Australia

Coffs

 


 

In search of Australia’s greatest adrenaline rushes, David Whitley goes surf rafting and kayaking on the New South Wales coast.

 

 

Aside from the caws of a lone seagull and the ominous rumble of the waves crashing to shore, all is eerily silent. The sense of tension and anticipation in the air is palpable. Everyone waiting, a brooding alertness, as the ocean lumbers beneath us, slowly building itself up for a tumultuous peak. The helmets in front turn round, partly to check the looks of concentration on the faces behind them and partly in solidarity with their comrades. We’re on the front line, you can trust us to do our job.

 

As the swell mounts, the piercing battle cry comes from the rear. “NO-O-OW!” our commander hollers, and six oars plunge into the water as one. We launch through the water with perfect synchronicity, spurred on by the yells of “HARDER! HARDER!” coming from behind us. Suddenly, the front of the raft lurches upwards as it’s met by the front of the breaking wave. This is what we’ve been waiting for, we’re on, and totally in the hands of mother nature. As the foaming waters disintegrate, the cannon fodder at the front is dumped downwards, consumed in a cloud of raging salty spray. At the back we’re thrown up at what seems to be a ninety degree angle. If it’s all going to go horribly wrong at any moment, it’s probably now, but suddenly we’re speeding along. The ocean has decided to be kind and ease our passage rather than leaving us scrabbling for air underneath an upturned dinghy. Reaching the shore, we all lean left into the wave to prevent a last minute collapse, and get us into position for another assault.

 

Surf rafting is a curious pastime. I cannot see any conceivable application for it in every day life, aside from maybe making little excursions to land whilst on an exploratory mission on a big ship in the 1770s, but it sure is fun. It’s like whitewater rafting, but dealing with the vagarities of Coffs Harbour’s ocean currents rather than rapids, waterfalls and shallow river beds.

 

It’s a triumph of teamwork over the elements, but when it goes wrong, it gets very wet and messy indeed. It would be fair to say that trust in Steve, the man nominally in charge of all this, has never been sky high, particularly since his opening comment of: “You know what guys? Half of the fun is falling in.”

And, given that we’ve been through six successful missions so far, our omnipotent leader is being viewed with the sort of looks usually reserved for men in camel-skin coats, attempting to sell ‘genuine’ designer watches. We’re the only people in the bay as we battle back out against the tide. The strokes don’t seem to make much headway as we force our way through the relentless bludgeoning of the waves. Out of the danger zone, we pause for breath. Again, it is all in the anticipation; the calm before the storm. The swells gradually gather momentum, jack-knifed into the narrow gap by the protruding headlands. All quiet, but for the heartbeats.

 

Truly pumped up by this stage, we release a blood-curdling war cry; our impromptu verbal haka, ready for one last charge over the top. It’s a huge wave, and again the front of the craft rides up. But something is wrong. I feel a thud in my back, almost certainly the rather chunky Englishwoman behind. As I struggle to balance on the side, the raft lurches to the right. Over, over… out.

 

Following what feels like a full spin cycle, I emerge to see our stricken craft bobbing around in the wash, and oars dotted randomly around the bay. Steve, it seems, has the victims he so craved, with sorry, shaking heads sticking out intermittently to spit out seawater. If surf rafting is all teamwork, brute force and adrenalin, sea kayaking has to be the complete opposite. Sure, it’s hard on the arms, paddling out against the surf, but once into the calmer waters, there is a real chance to take things in. The New South Wales coastline around Coffs Harbour genuinely is a sight to behold. It’s all moody headlands and golden sands, but with the added bonus of the rainforests, hills and banana plantations peeking out above the beach.

 

We’re in the Solitary Islands’ Marine Park, a fairly unique eco-system where the warm tropical current meets the colder southern waters. Consequently, there is an astonishing diversity in the sea life beneath us. The name is a result of one of Captain Cook’s rare bungles – he briefly skirted past on his famous voyage of discovery, and only spotted the one island. It stuck though, and the others sprinkled around it became not-very-solitary Solitary Islands too.

 

The unique factor is not just in the water either. “You see that bit sticking out there,” says Steve from the rear. “Macaulay’s Headland, one of only two places in the entire country where the Great Dividing Range meets the sea. We’re in a pretty special place here.”

 

And it’s not just the humans that think this; apparently dolphins are regularly spotted on these little paddles around, and will come up to play near the kayaks if feeling particularly carefree. It’s best not to assume that all fins belong to Flipper though – Steve also starts to mention the bronze whaler shark that called the area home for a few months last year, before thinking better of it and leaving the detail worryingly scant.

 

But toothy monsters of the deep aren’t the immediate problem; getting back to shore is, and that means going through the breaks again, without the benefit of a dinghy to bob around in. Slumped forward, legs sprawled over the side, the magnitude of this task becomes quite apparent when watching the advance scouting parties make their fated sorties. It looks like a war movie without the explosions. The girls on the first raid are shot down without a trace. Gerhard and Joe’s fate is more spectacular, the wave seemingly lifting the rear of their kayak straight into the air and flipping them over. The nose plants into the sand, and they’re flung forwards to oblivion.

 

We’re last, and our chances don’t look too promising. This is a lot harder than the rafting – the craft is narrower, the weight isn’t distributed as well and there are fewer people to do the corrective paddling. Once Gerhard and Joe have surfaced with minimal mental trauma, it’s paddle to water and into the treacherous enemy territory. The wave comes up behind us as we stroke furiously and…

 

What happens next is something of a blur, the processes of which shall go unrecorded by history. Suffice to say, however, that being slapped round the face with a rogue kayak is a distinctly unpleasant experience. I shake myself to the surface, holding my mouth. All my teeth are intact, although some of them appear to have gone for an unwelcome excursion through my bottom lip. A brief flashback to that meandering bronze whaler is sufficient to stop me from spitting blood, but as soon as I’ve gathered up the kayak and paddles floating aimlessly and hit land, this is no longer a concern. This is what boxers must feel like, and if anyone is prepared to tell me that sea kayaking is a wimpy, genteel pastime, then the scar will tell its own tale.

 

Car hire

 

Four wheels-phobic David Whitley concedes that, every now and then, shelling out for a hire car is the best option

 

As a general rule, I’d really rather not be driving. I know some people love to be behind the wheel, but it’s not something I find at all enjoyable. I’d sooner someone else was concentrating on the road and doing the hard work. Ideally, I’ll be on a train so I can move around and properly enjoy the view.

 

But even as someone who would prefer not be driving, I do have to concede that there are occasions when simply hiring a car is the best – and often cheapest – option.

 

When I was in Australia last year, I had a thoroughly enjoyable time. I wasn’t going to any particularly major attractions, and I was mooching around in areas that many overseas visitors don’t venture to. Theoretically, I could have got to all of them using public transport or tours, but it would have taken an enormous amount of planning and a lot more time.

 

So I picked up a car at Sydney airport and drove. I drove along the south coast of New South Wales, through Kangaroo Valley, around the Australian Alps and back through the Southern Highlands before ditching the car at the airport again.

 

During the course of that week, I started to realise what the main advantages of hiring a car were. It wasn’t just about the places I was going to – it was about getting there alone, and with no particular time constraints on when I had to leave.  I could sit and read a book on a log for an hour if I so wished, I didn’t have any pressing engagements elsewhere and I was quite at liberty to disappear again if I got bored.

 

But the freedom of hiring a car isn’t so much about the destination – it’s about the places you can stop at on the way to and from the destination. If something by the side of the road looked quite interesting, I could pull over and investigate. If a sign pointed to something I’d never heard of, there was nothing to stop me doing a little detour. On the way back to the airport I stopped at a few beaches for a swim – the sort of beaches that getting to by public transport would be nigh on impossible. And I could also keep all manner of snacks, drinks and assorted stuff that I’d ordinarily have to throw away in the boot.

 

When people talk about the freedom of having a car, this is the sort of thing they’re talking about. It’s not about being able to get somewhere – it’s about being able to take up distractions on the way there.

 

Do you have any tips on hiring cars? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below

 

roundtheworldflights.com have some particularly good value campervan and car-hire - ask your consultant for a quote

 

Bush

 

 

David Whitley becomes a temporary part of the family at Bullock Mountain Homestead near Glen Innes in New South Wales.
 
Containing the sort of energy usually associated with a nuclear reactor, Cruiser bounds down the bank, ploughs through the water and digs his paws in to climb up my chest. My new friend indulges in a frenetic bout of face-licking; a sure sign that he’s not planning to leave me alone for the rest of the stay.  I’ve been out in the bush for less than a day, and I’m evidently part of the family already. Cruiser is the younger of the two dogs at the Bullock Mountain Homestead, and the boisterous Labrador-cross comes everywhere, be it on a scramble down the river, a drive through the forest or pre-dinner kangaroo hunt. He’s after rabbits rather than roos, however.

 

His weary cohort Tooheys – all the homestead’s animals are named after alcoholic beverages – normally follows with a little less enthusiasm. He’s happy enough to humour Cruiser, but is clearly glad to see his young protégé lavish attention on some other poor mug for a few days. Bullock Mountain is one of those glorious places that can be all-action or ridiculously lazy, depending on whether you’re more in the Cruiser or Tooheys mindset.

 

Fishing, yabbying, birdwatching and bushwalking are amongst the options on offer, but it’s clear that the heart is with the horses. Twenty-or-so roam freely around the property’s 12,000 acres, but are rounded up and saddled when guests wish to go for a ride. The horses are cared for with an almost maternal verve by co-owner Alison Wood, and they’re clearly in good condition. I’m presented with an absolute beauty – a giant grey called Belle (as in Bell’s whisky) with film star looks.

 

Unfortunately, she blatantly has T-Rex blood on one side of her family, and getting up without an ice axe and crampons should be something of a challenge. Alison points at a tree stump. “We’ve thought of that,” she says, ushering Belle towards nature’s pedestal. Once up and plodding through the trees, it’s pretty obvious to see why the Woods use the property for horses and tourists rather than agriculture. It’s rocky, rugged and rather overgrown. Some of the trails disappear beneath a sea of wispy green scrub, while the paths are crossed by fallen trees and other obstacles.

 

We break into the occasional canter, but for the most part, it’s a tentative walk through land that doesn’t seem all that close to habitation. But suddenly we emerge at Beardy Waters, and a beautiful blue pool flanked by two thick rows of gum trees. Pelicans debate whether to scatter or stand their ground as we approach. It’s exactly what the Australian bush should look like, and it’s warm enough for a swim. Cruiser agrees whole-heartedly.

 

Once we’ve made our way back to base, it’s time for an altogether different water activity. This part of NSW’s New England area is notoriously rich in minerals – particularly sapphires. Most of them are mined these days, but fossickers still try their luck in the rivers and creeks. Unfortunately, doing it the traditional way is rather hard work. Scrabbling around at the rock to get enough to sift through is not much fun, so the Woods have come up with a better plan. They get bags of cast-off material from the mine, and take their guests through how to find the jewels amongst the junk.

 

Part of the bag is emptied out into two large trays, which act as sieves. They’re lowered into a water vat, and the cleaning process begins. The trays are dunked, shimmied, swivelled and shaken in the water in order to clean the dirt off and separate the bigger stones from the little ones. There’s a clear technique to it, with the aim being to get the heavier stones – and hopefully the sapphires – to the bottom. Alas, that technique isn’t immediately obvious to a rank amateur.

 

The trays are then flipped over onto old barrels and the rubble is picked through with tweezers. I strike lucky immediately – a small blue speck glimmers amongst the black stones. I hold it up to the light to check, and then pouch it. The hunt is surprisingly fascinating. A second pair of eyes can spot potential sapphires that the first pair misses, and after a while everything starts to look bluer than it is. I end up with a film canister half full of potential gems, although the elation wears off when they’re surveyed by an expert in town. Apparently only one is really gem quality.

 

But for all the activities, it’s the family atmosphere that makes Bullock Mountain special. The highlight of the day is a lamb roast in the evening, then beers, tall tales and dirty jokes around the campfire. And, of course, making sure that Cruiser has his tummy suitably tickled.

More photos here


Disclosure: David was a guest of the Bullock Mountain Homestead (Bullockmountainhomestead.com) and tourism New South Wales (Visitnsw.com).

 

Nimbin

 

Photo courtesy of Mark Eveleigh

 

David Whitley heads out to the alternative lifestyle hotspots in northern New South Wales in search of the elusive hippy.

 

“I-I like to call it Amazonian Fizz Guava,” comes the toned-down New York accent from behind. It looks so placid and juicy, but as soon as it hits the tongue, its sourness makes you recoil. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good, but it attacks with surprising bitterness. “I-I told you, didn’t I!” says Paul, with almost childlike glee, as he turns around and meanders back through his threadbare wooden shack.

 

Paul Recher is a hippy. In fact, he’s almost a dictionary definition of the word. He initially came out to the forested Northern Rivers region of New South Wales to dodge the draft for the Vietnam war, and ended up staying to grow his own jungle. Whilst he does make the occasional valid, lucid point – why should the Government protect us from our own bad eating and drinking habits by putting a poison (fluoride) in the water? – he is quite clearly out of his mind.

 

Carefully constructed arguments are interjected with rambles about Communists and terrorists, and it’s almost unequivocally a result of taking far, far too many drugs. It’s difficult to know what to call the place he lives in, a short drive from Lismore in the far north of the state. It’s most certainly not a farm, nor is it a ranch, a station or a plantation. We may have to settle on ‘patch of land’.

 

Pulling up along the dirt driveway, the entrance is marked by what can loosely be described as an artwork. It’s a hotch-potch collection of rusting road signs, bathtubs, gas canisters and household implements, and it illustrates Paul’s mindset quite nicely. On a guided tour of his luxury resort, he explains that he has three residences “so they can’t find me.” They all have different purposes, apparently, although the only discernable difference is that one is by a big pond which he can jump into every morning in lieu of a shower.

 

Around the palace grounds are all manner of leech-infested trees. They’re tangled up in each other and interspersed with random little plastic toys – the sort you’d get in a McDonalds Happy Meal. It’s decided that it’s best not to ask. “Wow!” he exclaims as he turns round, bringing everyone to a crashing halt. “My own jungle. Incredible, huh?” The reason we’re here is because Jim wanted us to see a real hippy. Jim has run tours from Byron Bay to Nimbin for the last twelve years, and finds that most people just don’t get it.

 

“People go to Nimbin, thinking they’re going to find hippies,” he says in relaxed-yet-measured tones. “But the hippies aren’t there – they’re all up in the hills. It’s like trying to find a town full of lighthouse keepers.” They may not be genuine hippies, but the townsfolk of Nimbin are undoubtedly different. The town itself is a byword for counterculture in Australia, although that comes more from the reputation as being the easiest place in the country to buy marijuana, rather than any particular achievements. Still, it is surrounded by both luscious countryside and the wannabe writers, artists, environmentalists and organic farmers who choose to live there.

 

Nimbin itself cannot be described as beautiful, though. It’s somewhere between quaintly ramshackle and pure and simple run down. The inhabitants seem on another planet, shambling down the street like extras in a zombie movie. Fashion sense is clearly not a priority here, with terry-towelling tracksuits appearing to be all the rage, whilst you’d be hard-pressed to find this much facial hair anywhere outside of a ZZ Top concert.

 

As you’d expect in a place notorious for it, more than a few people are trying to sell special tobacco to the tourists, but a few are a little more enterprising. Take the little old woman who has clearly learned how to fleece the visitors for every penny they can get. She’s selling small cookies out of a bag for $10 a pop, marketing them as genuine souvenirs of the whole Nimbin experience. Now call me frugal, call me tight, but that borders on extortion – you could get a cookie that size in Coles for less than two dollars. Still, it seems as though my fellow travellers aren’t quite so savvy, and snap them up, picking away at their meagre feed all day long. Each to their own, but I shall be spending my $10 more wisely on a big schnitzel in the local pub. Unsurprisingly, they all have to stop off at a service station later on to buy huge bags of crisps, and oversized chocolate bars, the fools.

 

It’s difficult to pinpoint what the actual tourist attractions are in Nimbin. It’s more a place you go to for the experience rather than for any particular activity, but if there is one, it’s probably the museum. It is a triumph of half-hearted curation, with the old VW Kombi out the front being possibly the most structured thing about the whole place. Inside is like a teenage boy’s bedroom; an unmitigated mess, with what can only be identified as ‘stuff’, thrown everywhere and the floor used as storage space. The walls are splashed with old newspaper articles and rampant sloganeering. Peace symbols, cannabis leaf ensigns and rainbows are emblazoned everywhere, and you fear entering the next room just in case you trip on a corpse that someone’s forgotten to clear up.

 

The rest of the street is similar. Rainbows adorn every shack-like building, and all sell everyday necessities such as aromatherapy oils, plant seeds and, er, nice things made out of wood. But the tour isn’t really about Nimbin itself, it’s about the whole vibe. Jim himself is all part of the fun. He’s possibly the most laid back person on earth, and throughout the trip, winding through the Nightcap National Park, he’s telling stories. We hear of one paranoid type on his bus who became convinced that his cake was evil. So evil in fact, that he couldn’t give it away or put it in the bin – the tour had to stop until he’d buried it in the woods.

 

He’s also big on his music, and it seems as though the whole journey is carefully choreographed. As soon as one Creedence Clearwater Revival tune finishes, it’s straight on with something off the Easy Rider or Big Lebowski soundtrack. Over the top, we get more stories, each interlinked whatever music playing as the bus heads up and down the slopes.

 

And you can begin to see why this area does attract those who aren’t after the suburban rat race. It’s incredibly green, and the tree-covered hills seem remarkably unAustralian. That everyone round here seems to speak like Jim is an indication that many have found their place to be, to relax, create and grow Amazonian Fizz Guavas if they so wish. It may not be the life for all of us, but you can at least get an inkling of why it works for some.

  

Pt Macquarie

 


 

David Whitley mounts a prized Australian camel in Port Macquarie.

 

The toothy grin would be quite menacing if it didn’t look so ridiculous. Kneeling down, being strapped up with all manner of tethers, hooks and attachments, is Liela, the massive beast that I am about to entrust with my safety for the next twenty minutes. Her big yellow teeth hang down gormlessly as her handler finishes tightening the saddle. Emerging from behind the truck and the camels, he looks surprised. “Blimey! We don’t usually get this many for the naked ride,” he says, as we all look nervously at our trusty steeds.

 

The exercise yard for these ships of the desert is the extraordinary Lighthouse Beach in Port Macquarie, New South Wales. It’s a phenomenal stretch of sand, disappearing for 9km towards the headland on the horizon, as the perilous-looking surf crashes repeatedly into the rocks. Aside for one dog-walker, we’re the only people (and animals) in sight. The five camels kneeling diligently before us have been captured roaming the deserts of Central Australia, and where one goes, the others follow. It’s a full house today, but Greg, the decidedly ocker type in charge, says that as herd animals, you can’t part them even if only two punters show up for the ride. Which, he is forced to concede, will not be conducted naked after all.

 

We’re told of the battle with the local council to allow the camel rides on the beach, and it seems as though one of the provisos was that all of the creatures must be fitted with a ‘lucky dip’ bag. “Later on, you’ll all get to put your hand in here to find the two dollar coin,” says Greg as the final member of the herd gets a dung-catcher placed discreetly over its backside.

 

Australian camels are unique. They are thought to be the only wild population left in the world, as in their African and Asian homelands, the camel has been long since domesticated. The irony is that just over 150 years ago, there weren’t any camels in Australia – they were brought over by traders and explorers in a bid to chart the barren central landscape and freight goods across it. Some of the imports broke free, and given that no man in his right mind was going to go chasing after a rogue escapee in no man’s land, a substantial wild population emerged. Today, there are thought to be nearly a million descendants of these libertines milling around aimlessly in the wild, and it’s a figure that is increasing fairly rapidly.

 

The Aussie camel is also regarded as the world’s finest breed, free from diseases that have ravaged populations elsewhere, and, believe it or not, it is one of our major exports to Saudi Arabia. I look Liela in the eye as Greg reels off his big list of carefully accumulated camel facts. You are going to play nice, aren’t you?

 

“There are two types of camel. The ones with one hump are called dromedaries, and live mainly in Africa. And they don’t spit – that’s llamas…” Greg continues, as I mull over the saddle. And more importantly, how on earth I’m going to get into it. Finally, with our preparations for the camel trivia quiz fully complete, it’s time to get on, and it seems as though the method of choice is to stick one foot in the stirrup, then heave yourself over, trying desperately to hang on.

 

Once we’re all up, seated and ready for action, it’s the camels’ turn to rise. Liela rumbles to her feet with all the athleticism of a pensioner getting out of a chair. If there’s one thing camels are not, it is elegant. Another thing they are not is comfortable. As we slowly start to move down the beach, it is a succession of bumps, jolts and spine rattles. I had suspected that it may be a little like riding a horse, where you can make yourself more comfortable by lifting out of the saddle slightly and bobbing along with the footsteps. Alas, this is not the case; you’ve got no option but to clang along with your calves chafing against the stirrups.

 

We move at a very slow walk, which although devastatingly unpleasant on the rear end, is at least safe. Even the most accomplished horseman probably wouldn’t fancy trying to rein in one of these monsters in full flow, but a kilometre and a half down the beach, Greg decides to up the stakes a bit. He pulls out a flick knife and starts back on the statistics.

 

“Now then, these camels can run at speeds of between 70 and 80 kilometres per hour,” he says, moving his finger to halfway up the blade. “We stick it in this far to get to 70, and all the way in for 80. “Unfortunately, we’re not allowed to do that to the animals,” he adds, clearly having issues with the tree-hugging nanny state he’s been brought up in, whilst turning his attention to the bemused Singaporean couple on the front camel. “So we’ll have to do it to these two. And we all want to go at 80, don’t we?”

 

Fortunately for those about to be stabbed, nobody really does. The level of trust placed in our mounts is at the sort of level usually reserved for estate agents with slicked back hair, pony tails and gold teeth. So we start to amble back to our starting point. If there is one thing more awkward and uncomfortable than getting on a camel or riding a camel, it is dismounting from one. On command, Liela suddenly drops onto her front knees, sending me careering into the front of the saddle with an almighty crunch and fearing for my chances of ever having children.

 

“You should be glad you’re not on that one,” says Greg, pointing at the biggest in the herd. “He’s known as the Nutcracker.” But, all told, Liela has behaved herself impeccably, so a big hug is in order. We’re told the camels genuinely enjoy this, and given that the toothy smile is back out in force again, I’m inclined to believe it.