Monday, 29 October 2007

Go! Go! Go!

Pit Lane

BETWEEN my current accommodation and Melbourne proper is a large open area called Albert Park. You may recognise this as the site of the Australian Grand Prix.

Yesterday I walked there and around the circuit. It was one of the most surreal experiences I have had so far.

To start with, this is not a purpose-built racing circuit. The roads are public roads around the central lake. There are give way signs, bollards and chains lining the track and parking restriction signs along the route. The pit straight has a speed restriction of 20km/h.

I joined the track towards the end of the circuit. Here was a corner with red and white rumble strips and families zooming around in people carriers. The brightly coloured run-off area seen on race weekends was replaced by regular-coloured dead grass. Shortly I reached the pitlane entry. Barricaded by a 'No Entry' sign, there is a parking meter in the small strip of grass to the main track, and parking spaces all along the pit straight. All racing markings, including the start line, had been removed.

The pit buildings were intact and present, but a quick peer through a window showed them to have another role when Formula 1 cars aren't zooming around the track: they are a sports hall complex, behind which is the paddock (a field).

At corners one and two there is a high pressure gas pipeline, and at corner three a golf course and practice driving range. Corner four is perhaps the most bizarre, for it is not a road at all but a car park. A yellow line shows the route taken, but being a car park and not official road markings, family saloons and delivery lorries were parked in the centre of the circuit. From here I made a brief foray to the lake itself, a pleasant body of water with islands, wildlife refuges and a diverse selection of bird life. I watched black swans, coots, moorhens, sea gulls and pelicans all enjoying themselves in the water. Eventually a swan and her cygnets came to me for food, but since all I had on me was chocolate, they were grossly disappointed.

Back on the track I followed the back section, which can be no more than five metres from the edge of the lake. On race weekend there are of course barriers, and I began to appreciate what a monumental effort it must be to run this race. Every single bollard around the 555 acre site must be lifted and every hole filled in. Traffic islands must be removed and the track surface smoothed. Armco barriers must be erected and gravel traps and run off areas prepared. Then of course there need to be bridges and grandstands built, all along the pit straight and start line. Every March this place must be transformed. I can hardly imagine how different it must be.

I had an enjoyable day at Albert Park. I jumped across the start/finish line and climbed the podium steps (albeit without a podium, for that too is temporary). I also walked a very long way, so today shall be a lazy day.

Corner 2
Corner 2

Corner 4 (if you can find it)
The Car Park Complex

The Pit Straight
Pit Straight (20km/h)

The Pitlane Entrance
Pit lane entrance, with parking meter

The Great Divide

I WAS quite prepared to not like Melbourne.

I couldn't see how, in any way, Melbourne could live up to Sydney, for I had enjoyed my time there greatly. Since anyone only ever sides with Melbourne or Sydney, but never both, it appeared I had chosen my favourite.

I loved everything about Sydney: strolling through the CBD between Darling Harbour and the Botanical Gardens, with its bats and possums; Manly, its beaches and scenic walkways; the penguins; meeting Julia; the Bondi to Coogee walk and the whales seen off of the coast; the Blue Mountains; the Harbour Bridge and Opera House; the museums and Aboriginal shows, street entertainers and buskers in shopping centres; the double-decker trains; the random Thai restaurant Matthew and I went to, everything. It is full of iconic landmarks, and has the greatest natural port that I have ever seen. It may be a busy city, but it was exciting. I never stopped thinking how lucky I was to have come all of this way.

Melbourne, conversely, I knew little about. The only two things I could associate with it prior to arrival were the Australian Grand Prix and Neighbours, neither providing a memorable image of the city itself. What was I going to find there?

On my first morning here I caught a tram from my hostel in St Kilda and rode into town. I alighted at Federation Square, and immediately realised my error in assuming that I wouldn't like the place. Here was an open courtyard with modern architecture juxtaposed with colonial buildings and churches, with rickety old trams driving by, overtaking horses and carts. Every possible contrast hit me at once.

