Gold Coast Zorbing

 

 

David Whitley goes rolling downhill in a giant plastic ball in southern Queensland

Welcome, my friends, to Teletubbyland. On top of the lush green, perfectly-sculpted hill, closely cut and rolling like a particularly vicious golf green, is a giant ball. About four metres high, made entirely of see-through, bubble wrap-style plastic, it bobbles around, reflecting the sun and looking quite, quite surreal. Suddenly it starts rolling towards us, almost squelching down the hill. It slowly gathers pace, but gives the impression of an old, fat Labrador gambolling along with its tongue out, ready to greet his master home from work. Oh yes, and there’s someone inside it, flapping around in a rather undignified manner.

This is a Zorb, a hi-tech method of rolling down a hill without the grass and mud stains. All the fun, but without the need to buy special washing powder or get treatment for grass-induced rashes. Now, the Gold Coast has many a weird and wonderful attraction, but this could well top the lot. Apparently it has been here for three-and-a-half years, but unless you’ve got a friend who just happens to live round the corner, you’re probably not going to find out about it. For a start, it’s way off the main strip, about 3km north of the Dreamworld theme park at Pimpana, and there appears to be no signposting for it. Even when you get there, it’s hidden behind a Go Kart track. Whether this is a cunning viral marketing push up there with Leonardo DiCaprio’s fabled Thailand beach or a stunning lack or organisation, I’m not sure.

Eventually, we find the site, and we’re greeted by a scruffy looking chap who looks like he’s just woken up next to a half-empty bottle of moonshine. He greets us with a chirpy g’day and then disappears around the back for ten minutes to do Important Things. We’re left staring into space, wondering which poor blighter has the job of pushing the gargantuan spaceballs up the hill. He returns from the pressing negotiations regarding the Middle East peace process to talk us through the options. Basically, there are two ways of rolling down a hill in a big, dumb, plastic globe – either strapped in with a harness or freestyling amongst a couple of buckets-worth of warm water – and both, we’re assured, are riotously good fun.

After being sucked in by the comprehensive spiel, I’m led to a battered old ute which looks like it has seen both world wars. The Zorb is shunted on top of the back with the use of a couple of poles. It seems as no-one’s quite stupid enough to attempt to push them uphill all day after all. “They’re only made in New Zealand,” I’m told, as we chug to the top of Mount Wiggle. “And they cost about $12,000-$15,000 each. Pretty serious equipment, this fella.” Apparently, it takes about 25 minutes to fully inflate one using a souped-up leafblower, and twice that time to get the air out. To attempt the task on lung power alone would be an exercise in extreme masochism.

On the crest, we’re greeted by John, who is clad in the corporate uniform of paint-splashed overalls. I’m taking on the harness first, and he briefly explains how to get into it whilst pushing the ball onto the pool of water on which it is designed to rest. I leap inside and get busy with the process of strapping myself in. Feet first, then waist, then chest, and, following the rapid dislocation of both shoulders, I get my hands in the handgrips behind me.

There are two options; go down forwards for the view, or backwards for the fear factor. Being both an admirer of the countryside and an utter coward, I choose the form… oh hang on, we’re off!  The supersized hamster ball slowly lumbers downwards, with me flipping over and over, entirely helpless and in bellowing hysterics. There’s no real adrenalin rush – far too slow motion and jelly-like for that – but the sensation is something approaching unbridled, childish joy.

Performing somersault number four or five, a mound appears in front of me. Ah… this could be a problem. There are a lot of nasty trees to the right, and should this send me off course towards them, it’s going to be a mighty tricky rescue operation. The Zorb lurches slightly that way, but gravity wins out and it’s a few rolls to the finishing line. I’m not sure whether they fill the plastic with nitrous oxide, but I’m almost in tears of laughter as I’m helped out of my psychedelic cocoon.

The water option is an entirely different experience, partly because you’re granted a limited bit of freedom, partly because you get soaking wet, and partly because I have company this time round. What will follow is an inelegant mess of flailing, tangled limbs, but first, the pipedream. The idea, we’re told, is to run the Zorb downhill, staying upright all the way. Keep the weight centralised along the radius, don’t lean too far in any direction, and go aggressively from the push off to get it moving properly. Easy, huh?

Alas, no. Two seconds later we’re both sloshing around in a pool of water, banging arms and legs into each other in a desperate attempt to get upright. As our spherical plastic cage gathers pace, I desperately try to regain my footing. Up again, I wobble, slip and crash backwards, my landing cushioned by a nice, bouncy stomach. From here on in, it’s a desperate scramble for dignity, hands clawing at the walls, knees and feet going every which way in the pool beneath us. The comic roar is doubled this time. Whether it’s a release of delight and energy that has been hidden away since early childhood, or the wartime spirit of keeping up the grin during impossible adversity, I really don’t know, but pure glee is splashed across our faces upon exit, despite just having suffered total humiliation.

