This is the story of our Australian adventure, and covers the final part of the journey, from Darwin back into the Outback, then on to Cairns and down the coast to Sydney and on to Melbourne before finally flying home.
Waking around 6:30am meant that we were up, packed and on the road by around 7:30am, heading out of the campground and turning south onto the Stuart Highway once more. The traffic leaving Darwin was a little heavier than we're used to - perhaps 50 vehicles on the road with us - but thinned out pretty quickly as we passed the turn-off for Palmeston. Onto the Stuart Highway proper we made good progress, once again sitting with the cruise control on at 111kph (the speed limit is 110kph, but I'm a rebel!), scanning everywhere for signs of wildlife (they was none) or other potential hazards. We had determined that our first stop should be for breakfast at Mayse's café in Pine Creek, which I'd read about online and in the guide book and sounded good. Pine Creek was only a couple of hours drive from Darwin, and we arrived just as our hunger was kicking in. Which meant that I ordered the full roadhouse breakfast (swapping the tomato for mushrooms), whilst Tracy opted for Pancakes and maple syrup with a side-order of bacon (very American!).
Stuffed after another hearty breakfast, we hit the road again, continuing south down to Katherine where we stopped to refuel, then onwards towards Mataranka. It was on this stretch that the termite mounds became even more interesting. We'd noticed a few of the smaller termite mounds we'd seen before had been
dressed in old t-shirts, but assumed that was just a one-off. On this stretch, a lot of those closest to the roadside were dressed. Not just in old t-shirts, but in an assortment of clothing. There was even a nativity scene - Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus attended to by 3 wise men and a termite mound Santa Claus. Others were dressed in football shirts - entire teams of them - or in sparkly disco clothes. Some had hats, others had sticks for arms making them look like they were waving as we passed. So entertaining we forgot to stop to take pictures, so you'll have to use your imagination - think tall mound of dark brown mud wearing clothes and you'll get the picture.
Our journey south was later interupted by a pick-up coming towards us with yellow flashing lights and the driver hanging out of the window waving a fluorescent pink stick. On top of his vehicle was the word
Oversize, but it wasn't. Some distance behind it was another pick-up with the same lights and sign, also no bigger than a normal pick-up. Behind that, though, was a road-train with an ENORMOUS truck on the back, taking up the whole width of the road. Good job I'd pulled over onto the verge. That was followed by another one, then a final pick-up truck. Once we'd regained the carriageway we continued to make the usual steady progress along the straight and relatively uninteresting highway. It was greener and had more curves (I think 2 or 3) than when we drove the southern sections, but travelling at a constant speed, with the constant thrum of the engine and the tyres on the road, is still dull. We passed another convoy of pick-ups and large trucks, once again pulling off the road, then eventually we turned off the main road and into Daly Waters.
This was one of the things I'd been looking forward to when travelling around the outback - we were going to visit, and spend the night at, a genuine outback pub. No ordinary outback pub, though, this one has held its liquor licence the longest of any - since 1893 - and is something of an institution. It's called the Daly Waters Pub and has a campsite next to it, so on arrival we filled up with diesel at their fuel station, then went into the pub to book a powered site for the night. We then went and set-up camp (i.e. parked the motorhome, plugged in the electric cable and switched on the a/c) and relaxed for a little while - it was only 3:30pm when we arrived and we didn't want to appear too keen. Around an hour later we walked back into the pub and ordered a pint and schooner (half) of the Great Northern Beer. Which went down very well indeed, as we admired the collection of bras, knickers, baseball hats, police/fire/ambulance patches, work ID badges, and other paraphenalia that adorned the walls and ceiling. The story goes that the leaving behind of something of oneself started in the early 1980's when a bus driver challenged his female passengers to a drinking contest, that if they lost they would have to remove their bras to be hung from the bar. Nowadays people leave all sorts of things. We ordered another couple of beers and contemplated what we could leave behind. A few more beers followed, then we ordered some food - Tracy opting for the steak, me for the burger - and another couple of beers. By now it was gone 8pm and we were still none the wiser as to what to leave behind, so went to the bar's gift shop and bought a fridge magnet, some postcards and a vest-top for me. Then we staggered across the road to look at what looked at first like a junk shop but turned out to be a rather good shed with some old bikes and cars inside. Having explored that we returned to the campsite, where we had our path back to the motorhome illuminated by the Christmas lights that adorned one of the caravans parked there. I kid you not, this caravan looked the business, with flashing lights draped all over it and even a small display on the ground in front. Very festive!
I woke first at just after 6am, and lay there thinking about the route for the next few days and also the fact that the on-site shower/toilet cubicles don't have lockable doors. I was concerned by this for two reasons - (1) I might inadvertently walk in on someone else and (2) Tracy would not want to shower there, meaning she would need to shower in the van and the gas for the water-heater was turned off. So I got up and dressed, turned the gas on and went to get my shower, knocking loudly on the door before opening it. Thankfully there was no-one inside, so, leaving my sandals on the step as a clear sign this cubicle was occupied, I went in and did what I needed to. No-one came in whilst I was busy, but no sooner had I emerged to put my sandals on than a young man said
Great, I'll take that one, now I know it's empty!. Seems I'm not the only one who worries more about walking in on someone than someone walking in on me...
Back at the motorhome, Tracy had her shower and then we both ate breakfast, the thought of another big roadhouse one being too much, especially after all the beer the night before. Once done we packed everything away and drove to the dump point to rid the motorhome of the waste, then hit the road again, first leaving Daly Waters and then turning south to drive the Stuart Highway for the last time (hoo-ray!).
The drive was as uneventful, and to some extent uninteresting, as the rest of the driving on the major highways in Australia. Straight for the most part, cruise-control set to 111kph, watching for wildlife whilst keeping the motorhome going straight despite the blustery wind. The roadside was the usual thin forest and scrubland, dotted with small tombstone-like termite mounds, some of which were wearing clothes. We drove like this for 400km to the Three Ways Roadhouse, stopping only once for a brew and stretch. Here we topped up with diesel, used the facilities and had a brew and a toastie each. The onions on my cheese-and-onion toastie were so strong they made my eyes water and my head sweat, but otherwise all was good. Once refreshed we finally said
Good-Bye to the Stuart Highway, one of Australia's most famous roads and one we had spent a total of 7 days driving on. Almost all of which was done with the cruise control set to 111kph and me just steering straight. Not a great driving experience, for sure.
Now we were on the Barkly Highway, which was... well... straight and no different from the Stuart Highway. It did have the odd curve, and the occasional up-and-down of a minor crest, but otherwise it was dead straight. With the high sun and hot temperatures (38degrees) the heat-haze made the horizon look like we were going to drive into a lake (or that the sky had melted and was flowing down the road towards us). It was hypnotic and were it not for the long conversation Tracy and I had about the ridiculous nature of politics back home would have been quite boring. We did see an interesting road-sign, though (see below) depicting a dinosaur. The area around here is famous for its fossil finds, but this sign looked a little too familiar - I can just about make out the kangaroo that lurks underneath the image of the dinosaur. Someone must have got fed up of driving (understandably) and taken a lot of effort to make the sign look genuine. That no-one from officialdom has been and replaced it with the original kangaroo one is testement to the remoteness of the area, as well as the Australian love of a joke.
The kilometers simply rolled by, slowly, until we reached the Soudan Bore Rest Area, one of a few dotted along the roadside at 100-200Km intervals. We chose this one as it was already 4:30pm and it was just 150km or so from the Queensland border, making tomorrow's day a little shorter and still giving us time for some sight-seeing. The rest area is basically a flat dirt area with a few bins and some trees offering a little shade, large enough to accommodate quite a few campers. When we arrived there was only one other camper there, so we drove to the far and and found a slightly-shaded spot well away from anyone else. Parked up, we opened the roof vent and the window to try and get a breeze blowing through the motorhome as without an electric hook-up the air-con doesn't work. Then we sat getting slightly hot whilst I updated the blog and Tracy read and rested her back - which doesn't take too well to long driving days. I then started preparing the chicken rogan josh curry, which we had to have with pasta as the rice we bought is microwave-only. It was perhaps not the best meal choice given the temperature in the motorhome, and we both had to keep using kitchen towels whilst eating to dry ourselves off. Not that the curry was hot, it wasn't, but the motorhome certainly was. After washing up we sat trying to minimise movement to avoid generating any more heat, waiting for the night-time to hopefully lower the overall temperature (we should have learnt by now this isn't likely to happen, but regardless we still love camping in remote locations far from civilisation).
Despite the heat, which must have subsided sometime around midnight judging by how wet my pillow was in the middle of the night and how relatively cool it was when I woke again at 5am, we slept pretty well. Up and showered we had an alternate breakfast of porridge (me) and shortbread (Tracy) due to the milk having turned. Then we got on the road once more, heading east towards the Queensland border. We passed through the small town of Camooweal, and as we did so, I looked at the fuel gauge and reasoned we had more than enough to make it to the larger town of Mount Isa, where fuel would be cheaper, before filling up. Some distance later, I notied one of the small green distance signs that said that MI (Mount Isa) was 130Km away. Which was a problem, as just before the sign, the low-fuel warning light had come on. I had expected the light to come on some 100Km or so later, and immediately began mental calculations - 130km is roughly 80 miles, the gauge is reading 1/8full and a full tank is good for 580km, so 1/8th is... oh sh*t!
I slowed the cruise control down and opened the CamperMate app to locate the nearest fuel station. Ahead it was 123Km (too far!), behind 64Km (borderline!), so we turned round and set off back towards Camooweal. I was by now contingency planning, working out what to do if we did run out, and watching the fuel gauge and miles-to-garage on the GPS. Tracy was calm but worried. I was calm and laughing, trying to make light of the inadvertent adventure I'd caused by mis-calculating and breaking my golden rule of filling up when you see fuel if the tank is half empty (which is had been). We got within 30Km - 19.2miles, too far to walk - then 20Km - 12miles, at a walking speed of 2mph, still too far - then 10Km, better but still 6.4miles and over 3 hours to the garage - then 5Km and then 2.5Km and then... we made it!
We both let out a huge sigh of relief as I pulled into the fuel station and then put 75litres of diesel in the tank - meaning there was at least 5 litres (or about 35Km) left in the tank. Not enough for us to have made it to Mount Isa had I not turned round when I did.
With the mini-adventure over, we re-drove the 64Km back to where we'd turned round, and then the remaining 125km on to Mount Isa. Once again the road had been fairly straight and for the most part surrounded by sparse eucalyptus trees, but as we got closer to Mount Isa it flattened out into huge fields with the occasional row of trees providing some shade for the cattle. Closer to Mount Isa it changed again, and we started to climb into the rocky hills, the vegetation sparse with scattered trees and scrub bushes. The hills meant some bends, which provided a little relief from holding the steering straight, and there was an increased number of road trains passing the opposite way. Mount Isa is a large mining town, home to one of the most productive single mines in world history, based on combined production of lead, silver, copper and zinc. Our route took us through it naturally as it wasn't a place we particularly wanted to visit, but when we did some digging we discovered it had a museum we wanted to visit. It's an Underground Hospital. The first hospital in Mount Isa had been a row of tents operated by the mining company from the earliest years of mining operations, they opened a 40 bed Community Hospital in 1929. After the bombing of Darwin in 1942, there was a huge influx of thousands of American troops into Northwest Queensland, and with the bombing of the Darwin Hospital, precautions were taken to protect the Mount Isa district hospital in the event of an air raid. With an abundance of miners in the area, they decided to move the hospital underground. And now it's a museum. Only it's closed on Wednesdays, so we couldn't see it.
Disappointed, we made our way to the local Woolies and stocked up on provisions, then drove on to our destination for the day, the town of Cloncurry, a further 1.5 hours down the road. At least the road was interesting, as it made its way through the rolling hills, and with lots of road trains going each way we had at least some other vehicles to look at. Oh, and lots of dead kangaroos at the roadside, too. These poor creatures seem to have no road sense at all, as the fresh carcasses litter the highway verges all across the country, yet it's rare to see one in the hours of daylight. Cloncurry is the birthplace of John Flynn, founder of the Royal Flying Doctor Service we read all about in Darwin and there's a small museum in the town dedicated to his story. Having already read a lot about it, and with us being tired from the long drive, we gave it a miss and went to the liquor store for a bottle of white wine instead. Then on to the Discovery Parks campsite where we checked in to a powered site (air-conditioning for us tonight!) and pitched up, then used the free laundry to wash some clothes and the pillow cases. We enjoyed a cool beer sat outside the motorhome in the shade, until the ants decided they wanted the ground back for themselves and began to make their views known by biting us. Retreating once more into the safety of the motorhome Tracy prepared dinner of prawn salad, whilst I wrote this, and as she's almost done, I'll leave it there for now...
With what we hope will be our last long driving day ahead of us, we were up and breakfasted and on the road before 8am, heading north for the last time. We took the Burke Developmental Road, which in places lived up to its name with sections of the road only wide enough for one vehicle at a time, preceeded by signs making it clear this is a Road Train road and other vehicles should move over onto the dirt should one be coming the other way. As it happened, we only encountered one Road Train coming towards us, and that was on a stretch wide enough for us both. We did encounter other vehicles, mostlyu pick-ups, and when these were approaching we both would drop our nearside wheels onto the dirt so we could pass without either of us having to slow down too much.
Our first stop of the day was at the Burke and Wills Roadhouse, named after the explorers I mentioned in yesterday's blog. We got a brew and sat on the patio outside to drink it. In the window was a newspaper with a story about a company that runs outback tours including one that roughly follows the route of Burke and Wills' ill-fated 1861 expedition. It pulled no punches when describing their story, including the following, from the first paragaph:
He was a proper berk, that bloke. He died beside a beautiful stretch of the Cooper Creek in the far back country, surrounded by fish and fowl and helpful natives. He kept no diary, few notes and brooked little advice. A pig-headed Irishman in a mysterious land, Robert O'Hara Burke and seven members of the 1860 Victorian Exploring Expedition persiished in white man's first south-north crossing of the wide, brown and unknown continent.
I found the article fascinating enough to keep my occupied whilst my brew cooled enough to drink, and took photos of it which are below (click on the image to see a full-size version that you might be able to read).
Refreshed, we continued on our way north, intending to stop again for fuel at Normanton, which woiuld have been around the 380Km mark for the day. As it happens, and not obvious from the map, the road from Normanton to Georgetown that we wanted starts before Normanton, so a quick calculation (and double-check!) on fuel and distance to the next town later, we turned off having not reached Normanton. This pushed our lunch-break back a bit, but we stopped only 155Km later at the town of Croydon for fuel. The town was tiny - mostly just the fuel station - so after filling up we drove a little further down the road before pulling over for a snack lunch of cheese and crackers. The final leg of the journey, to Georgetown, was on the Gulf Developmental Road and the Savannah Highway, and apart from a few sections of single-track road was much the same as the earlier road. Now heading east, we encountered a few hills before arriving in Georgetown, which was a fairly large town with single-story wooden houses on large lots but little else. We found our way to the Goldfields Van Park, where we booked a powered site on the almost empty campground. We chose a shady spot under a couple of large trees and the noise from the birds was incredible - there were lots of them, from Galahs (the grey and bright pink parrot-like birds we've seen all over Australia, to bright green parrots and several other beautifully-coloured birds. I think we'd interrupted their drinking session at the water bowl underneath a constantly-dripping tap just a few metres away from where we parked.
Once settled in, we had dinner, another salad using the last of the prawns and a tin of tuna. As we ate and the sun set, a couple of wallabies appeared and bounced across the grass just behind our motorhome. I tried to get my camera, but the movement freaked them out and they bounded a bit further away, where we could see them but the light was too poor to take photos. Once the light had faded completely, we closed the curtains and watched a DVD before turning in for the night, the noise of the birds finally quieting down as they did the same (turned in for the night, not watched a DVD!).
We were woken early by the sound of the birds returning to their watering hole, so after a quick shower we opened the back doors of the van, which gave us a great view of them drinking and chatting whilst we ate breakfast. After which, despite being keen to get moving early so we could get to Cairns early afternoon to leave time to visit the Maui centre and get the bad-egg smell attended to, I went and sat on the bench near the bird's watering hole with my camera. I sat there for about ten minutes, just watching and taking photos. It was very peaceful.
Despite us delaying our departure to bird-watch, we were still on the road just after 8am, and made good progress as we left Georgetown and headed towards Mount Surprise. As we started climbing into the hills we saw a lookout on the right called
Casey's Rest where we stopped for photos - there was no indication of who Casey was, nor why this was called his Rest (was it because this was where he rested, or his final resting place?), and I've not been able to find out online either. From here the road climbed up into a landscape unlike any other we've seen in Australia so far - all steep hills and valleys, as though the land had been pushed up like a rug that was too big to fit the floor. The road got twisty, very twisty, with the GPS trace looking like spilt intestines. It was as though all the bends from all the straight roads we had driven had been collected up and deposited on this one section of road. It would have been great on a bike, but in a motorhome it was not quite as much fun, as I could hear the contents of the fridge and cupboards rolling from side to side with each change of direction. Looking back at the route the GPS had chosen for us, we were on highway 52 passing through the Gadgarra National Park. It's a great road if you find yourself in the area and want a workout.
About an hour outside Cairns we stopped for fuel and I called Maui to arrange to see them about the bad-egg smell in the motorhome. As they have a major service/rental centre in Cairns, they asked us to go there and so we did, arriving just after 1:30pm. They immediately took the van into their workshop and some time later the technician came out to explain that they at first couldn't smell anything but then noticed the gas canister that we bought ages ago and which is sat behind my seat. He said that this was leaking slightly and that was most likely where the smell was coming from. We explained that was unlikely as the smell would be present all the time, not just after we've set off, but he repeated that they couldn't find anywhere else where it smelt and they had had the engine running for a while. We were not happy, as we don't think this is the likely source, but unless they could smell it they were not able to fix it. They did explain why the cab air-con only worked intermittently, the reason being that in the tropics, setting it to below 20degrees means it over-works and freezes so shuts down, then when the ice on the condensor thaws, it starts working again. So we have one problem fixed and another we're not sure about. Only time will tell.
We left Maui and headed for the supermarket for supplies and to find a pharmacy so Tracy can try and arrange to get the medications the doctor back home would only prescribe for 2 months, not the 3 she needed (it's a controlled drug). She discovered she would need to see a doctor, so rang around and made an appointment for Monday afternoon, when we return from the rainforest tour. By now we had used up most of the afternoon, so we made our way to the Ingenia Cairns Coconut Resort campground, where we are staying for 4 nights. It's a huge site, with lots for families to do, and we have been able to book an en-suite pitch on a 4-night for the price of 3 deal, meaning we have our own shower, toilet and sink in a little shed next to our motorhome (so we don't have to walk to the amenities block or queue for a shower). Once checked in and parked up, we connected the electric and got the air-con on, then sat outside and had a beer. Tracy then made us some BBQ-flavoured pulled pork in the microwave, which we ate in burger buns, whilst enjoying the last of the sunshine outside.
Having now travelled all the way from Melbourne, via Port Augusta, Alice Springs and Uluru, back to Port Augusta, along the south coast to Albany, up to Perth and on the Broome, then Darwin and now finally across the country to Cairns, we decided it was time for a rest day. Not a day for sight-seeing, but a total, shut-down, do-nothing, rest day. Which is exactly what we did today. We made sure our kindles were charged up, and then, after a leisurely breakfast, we covered ourselves in sun-cream and put on our swimming gear and went to sit by the pool and read. Only this being a family oriented campsite, the pool is small and full of children. Not a problem, we just sat on the sunloungers in the small amount of shade afforded by some palm trees and read. The sun got higher in the sky, necessitating frequent movements of the sun-loungers to keep them in the shade, until that became impossible with the sun almost directly overhead. We cooled off, if it can be called that, in the bath-temperature water of the bubble-tub, then sat in the sun for 30 seconds whilst we dried off under its rays. We then moved to a wooden hut-like construction by the pool that had become vacant and sat on the wooden lounger/bed inside in the shade. For about 5 minutes, before its lack of any comfort meant neither Tracy nor I could stand it any longer. Now with a total absence of shade and the sun beating down, we retreated back to our pitch in the hope there would be some shade there. No such luck, so I went inside the motorhome to benefit from its air-conditioning, whilst Tracy braved the sun outside. And so we spent the day doing exactly what we needed to do - nothing. Except I read the latest Michael Connolly book (I would say cover-to-cover, but it was on my Kindle and I don't know what the equivalent of that is), whilst Tracy also read. For dinner made us a chicken curry, using fresh spices and no recipe (I love improvising with food!) which was actually quite tasty and for once not too spicy!
After dinner we sat and read some more, then I had a small slice of Christmas cake that we'd bought the day before. This turned out to be a bad idea, as part way through I noticed that one of my fillings was missing and I had a big hole in one of my teeth. With it being too late to try to make a dental appointment, I emailed the Skyrail company to see if they would move our booking from Monday morning to Tuesday morning, then compiled a list of dentists to call on Monday morning to see if I could get to see one. Fortunately, the tooth wasn't giving me any pain, but I could feel the hole with my tongue, and when Tracy had a look she said she could see where the filling had been. Looks like I'm going to be making my third visit to an Australian dentist!
The hole in my tooth didn't give me too much discomfort during the night, and we both woke early and full of nervous excitement about the day ahead. We had booked ourselves onto a full-day Great Barrier Reef tour which involved a catamaran taking us out to Moore Reef where it would moor up to a pontoon where we would spend 4 hours before returning to Cairns. Whilst there we had the option to take a glass-bottomed boat ride over the reef, see the reef from the underwater observatory and swim and snorkel in a safe zone by the pontoon. We packed up and drove into Cairns, parking the motorhome in an RV-parking spot some 20 minutes walk from the wharf. Then we walked to the wharf and checked-in, but naturally were too early so we had chance to look around the gift shop and sit in the sunshine before our boat was ready to board.