I caught the free circle tram, an old style wooden tram complete with tourist narrative, and alighted at the docklands, for I had heard that it was here that I would find a cow up a tree. When you know a city has a sculpture of a cow up a tree, you naturally must start a tour there. Indeed, up a tree, overlooking the docks, was a square bovine, a sculpture inspired by a photograph of a cow which had become stranded in a tree after floods in Queensland many years previously. I wanted to picnic there, start a tradition of hanging out under the 'Cow In A Tree', but alas I had much to see, and I had already eaten too much chocolate.

From here I walked around the Telstra Dome, through a less glamorous side of town and on to Flagstaff Gardens, a pleasant spot of greenery with monuments to the independence of Victoria from New South Wales. Behind this is the world-famous Queen Victoria Market, for if Melbourne is famous for anything, it is shopping. Indeed this covered market had a superb selection of clothes, memorabilia, fruit and vegetables and an adjoining room of cured meats, condiments, morsels of delicious looking foods from all around the world, dips and toasted delights. It smelt divine.

I bought some socks and a salmon bagel (not from the same stall) and headed to the centre of Melbourne. By chance I found a shopping mall with a remarkable centrepiece. From a distance I had seen what appeared to be an enormous glass spire, and I found myself underneath it now. At the time of building it was the largest glass structure in the world, and it encloses the focal point of the mall: a factory, previously employed to manufacture shots, and now a cowboy shop.

Outside was the Victoria State Library, a grand building set in parkland, the previous library jutting out of the pavement at an angle as if to say 'I'm not dead yet!' I spent another hour or so wandering in and out of shops and past the many pubs and coffee shops and eventually out to the parks south of the river Yarra, where I stopped to catch my breath before returning on the tram to the hostel.

Melbourne was pleasant. It is spacious, clean and vibrant, with a European feel. It has many places to eat and drink with friends; live music and culture everywhere.

So have I changed my mind? Is Melbourne the number one city in Australia?

No, no. My vote still goes to Sydney. There is just something inescapably awesome about that place.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Australian Capital Territory

JOHN Batman was a very strange man. In 1835 he sailed from Tasmania to the Port Phillip district of mainland Australia and found beautiful and valuable lands. He decided he wanted them, so he gave the local peoples twenty pairs of blankets, thirty tomahawks, one hundred knives, fifty pairs of scissors, thirty looking glasses, two hundred handkerchiefs, one hundred pounds of flour and six shirts. In return he claimed possession of 500,000 acres of land from the port to the mountains behind. He drew up a 'contract', so-called sealed by the local tribes inscribing a symbol relating to the group on a tree. They probably just thought he was being curious.

Batman named the river Batman Creek and the town which he planned to build there Batmania. Today we know it as Melbourne.

Sydney and Melbourne are traditional rivals. Sydney was the first colonial settlement, after the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, and the state of Victoria - in which Melbourne is located - did not receive independence from New South Wales until Queen Victoria got bored with residents campaigning in 1850. Melbourne had greater wealth and a larger population for many years, with Victoria the location of the first Australian gold rush. Melbourne also held the first ever Olympic Games in the southern hemisphere. Comparatively recently however, Sydney has become the number one city once more. It has the internationally recognised monuments, it held the succesful year 2000 Olympics. I cannot hide the fact that it was Sydney I was looking forward to seeing, not Melbourne.

Such a rivalry posed a problem when choosing a location for the nation's capital. In 1913 a new city was built, approximately equidistant between the two. Named Canberra after a local Aboriginal word, it is one of only two state and territory capitals not named after a person (the other is Perth in Western Australia). Canberra is the butt of many jokes, and is not internationally renowned as a holiday location. Which, I suppose, is why I was taken there on Wednesday.


My first impressions weren't good. It was not that there was anything particularly wrong with it, but there wasn't anything particularly interesting about it either. It had everything you could need, and within an accessible distance. It was set in parkland, so it was clean and airy and spacious. The shopping centre in which we had lunch was very clean, and also a lady playing a grand piano (which I almost walked into). It was just very sterile, perhaps androgynous.

