Australia

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.

 

Lennox Head

 

 

 

 

Sometimes when we’re travelling we’re so busy we forget to keep our eyes open. It was my boyfriend who spotted it first- a lump of shaggy brown struggling in the water, swimming awkwardly towards the rocks that line the ocean at Lennox Head. We were sitting on the balcony of our apartment, one with a view that looked down a green slope to the water’s edge, a place where every morning brings a new kind of coastal meditation.

 

Whales migrate south during the Australian spring, the young ones leaping and showing off with their spectacular submarine-like breaches, while older humpbacks simply lope slowly in a spouting rhythm. Pods of dolphins play in the surf, each morning at sunrise looping in a circle around a school of fish for breakfast. When they aren’t hunting, nesting pairs of regal birds of prey used the decades-old Norfolk pine trees as a timber thrones.

 

However there was nothing regal or meditative about the brown bird swimming for its life in the water, pushing desperately with its wings through the waves towards the rocks. Grabbing a pair of binoculars to get a better look at the breakwater, we realised that it was a bird of prey – and just like taking a fish out of water, this was a bird that had no business being in the sea.

 

Grabbing keys, tennis shoes for the sharp rocks and towels, we flew down the back steps and around the house to get to the water’s edge to try to rescue it. But by the time we got there, other passers-by had seen it fighting and waded into the water, pulling it out and placing it on the rocks (nearly losing fingers in the process).

 

It was an Osprey, with wet bedraggled feathers and a dirty white head.  It sat in a few metres away in a soggy half-drowned mess of feathers looking entirely racked off. Clutched in its foot was what had been wearing it down - a big fat juicy fish big enough for human consumption. It’s talons were splayed awkwardly across the fish, and embedded in it’s body- almost as if fishing wire was tangled around it’s foot anchoring it to the fish.

 

However, it was a little less sinister than that. The bird was simply a bit of a gumby- he had hooked his talons in to the fish and got them stuck in between the gills, the eye sockets and some bone- and had pretty much almost drowned himself out in the water, unable to let go of a fish far too big for it to catch.

 

His group of rescuers chuckled and headed on their way- the couple powerwalking along the path, the surfer who had paddled in, and the guy riding a bike with his dog. My partner and I stayed, a bit wary of the dogs, snakes and oncoming night time chill that still posed a threat to its safety.

 

The bird was so wet he couldn’t fly more than a metre off the ground, and he eventually half flew, half hopped to large piece of driftwood to consume his prey- or rather, pick the fish off his foot. With his wings spread to help them dry, he shredded, pecked and mangled the fish bit by bit, as we inched closer and closer to the bird. He eyed us a few times but didn’t move, letting us come to within a metre of his perch. My boyfriend put his arm around me, and we sat in silence and watched him eat as the light faded.

 

It’s hard to describe what it was like to be allowed to sit there for an hour next to such a wild and magnificent creature- humbling is perhaps the only word that comes close. This bird had deigned to let us sit there, and perhaps sensing we weren’t a threat, he was patient with us getting so close. So much of travel is about doing something or rushing somewhere, checking in online or paying top dollar for a manufactured experience-but here it was about taking a moment to truly experience something.  And our hour sitting within a few feet of that magnificent bird of prey is something we’ll never forget.

 

Pictures by Chris van Hove

 

 

Oz markets

 

Most backpackers travelling the East coast of Australia will head straight to Byron Bay to drink at the Top Pub, dance the night away at Cheeky Monkeys and nurse their hangover the next day on the beach. However, if there is one thing you should not miss while you are up in Byron and surrounds it is the local markets.

 

There is no better way to feel out local village life. In Byron Shire and surrounds, the markets alternate every Sunday to one of the local towns within a half hours drive away - Bangalow, Ballina, Brunswick Heads and Lennox head. Each town gives you an insight into a different kind of coastal life, and draws together the community. My favorite ones are the ones held at Lennox head. The markets are tucked into the corner of town by a massive tea tree lake called Lake Ainsworth that is just behind Seven Mile beach.

 

If you look up, you'll see multicolored kite surfers punctuating the horizon. Look back to the arcing headland the village is named for, you'll see hangliders taking off and swirling onto the beach. Kayakers and paddleboarders head off across the lake and the whole community gathers around the stalls for the monthly markets. The stalls start with vintage collections of clothing and jewelry, native plants and clothing stalls. Here, I manage to pick up three shirts, a skirt and a dress. Two of the shirts cost me a bargain dollar, the others a fiver each. Not a bad way to reinvigorate the travel wardrobe. There are no plastic bags allowed in the town (a town wide ban) so cloth bags and recycled boxes are all the rage. One of the best things about the markets is that it is a great place to get breakfast. The classic option is the Lion’s Club sausage sizzle, held at the entrance to the markets and run as a charity fundraiser for the community. Four dollars will buy you a steak sandwich with fried onion.