There were a lot of Oriental tourists also boarding our boat, and the company had set up a life-saving ring for everyone to have their photos taken as they boarded, making the boarding process somewhat slow. The professional photographer took several photos of us before we climbed the gangplank and onto the boat. We found a seat at the back and settled in, then listened to the announcement over the tannoy, which was explaining all about the other extra options - a guided snorkel tour with one of their marine biologists, a sea-walk using diver's-style dry helmets, and scuba-diving. I really wanted to scuba-dive, but due to my heart condition it was unlikely I would be cleared medically, so ruled it out. I was keen on snorkeling, though, but unsure about taking a guided tour, as I'm no-longer a strong swimmer and didn't want to embarass myself. Tracy, on the other hand, is a non-swimmer, and was really nervous about swimming at all, never mind snorkeling. When the announcement had finished and we'd completed the medical questions the lifeguard was asking everyone, Tracy went off to talk to Ted, the marine biologist who was leading the snorkel tour. She came back with a small form and full of excitement, as she said he was a lovely chap who had explained the tour involved wearing a swim-vest and holding onto a ring, so no real swimming skill was necessary. So we completed the form and went back down into the bowels of the boat to speak to him together and book ourselves onto a tour. He was very reassuring and said he would arrange for us both to have wet-suits as well as the swim vests so there was no chance of us sinking. We happily paid the extra to join the tour, and he explained the best way for us to spend our time on the pontoon before and after the tour.
By this time the boat had set sail (even though it didn't have any sails) and we were powering our way away from Cairns and into the Coral Sea. We stopped at Fitzroy Island for some people to get off and others to get on, then set off again out into what was a slightly choppy sea. The boat was rolling and rocking a fair bit, and so the crew were rushing about distributing sick bags to those who's sea-legs are not as good as ours. It took a total of nearly 2 hours to get out to Moore Reef where the pontoon was waiting for us. A very large structure with an upper sun-deck and a large covered area, it had some metal changing rooms and metal storage bins with swim fins, swim masks, snorkels and swim vests in, as well as an area where there were wet-suits and lycra swim-suits in all sizes. At the back was an underwater observatory, and moored at the very rear was a glass-bottomed boat and a semi-submiserible boat. Once we had docked and the catamaran was tied to the pontoon, we were free to walk between the boat and the pontoon as much as we liked. Tracy and I boarded the pontoon and changed into our swimming clothes before joining a queue at the back of the boat for a trip on the glass-bottomed boat.
The glass-bottomed boat was exactly as the name suggests, a boat with a glass bottom. Or to be more exact, with two rows of seats facing inwards along the sides, and with centre of the boat replaced with two sets of windows at an angle (like an inverted glass roof), through which we could see underwater. At the back was the guide/driver, who gave the 45-50 of us on board our safety briefing (life jackets above your heads, emergency exits wherever there is water) before we were off away from the pontoon and over the nearby reef. Looking down through the glass we could see various colours of coral, and small fish, and the guide explained about the types of coral and their common names. These follow typical Australian naming practics in that they are simple and to the point, so there is coral that looks like spaghetti (Spaghetti Coral), coral that looks like a boulder (Boulder Coral), coral that looks like leather (Leather Coral), coral that looks like a stag's antlers (Stag Coral) and coral that looks like a human brain (Brain Coral). Sometimes they also add the colour of the coral to the name to distinguish it from coral of the same type but a different colour, so there's Blue Brain Coral and Pink Brain Coral. You get the idea.
The boat journey was fun and lasted about 20 minutes, after which we had a walk around the pontoon, watched the people snorkeling next to the pontoon, and then went to get an early lunch so as to be ready for our snorkel tour at 1:25pm. Lunch was a buffet in the catamaran and it was excellent. There was plenty of choice, from beef curry or creamy chicken pasta to fresh prawns and salad. Tracy and I went for a light lunch of fresh prawn salad, which is rapidly becoming one of my favourite things to eat as the prawns are huge and tasty. Once we had quietened down our rumbling bellies we went back onto the pontoon to watch the fish swimming alongside and the snorkelers some more, paying particular attention to Ted and the group he was taking out before us. They seemed to take an eternity to get ready and then were very slow away from the pontoon, only just making it out of the zone marked for those
free snorkeling. In his talk, Ted had explained that he would take us out to the edge of the reef, where the water went from roughly 10m deep to over 60m, and as a result the flow of water brought nutrients up from the depth so there were lots of fish. This point cannot be reached by those snorkeling on their own, only by those on a guided tour. The group we watched appeared to return fairly soon after they had left the marked-area, so we wondered whether we would get any further. As they were heading back we went and collected a set of flippers (fins as they call them here) and a swim-vest each and then met Ted once he had finished with the previous group. He gave us a wet-suit each, then a mask and snorkel - he had his own stash of these which he preferred people to use on the tour as he has treated them with toothpaste to prevent them from fogging up. He went into great lengths extoling the virtue of toothpaste as an anti-fog for swim masks, and advised us to take some with us if we went snorkeling again!
As he fitted us with our masks and snorkels, I could feel Tracy getting more anxious, but Ted was very re-assuring and when we went down the steps and sat up to our waists in water on the bench to put our flippers on, she was calmness personified (although I suspect that was only on the surface, as I was nervous too!). We then got into the water proper and Ted told us to relax and stretch our arms out, hold onto the life-saving ring he would use to keep us together and breathe normally. We did and soon we were off swimming and looking down into the water at the reef and the coral below. As we moved away from the pontoon, Ted kept reassuring us both, and explaining about the different types of coral. He would occasionally dive down to point something of interest out, whilst we simply lay on the surface, breathing and marvelling at the beauty below. And what beauty! The colours were spectacular, with pink, blue, yellow and green coral of all different types, flowing spaghetti coral drifting back and forth in the current, spicky stag coral, flat coral, coral that resembled a blanket that had been thrown on the floor, and sea anemones with the fingers waving. In amongst all this were lots of fish of all colours and sizes, from tiny electric-blue ones to big grey ones. Ted pointed out some blue Christmas Tree Worms which live inside the coral, with a structure that looks like a christmas tree popping out, that when apprached retract entirely into the coral. He also pointed out some giant clams, including one that was a vibrant blue colour inside the massive shell (it must have been 3m in diameter) sat upright on the ocean floor. He explained the clams are the living structure inside the shell and they have two holes through which they draw water in and across their bodies, extracting nutrients as they do so before expelling it through the second hole. He showed us how when approaced, the clams close up to protect themselves, then open again when the danger had passed. We saw another, even bigger, brown clam which when he caused it to close up we could feel the expelled water as it reached us. He showed us lots of different types of coral, explained about the parrot-fish, which have a hardened mouth like a parrot's beak which they use to scrape bits of coral off to eat, and how the clown fish (think Nemo) we saw live in the tentacles of the anemones and extrete a mucus from their skin so they don't get stung like other fish would - and how if they wander too far away from the anemones they would quickly become food for bigger fish. We had passed out of the marked zone quite quickly and soon were over the cliff-edge of the reef, staring down into the deep and up and along the top of the cliff were hundreds of fish of all types and sizes. We saw angel-fish, tall and thin so they can turn quickly and keep close to the contours of the reef, Yellow-tail Fusilier fish with bright blue bodies and luminous yellow tails, and many others I can't remember. It was a truly magical experience, and made all the more special because Tracy was alongside me to enjoy it, and she was loving it!
Eventually we started to make our way back to the pontoon, passing over a scuba-diving photographer who took a couple of photos of us, and then we spotted a large nemo-like fish on the ocean floor. It wasn't real, it was a stuffed Nemo toy that was there for the scuba-divers to pick up and have their photo taken with, but it made both Tracy and I laugh, somthing that is not recommended when snorkeling as we both ended up spluttering and trying to clear the snorkels of water!
Back on the pontoon we thanked Ted for his patience and expertise (there had only been the two of us on the tour, which had made it even more special), handed him back his masks and snorkels and then quickly went and got some replacements from the storage bins on the pontoon. Within five minutes we were back in the water again, this time just the two of us, swimming around the marked-out area together. I gave Tracy my arm to hold onto so we could stay together and we swam out well away from the pontoon and over the reef, once again exploring the coral and watching the fish below. Then one of the lifeguards who was in the water nearby pointed out there was a turtle swimming not far away so off we went in pursuit. At first it was close to the surface, but then we saw it dive deeper and we watched as it started eating the coral. Before long a group scuba-diving appeared to watch and the surface was full of people snorkeling and watching the turtle. It didn't seem bothered, even swimming between the legs of one of the scuba-divers at one stage.
By now we were both getting a little tired from the swimming and the adrenaline, so we made our way back to the pontoon and returned the borrowed gear before a quick shower and change back into normal clothes. We were both ecstatic at what a great trip it had been. We went and had a look at the underwater observatory, but after getting so close to the marine life whilst snorkeling it was an anti-climax. So we made our way back onto the catamaran shortly before they started calling everyone else back on board. Then we were off back to Cairns via Fitzroy Island once more, and we sat at the back outside for the return journey, with smiles fixed on our faces. We bought copies of two of the photos of us snorkeling as a memory of what has been one of the best days of the trip. Simply fantastic.
Once back in Cairns we made our way to the restaurant I had booked a table for us at, called
Tha Fish, which had excellent reviews. Unsurprisingly, given it's name and location, it's a seafood restaurant and we had a great meal. For starters, Tracy had scollaps in the half-shell and I had mussels cooked in a pernot and basil sauce, then for mains we both opted for their speciality - a choice of 5 types of fish cooked in one of 5 different ways. Tracy went for the Red Emperor fish in light batter with sweet potato chips whilst I had the Yellow-tail Kingfish cooked in a spicy asian soup with noodles. Both were excellent.
By the time we had finished eating it was dark, yet still early, but we were both tired and so walked slowly back along the harbourside and into town to the car park where we had left the motorhome. In the park in town there was a huge crowd and a Christmas party in full swing, with people on stage singing Christmas carols (badly!). It was an odd experience, what with it still being very warm!
We drove back to the campsite and pitched up, reconnecting the electric and switching on the air-con to cool the motorhome down again after it had been sat in the sun all day. It wasn't too much later that we made the bed and flopped into it, no doubt both dreaming of swimming amongst the coral and fish...
The original plan for today had us visiting the rainforest cableway in the morning and then attending to some important jobs in the afternoon. That plan was ruined on Saturday evening, when my filling fell out. Now we had to try and arrange for me to see a dentist in Cairns before we hit the road again tomorrow (Tuesday). Had I been back home, the chances of getting a same-day dental appointment at my own dentist would have been remote, but here in Australia we'd been able to arrange a last-minute appointment in Fremantle earlier in the trip, so we were mildly optimisitic. I had compiled a list of 6 dental practices we could try, so we were up and showered and breakfasted early ready for me to get on the phone before 8:15am. As it transpired, the first one I called, Cairns Family and Cosmetic Dental Group, had an available appointment at 9am, so we took that and then rushed about like headless chickens trying to get everything packed away so we could drive there. It was not far away, and we arrived just 20 minutes later. I filled out the inevitable medical questionaire, then within a few minutes was taken back to meet the dentist. She was only a young woman, who first enquired about my trip around Australia and said it was something she'd love to do when she retires
in about 30 years. I replied that I'd
been there, done that! referring to the 30-years I'd spent working in I.T. She then set about examining my teeth and remarked that there was a rather large hole in my tooth where the filling had previously been, but that the tooth itself wasn't too bad. She recommended I have it crowned, but that a new filling was an option and asked if I'd like a quote for each choice. As there wasn't time for me to have a crown, I said no, just continue with the filling. She then numbed my mouth with anaesthetic before asking if I wanted to know the cost (I think this was to numb the shock, but it didn't work). It was going to be around AUD$325, but as I had no real option (and my mouth was already numb), I agreed. She then set about reconstructing my tooth, first building a new base layer before getting me to rinse out (or dribble all over myself as I couldn't control my lips), then adding another layer of filling to complete the repair (and a final rinse/dribble). It took around 30 minutes in total, but by 9:30am by tooth was repaired and I was a bit lighter in the wallet and still very numb of the mouth, which made explaining what had happened to Tracy who was sat patiently waiting for me problematic. It went something like this:
Mmmphhh, crrleean, fffflllliiidddd, driibbbbbbble. This being my third visit to an Australian dentist, I hope it's the last.
Once done with the dentist, and with me still covered in dribble and largely unable to speak, we went in search of a barber so I could get a much-needed haircut. The only one we could find was busy for the next hour, so we left and drove back to the campsite instead. There we attended to some laundry, did a few other chores and waited for my mouth to un-numb. In fact, un-numb was all I could say for another hour, before it did so.
After a light lunch of cup-a-soup (the food of choice for post-dentist lunches), we took the gas bottle out of the motorhome and went for a drive, convinced that earlier we had smelt the slight whiff of bad eggs and so were out to see if we needed to return to Maui. As it happened, there was no smell, so we went to a shopping centre where Tracy could get some stuff for her hair and I visited a barber to get mine cut. Once I'd lost the Grizzly Adams look we drove on to our next stop, the doctor Tracy had made an appointment with. All she wanted was a prescription for her controlled-drug medication that her own doctor said he couldn't prescribe enough of to cover the full 3 months we're away for. It proved simple enough, she saw the doctor, showed him the letter from her own GP and her prescription and he wrote out an Australian prescription. The problem came when she went to pay for the consultation (AUD$60) and her card was rejected. I tried my travel card and that was rejected too, as was my credit card. The problem was obviously their machine, so I walked to a nearby ATM and got out the cash instead. Then we walked to the pharmacy where Tracy had the prescription made up and received 60 days of her medication for the princely sum of AUD$33. So that's AUD$99 (£55) for what in the UK under the NHS would have cost £9. I really hope whichever government we end up with post-election values the NHS as much as we do...
With the worry that she might run out of medication now resolved, we drove back to the campsite in good spirits, stopping at a BWS to stock up on beer and a couple more bottles of white wine. Then back to the campsite where we had decided we would eat at the on-site bistro. With happy hour being from 4:30-5:30 and the time now gone 5pm, we rushed back and quickly parked up, plugged in the electrics so we could get the air-con going, then rushed to the bistro and ordered a couple of cold beers. Mine evaporated within seconds of us sitting down, so I had to go and order another bottle. Not long after I'd sat back down, Tracy had finished hers (she drinks WAY too fast!) so we had to get another couple. By now happy hour was over, but the kind girl behind the bar charged us the same AUD$5 for 2 bottles, so when Tracy went up to place our order for two peperoni pizzas (one with added chilli for me), she ordered another couple of beers. The pizzas were good, and as you've probably gathered by now, so was the beer. Once we'd finished we went back to the motorhome and I poured us a large rum and coke each, which we drank whilst watching Criminal Minds and listening to the rain hammering down outside - it had started whilst we were at the bistro but eased before we walked back before returning with a vengance.
It was still raining when we turned in for the night, the sound of the rain bouncing off the roof lulling us into a deep sleep.
Another day without pictures...
Having changed our plans for yesterday so that I could visit the dentist, our delayed trip to the SkyRail Rainforest was scheduled for this morning. Last night's rain had also continued into the morning, so we packed up in the damp and left the site in the drizzle, heading north around Cairns to the SkyRail car park some 20Km away. Once there, we checked in and despite being early were allowed through to board the SkyRail - a 7.5Km cableway built in 1995 to take visitors over the rainforest. The towers supporting the cableway were lifted into place by helicopter so as to leave the rainforest as untouched as possible. This is quite important as the rainforest is one of the oldest continually surviving tropical rainforests on earth, dating back more than 150-million years. Once upon a time, tropical rainforests covered all of Australia, but due to climatic changes and the drifting of the continents, now only occupy 900,000hectares, about 0.12&percent; of the total land mass. Despite their small size, they are home to over 2,260 vascular plant species (ones that carry water and food to all parts of the plant), as well as over 50 species of frog, tree kangaroos and other unusual wildlife (including s python that eats tree kangaroos and grows to over 7m long!). It became a World Heritage Listed site in 1998, meaning that the Australian government is committed to its protection.
Being a rainforest also means it rains. According to our ranger guide at the first stop on the journey at Red Peak, it hadn't done so for 7 months and he was delighted it was raining now. So were we, despite getting slightly moist, as it gave the rainforest the expected ambience, making it feel like we'd stepped into a different world. Which, compared with the barren desert of central Australia and the hot, humid, sun-bleached coast, we had.
The first part of the journey in the gondola gave us views out over to the Coral Sea, but through the rain-soaked windows photos were not possible. Underneath us the forest began with the typical assortment of eucalyptus trees with the ground coveed with fern-like Cycads, indicating the area had been subjected to a fire in th epast. This changed as we gained height into vine-clad rainforests (vines growing due to the wind disturbance on the exposed hillside), with some introduced Caribbean Pine Trees that had been planted to control erosion when the road into the forest was constructed. Just before Red Peak Station the forest thickened and the trees grew taller with a continuous canopy of light and dark green leaves. The trees themselves were covered in epiphytes - organisms that grow on the surface of another plant and derive their moisture and nutrients from the air and rain, such as moss and ferns. At Red Peak Station we disembarked, picked up one of the provided umbrellas and joined Tim the ranger for a free tour along the boardwalk that looped around for 175m. He first explained what a tropical rainforest is - it's one that receives at least 1.3 metres of rain per annum (to put that into perspective, Manchester receives less than 1m). He then explained that it was a
race for light amongst the vegetation that grows there, as all the plants need sunlight to survive, but only 1&percent; of the sunlight hitting the canopy reaches ground level. Which means the plants need to grow tall, and quickly, or develop other strategies to survive. Right next to the boardwalk where he was stood explaining this was an excellent example of such a strategy, a Strangler Fig tree, that was growing upside down attached to another tree. He explained that in order to get sunlight for the seeds to germinate, they would attract birds to eat their fruit, and they would then excrete the seeds (together with a small amount of
fertliser) high in the trees. The seeds would then begin to grow, attaching themselves to the main tree and sending out their roots downwards, eventually reaching the forest floor. They would gradually strangle the main tree, killing it, hence their name. The one next to the boardwalk could clearly be seen doing this, having sent out a branch sideways to attach to another trunk before working its way downwards.
The ranger took us around the boardwalk to a huge tall tree, a Kauri Pine, that is over 400 years old and a sign that the rainforest is healthy. These breakthrough trees, as they are known because they break-through the canopy, take a long time to grown as tall as they need to be and so show the continuous nature of the forest. It was very tall indeed! He also explained how the ferns grow up from the bottom, quickly sending out tendril-like shoots with reverse-facing barbs on the underside to attach to taller trees. They then sprout ferns and build strength before continuing their relentless climb upwards into more light. They don't have a firm trunk, their stem being hollow to help carry moisture and nutrients around the plant. Other types of ferns we saw include the basket fern, which looked at first like a prehistoric bird's nest, high in the trees, but with fern leaves (fronds) growing out of it. These are often the starting point for a strangler fig as birds like nesting in them. He then told us about the Tree Kangaroo, a species of kangaroo that lives in trees. Really. It looks more like a monkey than a kangaroo (according to the pictures we saw, they are very shy and we didn't see a live one), but have adapted to life in the trees, where they try to stay away from the huge amethystine python (or scrub python as they are sometimes called). Pity we didn't see either (although Tracy said she was glad she didn't see the snake!).
We thanked ranger Tim for his tour and boarded another gondola to continue our journey up the cableway. The next section took us over more lush rainforest, where the trees were very tall and tightly packed. We saw a couple of cockatoos, their bright white plumage standing out against the dark green of the canopy. We peered deeply into the rainforest, hoping to see a tree kangaroo, whilst the gondola took us gently over the rainforest, just a couple of metres above the canopy. Just before we reached the next stop, Barron Falls Station, we got a fantastic view of the gorge and the waterfall that runs down the rocks at the head of the gorge. Once disembarked at the station, we walked around another boardwalk, and out onto a glass section (don't look down!), where we had a spectacular view down the valley carved out of the rocky mountainside by millions of gallons of water of millions of years. There's now a hydro-electric power station, built in 1963, that has slowed the flow of water somewhat, leaving most of the gorge dry. We took a walk around the boardwalk and then into the interpretive centre where we learned a little more about the rainforest and its history, before joining the gondola for the final section up to the village of Kuranda.
Kuranda is high in the rainforest and the starting point for a superb train journey deep into the forest, only when we booked our trip we discovered the train wasn't running due to maintenance. The final leg of the journey took us over the Barron river, where we peered at the riverbank, eagerly searching for crocodiles. We didn't see any. At the end of the line we walked through the gift shop and towards the village, stopping at the pub/café for a brew and a beef burrito, which we shared, for lunch. Then it was back to the gondola for the return journey back down to the start. By now it had stopped raining and the sun was trying to come out, so we got a bit of a view out over the Coral Sea to the Great Barrier Reef just visible below the bright blue sea.
We bought an ice-cream before returning to the motorhome, the heat and humidity returning making it a necessity. Then we joined the highway south and headed back to Cairns. From there we continued south on the Bruce Highway to our next destination, Mission Beach. We had intended to have a day off here tomorrow to go jet-skiing out to Dunk Island, but as we drove the weather deteriorated and the wind picked up. By the time we turned off the highway onto the road to Mission Beach the rain had eased, but one look at the sea told us it was unlikely we'd be heading out tomorrow - it was very choppy indeed!
We had booked the Dunk Island View campsite for two nights and as we were arriving after 3pm had arranged for a late checkin. We retrieved the envelope with my name on it and the site map inside, and whilst we were reading it the owner appeared to welcome us anyway. The site was quiet and we had a lovely secluded spot in amongst the palm trees and with some shade. Tracy cooked the pasta parcels and napoli sauce we'd bought earlier that day and we were both disappointed with it, the quality of the pasta being particularly poor. After dinner we watched the end of season 9 of Criminal Minds (good job we brought season 10 DVDs out with us as well!) before turning in for the night, the rain still falling, albeit more gently.
With our hopes of jet-skiing dashed by the weather and the sea conditions, we were in no hurry to get up and do anything, the idea of another
day off appealing to us both. It was also still raining a little, so we had a slow start to the day, before getting out the maps and guidebooks to do some planning. We hadn't got a plan from here, except that we have booked our stay at Byron Bay for Christmas and are due to arrive there on the 21st. We have a Lonely Planet guide to the best Australian Road Trips, which we've referred to many times before, and that has a route from Cairns to Brisbane (via Mission Beach), so that formed the start point for our plans. We mapped out the route, worked out what we wanted to see and do on the way down, then sorted out how it would best fit in the time available and set about booking some campsites and tours. More will be revealed as our plans unfold, but needless to say that once we'd finished it was lunchtime and we were hungry. So we had some snacks for lunch and then set about relaxing for the rest of the day. I started a new book, one that was recommended to me by someone but I can't recall who, the first DI Nick Dixon book
As the Crow Flies. I read it that afternoon and early evening and was rather disappointed, the plot being very thin and the ending most unsatisfactory. But each to his/her own. As the rain had now stopped we went for a short walk down to the beach to have a look out to Dunk Island and a paddle, before returning hungry and ready for dinner. We had dinner outside, a chicken curry with cauliflower rice. We ate and drank our wine outside as the sun set and the stars came out. It was a lovely evening and a fine end to a nice, relaxing, day.
