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.


First Fleet




David Whitley raises a glass to the unwilling pioneers who first settled in Australia back in 1788


Captain Cook wasn’t, as many people believe, the first person to discover Australia. The Aboriginal people who’d been on the continent for 50,000 years might have something to say about that, but Dutch and Portuguese explorers had been here way before Cook arrived in 1770.


It was Cook’s timing that counted, however. The industrial revolution was just about to properly kick in, and there was both massive population growth and urbanization. People were moving to the cities to find work, then discovering that no work was available. Many had to steal food to survive. 


By 1788, the American Revolution had ensured that the convenient option of sending criminals to the States was no longer an option. With prisons chock-a-block, the powers that be decided that it may be worth investigating the mysterious landmass on the other side of the world that Cook had claimed for Britain.


And so the First Fleet was sent, in what must have been an incomparable journey. No European had visited what was then known as Botany Bay since Cook 18 years earlier; these people were being sent completely into the unknown. It’s like being sent to the moon in order to set up a colony, but with even less knowledge of what to expect than we have about Neil Armstrong’s conquest.


Also, if we were colonizing the moon, we would probably send those with the skills to do so. In 1788, this was about getting rid of undesirables rather than providing the talents needed to complete such a task. Aside from a few military types whose job it was to keep order and the odd trained craftsman who had ended up on the wrong side of the tracks, most of Australia’s first settlers were unskilled labourers.


These people were being sent, almost certainly permanently, to somewhere that had nothing. All they had to go on were tales of strange creatures; it wasn’t known whether the land would be suitable for farming, there was zero infrastructure and it could have been a disease-ridden hellhole for all they knew. 


Think about it; these people spent months at sea in horribly cramped conditions – many would die at sea in later voyages until the Government started paying by the convict safely landed rather than the convict taken away. And they didn’t know what to expect when they finally disembarked. No-one knew what to expect, even those nominally in charge. It was one of the greatest leaps of faith in history, and most of those taking it were not doing so by choice.



As it happens, there was good land (although not at Botany Bay as first expected – the First Fleet hit lucky by going slightly further up the coast to Port Jackson – now better known as Sydney Harbour). The diseases were also largely brought in by the Europeans – far more Aboriginal Australians died as a result of imported disease than skirmishes with the settlers. It is still less than 250 years since these unwilling pioneers arrived – tens of thousands were to follow as the transportation system kicked in – and how Australia has changed since is remarkable.


Many indigenous Australians now regard January 26th 1788 as Invasion Day. To other Australians, January 25th is Australia Day in commemoration of when the First Fleet landed. Leaving aside the race politics and moral issues, it’s a day to raise a glass. Not to the system, not to the repercussions and not necessarily to the country itself – but to those undoubtedly terrified petty criminals who were unwillingly sent completely into the unknown. There will probably never be another journey like it.


The Immigration Museum in Melbourne gives a decent overview of the transportation system, as does Port Arthur in Tasmania. But if you want to properly read up on it, then The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes is magnificent.



Swimming pools - and why Australia has a much better version



In Newcastle, NSW, David Whitley goes all gooey for Australia’s magnificent ocean baths


The best town in Australia?

David Whitley takes a detour on the road north to find the surfers’ magical fantasy land that is Yamba

It doesn’t take long after veering off the Pacific Highway to realise that there’s something a little bit special. Sugar cane fields appear, interspersed with cobalt blue channels branching from the Clarence River’s fabulously messy delta. Enormous pelicans glide along the water, unaware of how marvellously ridiculous they look.

And at the end, as the Clarence finally meets the sea, is Yamba. It has long been a sleepy little surf town, with basic cabin and holiday park accommodation along the river shore, but in the last five years or so, people have begun to take notice. In 2009, Australian Traveller Magazine named it the best town in Australia, and since then more upscale restaurants have opened, while backpackers have started to trickle in.

Shane Henwood, who co-owns and manages the Yamba YHA with his family, says he initially came to the town for the surfing. He’s not the only one – Angourie Point is one of the world’s most feared and salivated-over surfing breaks, while the founder of the Billabong surfwear empire has a huge mansion on the hilltop.

Big waves make Yamba a key surf spot, but having ten beaches rather helps too. Four of them can be reached within a fifteen minute walk of the main street, and the crucial thing is that they’re all facing in different directions.

“Locals call Yamba the Byron Bay of 20 years ago, or the real Surfer’s Paradise,” says Shane. “And we’re proud to say that we get the longest stays out of any YHA in Australia.”

