Australia

Snakes


It was a pretty normal morning. The sky was a solid, cloudless blue, the water was crystal clear, and the sunlight bounced off its surface like golden fireworks. I could feel myself getting sunburnt at 9am, and diving under a foaming, crashing and curling wave was a better wake up call than any cup of coffee I’d ever had in my life. It was paradise- and it was just an average day at Byron bay. 

Heading out after my morning swim onto the beach, something caught my eye. Amongst the seashells and crab holes, the river stones, florescent jellyfish and specks of dried seaweed, I saw something slithering on the sand.
 

A snake.


Wiggling away in the sand was a small, foot long reptile. With its reddish belly, black back and head that you couldn't tell from the body, it was pretty clear that it was a red-bellied black snake. It was tiny and scared; trying to burrow into the sand underneath a footprint someone had left on the beach.

However, the red bellied black is found near water on the East Coast of Australia, so finding it on the beach wasn't entirely surprising. It could have been washed off the rocks, or came out of the dunes and scrub.

 

There's also some massive redevelopment in the Byron area and a big housing estate going in on the other side of the train tracks, where there used to be bushland. It’s the same old story: everyone wants to live in paradise, and the fauna have been pushed out of their habitat and into more urban areas as the humans move in.

 

On top of that, the snake is also being wiped out by a far worse enemy: the cane toad. These poisonous slimy pests are an introduced species in Australia and once snakes eat them as prey, the snakes quickly die from their toxic skin. Now, some people might see a snake and run a mile. Others might want to kill it. And given the huge number of kids in the area this was my biggest fear, that some panicky parent might give the snake a painful death by child’s bucket and spade.

 

However, the first thing anyone who knows anything about snakes will tell you is that snakes are more afraid of you than you are of them. So, keeping that in mind, this animal lover decided to stage a catch and release in a two-piece vintage bikini.


With a stick and a beach towel, I flicked it into my towel, wrapped up all four edges and headed off down the beach to a rocky area where most visitors don't go- and where you can frequently find the more aggressive brown snake sunning itself in the morning.


You might think I'm a bit silly to pick up a snake, and I fully agree with you. Pick up a snake that size in someplace in Africa, and one bite would kill you in a few hours.

 

Here, I took a calculated risk. The snake was possibly too small to get much venom into me if bitten. I had friends out on the beach with me, and the local hospital was four blocks away and well-stocked with venom. And when I tipped him on the rocks, the little guy happily just slithered away into freedom. He’d didn’t put up much of a fight.

 

So what are your chances of seeing a snake up in Byron? Pretty good, actually. A few days after I relocated the little guy, a big 6-foot diamond python took up residence in the garden where I was staying.

 

Best keep an eye out, or you might have your own reptilian encounter.

 

 

By Shaney Hudson

Horse Riding

 

There are moments in life when you feel free. Often they happen when you travel, which might explain why so many of us keep pouring all our hard earned cash into the next trip, thirsty for the next mind-blowing epiphany or adrenaline filled rush. For me, one of those moments happened when I was riding along the beach on the North-Eastern Coast of Australia.

 

I’d arranged to go horse riding on Seven Mile beach, a long stretch of sand 25 minutes drive south of Byron Bay. Here, the much more relaxed Ballina Council allows a range of four-legged and four-wheeled beach activities during the less crowded weekdays. My beach ride with Seahorses riding school includes pick up and drop off from Byron Bay, lunch with tropical fruit, and perhaps the biggest draw card of all- the chance to swim in the surf with the horses. Riders have the opportunity to take the ride at their own rate. Novices and those a bit unsure of themselves in the saddle can happily walk the horses along the beach; whilst more experienced riders have the opportunity to set their own pace. 

 

I've been assigned a black mare called Jade, and as Jo, the owner, had gives me a leg up into the saddle, she mentions that my stead has a bit of spark. Once we reach the beach, I set off with another rider ahead of the pack at a brisk trot. After we're a safe distance from the others, I give Jade all the rein I can, entwine my fingers in her glossy mane and lean forward. I don't even need to touch her with my heels to get her going. Jade's not a spark but a whole box of fireworks. She's off and running. And I'm loving it. 

