Sailing in the Whitsundays

I hadn’t thought of Airlie Beach as any more than a gateway to the Whitsunday Islands, but it turned out to be a really nice town with lots of palm trees. It’s a shame you couldn’t go in the sea without worrying about deadly marine stingers such as box jellyfish, but there was an attractive lagoon like the one in Brisbane. I was staying at Nomads for one night both before and after my Explore Whitsundays sailing trip, and I arranged to share a room with Amy, Verena and Roman, all of whom I’d first met in Rainbow Beach. We had dinner together and I tried kangaroo for the first time. It had a pretty strong flavour but it was quite tasty.

On Friday, May 4, I started my two-night sailing trip on the Boomerang, an 83ft maxi ocean racing yacht which used to be the fastest boat of its kind in the world. It was 20ft wide and had a 110ft mast, making it taller than the other boats in the harbour. There were 26 guests (including Hugo, who I first met in Byron Bay) and three crew on the trip.

We sailed to Whitsunday Island and we were given the chance to help raise the sails and to take the wheel. The skipper, Kane, attracted a sea eagle by whistling and waving his arm, and it swooped to catch some meat that he threw in the air. We spent the first night moored at Tongue Bay.

The next day, we went ashore for a bushwalk and to spend time on the beautiful Whitehaven Beach, which had the whitest and finest sand I’ve ever set foot upon. We had to put on stinger suits before swimming in the sea.

Then we sailed to Hook Island and went snorkelling in Luncheon Bay, which was incredible. The coral was amazing and the fish didn’t seem bothered by our presence. I was grateful that Ellen kept a close eye on me, as she’d heard about some of my water-related mishaps and I was feeling a bit nervous. Now I can cross snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef off my ‘bucket list’. I used up half the film in my disposable underwater camera and I can’t wait to get it developed. I’ll use up the other half when I go on a trip to the outer reef from Cairns, and I hope I’ll see the characters from Finding Nemo.

We sailed to Langford and I went onto the beach for a short time while some of the group went snorkelling again. I was gutted I left my camera on the boat because there was one of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen. In the opposite direction, the clouds around the nearly-full moon turned a gorgeous purple colour. That night, after we had moored at Stonehaven, we drank goon and played Thumper. It was the second-best day I’ve had in Australia.

On Sunday, May 6, we sailed back to Airlie Beach. I was thinking about Issie and Chris, whose wedding I was sad to be missing. Even though our legs were dangling over the edge of the high side as usual, the boat was leaning so much it was quite difficult to hold on at times. We overtook the boat with the not-very-classy name Spank Me, which had an hour’s head start. As we did a ring around it and jeered, some of the boys flashed at it. I suppose this wasn’t very classy either, but it was quite funny.

In the evening, the group was invited to meet at the pub Beaches. It was a bit disappointing that so few of the group turned up, but it was a nice chance to say goodbye to people. I walked Ellen to the bus stop and we saw an unusually large and bright shooting star, which rounded off the whole chapter of the trip perfectly.

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Agnes Water and 1770

Agnes Water was my last opportunity (northbound) to go surfing, but the weather was so miserable I couldn’t find the motivation to leave Beachside Backpackers.

The rain stopped just long enough for me to hire a bike from the hostel and cycle 6km to the Town of 1770. It was even smaller than Agnes Water, and there was virtually nothing to it, but I visited the spot where Lt. James Cook allegedly set foot in Queensland for the first time, on May 24, 1770. It was marked by a monument.

On Wednesday, May 2, I got the overnight Greyhound bus to Airlie Beach, which was so uncomfortable I probably wouldn’t do it again.

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24 hours in Hervey Bay

I only spent one night in Hervey Bay, on Monday, April 30, because it’s best known for its whale-watching opportunities but this wasn’t the right season for them.

