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Whale Watching in Hervey Bay

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!

Great Barrier Reef: Fitzroy Reef Lagoon

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.

1770 & Agnes Waters

Ruth, Stacey & Leslie at Agnes Waters' Tavern

Ruth, Stacey & Leslie at Agnes Waters' Tavern

Town Of 1770 and Agnes Waters are the last place on the North East coast to get surf as the Great Barrier Reef gets in the way any further north, so we had to stop there. Due to the fact that it was winter there was, disappointingly, NO SURF! The board never even made it off the car as it was as flat as a pancake, never mind. Town Of 1770 is named this after the date that it was discovered by Captain Cook who landed there while exploring the coast. There is still little there with 1770 and Agnes Waters merging into one place with a winter population of less that 100 and nothing more than a few essential stores. It was the spot that we managed to meet up with some friends (Paul, Stacey and Leslie) from Yamba who had flown from Brisbane to Cairns and were making their way down the coast. After tracking them down as there was no phone signal and catching up for a bit we agreed to meet up again in the pub the next night.

Captain Cook Monument

Captain Cook Monument

That day they had been to Bundaberg and sampled some of the rum at the brewery so it was only apt that in the evening we drank rum. If you have seen the Facebook pictures you can see that the rum went down well and a lot of merriment was had. The next night they had to catch the bus in the early hours of the morning. Jo offered to drop the out to the bus so that they didn’t have to pay the shuttle fee. Apparently on the way to the bus a large kangaroo was stood by the side of the road and stared at them as they drove past. It was lovely to meet up with them and catch up.

The town having such an eventful history meant that we couldn’t leave until we had explored the Captain Cook landing spot. We actually stumbled across it while making our way up to scenic headland. A small monument marks the spot where he landed. We then headed onto the headland to catch the sunset.

Bargara

Just 15 mins down the road from Bunderburg is a small coastal town of Baragra. It is near here (at Mon Repos) that every year Leatherback and Flatback turtles come to lay they eggs. Visitors are able to volunteer to help the scientists record the number of females laying eggs and the number of hatchlings born that scurry into the sea before being eaten by crabs and birds. Unfortunately for us we were out of season and the turtles would not be around for several months. We were able to visit the visitors centre and learn all about the interesting and important work that they do in order to preserve these gentle giants.

Luckily though, this was not the end to our wildlife encounters in Bargara. Whilst at the campsite, another beach campsite where you fall to sleep with the sounds of the sea, we were surrounded by local wildlife. Each morning at about 5.30am we would be woken to the sound of Kookaburras laughing their heads off to mark their territory. One morning we were chilling in the tent when we heard a bird land on the tent. To our surprise there was a Rainbow Lorikeet sitting in front of the tent looking at us. Startled by us opening the tent, it flew off but in our direction and landed on one of our tent poles. He hopped around on the pole for a while and climbed onto another pole. He did not seem bothered by us sticking our heads out and watching him. It was so funny.

Rainbow Lorekeet on tent

Rainbow Lorekeet on tent

The other animal encounter that we had was in the evening while cooking tea. Unfortunately this one was just for Ruth. I was sat in the camp kitchen updating things on the netbook when a Common Brush Tail Possum wandered into the kitchen, underneath the bench that I was sitting on. I had never had one so close and was gobsmacked. I was even more surprised when he wandered over to my feet gave them a sniff (silly creature) and licked them. Then he jumped onto the seat on the other side of the bench and up onto the table in front of me. All that separated him and me was the netbook. It was fantastic to see him so close. I didn’t have a camera or the phone so there is no evidence but I loved it. I told Jo and I am not sure if he believes me or not. He did see the Possum in the distance later.

Yum Yum Bundy Rum!

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.

Fraser Island

Lake Birrabean

Lake Birrabean

Going to Fraser Island was one of the big things that we came over to Australia for. It is the world’s largest island made completely of sand. How cool does that sound?! It is also home to some very beautiful scenery, is world heritage listed island and has the purest breed of Dingo. We were very excited about going!

The big decision would be whether to hire a 4×4, go in a set up group 4×4 or go on a tour 4×4 bus. This was a hard decision as the 4×4 self drive would give us the freedom to see all the things we wanted for as long as we wanted but was bad for the environment and neither of us have 4×4 experience. Secondly the 4×4 group drive limits the harm to the environment but takes away some of the freedom and you are dependent on the group you get (which is mostly 18 year olds who want to get wasted, not really our thing anymore!). The last option was the one we eventually went for. We found a tour that included most of the things that we wanted to see and was small enough that it would still be special. Our tour consisted of about 20 other people of all different ages. The bus itself was a 4×4 bus which had huge tyres and was comfy.