But then we were taken to the excellent National Museum of Australia, which stuck out as an architectural anarchist - it was red, black and yellow; curved with spirals; it was showy and bold. It was everything that Canberra is not. After an hour and a half there we were off to Parliament House, which was once again everything Canberra did not appear to be. It was set into a hill, an enormous 4,700-room complex with Aboriginal and Greek stylings in the foyer, leading on to halls and debating rooms with tapestries of bush scenes. Just like Westminster, the House of Representatives and the Senate had green and red seating - but these are gum-green and red ochre, the colour of the outback. We were led around by a guide who told us of Australian policies, and the scandals and mysteries of Prime Ministers (Harold Holt, for example, went swimming in the sea one day and never came back). A portrait gallery of important figures refused to present politicians as stuffy, by-the-book characters but as genuine people - many had their arms open in embrace, were sat in unconventional poses or sat at desks covered in clutter.

So I realised, sterile and characterless as Canberra may appear, at all levels it is trying to be something different. It doesn't have the harbour that Sydney has; it wasn't built on a gold rush like much of Melbourne. It was designed to be a new capital. It is based around a triangular grid for goodness sake!

For these reasons, I like Canberra. I just won't be going back in a hurry.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Kookaburra Sits In The Old Gum Tree

AND so to the sport of tying a kangaroo down. Step One: find a kangaroo.

This is surprisingly tricky. It is estimated that there are more kangaroos in Australia today than there were when Europeans first settled there, since the animals prefer grassland habitats and settlers have removed forest lands to create ranches. Thus you would think that if you went to a grassland area you might stand half a chance of seeing one.

On Thursday we went on a trip to the Blue Mountains, so called because of the blue haze that shrouds them, generated by the refraction of light through eucalyptus oil droplets in the air. Our first stop was a camp site near Gordonvale at the foot of the mountains, for it is a renowned hotspot for finding wild kangaroos. Not so this day.

No matter, in the past six or seven weeks (I have truly lost all sense of time) I have seen a number of wild kangaroos: a family of them were watching the sun set on our way to Kroombit, and an obsequious individual saluted me on the way to Cape Tribulation. Yet the truth remains: the moment you start looking for something, it is never there.

The Blue Mountains, however, were very special. We drove up to Wentworth Falls, our OzExperience driver full of enthusiasm and especially merry, no doubt because we had no idea we were about to walk for miles. The path weaved through forests and under limestone rock overhangs and suddenly opened out onto the edge of an enormous escarpment, eucalyptus forest masking the ground hundreds of metres directly below.

Following the colonisation of Australia in 1788, settlement remained confined to the Sydney Harbour region for many years, for nobody could pass the Blue Mountains to the rich pastures beyond. Many attempts were made to cross them, but all followed the rivers and all failed. In 1813, Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth succeeded, by following a ridge at the advice of Aboriginal dwellers. I have read some of Blaxland's diaries, and since he wrote about his adventures in the third person, I feel obliged to do the same.


Mr Simon Bishop, in the company of Miss Jeannette Shipman, Mr Jimmy-the-Driver, Miss Lisa Unknown-Surname, Miss Fellow-Amateur-Photographer and a horde of other tourists, pursued a sinuous path through the offending terrain, marveling at the achievements of Mr Blaxland and company. The rock faces, decorated with rainbow-strewn waterfalls and echoing to the sound of chirping cicadas, were tricky terrain, even with National Park-maintained pathways. Nonetheless, the lookouts over the enormous valley below provided beautiful views.

Our adventurers then proceeded onwards to Katoomba, a large settlement built after a trans-mountain railway provided access, initially inhabited by wealthy individuals escaping the busy Sydney settlement. Parking nearby, the group walked down the thousand Furber Steps, receiving face paints with white ochre by their guide as they passed. They collectively created an effeminate echo from a rock overhang and peered into an abandoned coal mine shaft. The leader of the group pointed out something on a log, at which the entire group peered upon passing. Mr Simon Bishop, being at the back, had not heard the explanation of the interesting item, but endeavoured to appear fascinated and knowledgeable nonetheless.

From the Furber Steps could be seen the Three Sisters, three rocky peaks said to have been three sisters turned to stone by a witch doctor to protect them from a menacing beast. Sadly the witch doctor turned himself into a lyre bird for protection, but in doing so dropped his magic bone, and is to this day unable to turn the sisters back into flesh. They make a fascinating view, one seen on every brochure for the Blue Mountains, and from Echo Point (where our adventurers next ventured) the nearest could be touched.

