Golden wonders beyond the reef
Sydney - Given how pleasingly rarely Australia's national anthem was played in London this summer, few of us will have been reminded of its third line. However, no visitor could disagree with it: “Our land abounds in nature's gifts, of beauty rich and rare.”
In a country that so loves to live outdoors, there is no better place to immerse yourself than its natural backyard, a great hunk of rugged outback, glittering coastline and pristine rainforest in the tropical north-east: the sunshine state of Queensland. Scores of tropical paradise islands are dotted against the coast, as it stretches more than 2,000 miles from Brisbane in the south and on past Cairns. Charting its course in almost exact parallel is the natural marvel of the Great Barrier Reef. It's among the key sights that most tourists come to see - but unsurprisingly, there is another side to a state the size of Sudan.
Surfers Paradise is an hour to the south of central Brisbane, the suburban centre of 35 miles of sand that make up the Gold Coast. It is Australia's Miami Beach; the name was changed from the rather more pedestrian Elston in the 1930s in an attempt to lure more holidaymakers to its hotels, nightclubs, long miles of crashing waves and spotless sand. It was here, in 1965, that the “meter maids” were born. Gold-bikini-clad women were paid for by businesses and deployed to abate anger at the introduction of parking charges. They still stroll along the promenade gratuitously topping up expired meters.
From a distance, Surfers Paradise looks like some mushrooming mega city. One of its many skyscrapers is Australia's tallest building, the 1,058ft-high Q1 tower. But this is no centre of high finance. The towers are all residential, for the most part hotels and holiday homes. In late November thousands of 18 year olds descend on Surfers for “schoolies”, the week-long drink-fuelled party that marks the end of high school.
There is still much to like. I stayed at the new QT hotel, a boutique hotel where kitsch meets chic. Lemons to make your own lemon juice are delivered on your arrival, and the concierge staff dress in what look to be Thunderbirds outfits. Though the near limitless options at the morning buffet made this the finest breakfast that I have ever consumed, it was a curious preparation for my first attempt at that most Australian of pastimes: surfing.
“Looking cool is important,” was the main instruction from Hamish, my Gold Coast surf teacher. The holy grail of Lesson One was simply to achieve verticality, for however short a time. I managed this for about a nanosecond, looking marginally less cool than the Hunchback of Notre Dame. “The kids round here start learning at age seven,” explained Hamish. “By the time they're 10, they're pros.” It was pretty demoralising when a chap half a decade away from picking up his first razor zipped past on the curl of a big breaker, while I splashed forlornly about in the shallows like a walrus rejected by its harem.
Not far from Surfers is the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, known since the 1950s as the place to feed huge flocks of free-flying wild rainbow lorikeets. At night it hosts performances of native Australian dancing, with Aboriginal cuisine, and the chance to feed the kangaroos and have your picture taken holding a koala and a baby saltwater crocodile. As far as getting up close and personal with wildlife goes, it could hardly be less authentic, but the koalas - with their impossibly soft fur - are adorable.
Australia's traditional wine country is well to the south, among the luscious landscapes of the Hunter Valley, McLaren Vale and Margaret River. But Queensland is vying for attention. Returning north from Surfers in the direction of the hippie seaside town of Noosa, I stopped for lunch at the Flame Hill vineyard at Montville, a pretty one-road town of shops and cafés a quarter-mile above sea level, and a reminder of something else Australians take very seriously: eating. Off the restaurant terrace, guinea fowl and chickens were roaming among the vines, the view descending towards bread-loaf-shaped mountains, and beyond them, inevitably, the ocean. I dined handsomely on pork tenderloin wrapped in prosciutto and sage, with seared scallops.
In Noosa on the Sunshine Coast, trendy boutiques and superb restaurants run all the way down Hastings Street, parallel to yet more perfect beach. In this case the beach faces north, a rarity on the east coast, which means it basks in the sun all day. To the east is Noosa National Park, where on the untouched headland the air smells of eucalyptus, koalas lollop in the canopy and paddle-boarders splash around off yet more white-sand beaches that stretch on and on. On a warm Sunday morning stroll, just off the pathway, I saw the six-inch-thick diamond-marked midriff of a sizeable carpet python, five feet long at least.
From Noosa I drove north for 120 miles, past road signs offering trivia questions to keep drivers alert. Here lies Hervey Bay, the jumping-off point for one of Australia's great natural wonders, Fraser Island - and the jumping-out point of something utterly spectacular. Thousands of humpback whales migrate up the coast every year to escape the Antarctic winter. While I was there, a CNN report named Hervey Bay the world's best humpback whale-watching destination.
The whales hang out about an hour's speedboat ride out into the bay. From July to October you are pretty much guaranteed to see them. “These are humpback whales up here,” the captain told us. “Sometimes we see minke whales too. If you head further south, you'll see New South Wales.” A well-tested gag, but a good one.
On our trip, a blowhole noisily evacuating itself in the far distance was the first sign of them. Then we saw a pair of giant black shadows underneath the boat. They flashed white as the whales rolled over, revealing their underside.
We were encouraged by our captain to wave, shout and jump to get the whales' attention. “Whales enjoy people watching just as much as we enjoy whale watching,” we were told. Eventually they emerged for a good look at us, their black bodies covered in barnacles like ageing Soviet submarines. At one point two emerged head first, in perfect unison, their lined white bellies like a cheap lino floor. As they resubmerged, the tail fin of one flicked vertical in the air, indicating a deep dive - the sign, the captain pointed out, of something spectacular still to come. Sure enough, about a minute later, a single animal - 10 elephants' worth of whale - fired clear of the water, twisted in mid-air and then smacked against the surface with an enormous splash.
From Hervey Bay, it's about an hour's ferry crossing to Fraser Island: the largest sand island in the world. It is not hard to see why the Aboriginal people that lived there for 5,000 years (before logging stations in the 19th century displaced them) called it K'Gari, meaning “paradise”. There are no roads, as such. Instead, the 75-mile-long beach is an official gazetted highway.
On an organised sightseeing tour, I was driven inland along sandy roadways, our 4x4 ex-army truck rocking and jolting like a flight simulator. I swam in Lake McKenzie, a shimmering freshwater lake, surrounded by powder-soft sand where tiny turtles live. Naturally occurring fungi produce nutrients deep in the dunes, which mean that Fraser Island is the only place in the world where rainforest grows in sand. Paperbark and scribbly gum trees (so called because patterns on their bark give them the appearance of having been graffitied by a toddler) conceal packs of dingos, and many species of deadly snakes.
I took a scenic flight in a tiny propeller plane and saw hidden heart-shaped lakes and the thick rainforest canopy spread out like a head of broccoli. Later, I dined at the Kingfisher Bay Resort, with a superb restaurant serving emu, crocodile and kangaroo, and a sunset bar on wooden stilts over the beach. But camping is more popular on Fraser Island, especially among backpackers.
Paradise, or K'Gari, doesn't come cheap anymore, neither at Fraser Island nor elsewhere, thanks to the soaring Australian dollar. Their athletes may not be getting their hands on quite so much precious metal in the form of Olympic medals, but there is plenty of the stuff under the Australian soil, which saw the nation emerge triumphant from recent economic woes. But whatever happens in the money markets, a visit to Australia remains priceless. - The Independent