--29 April 2011--
Above: Rainbow Lorikeets line up and squawk to be hand-fed by visitors at the Bungalow Bay Koala Village campground
And so at last, I write to you from a lovely spot in Townsville, Queensland! I hope you all are doing well, in health and happiness, and I wonder how many of you are, like me, sitting in front of a television watching the Royal Wedding take place in London. Along with a couple dozen other travelers and backpackers, I’m relaxing at the hostel’s outdoor patio TV nook, pretending not to take too much interest in the media coverage leading up to the Oscars-like event, complete with Aussie-takes on interviews, behind-the-scenes’, and Red Carpet , only slightly classier than the Oscars. The evening is quite lovely, really, and I’m so exceedingly glad to be here, laughing along with other “backpacker ambassadors” from around the world over silly British hats and customs and admitting to each other how romantic it all is, in fact.
Below: Internation audience at Reef Lodge in Townsville tuned in to watch the more bearable parts of the Royal Wedding (29 April 2011)
I had arrived in Townsville much earlier than planned, and upon unusual circumstances. You see, my grand scheme had included an excursion south, along the eastern Queensland coast to the Whitsunday Islands for more high seas adventures, but the true story is that after my fantastical, magical 5-day dive tour to the Outer Great Barrier Reef, I came down with the most amazing viral cold! Luckily, it didn’t wipe me out until after our last dive—4 days and 15 hours of diving could tear down anybody’s immune system, I suppose.
Below: One of two Giant Cuttlefish at Osprey Reef on last week's dive trip. Before we realized it, we had stumbled between 2 cuttlefish in some sort of colorful conversation..I’m sure they were trying to signal for us to get the heck out of their way! (Photo by JM Burck)
I was therefore required to endure Cairns for just a little time longer. Even before I regained my “land legs”, the virus had forced me to hunker down at a hostel, where I stayed as long as I could endure. After a couple of days, not only was my convalescence was well underway; I was also entirely disenchanted by the city sounds and surrounds. Time for relocation!
So I grabbed some meds from the Chemist and jumped on the Greyhound Bus to Townsville. Luckily this particular bus was not nearly as crowded as “The Bus to Hell” I experienced in WA (see Exmouth blog entry), lasted merely 5 hours, and included some onboard entertainment—“What a Girl Wants” isn’t exactly my cup o’ tea, but who could deny the cinematic talents of Colin Firth, especially when feeling sniffly and cramped on a bus?! In no time, the bus pulled up in Townsville, and we were quickly herded off and through the terminal office. Before I knew it, I was settling down to a seat in the air-conditioned cabin of the SunFerry, bound for Magnetic Island.
Magnetic Island is a short leap off the coast of Townsville—seriously, not 15 minutes after I sat down and listened halfheartedly to the lifejacket safety briefing, we were docking into Nelly Bay and residents, visitors, and holiday-makers were filing out of the vessel. In a feat of tourism efficiency, we were all herded from the Ferry terminal to our respective island busses. A total time of 45 minutes elapsed between my stepping off the bus in Townsville and my having my camping site set up at Bungalow Bay Koala Village on Magnetic Island; this not only demonstrates the proximity of Maggie Is. to Townsville, but also the extent to which this area was prepared to handle the Australian Spring Break crowd. That’s right, in my quest for peace, quiet, and recuperation, I had been lead into the midst of a Spring Break “destination”. Ooops.
I visited MI at a special time, and this was a special year, as I came to understand. I arrived 21 April, and around the Easter holidays was ANZAC Day, which celebrates the accomplishments and sacrifices of Australian and New Zealander troops and officers in all wars. That’s a lot of celebration and memorial for just one day!! Therefore, the holiday is taken pretty seriously, and I had a rather confusing set of days spent on Magnetic Island. Half of the time, the streets, pubs, and parks were filled with college kids and families, running about with beer and cheer; the other half, every business was closed and I found myself alone on the trails! I felt like I missed a very important series of memo’s! Nevertheless, the island hiking trails and secluded bays were not the less enchanting for the bad timing. On my first evening, I took a hike to one of the historical fort sites and lookouts for an absolutely splendid sunset. The girl at the reception had indicated to me that the “walk” was an easy stroll and a couple stone step-ways, perfect for a sunset wine-picnic. The hike itself proved to be just that—except that I had to walk a sweaty 1.5km uphill just to get to the trailhead…in flip-flops and a DRESS! I felt ridiculous—once again, I had missed the proverbial memo—but it paid off, and who could be grumpy with one’s own private sunset picnic, looking out over Australia, high above the Magnetic Island tropical paradise?!
Above: Sunset on the Forts trail, overlooking Florence Bay. "Quick Stroll" my ass! Below: Balding Bay, with the beach on the far right, “Whale Rock” in the center across the water, and a second jumping cliff on the far left. What a fun day!
