Wombat

 

 

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

Australia’s most incredible sick bay

On the North Head of Sydney Harbour, David Whitley discovers the Quarantine Station that thousands would have passed through on their way to a new life

The shower block is gigantic, and feels industrial. This was the nice one, for first class passengers only, with barriers erected for privacy. The steerage passengers wouldn’t get such treats – they’d just be herded through and forced to scrub publically in water infused with heavy doses of carbolic acid. I don’t want to say where it reminds me of, but the guide steps in.

She says: “Some people coming here had come from the concentration camps in Germany and Poland. They would see people going into this huge shower block, smell the awful unnatural smell of the carbolic acid, and then not see the people again because they left through the back.

“It was like they had been sent back to what they had escaped from"

The Quarantine Station on Sydney Harbour’s North Head is a remarkable place. Bandicoots, kookaburras and cockatoos pretty much have the run of the place, the harbour views are exceptional and most of the old buildings there have been cleverly converted into hotel rooms. But the place is riddled with history. This is Australia’s equivalent of Ellis Island in New York – it’s the place where first convicts and then free-settling immigrants would have to pass through before starting their new life.

Only one person on a ship needed to be sick for everyone else on it to be quarantined. Most people staying here were healthy when they disembarked, but they had to stay healthy for 21 days. You could be in for 20 days, then come down with the mild sniffles – something hard to avoid in the overcrowded conditions. The clock would be reset – it’d be another 21 days before you could rejoin the wider world.

The burden of proof was on the passenger, who had to prove he or she was free of disease. This usually involved being methodically checked over for smallpox rashes and other such indignities.

In 1918, there was panic over the Spanish influenza pandemic, and the solution was to send 40 people at a time into an ‘inhalation chamber’. To all intents and purposes, it’s an empty room that would be pumped full of steam laced with zinc sulphate. It was designed to cleanse the throat and airways, but given that zinc sulphate is now used as an emetic, it’s no surprise to learn that the treatment made more people sick than it cured.

  

Another building contains the autoclaves. They’re huge, industrial oven-like machines, connected to the boilerhouse by pipes. Steam would come through, and trolleys full of luggage, bedding and other belongings would be dumped inside for a high temperature steaming. Given that a lot of the luggage was essentially cardboard, many people had vital documents, photographs and clothing destroyed.

Only about 580 boats ever came here. The idea was to not let disease on board at the point of embarkation in the first place. There are no accurate numbers for the number of people who stayed at the Quarantine Station, but it is known that at least 572 died here. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a lot of ghost stories. And during the evening ghost tours, that shower block is the creepiest place of the lot.

 

Disclosure: David stayed at and visited the Quarantine Station as a guest of Tourism Australia.

 

by David Whitley

  

  

 

You can get the Australia included as a stopover on a Navigator RTW

Moreton Island

 



David Whitley gets bitten by fish and a face full of sand on Moreton Island

The scene on the west coast of Moreton Island is one of devastation and tragedy. Close to the beach, the rusting remains of numerous ships form an orange-brown jagged rim. But while these wrecks may have been bad news for those who sailed on them, they’re wonderful for the fish that have decided to call them home.

Over the years, coral and barnacles have grown around the remains of the stricken ships, providing a bountiful feeding ground. Thus, the moment I dunk my head in the water, I discover that I’m in what may as well be a battery cage filled with sergeant majors and bream. It’s like swimming through a moving, fishy wall.

You don’t really expect great snorkelling just off the coast of Brisbane. The Great Barrier Reef, after all, starts a fair bit further north. But the wrecks of Moreton Island have created an aquatic hotspot.

Our guide hands us some bread, and a feeding frenzy begins. I hold some out under the water, and the fish swarm around my hand. The big breams, it seems, have a mighty pair of chompers on them.

It’s about an hour on the ferry from the Port of Brisbane to Moreton Island, and it’s the sort of place where you’ll get sand in everything. The main road is the beach, and the cross-island tracks are bumpy, compressed sand affairs that need a certain degree of skill to conquer. It’s a world of four wheel drive vehicles and back-to-basics camping.

It’s an island made of sand, and in some places this sand collects more than others. A fine example is �?The Desert’, a large bowl situated over the ridge from the coast. It acts as a sand trap, with prevailing winds continually blowing sand in, and the ridge walls catching it. The scene is almost Saharan, with huge dunes sweeping across the bowl. Some vegetation is managing to grow through, but it’s mainly a dazzling horizon of fearsome golden white.

Our Landcruiser pulls over at the fence, and our guide brings out some fairly basic strips of masonite. These, it turns out, are to be our transport for getting from the top of the dune to the bottom. Walking along the top, it quickly becomes clear that the largest dune is much steeper up close than it is from a distance.

He lines up one of the boards on the cusp after giving it a good wax. My task is to grab the end of it, stick my arms out like a chicken and keep my legs up. I’m pushed over the edge, and start hurtling down head first. It’s a tremendous rush – apparently speeds get up to 50km/h – and I fly towards the bottom, before heading up the next, smaller hill. I forget to keep the edge of the board lifted up and end up with a face full of sand.

The trudge back up the hill is much less fun. I’d struggle to think of anything more murderous on the thighs than trekking up a sand dune.

On the way back, we take the 4WD for a spin up the beach. We slow down suddenly and look out to sea. “Look,” our guide says, pointing at a grey object in the water. “A dolphin.”

We watch the dolphin flit around in the water and duck back to catch a fish. Meanwhile, a wildlife-watching cruise – which has set off specifically to see this sort of thing – passes by in the distance obliviously. One-nil to the sandlubbers.

 
Disclosure: David Whitley travelled on Moreton Island Adventures’ “Xtreme” Tour as a guest of Tourism Australia. In Brisbane he stayed as a guest of Brisbane City YHA , Mantra Southbank and Novotel Brisbane 

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.

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

 

Port 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.