Coathanger

 

The Sydney Harbour Bridge climb must be the most successful tour operation of its kind anywhere in the world. It is a complete human conveyor belt – an entire factory dedicated to elevating whole groups of people spiritually and physically skyward. The Bridgeclimb complex is erected in a series of tunnels where, until a few years ago, they did nothing more adventurous than sell Porsches. At the height of the season Bridgeclimb is now processing groups of up to 10 tourists, 24 hours a day.

 

You are prepared, kitted out and trained in a super-efficient environment. You are shown how to attach your harnesses and are fitted with earphones that instead of going in your ear rest on your cheekbones and send vibrations that your brain deciphers as your guide’s voice. This way your ears are also open to eternal sound. The whole atmosphere feels strangely like it will on the fateful future day when some of us (or some of you) will be selected for transfer to a less exhausted planet. 

 

And as you walk out beyond the giant support pylons you battle with what will presumably be the same feeling that there is a better than average chance that you might not return to earth in one piece. There is something bizarre in the human psyche that makes people pay a hefty fee for the privilege to climb to potentially fatal heights…the same heights that, on another day, they would demand a considerable premium to work at. 

 

In the end the trek to the 134-metre summit is much easier than most people imagine and, because of the sheer dimensions of what Sydney-siders call ‘the Big Coathanger,’ you never really feel like you are living on the edge at all. Even without the safety harnesses and the training you realise that it would be almost impossible to fall without putting some serious determination into it.


But the Bridgeclimb affords combines a feeling of adventure with the most spectacular views on the planet. You are standing on top of a 53,1440 tonne steel arch (pinned together with 6 million rivets – some of them up to 40cm long for any budding riveters out their) and you can take in a 360° view of what is very likely the most iconographic cityscapes in the world. It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and it is easy to see why so many people line up everyday to be ‘elevated.’ But the following day I was once again back at sea level. My week in Fiji had passed in a blur of ‘office work’ – battling with an overflowing inbox and magazine deadlines – but Hawaii had seriously boosted my appetite for waves. So I abandoned downtown Sydney and headed for Bondi Beach.

 

I paddled out into the line-up at Bondi and dropped into a couple of sweetly peeling left-handers. I had already been in the water almost two hours when I noticed what could only be described as a blur of activity on the horizon. It came closer until eventually it was only about 200 metres away and I could clearly see a huge flock of gulls and frigate birds diving on an immense school of fish. There were easily a thousand birds and they were churning the water up in a frenzy. It was impossible to imagine that all that thrashing and blood was not going to be enough to attract at least a few submarine predators.


“Never seen a feeding-frenzy like that in twenty years,” marvelled one grizzled old surf dude. Aussies are notoriously proud of their man-eating wildlife. I caught a few more waves and then paddled back in. After all tomorrow morning I had an early flight to Perth and then I would be heading into the great ‘Red Centre.’ It seemed right that after all this I ought to save my sorry carcase for the creatures of the world’s most fatal desert.

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.

 

The kitschest street in Australia

 

 

David Whitley take a detour to Bee Gees Way in Redcliffe, Queensland

The bronze statue of three bare-footed young boys, one with guitar in hand, is dedicated to Bodding, Basser and Woggie. Behind it, yellow plaques bear seemingly random phrases. “Nights On Broadway”, “Run To Me”, “Woman In Love”…

The link becomes more apparent when the eye scans over the better known song titles. “Massachusetts”, “I Started A Joke”, “How Deep Is Your Love”… The three boys are Robin, Barry and Maurice Gibb, who would go on to achieve worldwide fame and fortune as the Bee Gees.

On its own, the statue and song titles combo would be a subtle little tribute to a band that was founded and named in Redcliffe, Queensland. But it comes as part of a quite marvellously OTT laneway that has been entirely given over to the local boys done good. Redcliffe is enormously proud of the Bee Gees, and Bee Gees Way is its way of showing off that pride.

The Gibb Brothers were born on the Isle Of Man, but spent their early years in the outskirts of Manchester in England. The family moved over to Redcliffe in 1958, when Barry was 12 years old and the twins were just nine. They had been playing music together back in the UK, but it was in Redcliffe where things started to happen.

At the entrance to Bee Gees Way, which is just off the shore-hugging Redcliffe Parade, there’s a huge glass plinth on which Barry’s recollections of playing at the Redcliffe Speedway are printed.

  

“Back then we talked them into letting us sing in between the races – whether it was the gnats or the stock cars. We sang through the PA system on the back of a lorry, the crowd threw money on the track and we gleefully ran out and picked up the change.”

It was while doing this that racing driver Bill Goode and radio DJ Bill Gates spotted them, and signed the boys up on their first contract. It was signed at the Gibb family home on Oxley Avenue, on March 16th, 1959 – and we know that because a replica of the contract, signatures and all, has been blown up and placed inside the glass plinth.

They became the BGs (which comes from the initials of Bill Goode, Bill Gates and Barry Gibb, rather than the usually assumed ‘Brothers Gibb’). And as they started to make TV and radio appearances in Australia, that became the Bee Gees.

The boys of the initial bronze statue became the men of the new bronze statue opposite, which shows an altogether more recognisable Bee Gees. Barry has his long mane, Maurice his hat, Robin his earring. And behind that is a 70 metre mural featuring stencil-like images of the brothers, and more of Barry’s thoughts. ‘Mo’ was the extrovert, who always had a gang of kids running behind him in the schoolyard; a “magnetic personality” who was “never off stage”.

Robin is portrayed as a dichotomy, two people in one, who was as obsessed with history as music.

It’s this personal, reminiscing approach that plays a big part in making Bee Gees Way so odd. It could have been a lionising tribute, and it could have been an outdoor museum, but it’s neither. It’s more an extended interview with an old man, possibly a few glasses of wine to the good, taking a misty-eyed look back at the past.

Opposite the mural is a wall covered in lots and lots of photos, covering everything from the brothers’ parents getting married to them hauling Grammy awards and Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame inductions. On the way, there are sweet childhood pics, and ludicrously camp disco-era silver-costumed promo shots. Each is accompanied by a caption from Barry, who generally resorts to half-hearted jokes such as “Was it a hit?” under recording studio photos rather than any real deep insight.

Larger panels give a touch more sense of the Bee Gee story, particularly the one where Barry recollects arriving in Southampton in 1967. They had returned to the UK in a bid to make it big internationally. They were quickly told that “groups are out” and “You have to be an Eric Clapton or you don’t stand a chance”.

“We heard this constantly but we never listened,” are the last words. And they were proved right not to, as later that year Massachusetts became their first smash hit.

A big screen plays footage of Barry being interviewed, interspersed with videos of Bee Gees songs, with the air of justifiable if mildly daggy indulgence tempering the overall kitsch daftness of the lane’s very existence.

But Redcliffe is more than happy milking its claim to fame, and Barry has happily obliged with a few memories from his short time there. “I have changed, but the child inside me has not,” are his words immortalised on the wall. “I am still here on Redcliffe Beach, fishing for that tiger shark.”

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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.

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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