Waking to the gentle sound of rain - more like drizzle - was not a bad way to start the day, as it meant I could stay relatively fresh after my shower and breakfast as we stood in the heat whilst the waste water tank slowly drained into the campsite's dump point. Once we'd emptied the motorhome of the bad things and filled up with the good (fresh water) we hit the road once more, Tracy using the post-box at the entrance to the campsite to send her latest batch of postcards. We drove out of the Mission Beach area to the main Bruce Highway, passing a number of
Beware of Cassowary signs, which had images that looked more like turkeys than these strange, almost pre-historic, birds. The Cassowary is Australia's heaviest flightless bird (the emu is a little taller) and the oddest-looking. We saw them way back at the Wildlife centre in Parndana on Kangaroo Island - they are large with black bodies and bright blue necks with a dangling throat like a turkey and a boney crest on top of their heads. They also have velociraptor-like claws on their feet which they will use to rip open humans if they feel threatened. They are listed by the Guinness Book of World Records as the World's Most Deadly Bird. In April 2019 a man in Florida was killed by his pet Cassowary. Thankfully, we didn't see any.
Bakc on the Bruce Highway, we continued our way south, passing through the Girringun National Park forest and through Cardwell and Ingham before emerging in the rain into flat farmland. Here the farms were more plantations - banana plantations - with banana trees as far as the eye can see. The bananas themselves were not visible, just brightly-coloured plastic bags where they would be hanging, there to protect the precious fruit from disease and insects. We had planned to stay at a free-camping site called Saunders Beach, which is right on the coral coast, and left the main road to check it out. It was a small area, with one large trailer taking up most of the available space, inconsiderately parked sideways across several parking spaces. The toilets were not exactly clean (i.e. dirty) and the site was not very appealing. As we had to go into Townsville to visit the supermarket anyway, we drove off and discussed options whilst driving. With the temperature above 35 degrees we reasoned that having the air-conditioning available would be a good thing and so started to look at campsites in Townsville itself. But first we visited Woolworths and stocked up on some very nice looking thick steaks and salad stuff for dinner, as well as visiting the BWS next door for a couple of bottles of Reisling and a bottle of Bundaberg 6-year old spiced rum. Well, the Captain Morgan was running out, and we plan to visit the Bundaberg distillery when we pass by the town in a few days' time.
Our campsite research suggested Rowes Bay campsite would be the best, as this would qualify for the 10&percent; discount we get for having a Maui motorhome, and was also well situated. We drove there and booked ourselves a powered site, then tried to enter the code for the barrier-gate to enter the park. The code didn't work, so we had to wait a while before the receptionist came out and let us in. Then we drove around the site to our alloted pitch, only to discover there was already a motorhome in it. So we drove back to the entrance and I went to find the receptionist again, who apologised profusely, saying that it shouldn't have happened and the system said that pitch was empty. She found us another pitch, a bigger and better one with some shade, that she said she was surprised was still available as it's usually the first to go. Then we drove back around the site to the new pitch, parked up and connected the electric to get the air-con working. I then went and had a quick shower to cool off, and then Tracy read whislt I updated the blog and read a little myself. Before dinner we changed and went for a dip in the swimming pool, which was lovely and warm yet much cooler than we were, then back for another shower before preparing dinner. I cooked the steaks with some onions and mushrooms on the BBQ whilst Tracy prepared the salad and we ate outside as the sun set, washing down the overcooked steaks (yes, I ruined them!) with a bottle of red wine. Once we'd eaten as much as we could, we escaped the biting insects and sat in the wonderfully cool motorhome whilst we played a few games of pass-the-pigs (which brought the overall championship level) before watching some Criminal Minds and eating some carrot cake. Such indulgences will have to stop when this trip does, or we'll both be in serious trouble with our weight!
Friday the 13th. As we're 10 hours ahead of the U.K. it at least meant we could wake up and start the day without the results of the U.K. Election ruining it. Back home, the polls were still open as we ate our breakfast and prepared to set about the day. Our first port of call was Townsville itself, where we hoped to find a shop where Tracy could get some swimming shorts as she'd inadvertently left hers at home and we were heading towards Airlie Beach where we would be staying for two nights. We found a large Target store and had her sorted out in a very short time, so it was still quite early when we hit the Bruce Highway once more, heading south-east down the coast.
The banana plantations of yesterday rapidly gave way to fields of sugar cane, with lots of railway lines running between them and crossing the road. Just outside Ayr we turned off the main road to visit one of the few marked points-of-interest, an old WW2 Radar Station called Charlie's Hill. This was a small rocky hill rising above the flat sugar-cane fields, accessed via a narrow and bumpy dirt road, atop which once sat a WW2 Radar Station. Now all that remains are two reinforced concrete bomb-proof
igloos that once housed the radar equipment and a few concrete plinths on which the radar structures once stood. It wasn't very impressive, but did at least help us break up the journey.
The rest of the 275km drive was as uneventful as many on this trip, although with the election results coming in as we drove, the conversation veered once again to the subject of politics and what a mess the UK has become since the 2016 EU referendum. We kept trying to drag the conversation away from the election, but kept returning to it as more results came in. By the time we reached the turn-off for Airlie Beach it was clear what the overall result was, so at least we could stop following it and get back to enjoying ourselves. Airlie Beach is a small resort town on the coast, catering for travellers and backpackers visiting the nearby Whitsunday Islands. We had chosen to stay in a powered en-suite site at the Discovery Parks just outside town, where once again we could have our own little shed with a toilet and shower in. On arrival we checked in and pitched up, a little disappointed to discover a large trailer tent and family pitched on the site next to ours, but very close and directly in front of the en-suite ameneties, which reduced the feeling of privacy that was one of the main reasons for booking a pitch with them. Once settled we had a drink and read a while before I cooked us another chicken curry and rice, which as there was some shade next to the motorhome, we ate outside. We then sat in the fading light, chatting and enjoying a bottle of wine, glad that for once it wasn't stiflingly humid. What we didn't notice was all the midges and mosquitoes that were busy puncturing our ankles and lower legs, something that only became apparent some time later when we both noticed lots of icthy red marks. As soon as we'd started scratching we knew it was time to head inside and cover ourselves in bite releif cream before turning in for the night.
One of the main reasons for us staying two nigths at Airlie Beach was so that we could go on a sea-kayaking tour. This is something we had done in New Zealand and we loved the peace and tranquility of bobbing about on the ocean in a kayak, so we booked a half-day tour with Salty Dog Kayaks. We were therefore up early and had a light breakfast before walking out of the campsite carrying a change of clothes and our towels, and waited at the bus-stop to be picked up at 8:30am ready for the tour. When the minibus arrived it had 5 other people in it, a couple from Argentia, a woman from Canada, a woman from Melbourne and a Chinese student studying in Brisbane. We joined them for the short drive out to Shute Harbour, where we were introduced to our guides, a guy from England called Henry who had been living in Australia for a year and was due to head home in a few days, and an Aussie called Lucky (or Lukey). They explained how the trip worked and gave us our spray-decks and life-vests and we got kitted up and then had a practice with the oars on land and a final safety briefing before we went to our kayaks. Sea Kayaks are long and have room for two people with a small compartment in between for storage - this isn't guaranteed to be waterproof so we left our towels and change of clothes in the office and just took our water and suncream with us. Tracy took the front seat so I could provide the propultion and attend to the steering using the small rudder that's controlled by foot pedals. We got in the kayak, got comfy and then had to get out again so we could put it closer to the water. Once back inside we were pushed out onto the water and paddled away to a holding area to wait for the rest of the group to join us.
Once we were all in the water we set off across the harbour bay and out to Repair Island, where we headed for the mangrove trees that were growing along the shore and in the water. Henry explained about how these trees absorb the salty sea water and then pass the salt to sacrificial leaves, which turn yellow before dying and falling off, allowing the tree to survive in a salty environment where others wouldn't. We then paddled through a channel between the trees looking for fish (we didn't see any) and enjoying the sense of calm. Once out of the channel we continued around the island before heading out into the open sea once more, this time heading for Tancred Island, where we turned left and skirted the coast before heading out to the right of Shute Island. On the way there I saw a turtle bobbing along at the surface, but before I could draw Tray's attention to it, it dived under and disappeared. Once we reached Shute Island we again skirted the coast, passing between some rocks and heading out further into the now slightly choppy sea towards a small island called White Rock. This was to be our stopping point, and as we reached it we acclerated and drove the kayak onto the beach before clambering out and lifting it higher up the steep shore-line. The beach wasn't sandy, but dead coral, with some large pieces and we were glad we'd bought ourselves some beach shoes to wear. Once everyone was safely on the shore, we were offered the chance to go swimming and snorkeling, but first had to don some stinger suits in case there were any jellyfish about. These waters are home to several species of jellyfish, including the deadly box jellyfish, a sting from which can prove fatal. Even though we hadn't seen any, we weren't going to take any unnecessary risks, so gladly took a lycra stinger suit each to put on. Or try to. These suits were skin tight and extremely difficult to squeeze into, and we looked less like Ninja Warriors (as Henry had promised us) and more like a pair of tights filled with rubber balls. Still, at least we'd frighten the jellyfish away...
We both had a little swim and snorkel about, staying fairly close to the island, as the sea-bed dropped off dramatically only a few feet from shore. There wasn't much to see, just a couple of small fish and lots of dead coral on the sea floor, but the water was warm and now I've got the hang of snorkeling again, great fun. Once we'd had enough swimming we returned to the shore and tried to get the stinger suites off. This proved even harder than putting them on, and was very much a two-person job. We realised this after I'd watched Tracy jumping around trying to get her shoulders out of the suit, only to fail, despite doing a very passable impression of an albertross caught in a fishing net. Once we'd extricated ourselves from the suits, we had a snack of cheese and crackers and a carton of juice before it was time to get back into the kayaks for the return journey. We headed straight back to the harbour sticking to the left of the three islands we'd skirted on the way out, before arriving back at base. We didn't see any more turtles on the way back, but did catch glimpses of some fish jumping out of the water. They were only visible for such a short time that we couldn't identify them, though.
Back at base we gathered our belongings before being driven back to town and dropped off ourside the campsite, where we both grabbed a shower and change of clothes. We then sat, exhausted but satisfied, and read for the rest of the day, just enjoying the peace and quiet. For dinner we had a tuna salad, as that meant we didn't have to go out shopping, then played some pass-the-pigs (Tracy drawing level on the overall championship) and watched a DVD before bed.
After the excitement of yesterday's kayak trip, we continued our journey down the Capricorn Coast as we continue south. First we had to attend to the usual chores of emptying the motorhome of bad stuff (waste water and toilet) and filling full of good stuff (fresh water and diesel) before rejoining the Bruce Highway once more. We drove for about 1.5 hours before turning off into the city of Mackay, which the guide book suggested was worth a look for its art-deco architecture. The city had largely been whiped out in 1918 following a cyclone and rebuilt in the style of the day. Now it's a large, sprawling, city that lacks charm (at least as far as I'm concerned), with one street that has the Town Hall and a couple of other interesing buildings and not a lot else. We stopped for a photo of the Town Hall and then continued on to the marina, which promised to be more interesting. Having parked up, we walked along the pathway at the side of the marina, enjoying the chance to stretch our legs in the sunshine, before returning via café where we stopped for a brew and a slice of cake (well, it was almost lunchtime!).
As we left Mackay we stopped at a Woolies for supplies, before rejoining the Bruce Highway once more. Our route continued south along the coast, although it kept moving inland so we didn't have a constant view of the ocean, just more eucalyptus trees and fields of sugar cane. With the cruise control once again set, the kilometers rolled by as we tried to find ways to entertain ourselves. We saw a road sign that said
Fatigue Zone: Tivia Games Help You Stay Alert, followed by one that said
What's the Highest Mountain in Queensland?, which we got wrong (we thought it was Bellenden, which is the range that Bartle Frere, the highest, belongs to). This gave us an idea, so Tracy found an online quiz and started asking me lots of trivia questions. I was chuffed to get 95 out of 100, especially as I was trying to concentrate on the roads and also look for Koala bears in the eucalyptus trees (I didn't see any). The kilometers simply rolled by. Slowly. But at least now we've completed the main road-trip part of our route the driving distances are lower and when we'd done just over 300Km we stopped at a roadside rest area for a drink and a snack to break the journey up. We had originally intended to stop here for the night - Waverley Plains Rest Area - but I discovered a town called Caves where there was a campsite attached to a cave attraction that sounded more interesting. Once we'd had a break we got back on the road for the final hour or so before turning off the Bruce and into The Caves (as the town is called), then on a single track road to Capricorn Caves, where we booked ourselves into a powered site (we were the first to arrive so had the whole site to ourselves) and also onto the caves tour the following morning. Once pitched up we cooked dinner (cumberland sausages with salad) as another two motorhomes arrived with what looked like mum, dad and two-kids in one and grandma in the other. With us running out of clean underwear we made the decision to do some washing, using the tumble driers to ensure at least our underwear was dry and leaving the t-shirts etc on the line overnight. It wasn't long before we were making the bed and turning in for the night, both fairly tired after another long, hot, day.
I was woken early by the sun streaming through a gap in the curtains, bathing me in sunlight as Tracy slept on beside me. I got up and went to the ameneties block for a shower, Tracy getting up as I did so, then back at the motorhome over breakfast we worked out that there would be sufficient time to wash the sheets and towels and for them to dry on the line whilst we went on the cave tour, so whilst Tracy attended to that I cleaned up the breakfast pots. We then walked the short distance to reception to join the others waiting for the tour. Amongst them was the grandma from the campsite, the mom-dad-and-two-kids having already left. Called Sarah, she's from England and travelling around Australia and New Zealand for 3 months, meeting up with her family from time to time as they've jacked their jobs in, rented their house out and gone travelling for 9 months.
Our guide then arrived, with a very impressive beard, and proceeded to tell us about the caves. They are above-ground limestone caves, discovered in 1881 by Norwegian John Olsen, who attained a lease on the land and opened them publically in 1884. They were first used to mine bat-droppings which was used as a fertilizer, until tourism took over and the mining stopped. At the entrance to the cave is a rain-forest, albeit one that's very dry due to the lack of rain. It's kept alive by the limestone rocks pulling water up from the watertable below ground and therefore only exists close to the limestone ridge through which the cave system runs. As we stood at the entrance we saw a mother and joey rock-wallaby sat on the rock opposite, the mother quickly hopping away leaving the joey sat there motionless. He was about 6inches tall and sat there watching us watching him for a while before hopping off himself.
We then entered the cave system, where we could see some small stalactites dropping down from the ceiling and some waterfall deposits running down the rocks. We climbed up a ladder and down another into another part of the cave system, before passing through a narrow channel and entering a large cave where there was hole in the ceiling that let a shaft of light illuminate one spot on the ground. As we're above the Tropic of Capricorn, at close to mid-day the sun is directly overhead, making this a special place to stand. We worked our way through the caves to the Cathedral, a part of the cave used to conduct weddings and where there were pews laid out before a rock pulpit. We sat down and our guide then started playing some music - Hallelujah - whilst gradually turning off all the lights. When all the lights were off it was pitched black, so dark it was impossible to see your hand in front of your face, but with the perfect acoustics and music playing it was quite beautiful. The lights slowly returned, first with a red light high above in one of the alcoves, then with fake candles spread out in niches along the walls. As the music faded away, we just sat there, totally relaxed. A very moving experience.
We then made our way through the zig-zag passage, a very tight and twisty passage that started with a section where there was barely enough room for me when I was crouched down. Fortunately the passage was well lit and didn't last that long, so I was able to keep my claustropohobia in check. After that were two suspension bridges that wobbled and bounced as we walked across, something I knew that Tracy would hate, so I naturally tried my best not to bounce then as I took her photo...
Once out of the cave we bid farewell to our excellent guide, had a chat with Sarah about her travels and then bought a magent from the gift shop before returning to the motorhome and packing up. It was therefore around 10:30am before we rejoined the Bruce Highway, once again heading south. We arrived at Rocky (Rockhampton) a short time later where we filled up with diesel and popped into a BWS to buy a case of beer, before continuing on with the journey. It wasn't a long drive by any means, but by the time we reached Miriam Vale where we would turn off to Agnes Water, I was feeling very tired. We stopped at a roadside diner for a brew and a pie, but my energy levels were still very low as we drove through the picturesque seaside town of Agnes Water and along the coast to our destination, the town of 1770. Yes, the twon doesn't have a name, just a number. 1770. The town is built on the site of the second landing in Australia by James Cook and the crew of HM Bark Endeavour in May 1770, and named by him as just 1770. The campsite, imaginatively called the 1770 Campground, is right alongside the beach and according to the Lonely Planet the best campsite on the east coast. I doubt that, judging by how full and cramped it was as we checked in and made our way to the sandy grass area where we pitched up, a good 3 rows of caravans and trailers from the beach. But we have power and are here for two nights, so we can relax by the beach tomorrow (and I can write up the blog), so it's not all bad. The sun was hot and there was little shade, but Tracy found some behind the van and we sat there whilst having a beer. I was so tired that I went inside for a snooze, falling asleep for half an hour before waking almost as tired as before I slept. We had dinner of Jamie Oliver's garlic, rosemary and chilly chicken fillets with salad (Jamie Oliver's prepared foods appear everywhere in Woolies, the cumberland sausages were also attributed to him). Washed down with another bottle of Reisling they were actually rather good. Before the bugs could come out and devour us we retired inside where we played another round of pass-the-pigs, where I regained the overall lead in the championship from Tracy who had managed to get ahead the previous night. We then had a FaceTime conversation with Tracy's parents before watching an episode of Criminal Minds and turning in for the night.
With another rest day ahead, we woke, showered and breakfasted in a lazy manner, not in any hurry to do anything. We were both feeling a little travel-weary, and in need of another day of doing very little. Which is more or less exactly what we did, sitting intermittently in the sunshine outside the motorhome or in the air-conditioned cool inside it. We both read our books, after I'd sorted out a campsite for the Thursday and Friday nights near Brisbane, and arranged a treat for Friday (all will be revealed after it's happened!).
Later in the afternoon we got changed into our swimming gear and went for a laze about in the sea, then showered and read some more before going to the on-site bistro at 6pm and ordering a takeaway peperoni pizza each. Whilst we waited we got bitten by insects, so as soon as the pizzas were ready we rushed back to the relative safety of the motorhome and ate them with a cool beer. Then back to the books. Not a very exciting day, but down-time is really important on a long trip and we both felt we needed it.
I woke in the middle of the night to what sounded like a pick-up crunching over the gravel outside, but when the sound got louder and the whole motorhome lit up, I knew what it was. It was pouring with rain and lightning and thundering. I woke Tracy as I know she likes a good storm, and we opened the curtains to see the whole sky illuminated, then waited counting seconds for the huge crash of thunder that followed. The rain was bouncing down on the roof of the motorhome, but it wasn't to last. After about half an hour the storm abated and the rain petered out to a drizzle, and we went back to sleep. In the morning there were just a few spots of rain falling and most of the rain that had fallen during the night had dried up already. It was still overcast, but warm, as we went for our morning shower at the amenitites block some 50m away. Not long after I returned, so did the rain, just as Tracy was leaving the block herself, giving her an unwanted second shower of the day.
After breakfast we packed up and left the site, driving round the coast and back through Agnes Water before stopping at the council dump site to rid the van of unpleasant waste fluids (by now, you know the score). Then we took highway 16 heading towards Bundaberg and our first stop. Not long after the turn-off for Miriam Vale we saw a roadsign that indicates the open/closed nature of the roads and for once one of them was marked with red LEDs reading
CLOSED. This was the road to Rosedale, so I handed Tracy the map so she could see if that would affect us. Despite the map being quite detailed, Rosedale didn't feature anywhere, except the name of the road we were taking, so we decided to try our luck anyway. A little while later, the GPS tried to route me off onto a side-road to the right, which looked wrong, so I stopped to check and the GPS had picked up that the road ahead - the Rosedale Road - was closed. The road to the right was a detour around the closure, so we took it. Some time later we came across a fire truck blocking the turn off we wanted to take us back to the main road (16), and the guys were waving us on along the road we were on. Then we hit another roadblock and had to turn round and head back the way we'd come. We pulled over so I could look at the map to try and find a way around and a friendly fireman approached. We told him we were trying to get to Bundaberg and he asked if we'd come from the north. When we said we had, he said we'd have to go back and continue on to Miriam Vale, then take the main highway, as they were busy back-lighting fires to prevent the spread of bushfires in the area. We'd seen a lot of smoke and some smouldering at the roadside and were not keen to get caught in anything worse, so we did as instructed. We then found ourselves on a long stretch of dirt road, which didn't look like the road we'd come down, so once again stopped and consulted the map and the GPS map. We turned round and headed back to the junction we'd arrived at following the initial detour, only to find that was now also closed by a fire truck. We now had to return and take the dirt road once more, this time all the way to Miriam Vale. It was in good condition and not too rutted, and passed through more eucalytpus forests and past a couple of farms before eventually bringing us back out on the road we'd been on the previous day, some 10Km from Miriam Vale and the Bruce Highway.
By now the detour had cost us over 1.5 hours and we knew we were not going to make the 11am start time for our tour of the Bundaberg Rum Distillery, so Tracy rang them and moved the time of our tour to 1pm. The we settled down for yet another stint on the Bruce Highway, watching the distant forest for signs of bushfires, which thankfully we didn't see. Around mid-day we arrived on the outskirts of Bundaberg and went straight to the local shopping centre where I'd located a Pandora shop so I could buy Tracy's Christmas present (again, all will be revealed in time!). With that secured we went in search of the food court to grab a bite to eat, but with time pressing on we settled for a pie and sausage roll, thinking that as they were already on display in the baker's window, they'd be ready to go. Only they needed heating up, which took about 15 minutes, meaning we were now getting close to missing the 1pm tour. Rushing back to the motorhome and driving the 8Km from the shopping centre to the distillery using all my progress-making skills, we managed to get there by 12:45pm, just in time for me to scoff the very hot pie before we joined the tour.
Now before we go any further, we should declare a few things. Firstly, we both like rum. Secondly, we bought a bottle of Bundaberg 6-year old rum a while back and neither of us care for the taste - it's just too spicy and tastes of cloves and nutmeg. Thirdly, we've never visited a rum distillery before, so were keen to see a real working one up close, even if it was making a rum we don't like.
