There are many small towns you drive through when doing a trip as long as ours. To begin with you savour each and every one, noting their name, and characteristics. But after a little while, they all begin to blend into one another; just one more flat, modern town, where a two-storey building is an attraction. We thought Bundaberg would be one of those – just a place to stop for groceries and perhaps pop into the rum distillery for a look around (which Dan did, and left us $30 lighter).
But Bundaberg, or more accurately the nearby area of Mon Repos, is actually a place we will remember forever as somewhere we got to meet tiny, gawping baby turtles and guide them to the ocean.
We had heard about this place back in Airlie Beach from a tourist going north, and I knew instantly that we had to visit. The turtle experience was only $12 each, far less than any other paid-for attraction we had been to. It turned out this was because the founder had wanted it to be educational, and so decreed that the price should never be prohibitive for normal folks with kids. Apparently in California, a similar experience can cost hundreds of dollars.
Because of the length of the distillery tour, we were a little tardy in heading down to the beachside centre to book tickets, and alas it had closed for the afternoon. We spotted a couple of staff members, who told us to turn up at 7pm and queue in case there was space. Luckily, after cooking and eating our dinner in the car park, and queuing for a few minutes, we were able to get into the third group. I was surprised at how many people turned up on this Thursday evening; at a guess I would think about 200. I suppose it just shows how excited people get about baby animals.
We all assembled in a sort of half-inside, half-outside amphitheatre, and the very serious ranger told everyone that we were to wait whilst his team were out on the pitch-black beach, looking for nests which were ready to blow. As soon as one was found, Group One would be heading down, then if another was found, Group Two, and finally Group Three. He also explained that this could take some time, and we could be in the centre for a few hours waiting, as ‘nature does not run to a schedule.’ He even warned we might be unlucky, although this was unlikely. Everyone nodded solemnly, but I could see that this a few parents struggled to hide their frustration at this, as they tried to herd their restless children.
In the end, we were glad to be in the third and final group; the smallest by far. It had paid to be late. Before being called we got to watch an interesting documentary of how the Mon Repos centre came to be about, and all about the lives of the loggerhead turtles who nested there. Only one in a thousand baby turtles actually survive to maturity, due to the abundance of predators, as well as (of course) human pollution of the seas. We really are an awful blight on this planet. The turtles make their way all the way across the Pacific Ocean (the rangers track them with electronic trackers cemented onto their shells) to South America, and back again to the same beach to lay their eggs. They really are incredible creatures.
When at last our group was called, we ventured down to the beach in the dark (not even phone lights allowed), and gathered around a semicircular line drawn in the sand. The ranger dug a little into the nest to encourage the turtles to come out. And then, the most magical sight – hundreds of little hatchlings emerging, making their way towards us. They were gathered and put in a little pen which had been made by the ranger, and we each got to hold them and have a photo taken.
They then drew two parallel lines forming a sort of turtle highway from nest to ocean so the baby turtles could race down between us to the distant glow of the sea. One guy actually nearly stood on one, and from the gasp that went up from the crowd you would think he had hit a child in his Landrover.
During the course of the evening we were able to help guide the loggerheads, rescue them from crabs and gulls, and give them just a bit of a better chance of getting to the sea (where they will no doubt be gobbled up by a predator). Mon Repos was the best thing we have done so far in Australia, and is something you really can’t miss, for only $12!
Heading south in our trusty campervan, we arrived in one of the towns which is the kick-off point for Fraser Island – the ‘world’s largest sand island’. In Australia, everything is presented to the uninformed tourist as the ‘World’s Biggest, Best, Highest, Longest’ etc. etc. Australia definitely does not have an inferiority complex.
Hervey Bay was a sweet seaside town, and we stayed in a campervan park by the seafront (absolutely no chance of roughing it in such a busy spot), which was overpriced and predictably preachy, making us feel like naughty school children before we had even parked up (‘ABSOLUTELY NO NOISE AFTER 10pm’… ‘PLEASE CLEAN UP AFTER YOURSELVES’). We met an interesting couple who were camped next to us. Both from Devon, she was up at 7am to do her resistance training before her acai berry breakfast smoothie, whilst he lay in bed munching Doritos for most of the morning.