I checked into Next Backpackers and the staff said at the moment, I had a six-bed ensuite dorm all to myself, so could they offer me a free upgrade to a four-bed dorm? I declined and the gamble paid off. I had the best night’s sleep in ages. Although the room was not bug-free, I didn’t get any bites there.

I went for a walk around the town and along Urangan Pier which was nearly 1km long and very popular with fishermen. The sea was the flattest I had ever seen it, because it was sheltered by Fraser Island. I didn’t have a chance to see much before it began to rain heavily and get dark. On the way back to the hostel, I noticed some large bats making their way inland, and as I stood and watched, they continued to appear until the skies were totally filled with the distinctive silhouettes, all flying in the same direction. It was creepy. I also noticed that the town seems to have a connection with Devon, with streets named after Exeter, Honiton, Barnstaple and so on.

Back at the hostel, I enjoyed a couple of drinks in the bar with some other girls before we watched a film in the TV room. The wine was the cheapest I’ve come across in Australia (excluding goon as it’s not technically wine), and the barman filled the glasses right to the brim when the manager wasn’t looking.

He wasn’t the only member of staff to do me a favour. The minibus driver took me to the Greyhound bus stop via the McDonald’s drive-thru so I could get one of the 30 cent soft serve cones to which I have become a bit addicted.

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Staying ‘dingo-safe’ on Fraser Island

On Thursday, April 26, I went to Rainbow Beach and checked into Dingo’s, where I spent the night both before and after going to Fraser Island. There were only a few shops so the town didn’t take long to look around. I went for a walk along the beach but I only saw the coloured cliffs that gave the place its name from a distance because I was worried about being trapped by the rising tide and I had to turn back. In the evening, we were put into teams for Fraser Island and we had a briefing. I was in a team with five Germans, a Dutch girl and an Englishman, who all seemed nice.

The next morning we loaded our 4WD cars with our food, alcohol and bags, and set off for the largest sand island in the world. Having thought it was difficult to fit everything you need in a big backpack, it was strange to find that you can fit everything you really need in a small backpack. It was supposed to be a camping trip, but we were told that the four teams making up our group would be staying at the island’s Base Camp hostel. Some of us were quite disappointed about this until it began to rain heavily.

The weather meant that the island did not look as good as it did in all the postcards, but at least we didn’t miss out on seeing anything, and the lakes and creeks were still warm enough for swimming. We weren’t allowed to swim in the ocean because of the strong currents and the sharks. We were also warned about the danger presented by the island’s dingoes. We saw a few, but none of us had any problems with them. We all took turns to drive. Our team was the first to get stuck in the sand, and that was before we had even got the ferry to the island itself. We had to get out and push while group leader Darren took the wheel, and the other teams laughed at us.

We visited Lake McKenzie, Wanggoolba Creek, the Maheno shipwreck from 1935, the cliffs called the Pinnacles, Eli Creek, the rocky outcrop Indian Head from where there was an amazing view, Champagne Pools where there were waves unlike any I’ve ever seen and several members of our group lost blood after cutting themselves on the rocks, and Lake Wabby.

When we got back to the hostel, we played football on the beach until it got dark, and after dinner we played drinking games including I Have Never and Suck. When we were quite drunk we went down to the beach and sang our hearts out.

We headed back to Rainbow Beach on Sunday, April 29. It was a memorable trip and there are now several more friends I can look out for as we all head up the coast.

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Let loose in Noosa

I booked three nights in Noosa because everyone had been raving about it. On Monday, April 23, I checked into the YHA hostel Halse Lodge, which was close to the beach. The kitchen was too small for the number of people trying to use it, and the showers weren’t very good, but the place had character. I liked the veranda and the flaming torches in the garden. It’s a listed building as it was built in 1881. It’s the last remaining timber accommodation building in Noosa and the longest continuously operating guesthouse in Queensland.

I bumped into Annie (who I met in Milford/Sydney) on the beach, and we arranged to go surfing together the next day. It was good to bring my Aussie surfing tally up to six beaches and about 18 hours. This doesn’t mean I’m brilliant at surfing now, just that I’m used to surfing in a variety of conditions and I’m more aware of my limits.