The tour started in the distillery's museum, where there were boards explaining the history of the distillery and the importance of rum in Australia. It had some interesting facts, including that the Endeavour, Captain Cook's ship from his 1770 expedition had about 1,600 gallons of rum on board - a clear sign of the importance of rum to the British Navy and by extension, the Empire. The First Fleet was also very ill-equipped to deal with establishing colonies, as I've reported before, with few farmers on board despite carrying lots of crop seeds. The result was recorded by a doctor who visited the colony in 1802 and wrote
It was lamentable to behold the excess to which drunkenness was carried. It was no uncommon experience for men to sit around a bucket of spirits and drink it with quart pots until they were unable to stir from the spot.. This quote was proudly displayed in the museum, as was the story of the
Rum Corps as the soldiers who controlled the importation of rum to Australia were known, and the story of the
Rum Rebellion that followed when attempts were made by non-other than Captain Bligh (of mutiny on the Bounty fame) to get things under control. The net effect of all this appears to be a love affair with rum that necessitated the Australians distilling their own. This finally came about in 1888 after the mass production of sugar cane which started in the Bundaberg area in 1862 had produced an excess of molasses, one of the main ingredients. With too much molasses kicking about, some enterprising townsfolk proposed opening a distillery to make local rum, to which everyone agreed, and the rest is history. The Bundaberg Rum Distillery has been making rum ever since, albeit with two breaks (from 1907-1914 and 1936-1939) when the distillery caught fire.
Our guides for the tour were Shaz and Crystal, the former being the loadest, brashest young woman I think I've ever met. Pure Australian, for sure. She didn't need a microphone to be heard, but could have spoken a little slower so we could have understood her. She was entertaining, though, as she showed our small group around, with Crystal taking her turn in a more subdued way. We were not allowed anything battery-powered during the tour, in case it sparked a fire, so sadly that meant leaving my camera and phone behind, so there are no photos. I'll try to draw a picture with words instead. The whole site is huge, covering a very large area, and resembles and old chemical plant, which I guess is what it is. There were lots of buildings and pipes running everywhere, most looking murky and dirty. The air was filled with a sweet, sickly smell, of burnt sugar. Our first stop was one of the three massive molasses
wells, which are really large storage buildings about the size of a large swimming pool and filled with murky brown liquid - at the time of our visit it was over 3m deep. We walked tthrough the building on a walkway looking down at what looked like a pile of poo but smelt like someone was burning treacle. As we emerged at the other end we were given a stick onto which a small dollop of molasses was put for us to taste. It was as bad as it smelt, sickly sweet and with a liquourice aftertaste that wasn't as pleasant as it sounds. From the molasses wells we walked into the fermentation and distillation building, where Crystal explained the process for turning the gloopy molasses into rum. First, the molasses is purified before water and a special, unique, strain of yeast are added and then the whole lot is left to ferment, reaching an alcohol level of around 7&percent;. Of interest was the unique yeast, which is cultivated in Norwich, England, and then grown on-site with 1 litre of initial yeast mixture growing to 4,000 litres in just 2 days. Once the fermented liquid is ready it is transferred to the distillation tanks, which rise 4 stories high, and the liquid heated using steam, the vapour being captured and condensed at an alcohol level of 65&percent;. It then undergoes a further distillation to reach 78&percent; alcohol, after which it is blended and watered down to make the final product.
We were then introduced to the Bundaberg rum range. The original blend or base rum is an Australian favourite, with 96&percent; of production being consumed in its home country (3&percent; is consumed in New Zealand, the rest by Australians on holiday elsewhere in the world). Shaz openly admitted that it's like Vegemite, so strong in taste only an Aussie could love it. She then went on to explain that they were trying to expand into other markets and recognised the need to develop a rum that didn't taste quite so
unique, to which their other rums were aimed. As we were going to get a tasting shortly, we certainly hoped so.
At the end of the tour, we went to the bar for our free tasting. First we had to work out which was the rum we'd already bought (and didn't like) so we could avoid it and try something else. Tracy settled on the Blender's Edition Spiced Rum, which she immediately declared was
much better! even going as far as to drink it neat (with ice, no coke). I tried the Black, as we really like the Captain Morgan Black and our favourite rum, the Kraken, is a black rum. It was good, but not as good as either of those. With Tracy now convinced that Bundaberg are capable of making a drinkable rum, she opted to try their
Classic Spiced a cheaper version of the Blenders Spiced, and after tasting it neat opted for some coke as it wasn't as smooth as the Blenders version. With coke she declared it very pleasant, a slight glaze forming in her eyes. As I was still driving I made my second choice one of their lower-alcohol content liquers, the Chocolate and Banana (not my first choice, as they also make a Coffee and Chocolate as well as a Salted Caramel liquer, but this was the only one we both might like). It was good and Tracy liked it too. So we then bought a bottle of the Classic Spiced and the Chocolate and Banana Liquer, which meant we could get a second bottle of Classic Spiced for just AUD$20 (less than half price), so we did.
We then left the distillery and I tried to concentrate on driving despite the taste of rum in my mouth. It's worth noting that Australia's drink-drive limit is 0.5 whereas the UK is 0.8 and we were told by the bar staff (and I've seen reported on official websites) that means 2 standard drink in the first hour for a man (with one standard drink per hour thereafter) - for women it's just 1 standard drink in the first hour then the same each hour after. As I'd had less then 2 standard drinks I should be fine. But back home I'd not drink anything before driving or riding, so was extra vigilent just in case.
Leaving Bundaberg we headed down the 57 to Maryborough as we wanted to see a particular statue in the centre of the town. It's a small statue of Mary Poppins. Pamela Lyndon Travers, the author who created her, was born here on 9th August 1899, and the town is rather proud of the fact. It also has some very interesting old buildings and an atmosphere that suggests that the whole town would like to turn the clock back to the early 1900s. We stopped for some photos, but with time not getting on, didn't stay too long.
A short distance outside Maryborough we turned off towards the coast and the little town of Poona. Here we'd booked ourselves into a family run campsite called the Poona Palms Caravan Park, which is situated right on the coast looking out to Fraser Island. It was cloudy and overcast when we arrived, and with the sun already low in the sky, meaning that the views were not very spectacular. We pitched up and set about making dinner - a chicken curry and rice - which we ate as the last of the daylight faded. We then read some more before turning in for an early night, the end of another enjoyable but tiring day (and no, we didn't open our new rum bottles!).
When we woke it was once again sunny with a few lingering clouds, but the long view over to Fraser Island was hazy. We got up and showered, and I noticed a rather odd machine outside the amenitites block. It looked like a small car-wash machine with a shelf at the side behind a glass door. It was an automatic dog-wash machine! A Tru-Blue K9000 compact, no less, and the idea is that you put your dog on the shelf and close the door, then use the various programs to Shampoo, Rinse, Condition Rinse, and Blow-Dry (Hi-Lo) your dog before using the final Rinse Tub program to rinse the tub when you've finished. I had noticed that the car washes here are also
Dog Wash places, but thought that was just some sort of Aussie joke - apparently not. The campsite is dog-friendly as it has a fenced off area with some agility obstacles specifically for exercising dogs, so it shouldn't be too surprising to find a dog-wash machine, although I don't recall ever seeing one in the UK.
After breakfast, Tracy and I took a walk down to the beach to try and get a better view of Fraser Island, the world's largest sand island and the only place on earth where a rainforest grows out of sand. However it was still a little hazy so we only had a long-distance view and couldn't make out any of its features. On the beach, however, was another interesting sight - evidence of Sand Bubbler Crabs. These are small crabs that live on sandy beaches in the tropics - even though we are no longer in the tropics having crossed south of the Tropic of Capricorn a couple of days ago. They feed by filtering sand through their mouthparts, leaving behind balls of sand that are disintegrated by the incoming high tide. All over the beach were these little sand balls and the occasional small hole into which the crabs had retreated when we started walking along the beach.
We returned to the motorhome and finished packing before driving out of Poona and down the coast road towards Tin Can Bay, before heading inland towards Gympie. After a short stretch on the Bruce Highway we turned off onto the minor roads again heading for the Sunshine Coast and the town of Noosa Heads. This town is one of Australia's more upmarket seaside towns, with a nice high street featuring expensive shops and lovely cafés and lots of posh-looking seaside apartment blocks. We stopped here for a walk down the high street and then a brew and coffee cake in one of the cafés before buying some fresh salad ingredients from the veg shop and then some fresh prawns from the seafood shop. Oh, and a couple of bottles of wine from the liquor store to replenish or dimished stocks. Back at the motorhome we worked out a route that would take us down the Sunshine Coast and off we went. The drive along the coast gave us some great views of the South Pacific Ocean and the sandy beaches, and we passed through a couple of nice looking tourist towns - Peregian Beach and Coolum Beach - before reaching the town of Mudjimba where the road headed inland once more. Back on the highway again we continued south before turning off again, this time heading inland towards Beerwah and on into the Glasshouse Mountains National Park.
Here we stopped at the Visitors' Centre where a very nice old lady greeted us as we walked through the door seeking information on how best to see the mountains. She explained that there was a viewpoint just off the road where it was possible to see all 14 Glasshouse Mountains, so that's where we went. On the way we caught glimpses of the mountains, which rise from the surrounding plain, but unlike most mountain ranges these are scattered about and all different shapes and sizes. There is one that's tall, thin and rocky, another that's tall, broad and stands proudly a distance away, and others that are rounded and covered in forest. They got their name when Captain Cook first saw them from the coast, as they reminded him of the glass-furnace chimneys of his native Yorkshire. I can't quite see that resemblance, but then I wasn't seeing them from miles away on the ocean.
We then drove out of the National Park and back to the highway where we headed south for a few kilometres before once again turning off and heading for the coast. This time we were heading for Bribie Island and our campsite on the shore of the Pumicestone Passage. A few kilometres before we reached Bongaree we saw a sign advertising
Beefy's Famous Aussie Pies and as we'd not had any lunch (the carrot cake was elevensies), we stopped. I had a delicious Aussie favourite - steak with mushy peas, whilst Tracy had a steak and mushroom. The pies were very good, but I was a tad surprised to discover my pie had the peas inside the pie, on the top of the meat!
Our campsite is council run and it's actually across the road from the water, but we had paid a little extra for a waterview powered site, so have uninterrupted views of the water from the back of the motorhome. We arrived, checked in and parked up, then got out the table and chairs and sat in the sunshine enjoying a cool beer. Tracy then set about peeling the prawns and making the salad, whilst I caught up with the blog. We ate outside, having first covered ourselves in insect repellant in what turned out to be a vain attempt to prevent further bites. The prawns were huge and meaty, full of flavour and so much fresher than those we get back in the UK. For once we didn't bother with any wine, prefering to have a cup of tea after we'd eaten and whilst we played pass-the-pigs (the championship drawing level again as Tracy beat me 3-2). A couple of episodes of Criminal Minds took us to bedtime, and it wasn't long before we were both sound asleep, despite the noisy birdsong from the large number of birds in the surrounding trees.
As Queensland doesn't use daylight saving time, the sun rises very early, around 5am, and I usually wake up as it peeps through the gaps in the curtains. Today was no exception, although as we didn't have anything planned for early morning, I turned over and snoozed a while before getting up around 6:30am. A quick shower and then the usual routine of packing the bed away before Tracy returned from her shower, then getting out the breakfast stuff. We ate breakfast outside in the sunshine as the campsite woke up around us. With our first activity not starting until 11am, we relaxed and read a while before packing up ready to drive the short distance back through town and across the bridge over the Pumicestone Passage and onto the mainland. There we turned right into the marina area and parked up, before getting our beach shoes on and walking across the car park looking for our destination.
We had to ask for directions as the marina was just some lock-up garages servicing boats, with a multi-storey boat storage area to one side. At the far side was an apartment building and we were told that around the other side was where we would find what we were looking for. That was the premises of Moreton Bay JetSki. Only they don't have premises as such, just a bar shack on the jetty, and after we'd enquired at the marina office, that's where we were pointed. As we got there they guy in the lifevest stood by the jetskis got on one and disappeared. He returned to park it up and saw us looking at him, giving us a cheery wave and shouting that he'd be with us in a second. Once he'd parked the jetski he opened the gate to the jetty and introduced himself as Grant, our guide for the
Brisbane Buccaneer experience, our 1.5hour trip on a jetski. With the formalities over, we explained that I'd never ridden a jetski before and he ran through a safety briefing, getting me to complete a short quiz to check I'd understood, and then he went on to explain how the jetski works and how to ride one. Basically the machine draws water in to the engine and ejects it at speed out of the back of the
jet, the direction of which is controlled by the handlebars. The steering only works when the jet is powering the ski forwards (or backwards) - no power means it will keep going straight regardless of the steering input. So first thing to conquer is the natural desire to ease off the throttle when you want to turn. Next problem, for me, is that the steering is positive - turn right to go right - which is the opposite of how you steer a motorcycle at speed (I won't go into why here, but trust me on this, to go right on a 'bike you push the bars left and let the bike fall to the right into the turn). Oh, and at slow speed the ski doesn't want to turn at all, again, the opposite of a 'bike which gets harder to turn the faster it goes.
I was still trying to absorb this and get my head around what to do as we climbed into our lifevests and onto the jetski. In no time at all, Grant was leading us out of the marina, at idle-speed only, then out into the bay. He accelerated away and so I opened the throttle to follow and was unable to get the jetski to go straight. Every slight steering input had the ski weaving about uncontrollably and I kept shutting the throttle to try and regain control. Poor Tracy, sat on the back and holding on to my lifevest was being thrown about and had gone very quiet. It's a good job she doesn't get sea-sick. I tried going faster and turning, but that just resulted in more uncontrollable wobbles as I put in too much steering input and had us almost facing back the way we'd come. Again I couldn't stop myself from easing back on the throttle and that was causing all sorts of problems, not least of which was the ski kept digging it at the front and covering Tracy in spray. Grant, meanwhile, had gone way ahead and seemed content to watch me floundering. I tried again and again but every time I tried to steer one way or the other, or just go straight, the ski went into a wobble and I backed off and made things worse. We eventually caught up with Grant who was sat bobbing about on his stationary jetski, and then my ski started making a binging noise and a red light came on the dash. He suggested switching it off and leaving it for a few minutes, which we did whilst I tried to get my head around what I was doing wrong. When we restarted the engine it was fine for a few seconds, then started making the noise again and a warning symbol appeared that looked like a thermometer. Grant then said he'd swap the ski for another one, and to follow him back to the marina. Which I tried to do, and after coming to a stop several times to regain control of a lurching jetski, I managed to do. When we got to the jetty, Grant helped Tracy off the jetski, only for her to slip and end up with one foot in the water. This wasn't going well. She recovered and once we were both off the black jetski, Grant brought round a yellow one.
We clambered aboard and once again set about our wobbling, weaving, out-of-control journey out into the bay. Grant headed off way into the distance and I started shouting at myself for being incompetent. Tracy, sensing my frustrations merely sat on the back and shouted encouragement. With Grant some way off, I speeded up a little and then started playing with the steering, fighting the urge to ease the throttle. I seemed to be getting somewhere, although most of the time it wasn't where I wanted to go. Tracy began to shout
Turn Right then
Turn Left to give me something to aim for, but I was still struggling. This was much harder than I expected, and much harder than riding a bike. I wasn't getting disgruntled, because I had started to get a feel for what I needed to do and understood the theory, but it was frustrating. When we caught up with the bobbing, stationary, Grant, we switched off the engine and floated for a while whilst he pointed out some local landmarks. And a dolphin that was swimming nonchelantly by, paying us no attention at all. I wasn't really listening as I was running through how it worked again in my head, trying to work out exactly where I was going wrong (still closing the throttle a little, not trusting the jetski, over-steering, over-compensating with the steering when it went wrong, etc). Then we were off again. Grant said we were going to head north again, once more under the bridge and out into the bay proper. Just to follow him (I nearly burst out laughing at the thought). And then we were off again.
This time I could see his wake - the white water line behind his jetski - as he carved a line straight, then made gradual turns to the right and left. This gave me something to aim for and miraculously within a few minutes I was able to not only match his pace, but also stay within the
white lines of his wake. Now I could practice steering with somewhere to aim for and it all clicked. Suddenly I had control. It had only taken about half an hour but I went from being out of control and all over the place, to being in control and feeling as though I could put the jetski exactly where I wanted it. We turned through some very gentle, wide turns, then some tighter ones. I kept the throttle on and steered just the right amount to stay on the same line as Grant. We blasted across the bay and rode for quite a while before we stopped again, within sight of the Glasshouse Mountains. Grant turned and said
Looks like you've got it now!. Then we were off again, this time a little faster. I could hear Tracy behind me shouting with glee, laughing as the jetski reared up at the front as we set off. We were having fun!
We drove around the bay, then came to a large area of empty water, where Grant stopped and switched off his engine, then said
Right, this is where you get to play on your own for a while!. Needing no further encouragement, we blasted off with Tracy laughing loudly, into some high-speed and wide turns making a large figure-of-eight, then I turned really sharply, as tight as I could get the jetski to go, leaning over a long way and blasting back through our own wake making a tight circle. By now we were both laughing loudly and getting very wet! We passed by Grant at speed, turning tight just before him and covering him in water as he tried to take more pictures of us. We were having a blast. I felt I'd finally mastered how to ride a jetski and felt completely in control, even when swapping directions at speed.
By now my arms were getting tired from holding on to the bucking, weaving, jetski, so we went back to where Grant was waiting and then we set off again together, heading around an island in the bay, past some black swans, and finally returned to the marina. All the way back, Grant kept heading through the wake of other boats, bouncing high over the rough water, with us no more than 50m behind doing exactly the same (only we were laughing our heads off as we did so). Back on the safety of dry land (and without any more mishaps getting onto the jetty), we thanked Grant for his patience and the experience.
I'd wanted to try a jetski for years but kept putting it off as I really wanted Tracy to be there when I did. She was nervous at first as she's not a strong swimmer and has a fear of the water, and there was a real chance I'd end up pitching her off. But I hadn't and she'd enjoyed the experience almost as much as I had. I had found it incredibly hard at first, but once I got the hang of it, I simply loved it. It was everything I'd hoped it would be, the feeling similar to riding a motorcycle even if the technique is completely the opposite. Pity it's not warm enough back home to warrant buying one (not that I could afford it anyway!).
Back at the motorhome we got changed and then drove on to the supermarket for something more mundane - food shopping. We bought a couple of Wagyu Beef burgers and hoisin chicken kebabs for tonight's dinner, and some mince for a bolognese tomorrow, then made our way back to the campsite. Once again pitched up we sat and chatted whilst we ate some cheese and crackers for lunch, then went for a walk along the promenade by the shore of the passage, looking out over where we'd been on the jetski. There were lots of people swimming in the cool-looking water and as it was still quite warm we walked back to camp and changed into our swimmers before heading back across the road and into the water. It was cold! And very salty. But it was refreshing and so we bobbed about and swam a little for a half-hour or so before deciding that it was now getting cool (not cold, it's still warmer than most English summer days!) and headed back to camp for a shower. A beer or two followed as we looked at the photos Grant had now posted on the Moreton JetSki Facebook page (see below), before firing up the BBQ and cooking dinner. We finished the day reading again, before finally calling it a night around 9:30pm. It had been another epic day, and one I won't forget for a long time, another bucket-list item ticked!
Normally, I write the blog day-by-day, but this entry is slightly different in that's it's all one entry covering multiple days. This is for a number of reasons, not least that it reflects a period of the trip where Tracy and I took a break from the travelling to have a mini-holiday leading up to Christmas Day.
In the last entry, we were at Bongaree, and had spent part of the day messing about on the water on a jet-ski. The following day we packed up and continued our southerly journey, heading once again down the highway and on towards Brisbane. There we visited Kath, Tracy's mother's father's brother's daughter (put another way, Tracy's mum's cousin; Tracy's cousin once removed). She emigrated to Australia as a
Ten Pound Pom in 1966 on one of the last ships bringing British immigrants to Australia under the Assisted Passage Migration Scheme. She had 4 young children at the time, ranging from 13 to just over a year old. She then settled in Australia and has been here ever since, the last time Tracy's mum saw her was at the docks before she sailed - when she was pregnant with Tracy. Obviously neither Tracy nor I had ever met her, and it it wasn't for the fact that Tracy's mum keeps in contact with her relatives all over the world, we wouldn't have had the chance to meet her at all. When we arrived at her appartment building (called
Units here) we had to ring to check the address and then she appeared at the end of her drive to greet us. A very sprightly and alert 91-year old, she stood in a pose just like Margaret (Tracy's mum). Uncanny. She'd not lost her London accent, either, despite living in Australia for 53 years. She invited us into her home and we sat and chatted about everything and nothing - it was like we'd known her all our lives. She made us a ham salad for lunch, and despite allocating an hour, two at the max, for our visit, we had to tear ourselves away 4 hours later. We could have stayed for a lot longer.
From Kath's we drove to our next campsite, the First Sun Holiday Park at Byron Bay, where we were due to stay for the next 7 nights, over Christmas. We were very disappointed, as it was rammed full and the spaces between pitches were non-existent. It took a while to manoeuvre the motorhome onto our pitch, right next to a setup consisting of several large tents and a Range Rover Discovery. Behind us was another setup of trailer tent and supplementary tents, and on the third side a small walkway the other side of which was another block of four pitches all overcrowded with trailer tents, gazebos and people. It was a shock, after spending so much time on mostly empty sites. Once pitched up, we knew we weren't going to be able to get back out again easily to go shopping in the motorhome, so set to work with Google maps trying to find shops close by. Fortunately, the site is right next to the town, and only a relatively short walk away from lots of bars, restaurants and the other amenities of a decent sized holiday town, which Byron Bay is. The beach is also right next to the campsite, accessed through a gate and down some steps, and crowded with surfers and yound people. It's a great spot, just a pity about the crammed-in nature of the pitches. Once settled as best we could be, we cooked a bolognese before watching a couple of episodes of Criminal Minds and retiring to bed early.
The next morning, we walked into town and to the supermarket, where we stocked up on food. When we got back to the campsite a woman was waiting for us and asked us
Is that your motorhome?. We thought we were in trouble, but she explained that she and her husband - in the trailer tent on the end pitch diagonally opposite us - had noticed my expression when we arrived and that they, too, were unhappy with the closeness of the pitches. So much so, that they were leaving and did we want their pitch as it was paid for until the weekend (as was ours). It was bigger and less crammed-in than ours, so we gladly accepted. She explained that they were from Queensland and had a 40-acre property there, and were worried about the bushfires. The cramped nature of the campsite was just too much for them, so they were heading home to check their property. Tracy sorted out the move with the campsite reception and once they'd gone we moved the motorhome into their spot. It still wasn't going to be possible to just nip-out in it like we had done elsewhere, due to the number of parked pickup trucks lining the narrow pathways, but at least we didn't feel like we were sleeping with our neighbours.
