I AM driving north of Brisbane to Bundaberg on my latest travel writing assignment when it strikes me that I am also on a personal pilgrimage. So caught up am I in the possibility of finally having the chance to experience the turtle hatchlings at Mon Repos on the Southern Great Barrier Reef, that I have temporarily forgotten my strong links to this regional Queensland town.
It’s been nine long years since I’ve been to Bundy, the birthplace and childhood home of my ex husband, and to where we would retreat each year to visit his family. And now I am returning. Alone. The ghosts of the past first hit me as I’m driving through Childers, when I glance at the façade of the old Palace Backpacker Hostel. In 2000 it burned down, killing 15 young backpackers. I remember that day well, I was the Tourism Reporter on the Courier-Mail and wrote a story about backpackers to this destination, mapping their rite-of-passage along the Queensland coast. How they used Childers as a place to stop, pick fruit, and make money before heading north to the Whitsundays. A bunch of young adults brimming with life and hope. Dead. That’s the thing about being a news reporter. Often it’s months, and in this case years, when beyond the adrenalin of a breaking news story, you finally have time to reflect on what it actually means. In my car I slow down, glance at the building, now an art space and memorial to the backpackers, and keep driving.
This is a blog about new beginnings, courage and resilience. I drive north through a series of summer storms, arriving in Bargara mid afternoon. The sun is shining and I head straight for a swim at the Basin, a tidal pool at the beach. Under the warm blue sky with fish at my feet and the ocean crashing against the rocks, I’m feeling cleansed. There are no ghosts here.
By early evening I am standing in the dark with a group of strangers at Mon Repos, wondering if I’ll have the chance to finally witness the baby turtles hatch on this, the last night of the season. Just 10 minutes after opening there’s a sighting and on this balmy beach night we wander in the dark and experience not one, but two clutches, both numbering in their hundreds. The rangers say this is the best outcome all season.
We form a human channel and the rangers shine a light from the nest to the ocean for the hatchlings to begin their life journey. You want resilience? Consider this. Just one in 1000 of these babies will make it to adulthood. And 30 years later, against all odds, the females will return to this very beach to lay their own eggs. In the dark I feel something crawl up my leg. It’s a rogue hatchling. Its beauty makes me cry. Later, back at my resort, I research the spiritual meaning of turtles: longevity, endurance, persistence and continuation of life.
The following day I snorkel with a green turtle off of Lady Musgrave Island. A 1.5 metre reef shark circles below me but I have nothing to fear. I hover over the turtle for the longest of times. Observing her feeding and resting on a reef cleaning station. I smile into my snorkel about my insatiable love of reptiles. Salty and sated, later that night I dine with Shane and Pascaline, the owners of the new Zen Beach Retreat in which I am staying. The theme of new beginnings recurs.
Shane, Australian, and Pascaline, French were living and working in Vietnam when they decided to swap their stressful, high-profile jobs for a different existence.
“We went back to Australia and went for a beach drive to try and find a block of land. I wanted to have something on the sea and it had to be hot,” Pascaline says.
“Some of the properties were stunning but there was not love there. We kept heading north. Shane stopped at Bargara Real Estate and saw this. We went walking and thought ‘what a great beach’. Both of us looked at each other and said ‘it is fantastic’.”
The couple opened the retreat in early March, after extensive renovations of this former 1970s Bargara beach motel.
“We will be offering health activities and corporate activities and finding a balance in between. In particular it’s about balancing the corporate wellness of the team,” Shane says.
“I found a lot of companies are losing their way, the way to innovate and keep their team motivated.
“What we’ve got here is a recovery treatment and corporate retreat.”
The property, which can sleep a total of 22 people including the couple’s beachfront home, boasts four themed suites – Executive, French, Asian and Oriental/Middle East. Each suite has been furnished with tasteful artifacts from the couple’s travels around the world.
“It is about creating an experience where people recover from the busy day-to-day life,” Pascaline says.
“It’s about having a guide to relax and building packages with different partners in the area such as nature, food, wellness and sports.
“We have a brand that is Zen. We want you to embody happiness.”
Happiness. I spend the next few days looking at Bundy through a different lense. I join Bundy Food Tours, a new tour which showcases the incredible innovation of the hardy farmers who have worked these fields for generations. There’s that resilience again. Even at the iconic Bundaberg Rum Distillery they’ve launched a new Blend Your Own Rum Experience. For the first time I visit Lady Elliot Island. There’s more turtles. More resilience. And I dine in new restaurants, all embracing food direct from the paddocks to their plates.
On my drive home I pause in Childers at the new Cane Fire Cheese House selling regional produce. I decide it’s time to embody the courage of the turtles and finally visit the Childers Backpacker Memorial. One of the volunteers accosts me at the door and explains the horrific events of that night. I listen, deciding against telling her I know the story all too well. She says the deliberately-lit fire, which saw Australian Robert Long jailed for murder, put Childers on the map for “all the wrong reasons”. I silently disagree. On the night of the fire, and for weeks and months afterwards, the locals opened their doors to the survivors and their families and embraced them as if they had lost their own children. And now they are immortalised in these walls. Forever part of this region’s fabric. On the drive south I think again about the turtles and their meaning: longevity, endurance, persistence and continuation of life. Bundaberg, well she has these in spades.