I went for a long walk in Noosa National Park, mostly along the coastal path but also through the forest. Apparently there are wild koalas there, but I didn’t see any. I also went to Laguna Lookout, which wasn’t really worth the effort.

Overall, I thought Noosa was a nice beach town, but it wasn’t amazing, and I preferred Byron Bay.

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A brilliant time in Brisbane

I had a fantastic time in Brisbane, partly because I got to cross some things off my wish list such as cuddling a koala and going to an Aussie rules football match, and partly because I got to see some old friends.

On Tuesday, April 17, I had another break from hostels and I went to stay with Kit in the Bulimba area of the city for four nights. I hadn’t seen him for six years so it was great to catch up with him and meet his wife Emme (and dog Matilda). On one night, we went to the local pub and took part in a quiz, finishing somewhere in the middle, and on another night we went to visit some of their friends. It was nice to hang out with Aussies rather than backpackers for a change.

I think Brisbane is a better city for residents than for visitors, as there aren’t many tourist attractions but all the amenities you would want. The city isn’t on the coast but Streets Beach, the man-made lagoon on the south bank, was a decent attempt to give people the best of both worlds. The Botanic Garden and Roma Street Parkland were pleasant areas for a stroll, though I had to be careful not to tread on any lizards which ranged from the size of my little finger to the size of my arm.

I also had a lovely catch-up with Sally and Nat, who I hadn’t seen for a few months, and the following day we went to Australia Zoo, in Beerwah, one hour’s drive north of Brisbane. The zoo, made famous by Steve Irwin, was one of the best I’ve visited, even though it didn’t have any monkeys. We saw crocodile and tiger shows, during which we saw behaviours that we’d only seen on television. We made friends with a wallaby, patted several kangaroos and stroked a koala. We saw a zookeeper taking a wombat for a walk on a lead, and when I asked, I was allowed to hold the lead for a bit. I also saw an echidna and a Tasmanian devil for the first time. We were there for just over five hours, and on the way back, Sally and Nat took me to see the impressive Glass House Mountains. We stopped in Maleny for probably the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted. Then we spent a few hours visiting Nat’s great-uncle and aunt, Brian and Rita. They were really friendly and really funny, and made me wish I knew more of my own family. I don’t remember the last day I laughed so much, and it was probably my favourite day in Australia so far.

On Saturday, April 21, I checked into the YHA hostel for two nights because I didn’t want to impose on the McDonalds too much, and we had different plans for the evening. I met up with Jemma, who I met in Sydney, and we went to The Gabba stadium, in the Woolloongabba area of the city, to watch our first Aussie rules footy match. It was a local derby, with the Brisbane Lions taking on the Gold Coast Suns. The capacity of the stadium was 42,000 but the attendance was just under 22,000. Before the game started, a man in the row behind us patiently explained the rules and terminology to us. The game was very fast and very exciting, and although the teams seemed evenly matched at the beginning, the Lions went on to win 111-46.

The next day, Jemma and I took the bus to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, which was 12km away. The place had 115 koalas, all of which the keepers knew by name, and the young ones in particular were so cute. We both had our photo taken with a koala called Barney, who at eight years old was getting on a bit, and unsurprisingly as koalas sleep for 19 hours a day, he had trouble staying awake. I was quite disappointed that many of the other creatures in the park, including the wombats, were asleep and mostly out of sight, but at least I got to see a platypus.

I’ve now seen and done almost everything I really wanted in Australia, though I’m really looking forward to snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef. Anything else I do in the next five weeks is a bonus.

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What’s in a name?

On Sunday, April 15, I headed to Surfers Paradise, at the heart of the Gold Coast, for a couple of nights. The problem with giving a place a name such as Surfers Paradise is that it creates unrealistically high expectations. I had crossed the border from New South Wales to Queensland, which is known as the Sunshine State and apparently has 300 days of sunshine a year. What I’d like to know is whether a day with a few hours of sunshine and several hours of rain counts as a day of sunshine, or whether I was just unlucky.