 

At a gallop we hug the shoreline, eroded bone-coloured sand dunes frosted with green straw grass to our left and turbulent metallic blue surf to our right. Despite our fast pace, my mare doesn't like getting her hooves wet and sashays sideways each time the tide laps in, leaving a snake trail of hoof prints in the sand behind us. It seems as if there's not a soul in sight. No parents running after little kids with tubes of fluorescent zinc, no backpackers taking surf lessons, and no rainbow beach umbrellas cart wheeling towards us. At best, I think I can see ant-sized people scattered a few kilometres down the beach.


It's pure exhilaration and only the thought of my head hitting hard wet sand at top speed convinces me to check our pace. After a long run, I slowly rein my mount in. The rest of the riders are a spec in the distance, so I turn and walk slowly to meet them. A jellyfish the size of a car tyre lies washed up on the sand, an iridescent pancake thrown out by the ocean. As the sun warms my back I notice that smooth volcanic pebbles dot the shore like black stars. The only sound is a fusion of wind and surf. That moment as we walk together, the world makes sense.


But the best is yet to come. With horses stripped of saddles and riders sans clothes, we lead the horses barefoot across the burning sand to the water. Just like your average punter, the horses have their own quirks. Some happily make a beeline for the water like a kid on the last day of summer holidays, whilst others flatly refuse to put a hoof in. Given Jade's water phobia, I ride Jo's palomino pony, who is more partial to taking a dip.

After hoisting myself onto the horse with all the dignity one can muster in a low cut bikini, I spend the next minute shifting from side to side on the skeletal back of the pony. I'm secretly glad my posterior has a lot of padding to help me perch on top.

The horses wade into their chests, the breakers slapping their bellies. They jump, frolic, and shake, neighing loudly to each other. Even though the water only comes up to my calves, I'm drenched as my stead paws the surf the way a bull would before a charge. My Palomino dips her muzzle and throws her head from side to side. She couldn't be more at home if she was a duckling.

After a few minutes, though my horse decides she's had enough. She heads to shore for that favourite horsey pastime, a roll in the sand.  I'm unceremoniously left behind, sprawled in the water at the hooves of my fellow riders. I'm soaked, I'm laughing, and it’s one of the best days of my life.

 

Pittwater

 

There really is no escape from the wildlife here. One of my friends hides in the hammock to avoid the one metre long lizard as it walks across the deck. The wallabies bolt across the track as you head down to the water. It’s a battle to keep the possums out of the rubbish bin. And forget about leaving your breakfast unattended for even a moment- the cockatoos will swoop in and take it from you.

 

You’d think I was in the bush in the middle of nowhere. But I’m not. I’m still in Sydney.  Pittwater, in the north of Sydney, is one of the city’s stunning and often overlooked jewels. About 90 minutes on the bus from Central Railway station, the collection of inlets, bays, coves and islands makes it feel as if you are a million miles away from the city that lies just over the hill.

 

While the waterline is rimmed with multi-million dollar mansions and holiday homes on the coastal side, a series of small communities nestle into the bays around Ku-ring-gai National Park accessible only by water.  Hiding there amongst them is one of Sydney’s best-kept backpacking secrets: Pittwater YHA.  

 

Donated to the park back in 1950s, the hostel is an old rustic building nestled at the top of the ridge overlooking Morning Bay. It is only accessible by public ferry from Church Point, and all food and drink needs to be brought in. The hostel is about a good 15 minute walk uphill from the wharf, which means that often you’re sweating once you’ve finished dragging your groceries up the hill. There are multi-share dorms, a larger shared room, and one double room.

 

Heading up behind the hostel, there are a series of bushwalking tracks through Ku-ring-gai National Park, which spreads out for kilometres on the edge of the city. It’s the perfect way to experience the Australian bush without straying too far from the city.  One of the favourite past times is to take a kayak and paddle across the bay to the other side, where there is a small white beach that comes and goes with the tide. If I’m feeling more intrepid, I’ll paddle up past the private wharfs and follow the cove as it curves into the mangrove swamps.

