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

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.

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Oman driving

 

David Whitley encounters economical road signs and jaw-dropping landscapes – but not the restaurant he was seeking.

 

A telling insight into how a car rental adventure is going to progress can usually be gauged from the first uttering of the time-honoured phrase: “This is bloody ridiculous.”

 

In our case, it was within about seven minutes of leaving the airport. After a series of bewildering junctions, we were on a near-deserted dual carriageway, not entirely sure which direction we were headed in and steadily coming to the conclusion that the next exit was a long, long way away.

 

“This is bloody ridiculous,” came the cry from the exasperated driver. It was not destined to be a one-off, although the adjectives did get somewhat stronger. Driving in Oman is simultaneously necessary, awe-inspiring and thoroughly frustrating. It’s one of the least pedestrian-friendly countries in the world, and tours tend to be tailor made for individuals and couples rather than operated at a set price per person. In other words, they’re prohibitively expensive.

 

Car rental, meanwhile, is surprisingly cheap and petrol is virtually free by British standards. Hiring a car is the only sane way to get around, and it is often hugely rewarding. Our first day’s adventure was a day trip to Nizwa to have a look at a big fort and maybe cram in a side trip to a mountain village or two. The road up there is just incredible. The mountains almost back on to the coast, and as you head inland, you start to climb round the back of them. These are no namby-pamby, prettified mountains either – they’re big, ugly, forbidding beasts that make you want to shrink into a ball and apologise for disturbing them. They jag, they crag and any vegetation attempting to grow on the side of them generally isn’t going to be around too long. It’s a harsh, dazzling, alien landscape that’s worth travelling through even if you don’t get out of the car and see anything.

 

Unfortunately, sign-posting is somewhat, erm, economical. It’s as though every place is allowed just one signpost and they have to make a choice where to put it. And that somewhere is either right on top of the hitherto unannounced turn-off or at least three junctions beforehand, from whereon the trail ends. The road maps aren’t exactly brimming with detail and illumination either, while the anglicised spelling of place names is about as consistent as the end product of severe dysentery.

 

But driving 20km in the wrong direction in the mistaken belief you’re heading towards a pretty village is a doddle compared to driving in the Omani capital, Muscat. Muscat itself is little more than the royal palace and a few official buildings surrounding it. But Greater Muscat stretches for 50km along the coast, essentially a collection of small towns bound together with the same loose knot. Connecting them is, theoretically, one giant thoroughfare – Sultan Qaboos Street. This is a modernistic engineering marvel – the multiple lanes contort around the mountains, fly over roundabouts, and peel off like soft branches onto other trunk roads and octopus-like roundabouts. In a bid to keep traffic moving, there are hardly any lights, and dual carriageways leaf off effortlessly onto other dual carriageways.

 

It sounds like a dream. But woe betide anyone who doesn’t know exactly where they’re going. A new dual carriageway is built seemingly every fifteen minutes in Muscat, and they all look more or less identical. Find yourself in the wrong lane, and before you know it, you’re off the road you wanted to be on, onto another you can’t get off for three kilometres and completely bewildered. It’s an amazing system for traffic flow, but the problem comes when you don’t want to be a part of said flow any more. You’re on a system of automated conveyor belts that you just can’t get off.

 

After around six hours plus on the road to Nizwa and surrounds, we felt like having something nice for tea. Mumtaz Mahal had been recommended by numerous sources as the best Indian restaurant in Muscat and, looking at the map, it should be fairly easy to find. It’s on a prominent hill, in a park, flanked by Sultan Qaboos Street, about 15 minutes away from our hotel.

 

And indeed it was easy to find. We drove past it four or five times in the hour-and-a-half we spent trying to reach it. It turns out that the areas of Greater Muscat aren’t really connected by anything other than these major roads, and you have to know the exact exit you want to be able to get to anywhere specific. Then you have to find your way to the one side road that leads out of the dual carriageway matrix, detour around random police blockades and navigate through a series of dead end streets that have no names.

 

The whole experience is, I imagine, akin to being strapped to a sledge and fired around the Large Hadron Collider. You just want to stop, pull over and try and get your bearings, but you can’t because everything’s moving too fast and if you slow down you’ll probably die in a horrible accident.

 

Eventually, as hunger pangs became mighty booms, we gave up on Mumtaz Mahal (as we did on the second night after going through much the same rigmarole). We dived into a shopping mall, given that we could actually find the exit for it, and ate at a nice but soulless Lebanese restaurant.

On the way back to the hotel, we made a key discovery. Said Lebanese restaurant is part of a chain. Another branch is just two blocks away from our hotel. This, naturally, is bloody ridiculous.


On the way back to the hotel, we made a key discovery. Said Lebanese restaurant is part of a chain. Another branch is just two blocks away from our hotel. This, naturally, is bloody ridiculous.

 

 

 

 

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

 

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