There are many good trilogies out there, often standing as icons of the world of film: Back to the Future, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, to name but a few. So there’s a lot of pressure on Australia Part III … Here we go!
In a galaxy, far, far away…ha! Only kidding! Part II ended in Nimbin, and it did feel like an episode from Back to the Future in a way. We managed to extricate ourselves from the herbal haze of the Sunday morning market, and headed north towards Hervey Bay taking in my favourite named route, the Bruce Highway. Could there be a more Australian Road?!
Our main reason for visiting Hervey Bay was to explore the largest sand island in the world, Fraser Island. Measuring 75 miles long and 15 miles wide, Fraser is made up of sand that has been accumulating for approximately 750,000 years on volcanic bedrock. We popped into the Information Centre on the outskirts of the town and were helped out immensely by the ex-pat, Liz. She pointed us in the direction of the cheapest camp-site in town (a place called Scarness; fully equipped and right on the beach for $15 a night), and explained our options for Fraser Island tours.
As excited as I was about the opportunity to drive a 4×4 on the beach and through the sandy inland trails (and that was pretty damn excited, I’m sure you’ll understand), we eventually opted to go on a one-day tour with a company called Unique Fraser. Not the cheapest option out there, but we were so happy with the choice. So we found our way to Scarness, barbecued some steak for dinner and popped the cork on our Capercaillie Merlot. Splendid!
We were picked up the following morning by our guide and driver, Kris in his Toyota Land Cruiser. We then collected Steve and Jenny who were celebrating their 42nd wedding anniversary (poor blighters had to put up with us all day) and brothers Anton and Mark. Packing ourselves neatly into the jeep, we headed off to the port where we met up with a second jeep, driven by another Chris, but this one was short for Christine.
Fraser is only a short ferry ride away from the mainland but it was an amusing one. The captain was making a pretty standard set of safety announcements and happened to mention that the bar wasn’t open yet, which he followed up with, ‘…not that I know why you’d want a beer at 8:30 in the morning anyway. And don’t go pretending you’re innocent, I saw you lot looking at your watches…’ It was only 8:27 actually.
Shortly, we were back in the jeep and heading inland. Kris began to explain the incredible biodiversity on the island. In the short drive it would take for us to cross to the other side, we were going to drive through numerous distinct and different ecosystems, including: rainforest, eucalyptus woodland, mangrove forests, sand dunes and swamps.
As he was talking, however, it became apparent that he was getting frustrated with the couple of 4×4’s ahead of us on the single track road. ‘They must be tourists; don’t know the tracks and don’t know the rules either.’ By ‘rules’, he was referring to the driving etiquette in the centre of the island which dictates that you let faster vehicles past at the first opportunity, especially if they are driving with their lights on, which is the signal for wanting to pass.
‘You’re gonna have to put your ugly face on,’ came a voice over the radio. It was Chris, who was following in the jeep behind. Kris picked up the radio receiver, ‘What do you think I’ve been doing so far?’ he replied. The two slower vehicles didn’t get the hint though, so a few minutes later, Kris grabbed hold of the radio again, ‘Stay close to me Christine, we’ll see if we can get around them at the cut up here…’
Moments later, a second track appeared in the dense forest off to the right of the main track. Kris pulled the wheel right and floored it. The engine emitted a throaty growl and we sank deep into our seats as the jeep thrust forwards and down into the track with sand spinning off the huge soft tyres. I took a glance out of the rear window and saw Chris a couple of feet behind us, her jeep squirming around on the sandy track as the four wheels sought out some traction.
The cut was only very short though, and seconds later we could see the other cars reappearing through the trees to our left. It was going to be a close shave, and an even closer one for our second jeep, but Kris kept his foot firmly planted and we leapt back onto the main trail leaving just enough space for Christine to squeeze in on our bumper. ‘That’s better,’ said Kris casually, and we were off…!
It wasn’t a kamikaze attitude or a penchant for recklessness being displayed however, the Unique tour goes a lot further up the main beach than most other tours; Kris was just trying to keep us on schedule. Plus, he’s been driving on Fraser Island for 16 years; he knew what he was doing.
