Perth on your RTW



It’s cheaper to get to than the rest of Australia: OK not by much, but flights to Perth tend to be £50 to £100 cheaper than flights to other Australian cities. Also you can now fly direct.

The beaches: Think Sydney’s the only Aussie city with good beaches? Well think again. Perth is pressed up against the Indian Ocean, and a line of gorgeous sandy beaches stretches up the west of the city. Scarborough and Cottesloe are the most popular, but there’s not exactly a shortage.

Fremantle: It’s very hard not to like Fremantle, which is technically a separate city surrounded by Perth, but to all intents and purposes it’s a coastal suburb. It’s one with tremendous charm, dotted with colonial-era buildings, seemingly endless strips of cafés and far more than its fair share of microbrewers. 
If you can do just one thing while there, make it a tour of the Old Fremantle Prison, which offers up gory tales of prison life and a heart-stopping moment at the gallows where murderers were once hanged.

Rottnest Island: A short ferry ride offshore from Fremantle, Rotto is justifiable Perth’s favourite day out. An island of little beaches, old World War II forts and blissful cycling/ walking tracks, it’s a marvellous place to spend a sunny day. It’s also the best place in the world to see quokkas, the extraordinarily cute little marsupials who hop around the island trying to snaffle picnics.

King’s Park: The gargantuan green space that sprawls to the west of Perth city centre is one the finest urban parks in the world. King’s Park offers tremendous views out over the city and the Swan River, while the salmon-tinged gum trees lining the main road into it have an unimpeachable majesty. Whether you want to stroll in forest, sunbathe on the grass or visit the Botanic Gardens, there are few finer spots in Australia.

Cuddle a wombat: The Caversham Wildlife Park in Perth’s north-eastern suburbs is home to Big Bubs, a portly wombat who’s happy to sit there with her handler while tourists come up and make a fuss over her. Try doing it without declaring you want a wombat to take home as a pet. It’s impossible.

Wine and boats: Perth is built around the Swan River, and you’d have to be a warped individual not to enjoy a boat ride up and down it. The best cruises head upriver to the Swan Valley, which is handily lined with wineries. So you sit on a boat, go to a few vineyards for sampling, then come back on the boat with a ruddy-cheeked smile on your face. As days out go, that’s not too bad…

You can get Perth included as a stopover on your RTW here

 

Gold Coast

 

David Whitley reins in his prejudices about frightful commoners, and throws himself into Australia’s mass tourism hotspot.

There are many ways to see the Gold Coast, in fact it’s doubtful that any method of milking the tourist dollar or yen has not yet been stumbled upon, but the Aquaduck has to be the most bizarre. A former military amphibious assault vehicle, it has been dressed up to look like a cartoon duck. It’s the size of a bus, it travels on both land and water, and most importantly, it quacks. Which if you speak duck is extremely handy, as with the motor running and the wind howling through the back, you’ve got no hope of hearing what’s going on in any other language.

It’s the sort of thing that inherently belongs on the Gold Coast, Australia’s primary domestic holiday destination. It stands for many different things to many different people, but one thing it is not is boring. Strapped in, we make our way through the streets of Surfers Paradise, the main hub of this packed coastal strip. In a way, they characterise what the stereotypical Gold Coast is all about. Cheap and nasty souvenir shops line up directly opposite icons of ostentatious wealth such as Louis Vuitton, whilst a wooden kangaroo and emu dart around the tackiest clock face in the world.

 

 

It’s not until the somewhat surreal tour gets to the beach that you start to realise that you should really look beyond crowded skyline though. No matter how many high-rises there are around it, no matter how much neon you rig up, you can’t take away the fact that is a stunning stretch of sand. The name Surfers Paradise is not some ironic twist along the lines of redheads being called Blue or gangly basketball players dubbed Shorty. As sunbathers dot around on the shore, wetsuit-clad wave enthusiasts pack the ocean, crashing down on break after break. Surfing is almost a way of life here, and it’s no coincidence that many of the world’s best come from this south-eastern corner of Queensland.

It’s easy to forget amongst the glittering and glaring tourist attractions that it was the simple things that made this part of Queensland the nation’s primary holiday strip. Turn a blind eye to the development, and you’ve got a beautiful place. The Gold Coast, believe it or not, is more bio-diverse than Kakadu National Park. The rainforests of the hinterland, the meeting of tropical and sub-tropical waters in the sea; it all mixes for a heady cocktail.

Of course, the development is there though, and it’s impossible to pretend that the natural beauty isn’t somewhat sullied by it. While to the left you’ve got a truly gorgeous beach and lilting palms, to your right there is a constant stream of ugly motels and apartments. It’s testament to Mother Nature that these are just a mild blot rather than a complete ruination.