We then settled down for some serious relaxation, reading and enjoying the sunshine. The weather forecast wasn't great, and later that day it started raining, forcing us inside the motorhome. We ate inside, cooking the mint-and-rosemary lamb steaks we bought with a salad on the hob instead of the BBQ, and turned in fairly early. The following morning (23rd) we took another walk into town to stock up on drink, buying a bottle of champagne-style sparkling wine for Christmas Day as well as the usual beer and wine (as much as we could carry!). More relaxing followed as we both enjoyed reading our books, taking a walk along the beach, and generally chilling out. We got showered and went out to the Fishheads restaurant on the beach-front for dinner of seafood (scallops, prawns, melt-in-your-mouth salt-and-pepper squid and delicious Moreton Bay Bugs) and a nice bottle of wine. That night it rained again, a portent of what was expected over Christmas.
Christmas Eve saw us once again doing very little, as we enjoyed some serious down-time after over 2 months of travelling. We did go out fairly early to the seafood shop in town, joining a large queue of people buying their Christmas dinner. Back home it's a queue to pickup your turkey, here it's a queue to pick up your prawns. We bought two types - normal and huge Tiger prawns - and a couple of the cooked
Bugs, which the fishmonger kindly cut in half for us. These all went in the fridge as soon as we got back to the motorhome, ready for Christmas dinner. We walked into town for the 1:15pm showing of the new Star Wars film
Rise of Skywalker, which made a change from Criminal Minds. For dinner that evening we had some delicious (and properly cooked this time!) steaks, a Christmas Eve tradition.
We woke on Christmas morning unsurprised to see that Santa hadn't found us, but Tracy had bought me a present - a Haynes Manual for the Thunderbirds! A gave her her present, which she'd chosen in the Pandora shop, a lovely little koala bear charm for her bracelet. We still had a full cooked English breakfast as is traditional on Christmas morning, with eggs, bacon, mushrooms and beans, then set about relaxing some more. The weather had turned overnight, with heavy rain and thunder and lightning whilst we ate our steaks, but despite the forecast being for more of the same, the sun started to appear and it began drying up the puddles. We took a walk onto the beach and recorded a silly Christmas message for Facebook, before returning to read in the sun. When that got too hot, we returned to the air-conditioned motorhome, reflecting on just how different (odd) it feels having Christmas here and not at home. I think we were both also missing our families.
Early evening we had our Christmas Dinner - prawns and bugs with salad - and later our desert of Christmas pud and custard - before watching a film on my laptop. When it was a suitable time back home, Tracy started her rounds of Facetime calls, which lasted until nearly 11pm and time for us to turn in. Christmas in Australia (or anywhere hot!) is something I'd wanted to experience for a long time, just because it's different. It certainly is that, but I'll be happy to be at home again next year, cooking Turkey and all the trimmings for whichever members of our families want to join us.
Normally our Boxing Day is spent with my children and their offspring - that's my 3 daughters and their 12 children - usually round at my eldest daughter's house as that's the largest. I typically spend the previous evening (Christmas Day, after dinner is done and the washing up cleared away and everyone watching telly or playing games) making jellies and blancmange, just like my mother used to. Boxing Day is traditionally
grand-parents' day in the Beattie household, a tradition I continued as soon as my first grandchild was born back in 2004. This year was quite different. I had managed to catch my eldest and youngest daughters on FaceTime a couple of days earlier, but still woke feeling like there was something missing. Apart from the rain, cold and dark skies, that is.
As it was, the day was bright and sunny and there was no jelly or blancmange and sadly no grandchildren to make a lot of noise and get over-excited whilst open their presents. But with another day of rest ahead of us, we decided the first thing we needed to do was walk into town in search of a new charging lead for our iPhones and Tracy's iPad. We had already bought another lead to supplement the one I brought out, but it only works intermittently and with so many devices to charge it was getting annoying. 1st world problems. So we walked into town, through the milling crowds of young and healthy adults wasting their time buying shit they don't need from the endless shops lining the high street simply because they were reduced in the sales. We both remarked how it's likely the same scene is being played out on the high street back home, the only difference being the amount of flesh on display (back home, none; here, too much!). We ignored both the sales and the flesh (as much as possible) and made our way to the shops at the far end of town where we'd bought our Christmas decorations from, and picked up a new lead, then made our way back to camp. We then spent the rest of the day sat in the sunshine, reading, with occasional visits into the air-conditioned splendor of the motorhome to cool down. Dinner that evening was another curry, this time a spicy Goan one made with a spice-tailor kit that had way too much oil in it for my liking. It was tasty, though. After dinner we watched a film on my laptop and then had a quick FaceTime session with all Tracy's kids who were together at our house (a rarity these days that all 4 of them, plus Brian and Ben and Niamh and Quaid are all in the same place at the same time).
By the time we woke on the day-after-Boxing-Day, we'd had enough of being in the same place and were itching to get moving again. Which was fortunate, as on the way down, we'd missed visiting one of Australia's most important places - the Gold Coast and Surfers Paradise. As this was only an hour or so north of where we were staying in Byron Bay, this wasn't a problem and gave us a good excuse to go out for the day, despite the difficulty of getting the motorhome out of its pitch and the campsite due to the number of pick-ups and cars parked higgledy-piggledy all over the place. So after breakfast, we wormed our way out of camp and onto the open road once more, glad to be on the move again and away from the claustrophobic feel of the campsite. We took the highway north retracing our route down, then turned off to Tweed Heads to pick up the Gold Coast Highway. Under a grey, cloudy, sky we could see the ocean off to our right, the waves rising about 50m off shore before the white horses made their appearance and the waves tumbled over on themselves. We stopped at Burleigh Heads to take a walk onto the beach and watch the few brave souls that were in the ocean attempting to catch a wave and do what surfers do (stand on their boards briefly before falling off backwards and disappearing into the waves as their boards rocket skywards threatening to take off the heads of anyone still standing on their own boards). The beach looked gorgeous, despite the cloudy weather, and the ocean very inviting, but not so much that we felt the need to go back to the motorhome, get changed and go for a dip.
In the distance, further up the coast, there was Surfers Paradise, which wasn't what we were expecting at all. It looked like a ghost-town made of sky-scrapers rising in the misty haze, almost as though it were a mirage or the unconvincing backdrop of a 70s film. Once upon a time it was THE place to go, the beach that starts at Burleigh Heads and continues all the way up to Moreton Bay (where we'd jet-ski'd) faces out into the uninterrupted Pacific Ocean and the shape of the Gold Coast means superb conditions for surfing. Now it's a full-on tourist destination complete with lots of tall high-rise hotels and apartment blocks. Seen here from Burleigh Heads, where the tallest building is about 10-stories high, it looks like another world. Like glimpsing New York from Blackpool. Except warmer.
After we'd walked the beach and watched people nearly drowning (but seemingly enjoying themselves as they kept repeating the excercise) we returned to the motorhome and drove along the esplanade before rejoining the highway up the coast. We caught glimpses of other pristine beaches with exciting names - Nobby Beach, Mermaid Beach, Broadbeach - in between the increasing high-rise buildings before arriving at Surfers, where we once again took the esplanade road along the coast. Here there were fewer people braving the water, giving the lie to the name. We continued on to Main Beach (again, no-one in the water) and then turned back to head down the Gold Coast Highway once more before heading south on the M1 back towards
We turned inland before reaching Byron Bay, heading up into the hills on a winding road that wove its way through forested hillsides. Our destination the town that the Lonely Planet Guide describes as Australia’s alternative-lifestyle capital, a little town famous for its marijuana culture that almost drowns under the weight of its own clichés. With a description like that, how could we miss it? Taking the words of Lonely Planet again,
set in an impossibly pretty valley, Nimbin was once an unremarkable dairy village, but was changed forever in May 1973. Thousands of counter-culture kids and back-to-earth-movement types descended on the town for the Aquarius Festival. Many stayed on and created new communities in the beautiful countryside, hoping to continue the ideals expressed during the 10-day celebration. To say it was a weird place would be a massive understatement. We parked up in the car park at the back of the shops on the high street and cut through for a look around, with the intention of having lunch at a café in town. Almost all the shops were
hemp-themed, although the sweet smell of weed is more prevalent coming from cars in Greater Manchester than it was on the high street (so, not a HIGH Street after all! [sorry!]). We had a look in the gift shop for a fridge magnet, but apart from the back room (over 18s only) there was nothing of interest (at this point it's worth noting we didn't go into the back room). Back on the pavement, we passed a guy who looked much older than me (but may not have been), dreadlocks all the way down his back and in a flowered shirt, shorts and no shoes, shaking hands with other locals selling tat from small tables set up outside the shops. If you're on the look out for a tie-died t-shirt, this is the place. Or a crack pipe. Or some Legalise Cannabis propoganda.
We saw an enticing Asian restaurant that had my taste buds salivating. That was, until we saw the menu (hemp stir-fry, hemp curry, etc) and the owner (another aged hippy with dreadlocks piled atop his head). Not wanting to fly back to Byron Bay without an airplane, we turned back and went into a more normal-looking café where we ordered a tea and a chicken bagel followed by a slice of carrot cake. The cake tasted normal, which was good, as we were both a tad worried they might have followed an alternative recipe when making it (not that I have anything against such cakes, I enjoy a hash brownie but not when driving). With our tour of the town complete and our senses intact, we continued the enjoyable drive through the countryside and via the back roads to Byron Bay. On entering town we stopped at Woolworths for some supplies, getting ready for when we finally move on tomorrow. Then back to camp where I was unable to fit the motorhome between the pick-ups lining the narrow path leading to our pitch. Not a problem, I just had to drive around the block and reverse along the far side of the path, backing up 50m between parked cars and squeezing into our pitch. By now, the claustrophobia was getting to both of us, and we desperately wanted to move on - just one last night in this cramped camp. For dinner I cooked some Jamie Oliver's Chicken in ginger, lime and chilli; whilst Tracy made the salad. Followed by some Roses chocolates and Christmas Cake. No hash brownies, unfortunately, as they might have taken the edge off the claustrophobia and allowed us a better night's sleep!
We woke early, eager with excitement to get moving again, so had a quick shower and breakfast before packing up and pulling out of the campsite before 8am. Taking the road south along the coast, our first stop was another Austalian icon, the Big Prawn. Situated in Ballina, just down the road from Byron Bay, this 9m-tall prawn was due to be demolished a few years ago before the townsfolk got together to raise the money to restore it. Such civic pride is evident everywhere in Austalia, and I wish some of it would return back with us to the UK, as towns like Royton, where we live, could certainly do with some. Although a giant prawn may not be our thing!
The townsfolk of Ballina knew what they were doing, though, as the giant prawn is a tourist attraction and no sooner had we finished taking our early-morning photos than a family turned up to take theirs. No doubt followed by some more, all bringing a few dollars into the towns shops and cafés.
Back on the road we turned away from the coast and joined the Pacific Highway (route 1 again) heading south. We passed Grafton and on to Coffs Harbour, where we stopped at the Aqua Café for a brew and a light lunch. Only it wasn't a light lunch at all, as the menu had an appetizing Szechuan Prawn salad (which I had) and a BLT wrap (which Tracy had - it was HUGE!). Whilst there, we scoured the campermate application looking for a campsite for the night, discovering very quickly that most of the sites along the coast required a minimum 2-or-3 night stay. That wasn't an option for us as we've already booked our site in Sydney for the following 5 nights. We also looked at free camping spots, but as these tend to be either up in the hills and were closed due to the bushfires, or alongside the road (and therefore likely to be noisy), we kept turning up a blank. Once we were back on the road again, Tracy started working the phone, ringing campsites that said they'd only accept multiple-night bookings to see if they could let us have a one-night pitch. The first couple were true to their websites, but the third, 90Km away in Kempsey and on our route, had a pitch available for us (their website didn't support online bookings). She grabbed the chance and so that's where we headed. We made one more stop en-route, at the town of Nambucca Heads, which I'd read was worth a look. We followed signs through the town to the beach and lookout, and it was most certainly worth the effort. The beach below looked just fantastic, so much so that we regretted that we hadn't booked early enough to secure a campsite in town (they were fully booked or only accepting week-long bookings). We watched as people sunbathed, paddle-boarded, swam or jet-ski'd in the clear waters around the sandy beach, using the natural water channels as a playground. It was idyllic. But as we couldn't stay there, we continued south on to our campsite. Just off the A1, it proved to be a lovely and peaceful campsite, with cabin accommodation and a few trailers with more mature campers (like us!), it was just perfect. We parked up and then did our laundry before sitting in the shade and relaxing. As we'd had such a large lunch we didn't want the meatballs we'd intended to cook for dinner, so opted for a snack of cheese and biscuits before watching some Criminal Minds and turning in for the night, both very tired.
We both slept like logs, despite the campsite being fairly close to the main road. I put it down to the sense of peace after the claustrophobic Byron Bay site. Whatever the reason, waking fresh and ready to hit the road again was a bonus, as we still had almost 300Km to go to reach our next long-stay campsite on the outskirts of Sydney. Especially as I'd found another attraction en-route that looked promising - the National Motorcycle Museum!
So with Tracy doing her best to contain her excitement, we had breakfast and were on the road by 9am, rapidly covering the 120Km to the town of Nabiac, where we turned off the main road and into suburbia. There were lots of single-storey houses on large plots, most surrounded by rubbish and not looking terribly inviting. Tracy was convinced I'd made a wrong turn, until we saw a sign for the museum and turned off into a side-street and parked up outside a large single-storey warehouse. The entrance was in the centre and the reception area doubled as the gift shop, full of motor-related paraphernalia including cast iron garage signs, model cars and bikes, badges, pins and stickers. We paid our AUD$15 each entry fee and walked into the museum proper, past a display of model cars, dolls and then into a big hall full of motorbikes. They were arranged by make, with the first display old British bikes, mostly BSAs and Triumphs but with a few Nortons, AJS, Vincents and others, including a very rare, Hesketh in its original (horrible) colours. The main hall led to another, full of old Japanese bikes and small trail bikes, then another hall led off that one filled with yet more old and mostly ratty-looking bikes. I've visited a few bike and car museums and most exhibits are clean and restored - the British National Motorcycle Museum near Coventry is an excellent example with most of the exhibits run regularly. Here the bikes looked like they'd been ridden by their owners until knackered and then taken to the museum. Several of the exhibits were poor examples of the breed - there was a Suzuki Katana with rusting exhaust downpipes (the original had beautiful black-chromed pipes that were very unusual), a 1992 Honda Fireblade with a bright blue screen (not only not original, but also an example of particularly bad taste) and a Honda CBX1100 6-cylinder bike with painted grey exhausts (the original's 6 downpipes were truly beautiful as there were not many 6-cylinder bikes then, as there aren't now). All this meant the overall effect of the museum was like walking round a well stocked junk-yard. There were a few iconic bikes in amongst the jumbled masses, but they all needed restoring or at least cleaning. A real pity.
Tracy looked pleased with the scary doll collection, though. And even more pleased that after a cursory look around that only took an hour, we were on our way again. I could easily spend a full day in the bike museums at home or the Barber Motorsports Museum in the US (probably the best motorcycle museum I've ever seen), but this one only held my attention for an hour, which sums it up. Sad.
Back on the road again, we stuck to the A1 heading towards Newcastle. We saw a road-sign that read
For Newcastle, take the Cardiff exit, which was most disconcerting, as Newcastle is in the North East and Cardiff in Wales. But we kept to the A1 heading towards Sydney as this was Australia after all. The forest at the roadside looked like it had been subjected to a fire - not an uncontrolled one as only the lower parts of the tree trunks were blackened - their leaves dark brown or missing altogether. This is most likely due to back-burning, a process that has largely been stopped due to the protestations of the Green Party, but which is essential in managing the forests as it helps create fire-breaks that reduce the spread of bushfires. It would seem back-burning is now regaining its place as a necessary means of controlling fires, but too little, too late to prevent the huge blazes now affecting the area to the south and west of where we were.
We stopped off at Toronto for a break, half expecting to see moose and not kangaroos, but we saw neither. Instead we settled for a brew and pie combo (we've gone native, pies are everywhere and quite tasty, especially the steak-and-cheese ones). Back on the road the sky gradually changed colour, going from blue and white to just white with a hint of orange. The sun was nowhere to be seen, just a single colour sky above the rolling forested hills, which themselves had a blue haze rising from them. The sky was the result of the bushfires - there's so much smoke and dust in the air that it's blocking the sun out but not the heat; the haze from the trees is a natural phenomenon caused by the eucalyptus trees emitting oils into the atmosphere. The closer we got to Sydney, the more the sky looked a uniform, dull, white-with-hint-of-orange colour. As we approached our campsite in the suburb of Vineyard to the west of Sydney, we could smell a slight smell of burnt wood in the air. The temperature was up over 35degrees and it was once again quite humid, not the dry heat we'd had up near Byron Bay. We checked in and parked up (having politely asked the guy in the next pitch to move his car from ours), then connected the electrics and checked out the amenities block, which we had been warned on checking-in was in need of refurbishment. More like replacement, the wooden shed housing the toilets and two showers having seen much better days. But it was adequate and once we'd settled in and I'd enjoyed a few beers and Tracy had finished the white wine we opened yesterday, I cooked us some meatballs in tomato sauce and we spent the evening relaxing and checking out how to get into Sydney by train, before turning in around 10pm.
Despite the motorhome being parked sideways on a hill, meaning that our bed was at an angle of around 10degrees, we both slept reasonably well and were up and showered and breakfasted by 9am, ready to head into Sydney for a bit of exploring and to suss out the route to our pre-booked spot for the New Year's Eve festivities tomorrow. We drove the short distance to Riverstone, the 2nd nearest train station (the nearest, Vineyard, was very small and therefore had less trains stopping at it), then went in search of the newsagents where we could buy our Opal cards. A bit like the Oyster card used in London, this card comes pre-loaded with AUD$20 and is used to pay for any train, light railway, bus or ferry in the Sydney area. There's also a helpful app for your phone that allows you to top-up the card and also plan your journeys. Once we'd procured the cards we moved the motorhome to an all-day parking spot and set about downloading the app and working out when the next train would leave, which as luck would have it was in about 10 minutes. So we walked to the station, tapped-in to start the journey by holding our Opal cards against a reader at the station entrance and then waited on the platform. Sure enough a few minutes later the train arrived, a double-decker electric train that was very clean and very quiet, with none of the clackety-clack we associate with trains, just a smooth gliding ride. Our journey into Sydney took just over an hour and ten minutes and we disembarked at Wynyard station, which was closest to The Rocks on the line we were on. We then tapped-off as we exited the station to complete the journey, which then charged the correct fare to the Opal card - a meagre AUD£4.82. All very easy and very civilised. Once out of the station we emerged into a city that looked like any other - tall buildings rising above shops selling everything from cheap souvenirs to expensive Swiss watches. We turned left and onto George Street, which took us all the way to the start of Harbour Bridge and The Rocks, an area below the bridge adjacent to the harbour and where Campbell's Cove, a semi-circular quay with a flat concrete area adjacent to it, is. This is where we'll be watching the NYE celebrations from, and is a ticket-only affair. We were disappointed that it was concrete and there were no obvious places to sit, as that meant it was likely to be an uncomfortable wait as the area opens at noon and is reportedly heaving by 2pm.
But our biggest disappointment was the massive cruise ship that was berthed alongside the International Harbour Entrance, and blocking the view from Campbell's Cove to the Opera House. If that was still there at midnight tomorrow, it would obscure the view of the firework display for the 2-3 thousand people who had bought tickets to this spot. It once again reminded me why I dislike cruise ships so much - these monstrous floating sky-scraper cities arrive in ports all over the world and dominate the skyline, ruining the view for anyone who would prefer to see the city as it should be.
As it was, because the area wasn't yet set up for NYE, we were able to walk around the cove and got a decent view of the Opera House to our right, and the Harbour Bridge to our left. We then walked around Dawes Point (the bit under the bridge at this side) and then up the hill and back towards The Rocks. We saw the start point for the bridge climb, which we had considered doing until we looked into it in more detail. Whilst it's high on the list of tourists visiting Sydney, our mutual fear of heights made us wary. We discovered that it was also quite an arduous walk, which wouldn't have been good for Tracy's knees, but it was the price that finally sealed the no-deal for us. It would have cost us a staggering AUD$666 - or £375 to do it! Instead, we walked up to the bridge and then across the footpath that runs alongside the road, affording us excellent views of the bay and and the Opera House. Who needs to walk up the metalwork anyway?!
Once on the other side, at Milsons Point, we took the lift back to pavement level and walked to an Italian restaurant which looked good for lunch. It was excellent - I had a huge Chicken Ceasar Salad and Tracy had Village BLT sandwich on thin crispy bread. Just lovely and just what we needed to replenish our energy levels after so much walking. After lunch, we walked towards the ferry terminal, where there is an amusement park called Luna Park, complete with grotesque laughing face over the entrance. Very much like Blackpool Pleasure Beach, but without the Kiss-me-Quick hats and candy floss. They did have a toilet, though, for which I was most grateful. At the ferry terminal we used our Opal cards to pay the fare, then boarded the ferry back across the harbour to Circular Quay, which is next to The Rocks. The ferry was very quick, so quick that I thought I'd miss the chance to get a decent photo of the Opera House when an asian tourist thrust her phone at me and asked me to take a picture of her and her friend. In my fluster, I changed the settings on her phone so it was in selfie-mode and very nearly took a photo of myself instead, before sorting that out and taking the best photo of the ferry floor I could, cropping out both their heads and the Opera House in the process. Well, they shouldn't have been so rude!