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of Bundaberg North Burnett Tourism – http://www.bundabergregion.info To stay at the Zen Beach Retreat go to http://www.zenbeachretreat.com
I am on a travel writing assignment out on the Southern Great Barrier Reef this week, experiencing the last turtle hatchlings of the season at Mon Repos (there were 200 last night…pure magic!); and snorkelling off Lady Musgrave and Lady Elliot Islands, with some bigger turtles and giant manta rays. Oh, and I’ll even be blending my own Bundy Rum today at the Bundy Rum Distillery. I’ll be back next week with all of these tales and more.
THE Moreton Bay bugs are swimming in it, but for once, it’s not the Pacific Ocean to which I am referring. Rather, I’m dining at Australia’s Number One Seafood Restaurant, 2 Fish Restaurant Port Douglas, where plump bug tails are floating in a sea of Penang curry sauce, pumpkin, spinach, green beans, lychee and coriander. A balmy breeze, the type that only North Queensland can deliver with flair, is whispering gently through the open doors and my pinot grigio is ice cold. Life, you could say, is pretty bloody good at this particular point in time.
A foodie, I am not. But as a true blue Queenslander, there’s not a lot of arm twisting required to entice me to visit any part of my beautiful state. Yes, I am biased when it comes to my big back yard, but when the restaurant in which you are dining has been voted the 2016 National Restaurant and Catering Award winner for Best Seafood Restaurant in Australia, who am I to argue? Feel like coral trout? You’ll find that lounging in the shallows of a seafood bisque with boy choy and a swimmer crab croquette; while the tiger prawns have paired up with a coconut lime espuma. And 2 Fish is just one of many Port Douglas restaurants partaking in this year’s Carnivale to be staged in May.
Now in its 23rd year, Port Douglas Carnivale was originally launched to mark the start of the sugar cane harvesting season but it’s now considered the official opening of the tourism season. Sure, there’s still plenty of that iconic cane around these parts, but some of the country’s finest foodies and chefs have now found their way to Port these days as well. Among this year’s celebrations, you’ll find Port On A Fork – Food Music and Wine – in which local chefs will present their signature dishes inspired by the gourmet delights of the region. Plus Paradise on a Plate, which is the renowned Longest Lunch in Rex Smeal Park and in which I find myself several evenings after my Moreton Bay bug encounter.
The waves are gently crashing against the point and a Spanish guitarist is crooning to our table under a full moon. Romance? Port Douglas has this in spades. Recipes? You’ll find some of the region’s most innovative on this menu of sesame yellowfin tuna dressed with shallot and wakame cracker; shell off/shell on tiger prawn with smoked avocado and herb buttered rye; and chicken ballottine, toasted corn, pickled fennel and coconut ash mayo.
And that’s just the start. Visitors to this year’s event can expect the likes of local barramundi with star anise cured pineapple, roasted yellow curry sauce and baby coconut salad; and lamb backstrap with a shallot puree, truss tomato, and olive crumb and sage crisps. As for dessert, how about all the textures of pina colada on a plate? A dessert which tastes like a cocktail? Now you’re speaking my language. While there’s plenty for grown ups during Carnivale, kids will also love the Wonders of the Reef Macrossan Street Parade and the Family beach Day at Port Douglas’ world-renowned 4 Mile Beach.
“It’s a party in paradise for all ages, it’s a wonderful event,” Event Director Melissa Head says.
“There’s lots of synergies and friendships formed at all of the events.”
So prestigious is this event, Melissa has also managed to lure Australian musician Ben Lee north for the event.
Not that encouraging anyone to visit Port Douglas is such a hard task. Outside of Carnivale, you’ll find a charming North Queensland town with an eclectic mix of old and new. Down the main drag, there’s still cane toad racing at the Iron Bar; the odd croc pie at Mocka’s Pies; and plenty of colour and life at the Port Douglas Sunday Markets where signs will encourage you to “drink more plants”. Meanwhile, down at the marina, Hemingway’s Brewery opened in June selling micro beers from what was once disgraced entrepreneur Christopher Skase’s apartment. In fact, Skase’s Sheraton Mirage Port Douglas, which many credit with putting the town on the map in what seems like eons ago, has also undergone its first facelift in decades. Yes, Skase may be long gone but Port Douglas lives on.
The Global Goddess travelled to Port Douglas as a guest of Tourism Port Douglas and Daintree – http://www.visitportdouglasdaintree.com; and stayed at QT Port Douglas – https://www.qthotelsandresorts.com/port-douglas/
For more information on Port Douglas Carnivale go to http://www.carnivale.com.au
CONSERVATIONIST Derek Ball is clad in a shirt the colour of the deep blue ocean he so adores, but on this particular day he’s diving into the urban jungle of a Brisbane coffee shop, in which we meet.
A khaki backpack with an eco-friendly water bottle sits to his right, and to his left, the luggage he will take the following day to New Zealand, off on his next expedition.
