Friday, 29 August 2014

Endless Beaches of the East Coast - Magnetic Island to Brisbane

It was going to be a long day, but we were aiming to make it across the rest of the interior and over to Townsville by that evening. Everything went fairly to plan, and we found ourselves in the right general area with just a little light left in the sky. Finding somewhere to camp was slightly more difficult than we anticipated, especially as our GPS confidently directed us to what turned out to be a bowles club rather than an establishment offering accommodation. Eventually however, we spotted a sign for a campground in the middle of nowhere, which seemed to be exactly what we were looking for.

The site itself was down a kilometre long gravel drive. The light was well and truly running away from us by this stage, meaning it was well into wallaby hour. We have always avoided driving at dusk for this very reason, and we can now attest to the general wisdom that these animals seem to appear out of nowhere. We were going so slowly that it wasn’t an issue, but they would suddenly lurch out of the long grass, hopping furiously across the narrow track. The ones we saw weren’t the biggest, but you would still be very sorry if you were to hit one on a motorbike.


Up until this point our experience of campgrounds was that they were always well run and immaculately cared for. With this in mind, it was a surprise to find that the ‘reception’ was run by an elderly German man, and that the space was so cluttered with junk and old newspapers that it almost consumed the room entirely. Still, we checked in regardless and went to set up our tent. Despite the slightly shabby surroundings the setting was fabulous; quiet woodland against a dramatic mountain backdrop. It was a welcome relief from the structure of the regular campgrounds, and almost amusing to have found a corner of the country where modern Australia hadn’t really happened.


Despite the beautiful natural setting we decided to up and leave the next day. Our destination was the rather appealingly named Magnetic Island. Apparently it was named this after Captain Cook declared that it was interfering with the navigation equipment. This turned out to be untrue, but the name stuck, and now the island is a popular place to visit, famed for its laid-back lifestyle and pretty bays.

We were a little early for our ferry, so decided to use the time to stock up on supplies. After our time in the outback, we were still pretty overwhelmed by the marvel of a supermarket, so our meager shop took an almost embarrassing amount of time. We ate a picnic lunch in a park randomly found on the GPS, which turned out to be a fabulous shout. The park itself was actually a rather pretty botanic garden, a neat, shady and tranquil space. We were feeling rather charmed by Townsville as a result, despite the fact that the town’s name is decidedly stupid indeed.


After setting up camp and settling in on the island, we walked the short distance to the beach, just in time to catch the tail end of a beautiful sunset. Sadly the evening got less relaxing from there. We were camping at the YHA, and whilst it was a nice place to stay, we suspect that the guests might be quite keen on feeding the wildlife. As we were sat at a picnic table enjoying a cup of tea, a possum suddenly hopped up from the other side, not at all bothered by our presence. It was kind of cute, but became a lot less so when it spent all night trying to get into our bike panniers. We had removed all the food, but evidently it could still smell the residual trace. Oli had to get up several times to scare it off, and now has a new hatred for the poor creatures.


The next morning we planned to be active and make use of the many walking tracks available on the island. Our route took us up through a pretty woodland that was home to a sizeable population of koalas. We were lucky enough to spot a couple of these creatures from the path. They might not do much other than sleep, but they were still pretty cute and cuddly looking. Obviously the thing to do is admire them from a respectful distance, an etiquette that seemed to have escaped one tourist. She had snuck right up to one poor sleeping soul in order to take a selfie, proving that there are not necessarily any boundaries to human stupidity and narcissism.


Silly people aside, the rest of the walk was fabulous. Magnetic Island was home to a Second World War fort, strategically placed to protect Townsville from invasion. Much of the infrastructure still stands today, with visitors being free to explore the old buildings and enjoy the stunning vistas from the rooftop. Interestingly, the only shot ever fired from the fort in aggression was in error, fired at a U.S. Navy ship that arrived unannounced.


We spent the rest of the afternoon sat on a rock in Horseshoe Bay, admiring the view and trying to decide what to do with life post-travelling. The million dollar question was whether to go back to Europe, or whether to try and settle in Australia for a few years. We have been away from home for so long that we are missing our families and friends immensely, which makes the huge distance a serious consideration. We actually still haven’t reached a conclusion on this one.


Oli must have terrified the possum on the first evening, as it didn’t hassle us again overnight. We woke up feeling bright and breezy, deciding to undertake the short hike over to Balding Bay. When we first arrived on the beach we were totally alone, and blown away by how pretty it was. Sparkling blue water lapped against giant boulders, the bay itself sheltered by a protective wall of mountain. The water was a little fresh for us though, so we decided to leave swimming and go for a paddle instead.

The relative cold was obviously no problem for one guy though. Whilst we had been larking about an older couple had appeared. The lady was in her swimming costume, but her husband was obviously a less conventional type, and was merrily standing there in the buff. Thankfully for us they were some distance away, but we were surprised to say the least. We found out whilst chatting to some tourists later that this beach was actually rather popular with nudists. I have to say though, I read two tourist brochures for the island, and neither of them so much as hinted at this fact!


That evening was our last on the island. After the first night of trying to cook in the camp kitchen and being reminded of messy student halls, we had instead migrated to the barbeques on the beach. This was a much nicer way to cook, and we had a wonderful meal whilst enjoying a colourful sunset.


The next few days were spent slowly making our way down the East coast. We stopped in Airlie Beach, only to find that the boat trips out to the Whitsundays were outside of our tiny budget. We did however enjoy the mainland, finding our way to Shute harbor and the beautiful Coral Beach. Sadly though, swimming or even paddling here was not a possibility, as a sign noted that if you were eaten by a saltwater croc it was not because you hadn’t been warned. It may not have worded it exactly like this, but that was certainly the general gist of things. As it was, all we saw from the shore was a cute little turtle, swimming about with his head stuck out of the water.