I was staying at the Surfers Paradise Backpackers Resort. The whole town felt like a resort, and one that was still expanding. It didn’t seem to contain anything besides shops (from Gucci down to Condom Kingdom), cafes, bars, nightclubs and high-rise apartment blocks, including the world’s tallest residential tower, which was just over 322m. There were several tourist attractions and theme parks nearby.

At first it was strange to see skyscrapers just metres from the beach, and I didn’t like the way man’s attempt to artificially create a neon-lit paradise was imposing on the natural beauty of the beach scene. But when I went surfing, it felt pretty special to be catching waves in a place that combined urban and beach lifestyles so effectively.

The previous night, my Dutch roommate Jessica and I hadn’t felt in the mood for sampling the town’s notorious party scene. We chilled out at the hostel, played some games, and stayed up late talking about serious things like relationships and work. But when we went surfing, I forgot about all my worries and there was nowhere else I’d rather have been at that time. And if that isn’t paradise, then I don’t know what is.

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Goon goon gone

I’ve just spent five nights at the Holiday Village Backpackers in Byron Bay, a town full of hippies and surfers. The hostel was directly opposite the famous party bar Cheeky Monkeys, which meant it wasn’t far to stumble to bed (if you were spending the night in bed and not on the beach).

The weather was variable but the rain didn’t spoil the fun too much. I met some lovely people including someone from Sevenoaks, where I grew up – Hugo. We spent lots of time drinking goon and playing games at the hostel, both before and after going to Cheeky Monkeys. There’s a saying ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ and when more than 20 people have piled into your small, six-bed dorm after ‘quiet time’ has begun in the communal area, you know you’re not going to get any sleep and you might as well be sociable. On one night, the Cheeky Monkeys staff – including the girls – had their nation’s flags painted on their chests. On another night, the theme was Rocky Horror, and everyone was encouraged to get onto the tables and do the Time Warp. We were given free beer just for shouting loudly when asked who was thirsty. Aimee won a handful of prizes for successfully taking on the challenge of cramming more than 20 marshmallows into her mouth. We also went to Cocomangas nightclub, and a comedy night at Woody’s but it was awful so we only stayed for an hour and a half.

The Greyhound bus driver had said: “Going to Byron Bay and not going surfing is like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower.” Aimee and I made use of the hostel’s free surfboard hire, but I found it hard to balance on the small, slippery board, and the current was ridiculously strong, so it wasn’t the best session I’ve had out here. It was cool to see dolphins just a little further out to sea than the surfers. I went on a pleasant walk to the lighthouse and the most easterly point of the Australian mainland, via some more beautiful beaches, and saw more dolphins and a turtle.

I went on a memorable day trip to Nimbin. I sat next to Eleanor on The Happy Coach, and she had to sit in her coat with her hood up for most of the journey because the sunroof leaked badly. We were entertained with music by the likes of Bob Marley and The Beatles. It was nice that there were familiar faces from Spot X and even Christchurch on the trip. When we got to Nimbin, we looked around the shops, which mostly sold hemp products. On several occasions, people on the street asked us if we wanted to buy some weed. As we walked into some shops, the smell of weed was totally overpowering. Before we headed back, we had a barbecue at the bowls club, and I took the opportunity to have a go at playing bowls for the first time.

I also went to a free barbecue in a park in Byron Bay, which was hosted by a Christian group (I think), and on my last night, the hostel had an all-you-can-eat barbecue for which I was literally first in line.

Everything else that happened in Byron stays in Byron!

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Surf camp

I spent three nights over the Easter weekend at Spot X in Arrawarra (my favourite place name after Woolloomooloo in Sydney). Arrawarra was such a tiny place, it didn’t appear in my guidebook, but it was a half-hour bus journey north of Coffs Harbour. Spot X was where Mojosurf ran surf camps, and I wanted some progressive lessons.

