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The Whitsundays is another of those must do things in Australia. We had been looking forward to it for a long time. We had seen lots of pictures and heard lots of stories so knew what to expect from the trip. We also knew exactly what we wanted from the trip, boat and crew which made choosing a lot easier. We spent 2 days and 1 night sailing around the beautiful islands. The boat we chose was a racing yacht called Siska and had a relatively few number of passengers (25) looked after by 3 crew members including Jack the Cornish lad. We were also joined on the trip buy two Dutch girls called Freya and Susan from our campsite who were really good fun.

Jo was a little nervous about being sea sick after the 1770 trip so we decided to give him some sea sickness tablets. Unfortunately whilst half asleep I gave him the wrong dosage as unbeknown to me we had two sets in the first aid kit. This meant that he was overdosed and about half an hour after taking them was not looking so hot. He couldn’t walk in a straight line and could not focus his eyes long enough to read anything. It is fair to say that the drugs were working but perhaps a little too much. He soldiered on and we started the long walk to the boat. To try and soak up some of the medicine I got him a large bacon sangar which he was very pleased with. When we got aboard the boat where the motion started to make him feel a bit more stable. Within about 6 hours he was back to normal. Ooops!

Siska is a 23 metre long yacht from Perth with two sails. It was designed for speed and had been an Australian racing yacht winning lots of awards and had sailed around the world. It had since been retired and fully decked out for taking tourists around the islands. We had a double berth for our one night at sea with its own hatch to the deck of the boat.

Whitehaven Beach.

Whitehaven Beach.

After a brief safety talk it was all hands on deck and we got a chance to participate in raising the sails, which was great fun. Once we were sailing, well sail assisted as the wind was only blowing 10 – 15 knots!, we were off to the extremely well photographed (after only Uluru and the Sydney Opera House) Hill Inlet lookout which looks over Whitehaven beach. This was gorgeous and one the most stunning beach views we had seen in Oz. There was a gorgeous combination of many shades of turquoise water and white silica sand which made beautiful patterns of colours across the inlet. This was definitely the place for photographs and as a consequence had a fair few other people around. After enjoying the view we headed down and chilled on the sand of Whitehaven beach for a bit. It was lovely but I have to say that Australians call it the most beautiful beach in the world and I am not sure I would agree. It is stunning but so are lots of beaches for many different reasons. This one was peaceful and picturesque but had no life or vibe to it unlike a surf beach. Perhaps it was the clouds coming in but we weren’t feeling it. That night we had a few drinks tried our hardest to figure out the cryptic mind puzzles the crew had given us and admired the stars.

On day two we headed off to one of the best snorkeling spots in the islands. The water was warmish and we jumped in. Although part of the Great Barrier Reef this was more of a fringing reef and so was not nearly as spectacular as the Fitzroy Reef Lagoon. There were still lots of colourful fish and amazing coral so we were happy. It made us really appreciate what we had already seen and reflect on how colourful that had been.

Nara Inlet

Nara Inlet

As it was a cloudy day snorkeling did not take as long as usual so the crew took us to Nara Inlet. This is a picturesque little inlet which is very sheltered on 3 sides by large cliffs covered in rainforest. Apparently this is where the boats shelter if there is a cyclone as it is so well protected, this also makes it a perfect breeding ground for hammerhead sharks. We did not see any though as it was the wrong time of year. Our crazy crew decided this was a great spot for doing a rope swing off the boat. There weren’t any takers as you had to swing high otherwise you would crash into the railing and we had just been told about the hammerheads! We were then taken in shore to explore an old aboriginal cave with cave art. This was very interesting a real treat as it was not planned. We heard about how the aboriginals in that area used the water ways and made canoes. It was fascinating.

The ride home was very peaceful and again we did a bit more sailing. We enjoyed chatting to Freya and Susan and wished that they were heading North not South so that we could do a bit more with them. After we got off the yacht and were heading off the marina to our surprise we spotted a green turtle. He was right next to the shore in the busy marina just going about his business.

Back on dry land everyone went their separate ways but decided to meet up in the pub that evening, this was helped by the free drinks on offer by the company! Luckily the drinks were in our hostel so we didn’t have far to go. Freya and Susan joined us and it was a great way to end the trip. that was made possible thanks to my aunt and uncle – thanks guys!

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Camping in Australia

We have been camping now for about three months. We go through phases of having enough of it and not wanting to see a tent again, to it being normal. The worst bit is as we head further and further North the ground gets harder and harder. The dry season is three months in now and the ground is like concrete. We have given up and no longer pitch our tent properly. If it rained or was windy we would be in real trouble. Luckily for us at the moment it is sunny every day. We did have our fair share of rain in Yamba and Brisbane though.