Many of those long-stayers are people who get bitten by the surf bug, but Yamba does have that magical traveller gravitas to it. Not everyone has head of it, it’s not quite on the obvious backpacker trail, living is relatively cheap once there and it’s just hard enough to get to for visitor numbers to stay relatively low.

For the newcomers, however, there is the rather jolting introduction of Shane’s ‘legendary’ $15 tour of the area, which includes feeding fish and – more pertinently – cliff-jumping. The man is rather unnerving, largely because he has far, far too much energy. “I never, ever get sick of pushing people off cliffs,” he says with excitable zeal. “But if someone cries, they ban me from the Red Bull for a few days.

“Yamba is a relaxing place, unless you’re hanging with me and I’ve had Red Bull. I do stupid stuff when I’ve had Red Bull.”

This becomes apparent when he spots a snake. “If it’s a brown, it can kill you within 47 minutes. If it’s a red-bellied black snake, you’ve got a day.” He then throws himself into a little cavelet, Steve Irwin-style, to see if he can catch it.

It would be fair to say that the tour is far more about what isn’t advertised than what is. At the first cliff, a relative tiddler, he’s absolved from pushing anyone off. Everyone’s game enough to take the heels-first plunge into the pool created long ago when townsfolk quarried out the rock to make breakwaters.



When it gets to the 12 and 18 metre cliff jumps, however, it’s an altogether different story. Without adding spoilers, let’s just say things don’t quite go as billed.

On the way back, we stop by the waterside tavern to feed bread to fish – “Clarence River piranhas”, Shane says not altogether convincingly – and drop by the golf course. Forget the water traps and bunkers – there’s an altogether more Australian hazard for Yamba’s golfers. The course is absolutely riddled with kangaroos, and they’ve frankly no intention of moving on the cry of “fore”.

They’re not the only locals that are difficult to budge either. The residents of Yamba seem, almost universally, to know they’re on to a good thing. The mission now is to stop the entire world finding out about it.


by David Whitley 

Disclosure: David stayed at the Yamba YHA as a guest of YHA Australia. 




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

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David Whitley looks with older eyes at Melbourne’s city centre – and finds that it has rediscovered its soul


My hazy recollections of Melbourne’s city centre are not all that favourable. Back in 2002, I trawled the rigid grid delivering magazines every week, and found it all a little dispiriting. There were a few decent pubs and Chinatown was mildly diverting but central Melbourne always struck me as having a dull functionality and little heart.


Melbourne, after all, was all about the scene in the various suburbs – St Kilda, Fitzroy and Carlton were the places to be, while a long list of other suburbs each had their own scene. It was a city that rewarded those who gave it time and explored at a relaxed pace – and many coming through from Sydney would turn their nose up after a couple of days in the wrong places before moving on.


Eight years later, and Melbourne’s city centre seems remarkably different. This may be a case of looking through different eyes – I want a little more than just the cheapest beer prices these days – but a big change has clearly taken place. I think the tourist board would like us to believe that Melbourne has always been a hive of laneways packed with cool independent shops, fascinating bars and restaurants plying cuisine from all over the world. To a certain extent, this is probably the case, but it’s undeniable that this scene has undergone a massive expansion in the last decade.


It has been a case of noticing that the whole character-packed laneways thing is popular and running with it. The cramped little back streets between the vast thoroughfares on the main grid are now promoted heavily, and are clearly thriving.


They’re fascinating to poke around, too. They’re anything but identikit. Some bars are too cool by half (and have prices to match), others are laid-back, cosy and a little grungy. Some of the more unpromising alleys will have a sweet, family-run coffee shop at the end, while on others you’ll run a gauntlet of touts between restaurant terraces. Each is keen to entice you into theirs with the best deal or most expensive free drink. 


On my first afternoon this time round, I had time to kill before meeting my fiancée at the airport. I got in touch with another writer who I’ve only previously known electronically, and we ended up at a bizarre place that seemed to have a million floors, each with a bar or a theatre on it. It felt typical of the new Melbourne – the top floor was a fairly rough and ready rooftop bar selling burgers and pies from a small shack. On the first floor, it was boutique beers, upmarket platters and serving staff with Shoreditch hair.


The next day, we explored properly, and I kept coming across things I hadn’t seen before. And not just in terms of bars and coffee shops – the stream of odd public artworks around the Docklands and South Bank, the shiny new towers and the weird little stores struck me as new additions. As I say, I may have been blind to it before, but Melbourne’s city centre has undergone a remarkable transformation. It’s now a genuinely cool place to be – and possesses a life and character that would be the envy of any city in the world. 


More photos here