Camping seemed to be exactly the tranquil medicine that I needed to recover from illness, and each day I spent there I felt healthier and more energetic. I spent an entire magnificent day at the secluded Balding Bay, where I balanced relaxation with swimming and watching wildlife. I had the whole morning to myself there—not a single other hiker, jet-skiier, or yachtie approached the bay until 11am, so I enjoyed the pristine coast alone, with the exception of a visit from an inquisitive Green Sea Turtle, who came up for breath only 10 feet from my rocky perch! In the afternoon, visitors trickled into the tiny bay—strenuous hikes filtered out most of the common holiday-makers—and I was soon joined by a family of seven, who’s entire intent upon visiting Balding Bay was to leap off the abrupt stone cliffs. Indeed, among the adrenaline-seekers, Balding is well-known as a destination for easily-accessible cliff jumping! The family was primarily comprised of children aged 8 to 15, so I naturally joined them, happy to have found some companions at my identical maturity level! We happily spent the afternoon exploring the edges of the bay, where cryptic ocre-inscribed arrows indicated the plunging-points at the tops of the cliffs. The best one was “Whale Rock”, which, if viewed from across the bay, looks just like a happy Sperm Whale…with a marine scientist jumping off its forehead!!! The rocks at Balding Bay offer some delicious 3-second free-fall jumps (although they don’t look so high in these photos, somehow) into wide, deep-ish sandy basins, so I recommend this activity only for the superiorly adventurous…or the childish! ;)
Below: My marine reptilian visitor, Balding Bay
Over the next few days, I mainly concentrated on getting healthy whilst refraining from passing on my cold to others. This made enjoying Easter holidays in a social manner quite impossible, but at least I managed to enjoy the holiday in my own peculiar way. On Easter Sunday, the Bungalow Bay Koala Sanctuary offered a Sunday Brunch, so I “congregated” amongst other visitors over a “Bush Breakfast”, complete with Aussie Bush Guide/Host and native wildlife! After our first pass at the meat-lovers’ buffet, the guide walked around with various Australian animals and a lively commentary on evolution, conservation, and anthropology. As you can imagine, I had a thoroughly entertaining Easter morning!! A bit more exciting than sitting in church, eh?! First Course: the Estuarine Crocodile (the “saltie”). Although just a yearling, the female croc was a pretty rambunctious photo-companion! However, the Carpet Python that he passed around was more affectionate—indeed, a little too clingy for my tastes (especially when the guide gave her to me then completely walked away to tend to his breakfast!)Above: Florence Bay Lookout, where I saw a Wobbegong Shark plus lots of great shallow coral within snorkeling range!. Below: Bungalow Bay wildlife. These were my campsite neighbors for the week.
Above: Our true-blue Aussie Bush guide lectures about the pleasures and dangers of the Australian pet trade while introducing us to a female Carpet Python; then he hands her off to me and leaves to finish his breakfast. Um….are we done here?!
Right: Next up, the Estuarine Crocodile, also known as the “Saltie”. This one is just a wee babe.
My Easter wasn’t all meat and predators, though! After finishing up my “bush toast” and “bush bacon”, etc., we ventured through the sanctuary to meet the more cuddly animals, including the 5 koala’s, echidna, and black and white cockatoos. I was impressed and exceedingly entertained by the guide’s relationship with his koala-in-care. Namely, that he didn’t make a very good case for his claim of temperamental koala’s, as he swung the indifferent animal back and forth during his lecture. Although Koalas seem cute and sleepy and stoned—whatever word you want to use—they have been known to do some major claw-damage to unsuspecting human visitors; so much so that the Queensland Government has instilled a law that Koalas can only “work” 120 hours per week, so that they don’t become “disruptive”—apparently after being passed back and forth every day for multiple photo-ops, these animals can get extremely distempered and relate their emotion by clawing and scratching. Yikes! I definitely agree with these employment stipulations!! Since my tour group consisted of over 20 people, I decided to opt out of the koala-holding photo-op, as you can imagine!
Above: the sanctuary guide shows us how to be a koala’s tree, but the koala is still half-asleep and doesn’t seem to notice either way! Below: a bit of a snack, then back to sleep!
I was perfectly contented, however, with engaging the attentions of the resident Black Cockatoo. I LOVE THESE BIRDS!! I don’t consider myself a bird-lover, mind you, and before arriving in Australia, I had never even heard of a black cockatoo. These are by no means RARE birds; however, throughout the course of my travels around the country, I have had so, so many NEAR-sightings of this bird—whether a distant call, or a near-miss fly-over—that by this time, I was absolutely dying to meet this amazing bird! The live up to 70 years (so…not such a good idea for a pet, eh?) and while their brains are pea-sized and they don’t have the silly-word-learning capabilities of their white cockatoo relatives, they are equally as raucous and wonderfully convivial…and they can dance (see video below!);)
Above and Right: I love black cockatoos and this one loves me too! …or maybe he is just trained to nab sunflower seeds like that...eh, I take what I can get ;) But he sure can dance!
Below: An echidna joins us for Sunday Brunch….he’s not QUITE the Easter Bunny we were expecting!