Back on dry land again, we walked into Circular Quay and got a train back to Wynyard station, where we boarded another train back to Riverstone. By the time we arrived it was already getting on a bit and we needed to go shopping, so we drove a little further back alongside the trainline to Schofields (the next station) where there was a Woolworths and a BWS. As we were finalising our shopping there was a commotion in the checkout area with lots of shouting and a short while later the police turned up in 3 vehicles. Seems there was a small dispute between two women, which necessitated the response of 6 police officers. No-one was hurt from what we could see, and it didn't prevent us from stocking up on beer and wine so all was good. Back at camp we passed through the boomgate and drove to our pitch, only to find someone had moved our table and chairs and there was another car with roof-tent parked there! There were two young foreign women there drying themselves off after a swim or shower, and I enquired as to why they were in our pitch when we were staying there for 5 nights. They said they'd already been moved once and the woman on reception had put them there, moving our table in the process. So we drove back around to reception, which was closed, and then I called the emergency number and explained the situation. The woman on the other end was most apologetic, explaining she'd intended to put them on pitch 157 (ours was 163) and thought that was it! She said she'd ring the women and explain, and I drove back around to our pitch just as one of them was arguing on the phone, obviously with the receptionist. I shrugged and waited for them to move before parking back up and putting our table and chairs back where they were. Drama over, I had some cheese and crackers for tea, Tracy not being hungry, and then we watched the remaining episodes of Criminal Minds. Now we'll have to find something else to do of an evening, but not tomorrow, as it's New Year's Eve!
With a very long day ahead, we tried to lie-in for as long as possible, but at the back of our minds was the thought that we needed to be at Campbell's Cove not long after noon if we were going to secure ourselves a good spot for the firework display we'd traveled halfway around the world to see. So we didn't linger for too long, but long enough to fill our bellies with a full cooked breakfast and make lots of sausage sandwiches to keep us sustained throughout the day. We also packed the rucksack and Tracy's large handbag with two beach towels, suncream and insect repellant, two tubes of Pringles, six small cartons of orange juice, a large bottle of water, a family-size packet of spearmint chews and two snack bars. That should see us right. You'll notice there's no alcohol in that packing list, and that's because the official viewing areas allocated by Sydney council are all alcohol-free. So this was likely to be my first dry New Year's Eve since I turned 18 (or actually, quite a few years before that!).
With our packing done, we repeated the journey from yesterday, driving to Riverstone and parking in the same all-day car park, then catching the train to Wynyard and walking the relatively short distance to Campbell's Cove. This time was different, though, as we walked down to the harbourside first, as the entrance we needed to use was next to the International Passenger Terminal alongside which the cruise ship was berthed yesterday. What a relief it was to see it was gone - I had Googled it yesterday and seen it was due to sail at 4pm, but it was still good to see it gone. What wasn't so good was the lenght of the queue in front of us, waiting to enter Campbell's Cove. It was LONG! Nevertheless, we joined it anyway and shuffled forwards as it slowly inched its way through the security checkpoint. When we reached the front, Tracy showed them our tickets on her phone and we were both fitted with wristbands - rather tightly in Tracy's case, I told the woman not to do mine so tight as my wrists will expand in the heat (they do!). There was then a very cursory bag check (I think the sight of all our sausage sandwiches was enough for the security guy), and we entered the large expanse of Campbell's Cove, which was already filling up with people. Now there was a black metal fence running across it close to the harbour edge, so we passed through a gate in it and realised that it also had small step-like seats in it. Ideal for us, so we found a spot alongside the fence and lay out our beach towels and sat down on them, the seats behind us offering an alternative seating opportunity for when sitting on the concrete floor got too much. By now it was around 1pm, and we were settled in for a very long afternoon and evening waiting for the end of the decade. It was very hot, at least initially, and after around half an hour I was soaked with sweat and we'd drunk almost all of our water supply. With no shade available anywhere, all around us people were doing impressions of people sunbathing on the beach, except they were spread out on a concrete harbourside. There were picnics being eaten, including one couple nearby who had a wicker hamper complete with cutlery and plastic wine glasses (no real glass allowed). No wine, though, just iced tea. There were families too, trying to keep the children amused as we all sweltered in the sun. Within an hour our water supply was dangerously low, so Tracy went to look for a place to fill up the water bottle and came back with it full again, of luke-warm water. The afternoon passed with us reading and trying not to get too uncomfortable. At one stage we shared a sausage sandwich, at another we ate a packet of pringles. It was all exciting stuff. In the background, there was a DJ playing 70's disco tunes, but sadly that didn't last and soon it was in the foreground pumping out a steady bass beat that didn't sound much likke music to us old folk, just a damn noise. That went on for most of the afternoon, before a band appeared on the small stage off to our right, replacing the DJ with a guy on the guitar and a girl who sang songs but sounded like she didn't know any of the words as she mumbled her way through them. They were later replaced by another girl singer and a guy on a saxophone, and she was just as bad. Gradually it went dusk and when, during one of many attempts to shift my weight to a point of my arse that wasn't screaming with pain, I looked around, the whole of the area was rammed full of people. It had got very busy. Another band came on as it got dark, and whilst they were not what I would call
good, at least they weren't as bad as the others. At 9pm the first of the firework displays was due, but just as we could sense the tension in the air, an announcement over the public address (which so far had been on a loop reminding us endlessly that this was a ticket-only venue and that alcohol and glass were prohibited, and that the security or police could search our bags at any time) stated the firework display had been delayed by 15 minutes. A big sigh went up from the assembled masses, and I remarked to Tracy that it would be rather embarassing if the main display had to be delayed too...
When it did eventually start the crowd oohed-and-aarhed as the sky was lit up with bright colours and crashed with loud bangs. It was an impressive display, especially considering it was a pre-cursor to the main event, the one everyone had come to see. Lasting around 5 minutes, when it finally ended it left us once again listening to the band and thinking
Great, only another 2-and-3-quarter hours to go!. By now we were both struggling to get anything like comfortable, Tracy reading constantly to try and take her mind off her aching back. Mine was sore, so lord knows how bad hers was. I lay down and put my head on my rucksack and tried to get some sleep, but the pressing crowd all around meant that people kept kicking my feet, despite me tucking them up as close to my body as I could. In the end I gave up, just as a guy squeezed between me and the people next to me and tried to get into my seat! I was having none of that and promptly parked myself on it to ward him off. Then not long before midnight a German-sounding guy pushed his way between Tracy and the asian family group next to her so he could stand on their seat to wave his phone around trying to attract the attention of someone he'd evidently lost. When his friend eventually arrived, they embraced and he walloped Tracy across the head with his phone which was dangling on a lanyard around his neck. She complained and he told her to chill, then both he and his friend squeezed into the gap that wasn't there in front of her and blocked her view. Fortunately, they soon backed away as the asian couple moved away from them, creating a space for Tracy and me to stand in. We pulled up our towels and wrapped them around ourselves as the night air cooled, then waited patiently along with everyone else for midnight to come around.
I had been expecting the display which was being projected onto the towers of the Harbour Bridge to change to a countdown, or the band to lead us in one, but neither happened. When the time on my phone reached 11:59 we simply stood waiting, and the tension from the crowd around us grew. It was like everyone was holding their breath. Then all of a sudden there was a big bang and fireworks exploded out from Harbour Bridge, and all at once a cheer went up, Tracy and I embraced and wished each other a Happy New Year and then all hell broke loose. The sky was rattled with huge splashes of colour and thundering bangs as the main firework display began. There were more oooohhhhhsssss and aaaarrrrrhhhhsss from the crowd, as we turned our attention to the display next to the bridge, then across and over the Opera House and back again. The whole sky lit up like daylight, with some of the brighter fireworks whizzing across the sky, whilst others teemed down like water from the bridge into the harbour. It was most impressive, and worth the discomfort of 12 hours of sitting on concrete.
It lasted for over 12 minutes, which doesn't sound a lot, but try sitting and watching a video of the display on YouTube and you'll see it was a long one. When it finished there was an announcement over the PA about how to get out of the city, but we already knew - Circular Quay was closed, so the nearest train station was Wynyard, a short walk away. The only problem being that as Sydney closes all the roads leading to and from the harbourside, everyone was using public transport and therefore wanted to head to the main transport hubs - including Wynyard. With over 2,000 people in Campbell's Cove and over 1 MILLION people watching alongside the harbour, there was always going to be a delay getting home. I've seen some large crowds, but nothing like I saw that night. George Street is a main thoroughfare, 2 lanes for traffic and a central reservation with two lines for the light railway, which wasn't running. It was rammed full of people from storefront to storefront for well over half a mile. All shuffling along trying to get home. There were lots of families, and a huge number of baby buggies, as well as hundreds of thousands of people, all jostling for position. When we finally got to Wynyard train station, it was closed. There was a line of Police offices across the entrance and the PA was explaining that the station had been closed due to too many people on the platforms and wouldn't open until they had been cleared. It advised walking to the next station - Town Hall - which was further down the road. So off we went again, into the madding crowd shuffling along like the Day of the Walking Dead. We were both in need of the loo, and having seen a sign that warned the train station toilets had been closed (due to sheer numbers), we decided to stop by a McDonalds and use their facilities. That was almost a mistake, as the place was heaving with people, and there was a long queue for the toilets, but needs must. That one McDonalds must have taken more that night than I ever earnt in a single year. It was heaving. Back on the streets and feeling more comfortable walking without our legs crossed, we shuffled on to Town Hall station, which was also closed. The police had closed this one too, and the PA was saying the same thing as Wynyard, to try the next station along, Central. We looked at each other and said that it was likely to be the same there and so we should wait here as we were fairly close to the entrance and would be in a good position when they opened it. Which surprisingly they did, just a minute or so later, leading to an almighty shove-and-push as everyone tried to get onto the narrow staircase leading down into the station. I gripped Tracy's hand hard and pushed and shoved along with the rest until we were at the top of the stairs, then used all my strength to hold back the crowd behind and give her room to start her descent. I was concerned that the crush would lead to a disaster, but as soon as people were on the steps it seemed to ease off and we were able to make our way into the station withour incident. The next challenge was finding the right train, as none were going as far a Riverstone. The closest station was Blacktown, and we were advised to go there and get a train from there to Riverstone, and that's what we did. The train was as rammed as the streets had been, with people crushing on like it was rush-hour, except it was now 2am. It took a good while and a few stations for the crowd to thin out and Tracy and I to get a seat, but eventually we did. An hour or so later we disembarked at Blacktown and then walked across the station - which was laid out more like an airport terminal with train-lines heading off in different directions - to the platform where the train to Riverstone would depart from. About 15 minutes later we were sat on another train, and a short while later we were walking back out into the night, tapping-out on our Opal cards and walking across the road back to the motorhome.
The short drive back to camp and then into our pitch didn't take too long, nor did setting up the bed, which we both flopped into and declared our undying love for its comfort (ironic, since we've both recently started complaining about how uncomfortable the bed is compared to ours at home!).
HAPPY NEW YEAR!
After finally getting into bed around 3:30am it's perhaps no surprise that New Year's Day started quite late, with neither Tracy nor I getting up before 10am. The campsite was awake by then, but people seemed to be taking it easy, so we decided to do likewise. After a shower and breakfast as usual we did little for the rest of the day. Tracy read, whilst I slept. I had the worst headache I've had for years (despite not having had a drop to drink, how ironic!) and was so tired I could probably have slept all day, and not just the extra 2 hours or so I did sleep. When I woke again, I still didn't feel like doing much, and as I'd finished the book I was reading whilst waiting for the festivities to start the previous day, I started a new one. The last one, called
Traces, about a forensic scientist who studies pollen grains and fungal spores, had been hard going, so I opted for another Jack Reacher novel as a way of making it easier on my tired mind. And that was that. At some point we ate our dinner - I was going to cook Hot Tuna, but Tracy didn't fancy it so she had cheese and biscuits and I had a Thai Curry-tyle noodle thing we'd bought for emergencies. I then set about finishing my book, finally joining Tracy in going to sleep around 11pm.
We had agonised for ages on what to do on our last day in Sydney and eventually settled on visiting Syndey Aquarium as it looked really good on their website. Tickets were not cheap, but were cheaper online and promised to allow us to skip the queues, so Tracy stumped up the AUD$100 for the two of us and off we went. We changed our route into the city slightly, this time parking up and catching the train from Schofields so we could go directly to the supermarket on the way back and stock up for the next couple of days. The train journey was as long as ever, but we whiled away part of it trying to discover where the bushfires had got to and how they might affect our plans for the remainder of the trip. When it looked like they might be quite difficult to circumnavigate, we stopped looking and decided to focus on enjoying the day instead.
We got off the train at Town Hall, which was still humming with people but nothing like as crowded as the day before, and walked down to Darling Harbour. Here we were greeted with a very long queue at the entrance to the Aquarium, a queue that at first we thought was for buying tickets and one we'd avoid. But no. This was the queue for people who had already bought their tickets online to avoid the other queue at the ticket office, which was quite small in comparison. It took us over 10 minutes to get to the entrance, and once there we had to pose for a number of official photographs, which we had no intention of buying. It was then into the long line which led through and around the pathway leading to the various exhibits in the aquarium. Now I hadn't known what to expect, except for the chance to see some rare sea creatures up close, but the experience didn't leave me feeling good at all. First, there was the sheer number of people there. It was rammed with families and a very large number of baby buggies being pushed by psychopaths intent on breaking as many ankles as possible. Second, the noise was almost unbearable. Imagine, if you will, a thousand 6-12 year old kids all screaming for their parent's attention at once. In a metal box. With you inside. Third, and most important, the exhibits. These started well enough, with some very unusual looking fish in large glass tanks, but quickly degenerated into smaller tanks with fish doing endless circles or swimming up and down. The worst were the rays - stingrays and manta rays - that were in a large-ish tank through which glass walkways ran to provide underwater viewing for the visitors. These poor things were swimming an endless circle, up to one end then around and back down to the other end. Like the images of bears in cages in Russian zoos. In the same tank were some small sharks, a couple of turtles, a dugong (sea-cow) and lots of smaller fish. They all seemed to be trying to swim for a distance in one direction, only to reach the end of their glass cage and have to turn around again. It was all very sad.
Then we came upon the penguin enclosure, which housed some very large and impressive King Penguins amongst other, more common penguins. Up against the glass were hundreds of kids, tapping and banging and waving and flashing cameras - all despite the signs saying
Don't tap the glass and
No flash photography. One penguin looked particularly distressed, walking up and down alongside the glass and tapping it with his beak. It was heartbreaking. I couldn't wait to get out.
Outside, Tracy and I were able to breathe again, and moved away from the crowds by the harbourside, where the Aquarium sits alongside Madame Toussauds and the Sydney Wildlife Experience, both of which were teeming with people. We walked around the harbour and into the relative calm of the Chinese Friendship park, past the entrance to the Chinese Friendship Garden (admission AUD$8 each), and with our stomachs rumbing, chose a Vietnamese restaurant for lunch. We ordered some crab spring rolls to start and then for mains I had a chicken lemongrass with rice and Tracy had Prawns with pasta. The food was exquisite and just what we needed to replenish our stock of good humour, sadly lacking after the Aquarium. We then walked through the park to a sight that Tracy had chosen - the Golden Water Mouth - which is a gum tree impregnated with gold in the centre of Chinatown. The tree celebrates contemporary life and historic character of Chinatown, with the five elements of gold, wood, water, fire and earth combining to encourage positive energy and good fortune. It is said that anyone from far away who touches the tree will have good fortune, so we both did so. The rest is up to the tree...
We next caught a light railway train back to Circular Quay with the intention of catching a ferry up the river to Parramatta, where we could get a train back to Schofields from, but when we arrived we checked and the ferry wouldn't leave for over an hour. As time was getting on and we needed to get to the supermarket before it closed, we opted to catch the train from Circular Quay back to Wynyard and from there another back to Schofields. We made it in time, arriving at the supermarket around 5pm, where we bought some food for the following days but nothing for dinner as we'd eaten such a hearty lunch.
Back at camp we got out the laptop and map and started looking at our options for the final week and a half of our trip. As you will have seen on the news, Australia is in the grip of the worst bushfires in recent history, with an area the size of Belgium burning across New South Wales and Victoria. We've already had to cancel our plans to visit Kath's son Dave who is currently battling to save his home in the hills south-west of Sydney. So far he's been lucky, where many have not, with over 200 homes destroyed in the last week alone. Whilst we've been fortunate to not be affected, beyond a little bit of smoke haze, many others further south are struggling. Had we been a week further on, we'd have been down on the south-east coast where the worst of the fires are now raging, forcing tourists to flee to the coast and even into the sea. Our intended route is no longer viable, as there is a State of Emergency in New South Wales and the government advice is for everyone, especially tourists, to leave the affected areas.
With this in mind, we set about the maps and news websites, trying to find a route that would work. We wanted to spend a few more days by the coast, but going further than about 60 miles south is not an option. With all the national parks and their campgrounds closed, we are forced to look at commercial campsites, so that's what we did. Only to discover that with this now being peak holiday season, all the ones south of us were full - probably as a result of people moving north away from the fires as well as normal holiday bookings. So we decided to head back north, and eventually after much searching found a space on Canton Beach Campground, where we booked ourselves in for the weekend. This weekend is forecast to be particularly bad for bushfires, so we will have to wait and see how things are on Monday before we make a decision on our route back to Melbourne.
By the time we'd worked all this out it was late and going dark, so we went back inside the motorhome and put a film on my laptop (6 Underground, which was so gory Tracy read instead) and ate cheesecake for dinner.
We woke feeling rested and ready to move on once again, so after breakfast set about the routine of breaking camp. This involved filling up the fresh water tank and then emptying the waste water and toilet, not exactly difficult or enjoyable, but we were soon on the road again. We stopped for diesel before hitting traffic in the roadworks around Sydney, then joined the main highway north, retracing our route into the city from what seems like a very long time ago (but was less than a week ago!). We turned off onto the Central Coast Highway before Gosford and followed this around the coast via The Entrance (yes, that's the name of a town!) to the campsite at Canton Beach. The whole journey took us just over 2 hours, and we arrived shortly after 1pm. Our pitch is a small grassy area at the back of the campsite, with power, and we're glad to have somewhere to stay for a couple of days whilst we wait to see what happens with the bushfires over the weekend.
Once settled in, I started catching up on the blog, a task which I'd been neglecting of late and which left me with a lot of writing to do. That took me all afternoon, and left me ready for my dinner, which was another excellent prawn salad made with lovely big fresh Australian prawns. After dinner we read a little before bed, serenaded by a large number of cicadas singing their songs.
We were woken by the racket of the cicadas starting up their morning sing-song, the continuous screeching noise very loud as the little insects were somewhere in the trees surrounding the motorhome. We couldn't see them, but they made their presence felt nonetheless. After breakfast we decided to take a walk to the beach where we thought we'd spend a few hours reading, relaxing and swimming. Walking from the campsite through a small woodland area to the shorefront proved a minor challenge as it wasn't signed or obvious, but we soon emerged into a grassy clearing by the shore of Tuggerah Lake. There was nowhere suitable to sit, or a beach, so we walked towards Canton Beach township where there was a little sandy beach but very little shade. We settled down and then went for a paddle, only to discover the lake was very shallow and full of sea-grass, so not exactly ideal for swimming. After sitting and snoozing in the now very hot sun, we got up again and went for a little walk, another paddle, and then headed back to camp where we could sit in the shade out of the direct heat of the sun, or in the cool interior of the air-conditioned motorhome. We spent the rest of the day reading - I started and finished
The Tatooist of Auschwitz, an excellent true story that had me in floods of tears at the end. Having visited Auschwitz earlier in the year, the setting was very familiar and the story extremely moving. Highly recommended.
For dinner that night we had a couple of brisket burgers and some hoisin-chicken kebab meat with the remains of the salad, cooked once more on the motorhome's on-board BBQ. I had another check on the New South Wales Rural Fire Service's website to check the latest on the bushfires, and our plan to get inland to the west of the fires still looked good, although only time will tell.
For some reason, I woke feeling very tired and lethargic, hardly ideal when we had planned to go kayaking on the lake. Tracy was sympathetic as always, and we quickly decided to abandon plans and to simply have another day of doing next to nothing. I downloaded another book - something lighter to read after yesterday's emotional story - and so spent the day reading my next in the Jack Reacher series, good escapist stuff!
Fortunately, by early evening I was feeling fit and well and we walked into town to the local Indian restaurant, where we'd decided to go for a curry. We reasoned it would make a change from me coooking one in the motorhome and it's always nice to have a proper Indian curry once in a while. The restaurant wasn't licenced, so we only had water to drink, which was the first disappointment. We ordered starters of vegetable samosas and chicken chilli which were both very good, then for mains Tracy ordered a Chicken Rogan Josh and I ordered a Prawn Vindaloo, there being nothing else spicy on the menu (disappointment #2). My curry was pretty good, and nice and hot, but Tracy's was terrible. The chicken was so tough she couldn't even get her fork into it (disappointment #3), so when the waitress came round to ask the usual
Is everything OK? question, we pointed out it wasn't. They offered to get her another curry, but by now she'd had enough, so we declined and they took the cost of it off the bill, which was the least they could do. I finished my curry and we paid and left, then walked back to camp, not to disappointed overall, just resigned to not getting a decent Indian until we get home.
With us getting moving again today, I woke earlier than normal, around 6:45am, raring to get going. A quick shower and breakfast later, we packed up and were on the road just before 8:30am. Our route took us initially back to Sydney, on the same route as we had taken a week before, then out on the M4 towards Penrith. This changed into the A32 as we entered the foothills of the Blue Mountains, a huge forest that extends for miles both north and south of the road. It is one of the massive forest areas that's been devastated by the recent bushfires, and the road through the mountains had been closed some weeks before. The alternate route, on the Bells Line of Road (B59), had been our intended route but it had been closed as recently as the day before, and so we couldn't take the risk of it being closed whilst we were on it. As it was, the A32 took us up into the Blue Mountains through a large number of villages, all of which were surrounded by thankfully still green trees - the firees (as the Aussies call their volunteer firefighters) had done an excellent job of preventing the bushfires heading south and north and joining together at this point, saving the villages and the surrounding hillsides. We saw a sign pointing to Evans Lookout, 4Km north of Blackheath, and took the road intending to use the lookout to see what the forest looked like closer to the fires. As it turned out, just 2Km down the road was a sign saying the road was closed and a barrier was spread across the road. They were taking no chances, despite the weather having turned cooler and with rain spitting down. We turned round and went back to the main road heading west once more. Our distant views of the forest was the same in both directions, a blue, smoky haze obscured the trees beyond, the rolling hillsides appearing still covered in trees at least within a few miles of the road. Eventually we started the descent down from Mount Victoria and on towards Lithgow, where the forest thinned out to reveal fields of brown sun-scorched grass with a few trees and cattle dotted about the landscape.