To get there, a train was caught. This scenic train was built for the mining industry and now scares tourists and bushwalkers alike. At a maximum gradient of 52 degrees, it is the steepest train in the world. Mr Simon Bishop held on for his dear little life.

All in all the Blue Mountains were wonderful and I had a very enjoyable day. Sadly once again it could only be a single day trip and thus I may have missed out on the full experience. I am beginning to wonder if, had I stayed at Cape Tribulation or the Blue Mountains for longer, I would have enjoyed them much more. No matter, they were both beautiful and I should be thankful I was there at all.

Next stop, the Opera House.

It's A Small World (After All)

FOR a first 24 hours in an unknown city, my arrival in Sydney has got to have been the most varied and unpredictable that I have ever experienced.

Arriving at about 5pm on Oz Experience, our brilliant driver Sconzey gave us a little tale about the city's origins, and then drove us straight over the Harbour Bridge straight into the heart of the city. Now I had heard much about the structure, with many saying that it is smaller than they expected, or not as impressive as the photographs they had seen of it, but for me there was no greater visceral thrill than arriving over it. From the bridge the metal 'coat hanger' is an enormous structure and simply staggering in proportion, and it provided a fantastic gateway to the city. We turned immediately after it, curving around to capture the bridge and the wonderful Opera House. We had arrived.

Dropped off at Base Backpackers, we checked in and for the first time decided to sleep in separate dorms. By 'decided' I really mean Jeannette checked herself into the female-only, all-inclusive, bolt-on, frilly and fantastic Sanctuary, where you pay $5 per night extra to have longer mirrors, pink walls and a free towel. Us gentleman have to make do with gray coloration and the nasty company of smelly boys. Entering my room, there were clothes and dirty plates everywhere. Unable to locate a free bed, I dropped my bag in a corner and assembled my affairs. There was a knock on the door.

It was the police.

They asked me if I was called Aaron. My negative response did not seem to please them. They had a look around the room, asking me who slept there, whether it was shared or single sex and whether I knew the whereabouts of said Aaron and a girl called Ursula. Having entered this empty room only 1 minute previously I was not much use to them, and they left leaving me delightlessly paranoid about my possessions.

Presently I met Jeannette and went for a walk up to Hyde Park, walking around the noodle markets and having a quick look around before returning to the hostel and to the room, whereupon I met two Kiwi working-visa tourists by the name of Aaron and Ursula. I suddenly became very polite and very, very English.

Shortly afterwards, while I was checking my email, I received another shock, but this time a pleasant one. Sat next to me was somebody very familiar. Since our departure from Cairns we have met many people, and at various places and stages we have bumped into them again, since most people have similar plans and stopovers along the coast. For example we left one girl behind on Magnetic Island, only for her to get back on the bus in Brisbane. In two weeks she had overtaken us, hitchhiking to Rockhampton and flying on to Brisbane before boarding OzExperience to Surfers Paradise.

However the girl sat next me now was not somebody I had met in Australia. I met her in England ten years ago. Her name is Pippa Bills, and I spent the first five years of secondary school in the same tutor group as her. We caught up on gossip and shared travel itineraries, and then agreed to attend the night's quiz together.

Back in the room I met my two other dorm mates. Both came from Exeter, a 40-minute drive from my home. These coincidences were beginning to become familiar: in Singapore I had met a girl from the tiny village of Seaton Junction, which nobody has ever heard of unless you live where I do, for it is five minutes or so from my door.

The quiz was a spectacular affair. Our team, which mainly consisted of Pippa's OzExperience friends, ascended through the ranks and astoundingly won. A fifty dollar bar tab was presented to the name of Crouching Woman, Hidden Cucumber, the team name they had chosen for us. However a greater prize was to offer: for the chance of winning $250 cash, one nominated member of the team would have to answer a question unaided, and you can probably guess that I was volunteered.

"What is the real name of Elton John?" I was asked.
My spirits lifted. I knew the answer.
"Reg Dwight" I replied, a cocksure smile on my face.
"What is his full name?".
I frowned.
"Reginald Dwight?"

There was a lot of cheering.