Our camping setup.

Our camping setup.

It is nice being in the campsites and being able to talk to lots of Australians on hols rather than just other backpackers. At this time of year the caravan parks are full of people from Victoria and South NSW trying to escape their cold winter. Like us they are up in the tropics staying warm and enjoying the sun. It has been good to talk to other people who have done similar drives to the one we are about to make and it has reassured us that we will be fine.

At night time the moon is so bright that you are able to walk around the campsite without a torch, although most places have lighting anyway. In the remote areas the stars are amazing and you can see huge clusters.  It’s free entertainment.

The councils seem to pick the best spots for the campsites and they are relatively cheap. They are usually in the town centre or right on the beach – ideal! We have had some amazing campsites where you open the tent door to be greeted by the sunshine, beach and gentle waves lapping on the shore. At night we often go to sleep to the noise of the sea. Although we won’t be hearing that for a while once we head West.

Kookaburra at camp site.

Kookaburra at camp site.

The other great thing about their campsites is the wildlife. We have so many great wildlife experiences whilst just sitting at the campsite or being in the tent. We have been regularly visited by Kookaburras (especially at 6am!), lizards and an array of birds. We have be treated to a few more exotic animals like Emu’s, Kangaroos, Goannas and Possums. A few creepy crawlies have also come our way, a couple of big Huntsman spiders and a few cockroaches! Mostly though, it’s been ants and some are a bit bite-happy! It has been wonderful to be this outdoors and it definitely beats hosteling whilst the weather is this good.

Each campsite runs on much the same rules as the last, for example check out is always 10am. Why they insist on cleaning the bathrooms at 9am and cleaning the kitchens at lunch we just don’t know. Common sense would suggest that these would be the busiest times of the day, but that does not seem to prevail!

The final advantage to camping is that it is cheaper. One night for both of us in a campsite is about the same price as one of us staying in a hostel dorm. Jo says he doesn’t mind going back to hostels but he doesn’t know where I’ll sleep!

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We needed to pass some time before we got to Mackay as we were waiting for some post. We looked at the map and the “Lono” and decided that we would explore the area West of Mackay as recommended. This area is a large national park with rainforest and gorges. Although we had seen some of these already it sounded nice so we went to give it a go. We didn’t really know much about the area before we arrived. Rockampton to Eungella is a bit of a drive and so we arrived in Eungella at sunset. To our surprise, after driving on some single lane minor roads that could only just be called sealed, we were met by a rather large steep hill.

Road to Eungella, in daylight!

Road to Eungella, in daylight!

Leading up the hill was a very long, winding road which we discovered was the road to our campsite. Luckily for me Jo was driving! The road was an adventure all of its own with a sheer drop on one side and only enough room for one car in places. We made it safely to the top though and were relieved to pitch up at the campsite.

The campsite was very different to any of the ones we had stayed in so far. There weren’t pitches and there was no reception just an honesty box with prices. We found a spot and set up camp in the dark. The next morning on opening our tent the view was breathtaking. We were indeed on the top of a very big hill with a view out over the valley. It was stunning.

Pioneer Valley - The view from the campsite

Pioneer Valley - The view from the campsite

Eungella itself is a tiny town with a school and one shop. This made it extremely difficult with the upcoming birthday celebrations! Around the corner was a spot called Broken River. We arrived at Broken River for lunch having spent some time taking in the valley view on the skywalk. We knew that the area was a good place to spot Platypus but didn’t think that we would get to see one as it was the wrong time of the day. Before I could open up the rucksack to get the sandwiches out, up popped a platty. He was lovely and swam around for some time near us. We remembered all the old tricks of looking for the bubbles and not moving once he was on the surface. It was great watching him. We also spent some time viewing him and his friend on the official viewing platform a bit further down stream and were fortunate enough to see them going into the burrow. Whilst platty watching we also saw some freshwater turtles and striking azure kingfishers. Around the platty viewing place was a very scenic walking track with some great vines to swing on which we enjoyed. That night back at base we were admiring the view as the sun set when all of a sudden a huge blaze could be seen alight in the valley. It remained well contained so we guessed it must be a controlled burn or something similar. It lasted for about 10 mins and was very bright, then all of a sudden it was gone.

The next morning it was Jo’s birthday and the festivities started.

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As the title suggests Rockhampton is known for its cows. It is one of the biggest farming and agricultural towns in Queensland and produces a large proportion of Australia’s beef. This is something they are very proud of. Large plastic cows adorn the streets and are a feature on a number of the shop displays or signs. The towns slogan is apparently “Eat more beef, you bastards!”, which Jo wanted to get on a t-shirt but had no luck.