Our trip to Fraser Island was booked through a tour company. As we had already been to the Whitsundays, we didn’t want to spend too much on Fraser, and therefore only booked the day trip. What we didn’t realise was quite how long the journey would be to the actual island. After being collected at 7.20am, we had a half hour drive to the ferry port, then an hour on the sweltering boat itself. If you know Dan, you’ll probably know how travel sick he gets, and so being faced with gigantic 4×4 wheel coaches when we alighted the ferry was the final nail in this tour’s coffin for him. It was at that point he gave up the prospect of enjoying it at all.
This isn’t a review site, so I’ll keep the opinions to a minimum, but suffice to say we didn’t enjoy it as much as the Whitsundays tour. Fraser really is a large slab of sand in the middle of the ocean, covered in sub-tropical rainforest (‘the furthest south in the world!’), with a few exotic birds and dingoes being the only land mammal, which you are warned time and time again not to feed, and we wouldn’t have done so if we’d seen one. Being on the bus on the uneven sand tracks actually felt like being driven in a vehicle with its four wheels sourced from a pram, a tractor, a penny farthing and a micro scooter respectively. The relentless, risible commentary of the extremely patronising and camp tour-guide, who repeated every piece of information and instruction seven times did not help (“Meet here at 2:50pm, that’s ten to three, that’s 14:50, that’s two-five-zero. 2:50pm everyone!”). Again, school trip-like, we were ferried around to the different sites the island had to offer, but due to the travelling times there and back we had very limited time at each place. The first stop was the incredible Lake McKenzie, with crystal clear waters and white sand. Unfortunately we were only granted about 25 minutes swimming. Of course when we got back 12 seconds late, we were met with glares from the driver and the rest of the coach, as we were now ‘behind schedule’.
The other places we went were beautiful too – the 75 mile beach, the shipwreck, the crystal clear creek which you could swim in. However, we wished we had booked our own 4×4 car and camped, as everywhere we went was incredibly crowded for a basically uninhabited island, and we heard from others later on that doing it off your own back meant missing the crowds. It would also mean avoiding beef with passive aggressive Americans who insisted upon stealing your front seat due to their ‘car sickness’. Stroking your boyfriend’s head as he tries very hard not to puke, whilst hearing said Yanks up in front shriek with laughter at their bus-selfies was not a highlight of the day.
Having spent a lot of time in small towns or countryside, it was frankly weird to arrive in a city full of sparkling skyscrapers and multi-lane highways. We hadn’t been on a dual carriageway since Cairns, some 1050 miles north. Brisbane’s blue skies and clean, clipped grass promised to deliver some kind of Australian dream.
It was quite a novelty to have a choice of restaurants, so as soon as we arrived we sat down to eat at a Greek taverna.
It was BYO, and as we had a bottle of wine in the camper fridge, we decided to bring it out. This may have been a mistake, as in the Brisbane sun, the wine made us pretty fuzzy, and we spent a good hour snoozing on the grass by the Brisbane River. The riverside itself was very much like a smaller, quieter version of London’s South Bank, due to its mix of greenery, brutalist art galleries and its very own Ferris wheel.
Our tipsiness also meant we forgot to check the parking restrictions, and consequently worried about it all day, knowing the Australian authorities’ pedantry for vehicular law. We wandered the streets of Brisbane all day (what else is there to do in a city new to you?), and found that it was much like every other city we’ve ever been to. Full of the same types of shops, bars and restaurants. However, a few minutes’ walk further out of the centre the quirky suburbs came to life. An interesting point of the day was finding a death-metal coffee shop, where the septum pierced staff practically spat in the hand you paid with, tossed the coffee across at you and sat perfecting her Paddington Hard Stare whilst you drank it. I have to say, the espresso was the nicest I’ve ever had, so perhaps it was worth feeling worthless whilst consuming it.
Brisbane felt like ‘another city’, but a lovely, unimposing one with a laid-back vibe. Being Australia’s third city, it has carved itself out a special place in the hearts of many Aussies and the thousands of young immigrants who have moved to the city and made it the cool place it is today.