We continued on the Great Western Highway towards Bathurst, passing through farmland that looked like it should have been green but was light brown instead, scorched of life by the relentless sun and drought. By now the light rain had stopped and the sun was back out, the motorhome's intermittent cab air-conditioning once again failing to provide respite from the heat. At least we could drop the windows, the eggy-smell for once absent, thankfully. At Bathurst we headed directly for the visitor's centre, where there was a café where we ordered lunch - Tracy opting for a chicken-and-leak pie with chips and me the Angus steak burger. Her pie was not exactly well filled and my steak was riddled with fat, so once again our choice of eatery somewhat lacking. Next time I'll let Tracy choose!
After the unsatisfactory lunch we drove on towards Mount Panorama, the circuit where the famous Bathurst 1000 motor-race is held. The race is a 1,000km race for Touring Cars held in October and is widely regarded as the premier race in Australia, even getting the title
The Great Race amongst Aussie motorsport fans. I'd heard of it, but didn't know much more than it existed, as it doesn't form part of any world championship. But as we were passing nearby and the circuit is a public road, then we felt we needed to pay it a visit. As the circuit is a public road (even though it doesn't go anywhere except up and around and back down the mountain it takes its name from), it's possible to drive it. It's a two-way road with a speed limit of just 60Kmh, but it's a race circuit after all, and so I had to drive the motorhome around it. It was fun, first parking up in the grid for a photo, then screeching off all the way up to the speed limit (60km/hr is about 37mph), and sticking to my side of the road rather than using all the circuit as one would when racing. The layout is quite tricky as it passes up and around and then down the mountain section, but good fun all the same. Once we'd completed our lap, we pulled into the car park of the attached Motorsports Museum, before entering the large building to have a look around.
Inside was a very large clean museum full of sportscars from the circuit's history, as well as a collection of racing motorcycles and memoriabilia. Some of the cars caught my attention, in particular a replica 1966 Mini Cooper S that recreated a Bathurst 500 race-winning car - back then the race was over 500 miles, hence the different name. Also on display were a Ford and a Holden, parked side-by-side. Those that know anything about Australian motorsport will know about the rivalry between these two factories, with families all across Australia either being a
Ford Family or a
Holden Family, buying their cars from their favourite factories and decrying the cars from their rivals.
Whilst the museum was interesting and the exhibits beautifully presented, complete with their histories, what got me really excited was one particular exhibit. Sat in a glass box in the motorcycle collection was a very rare machine - not rare as in the sense not many were made as this was a true one-off prototype 500cc Grand Prix motorcycle - but rare as in not many of this type of motorcycle exists outside the Honda museum in Japan. It was the Honda NSR500 that the Australian, Wayne Gardner, won the Brazilian 500 Grand-Prix on in 1987 to clinch the world championship. In doing so, he became the first Australian to win the world motorcycle racing title, something that directly led in 1989 to an Australian round of the world championship being introduced at Phillip Island race circuit. Wayne was a hero of mine in the early days when I first started watching bike racing in the late 80s and early 90s, his Aussie grit and determination evident as he suffered a series of nasty crashes due to the brutal nature of the bikes of the day. The bike was gifted to him by the Honda Racing Corporation (HRC) after he won the title, and is on loan to the museum by him. It is simply a wonderful, no compromise, racing machine, unlike any bike ever sold to the public, and in 1987 put out over 160hp and weighed around 130Kg, a seriously impressive power:weight ratio!
Also on display was a replica of the Moriwaki Honda modified street-bike that Wayne raced in the UK when he arrived as an impoverished young man in search of a racing career, some of his old leathers, and leathers worn by world champions Kenny Roberts Jnr and Wayne Rainey. There didn't seem to be any connection with either of these and the circuit, or of Wayne Gardner himself and the circuit, but I was glad their exhibits were there as at least I'd heard of them, unlike the drivers and riders of most of the machines on display. There were also two Australian-championship winning bikes of a racer called Josh Brookes, who is currently racing in British Superbikes, so there was someone else I'd heard of.
The final exhibit that caught my eye was a solar-powered car developed by volunteer students from the University of New South Wales'
Solar Racing Team. This incredible machine, Sunswift II, was built in 1987 and refined over the next 7 years, and is fitted with solar panels developed and produced by the students (unlike most solar-powered cars of its type which use commercially-produced solar panels). It develops only 1.2Kw (about the power needed to toast a slice of bread), but is capable of a speed of around 130Kph (80mph) and competed in the 1999, 2000 and 2003 Sunrace, as well as the 1999, 2001 and 2003 World Solar Challenge from Darwin to Adelaide (a mind-boggling distance!). Now I wish the college I studied Engineering at as a 17 and 18 year old had a project like that I could have got involved in!
Once I'd finished boring Tracy with stories of the racing world, we bought a fridge magnet from the gift shop and jumped back in the motorhome for another lap of the circuit, before leaving Bathurst and heading onto the Mid Western Highway towards our destination for the day, the town of Cowra, some 100Km away. We passed through yet more sun-scorched farmland and arrived in Cowra a little over an hour later, heading past the campsite and into town to the local Woolworths in order to get something for dinner over the next few days. We opted for some fresh soup for dinner and bought some steak for the following day, as well as some more salad stuff. From the attached BWS we bought another slab of Victoria Bitter and a couple of bottles of wine (one red, one white), then headed back out of town the Cowra Holiday Park campsite. Here we checked in with a guy who reminded me of Damon Hill but with an Aussie accent, and he explained what there was to see in town, which matched my own research but added a couple of extra sights to the list for tomorrow. We then pitched up outside our en-suite shed, connected the electric cable and turned on the a/c, then sat outside and started putting a dent in the supply of Victoria Bitter, which was still cold from being in the BWS Cold Room. When we started getting bothered by the flies and ants, we went inside and Tracy switched to wine whilst we both read our books, before I had my soup and we both had some cheese and biscuits. A nightcap of Rum and Coke seemed like a good idea at the time, before we brought the chairs in out of the rain which had started with some very large drops, then made the bed and turned in.
The rain didn't last long and once again we had a quiet and peaceful night's sleep, helped no doubt by the alcohol consumed the night before. I woke and showered in the en-suite, a much nicer experience than trudging across the campsite to a remote amenities block, or squeezing into the cramped toilet/shower onboard the motorhome. Tracy woke with a slight hangover, which of course enlisted plenty of sympathy from me. Or not. Regardless, we ate breakfast before FaceTiming her parents, who for once were drinking wine whilst we weren't (normally our FaceTime sessions are conducted in the evening, meaning we're drinking whilst it's early morning in the UK, this was the other way round). After we'd chatted a while we washed up and packed everything away before driving the short distance into Cowra town and to the Visitor's Information Centre. Now normally we only visit these places if we don't know much about the area, but this time was an exception as we were armed with information from my research and the Damon Hill lookalike at the campsite, but there was a specific reason for wanting to visit the information centre. Not only does it house an impressive collection of local produce and wines (none of which we were interested in), it houses a replica WWII bunker in which you can watch a 9-minute holographic presentation of the town's most famous event.
Back in 1941 Camp Number 12, a POW camp, was established about 2 miles outside the town. Consisting of four 17-acre compounds arranged in a circle with a central road running north-south and a pathway east-west, this was used to house POWs either caught in Australia or sent here from other fields of conflict. These included Italians from Africa as well as Indonesians from the far east and a large contingent of Japanese prisoners including airmen captured after the attacks on Darwin. The four compounds were used to split the prisoners into groups, with A and C compounds housing Italian POWs, B compound Japanese and D compound Japanese officers and others (Korean and Taiwanese). The Italian prisoners were no trouble at all, and many were allowed freedom to work the fields and help with the logging industry mostly unsupervised, returning to the camp to eat and sleep. The Japanese on the other hand, were more problematic. Culturally, Japanese soldiers were brought up to believe that surrender was not an option, and only death in combat was an honourable way to go should things not go well. Capture was not even a consideration, hence Japan wasn't a signatory to the Geneva Convention on Human Rights which governed how to handle POWs. Those who were captured were typically unable to commit suicide before capture, either being too ill or injured or caught following the sinking of their ships. They would give false names so that details of their fate wouldn't get back to Japan and embarrass their families, who would prefer to believe they had died in battle than were alive having been captured. Such was the culture, where capture was seen as being worse than death. The Japanese did not expect to be treated well, and were surprised when the Australians first nursed them back to health, and then fed and looked after them in POW camps. They expected that if they returned to Japan and were found to have been POWs they would be shot in disgrace, and could never return to normal life. It was these cultural beliefs that led to disaster when, in August 1944 as the camp was getting overcrowded they were told that all Japanese POWs below the rank of Lance-Corporal would be transferred to another camp the following day.
That night a series of emergency meetings were held in the Japanese camp, with a series of votes taking place as to whether to try and launch an attack and mass escape. The vote was overwhelmingly in favour of attack - a suicide mission that would result in death in battle or, if lucky, an escape, both options restoring some sense of honour amongst the Japanese. At 1:50am on Saturday 5th August 1944, at the sound of a bugle, over 1,000 Japanese POWs rushed from their huts in Compound B, setting fires behind them, yelling and rushing towards the barbed-wire fences, in groups of 200-300. Using blankets thrown over the barbed wire they stormed over the defenses, which consisted of three fences some 9 metres apart. The permiter was guarded by a trailer-mounted Vickers machine gun, and two Australian privates who were in their own billets when the attack started, rushed to the gun to defend the camp and the garrison outside it. They were Private Jones and Private Hardy, and they just made it to the gun before the advancing Japanes and began firing on them, leaving many dead hanging from the fences. Still the Japanese pushed ahead, a mad rush with the intent of death or glory. Meanwhile flares went up to alert the Australian Recruit Training Camp, located some 2 miles away, asking for support. Jones and Hardy were overrun and killed, but not before Hardy had managed to disable the machine gun so that when the Japanese turned it towards the garrison it was useless. During the night, 378 Japanese escaped into the surrounding countryside, but 231 were killed. Along with Jones and Hardy another two Australian soldiers were killed - Lieutenant Harry Doncaster who was clubbed and stabbed to death during the escape after being deserted by trainees on a hillside and Private Charles Shepherd who was stabbed to death emerging from Compound B's guardhouse on the morning of the breakout. All those who escaped were re-captured within 10 days of the breakout, largely because they had nowhere to go (Cowra is very remote) and stood out from the local population. Many of the Japanese dead had committed suicide either during or after the breakout attempt. An inquiry after the event concluded that conditions within the camp had been fully compliant with the requirements of the Geneva convention, and put the breakout attempt down to the Japanese cultural desire for an honourable death in preference to being captured.
The holographic picture show was excellent, the story being told from the perspective of a young girl from the town at the time of the war and the breakout. Inside the visitor's centre was also a small model of the camp and a display of relevant materials - an Australian army uniform, Vickers machine gun, part of the gate, etc. It was a very informative way to start exploring the story of the camp and the attempted breakout.
Our next port of call was the camp itself, on the outskirts of the town. Whilst the compound buildings, fences and roadways are no more, some of the foundations are still visible and there is a recreated guard tower that plays an audio explanation of events when anyone gets close to it. There are also some display stands explaining the story and a memorial statue to those held there, as well as an Italian war memorial. Standing looking out over the expanse of land on which the camp once stood, it was quite easy to work out what it must have looked like, even if it was impossible to imagine what it must have been like to be a POW or guard there. After taking some photos we moved on to the war cemetry, further up the hill. Here there were two separate war cemetries, one for the Australians (and an RAF pilot killed nearby), containing 27 neat graves with the familiar white headstones of all Commonwealth war graves. We quickly found the graves for the four killed during the breakout, and paid our respects, in particular to Jones and Hardy whose heroic actions in disabling the gun before succumming to the Japanese onslaught resulted in them being awarded the George Cross for gallantry.
Next to the Commonwealth War Cemetry was the Japanese War Cemetry, the only such war cemetry outside Japan. This contains not only the graves of those who died during the breakout, but also all Japanese who died in Australia during the whole of WWII. These graves were marked with brass name-plates lined up on strips of concrete, with 40 plaques per strip. The 5 strips of plaques and names all bearing the same date of death - 5th August 1944 - were those killed during the breakout. As with all war cemetries I've visited (and I've visited quite a few), there is a sense of the complete waste of young lives (many graves were holding 18 year olds).
Cowra has addressed its role in history in a very positive way, aligning itself closely with Japanese culture and the cause of world peace. Our next stop on our tour of the town was the Japanese Garden, a complete contrast to the barren hillside where the POW camp used to be. This immaculate Kaiyushiki (strolling) garden was designed by Ken Nakajima to reflect the whole of the Japanese landscape and is full of beautiful plants all laid out around hillsides and pathways and a cascading river, presenting an extremely peaceful place. Having paid our entrance fee and entered the garden, we walked slowly around, allowing the peace and tranquility of the garden to work its magic. Had it not been for the heat, and the odd persistent fly, I'm sure we could both have stayed there all day. Covering 12.5acres, the garden is large but didn't feel it as we followed the pathway up the hillside (representing Mount Fuji) and admired the wonderful plants, including one that looked like grass raised up high above the ground (Dwarf Diosma) which gave the effect of a lawned hillside next to the path. In addition to the pathway and the lovely manicured plants there was a large pool with huge Koi carp and lots of different species of ducks, some Japanese-style buildings affording much needed shade and several benches, which had they not been terribly hot would have been ideal for sitting and admiring the garden.
Having walked very slowly all the way around the garden, we went to the café and ordered some lunch. Tracy enjoyed a very nice-looking BLT sandwich whilst I had an equally delicious sweet-chilli chicken wrap. Much better than yesterday's lunch! Following the usual fridge-magnet shopping in the gift shop we drove away, nice and relaxed, back into town and on to the final stop on the must-see sight list. In the centre of town is a World Peace Bell. Weighing 477Kg the bell is a replica of the original Japanese World Peace Bell which hangs in the inner court of the United Nations building in New York. Like the original, it is cast from melted-down coins from over 60 member countries of the UN. There are over 20 World Peace Bells around the world, most in capital cities (Madrid, Berlin, Warsaw, Ankara, etc) but in Australia it was decided to place it in Cowra due to the town's efforts towards peace and its relationship with the Japanese. It is tradition to strike the bell to shop your commitment towards peace. I struck it first, then Tracy took her turn. The note from the bell is beautiful, crisp, deep and clean, and lingers for quite a while after being struck.
After doing our bit for world peace, we returned to the motorhome and drove back to the campsite, where I updated the blog once more. With that done, we settled down to dinner of steak (I've now got the hang of cooking them just the way we like) and salad, washed down with a nice bottle of Merlot.
The news both here and at home is currently full of stories about the huge bushfires that are ravishing the country. We follow the stories closely, and use the official government and fire service websites for information on where the fires are and how they are developing. The news is tragic - the latest news that one third of Kangaroo Island, including the beautiful Flinders Chase National Park where we free-camped and had kangaroos visit us in the evening and early morning, has been destroyed, is particularly sad. A very large number of koalas and kangaroos have been killed there, although we are hearing that many have been relocated to keep them safe. The main fires in New South Wales and Victoria are to the south and east of where we are, and therefore we should be able to skirt around them. That doesn't negate their impact though, as much of the Snowy and Blue Mountain areas have been destroyed. The south-east was to be our final destination on our trip around Australia and like many we've had to avoid it due to the fires. I guess we'll just have to come back another time. In the meantime, we'll keep listening to the radio, checking the websites and adjusting our plans to keep ourselves out of the way of those dealing with these devastating fires.
Neither Tracy nor I are big Elvis Presley fans, both being too young to really appreciate the impact he had (he died in 1977, 2 days after my 16th birthday). But when looking at what there is to do along our modified route, I discovered that there is an annual Elvis Festival in a nearby town that celebrates his birthday. The festival began in 1993 and was originally a single night's performance attracting 300 people, but since then it's grown into a 5-day long festival with over 200 events and draws crowds of around 25,000. Too good to simply pass by...
But first we had to drive to Parkes from Cowra, so after an early breakfast we set off, only to be stopped by a policeman just as we entered Cowra town centre. Nothing untoward, just a routine and random licence and breath check. The odd thing was the breathalyser, which unlike the UK ones, didn't require me to blow into it, just recite the numbers 1 through 10 whilst the officer held the unit close (ish) to my mouth. Of course I passed the test and he handed me back my licence with a cheery
Have a G'Day! and we were on our way again. It would be a big step forward for UK road policing if our officers were allowed to conduct random licence-and-document checks as they are in most other countries, and for all drivers to have to carry their licence and documents with them. Why we have the archaic system that allows me to produce said documents within 5 days at a Police Station of my choosing (or not to do so if I wanted to evade the law) is beyond me.
With the police satisfied we drove on towards Parkes, first heading North on the B1 through Toogong and then west via Manildra and on to Parkes. As we drove into town there were signs for the Elvis Festival everywhere, and diversion signs directing traffic around the town centre. We ignored the diversion signs and headed directly for the town centre, where we saw a large crowd in a park sat watching a display of dancing by some girls in fluorescent green skirts and listening to an Elvis impersonator singing. We parked up on the high street and went to take a closer look. The singer wasn't too bad, sounding a little like The King until he stopped singing and began talking. In a thick Aussie accent. That had me struggling to contain the giggles. The girls dancing were all very young, and obviously from one of the town's dance clubs. After watching them perform their next routine, and checking out the new (only 2 years old) Elvis statue in the park, we wandered through the town to check out what else was going on. We avoided an Elvis not-quite-lookalike singer busking on the pavement, dodged an old guy with a bush-hat that had attached thick Elvis sideburns dangling from each side, negotiated our way past middle-aged women in big 50's style skirts and somehow managed to avoid getting knocked over by old gentlement unable to see where they were going through dark-tinted Elvis-style sunglasses. It was a riot! There were Elvis impersonators singing outside several restaurants or shops on the High Street and a shop called
Elvis Central selling sounvenirs for the festival, including some genuinely grotesque Elvis image emblazoned shirts. Which seemed to be selling a treat, judging by how many people we saw wearing them as they walked on by. We stopped at a café for a brew and to catch our breath, then completed a circuit of the town, just avoiding being run over by a rhinestone-encrusted jacket-wearing Elvis driving a Toyota SUV. It's just as well he missed us, as a few minutes later we saw him standing outside a hardware store, singing his wigged head off.
On our way out of town, we stopped at a camping shop to buy some more chemical tablets for the portaloo, and the guy behind the counter asked us where we were camping. When we told him we were heading to Wagga-Wagga, he remarked
To avoid all these Elvises, eh! to which we replied with a knowing grin...
Our route from Parkes to Wagga-Wagga was cross-country, mostly on the A39, and took us through yet more sun-scorched farmland. The sky was still hazy from the smoke of the distant bushfires, making it hard to discern any horizon and obscuring the hills. There was no sign of actual fires, though, perhaps due to the expanse of farmland, but even the wooded hillsides looked green and healthy. We did see a few Pterodactyl nests, though, scattered about the fields. We saw large piles of trees and branches like these all over New Zealand and earlier on in our travels, so it appears the large flying dinosaurs are alive and well in this part of the world. Either that, or the farmers simply pile up dead wood and leave it there.
On arriving at Wagga-Wagga, we drove directly to the Big 4 campsite, which we'd checked online to see if there was space, without actually booking a pitch. When we enquired about a powered site for the night we were intially told they were full due to the number of people evacuating nearby sites due to bushfires, but then offered a powered tent pitch instead. That worked just fine, as we don't need a firm base or a very large pitch, and so a few minutes later we were parked up and sat relaxing. Well, I was, Tracy went to do the laundry. Later that evening we ate some cheese and biscuits for dinner, before turning in for an early night, as I was feeling somewhat tired from the heat.
We were woken early by the sound of crashing and banging coming from the construction site the other side of the camp wall and just 20m from where we were parked. Unpeterbed, if a little tired, we had a shower in the lovely clean amenities block and then ate breakfast whilst checking the route for the day against the various fire service websites. All looked good, so we set off heading down the A41 Olympic Highway south towards Albury, passing through yet more sun-bleached farmland. The distant smoke haze was still there, obscuring our view of the hills ahead and leaving a faint wood-smoke smell in the air. Once again we saw no direct signs of the bushfires that are burning still to the west of us, and the hills we could see were still covered in green forests. From Albury our route got more complex, heading first towards Wangaratta, then cutting south again to Mansfield before turning west once more to Merton and then south-west to Yarck. Here we stopped at the Giddy Goat Café for a brew and a spot of lunch (a rather disappointing
genuine Cornish Pasty for me, Tracy was happy with her sandwich), largely because we liked the name and also because their responses to critical online reviews were quite amusing. From there we continued on to Marysville, passing through Buxton on the way, which once again looked nothing like its English namesake.
As we approached Marysville, the road began to climb a little into the hills, which were still verdant and green with no signs that they've been affected by the recent bushfires. Which is a relief, because Marysville was affected very badly in the Black Saturday bushfires 10 years ago. At the time, the town had a population of over 500 people, but was devastated by the Murrindindi Mill bushfire on 7th February 2009. On 19th February 2009 the official death toll was 45 and around 90&percent; of the town's buildings had been destroyed. The disaster was so bad that the entire town was declared a crime scene and was effectively closed off while Victorian and Federal police recovered bodies and conducted investigations. It wasn't reopened to the public until the 23rd March. In February 2014 a class action trial against electricity company SP AusNet was due to begin in the Victorian Supreme Court. It was alleged that the fire was caused by a
break in an electrical conductor on a power pole near the Murrindindi Saw Mill. An AUD$300 million settlement was announced before the trial began.
I'm not sure what we expected to find, but there is no evidence of these devastating event in the town today, which is still surrounded by forest. The campsite is in the centre of town and has a small river running through the centre, and it, too, is surrounded by and populated with large, seemingly healthy, trees. We checked in and pitched up next to the river, then the tiredness I'd been feeling overwhelmed me and I laid down and went to sleep for an hour. Whilst I was sleeping, Tracy sat outside reading and when I woke she was in deep conversation with an old guy from the tent next to ours who'd wandered over for a chat. He left shortly after a large coach-like motorhome arrived, in order to introduce himself to the next new arrivals. A very friendly campsite. Later, when I'd managed to shake off the sleepiness, I made us a chicken curry and rice, which we ate before reading and then turning in for another early night.
I woke in the middle of the night, very cold. This was unusual for me, as normally I'm like a heat-generator when I'm asleep, and rarely feel the cold. But sleeping with just a sheet over us wasn't enough as the temperature dropped and so I had to get up and dig out the duvet from the cupboards underneath the bed, where they've been ever since we hit the warm weather around Port Augusta in late October. When I woke again around 6:30am, I decided it was still too early to get up, so went back to bed and snuggled up in the warmth. By the time I woke again it was nearly 8am, the sun was up and I was too hot once more. Some people are just never satisfied!
