A to Z of Adventure Travel: W is for Western Australia

18 06 2009

Wave Rock 2 mw 

Everyone knows Sydney, the Great Barrier Reef and Ayers Rock…but for a fresh taste of Downunder, Western Australia offers some of the most spectacular scenery and untouched wilderness in the entire country – and far fewer tourists! 

 

The state of Western Australia (WA) occupies almost one-third of the country and includes spectacular coastline, ancient forests, rugged outback and natural bushland. WA’s Indian Ocean coast has some of the country’s most beautiful and most unspoiled beaches and offers extensive snorkelling, sea-kayaking and some of its best seafood. At Monkey Mia, north of the state’s capital of Perth, visitors travel from all over the world to interact with wild dolphins whereas in Exmouth it’s possible to swim with giant whale sharks in season. The unspoiled Ningaloo Reef offers magnificent snorkelling and scuba diving with its and its colourful coral and vast array of sealife or from nearby Coral Bay, hope aboard a catamaran in search of humpback whales, dugongs, manta rays and turtles.

 

If you’re feeling energetic and want to explore the area on foot, The Bibbulmun Track is one of the world’s great long distance walk trails, stretching nearly 1000 kilometres from Kalamunda near Perth to Albany on the south west coast. Designed for foot traffic only, it meanders through peaceful rural and coastal towns like with names like Dwellingup and Balingup. Not physically challenging like the trails in New Zealand or elsewhere, the Bibbulmun offers the quintessential Australian bush experience and is best enjoyed point to point with the help of a good map. Trekkers can either make it a wilderness experience by camping out or do it in comfort staying at accommodation in towns along the way.

 

Several hundred kilometres east of Perth sits Wave Rock, a mammoth rock formation that resembles a giant surf wave of multicoloured granite about to crash onto the bush below. Formed perhaps 2,700 million years ago, the 15 metre-high barrier stretches for 110 metres and pre-dates even the dinosaurs and is as spectacular as it is isolated.

 

If it’s Baz Luhrman’s ‘Australia’ that you want, then it’s the movie’s location in WA that you should visit. The Kimberley is one of the world’s last great wilderness areas. Covering almost 423,000 square kilometres and with a population of only 30,000 it has fewer people per square kilometre than almost any other place on Earth. People come here to immerse themselves in the awesome landscape and to meet the locals. The Kimberley has two distinct seasons – the dry and the wet. During the dry, which continues from May until October, the temperature is warm and comfortable. The wet, which extends from November until April, is characterised by heavy and short downpours in the evening or late afternoon, providing a refreshing change to the heat of the day.  This is the real Australia of red earth, jagged rock formations, wilderness and wildlife, waterfalls and billabongs.

 

Although Western Australia sees fewer tourists than some of the country’s other regions, the area’s recent mining boom has created some headaches for visitors seeking hotel accommodation. If planning on visiting WA and exploring its endless unspoiled and natural wonders, make your arrangements before you arrive…unless you’re traveling with your own tent!

 

 

Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan © 2009

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The Best Job In The World

29 01 2009

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     “What do you mean, I don’t get paid for overtime?”  (Great Barrier Reef)

 

The best job I ever had was as a movie extra shooting on a sun-soaked beach in summer. My job was to lie in the sun awaiting my turn to casually stroll down the beach well behind the principal cast. Although even that wouldn`t have been particularly taxing, the call to action never came and I spent the entire day helping myself to free cold drinks and snacks and sunbathing along with a coterie of bikini-clad would-be starlets named Amber, Tiffany and yes, I kid you not –  Bambi. Thoroughly exhausted, I eventually collected my respectable pay cheque and headed home with my tan.

 

Although not a bad day`s work, it certainly pales by comparison to the recently posted `Caretaker of the Islands` position posted by Tourism Queensland. On offer is a six-month contract based on luxurious Hamilton Island in the Great Barrier Reef. The live-in position offers flexible working hours and responsibilities include exploring the Reef to discover what the area has to offer and then reporting on the adventures to the rest of the world via a blog, photo diary and video updates.

 

As if that wasn`t enough, there`s also a salary of AUD $150,000. Although this sounds more like a prize in an elaborate game show, this is a genuine job calling for genuine skills and experience and for which would-be caretakers need to apply rather than simply enter. The successful applicant will also have to undergo a lengthy process culminating in a series of interviews. Not that any of that has deterred interested parties however, as the website crashed four times on the first day alone after being besieged by more than 2,000 hits per minute!