 

During low tide, the mangroves reveal a different world. Small shoals of fish flicker between the upturned roots, and on the exposed sandbanks, bright red crabs scurry out to catch their dinner. To see them, it’s an exercise in patience. You have to stop paddling, stay still and they’ll emerge from their holes. When you sit there on the kayak, you begin to hear it: the sound of the Australian bush- the ticking hum of the cicadas, the whooping cry of the currawong, the haunting laugh of a kookaburra and the crack of a eucalypt branch as it snaps off into the brush.

 

Pittwater isn’t the place to come if you are wanting to party until dawn. But if you’re the type of person keen to watch the sunrise, often the managers will walk you up there with torches before dawn to watch the sun come up across the water. It’s an incredible sight as the water glows pink and gold, accompanied by a rising chorus as the bush wakes up. If you’re keen to explore the other communities, the ferry sets off from the mainland once an hour or so during daylight, completing a loop around the bay and island. The trick is that you have to hail it, by sticking a bright red flag in a pole at the end of the public jetty (in the past, many an unknowing passenger have waited for a ferry that never came). Nearby, there are Aboriginal rock carvings and bushwalks to waterfalls and rocky outcrops, surfing beaches and coastal communities.

 

Most of the time, though, I’m just happy hanging out on the desk in the hammock, reading the book. The wallabies nibble on the front lawn, the cockatoos screech for food and eat the decking, and if I’m lucky, the lace monitor might scratch along the deck.  The place is special. It’s not about what you can do there, it is about doing nothing much at all- just appreciating being in the middle of the bush…even if you are still in the city.

 

 

By Shaney Hudson

 

Aussie Bite


Our run-in with Aussie wildlife continues. Yesterday I was sitting on my surfboard, enjoying a blissful, sun-blessed pause between sets at Byron Bay. The great curving arc of sand that reaches, almost unbroken, from Cape Byron (Australia’s easternmost point) around Byron Bay and Belongil Beach stretched out behind me. Ahead of me there was little to interrupt those thousands of miles of watery horizon before the coast of South America. 

Suddenly I was aware of a big shadowy shape moving swiftly through the clear water directly towards my right foot. It moved so swiftly that, before I could even react, it had passed within inches of me and was already arching over the surface of the water in a smooth, sleek, gun-metal grey form. Thankfully the whole thing happened so fast that I had no time to start frantically hauling my extremities out of the water and screaming like a hysterical maniac.

And, of course, as soon as the nose rose above the water – just a metre from me – I could see clearly that this was not the feared shark that had first entered my mind but a dolphin. Spectacular marine life is a common occurrence in the line-out at Byron Bay. I had already seen a big turtle raise its head beyond the breakers and had paddled over to come within a few feet of it before it sank back under the waves. Occasionally even migrating whales are spotted here.

Even Australia’s east coast, the most densely populated part of the country, can be a Mecca for wildlife lovers. Some of that wildlife is a real privilege to see...some less so. Fenningham’s Island is a sleepy little place not far from Newcastle. The campsite there is set in a picturesque lagoon among eucalyptus and wattle trees. Kangaroos and koalas inhabit the forests in fair numbers. Ibis strut at will around the campsite and in the early morning the normal wake-up call is the cackling cry of the kookaburra (the bushman’s alarm clock). But the dominant species is definitely the mosquito.

We arrived shortly before dusk, just as the mosquitoes began to bite, and before long I was soon grilling steak and vegetables on a campfire. Tucking into the meal we were grateful for the drifting smoke of the fire that seemed to be more effective against the voracious little attackers than any repellent. Suddenly I became aware of a shower of little sticks and leaves that was falling on me and my plate. Imagining at first that it was just a breeze in the treetops I didn’t take much notice until I realized that the pieces of falling timber seemed to be hitting me with impressive accuracy. I backed up towards the van, staring upwards with my headlamp set on full beam. I was able to make out a large pair of bright red eyes just as a eucalyptus seed flew down and hit me perfectly between the eyes. I was being bombarded by a possum!