From Airlie Beach we headed to Cape Hillsborough. Oli wasn’t convinced on this one, but I was excited to see wallabies on the beach for some reason, so off we went. The drive there took us through some of the most beautiful countryside we have seen in Australia so far, with lush, green farmland stretching over rolling hills. We set up our tent in a ridiculously busy campsite, then went for a long stroll along the rugged stretch of beach.


In the event, the wallabies at sunrise were a bit of a disappointment. There were more observers than animals, and from what we could see they might have been encouraged with food. We decided to give up on the wallabies and go for a walk to enjoy the sunrise. This was a good shout, as the scenery was fantastic in the strong golden light of early morning.


Whilst the beach was beautiful, the busy campground was ample encouragement to get going again. We put in a long day on the road, stopping off at Yeppoon for the night. We knew almost nothing about this area, picking it simply because it was situated on the coast and seemed a reasonable distance to drive in one day. After being directed to a horrifically packed campsite by the tourist info office, we stumbled across a delightfully quiet place a few kilometres away. We pitched our tent by the lake, and enjoyed a peaceful night’s sleep.

We were quite enamoured with the location, so thought we might as well stop for a second night and just relax. We spent a wonderful lazy day abusing the barbeque, then rounded it off with a long sunset walk along the beach. The tide was out, leaving strong ridges along the sand, the pattern highlighted by the dramatic light of the low sun. We seemed to have done little on the East coast other than enjoying sunsets on beautiful beaches, which is hard to complain about really.


Staying for another day would have been easy, but we were keen to explore the coast further. I was looking forward to seeing the town of Agnes Water again, as I had fond memories of the place from my previous jaunt to Australia in 2006. Unfortunately for us, we were smack in the middle of peak holiday season. We ended up on a ridiculously crowded campsite (the only one with any space). The tent pitches were under a beautiful old tree, which seemed like a bonus until we spent the night trying to sleep through the sound of fruit bats screeching. They pooped all over the tent too.

It wasn’t all bad though. Once again, we were on the edge of a stunning beach. After dinner, we escaped the camp kitchen and walked a little way along the sand. It was blissfully quiet, and the almost total lack of light pollution meant that we were fortunate enough to have a fabulous view of the stars. We sat for a while chatting about life and admiring the scene, before finally retiring to bed.


After Agnes Water, we were headed to Hervey Bay. Without a clue where to camp, we stopped in at tourist info on the way in to town. We were directed to the YHA, and assured that they had a lovely, quiet place to pitch a tent. Fearing another overcrowded caravan park we went with low expectations, only to have them completely overturned. A quiet grassy area looked over a picturesque pond, ducks bobbing on the surface. This was more like it, and relatively cheap too!


This was to be our last stop before getting to our family friends in Brisbane, so we had actually budgeted for a bit of a treat. Hervey Bay is a resting point for humpback whales making their annual migration from the Antarctic, and one of the best places in the world to see these fascinating creatures. We had picked this as our one indulgence, so splashed out on a full day tour aboard a tiny catamaran (Blue Dolphin Tours). Amazingly, it wasn’t actually as pricey as we feared, so we were feeling extra smug about our decision.

It was an early start, and just after 7:30 we were cruising out of the harbour. For the first couple of hours sightings were a bit thin on the ground, but that all changed dramatically when we came across a pair of whales, both splashing and jumping about. They came to check the boat out briefly, bobbing about with their heads out of the water (apparently termed spy-hopping) and getting a good look at us. After satisfying their curiosity they carried on the acrobatics, which was just amazing to behold. Watching a thirty ton animal breach the water and crash back down is really a uniquely arresting sight.


The excitement didn’t end there, as the next group we encountered was even more curious. This pod of three were as fascinated by us as we were by them. For over an hour (although it didn’t feel nearly that long), the three cruised around the boat, pausing frequently to watch us as we looked back. It was truly incredible, and even the Captain said he has rarely had such an amazing encounter with the whales.

It was an amazing experience, although gave us all pause for thought as to just how close to extinction the humpbacks came. Due to the whaling industry, their numbers plummeted by 90%. The population is once again rising, going up by around 10% each year. Interestingly, one lady on board told me that she has been whale watching for twenty-five years, and that the whales have gradually become less cautious and more curious. It seems that they no longer feel that the boats and people aboard are a threat.


All too soon we were cruising back to the harbour. It had been an amazing day, and absolutely worth every penny. As an extra plus, we had also been fed like kings. Oli and I had somehow quickly ended up with the reputation of the people who would eat everything, so whenever the cakes came round the lady made sure to pop by us twice. We were so full in fact, that neither of us could face dinner. A rarity indeed.

The next morning we slowly packed up in the sunshine, then started to make our way down to Brisbane. Whilst we are officially finishing in Sydney, psychologically this felt like the end of the trip. It really has been one incredible fourteen months, during which our horizons have expanded more than we could have imagined. We have seen and done so many incredible things, and once we stop fully I am sure we will realize the enormity of the trip.

Arriving at the Sands’ family house was a great feeling, something we had been dreaming of whilst experiencing particularly tough moments on the road. It had been eight years since we last saw most of the team, and was the first meeting for Oli. It really was great to see them again after all this time.

We have now been here in Brisbane for just over one week, and will be heading down to Sydney on Wednesday. As of yet life is still up in the air, as we have no idea where we will end up working and settling for a few years. The good news for everyone back home though is that we are coming back (either for a visit or a permanent move) in September. First though, the iconic Sydney awaits!