 

The deadline for applications is February 24th with the contract due to start on July 1st. For more information, click here …but probably best not to put Bambi down as a reference.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Disappearing Destinations

5 01 2009

 

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Snows of Mount Kenya – Africa’s second highest mountain.

 

In the back of a desk drawer sits an expired passport bearing the visa and stamp for a country that does not exist. Sadly, it is not Narnia or Middle Earth, although a childhood spent hiding in my parents’ wardrobe and a pair of very hairy feet suggest that I actually have familiarity with both. Instead, it is for Zaire: a country that existed in name from 1971-1997.

 

Over the past 50 years, many places have disappeared. No matter how hard you look, you can’t find Upper Volta, Rhodesia, Peking, Nyasaland, Bombay, Bechuanaland, Ceylon, Dutch Guyana, Yugoslavia, Leningrad or Czechoslovakia on current maps.

 

While these places have only changed names or borders and may not have actually disappeared, there are unfortunately many places in the world that are at risk of existing only in memories and photographs.

 

Some years ago, famed author Douglas Adams wrote “Last Chance to See”, a travelogue/natural history book examining the plight of desperately-threatened species. Now, Kimberly Lisagor and Heather Hansen have contributed “Disappearing Destinations” which highlights the plight of such well-known threatened spots as the Amazon rainforests, the Maldives, glaciers, Kilimanjaro’s snowcap, Tuvalu, Timbuktu, China’s Yangtze River Valley and even Machu Picchu.

 

Very recently, Australian scientists announced that the Great Barrier Reef experienced less growth last year than at any other point in the past 400 years and is under very severe threat from global warming and high levels of acidity in the world’s oceans.

 

While we have long been aware of the threat to individual species such as whales, tigers and gorillas, for the first time in most of our lifetimes, we are seeing particular sites or entire eco-systems under threat.

 

Not only are we on the threshold of our very own ‘last chance to see’ with many of these epic places, but visiting them may actually help to save them. In cases where today’s threat may in part be due to past unrestricted tourism, sensible limits have in many cases been imposed and responsible tour operators created to ensure that visitors are now not only no longer part of the problem but actually part of the solution. Park fees and environmental taxes are re-invested in conservation efforts and many people who visit these endangered places often return home as their most enthusiastic supporters and greatest activists.

 

Like never before, we not only have a chance to see the great sights of the world, but to actually help to ensure that they are still there for future generations.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Special Spots, Magical Moments: No. 2 – Cape Tribulation

1 10 2008

Cape Tribulation, North Queensland, Australia

The wide, white sand sweeps in a gentle curve from one end of the cape to the other. Lush, rich green jungle embraces it along one side while the clear surf breaks from the reefs beyond. There is a clear blue sky overhead and a bracing wind from the sea that provides a delicious reprieve from the tropical sun. Despite its pristine perfection, there is not a single other person in sight. I could be on Robinson Crusoe’s desert island searching for the footsteps of Man Friday, but instead of Daniel Defoe, this spot is rich with the history of Captain Cook.

 

This is Cape Tribulation: a magical spot in tropical North Queensland, Australia several hours from Cairns. Separated from the south by narrow winding coast roads and a ferry journey across the wide Daintree River, it is a magnificent place where the World Heritage listed ancient Daintree Forest meets the Great Barrier Reef. By conscious choice, it is blissfully devoid of huge hotels, casinos or sprawling complexes of shops and nightclubs. Instead, accommodation is tastefully hidden amidst the trees and barely visible from the sea or the air and the few shops and restaurants are low-key and casual.

 

It is quite clear that humans are the guests here. Signs on the beach warn of box jelly-fish in season and advise against swimming around the point because of crocodiles. Visitors are told to be aware of the cassowary: Australia’s endangered but aggressive large bird which lurk in the woods and can surprise walkers. The verdant jungles resound with the symphony of unseen insects, reptiles and birdlife. A stream winds its way from the jungle, across the beach and into the ocean. Its crystal clear shallows look idyllic if it were not for the signs warning of crocodiles. But for all the untamed wildness, this truly is a blissful spot and one of the best beaches in the world.

 

Not far from shore lies the Great Barrier Reef, and a trip out to its wonders from Cape Tribulation is guaranteed to be one of the highlights of any trip to Australia. Instead of queuing at a cement dock along with hundreds of other day-trippers, you simply stroll through the lapping surf, climb aboard a small zodiac and head out to your intimate dive boat. As you head away from land, you glance back and see the unchanged view that mesmerised Captain Cook hundreds of years ago when he first explored Australia’s east coast.  Once at the reef, you may well not see another boat during your whole day, but you will see the magnificent coral, the colourful fish, the stingrays and reef sharks.

 

As wonderful as daytime is at Cape Tribulation however, it is in the evening and at night that I truly appreciate and relish its isolation. A stroll for dinner takes you down sidewalk-free dirt roads where the only sounds are from the trees and perhaps the very occasional car. The jungle-clad hills above are invisible except where they blot out the millions of stars. Restaurants are relaxed and laid-back, but serve excellent meals including the freshest seafood imaginable. By day, you can be as active as you like but at night it’s time to relax and drink in the magic of unspoiled solitude.

 

Back in our hotel room in the middle of the forest, I hear the wind pick-up through the trees. Rain soon begins to lash the windows and roof and builds to a tropical downpour. The water streams from the roof in torrents and splatters on the tiled walkway outside, lulling me to sleep. The next morning, sunlight streams through the windows and I can hear the gentle drip of water falling from the leaves to the damp forest floor below and the call of birds. Outside, everything is lush and green again and the sky a perfect blue. I’m ready for another day in paradise.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Falling For Travel

20 03 2008

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My Siamese-twin and I before the operation 

 

Having been short all of my life, I have surprisingly never really had any particular fear of heights.

Not that I have been prone to tightrope walking over Niagara Falls or dating supermodels, but whenever I have been in vertiginous surroundings, I’ve never been especially worried. At least not until I stared straight down beyond my feet to the Australian earth 14,000 feet below, and found my palms sweating, my stomach rolling and my head spinning!

For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to try skydiving. There seemed to me a great romance in heroically throwing oneself out of a perfectly good aircraft and plummeting senselessly towards the hard, merciless, unforgiving ground.

In Cairns, the temptation of taking that first plunge over lush jungle-clad mountains within view of the Great Barrier Reef was just too much to deny. Within moments I had signed my life away and donned a rather dapper one-piece zippered overall and matching goggles that would have been the envy of Richard Simmons. I emptied my pockets of anything that could fall to earth and kill an unsuspecting passerby and then went through the basic routine associated with courting certain death.

At the airstrip I saw my aircraft: a small, green, converted crop-duster that looked vulnerable to most insect repellents. We clambered in, sat on the floor and within seconds were taxiing for take-off. We climbed quickly, in steep circles. Through the small window I could see the horizon dropping away. The roads disappeared into pencil lines and the mountains became green smudges.

My skydive instructor strapped us together in a manner that would have caused a spinster to blush, and the door slid open with a blast of blustery air and a deafening roar. We crawled down the aircraft on our backs on all fours (see Kama Sutra, chapter 4) until we reached the gaping void. As instructed, I swung my legs out and sat on the edge, my feet dangling helplessly. I could see the rich blue of the Coral Sea stretching away to the horizon and the dark shadows of the Barrier Reef. It was a spectacular view – so what on earth possessed me to look straight down?

I had long had a theory that such a great height would not feel like a great height at all. I was convinced that the view would be surreal, and that standing on your kitchen table screwing in a light bulb would be more frightening.

Well, I was wrong.

As I stared straight down, I felt I could see every single one of the 168,000 inches that separated me from the cruel cruel earth below. My stomach did a magnificent roll and I felt a sort of sheer terror that I had never before experienced. This was not “I’m scared to death”, this was “I’m so scared I wish I was dead.” Fortunately, before I could pass out or embarrass myself, I was hurtled into the blueness and found myself falling loudly and violently towards Australia.

Having accepted death, I felt calmer and began to look around and actually relish the last moments of my life. The view was truly magnificent and I soared about, spinning and turning by moving my arms. I gazed down at the scenery and myriad colours and upwards at the darkness of the sky. Eventually, after what seemed just a few seconds but was actually more than a minute, the parachute opened with a smack and a jolt and we drifted silently and effortlessly, banking to the left and the right. The fear was gone and replaced by adrenalin-fuelled awe and wonder. We landed with a bump, I was untethered and cautiously wobbled to my feet.

There are some things in life that you only need to do once. There are others that you can’t wait to do again and again. For me, skydiving is definitely the latter, but next time I think I’ll skip the bit in which I stare straight down before I make the big jump.

 

Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008