A WHALE OF A TIME DOWN UNDER
PETER and ANN FROST took a rental motorhome holiday in Australia and travelled down the east coast following migrating whales and Captain Cook’s original voyage of discovery.
Each year in spring in the southern hemisphere, from the end of August to the beginning of November, thousands of whales head south, down the east coast of Australia.
They have spent their winter giving birth to their calves in the tropical waters of Northern Australia, particularly around the Whitsunday Islands. Now they are heading for the rich krill feeding grounds that is the Antarctic in Summer.
On their way the playful family groups can be easily spotted from many of the beaches and headlands all along the coast. Most are humpbacks. Once you spot an adult, up to 50 foot long and weighing in at 35 tonnes, leaping clear of the water you will see exactly how they got their name.
Other whales will be the similar size southern right whale, cynically named by the early whalers because it was exactly the right whale to catch. Even larger species can sometimes be seen including the amazing sperm whale that can be twice as big as a fully grown humpback.
The waters off the endless silver beaches are rich with other wildlife too, some less welcome than the whales. Great white sharks are often seen and occasional attacks on swimmers can prove fatal. Less spectacular but actually much more dangerous are the jellyfish. Wild creatures make you holiday a real adventure.
Did you know that Captain Cook named one of his most famous land falls ‘Stingray Bay’ only later changing the name later to the far less exciting ‘Botany Bay’.
Rest assured more pleasant creatures share the waters with you too. Playful dolphins are common, turtles and colourful fish make a swim with or without a snorkel mask a fascinating experience. But we did stay inside the shark and jellyfish nets.
Life however isn’t just a beach. We also explored the rich rain forest of the Queensland coast. Wide waterways like the Daintree river are home to mangrove, tree crabs, banjo tree frogs – with a call just like guess what?, tusked wild pigs, and to salt water crocodile.
These toothy throwbacks to the time of the dinosaurs can grow to a terrifying 22 feet – about the same length as our rented motorhome – and despite their name are just as happy in fresh or brackish estuaries.
Whilst we are in the time of dinosaurs many of the plants too growing in the rain forests date back millions of years. Indeed some actual specimen trees have been growing here for fifteen hundred years or more.
These forest plants and animals provided food for the indigenous peoples long before Cook arrived. We tasted the green forest ant. The citrus flavoured bums of these tiny beasts were not just delicious but also a valuable source of vitamin C.
Honey ants too were as sweet as their name suggests. Young Aussies eat them like free sweets.
We had planned to start our journey south at Cape Tribulation. Named by Captain Cook because that was where his troubles started navigating the Great Barrier reef.
On the campsite that night we swapped travellers tales with some young Australian adventures who had take the route north. Cape Tribulation is where the metalled road runs out. From there a dusty rutted track will take you almost a thousand miles all the way up the Cape York Peninsular to the most northerly point of the Australian mainland, Cape York itself.
For six months of the year the rains make the road totally impassable and even in good conditions you’ll find it hard getting permission to take a rented four wheel drive vehicle.
Yet it is a popular holiday destination with Aussie wilderness campers and caravanners using high ground clearance caravans or folding campers towed with 4x4s and off road motor caravans.
Just to get Australia into perspective perhaps its worth pointing out that Cape York despite the fact it has no metalled roads and is totally inaccessible six months of the year is actually bigger that the entire British Isles.
All along the Queensland coast we shared our roads with cane railways. As proper train spotters it was areal bonus. These two foot gauge trains are usually happy to run alongside on the grass verge but when a bridge comes into view the train is likely to swerve on to the tarmac to share the bridge with road traffic.
In towns too you are likely to find yourself sharing the highway with a long rattling train of wire cage trucks full of freshly harvested sugar cane on its way to the steaming refineries that dot the landscape. Even with cane trains we found Aussie highways mostly empty and easy driving almost everywhere we went.
One surprise was the number of flood warning signs we saw. It was quite odd to be driving along a dry and dusty road in arid countryside high in the beautiful mountains only to be confronted by a large flood warning notice and a series of roadside depth markers.
All down the coast there was much to see and do. It is almost impossible to imagine the miles and miles of pristine, and usually deserted silver beaches.
When and if you grow tired of the coast head inland for high cool and airy country with wineries, cattle and sheep stations and the refined historic country towns that support them.
At delightful Byron Bay the most easterly point of mainland Australia, talk on Clarke’s campsite, which has its own beach 50 yards from our pitch, was that humpbacks and southern right whales had been seen from the silver sands during that day and better sightings could be had from the historic lighthouse.
We watched a solitary humpback swimming past the beach and a pod of eleven sighted from the lighthouse bought the log for this year’s migration south to nearly two and a half thousand whales spotted from Byron Point.
Lunch after a morning whale watching was at the Brunswick Fisherman’s Co-op and obeyed the Frost’s rule for eating fish – it is always best when you can see the boats that caught it from your table.
This was a huge wet fishmonger with oysters, prawns, spanner crabs (above) and a huge variety of white fish we had never heard of with a chippy in the corner where they would fry what you had bought and serve it with chips.
Our final destination on our exploration our of Australia’s east coast was Sydney. The Harbour Bridge to climb. The Opera House to admire from the harbour ferries. The most famous beaches in world; Manly and Bondi (below) to top up our tans.
Sophisticated and cosmopolitan, Sydney was yet another completely different side to Australia but as we had long ago discovered different sides to this amazing country were never hard to find.
We ended our trip at Botany Bay where Cook landed and stayed just eight days. Like us he had other parts of the country to discover and like us he realised just what a huge and exciting adventure this Australia was.
The nuts and bolts of our trip Down Under
All the arrangements for our holiday in Australia were arranged by the Camping and Caravanning Club’s foreign touring services who have been organising holidays down under for Club members for many years. Their team of experts know Australia very well.
They organised our flights, international and internal, motorhome hire and insurance as well as lots of advice, books, guides maps and even a comprehensive Australian road atlas.
We flew into Cairns and spent a week in an Apollo motorhome touring the coast, the rain forests, the Great Barrier Reef and the high cool airy tablelands inland.
Then we flew to Brisbane where in another rented motorhome we explored the Costa del Oz that is Surfers Paradise, the delightful small resorts of Morton Bay, The high towns of Kyogle and Toowoomba which served the vast sheep and cattle stations that were so important in Australia’s past. And of course Brisbane itself with its river, art galleries and botanical gardens.
Lastly we flew to Adelaide and the drove our final rented Apollo motorhome across country to Sydney where we ended our holiday. Our adventures from Adelaide to Sydney will be described in next month’s issue.
This article was first published in Camping and Caravanning Magazine in 2011