And it was a fabulous day! Once we hit the main beach on the eastern side of the island, we were on the highway – literally. Fraser’s main beach is a classified road in Australia, governed by the same highway rules as any regular road. It also serves as Fraser’s airport runway. It’s 75 miles long and varies in width depending on how high the tide is. Driving it is a bit of an art, as you always have to be aware of shifting soft sands, wash outs, pedestrians, fishermen, wildlife, holiday makers, sand castles, that sort of thing. We swam in the Champagne Pools, spotted whales from Indian Head, lazed our way down Eli Creek, got wet again in the pristine waters of Lake McKenzie, had a superb lunch with beer and bubbles, and explored the wreck of the Maheno, all the while learning stories of aboriginal history and culture from Kris.
A couple of things he mentioned which were really interesting were the originations of the words Kangaroo and Koala. Apparently, when the British settlers arrived in Australia, they pointed at a kangaroo and said, ‘What’s that?’ The aboriginal man said, ‘kangaroo’, which means, ‘I don’t understand you!’ And when they spotted a koala, the British once again asked what it was. This time the aboriginal man said, ‘koala’, which means, ‘bad food, don’t eat.’ Now, I can’t vouch for the authenticity of these stories, they may well be more myth than fact, but we enjoyed hearing them nonetheless.
So, we were happy. It was just one of those days where you get to the end and feel like you really made the most of your time. The tour was worth the extra money for the personal touch, for the fact that we were in smaller groups as opposed to being on buses, and for the professionalism of Kris’ guiding and driving. We rounded it off with a quiet night out comprising a pint of Guinness, a few glasses of red wine, a few bottles of Peroni and a curry (our first since leaving India). How very Australian!
Returning from Fraser, we considered just hanging around in Hervey Bay for a few days before heading down to Brisbane, but chatting with Steve, Jenny and Kris, we formed a plan to get a glimpse of the Great Barrier Reef. We were so close, it would seem wrong not to try to get to see it. So we continued up the Bruce Highway to the ‘Town of 1770’ – that’s literally what it’s called – Captain Cook’s first landing place in Queensland, where you can get a tour out to Lady Musgrave Island, which is the second most southerly point of the reef. We almost had an accommodation issue actually because by then it was the school holidays. The free camp site they we’d read about in the guide book was full to bursting, as were most others, but we managed to grab the last spot in a decent site where we ate fish and chips outside while watching a movie and drinking both the last Moscato and Worthington’s delicious dessert wine.
In contrast to the Fraser Tour, our trip to Lady Musgrave was a packed venture (of about 140 people), all split up into groups and rotated around various ‘activities’. I’m not going to say it was disappointing, because the island itself and the coral of the reef was superb, and we saw a whole load of turtles… it’s just that it didn’t have the super special touch that we’d got from Unique Fraser. The only thing I will say is that if you are considering going on this trip, believe everything they say about the boat ride to the reef…
Once back on the mainland, we made a bee-line south, this time heading for Brisbane. We stopped off overnight at a free rest stop on the Bruce Highway though because we had one day left before needing to give the van back, and one final unfulfilled item on the Australia wish list – Koalas!
We would have loved to have seen a Koala in the wild – we thought we had done in Sofala but on reflection it was definitely a wombat – but having not managed it, we opted for a visit to the highly acclaimed Australia Zoo which is located on the Steve Irwin highway.
The zoo has a particular focus on crocodiles and reptiles, reflecting the passion of Australia’s most famous zoologist, conservationist and herpetologist, but it also has a large variety of other native Australian wildlife. It’s a great zoo to be honest, with a huge focus on education and preservation, and they allow you to get as upclose and personal as is possible with most of their animals, which is a great thing for Helena because she was desperate to stroke a Koala – well, who isn’t!
In the Koala sanctuary, there are a number of Koalas chilling out in various trees, but there is a section where you can indeed stroke one of the big bundles of fur. While we were there, the handler swapped from one Koala to a different one to give it a rest. (It’s a hard life sleeping and being stroked all day, I know!). Helena lined up patiently (with the other little boys and girls who wanted to stroke the Koala) and even managed to contain her rage when a small child nonchalantly pushed into the line in front of her. When her turn eventually came, she took great delight in stroking the winner of Australia’s cutest animal contest since the beginning of time.