Rockhampton Cow

Rockhampton Cow

In order to fully appreciate the beef we went out for a meal in the local pub and had us some fine local steak (it tasted like steak to me but Jo assures me it was beautiful!). The town has a real country feel to it and the advertised local radio station is one that plays country music. Jo took great delight in dialling in the station and turning up the tunes. We arrived into the town at dusk, located our campsite and followed orders on where to camp, picking a scenic spot on the banks of the river. When we got back from the pub at 1am, having sampled some of the fine local bundy rum, we noticed this sign next to our camp spot.

Fitzrory River Croc Warning

Fitzrory River Croc Warning

I did not get too much sleep that night as I had visions of a croc coming into the tent. We survived and no crocs were seen! I am now on permanent croc alert though and we won’t be camping next to the river again!

On the way out of Rockhampton we joined a tour of the Capricorn Caves.  The cave system was quite impressive but luckily set out for tourists so there were no head torches or climbing through small holes. The highlight was probably the chamber in which they used to hold weddings(!) and sometimes still do. The acoustics in here are supposed to be not far off perfect and so they played some music to demonstrate this, Jo was very impressed.

Unfortunately we didn’t see any of the bats that live in the caves as they were a bit further in but we did enjoy the Indiana Jones style bridges on the way out of the caves.

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The humpback whale spotting season at Hervey Bay was one of the big things that I got excited about when I was researching our trip and was a major reason for choosing the way round Australia we’ve taken.  It is not known why these huge creatures like to hang out near Hervey Bay for a few months before summering in Antartcica, but the town certainly makes the most of their winter guests.  Knowing how excited we were about this, my Mum kindly offered to pay for the trip for our birthdays – woohoo!  After first arriving in Hervey Bay too early for the whales and heading North to kill some time, it was now time to return.  We had already decided to go on the Blue Dolphin trip as it was a nice small boat, so you are closer to the whales, that goes out for the whole day rather than just a few hours.  Ruth booked us on and confirmed the conditions were good and the next day we were being taken out to Platypus Bay just off Fraser Island to do some whale spotting.

The boat was a 10 metre long catamaran and there was only about 15 of us onboard.  Ruth and I went straight to the bow of the boat where I promptly setup camp on one of the nets, which were great fun.  We were gradually joined by most of the other people on the boat with everyone keeping a keen eye on the water.

Jo on Blue Dolphin Yacht

Jo on Blue Dolphin Yacht

Just a few hours into our trip we caught up with one of the huge power boats that went out a few hours earlier.  It had stopped to view a humpback whale and we saw it swim near them.  It then decided we were a lot more interesting and headed in our direction, the only problem was that it dived and so we had no idea where it went.  A few minutes later a big tail appeared about four metres in front of Ruth and I on the bow, but that was just the beginning.  For the next quarter of an hour or so the whale kept swimming around our boat, getting closer and closer.  It was about the same length as our boat and looked like it weighed a lot more!  The whale kept circling the boat, often diving under it to keep us guessing.  The boat kept rocking from side to side as everyone moved to see.  Quite a few times the whale surfaced about two metres away from us and because we were less than a metre out of the water it was definitely a close encounter.  Several times the whale spurted out of the blow hole and even got Ruth with it.  She said it smelt fishy!  The whale put on an awesome display for us and it’ll be something neither of us ever forget.  I still can’t believe just how close this huge creature came to us.  As with so many of the things we’ve seen over here, it was just awesome.  After a while another boat came by and see we allowed ourselves to drift out of the way so that the whale got a bit closer to them (the boats aren’t allowed to get close to the whales, they have to stop and let the whales come to them).  After having a little something to eat and calming down from the excitement we headed off to find more whales.

It wasn’t long until we saw two more humpbacks.  They didn’t want to come and play with us, but it was beautiful to watch them swim along just 30 metres or so off our port side.  We then got a tip about three more humpbacks swimming together by the shore of Fraser Island and we set our course to find them.  When we found them all the short trip boats had gone back and so we had them all to ourselves.  These guys were in shallow water about four metres deep and were playing together.

Humpback Whale surfacing next to the yacht

Humpback Whale surfacing next to the yacht

It was great to see this behavior and as they were staying in the same area we were able to all have our lunch whilst watching them.  All of a sudden there was a big splash and one of the whales swam off on its own.  Soon after another one joined it and they came towards us.  One of them swam right underneath us a couple of times whilst the other one was just metres away.  The whale that was left on his own was not impressed and started thrashing about in the water. After one particularly big fin slap the two whales near us quickly turned around and swam towards the solitary one.  The fin was down!  After that little tantrum they all swam away together and we started to gradually sail home with big grins all over our faces.  The wind had picked up a little and so Ruth and I went and had a chat to the captain in the shelter.  We were lucky enough to spot a dolphin on the journey back but couldn’t see any other members of his pod.