Before reaching the boat ramp which will take this trip onto a whole different plane, we pass Seaworld, the giant theme aquarium. Fittingly, there is a sign on the roundabout next to it informing us all that we should all save as much water as we can, because we’re in a drought, you know. Seaworld is a Gold Coast institution, and is one of many theme parks that help make the area a family favourite. It’s a cross between a fairground, theatre and aquarium, with everything from performing seals and the chance to swim with dolphins to rides that encourage the regurgitation of popcorn. It’s extremely Americanised, but the kids don’t care when the sea lions are pulling off their tricks.

As we head past, we reach the water. Apparently there is only one way to safely enter the water, and make the Duck swim rather than waddle; that is at full pelt. Revved up, the ex-army vehicle charges down the ramp, creating the sort of spray not seen since Luciano Pavarotti attempted the high dive. We are sailing though, and the waterways of the Gold Coast add another, often overlooked, aspect to it. The snaking converted swamps here are nine times longer than the canals of Venice. Again, the reaching for the sky on every spare bit of land can’t disguise the natural wonders here, and all around are intriguing contrasts. The pretty to the ugly, the rich to the poor, the frenetic to the lazy. A towering, gold-plated hotel sits in front of a grubby college building; a powerboat rushes past a balcony on which an orange woman lies reading a gossip magazine; glimmering sunshine over the water meets the dark clouds hanging over the land.

A combination of awe and pure jealousy flashes across the passengers’ faces as we pass the homes of the squillionaires. The sort of money on show is astounding; every home-owner here could probably own their own fleet of Aquaducks, should they so desire. Moored outside every home is a yacht. They’re all gleaming white, of course, and probably have their own postcodes. It all makes you want to dig out your keys, lean over the side and scratch away with malevolent glee.

The flashy one-upmanship knows no bounds, though, and amongst all the barely-used status vessels stands a shimmering silver helicopter, perched on top of a jetty converted into a helipad. The owner probably employs three full-time staff members to keep it clean, let alone pilot it. It’s not just a playground for the millionaires, however. Amongst all the elitist grumbling about tack, overdevelopment, spoiling nature and being rampantly commercial, there is no denying that kids love the Gold Coast. There is so much here for them to do, whether we care to approve of the activities or not.

Whilst the commentary is inaudible and the Aquaduck tour nothing more than a quick flit around town with a clever gimmick, children don’t see with that level of cynicism. Called up by the captain, a small lad can’t disguise his joy as he’s given the chance to steer the daft cartoon bus/boat under the bridge and towards the up ramp. This is really what it’s all about, just going with the fun, no matter how forced it feels.

The sheer array of attractions available, enticing or not, becomes clear as we return to dry land. Space simulators, the tallest residential building in the world, shopping centres, water slides, you name it. Flashing and bleeping away out of the window is a horrific-looking beast called a Vomatron, in which people are thrown through the air as if strapped to a windmill sail. Someone else is leaping from a high platform attached to a bungy rope, others bounding to the heavens on an industrial-sized trampoline. There’s crazy croquet, Egyptian-themed mini golf, and all manner of big screens you can shoot at with plastic guns. Should you have that child-like energy and deep pocketed parents, you never have to stop. Riding a duck around town is one option in a thousand, and that, as they say, is entertainment.

 

 

 

By David Whitley

It’s not so grim up north

  

The kestrel soars on the updraft, slightly frantic wings betraying a sense of cool. Suddenly it dives down, presumably having spotted a skink on the rocks. Bad luck and RIP, little lizard.

Theoretically, we’re standing on the Long Reef headland looking for whales. They migrate up the coast in June and July, coming back between August and October. But in the absence of the big boys, it becomes clear how much wildlife there is, sneaking into the gaps between the flash seaside houses of Sydney’s northern beaches.

For most visitors to Sydney, there is no real call to head north of the harbour. Perhaps the ferry to Manly, then back again in the evening. Or an afternoon outing to Taronga Zoo. Beyond such tickboxes, there’s little apparent reason to venture upwards. It’s not just visitors either – the harbour provides such a natural barrier that those living south of it tend to regard northern Sydney residents as “living overseas�?.

Damien McClellan, who runs Eco Treasures Tours, is Northern Beaches born-and-bred, however. And he makes a living of showing off the bits that many people don’t bother to go to. The beaches themselves are clankingly obvious – anyone with a functioning pair of eyes can see they’re better than the more lauded ones in the eastern suburbs – but it’s what’s in-between that proves to be more interesting.

 

 

The Long Reef headland is a mini-nature reserve, and an excellent indication of how the coast works around here. It is not one of the more dramatic headlands – it offers a relatively gentle, tapered slope down to the crashing Tasman Sea. Brown sediment in the water shows how the rock is weathered away. It’s a gradual, relatively smooth process, due to the type of rock. The big sandstone cliffs on other headlands work differently – they’re cut away at from underneath and eventually the overhangs crash into the water.

“The indigenous people of the area divided the year up into seven seasons,�? says Damien, reaching for the wattle plant. “When it flowers in September, for example, it usually coincides with mullet fish running. It’s a good indicator of a change of season - and plentiful food.�?

