after a poor night’s sleep thanks to some rude roommates, and an early rise. Downstairs at the front door, I waited and waited for my pick-up that started to look like it wouldn’t arrive. The receptionist was on the cusp of phoning them when they finally turned up, whisking me off the pavement, and moving on swiftly to pick up some others. In no time at all, I was at the marina, waiting to board the Blue Dolphin boat for a day at sea.

After safety briefings and introductions, we didn’t have to wait long to be on our way, and in no time at all, the pace was set for what turned out to be one of the most amazing days of my whole trip. Aside from travelling, I have a couple of other great loves, one of which is spotting cetaceans (whales and dolphins) in the wild. No matter where I go or how budget my trip is, if it is an option at that destination, I will make sure that I can do it. We were barely out of the marina when we spotted our first humpback whale, an unusual occurrence according to our skipper. We watched it briefly before heading off away from the coast, coming across first a couple of bottlenose dolphins but later a solitary dolphin. Then, as we sailed further and further across the large expanse of the bay between Hervey Bay and the tip of K’Gari (Fraser Island), we came across more and more humpback whales.


Viewed from a distance and then closer up, over the course of the next few hours we spied 15 humpback whales in various groups. Some of these may have been the same whale moving around below the surface but the sightings just kept coming and coming. At some point the realisation came over me that I was immensely happy, a feeling that had been lacking for the first 10 days of my Australian trip. After the initial sightings at a distance, we had several whales, including juveniles, come right up to the boat and interact with us. I stood up on the highest point of the boat that I could get to initially, before I found myself moving round and round as the whales circled us. They would swim round us and below us, constantly hiding and then showing themselves as we eagerly stood on watch.


When one mother and calf got bored with us, it wasn’t too difficult to find more that wanted to interact. We even ended up witnessing what looked like a mating attempt with a group of 5 whales getting into some sort of underwater skirmish that resulted in a lot of bubbles being blown to the surface. It was really hard to tear myself away from the constant whale activity to eat lunch, and even when I emerged from the cabin with a full stomach, I realised that there had been yet another whale swimming around the boat the whole time. I’ve been whale watching many times, including being lucky enough to see humpback whales in the waters off 5 different countries, but I’d never before had such an amazing experience with so many whales. I couldn’t believe what a day I was having.


But as if it couldn’t get any better, it did. I’d noted one of the crew sitting on a step-down at the back of the boat whilst we were being circled by a mum and calf. I joined her for a near-surface view of the interaction and then she swapped places with me and I was able to squat down on the lowest part of the boat, within touching distance of the water lapping at the stern. Whereas the main deck area provided enough height to see the whales as they passed right at the surface, as well as just below, whenever the whales swam round the back of the boat, they would surface directly in front of me, and I was able to stick my arm under the water and film them as they swam past. It was the most magical experience I think I’ve ever had with wildlife and I was ecstatic. My holiday mojo was back, and the trip couldn’t have gone any better. With the sun beaming overhead, and the water amazingly calm and glistening on such a warm day, I had a strong urge to jump in the water. Only common sense stopped me, but when they were swimming right underneath me, it was sorely tempting.


Eventually though, we had to leave the whales behind, but we’d travelled far enough to make the return sailing a relaxing chance to sunbathe. The tide had dropped, revealing large sandbars that we’d sailed over earlier in the day, and we hugged part of K’Gari’s sandy coastline on route back to Hervey Bay. I was still on cloud 9 when we arrived back into the marina, by now mid-afternoon. I couldn’t thank the crew enough for the trip, and I stayed at the marina for a while afterwards, letting the memories absorb whilst I mulled over an iced coffee. Foregoing the ride back to my hostel, I decided to use the remaining hours of daylight to walk back along the coast.


It was a short walk to reach the far end of the long stretch of beach that spans the length of Hervey Bay’s coastline. With the tide out and the coastal shelf flat, there was a wide expanse of sand exposed to walk upon, and I was quick to leave the streets behind and get down onto the sand. One of the distinctive features here was the extensive length of the Urangan Pier, 868 metres (2848ft) long sticking far out into the sea. Near its base, the water lapped at the struts in places and pelicans sat near the shoreline. It was a lengthy walk out to its end, with locals fishing off it in places. This attracted more pelicans and other seabirds, and there was plenty of activity surrounding them as they waited for a bite.


With the early sunset in Queensland, the light was already dropping down to create a long shadow as I headed back along the pier to the shoreline. I had planned on walking a good chunk of Hervey Bay’s beachfront, but with the lowering light it soon became clear that this just wasn’t achievable. I stuck to the promenade, walking under trees filled with talkative rainbow lorikeets, and followed the setting sun as the sky turned through shades of red. It was dark by the time I reached my hostel, having stopped for some pizza on the way back. There were a few others milling around the reception area with the same intentions as me. I had been planning on heading north to Mackay on the overnight bus, to spend 24hrs there to catch up with someone I hadn’t seen for 5 years, but after it fell through I was left at short notice with a day at hand. After mulling over options, I decided to take an arduous 12 hour bus journey to Airlie Beach. It was a busy bus of backpackers that set off late at night into the darkness. Like on planes, I struggle to sleep on moving vehicles, even although I had a double seat to try and stretch out. Dozing on and off whilst listening to music, the hours ticked by, and before I knew it, the sunlight crept back onto the horizon, and another glorious day in Queensland beckoned…


Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: