THIS travel tales begins where all good journeys should, back in my hometown of Brisbane at my temple of worship…the Regatta bottle shop. I don’t usually dash to the bottle-o just before I’m about to fly to another destination, but I have just learned that my next stop is BYO, I can’t bring any glass, and red wine is also forbidden. And so I find myself in a peculiar pickle, hunting for the finest chateaux cardboard that can be carried, along with my clothes, in a 20 litre dry pack.
I’m off to the Whitsundays as part of the first media contingent to return to the region after tropical Cyclone Debbie hit on March 28 causing an estimated billion dollars worth of destruction during the 36 hours it raged. The Category 4 cyclone, the worst since Cyclone Ada hit in 1970, destroyed 93 boats in Airlie Beach and took out the town’s electricity and water in some parts for up to 16 days. Both Hayman and Daydream Islands were extensively damaged, and will not reopen until 2018. Hamilton Island also sustained damage, but reopened a week after the cyclone. On the mainland at Airlie Beach, the Airlie Beach Hotel is closed, as are several other businesses.
On this journey I will spend two days and two nights at Paradise Cove Resort with Red Cat Adventures. This particular tour is called the Thrill and Chill package. But there are very strict rules attached to this tour. No glass and no red wine. No nail polish or nail polish remover. And finally, no bags with zippers. While on the island I also learn I am only allowed to have an ice cream if I agree to take a napkin first. I’m intrigued. What the HELL happens on this island? After all these years of travel, am I about to have my first Lord of the Flies encounter?
Paradise Cove, on the Australian mainland about 30 minutes by road, or the same time by boat from Airlie Beach, is owned by millionaire Jodee Rich and leased to Red Cat Adventures. And it appears the millionaire does not like spillages. Legend has it a backpacker once tipped nail polish on the floor there and then attempted to clean it up with nail polish remover, which made the situation worse. As for the bags with zippers, apparently zips carry bed bugs. And here I was blaming the backpackers.
On this particular tour I am surrounded by 17 backpackers who are young enough to be my children. Look, I like backpackers, I was one once, but I don’t like them enough to be stuck in a remote locale with them with only white wine in a pouch to console me. Luckily for me, I am upgraded to the “Dream Villa” in which Mr Rich stays when he’s at his resort. It is part African safari lodge/part Aboriginal art gallery with thousands of dollars of authentic Indigenous bark art on the walls. A wooden hippo is perched on the floor and there’s binoculars in an old-fashioned leather case and an ancient typewriter on a desk, which appeals to this writer. A free-standing bath stands in one corner of the yawning bathroom and in the other, a shower surrounded by glass, so that you can bathe with Mother Nature as your witness. On one morning, I am visited by a wild dingo.
The most comfortable king-sized bed in which I’ve ever slept is the centerpiece of the villa which also houses plush day beds inside and a gorgeous swing chair outside from which you can watch the sun rise over the ocean. And the best bit, I can only hear the sound of screaming curlews late into the night, my backpackers scattered somewhere else around this bush property, which sits in Woodwark
Cove. During the 2 day/2 night tour you’ll board the 12 metre, 600 horse power boat and take snorkelling trips to the likes of Hook and Whitsunday Islands. There’s a three-hour visit to Whitehaven Beach and on your last day, you’ll be taken to Langford Reef where some believe Lara Bingle infamously muttered “Where the bloody hell are you?” for an Australian tourism campaign.
While I silently mutter “What the bloody hell am I doing on this tour with backpackers?” in my head, the thing I love most about returning to Airlie Beach is that this town reignites the dormant backpacker in me as well. There she is, my 20-year-old self, who took off around the world with a 10kg backpack of clothes and a fistful of optimism. And this reminds me of a chat I had with a Balinese local years ago, shortly after the Bali bombings. I am always conscious of the “ugly Australian” who enters Bali, the one who drinks too much or packs their boogie board full of drugs, and so I continually check in with Balinese tourism operators as to how my fellow Australians are treating them. On this particular day, the Balinese man said: “We love Australians, when the Bali bombings happened you were the first tourists to return back.”
And so it is with the backpackers to the Whitsundays. Yes, there is some pain in this region, and there are some things to rebuild, but there’s still plenty of amazing things to do here. These fearless travellers, the backpackers, are the first to return. And for that, I can’t help but love them. Bed bugs and all.
Important footnote: Should you find yourself in a similarly dire wine predicament to that I have described above, I have just discovered there’s an excellent new alternative on the market. Tote Wines has launched premium wine pouches in an easy to chill, easy to carry, 1.5 litres. The launch range includes a 2014 Barossa Valley Shiraz and a 2016 Eden Valley Sauvignon Blanc with a Barossa Valley Rose set to launch in the coming months. http://www.totewines.com.au
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of Tourism Whitsundays http://www.tourismwhitsundays.com.au and Tigerair Australia. Tiger has released $33 fares each way between Brisbane and Whitsunday Coast Airport and $66 each way between Sydney and Whitsunday Coast Airport, until sold out. http://www.tigerair.com.au Whitsunday Transit offers transfers to and from the airport http://www.whitsundaytransit.com.au
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
THIS is a tale of battlers and beaut beaches. It’s the kind of story which whacks you in the face when you’re looking for something else, with the types of colourful characters you simply can’t ignore. Like Geoff Warne, who reckons he’s going to pen an autobiography one day entitled “Simply F****d”; former Turkish child bride Sevtap Yuce; Wooli oyster champion Kim Guinea who happens to hate seafood; and Yamba YHA owner Shane Henwood – who is prone to putting fake snakes and spiders in the beds of his guests.