Looking down towards Dee Why beach, Damien explains how the rhythms of nature affect the entrance to the small lagoon lying behind it. “Small waves gradually build up sand and close the gap. Then a storm comes along and knocks it down again.�?

He’s a man who spends a lot of time studying waves. Surfing is his real love, and the Northern Beaches has a strong surfing scene. Narrabeen is arguably the most beloved hotspot, but the best breaks can vary from day to day.

The surest sign of dedication is when someone prefers to surf. Logic would dictate that the summer months and warmer water are the best bet, but McLellan spends more time on his board in the winter. The prevailing winds are more conducive to consistent breaks, and if that means donning a wetsuit, so be it.

Being close to the sea is a fundamental part of Northern Beaches life. The inconveniences of getting into the city are happily traded off for the chance to hear the waves crashing. The further up the coast you go, the more detached from the rest of Sydney it feels. There are fewer commuters and more self-employed businesspeople working from home. The houses, some bought by rich blow-ins, others passed down through the family from the days where this was a cheap place to live, get ever more spectacular.

It all ends at Palm Beach, better known to international audiences as Summer Bay, the fictional setting of Home And Away. The gloriously long stretch of sand goes up to the lighthouse on the Barrenjoey Headland, while the Bouddi National Park on the Central Coast can be found on the horizon.

The place has a smug contentment about it, the knowledge that it’s about as far from hardship as it’s possible to get without entering the world of private helicopters and superyachts. Novice surfers attack the waves at the relatively tame southern end of the beach, dozens of dogs walk their owners and residents with seemingly not much to perturb them graze on flat whites and eggs benedict.

It is at the same time very separate from Sydney and the absolute embodiment of it. If you’ve got the money, the Northern Beaches have the dream. Well, unless you’re a soon-to-be devoured skink, anyway.

 

 by David Whitley

 

 

Wombats

 

David Whitley attempts to conquer the rapids in Kangaroo Valley, hoping he can add a wombat to his collection of goannas.

 

 

You have to admire the Australian attitude towards health and safety at times. Sat in a car park by the castle-like Hampden Bridge, I’m told that I shouldn’t take anything valuable in the kayak with me. “The bit at the back isn’t 100% waterproof,” I’m instructed. But what on earth should I do with my car keys? “Leave ‘em on top of the back tyre. No-one will nick it round here.”

 

It’s fitting that this advice comes from a man who’s about to rent me his kayak, let me head downriver for a few kilometres, battle the odd rapid and meet him at a camping ground at the other end. Anywhere else, I’d be asked if I’d used a kayak before, given some level of instruction and gently babied through the rapids by an experience guide. In Kangaroo Valley (a couple of hours south of Sydney), I’m allowed to pay when I return, and just go and enjoy myself.

 

Pushing off into the Kangaroo River, it becomes immediately clear what an excellent idea this is. The current will probably take me all the way to the designated meeting point without me lifting a finger. The paddle quickly becomes an object reserved for making sure I’m facing the right direction and the occasional guilt-prompted sliver of tokenistic exercise.

 

The river is just beautiful. Trees clamber up the steep hills to either side, and large boulders make incursions from the banks. They’re worth paying closer attention to. While there may not be any kangaroos living by the river, there are plenty of enormous lizards. I double-take as I see my first one – a chunky great goanna, sat with his head up in meerkat-ish alertness, basking in the sun’s warmth. I’m consumed with glee, thinking I’ve seen something special. It quickly turns out that I haven’t. There’s a big goanna on pretty much every rock as I paddle slowly downstream. There are some slightly - but not much – smaller lizards scuttling along the banks and there’s even the odd snake taking a swim in the water.

 

I appear to have entered a reptile wonderland, but the creature I’m really interested in is being rather elusive. Wombats – the tank-like furry pig-bears with a penchant for shuffling about and generally looking extremely clumsy – are nocturnal creatures. If you spot them during the day, they’re probably poorly or dead by the side of the road. But, from the river, the traces of them are easily identifiable. Wombats are the biggest burrowing animals on the planet, and their holes make sizable dents in the river bank. There are scores of them, tunnelled into the earth, and I keep pulling over to see if I can catch a glimpse of a wombat inside. On several occasions I think I may have got a peek at one having a sleep, but I’m never quite certain. I wish they’d come and swim alongside the kayak rather than the snakes...

 

Of course, it all gets rather more interesting when I hit the rapids. They’re only baby rapids but the water’s still flowing pretty fast, and there are all manner of rocks to crash into and scrape the bottom of the kayak along. It comes as something of a jolt. I’m going to have to paddle and steer hard to avoid coming a cropper. I splash away frantically, trying to forge some sort of safe course without clattering into an enormous boulder. It just about works, but that I’ve been allowed to tackle this through trial and error is astonishing.

 

It’s quite the experience, however. Sun out, wildlife on the banks, and a spot of adrenalin rolled into the tranquillity – I’d be hard-pushed to find a more perfect way to spend the morning.

 

 

 

By David Whitley

 

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.