Fin Slap

Fin Slap

As we sailed back into the marina, we really couldn’t believe how lucky we’d been.  We weren’t even sure that we’d see whales but we were treated to six!  I had to look at the pics on my camera just to prove to myself that I’d seen something so amazing.  It was one of the best birthday presents ever – thanks Mum!

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Apart from the surf, or lack of (grrrrr), the main reason we wanted to go to Town Of 1770 was to look at visiting the Great Barrier Reef, one of the main reasons we both had come to Oz.  Most people go to the reef from Cairns but we had heard that the southern end of the GBR is less crowded and more colourful.  We were trying to decide whether to go from 1770 or wait until we get North, but luckily, my birthday was around the corner and my family decided to send us some money.  The money from my grandparents and uncle paid for the day trip from 1770 (thanks again!).  This meant that it might be possible to both the southern and northern parts of the reef (which is bigger than the UK), snorkeling off 1770 and try a scuba dive later on.

Originally we had planned to go to a lagoon next to an island but changed our minds when we found out the company take groups up to 150 people. Snorkeling with that many people would not be fun!  Our other option was 1770 Sea Quest, a slightly smaller boat to Fitzroy Reef Lagoon, which was recommended by “the lono” and the locals.

Ruth about to snorkel

Ruth about to snorkel

We opted for this as the boat had a similar capacity but was capped to half full for comfort.  The only downside was that the Fitzroy Reef Lagoon is not a green zone, meaning removing items from the reef (i.e. fish) is still legal there, luckily due to the remote location of the lagoon it isn’t fished heavily.  1770 Sea Quest was the only tour to go there and the reef had not had a tourist license for the last 10 years which meant that it had not been as affected by hordes of tourist boats.  We booked on board the next trip as conditions were looking good and started getting excited.

It was an early start to go out on the boats, although we were quite tired we didn’t mind getting up early when it’s to do something like this!  We were very excited.  Our boat was out on the water and we were taken out to it aboard a large ex-naval 4WD transport vehicle that is like a boat on wheels.  It drives into the water and when it’s deep enough becomes a boat- genius!   It takes about an hour and a half to get out to the reef from 1770 and so we had a little while to wait.

On the way out past the headland we saw a large number of Boobys (the birds!) diving into the water in a feeding frenzy – it was quite spectacular.  We saw several of these gannets flying along side the boat throughout the day.  One even landed on our little reef runner boat that was towed behind us.

Unfortunately, I was obviously a bit more tired than I thought and got a nice bout of sea sickness on the way out.  As we approached the reef the water changed to a light turquoise colour and you could see the reef below and the white sand on the bottom.  We slowed down and the excitement of the occasion helped me feel a little better.  As we circled the outside of the lagoon we were treated to something really special – three big manta rays.  I had wanted to see one of these since I was a boy and they were truly majestic.  They swam near to the boat for about five minutes before disappearing into the depths.  If the trip had ended after seeing them, I would’ve been happy.

Fitzrory Reef Lagoon from the Surface

Fitzrory Reef Lagoon from the Surface

Not long after seeing the mantas we were inside the lagoon and there were fish around the boat instantly.  We couldn’t wait to get in.

The water was cool but not too cold.  I was glad I had taken my wettie as the ones on the boat were shortys which meant Ruth got a little cold after being in for a while.  Swimming over to one of the “bommies” (a gathering of coral) that was just below the surface was an awesome experience.  As we got closer you could see it coming nearer to the surface and we were being surrounded by more and more fish.  My sea sickness was completely gone now and pure enjoyment replaced it.

What we saw blew our minds, it was so beautiful.  There was a variety of several hard and soft coral species and their colours, everything from orange to brown, lime green, purples, pinks, reds and bright blue, were amazing.  There were fish everywhere, some in shoals and some on their own. We were stunned at how bright they were and how different they all are from each other.  We saw Nemo, Dory and many of their friends all around.  It was out of this world and we felt very privileged to have seen it.  We took a few photo’s on our underwater camera and but it was more about experience it than seeing it.  Ruth signalled to me that she was getting cold and so I checked my watch – it was nearly lunch time and we headed back to the boat.  We had been in for over an hour and were the last ones out and so lunch had been served a little early.  Luckily there was still plenty left for us and whilst we ate they started the “Reef Teach” about the reef, it’s inhabitants and how to conserve it.