The surf camp was bigger than I expected, with about 230 people there on Saturday, April 7, when there was a big party in the evening, and about 60 people on the other nights. As I expected, all the instructors were toned and tanned young men with shaggy blonde hair (I’m sorry I didn’t get any photos of them). I was sleeping in a shipping container, with five other people and a whole host of creepy-crawlies. The meals, which were all included, were impressive; I hadn’t eaten so well since leaving home. We had steak, roast beef and roast pork for dinner, buffet lunches, and big breakfasts, although I didn’t make the most of the latter because I had two-hour surf lessons at 7am each morning and I didn’t want to make myself sick.

The aforementioned party was lots of fun, and involved drinking lots of goon around the campfire (on seats made from old surfboards), games such as the one where people have to pass an orange around from chin to chin, and dancing on tables. We spent the daytimes playing cards or volleyball, or watching TV. We were too tired after our lessons to do any extra surfing!

I was really lucky the morning after the party because the rest of my group didn’t make it to the lesson, and I therefore had a private lesson with Rob. He saw what I could do already and then took me well out of my comfort zone, but I felt safe with him. I learned so much and became much more confident in the water, which is what I wanted from surf camp. The following three lessons were in a group and progress was less noticeable, but it was useful to have the coaches giving us tips to help us improve. The water was lovely – about 24 degrees warm.

I didn’t really notice that it was Easter, but I was aware that I had reached the halfway point of my travels, which was hard to believe. I’ve seen and done so much already. It has been awesome.

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Coffs Harbour

On Thursday, April 5, I spent 10 hours travelling by Greyhound bus from Sydney to Coffs Harbour. There wasn’t anything particularly interesting to see out of the window, apart from a couple of small groups of kangaroos. The Aussitel hostel’s minibus picked me up from the bus stop, which was great as it would have been impossibly far to walk with all my luggage. I bought a pizza before realising that the hostel had neither an oven nor a freezer (this isn’t New Zealand), but I made a name for myself by cooking it fairly successfully by balancing it on some forks in a frying pan with another frying pan on top.

The hostel was very sociable, with organised activities such as a Killer Pool competition (in which I didn’t get very far). A group of us went bodyboarding, as it was free to borrow the hostel’s boards, and jetty jumping. The jetty jump was about seven metres, and as I made the mistake of looking straight down, I found it even harder to do than my bungy jump. But I did it twice, to prove it was no accident, and to get some better photos. I was quite proud of myself because none of the other girls from the group would do it. Around 28 of us headed back to the beach after dark to sit around a campfire, chat, toast marshmallows and listen to someone playing the guitar.

I also spent quite a lot of time playing the card game Shithead with Sarah from Germany, and Dan, Mike and Chris who all worked in the hostel or locally. Mike’s Mum had posted him some cookies from Canada, which he shared around. Thanks Mike’s Mum, they were delicious. Sarah and I went for a walk to Mutton Bird Island, from where there was a great view of Coffs Harbour and nearby places, but the sun was in totally the wrong place to get any good photos.

I also went to the botanic garden. Like in Sydney, it was more memorable for the wildlife than the plants. I had a close encounter with a large lizard, and I also saw some rat-like rodents. There were many different bird calls, including one that sounded like mocking laughter, which I felt was aimed at me when I nearly jumped out of my skin after mistaking a log in the creek for a crocodile.

I had a one-and-a-half-hour surfing lesson as it only cost as much as it cost to hire a board and wetsuit for an hour at Bondi Beach, but it was with a group of total beginners and I didn’t really learn anything new. We didn’t wear wetsuits and I got quite a bad rash, but it was good to get some more practice.

Everything was great except when we were woken up at 3.30am by Jeremy being sick over the side of his top bunk onto everything below. It’s been added to the collection of hostel horror stories…

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