Next morning I arose late and wandered down into the beautiful Darling Harbour, watching the boats, seagulls, pigeons and ibis' and enjoying the waterfront views. I followed some gardens and water features in search of the Powerhouse Museum, which had been recommended to me in my guide to Australia. A science and innovation museum, it was advertised as having a unique emphasis on Australian achievement. I paid the $10 entry fee and wandered in, excited as to what I would find.

What I found was an exhibition on Princess Diana, some Japanese dresses and the James Watt/Matthew Boulton steam engine, designed where I have spent the last three years: Birmingham, England. There were, however, uniquely Australian features, such as some model Utopia carved animals from the Ngkawenterre camp, including an echidna, a ngintaka (a goanna lizard) and a 'Devil Dog', said to assist ritual law enforcers. An exhibition on William Stanley Jevons, the father of modern economics, was very interesting, for he used the freedom offered by Sydney to explore his theories and unravel the world in mechanical terms. Beginning at the Royal Mint, he loathed the reluctance of Melbourne to accept the currency of New South Wales, and became a renowned economist, meteorologist, photographer and teacher of symbolic logic.

I was slightly disappointed that the museum did not contain more about Australian communities. The only section on such a topic focused on the 70,000 Estonians who emigrated to Australia between 1940 and 1944 after prime minister Ben Chifley offered employment and refuge to Europe's 'Displaced People'. I left after about an hour, having enjoyed the museum's random collections - which cover modern car design to Vegemite and firework manufacture - but also disappointed that I hadn't found anything on Aboriginal culture. I spotted a didgeridoo show advertised just outside and made a mental note to return, for now walking the streets towards the Opera House.

Blimey Sydney is a pretty city. Clean and tidy and full of modern, stylish buildings and ornate classic structures, it was laid out like an American city using British idiosyncrasies. I fell in love with it instantly. I went up George Street, past lots of expensive shops and arcades, I got lost in a bookshop (I often do) and wandered up Martin Place to the hospital and state library, with its statue of Matthew Flinders. I patted a statue of a pig. I crossed into the beautiful Botanic Gardens listening to Len, lost in a world of my own: I clicked my fingers, swung my hips and pretended to play the drums and then, because the signs told me to, I walked on the grass, smelt the roses, hugged a tree and spoke to the birds. I meandered around and into the Conservatoire, then on around the harbour and out to Mrs Macquerie's Point, the place to be to capture that classic photograph with the Opera House to the left and the Harbour Bridge behind it. I slalomed past a group of Japanese tourists, looked for marine life in Woolloomooloo Bay (I also chuckled at the name) and took another route through the gardens, only now noticing the inscribed pavement tiles with Aboriginal names.

Briefly I entered the Opera House, suprised to discover the present set of evening performances are being performed by the choir of Westminster, and from here I hurried on to Circular Quay, suddenly conscious of the time. By prior arrangement I was to catch the 5pm ferry from the wharf to Manly, a district of Sydney out on the coast, and home to one of the most beautiful beaches in the region. The ferry departed on time, thus ending my epic 24 hours, but not so my day. Half an hour later (for Sydney to Manly is seven miles; the entire harbour has a shoreline of 194 miles) I disembarked, and there waiting for me outside the legendary Max Brenner Chocolate Bar was Julia, sister of my girlfriend Rachel.

And Julia is, for the record, lovely.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

What A Beauty!

A LITTLE over a year ago, Steve Irwin died. It was the most surreal piece of news, since I heard it having just landed in Brazil after an epic cross-Atlantic journey. Located in a non-English, non-Spanish speaking town, the last thing I expected to hear was that the legend that is Steve Irwin had been killed by a stingray barb. Many people that I know thought that the man was an idiot, but I respected and revered him, and the news came as quite some shock.

On Saturday we went to Australia Zoo, the zoo he owned with his wife Terri. While on our free transit bus from Noosa, a DVD of his life was played, but eerily it was narrated by the man himself. Evidently it had been made before his death, and as such was full of comments about what he would remember for the rest of his life, and plans to retire when he became too slow to cope. It told the story of the origins of the zoo and his conservation work, and was full of the typical over-the-top phrases and actions we have come to expect from him, from receiving a python for his sixth birthday to his first crocodile capture on film.