On Tuesday I traversed the rest of the Island—well, the parts that were accessible by foot, anyway—tramping away the sniffles on over 40 miles of trails and beaches. Horseshoe Bay, Arcadia, Nelly Bay, Picnic Bay, and numerous outlooks were all along my daylong routes. After all the exercise, my cold was nearly well disappeared and I was able to enjoy the sun and forests of the island, as well as some of beaches, boutiques and pie shops!
Right: I snapped a quick pick of one of the Nelly Bay 'nudie' beaches as I hurried along the busy holiday road;
Right: Picnic Bay stinger-free swimming enclosure. It seems that people like swimming here even though this is one of the ONLY 2 beaches on the island that still gets stingers!! Every other bay has filled with water too cold for dangerous jellies, but people still want to swim at THIS ONE, with Townsville in the background and the yellow-capped lifeguards nearby.
When the holiday crowds had finally departed the camp grounds, I too found that I was healed, healthy, and ready to set forth from the blissful island towards the mainland once again. By the way, am I the only one who feels a serious sense of accomplishment when recovering from a non-threatening illness overseas? Given my history of travel misadventures when I’ve been sick overseas, I was incredibly pleased to be healed and healthy after a completely ‘eventless’ illness! I therefore excitedly booked yet another dive trip! This time, to visit the World War II wreck, ‘SS Yongala’, rated one of the best wreck dives in the world! Because of the remote accessibility, this site is only accessed by a few companies, only 3x per week.
Above: Mmmm, award-winning Australian Meat Pie (Mango Chicken!!), just the thing to keep my all-day hiking/wandering going strong!! Below: More bays and lookouts, this one is Horseshoe Bay, as viewed from near the top of the island
I was so excited to get back underwater after my island retreat that on Wednesday (27 April) I arose before dawn to pack up my campsite and head across the island to catch the dive vessel in Nelly Bay. However, after all the fuss and arrangement, and after waiting for over an hour at the docks, the company called to tell me that the dive had been cancelled! It seemed that no miraculous healing on my part could control or contain the whims of the Coral Sea, and that this sea had decided to disrupt Northern Queensland with sub-torrential winds and rain for the week to come.
Above: NOT the dive vessel I had hoped for, but the SunFerry, a zippy 20-min cruise between Townsville and Magnetic Island
Well, I had already packed up my stuff and gotten this far, right? So I held back my salty tears and boarded the passenger ferry instead, which took me back to Townsville on the mainland Oz. And this is where I have been for the last few days, mostly bumming around The Sweatshop cafe to mooch free wi-fi, while sipping my 4-hour-cold cappuccino and peering at local artists and fashionistas as they negotiated over art and gossiped about the latest happenings at the “Australian Model Search” which has been taking place down the street this week. Completely un-captivating, I thought.
Above: Townsville CBD and Castle Hill in the background. Kinda an odd place, but I think I like it here :)
Below: Reef HQ Aquarium diver and green sea turtle
I much preferred visiting the nearby museum and Reef HQ Aquarium—plenty of the beautiful people were in there, too 8-]. Besides the other aquarium visitors, though, I was incredibly impressed with the Reef HQ! Although it is only 1/4th the size of our beloved Monterey Bay Aquarium, it is jam-packed with fantastic exhibits, including a huge living coral reef—complete with freshwater sawfish, tawny nurse shark, sea turtles, several leopard sharks, and heaps of fish and inverts! Plus, I got to go behind-the-scenes to visit their sea turtle hospital—which works much like Monterey Bay’s marine mammal stranding/rescue network—and met many of the rescued turtles that had been saved from the ill fates produced by ocean plastics, fishing gear, and boat-strikes. The rest of my days in town have consisted of more hiking and walking-about, plus watching the local Rugby League club tournaments at the Townsville sports complex. Even after my Sunset-Beach rugby intro last year, I still had no idea what was going on for most of these games, but it was entirely entertaining, nonetheless!
Above: just one of the ”beautiful people” showing off the latest Aussie helmet fashion trends!! Below: Reef HQ Living Indoor Coral Reef it’s hard to tell in this photo that this is just a huge tank and is only a few years old!!
Above: Townsville’s Reef HQ Aquarium. Yes, that is a giant [reproduction of an] orb spider....luckily Queensland's humongous orb spiders don't get QUITE so huge! Also, a Leopard Shark and Chocolate-Dip Chromis inside the aquarium. Below: The HAWKFISHES of the Great Barrier Reef!
Above: the creepy Hall-O-Helmets in the Museum of Tropical Queensland…it was like walking through an exhibit of Doctor Who villains! The exhibit traced the very lively history of helmet-divers, and my favorite, I think, was the pressure-dented pearl-diver helmet, bottom right. Below: I got bored after watching most of the royal wedding and walked around (with my favorite/free SkyTrans cap, haha).
As I end this post, "Kate The Commoner” is exiting West Minister Abbey as Princess of Wales and we are honored to endure a live cacophony of trumpets and bells in her honor. “Last night she slept in a hote, tonight she’ll sleep in a palace”. Oh, geeze. I'm about as amused as Her Royal Easter Egg, and it's Friday night, so I'm outta here!!!