I got up and walked to the shower block, swatting away a number of flies that were persistent in their attempts to get up my nose, into my mouth or down my ears.
Welcome back, I've missed you!, I didn't think. Once showered and back in the relative safety of the motorhome, we had breakfast and then packed up ready for the relatively short drive around Melbourne and back onto Phillip Island. Before leaving Marysville we drove into town to have a look at the sculpture forest, but it wasn't open yet and there was no sign of it being open soon. So I took a pity of the wooden sculpture at the entrance and we set off again.
The drive from Marysville to Healesville on the C512 and B360 was superb. We knew it was likely to be when we saw some motorbikes outside the café in Marysville - a sign that the roads are good for biking. It rose up and into the hills, then twisted its way through the Yarra Forest, which thankfully, at least here, is untouched by the recent fires. The Yarra Ranges National Park is an extensive area of cool temperate forest and home to some very tall Mountain Ash trees. It was simply wonderful to be driving through such a lush, green, forest after reading about the devastation being caused by the bushfires elsewhere - once again testement to the sheer size of Australia, that there can be fires burning in forests the size of Scotland yet there still remains a forest such as this. We stopped for photos when we could, keen to at least capture some of the majesty of these tall branchless trees as they reached up high into the sky in rows. The analogy we came up with was
like matchsticks, but I'm reluctant to say that in case it brings bad luck. Let's hope not, as this forest is quite beautiful and very peaceful, even it if was quite busy with traffic on the very twisty road through it.
We stopped at Selovers Lookout for a view across the Maroondah Valley and its reservoir, then dropped down from the hills via towns with fantastic names - Woori Yallock, Yellingbo, Nagana and Cockatoo - then up and over Mt Burnett and down into Pakenham. Here we stopped for a brew and a sandwich for lunch, then continued on down onto the plains once more to the lovely-named Kee Woo Rup, where we picked up the road we'd driven way back in October towards Phillip Island. The sky was getting duller by the minute, and the wind picked up as the temperature dropped from 33 degrees to 23 degrees in the space of an hour. By the time we arrived at Cowes and our campsite on the western edge of town, it was quite dull and threatening to rain. Welcome back to Phillip Island! We booked ourselves in and then pitched up just as the rain started, so I retreated into the motorhome to write the blog, whilst Tracy sat reading and attending to the final batch of laundry (the towels, which will have to be dried in the tumble dryer as it's still raining).
We've returned to Phillip Island primarily to see the Penguin Parade, which we've booked for tomorrow night, but also because it brings our journey full circle. We've now completed a full lap of Australia, and we still have 4 more days to go before we fly home. As the end is getting close I'm starting to feel the usual bout of meloncholy creeping in, as whilst I'm looking forward to seeing everyone back home, I could oh-so-easily just start all over again and repeat the journey.
After another good night's sleep under the duvet, we woke relatively late at 7:30am and took our time showering and eating breakfast as we intended on having a slow day with just a couple of things planned. First was a visit to the Phillip Island Chocolate Factory, which was a short drive back towards the bridge onto the island. This is a real working chocolate factory that offers tours, the ticket for which is a real bar of chocolate. What's not to like?
The tour itself was fun, mostly aimed at kids but with enough information for a geek like me to learn all about how chocolate is made (and them promptly forget it). Inside were some interesting displays, including a large statue of Michelangelo's David made from milk chocolate and a working model railway with all the landscape and buildings made from chocolate. In fact, there was chocolate everywhere, including a huge waterfall of runny chocolate on a continuous loop. There were also some arcade games which sadly didn't involve chocolate, but Tracy won a bonus chocolate ball on one of them, so we weren't complaining. The factory had a slightly odd Indian Willy-Wonka feel to it, as it was established and run by the Panny family who are of Indian origin. That meant that the offerings in the on-site café also had an Indian flavour, so I opted for a Tandoori Chicken wrap and Tracy some Vegetable Samosas. Very nice they were, too.
After buying a bar of chocolate for later we drove back to Cowes and hit the supermarket to get something in for dinner, and as it was still fairly cool (freezing, according to Tracy, despite being around 18degrees!) we decided upon bangers and mash. We couldn't find any of the sausages we've BBQ'd before, so bought the only pork option on sale (the rest were beef or chicken) which were mixed with fennel. That would prove to be a mistake as after I'd cooked them with some onions, mushrooms and garden peas (a proper dinner for a cold climate!) they tasted rubbish. We were both very disappointed, but still full after I'd done my usual quantity of mash and it was very filling, especially considering we'd not had potatoes (except as chips) for over 3 months.
After attending to the washing up it was time to drive to the Penguin Parade area just 10 minutes down the road at the western tip of the Island. Our tickets showed a time of 8pm, but we wasnted to get there early to get a good seat, and arrived just after 7pm along with several coach-loads of Indian and Asian tourists. Passing through the large visitor centre we stopped to get a fridge magnet and look at the other stuff on sale (mostly stuffed penguins or overpriced
typical Australian clothing), then it was out onto the boardwalk. This winds its way over the grassy hillside that is just inland from the coast, and all over the hillside were little burrows where the penguins sleep and raise their chicks. At this point there were non visible, but there were several Swamp Wallabys and a few other birds that were familiar from the wildlife centre we'd visited but whose names escape me. The boardwalks led to a large viewing area made up of long benches in tight steps with metal tops, still wet from the earlier rain. There were quite a few people already sat down, so we joined them, getting a seat a few rows from the bottom. And waited. After a while the ranger spoke to us through a microphone, reminding us all to stay seated during the parade and that, sadly, there was no photography allowed as the little penguins eyes are very sensitive to blue light from camera-phones, cameras and other electronic devices. Which explains the lack of penguin photos below. As we sat the area filled up and by the time the sun set around 8pm it was fairly full we people cramped onto the small bench seats all along the viewing area we were in, and a similar one a little farther down the beach. As dusk turned to dark the area's dim yellow lights came on, providing us with some light and we strained to see if anything was emerging from the sea. Then I saw the first little penguin, waddling through the rocks before making its way across the beach (where they're most vulnerable and exposed) and into the grassy hillside. A short while later there were more little penguins, forming up in groups at the water's edge before running together like commuters crowding to get on the underground, across the beach and into the scrub. The groups varied from just a few to about 20 little penguins, huddled together and waddling up the beach. Sometimes the group would get freaked and turn round and rush back into the sea (for no apparent reason, there were no predators about), or get fragmented with a straggler rushing as fast as possible trying to catch up with the main group. They were great to watch, even if they were hard to see. They're called Little Blue Penguins because, well, they're little and blue. Which in the dark is not ideal when it comes to being seen (or is, depending on whether you're a penguin or not). They're only about 30-35cm tall at most, and if it hadn't been for their sheer numbers and the expanse of sand they had to cover, would have been very difficult to see.
After we'd watched them arriving for about 25 minutes, and seen a couple of hundred arrive, we left the uncomfortable seating area and walked back up to the boardwalk, where we could see them following little paths in the bush, heading home to their burrows and their chicks. We saw several fluffy chicks huddled in twos waiting for their parents to arrive and feed them. The chicks were quite large in comparison to their parents, almost as tall and quite fat, but covered in a fur-like fluffy coat rather than sleek-looking feathers of the adults returning from the ocean. We watched a good few groups as we walked along the boardwalk, but by now it was raining quite heavily and so we reluctantly walked slowly back towards the visitor's centre. On the way we could hear the chicks calling for their parents and their parents calling for their chicks, the noise sounding a little like lots of frogs croaking.
We got back to the motorhome and joined the steady stream of vehicles leaving the area, then drove back to the campsite, pitched back up on our site and set about reconnecting the electric and making the bed. By now it was already bedtime, so we simply collapsed into bed and were asleep within seconds. We both agreed it had been worth returning to Phillip Island and once again braving its weather in order to see the little penguins in their natural habitat.
I woke to a cloudy day with spits of rain lingering in the air and the temperature lovely and cool, the air fresh and clean. Tracy, on the other hand, woke to a dull and freezing cold morning, and immediately started asking when we could return to the sunshine of earlier days. We had breakfast and then I set about uploading the previous blog entry before we finally packed up and left the campsite around 10:30am, having a nice relaxing day ahead before we met up with Andy and Lisa around 4pm.
We drove to the far west of the island, past the Penguin Parade and out to Nobbies Centre, where we parked up and on getting out of the motorhome were immediately attached by viscious squadrons of persistent flies. Once again walking whilst performing the
Aussie Salute with both hands, desperately trying to rid ourselves of the flies and stop ourselves looking like Pig-Pen from the Snoopy cartoons, we went onto the boardwalk for a closer look at the rocks below. This is home to a large colony of Fur Seals, but today they were all absent. We did see a little penguin chick in its burrow on the way to the overlook, as well as two Cape Barren Geese (birds with odd-looking beaks, see photo below) and then stood watching the waves crashing into they have carved out of the rock. This was fascinating, as the waves crash into the cave, compressing the air inside up against the back wall, which then blasts the wave back out in a mass of fine spray. It certainly looked impressive. We then retraced our steps, heading back up the boardwalk to the centre building and stopped close to a crowd that had gathered to look at something on the hillside. It was a snake - a Copperhead Snake, the only snake known to exist on Phillip Island and one that is both shy and poisonous (like most Australian snakes). It was the first snake we'd seen in Australia in the 3 months we've been here, despite being warned they were everywhere.
Back at the motorhome we drove back the way we'd come, heading around the island once more, this time calling in at the GP Circuit's visitors' centre. Now I know we spent 3 days here back in October over Grand Prix weekend, but we didn't visit the visitors' centre and its little motorsport museum or café, so now seemed like a good time to do so. We parked up in the same car park where I almost ruined the weekend by loosing our tickets, then walked through the tunnel entrance and paid our entry fee to the museum. Inside was a wall telling the story of the circuit from its early days in the 50s, through it hosting the first Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix in 1988, to the present day. There was also a display of touring cars that have raced here and a collection of Italian Grand Prix bikes. These were factory Aprilia and Cagiva 125, 250 and 500cc 2-strokes bikes from the early 90s up to when the 2-strokes stopped racing in the early naughties. There were also some World Superbikes on display, including the Kiwi Aaron Slight's factory Honda RVF750. But pride of place was Valentino Rossi's 125cc championship winning 125cc bike from 1997 - the year he won the first of his 9 world championships, and a year that I followed his antics with great interest (it was obvious, even back then, that he would become a real star).
When we'd finished admiring the bikes (or rather, Tracy looked bored, I could have stared at them all day!), we left the museum and went into the café for some lunch. Outside, trying to get in through the glass door, was a large male peacock. He didn't get in, so we were able to enjoy our food in peace.
We left the café and drove back off the island onto the mainland and on towards Melbourne, or more specifically, Andy and Lisa's house in the suburbs south of the city. We pulled up outside just after 4:30pm and were greeted by Andy brandishing an Australian Post parcel - Tracy's recovered purse from the Ayres Rock Campground which had finally arrived at his address some 3 weeks after being posted from there having been found 2 days after we left. With the formailities of handshakes done, we went into the house and met his fianceé Lisa, a native Australian decended from the early free settlers. He's definately punching above his weight there! We sat and chatted like the old friends we are - I met Andy at Manchester Airport on the day I started working for Cambridge Technology Partners, 22 years ago, when we were about to fly out for New Employee Orientation (or 2 weeks on the p*ss in Boston on expenses). Later that evening we got a lift from Lisa's son, Tom, close to their local pub/restaurant where we enjoyed dinner and more chat, before walking back to complete the cycle over a further nightcap. We declined their kind offer of a bed in the house in order to sleep in the motorhome (with only 2 nights left, we want to make the most of it!), and turned in around 11pm (it being a school-night for Andy as he's still working his fingers to the bone).
After a fitful night's sleep, full of weird dreams about being late for something (probably a result of me setting my internal alarm clock for 7:30am) we woke and snuck into Andy and Lisa's house to use the shower (it's ok, they gave us a key!). There then followed a mild panic as I couldn't locate my sunglasses (Tracy had put them on the dashboard thinking they were hers), and after managing to check inside the house without disturbing anyone, we drove quietly away in search of a café for breakfast. We found a bakery not far away and had a brew and something to eat, the egg and bacon sandwich I had being served on ciabatta bread that was so sharp it cut my lip! Once full and refreshed we set off determined to solve the only remaining issue - where and how to fill up the LPG (gas) bottle. It's a requirement of our rental that we return the motorhome empty of bad stuff and full of fresh water and diesel and with a full gas bottle. Only they don't allow the usual bottle-exchange, insisting that their own bottles are refilled before return. If you recall, we were so worried about running out of gas in the middle of nowhere that we bought a replacement full gas bottle as a spare some time ago. Well, we've never used it, the original gas bottle still having enough gas for us to cook with even after 3 months. With it going back tomorrow, we decided to ensure it was full today, so that we wouldn't have to go hunting for somewhere to get it filled tomorrow. As it was, I used a very helpful website (www.gasbottlerefills.com) to locate somewhere we could get it filled, and that's where we headed after breakfast. It was only 10 minutes down the road, a place called
Barbeques Galore in nearby Moorabin. We arrived and whilst Tracy looked around at the very posh-looking BBQs on sale (including a very nice BBQ/Smoker retailing for a very reasonable AUD$6,500!), I went to remove the bottle from the motorhome so the guy could refill it. Only I couldn't get the hose undone, it was very tight. He came to help, but despite being about half my age, couldn't undo it either. Eventually I managed to get it off and he took the bottle to be refilled, whilst Tracy told me about the prices of the BBQs. Pity we couldn't take one home as I'm sure we've got room for a £3,500 smoker somewhere! When the bottle was refilled and we'd paid the very reasonable AUD$20 for the gas, I reconnected it to the motorhome and we were on our way again. Simple.
We drove back onto the coast road and followed this around and through St. Kilda, a very posh version of Blackpool, complete with roller-coaster park (aka Pleasure Beach), trams and piers. The only differences between St Kilda and Blackpool that I could ascertain were: no Kiss-me-Quick hats, no rubbish, no drunken Scotsmen (or any other drunks for that matter), sunshine, no ice-cream parlours, no tacky gaming houses, no hordes of pink and overwieght tourists, no loud and inappropriate music, no donkeys or horse-drawn carts carrying obese families too lazy to walk, and little traffic. Oh, and no tower. Ok, it's not like Blackpool at all, and all the better for it. (I should, at this point, remind the reader that Blackpool is my home town, and therefore I'm allowed to slag it off).
Once through St. Kilda we turned inland and took the motorway to get through Melbourne and out to the west, before turning off towards Geelong. Here we took the road down to the harbour and admired the boats and the sandy beach and the people obviously enjoying the warm sunshine (it was, by now, around 25degrees). We drove on towards the end of the Bellarine Peninsula and on to the quaint town of Queenscliff. Here we parked up and went for a walk around the town, stopping in an antique shop which was full of interesting stuff, none of which we needed or wanted, but was fun to look at. We also went into an old bookshop (one that sold old books, although the shop looked old too), which looked like my library at home before I cleared it out. There were literally hundreds of books all piled up on shelves, on the floor, and basically strewn all about the place in piles (and organised into categories). We looked around for quite some time before leaving empty-handed. We've got Kindles, so don't need old books. Especially as we've still got a room full of them at home!
After a visit to the old-fashioned sweet shop, which was run by an ex-pat Englishwoman and her Scottish husband, where I avoided buying anything (in preparation for the crash-diet I need to go on when we get home), we went into a bakers that proclaimed it sold
Australia's most award-winning pies. How could we pass that up when we were hungry and in search of lunch? Inside we ordered a pie each - Tracy the Chicken and Vegetable and me the Steak and Mushroom (why, oh why, don't they make Chicken and Mushroom pies here?) - and a brew, and a little chocolate thing for desert. The pies were good. Not exceptionally so, but good all the same, and probably the last ones we'll have on this trip. I will miss Australia's pies (and pies in general) when I get home, but given the size of my bulging stomach, perhaps that's a good thing.
Once our appetites were dealt with, we drove on, around the harbour for a look-see and then on to Fort Queenscliff, which we hoped to have a look around. That plan was scuppered when we realised that you can only enter the Fort on a guided tour, and they leave at 11am, 1pm and 3pm and last 90-minutes. It was now 1:30pm, and we didn't want to be too late getting to the campsite on our last night, especially as it was now quite hot and we'd still got a fridge stocked with cold beer. Oh, and Tracy was very tired, already falling asleep in the passenger seat as I drove. So instead we decided to try and visit the fort in the morning, and set off to find a Woolworths to get something in for our last meal in the motorhome. Now you might expect us to buy stuff for a BBQ to use some of the newly-purchased gas, but we decided to have our favourite meal one last time, so bought some fresh cooked prawns and salad ingredients. Then we drove the remainder of the way to our last campsite, the Eldorado Tourist Park, which is in Geelong but not close to anything. Here we had our own en-suite toilet and shower block, as well as power and there's even a pool, which I may go in despite having sat here writing this and drinking beer for the last hour or so, whilst Tracy attended to the laundry for the last time (and then fell alseep - as I type this, she's snoozing peacefully laid down on the other side of the motorhome).
Tracy woke sometime later, and we sat chatting and drinking the last of the beer whilst I watched Monty Python's Meaning of Life on my laptop. Then we made the prawn salad and enjoyed that with our last bottle of Reisling, before watching a Going in Style, a film starring Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman as old-aged pensioners who rob a bank. When that was over it was late and we made the bed for the last time before turning in.
I woke having had a decent night's sleep, but it was already nearly 8am, so we knew we wouldn't get time to visit Fort Queenscliff after all. Once up and showered, I made myself some scrambled eggs on toast for breakfast to use up some of the last of the eggs, whilst Tracy enjoyed her last bowl of cereal (she's found one here she really likes, with honey and macadamia nuts, but it's not available back home). Once we'd finished breakfast and washed up, we negotiated a late check-out to give us time to pack and started unloading our belongings from the various cupboards. It took us quite a while to get everything packed back into the two bags we brought out, but we eventually succeeded, then started about sorting out the food cupboards and fridge, working out what we could donate to other campers at the Maui depot and what needed throwing away. With that all sorted, we cleaned the motorhome, emptied the toilet and waste water and filled up the fresh water tank for the last time. Then it was time to hit the road towards Melbourne and the Mantra Tullamarine hotel near the airport where we've booked a room. Driving very slowly towards the very heavy smoke-filled skies over Melbourne, we drove in silence, both of us lost in our reflective thoughts of the journey that was coming to an end. We arrived at the hotel around 1pm and luckily our room was ready so I checked us in and then took the bags to the room and dropped them off, then we drove the motorhome back to Maui's rental centre. We filled up the fuel tank for the last time (with diesel, of course!) and passed the supermarket we'd first visited 3 months previously, remarking how it felt like a very, very, long time ago. Back at Maui, we dropped the food supplies off near the shelves where other campers can take what they can use, and then handed back the keys. I explained the issues we'd had - the bad smell, the intermittent fault with the cab air-con, the Sat-Nav that no longer spoke to us and the poor brakes - then the chap inspected the motorhome to check there was no damage. He remarked on the mileage we'd done - 22,235Km - and how it had been serviced before we took it and how it now needed another one. Well, we have had it for 3 months and driven it all around Australia!
Just for fun(!), we recorded the fuel we'd used over the full 22,235Km (13,816 miles), which equates to 2,604 litres at a total cost of AUD$4,319.91 (roughly £2,300) at an average of AUD$1.66/litre. This works out as 8.54Km/l or a measly 24mpg. Hardly the most economical vehicle I've ever driven!
It was sad leaving it there, but all good things must come to an end. We caught a taxi back to the hotel where we could chill out for the remainder of the afternoon before an early dinner and an early night, ready to be up again at 3am to go to the airport and catch our flights home, the first of which departs at 6am, the start of 23 hours of flying and hanging around airports before we land in Manchester tomorrow evening. Dinner in the hotel restaurant was surprisingly good, the lamb Tracy had was truly excellent, and the seafood linguine I opted for was equally good. The cheeseboard for desert (the last time I'll be permitting myself the luxury of cheese for a while) was a tad disappointing, with just a brie and creamy cheddar on offer. With dinner over, we retired to our rooms where I downloaded some books for the flights and then we turned in for an early night, alarm set for 3am...
I actually woke at 2:30am, so switched the alarm off and went and showered whilst Tracy stirred. We then packed our backs, had a brew, and struggled to the lift carrying the bags. The hotel offers a free shuttle bus to the airport so we checked out and got our ticket, then went out the back and almost immediately into a bus and off we went. We found the Emirates desk and dropped our bags off, collecting the paper boarding cards (why they still do this when we checked-in online and got them electronically is beyond me) and were then told that security wouldn't be open for at least 20 minutes. It seems that the airport actually closes down at night, security only opening at 4am. So we found a seat and waited, then when the crowd had gone made our way through the usual round of security checks. Once air-side, we went to the duty free shop to pick up some alcohol for Sean and Konnor (none for us as we're going dry for a couple of months), then to the gate to wait for boarding.
Our first flight, to Dubai, was delayed by nearly an hour due to someone getting sick shortly after boarding and having the be taken off the plane, the crew then checking all the hand-luggage to ensure they hadn't left anything behind. Once underway, I started to watch some films to while away the nearly 14 hour flight. I watched 5 films in that time, only managing about an hour's sleep due to the noise. As the flight had been delayed and with us only having 1.5hours to make our connection in Dubai, it was something of a rush on arrival. It took an age to get off the plane, then we had to clear security again and then walk about 3 miles from one side of the airport to the other. Then we had another wait until boarding (which was underway when we got there but took ages as they boarded by group). Finally on board the flight was delayed whilst they waited for people arriving late on flights that had been delayed - had we known that, we wouldn't have rushed to get to the gate! Once in the air, I settled down to watch some more films, managing a further 3 in the 8 hours it took.
After arriving in Manchester we cleared through passport control then struggled to find any English money to pay for a trolley. I eventually found a £5 note, but the machine wouldn't take it. A woman took pity on me (I must have looked really stressed!) and gave me a £1 coin, so armed with a trolley we collected our bags which were going round for the second time on the carousel. Sean was waiting for us as we passed through an empty customs, and drove us back home. We then had a brew and retired to bed, knackered after 27 hours of travelling. That's the only problem with going to Australia or New Zealand!