After being picked up early from the campsite we headed over on the ferry. On our first day we saw seventy five mile beach, central station rainforest and a huge sand blow. Seventy five mile beach is classed as a main road as it the main way that 4x4s get around the island. As the name suggests it is a very long beach. We were glad that we wern’t driving and could just enjoy the turquoise sea and golden sand. We saw a Dingo which was was very rare for this time of year. He was running along side the bus and we enjoyed watching him.

Central Station rainforest was stunning, with huge trees everywhere.  The sand blow was similar to the sand blow at Rainbow beach but bigger. Again you could see the forest being slowly eaten as the sand blow proceeded. We had fun jumping from a large steep dune.

That night we were taken back to our island hostel at Happy Valley. A treat after a few months camping! After dinner we decided that we wanted to have a look at the stars from the beach. As there is very minimal light pollution they were meant to be amazing. They did not disappoint. We have never seen so many stars and I saw my first shooting star (and a fair few after that). It was absolutely beautiful.  Jo gave up trying to identify the constellations as there were too many stars to pick them out!

Sunrise on 75 mile beach

Sunrise on 75 mile beach

In the morning we got up bright and early to see the sunrise on the beach. It was a classic example of a winter sunrise but soon warmed up once the sun was up. We headed out on the bus back to seventy five mile beach and encountered some planes. We had the chance to pay for a plane ride taking off and landing on the beach and going over the island and sea. We decided it was worth the small fee and jumped in. The plane was tiny and very bumpy which made us both feel quite sick. The view, however, was totally worth it. It gave a great perspective of how big the island was and a wonderful view of the variety of rainforest and lakes. We also went over the ocean. Jo was lucky enough to see a pod of whales breaching out his window and I spotted a hammerhead shark. Pretty amazing! On landing we went to check out the “Maheno” ship wreck. This boat has been here for a long time and is gutted and rusting. It was interesting to see.

Indian Heads was a great lookout over the beach and out into the ocean where we spotted more whales, stingrays, fish and birds of prey. We spent about 45 mins taking in the view. The next stop on this whistle tour day was Eli Creek.

Jo enjoying Eli Creek

Jo enjoying Eli Creek

This was Jo’s favourite place on the island. Eli Creek is a fresh water creek which gently trickles down into the sea. Jo got in up stream and reported that it was quite warm. He then waded through the crystal clear creek watching the fish and listening to the birds. I met him a bit further down stream and got my legs wet. It was lovely water.

On the way back we went past the coloured sands of the Pinnacles. These were large cliffs of sands of all different colours and were impressive. The highlight of the day for me was going to Lake Birrabeen. This was a gorgeous fresh water lake with pure silica sand. It was, however, freezing! We wanted to go for a swim and eventually worked up the courage but it was so cold that I didn’t stay in for long.

By the end of the trip we were exhausted and happy. We got on to the ferry and were relieved to chill out after packing so much into two days. It was a brilliant trip.

Hervey Bay

Arriving in Hervey Bay was a very exciting time. It was the first place that we were going to be able to tick off some of the major things that we had come to Australia for, Whale watching and Fraser Island. Unfortunately despite what the “lono” (Jo’s new word for our Lonely Planet guide) had told us it was not quite whale watching session yet. It would be about another 2 or 3 weeks before the whales really turned up. This meant a big re-think of the plan. We decided that as the whale watching was very important to us we would continue with Hervey Bay and Fraser Island then carry on our journey up the coast until the season kicked in. At this point we would then return and see the whales. With this in mind we set about organising our Fraser Island trip and exploring Hervey Bay.

Sulphur Crested Cockatoo

Sulphur Crested Cockatoo

The bay itself is beautiful, a long curved beach with flat clear waters. We admired several sunsets from the beach and one sunrise! There isn’t much to say about the town as it’s really five small districts put together, none of which offer anything that exciting! The best thing about Hervey Bay was the birds. This was the first spot that we saw 2 of the parrot type birds that we had been hoping for, the Sulphur Crested Cockatoo and the Cockateel. They were very noisy but great fun to watch, especially the crested ones as when they land they stick their crest up for a moment as if to announce their arrival. We both agreed that this action should have a sound effect but could not agree on what that noise would be. We have since realised that we did not take any pictures of Hervey Bay itself, oops!