Australia

Blue

 


 

David Whitley gets away from the tour buses to go canyoning in the Blue Mountains near Sydney.

 

Unless the inner child has been thoroughly buried, its very existence wiped out by a space age memory eraser, it’s very difficult not to sneakily enjoy water parks. You know the sort – those giant aquatic adventure playgrounds, infested with giant, curling slides that spit screaming kids out into pools of water every few seconds.

 

 

Unfortunately, there comes a certain age where it is officially no longer cool to be seen bombing along foaming torrents in a rubber ring, shouting “Wheeeeeeeeeeee!” before creating a giant splash as the big blue snake releases you. It’s somehow a little unbecoming for a sensible adult, even though we’d all probably leap at the chance to have a water park to ourselves for the day. Just as long as our friends didn’t find out, of course. Mercifully, there appears to be a more socially acceptable version. It’s not for kids, it’s done in hard-to-reach parts of the great outdoors, and is actually rather dangerous if not carried out with due care and attention. Perfect. It’s called canyoning, and there’s nowhere better to test it out than in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales.

 

Or rather, I think it’s in the Blue Mountains. Truth be told, we could be anywhere. After the early morning pick up in Katoomba, our small band of hardy adventurers are bundled into the back of the A-Team van and then driven out into the wilds. The roads are bumpy, the foliage thick, and civilisation appears to be a long way away. It is, in short, the sort of place in which you’d stumble upon a log cabin owned by someone with a penchant for collecting dead bodies. The Blair Witch Project effect, however, just adds to the tingle of excitement.

 

We’re actually in the Wollemi National Park, most of which is a true wilderness. Not many people make it into this neck of the woods, preferring to stay around Katoomba and the other charming towns of the Blue Mountains area. The Wollemi is slightly off the usual tourist route, and thus it’s all about dirt tracks through thick bush, and there’s not another vehicle in sight. For an indication of how well this area is charted, bear in mind that in 1994 humankind first discovered the Wollemi Pine. It is a genus that has been on the planet for over two million years, and had previously only been found as a fossil. It came as a surprise, therefore, when one of the National Park’s field officers just stumbled across it whilst out on an expedition through this untamed land.

 

There will be no such discoveries on our little adventure, but there is still a pioneer spirit amongst the group. None of us have tried canyoning before, and frankly, we don’t even know what it entails. As the van is parked up in a clearing, therefore, it is time for a brief lowdown. Canyoning, it is explained, is basically a more hardcore version of going for a quiet stroll by the river. The idea is to follow the flowing waters downstream, surmounting any obstacles that may get in the way. When there are no handy towpaths around, this means scrambling over rocks, shimmying across cavern walls and occasionally taking the odd leap of faith from the top of a waterfall.

 

Naturally, some stretches of river are tougher propositions than others. At the top end, the activity involves abseiling into dark holes, proper ropework and rock climbing skills. At the introductory level things are a little less intense, but extreme care is still required. It only takes one slip or misjudged leap to land in an awful lot of silly bother. Oh yes, and even when doing the baby steps, you are still required to wear the most ridiculous get-up ever devised. Struggling to think of anything that looks more humiliating and less dignified than a skin-tight wetsuit with trainers? Well try adding a bright, bulky helmet to that ensemble and you’ll soon be hiding behind shrubs the moment a camera is wielded.

 

Once we all look suitably gormless, it’s time for the first leg of the day’s expedition: The Sheep Dip. There are many canyons in the region, but this one is generally regarded as the fun one. It’s not particularly taxing when you compare it to some of the more scary efforts, and has plenty of dips, slides and drops. In essence, it’s a glorious pure pop song amongst a playlist of wilfully difficult avant-garde guitar instrumentals.

 

After a thorough safety briefing, we’re alongside the river and ready to go. For the next couple of hours, it’s a case of moving along any which way, and a proper test of ingenuity. If there’s nothing to grab onto, then the only option is swimming. It’s only short stretches at a time, but you can tell why people don’t really attempt this in winter. Even with the wetsuits, if the water is mostly starved of sunlight it can be frighteningly cold in places. You can also realise why you’re told to bring along an old pair of trainers that you don’t mind being ruined – there is absolutely no chance of keeping your feet dry.

 

On other occasions, it’s more like those family woodland adventures that we all remember with rose-tinted glasses, gingerly padding across stepping stones before scrabbling over rocky rubble. It becomes a test of ingenuity at times, having to get from A to B, but with no obvious route for doing so. This is where seemingly insignificant overhangs and boulders come in handy – any port in a storm – but sometimes there’s simply no option but to swim for it. The water depths vary alarmingly – you can never be quite certain of being able to stand up, meaning that every canyoner is probably going to have to break out the front crawl at some point.

 

Swimming is all well and good, of course, when you’re heading in a straight line, but it doesn’t quite cut the mustard when the water suddenly disappears from underneath you, cascading down a rock face. And this, naturally, is where the real fun comes in. Never is the water park analogy more apt than when you’re sat on the edge of a greasy, slippery stone, ready to push yourself off into the murky pool below. The hardest part is resisting the urge to shout “wheeeeeeee” as you plunge – to do so would hardly be treating the situation with the seriousness it deserves. Ahem.

 

Some drops don’t have convenient boulders to slide from, however, and that’s when brave leaps of faith from tree trunks come into play. It’s a tremendously satisfying splash when you land though, sinking deep under the surface before emerging like a shaggy dog shaking itself dry. The Sheep Dip is supposed to be part one of a double canyon day out, but as we make our way out of it for the lunch stop, the dangers of the activity begin to become clear. Over the last few days it has rained heavily, and the waters are flowing rapidly. And, judging by the decided grey look of the skies, there’s only going to be more water added soon.

 

The Sheep Dip is largely all about getting a quick fix of entertainment, while Rocky Creek is a little tougher – more of a challenge for the beginner. And our guide is looking a little apprehensive as we sit down for our lunch on the riverbank. “Hmm,” he murmurs as hot soup is gleefully gulped down. “Not good.”

 

At the entrance to Rocky Creek, the waters are swirling, raging and foaming down into the darkness, but gung-ho heroics have long since set in. The group, to a man, are guilty of not quite taking things seriously enough. Make no mistake about it, people have died canyoning before, and when the rivers get angry, the dangers multiply. Despite the uncertainties, we’re all willing to take it on, emboldened by the morning’s adventure.

 

It takes a crack of thunder from above to settle matters. It’s decided that Rocky Creek as a torrent during a storm is too much of a risk, and the day is cut short. But it’s not too much of a disappointment – the spirit of the water park has been brought back for six people who had long since surrendered to maturity.

 

 

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.