So that was pretty much the end of our Australian experience, apart from the small matter of the 2015 Gold Coast Marathon. Who runs a marathon on holiday? I can hear the incredulous shouts already, and to a certain extent, in hindsight, it may not have been the best idea we’ve ever had. We decided to enter it on a bit of a whim when we were in Borneo. We were in that dangerous post-race time when the euphoria of completion lingers just enough to make you click on that button that says ‘Enter Now!’ rather than close the page you had inexplicably opened in the first place and head to the bar.
So we dropped the van off and made our way to the Gold Coast. Ever since entering the race, we had been trying to stay on top of some regular running and gradually build up the miles, using Helena’s gps Garmin running watch to keep a track of mileage and pace. This was proving tough in the heat and humidity of Asia, but we ran pretty much everywhere we stayed: six miles in Sandakan, eight in Manila, ten in El Nido, intervals in Boracay, twelve in Singapore, nine on Gili Air, another twelve on Gili Trawangan (three laps of the island) and then 15 and 18 back in Kuta either side of our bike trip. Intersperse these longer runs with various 30-60 minute efforts, and we’d done as much as we possibly could to prepare.
Reaching Australia and finding ourselves fifteen degrees cooler with less humidity was definitely a bonus as far as the running was concerned. We’d been struggling to get close to a ten minutes per mile average in Asia, but now we were running much more comfortably sub-10 mins/mile. (I know there will be many of our BRAT friends thinking, ‘explain to me how you can actually run that slowly and still call it running…’ But give us a break, we’re on holiday!)
Anyway, race day came around. We were standing on the start line, excited but nervous, with a few basic targets: 1 – finish, 2 – finish under 5 hours, 3 – try to get close to 4hrs 20 (a ten minute mile average).
Proudly sporting our BRAT vests, we crossed the start line and were hanging around pretty comfortably with the 4:30 pace runner. Helena’s Garmin was giving us pace feedback which was both helpful and unnerving – we were running too fast. Mile one – 9:59, mile two – 9:29, mile three – 9:36. Before we knew it we were at 5k, we’d left the pacer behind, but we were desperately trying to take it easy; there was still a long way to go. We were also both suddenly desperate for a pee (!) so we dived off the course into one of the many toilets. Although this cost us 90 seconds, it was well worth it!
Onwards! The pacer was now back in front of us, but within our sights so we went off to make up some of our lost time. Although we were doing our best to be conservative on our first half pace, we actually hit halfway in 2:08 – which is a half marathon pb for Helena – and gave us a 9:45 min/mile average so far! By now, though, she was beginning to struggle slightly. We knew we could run for three hours – as that had been our longest training run – so we just tried to stay on course until then. Plus, when we made it to the 30km mark, we’d be able to pick up our single complimentary race gel… Not a particularly effective nutrition strategy, and about the only factor of the race organisation that was below par. Luckily, we’d invested in a few gels at the expo and brought them with us.
We hit three hours bang on 18 miles – ten minutes per mile average – it was way better than we’d imagined we’d be able to do prior to the race. If we could hold on to this pace for 8 more miles, we’d get our 4:20 top level target…
But it was not to be! Beyond three hours, the running just got progressively more difficult. People talk about ‘hitting the wall’ – I’m not sure Hels and I found a specific wall as such, we more slipped into the abyss! The last 8 miles were a brutal war of attrition, just trying to drag ourselves to the finishing line. We had to resort to a bit of a walk/run strategy which murdered our average speed, but meant that we could keep moving forwards. But, weirdly, it was this point in the race that we started chatting to other runners, getting loads of support from spectators and generally enjoying the atmosphere despite the deepening pain in our legs.
In the end, the last eight miles took us over an hour and a half, giving us a finish time of 4:37. But we ran across the line with our hands held aloft, pleased to have finished our first marathon. And now, of course, we have a benchmark, which means a target time for 2016…
We concluded our Australian experience with a celebratory meal out in Brisbane with our friend from home, Tom Hoyle. He suggested a fabulous little Japanese restaurant called Harijuku Gyoza, which was full of hilarious Japanese waitresses and delicious little dishes which went someway towards soothing the ache in our legs. This was to be only the beginning of our down-time, however, as the following morning, we were flying to Fiji.
So, we had landed in drizzly Sydney, but 3000km later, we were flying out of Brisbane with nothing but love for Australia, and a burning desire to return.