Derek, 51, is the CEO of Wild Mob, an Australian-based not-for-profit organisation, dedicated to long-term conservation initiatives which empower local communities.
This biologist and zoologist, along with his team of fellow scientists, ecologists, educators and adventurers, takes paying volunteers on conservation expeditions to Australian and New Zealand destinations. It works on a principle of 4 C’s: Conservation, Culture, Community and Commerce.
Graeme Wood, who founded the successful online travel company Wotif.com in 2000, and the Graeme Wood Foundation, which supports environmental sustainability, the arts and education, in 2006, conceived Wild Mob eight years ago.
Interestingly, the scientist in Derek was skeptical when first approached about the concept.
“I wasn’t quite sure it would work to be honest. But after three cups of coffee I thought ‘let’s give it a go’,” he says.
“We started out low key in our first few years. Now we are working with islands off of Queensland and in central Queensland, Tasmania, Melbourne, Norfolk Island, New Zealand and are looking to expand into Fiji and the South Pacific.”
I stumbled across Derek purely by chance a few weeks ago when I was on Norfolk Island, a place he describes as a “global biodiversity hotspot” and where he regularly takes groups.
It’s a long way from Outback Queensland’s mining town of Mount Isa where he was born, but it was a trip to the Great Barrier Reef when he was six which changed his world and saw him enamoured with the ocean and its marine inhabitants.
“That was it for me. Everyone has their place in the world and this is mine,” he says.
“It is pretty close to the best job in the world. I get to do stuff I love doing and make the world a better place and have the best time doing it.
“You don’t have to be a dyed-in-the-wool greenie, a scientist, professor or career conservationist, every single person can come out with us.
“On every single trip we do, we get to a stage where people realise what they are doing and after a couple of days they get it. People just go ‘we are out here, making the world a better place’. People go away changed.”
Derek says the beauty of Wild Mob expeditions is that they attract every demographic.
“We target school groups. In my view it is they who are teaching us. They inherit this place. Engaging with kids is absolutely critical. Younger people just get it, they’ve been exposed to far more information than the older generation,” he says.
“But we get everyone from 18 year olds to 83 year olds. There are more women. Women are more empathetic and think through the world much better than men. They tend to be more willing to give than blokes are. Women know how to pace themselves and that it’s not a competition.
“And we get all occupations and from all walks of life. Our expeditions are as much about sociology as conservation. Most of my team are introverts and they are really great project leaders because they observe.”
According to the latest annual report published by Wild Mob, in one year it attracted 333 volunteers who worked for 1843 field days and contributed $440,000 worth of their time. More than $500,000 was spent in local communities; 154 students were taught in six outdoor classrooms; and more than 1300kg of marine debris was removed from 10km of marine turtle nesting beaches.
During the same period, 9ha of bridled nail-tail wallaby nursery habitat was protected from cats; weeds were controlled in 35ha of critically-endangered littoral rainforest; and conservation and survey work completed on 50 islands along a 500km stretch of the Great Barrier Reef.
As recently as last month, Wild Mob announced through its hard work and community collaboration, it was close to establishing a second population of one of the world’s most rare birds, the Norfolk Island Green Parrot, on neighbouring Phillip Island.
But while there are many wins, work as a conservationist is not all sunshine and lollipops with Derek recently posting a scathing attack on social media in which he described leaders of Australian governments as a “dragon’s lair of personal vilification, bigotry, ignorance and greed.”
“That particular day I was frustrated as all get out. There are so many challenges in this country and so many opportunities. You can’t fix the problem without having a purpose, there is no vision in Australia.
“Where do the Australian people want to be in the year 2050? What sort of country do you want to live in?
“As a scientist you need to be objective and logical but I’m allowed to have emotions as well.”
He believes the Australian Greens are “ineffectual” and that the Australian Government “pisses a huge amount of money against the wall”, spending $6 billion a year on the environment without managing to save one endangered species.
It would be easy to assume this vocal conservationist is without fear, he loves sharks “they are perfectly adapted to their environment”; and is happy to remove a deadly taipan from a house; but he does find Australian crocodiles “challenging to work with”.
Just don’t call him a Wildlife Warrior, Conservation Crusader or, even worse, a “bloody Greenie”.
“I am nothing so melodramatic. I am very much Mr Average. One of the great things about Wild Mob is that you meet some very impressive people,” he says.
“The Greenies make our lives so much harder. I want to spend time with people who can find balance in the world.
“Being a conservationist is pretty bloody tough. I can’t think of a time in the past 30 years when it’s been so bloody hard to find money for the environment.
“But I am not going to stop. There is no retirement plan at all.”
To find out more about Wild Mob’s work, upcoming expeditions or to donate to conservation causes, go to https://wildmob.org/about/ Photos in this blog courtesy of Wild Mob
The Global Goddess travelled to Norfolk Island as a guest of Norfolk Island Tourism – http://www.norfolkisland.com.au and Air New Zealand – http://www.airnewzealand.com.au
A little interview on me, with the Queensland Writers Centre, and why I keep writing.