I am on the mid northern New South Wales coast, tracing the mighty Clarence River from Yamba to Grafton, and like the ocean around these parts, the people are wild, woolly and delightfully unpredictable. Like Action Activities Adventure owner Geoff Warne, who is making a splash with his new kayaking and bike hire business. Now in his 40s, this former carpenter who hurt his back at the age of 19, and became a fitness trainer before turning to tourism, has dodged more than his fair share of life’s bloody bullets.
Geoff has been involved in a number of car accidents which left him physically and mentally scarred, but decided to fight for his happiness and aim towards owning his own business.
“There’s a book in my head and it’s called Simply F****d,” Geoff jokes.
“But I said to myself, ‘I’m not giving up’. I thought of everything that I like and thought ‘I’ll be a tour guide’ as I like helping people. All I have to do is make that holiday happy for them.”
Geoff went on to blitz a Certificate III and IV in Tourism before working on the Gold Coast at Dreamworld and then in Mt Tamborine’s glo-worm caves.
Family reasons have pushed him over the border and south to Yamba where he has started this next chapter of his life. On his tours, guests can kayak to nearby Iluka which is one of the last remaining coastal rainforests in New South Wales. The trip also takes in Bluff Beach, snorkelling, home-made treats for morning tea, and a ferry ride back home. Those who want to hang around can also hire Geoff’s bikes and scooters at Iluka.
“It is a great place to start a new future,” he says.
“The most important thing for me is I’ve done something for me and achieved it. I still can’t believe I’ve done it.
“It’s all or nothing. If I don’t do it now, I’m always going to die wondering.”
This never-say-die attitude also resonates with Sevtap Yuce, owner of Yamba’s Beachwood Café and author of two cookbooks about her beloved Turkish cuisine and a third to be published next August. Here, Sevtap serves Turkish delights such as lamb kofte and hummus and local seafood dishes. There’s also Turkish lemonade in lemon, cherry, apple and pomegranate flavours on the menu.
But precisely 30 years ago, this 46 year old was an unhappy child bride in an arranged marriage in her native Turkey. And the sadness stalked her when in 2004 she lost her brother when he was kidnapped and executed during the Iraq War.
“That was the hardest thing my family went through,” she says.
“When I arrived in Australia I had no help, no money, I didn’t speak English and then all of a sudden I’ve achieved something. If somebody said to me ‘this is how your life is going to be’ I would have laughed.
“How can a Turk like me get to this stage? If I can do it, any woman can do it. I think it’s a pretty cool thing to do.”
At her pretty café surrounded by roses and fresh herbs, Sevtap serves “fresh, simple” locally caught and produced food. And these days she is content being single.
“I think I’ve found the love in my work,” she says.
“I’ve made this my baby and my life. And if I don’t meet anyone, it doesn’t matter.”
Further south along the coast, Wooli Oyster owner Kim Guinea ironically doesn’t like seafood, but her husband and co-owner of this riverside business Ron does. It’s been a tough couple of years for these operators, for whom flooding has stymied oyster production. But with a bumper summer season ahead of them, Kim and Ron are looking forward to a brighter future.
“I love opening oysters and looking at them but I don’t eat them. When you start coming into summer you get these nice fat oysters,” Kim says.
“My husband likes them and he uses the whole aphrodisiac line as a selling point.
“Wooli oysters are so popular because of the pristine water here. There is no pollution and they’ve got a lovely flavour.”
Back in Yamba, YHA owner Shane Henwood, 37, first dreamt of building his own youth hostel when he stayed in one in Sydney at age 16. This family-run business – his 80-year-old nana changes the sheets – has been going great guns since it started five years ago.
“We get all age groups here, families, the whole lot. One of our guys comes back every year and he’d be 90. We’ve had (surfer) Tommy Carroll, (entertainer) Normie Rowie and (singer) Angus Stone. One of our English girls didn’t know who Angus was and told him to stop playing the guitar as she was trying to watch television,” Shane laughs.
“Our guests come for two weeks and stay for a year. They class this is as the secret spot and only tell backpackers they like. Even the local police and detectives had their Christmas party here.”
Shane also runs “Shane’s 10 buck tour” where you get a three-hour taste of paradise. And, if you’re lucky, he may even plant a fake spider or snake in your bed when you’re away. Just for fun.
But when I ask Shane if he ever felt like abandoning his dream, which took 4.5 years to gain council approval, he looks me straight in the eye.
“Nup. I never give up.”
Yep. There’s something in the waters of the Clarence River region. I think it’s called hope.
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of Clarence Tourism – http://www.clarencetourism.com For an awesome 1950s beach shack experience perched right on the ocean, head to Seascape Units – http://www.seascapeunits.com.au