Fitzroy Reef Lagoon

Fitzroy Reef Lagoon

After lunch it was time for the advanced snorkel which takes you back out to the outer part of the lagoon on the Reef Runner.  This cost a little extra but was worth it.  The outer edge is where the most activity is on the reef as this is where the nutrients arrive on the current.  This means that there is more to see, it is more dramatic and there is a greater chance of seeing the bigger fish (sharks!).  We could really tell the difference, everything was on a much grander scale.  The fish were big but the corals were huge!  I saw a brain coral nearly as big as our tent!  Although we still saw some of the smaller fish and corals we had seen earlier, this was less colourful (but still vibrant compared to the Atlantic).  I managed to meet Dude Crush but he swam away before I got to ask him how old he was!  Although we didn’t see any sharks it was a truly fantastic experience.  Our guide informed us that as we were going in the middle of winter, the water temperature was only(!) about 22 degrees which meant that the corals were at their most vibrant for the year.  We never knew that you could get such vibrant colors naturally under the sea, the pictures don’t do it justice.

On the way home we went the long way round as we were in whale season and wanted a chance to spot some of these magnificent beasts.  Before we left the area though we were visited by more manta rays.  One of them came really close to the boat and so we got a perfect view of it.  A bit later on the whale trip paid off and we saw a mother and a calf swimming ahead of us.  The calf was light grey which suggests he was only a couple of weeks old.  He was being taught how to breach and gave us a demonstration of what he had learnt.  He had not quite perfected the technique but he gave it a good try, it was breathtaking to see.  The rest of the journey back was pleasant (with no more sea sickness!).  Ruth and I both had a little snooze and woke up just in   time for afternoon snacks and to see land come back in sight.  All in all, an amazing day.

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Ah, Bundaberg Rum.  One of my favourite things that I have discovered in Australia!  The rum gets it’s name from the town it is distilled in, Bundaberg (or Bundy as it’s known to the Aussies) and we were here to visit the distillery as well as have a few samples.

Me in the Bundy Rum Bar

Me in the Bundy Rum Bar

The distillery is a fair way out of town (we caught the bus so we could both drink) but is set up for lots of tours each day.  We opted for the full tour which showed us around the premises after going through the interactive exhibit to learn the history of the rum as well as being introduced to the company’s mascot polar bear – Bundy R. Bear.  Basically the rum was made to make use of the molasses leftover from the processing of the sugar cane which is grown everywhere in the area.  The distillery had some very overpowering and distinct smells in each of the areas.  The most impressive smells were from the molasses store, which smelled of liquorice, and the bondstores where the rum is put into huge barrels and matured over two years where the smell of the rum is intoxicating.  The rest of the distillery has various sweet and sickly smells that were a bit too much after an hour!

After the tour you are taken to the special Bundy Rum bar and allowed to try two of the rums offered.  I went for the five year vintage, which was beautiful (can you tell I really love this rum?!) and Ruth tried Bundy Red which had just came out when we first got into Australia.  Bundy Red is now Ruth’s favourite as it’s a bit smoother and sweeter due to addition of caramel.  I prefer the vintage but can’t afford it so stick with the normal.  Our second drink was something special.  It’s a liqueur that contains rum, chocolate, hazelnut, caramel and coffee.  They serve this with either cream or milk and over ice.  It’s kind of like Baileys but a million times nicer.  Recently, Bundy Rum decided to only sell the liqueur from the distillery to make it more exclusive.  It was so nice, we bought a bottle for special occasions using the backpacker justification that you didn’t need to buy mixer.  As this is now my favourite drink, we also bought some Bundy Rum glasses which, if they survive being posted home, will be our permanent reminder of our visit to the distillery.

The town is also known for producing ginger beer.  We stopped by at this distillery but only to pick up a few bottles to try.  They offer seven different types of beers (all non-alcoholic): ginger, apple, lemon, burgundee (cherry), sarsparilla, lemon-lime bitters and peach.  We bought all but the peach to try as we continue our journey.

Bundaberg Post Office & War Monument

Bundaberg Post Office & War Monument

As Bundy is an old town (for Australia) we though we’d better take a look whilst we were here.  We did the historic walk around the town which showed us some of the older buildings and monuments.  The highlights were the Post Office building (which are often the most impressive over here due to the importance it used to hold in society) and the more recent whale painting which covered the side of a very tall building.  It was nice to see some older parts of Queensland and the town does seem to have quite a small-town feel to it with some odd locals.  Because of all the tropical fruit grown nearby though it is very popular with backpackers who are working on the farms to try and extend their visa.

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