His presence in the zoo is also quite eery. His face is on every poster, and his family are smiling at you from every available piece of wallspace. You can buy mugs and shirts with him on, as well as talking dolls and memorial badges. Alas, I shouldn't complain, since if it raises money for their conservation work, then there is nothing wrong with it.

The zoo itself was very impressive. Not so much on it's information and signage, for I have seen better, but on it's conservation message. Instead of having signs bursting with tiny writings on "conservation is important because..." it impressed upon people the simple but unbeatable ethos that these animals are cool, so let's look after them. In essence, the spirit of Steve Irwin, as corny as this sounds, was everywhere.

We went to the animal show in the Crocoseum, full of bird displays, snakes and crocodiles. Unlike the crocodile farms I have visited so far, where they tease and taunt their animals, the level of respect shown was superior at the zoo. For sure they made crocodiles jump for their food, but simply for exercise and to show their full power to the crowd - not to make them out as lumbering idiots and a circus act. However, despite the zoo's emaphasis on snakes and crocodiles, I concede that the greatest exhibits on show that day were two native Australian creatures - the wombat and the echidna. The echidna especially waddled around ceaselessly, a tiny spiky ball of energy, unaware that he is a star of the biological world ('Is it a mammal? Is it a reptile? No! It's a monotreme!').

Australia Zoo is a great zoo and it's work is very important. Stevo is sorely missed by all there, but may his Wildlife Warriors continue to work with his passion and enthusiasm for years to come.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

A Fringe Of Leaves

edited 16/10/07

LIEUTENANT James Cook made three mistakes on his voyage up the east coast of Australia. The first, though last chronologically, was the trial of Cape Tribulation, when his vessel the HMB Endeavour collided with the Great Barrier Reef. Second, though perhaps the most staggering, was his complete and utter failure to discover Sydney. That honour is bestowed upon Governor Arthur Phillip, who realized that Cook’s original landing site, Botany Bay, was entirely unsuitable for establishing a colony. His third mistake was failing to realize that Fraser Island is in fact an island. Naming it the Great Sandy Peninsula, he sailed by unaware of it being the largest sand island in the world.

When he passed the northern edge of the island, a group of the local Butchulla Aboriginal peoples climbed a rocky headland to watch his bemusing ship sail by. As a result, Cook named the point Indian Head. Today there are no Aboriginal people on Fraser Island, for they were rounded up and relocated by Aboriginal Missions, although some groups do continue to visit certain campsites. Indian Head, from being a place of gathering - at least for one day in 1770 - has now become a headland that is out of bounds for aboriginal tribes. This is because after white people began to inhabit the island, they rounded up 100 natives, marched them up the hill at gunpoint and forced them to jump to their deaths. If they refused they would be shot. Understandably it is now a place of bad memories and innate fear.

This tale exemplifies the complete contrast in aboriginal relations since the arrival of Europeans on Australia. For some explorers they were friends and people of immense intrigue, and for some they were enemies from the start. Sadly this did often reflect the colour of their skin.

The Dutch mariner Jan Carstensz arrived at Cape York in 1623. His diaries retell the kidnap and murder of two native individuals, for no other reason than desire to do so. William Dampier too called the inhabitants of Western Australia as the “miserablest people in the world… and, setting aside their human shape, they differ little from brutes.” In a later account he reformed his opinion, feeling remorse for a skirmish his crew had had with a local tribe – but he never attempted to stop the attack, himself shooting one the the local men. William de Vlamingh kidnapped two “black swans” aboard the Geelvinck, and even Sir Joseph Banks (he of the Royal Society) feared the natives upon first arrival, preferring to drown rather than to sail ashore and being unable to defend himself without arms from the ‘Indians’.

However Banks was won over, recounting in his diaries days when curious Aborigines sailed to their stricken vessel, sharing foods and displaying for their entertainment. Captain Watkin Tench also, a member of the First Fleet, mounted an expedition inland and befriended a group of aboriginal doctors. Upon leaving they “bade us adieu, in unabated friendship and good humour.” John Wilson, an Irish convict-turned explorer, left European society to join the Aborigines after serving his time. Governer Phillip was so impressed with the attitudes of a local group of Aborigines he named the region Manly, a name that stands today.