 

However my stomach al always takes me to the organic doughnut shop. Follow the wafting heat to a giant deep fryer in a tent and there you can pick up freshly cooked, organic doughnuts the size of dinner plates, coated in cinnamon and sugar. Stuffed in a fresh paper bag and burning hot to the touch, these fresh bakery treats redefine your idea of what the doughnut should be.  If you're feeling healthier, you can head to the fruit and vegetable shops along the way, where you can buy produce direct from the farmers living in the hinterland around the shire. 

 

I always go straight to the peaches, where a no-nonsense local with sensible clipped short grey hair fills a brown paper bag. " We just got them off the tree yesterday for the markets " she says with a matter of fact nod,  “so they should be nice and sweet". They are infact so good I go back and buy a few more, sucking the flesh right down to the golden stone.

But it doesn't end there. Past the handmade leather wallets and crystal studded kids wands, secondhand bookstores and poster stores, you can find another cluster of food stores. Here is the drink of the day- fresh crushed sugar cane juice with fresh ginger and lime.  It's the type of drink you invest a bit of time waiting for:  but that's part of the appeal. The thick, bamboo-like sticks are pressed through a machine and the juice collected and mixed with lime and fresh ginger, which sits in a jug of ice water to cool down. The taste is incredible, and perfectly offsets the baking 35-degree heat as the sun climbs further into the midday sky.

 

The only better relief is taking a swim in the cool tea tree lake, right next to the markets. Lake Ainsworth is rimmed by tea trees, which produce tea tree oil that is reputed for it's cleansing therapeutic properties, cleaning out any wounds or scratches you might have and cleansing the skin. It’s the oil that also turns the lake an eerie red colour. If you open your eyes underwater, all you see if fluorescent red. It's an incredible experience that makes you feel like you’re on Mars. But you’re not - you’re just experiencing a little bit of North Coast paradise.

 

 

By Shaney Hudson

Dolphin kayaking

 

 
David Whitley takes to the ocean at Byron Bay, and finds himself with some rather cute company… 

We ride high on the swell. Another wave is lurching towards us, and it won’t be the last.

There’s something special about being low to the water while the ocean does its thing. Rolling with the rhythms, being transported from mountain to valley, it’s hypnotic.

But while I’m sat paddle across my knees in the kayak, others are taking on a precarious balancing act. They’re stood on their kayaks, acting as lookouts, as the swells roll in.

There’s no need to stand to see most of the scene, however. Behind us and to the left is the stretched out sand of Byron Bay’s Main Beach. The clouds are gathering ominously above it, but we appear to have hogged the one circle of clear blue sky to ourselves. To our right, surfers gather to take on The Pass – apparently one of the top surfing spots in Australia.

In front of us – thousands of miles in front of us, in fact, is Chile. It’s a fair approximation of the world’s end.

But we’re not looking for South America – we’re looking for wildlife. We’re told that turtles are regularly found here. The green turtles are more shy than their loggerhead counterparts. Not surprising, really – the loggerheads are the size of coffee tables.

There are also plenty of sea birds, diving down towards a tasty snack in the water. They’re a good sign; if sea birds are feeding, then our prey might be too. We’re after dolphins; they’re often found playing in the bay, but they’re being curiously elusive this morning.

Just as I’m beginning to get disheartened, however, the shout goes up. A pod has been spotted. This should be our signal to paddle hard and go out to join them, but it looks as if they’re coming towards us.

I try to work out how many there are. It looks like two separate battalions in the same pod. Further out are a couple of fins, rising and falling beneath the wave with synchronicity, but nearer to us, they seem to pop up at random. There’s two – no, three – no, five. Blimey, there might be ten or twelve of them.

Then the magic happens. One lifts itself almost entirely out of the water right in front of my kayak. Its sleek silver curves arc upwards, along and then seamlessly back in. I’m sure it flashes a smile on the way.