 

Fremantle

 

 

David Whitley gets an insight into how prison life used to be in Western Australia – and vows to be a good boy from now on

If the Australian government really wanted to cut crime, then the best thing they could do would be to put Old Fremantle Prison back into use, and from there broadcast a reality show on prime time TV. From tax return ‘massager’ to murderous psychopath, everyone would think twice. Sharing a tiny room with a violent criminal and a bucketful of festering human waste - in 40 degree heat with no fan or air conditioning – is no fun.

Up until 1991, when it closed, this is what conditions were like at Fremantle Prison. Holiday camp it wasn’t, as you can see at first hand as everything has been kept intact. When it closed down, after lots of thumb twiddling, the State government decided to keep it open as a tourist attraction. A rather ghoulish one, admittedly, but a fascinating one nonetheless. The refreshing thing about the tour is that there’s no romaniticising the prison life. You get the full details in all their guard-bribing, fist-fighting, drug-smuggling, soap-dropping horror. First up, we’re taken through the check-in procedure. We’re told how prisoners were stripped naked, had their belongings put in a bag, and were issued with the prison uniform.

As we’re guided through the chapels, cells and exercise yards, we’re bombarded with interesting titbits of information. Whether it’s the mundane stuff about how mail was read and luxury items bought or daring tales of escapes and riots, you get a real feel for the prison life. You learn things too – drugs being smuggled in through tennis balls being hit over the prison walls; the wing for non-violent prisoners being more violent than the wing for those up for bashing grannies; the wannabe artist who whittled his button into a pencil and covered up his incredible cell artwork with porridge every morning. It’s unexpectedly gripping.

What really comes across is the barbarity of the system though. Not from the prisoners, mind, but from the authorities. We’re taken to the flogging post, where misbehaving convicts would be whipped until they’re hospitalised, and then to solitary confinement, a hellish prison within a hellish prison. Eeriest of all though is the gallows. The last man hanged in Western Australia was Eric Edgar Cooke, a serial killer, in 1964. Amazingly, the death sentence was only abolished in 1984, but the tour takes you through what would happen if it still existed now. A rope round the neck, the sinister crank that opens the trapdoor, and you’re dead within two seconds. Strangely enough, silence fills the room after that.

 

ps Tours of Fremantle Prison run from 9am to 5pm every day, and candlelight tours are also available. You’ll need to book in advance.

Outback

 

 

 

You can count the miles down the Stuart Highway from Alice to Urldunda in dead kangaroos. There’s not a helluva lot else to look at though and my eyes began to glaze over somewhere after the thirtieth ‘roo road-kill. These road-kills have had a horrifying effect on Australia’s biggest bird of pray. The wedge-tailed eagle, with its eight-foot wingspan, is irresistibly attracted to this transcontinental smorgasbord and, having no natural predators, it is quite ready to do battle with any vehicle that has the audacity to try to scare it off its meal. Trackside roadhouses are full of yarns about drivers who were terrified to see a half-dead wedgie coming through the windscreen at him. “He was all torn and bleeding and spitting feathers when he turned up here,” they tell you. “Funniest bloody thing you ever saw!”

 

Outbackers have a wry sense of humour. They continue to see themselves as pioneering characters and in a sense they still are. This is the forbidden land that the first settlers knew by such mysterious names as Beyond the Black Stump, The Never Never or simply the Red Centre. The Northern Territory is ‘the real Outback.’ Southern roadtrains are not considered worthy of the name here in the Top End where they have five trailers, stretch to over fifty metres and are capable of sucking the windscreen-wipers off your car as they pass.


Even ‘roos wouldn’t be seen dead on the Lasseter Highway from Urldunda to Uluru. This is the real desert and feral camels are more likely here. There are said to be as many as half a million wild camels in Australia and they are of such pure and hardy breed that some have been sold to Saudi Arabia for racing stock. Territorians in general seem to be delighted at this proof that they also even have the world’s toughest camels. (Although they never got around to feeling that way about the rabbits).


This is dingo country too and even in the resort around The Rock you will often see semi-tame dingoes searching through the bins. The trouble is that the dingoes have mated with dogs from the Aboriginal camps and they are not as shy as they used to be. In some camps the Aboriginals live in fear of what one little girl described to me as ‘cheeky dogs.’ She said she was frightened to go outside after dark because of the dogs. But these dogs are cheeky in a way that only Outback animals can be cheeky: there have been reports recently of people who were actually killed and eaten by ‘cheeky dogs.’


Up here termite mounds grow to cathedral-like proportions and ‘dunny budgies’ (flies) are so thick you get tennis elbow shooing them off. Legend has it that at times the flies can carry small children away. Territorians are immensely proud of their fearsome wildlife and will warn you that the snakes here are so smart that if you drive over them they’ll wrap themselves around your differential so that they can follow you into your house.