Aboriginal relations have always been fraught with tension, perhaps influenced by myth and suspicion. They were not helped therefore, by the tales and stories of one Eliza Fraser, for whom Fraser Island is named. Shipwrecked off the coast, the Aborigines claim to have cared and nurtured for her before she made her own way back to the mainland; she claims she was kidnapped, taken into slavery and that her husband was speared in the back and murdered by a violent tribe. Her story earned her fame and fortune, but she never told the same story twice, the details becoming more melodramatic with every telling. It is largely believed therefore that she was lying. The story led to a fierce dislike of Aboriginal peoples, and sadly bloodshed has frequently followed as a result.

Monday, 8 October 2007

A Pinker Shade of Tanned

FIRST of all I owe an apology. I haven't posted here in a week and I know how passionately you have been following my adventures. However I have an excuse. I have been at sea, you see.

On Thursday, after an action packed few days beginning and ending on a beach, we set sail from Abel Point Marina at Airlie Beach aboard the beautiful sailing ketch Enid. Built in 1961 she has competed in four Sydney to Hobart races and recently stunned the competition in both the 2003 and 2004 Whitsunday Traditional Boat Regattas. It was to the Whitsunday Islands we sailed.

By Thursday afternoon we arrived at Hayman Island, a small island with a resort on the far side. As the engines were switched off (for the winds had been minimal en route) a school of batfish came to the boat, yellow-finned, black-and-white vertical fish of quite surprising stature, which zipped through the water with breathtaking speed. They were scavenger fish, eating scraps thrown overboard, including beetroot. We donned our Super Sexy Stinger Suits (figure-hugging, full-body, lycra-style swimsuits designed to protect from jellyfish) and jumped in among them, snorkelling up to the shore. Almost instantly we were in another world - a forested sea bed, not with conventional trees but branched corals of blues and oranges. Purple and green parrotfish swam around happily among the spongy coral brains and a host of unknown but beautiful fish swam within arm's reach. This was not the Great Barrier Reef, but it was just as exciting.

At night we anchored near Whitsunday Island itself and ate under the stars. The sea was perfectly still and the sky free from clouds, and we spent a long while making up new constellation names and finding exciting star shapes. Jupiter and Mars were clear to see, as was half of the Southern Cross. In such clear skies the Milky Way and our next nearest galaxy were also visible.

In the morning, the sea was still motionless. A few clouds had infiltrated the sky but sun beams were desperately trying to push through into a steep, forested valley on Whitsunday Island. Hauling up the anchor we set off, sailing gracefully to the sounds of Xavier Rudd, past the luxury resort on Hamilton Island (a delightful little island blighted by high-rise hotels) to Whitehaven Beach, frequently voted one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Pure white sands stretched onwards, our eyes struggling with the brightness. In the sea we found stingrays resting on the surface. Next we snorkelled off of Border Island, in search (in vain) for giant wrasse. Overnight we stayed in a bay notorious for hammerhead sharks, relaxing to Johnny Cash while looking out over gently rippling waters. I looked over the back of the boat to find microscopic algae luminescing with a blue glow. It was tremendously peaceful, and I was quite sad to go to bed knowing that the following evening I would be back on land.

Yet the third and final day turned out to be the best. Mooring off of Black Island, we dived in to snorkel the fringing reefs and relax on the baking beach. After curing some technical snorkel issues, I followed the crowd and was slightly disappointed by the corals, which were blander and smaller than those we had already seen. I walked onto the beach and wandered around the tiny island, and discovered along with the rest of the group something quite spectacular. In the distance was the hilly and forested Hook Island, providing a scenic backdrop to a scene which contained dark, deep waters on the far side and a 100-metre or so shallow lagoon stretching off of the beach we stood on. Perhaps only a metre deep, everything in it was clear to see, and for a brief moment we assumed there was nothing to see, just sand, rocks and the occasional plant.

In fact the water contained a group of giant turtles. So tame were these beautiful animals that we could follow them and swim with them. At one stage I was but a foot above a metre-long guy, who was paddling along gracefully and looking quite content. Another sat eating on the sea bed, when eight of us formed an audience around him. We even touched its shell. I have to be honest, swimming with turtles is one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had.

If there is one thing you have to do before you die, sailing the Whitsundays is it.