But these waves don’t just conceal dolphins. They’re also packed with treachery, as we discover on the way back to shore. There’s a certain craft to paddling a kayak through the breaking waves. You have to ride them straight on, keep paddling through them rather than being tempted into an easy ride. And, if your kayak starts to spin round (as it’s highly likely to), you need to lean hard into the wave, or you’re going to capsize.

Before we make an attempt on the shore, there’s a shuffling of personnel. I swap places with the frankly lazy daughter of a woman in her late fifties. The girl is knackered, and it’s decided that some proper arm power is needed at the back of the older woman’s boat. I become her engine, and her steersman. If it goes wrong, it’s probably my fault.

We thunder in, in line with the wave. We keep going over the top of the wave, but the kayak starts to turn. I lean over, but the lady in front has forgotten. She’s not leaning, damn it. And then she falls in. Failure. I try to stay on board, but the vessel is almost on its side. I tumble over, straight on top of the spluttering woman below. It’s the exact opposite of the grace displayed by the dolphins.


 

Free Byron

 

 

 

Byron Bay is one of the East Coast’s most popular backpacker hubs, a must visit place for respectable backpack-toting traveller visiting Australia. Though the town has swollen in size over the last three decades, the surrounding hinterland hasn’t lost any of its rugged beauty and its pristine coastline remains unspoilt.

 

There are no shortage of activities, day trips and adventures to capture your attention and your hard earned travel cash. However, one of the best things about Byron is that it can be an affordable place to visit- and that’s mainly because the best things in Byron are free. 

 

One of the best ways to appreciate Byron is to get away from the town and walk the beaches and coastal tracks up to the lighthouse. Starting from in front of the Top Pub, walk down past the surf club onto Main Beach, where the flags are. If you look out to the left you’ll see Belongil Beach, and if it is low tide, you’ll see the shipwreck of the Wollongbar jutting out of the water. The Wreck, as it is known, creates a great right hand surfing break when south-westerly winds are blowing.

 

Head along the beach towards the lighthouse, and when the shore starts to curve you’ve reached Clarke’s Beach, where a lot of the town’s surf schools have their lessons. It’s also the launch point for kayak tours that head out into the bay. Eventually you’ll reach The Pass. The shape of the beach creates one of Australia’s best surf breaks. Here, the tide curls around a rocky outcrop and creates a rolling wave along the coast for a few hundred metres off a shallow sandbank on the beach. If the conditions are right, you’ll find it’s a favourite spot for longboarders, paddleboarders and grommets. It’s a great place to find your feet if you are a beginner, but it also offers a solid wave for more experienced surfers. Before you head up off the beach, make sure you take the wooden stairs up the rocky outcrop by the beach. Years ago this was a rock scramble used by local surfers to check out the surf along the coast. Now, it’s a proper wooden lookout that offers a peak around the corner to the Wategos, the next beach over, and out to Julian Rocks.

 

Julian Rocks is considered one of Australia’s top dive sites, with a number of boats departing from The Pass each morning and afternoon. If you head out there on a dive or snorkelling trip (and in the right conditions it’s well worth the coin) chances are you’ll see turtles, sharks, tropical fish and gropers. A paved track leads from the car park at The Pass over the hill to Wategos Beach, through bushland and past wild bush turkeys.  Wategos is one of Byron’s special beaches, a great place to swim and another favourite with surfers, offering a long ride into the beach. It’s also a favourite spot for the local pod of dolphins, who often surf the waves into the beach, spinning on their tales just for fun.

 

A paved path at the end of the beach leads you onto the Cape Byron Walking track, which is owned by National Parks and Wildlife Services. The track heads uphill through subtropical rainforest towards the lighthouse, a Byron Bay icon. Byron Bay is located on Australia’s most Easterly point and is the first place kissed by the sun in Australia. The classic white and blue lighthouse has protected ships from the jagged coast since 1901, sitting on a cliff 94 metres above the ocean. It offers a 360 degree view of the area that wraps around the town, the hinterland, the coastline, beaches and ocean for miles in every direction, a view that is absolutely breathtaking.

 

If the winds are right, you’ll be able to watch Paragliders launch themselves from a nearby hill, you’ll be able to spot sharks feeding on schools of fish in the water below, and at the peak of whale watching season, the ocean can be dotted with so many frolicking pods of whales you feel like you’re watching the whale superhighway. Most people might only head up to the lighthouse once. Sure you can drive or bike, but if you walk this way you’ll be able to see the natural beauty Byron has to offer. The top part? It won’t cost you a cent. The best things in Byron are free.

 

 

By Shaney Hudson

 

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