Perhaps, I thought, the possum was just defending his territory, in which I had unwittingly parked. Perhaps our lary, lurid, spray-painted Wicked Camper was offending his sense of decorum. It was then that Laura – the Brazilian travel-writer on this same assignment – realized that another shadowy form was moving through the scrubby brush towards our campfire and the last chunk of steak. It seems that the bombardment was just a diversionary tactic so that the possum’s accomplice could creep up from out of left field and steal our steak. Possums are not said to be among Australia’s most intelligent creatures…but these two sure came close to outwitting us.

 

By Mark Eveleigh

Hunter Valley

 

 

David Whitley returns to Australia’s Hunter Valley wine region and shamelessly plumps for exactly what he did three years ago.

 

 

As a general rule, travel is about the thrill of the new. Exploring new horizons, sampling new experiences and making discoveries is generally where the thrill comes from. But sometimes a bit of what’s familiar can be just as rewarding.

 

One of my favourite places in the world is a small (but very stylish) bed and breakfast in the middle of Australia’s Hunter Valley. The Hunter Valley Cooperage (huntervalleycooperage.com) sits right in amongst the vines, and I’ve found few greater pleasures than tucking into Gay and Warren’s top grade breakfasts as the morning sun bathes the vineyard in that fresh, happy light of a new Australian day.

 

 

We first stayed there in 2008, and fell in love with ‘The Retreat’ – something of a wooden upstairs barn decked out with random shells and owls as well as all the mod cons. Returning to the Hunter Valley this time, we possibly should have experimented by staying elsewhere, but frankly we didn’t want to. In fact, we did pretty much exactly what we did three years ago. And if that’s not cool, then so be it – cool’s overrated. 

 

You can’t go to the Hunter without tasting lots of wine (or rather, you can, but you really are missing the point tremendously). It’s Australia’s oldest remaining wine region (not the first – the first Aussie vineyards were in Parramatta, Western Sydney), and there’s a wonderfully unsnobby attitude at the cellar doors. Again, we could have done things differently, but elected to head out with Peter Kane from Aussie Wine Tours (aussiewinetours.com.au). Most wine tours in the Hunter involve being trailed around the usual suspect big wineries in a tour bus on a pre-ordained route. Pete specialises in taking couples and private small groups around, however, and he picks the wineries according to the tastes of his passengers.

 

It’s a brilliant way of doing it – he asks about what sort of wines you like, what sort of wineries you fancy visiting and generally what floats your boat. He then plots out the itinerary as he goes along, accommodating awkward requests to taste viogniers, zinfandels and grapes that only really exist in Narnia.He really knows his stuff, and while we’re tasting he’s clearly working – chatting to the staff and winemakers, keeping his finger on the pulse of what’s happening where. It’s an impressive display of schmoozemanship.

 

The other massive bonus to going on a small private tour is that you can get into the wineries that won’t allow the big tour buses in. And, frankly, I wouldn’t have found Piggs Peake otherwise. Winemaker Steve Langham clearly doesn’t go in too much for etiquette; he doesn’t enter wine shows or pay fees to be listed in wine guides. He just makes extraordinarily good wines (with a little help from Junior the Alsatian) and people come to him. 

 

There’s no stinginess with the samples either – we end up ploughing through 11 or 12 different glasses, of which at least seven are a level above anything else we have tasted or will taste all day. If it wasn’t for customs allowances, we’d have wandered out with case after case. Better still, we were invited back behind the cellar door to have a look at the grapes fermenting in giant vats. Don’t tell health and safety, but we were allowed to dip our fingers in and taste the juice. If it never gets made into wine, they could still make a fortune by selling the juice as a soft drink.

 

By the time we’re dropped back at the Cooperage, we’ve got deliriously happy smiles on our faces. We’ve done what we know, repeated a winning formula from three years ago yet still managed to make a fabulous new discovery. It doesn’t get much better than that...