Even a relatively short roadtrip from Alice to Uluru, just 5 hours each way (a mere jaunt in the scale of the Outback), shouldn’t be undertaken without proper preparation and a reliable vehicle. This simple journey to The Rock once took me three days when I was stranded by torrential rains and trapped in the little settlement of Curtin Springs. The population of five swelled overnight to almost fifty and some people were attacked by a herd of feral camels that were driven crazy by the excess of water.


Even a relatively short roadtrip into the Outback remains an adventure. The camels and the cheeky dogs might not get you but there are countless terrible things that could happen to you on these remote highways.…and whatever it might be there will always be an Outback ‘character’ who will see the funny side to it.

 

 

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

Bush

 

 

David Whitley becomes a temporary part of the family at Bullock Mountain Homestead near Glen Innes in New South Wales.
 
Containing the sort of energy usually associated with a nuclear reactor, Cruiser bounds down the bank, ploughs through the water and digs his paws in to climb up my chest. My new friend indulges in a frenetic bout of face-licking; a sure sign that he’s not planning to leave me alone for the rest of the stay.  I’ve been out in the bush for less than a day, and I’m evidently part of the family already. Cruiser is the younger of the two dogs at the Bullock Mountain Homestead, and the boisterous Labrador-cross comes everywhere, be it on a scramble down the river, a drive through the forest or pre-dinner kangaroo hunt. He’s after rabbits rather than roos, however.

His weary cohort Tooheys – all the homestead’s animals are named after alcoholic beverages – normally follows with a little less enthusiasm. He’s happy enough to humour Cruiser, but is clearly glad to see his young protégé lavish attention on some other poor mug for a few days. Bullock Mountain is one of those glorious places that can be all-action or ridiculously lazy, depending on whether you’re more in the Cruiser or Tooheys mindset.

Fishing, yabbying, birdwatching and bushwalking are amongst the options on offer, but it’s clear that the heart is with the horses. Twenty-or-so roam freely around the property’s 12,000 acres, but are rounded up and saddled when guests wish to go for a ride. The horses are cared for with an almost maternal verve by co-owner Alison Wood, and they’re clearly in good condition. I’m presented with an absolute beauty – a giant grey called Belle (as in Bell’s whisky) with film star looks.

Unfortunately, she blatantly has T-Rex blood on one side of her family, and getting up without an ice axe and crampons should be something of a challenge. Alison points at a tree stump. “We’ve thought of that,” she says, ushering Belle towards nature’s pedestal. Once up and plodding through the trees, it’s pretty obvious to see why the Woods use the property for horses and tourists rather than agriculture. It’s rocky, rugged and rather overgrown. Some of the trails disappear beneath a sea of wispy green scrub, while the paths are crossed by fallen trees and other obstacles.

We break into the occasional canter, but for the most part, it’s a tentative walk through land that doesn’t seem all that close to habitation. But suddenly we emerge at Beardy Waters, and a beautiful blue pool flanked by two thick rows of gum trees. Pelicans debate whether to scatter or stand their ground as we approach. It’s exactly what the Australian bush should look like, and it’s warm enough for a swim. Cruiser agrees whole-heartedly.

Once we’ve made our way back to base, it’s time for an altogether different water activity. This part of NSW’s New England area is notoriously rich in minerals – particularly sapphires. Most of them are mined these days, but fossickers still try their luck in the rivers and creeks. Unfortunately, doing it the traditional way is rather hard work. Scrabbling around at the rock to get enough to sift through is not much fun, so the Woods have come up with a better plan. They get bags of cast-off material from the mine, and take their guests through how to find the jewels amongst the junk.

Part of the bag is emptied out into two large trays, which act as sieves. They’re lowered into a water vat, and the cleaning process begins. The trays are dunked, shimmied, swivelled and shaken in the water in order to clean the dirt off and separate the bigger stones from the little ones. There’s a clear technique to it, with the aim being to get the heavier stones – and hopefully the sapphires – to the bottom. Alas, that technique isn’t immediately obvious to a rank amateur.

The trays are then flipped over onto old barrels and the rubble is picked through with tweezers. I strike lucky immediately – a small blue speck glimmers amongst the black stones. I hold it up to the light to check, and then pouch it. The hunt is surprisingly fascinating. A second pair of eyes can spot potential sapphires that the first pair misses, and after a while everything starts to look bluer than it is. I end up with a film canister half full of potential gems, although the elation wears off when they’re surveyed by an expert in town. Apparently only one is really gem quality.

But for all the activities, it’s the family atmosphere that makes Bullock Mountain special. The highlight of the day is a lamb roast in the evening, then beers, tall tales and dirty jokes around the campfire. And, of course, making sure that Cruiser has his tummy suitably tickled.

 


Disclosure: David was a guest of the Bullock Mountain Homestead (Bullockmountainhomestead.com) and tourism New South Wales (Visitnsw.com).