The magnificent Carbethon Folk Museum

I didn’t plan my visit to Crows Nest very well, and my guidebook remained silent about the town’s single most interesting sight, the Carbethon Folk Museum. Given the dearth of other tourist-related activities, I can’t imagine why the guidebook didn’t mention it. I only saw the museum because it was on my route out-of-town on the way to Hervey Bay. I did a u-turn and went to investigate.

In a word, Carbethon Folk Museum is fantastic. An authentic recreation of a historic Queensland town, filled with heritage buildings that have been brought together from across the region and fitted out with over 9,000 piece of machinery, memorabilia and artefacts. A lot of items inside the museum buildings have been donated by local families. It was the best $10 spent during my entire trip.

Ray White's Shed, Carbethon Folk Museum, Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Ray White’s Shed, Carbethon Folk Museum, Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Carbethon Folk Museum, Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Carbethon Folk Museum, Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Carbethon Folk Museum, Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Carbethon Folk Museum, Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

The museum is run by volunteers, who’ve done an amazing job of making it a fabulous experience. A shame then, that I was the only person there, although hardly surprising since they don’t seem to have a website. Luckily, it meant I could chat at length with one of the friendly and informative volunteers. It turned out that his daughter lives in the Netherlands. Something of a coincidence since only 2,000 people live in Crows Nest, and I’m a Brit living in the Netherlands.

The centrepiece of the museum is the ‘Carbethon’, a traditional Queenslander home-constructed in the 1880s. It was moved to Crows Nest in 1978, the year the museum opened, albeit on a much smaller scale than today’s museum. Inside this lovely building rooms are decorated in the style of the period, and there are hand written descriptions for almost all the memorabilia.

It’s a cornucopia of nostalgia and a fascinating insight into the lives of Queenslanders over the last 150 years. There were plenty of reminders of ‘home’, with household items that came from the UK or were decorated with Union flags. There was even a picture of Queen Elizabeth II with her young family. It was a strong reminder of the historic links between the two countries – a link that is slowly, and rightly, eroding.

The displays about the men who left this distant part of the world to fight for Britain in the First World War, only to end up in the Hell of Suvla Bay or the bloodbath of Passchendaele, were particularly poignant. Nearly half a million Australian’s fought in the First World War, almost 10 percent of the population, and many never returned. It’s a history worth remembering.

Stepping inside the buildings triggers an audio recording, which relates the history of that specific room. In a rundown shack at the start of the main street, a man lies in bed and his woeful lot in life is told as you enter; in the school room the teacher scolds the pupils; and, in the building called The Shed, the original office of Ray White, the narrator tells you the history of the man who founded Australia’s biggest real estate empire.

Nearby, and restored to its original condition, is the White Family home. Ray White is a legend in Crows Nest, and famous across Australia and New Zealand. He started his first auctioneer business in The Shed and was soon very successful. But he was also a man of the people, remembered as much for his kindness to townsfolk who had hit upon hard times as for his business deals.

Carbethon Folk Museum, Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Carbethon Folk Museum, Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Carbethon Folk Museum, Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Carbethon Folk Museum, Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Carbethon Folk Museum, Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Carbethon Folk Museum, Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Carbethon Folk Museum, Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Carbethon Folk Museum, Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Carbethon Folk Museum, Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Carbethon Folk Museum, Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Carbethon Folk Museum, Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Carbethon Folk Museum, Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

I was so engrossed, I lost track of time. Instead of being half way to the ocean and a whale watching trip I’d booked, I was still looking around the various buildings. Eventually I made it out of the door and set off on the next leg of my journey. It was a long drive and I only arrived in Hervey Bay after dark. Sat with a cold beer at a pub, I reflected upon the day and decided Carbethon Folk Museum was worth the late arrival.

A Valley of Diamonds in Crows Nest National Park

Nestling on the edge of the Great Dividing Range, Crows Nest National Park is a vast expanse of eucalypt forest filled with gorges enclosed by granite cliffs, boulder-strewn streams that become plunging waterfalls, and a wide variety of wildlife, which I heard but never saw. It’s an attractive place to hike, and there are about 5km of walking trails, but the thing that really got my attention was a name: the Valley of Diamonds.

The trail to the viewing platform over the Valley of Diamonds took me along a river and past several pools. The water wasn’t running and it seemed a lot drier here than it had been in Girraween National Park, perhaps because Crows Nest is on the eastern side of the Great Dividing Range, while Girraween is on the western side. This at least made it easier to do some boulder scrambling along the river.

Crows Nest National Park, Queensland, Australia

Crows Nest National Park, Queensland, Australia

Crows Nest National Park, Queensland, Australia

Crows Nest National Park, Queensland, Australia

Crows Nest National Park, Queensland, Australia

Crows Nest National Park, Queensland, Australia

I passed families hanging out at Bottlebrush Pool and found my way to the viewing platform over the dramatic Crows Nest Falls. At least, they would have been dramatic if there’d been any water tumbling over them into the green pool below. There is a manmade viewing platform here, next to it is a tragic warning sign with a picture of a young man who fell and died here.

A couple of kilometres further on I came to the Valley of Diamonds. The lookout point offers sweeping vistas over the gorge below, which seems to stretch on for ever. The Valley of Diamonds got its name not from the vast diamond deposits that lie in the valley but, rather disappointingly, because when the sun bounces off the granite cliffs they glint like diamonds.

Crows Nest National Park, Queensland, Australia

Crows Nest National Park, Queensland, Australia

Crows Nest National Park, Queensland, Australia

Crows Nest National Park, Queensland, Australia

Crows Nest National Park, Queensland, Australia

Crows Nest National Park, Queensland, Australia

Crows Nest National Park, Queensland, Australia

Crows Nest National Park, Queensland, Australia

Crows Nest National Park, Queensland, Australia

Crows Nest National Park, Queensland, Australia

One of the highlights of the park are the brush-tailed rock-wallabies that live here, I was really hoping to see one. The best advice seemed to be to pick a spot, stay still and hope the wildlife would appear. On my way out of the park, I stood silently at the viewing point overlooking Crows Nest Falls, and waited patiently to spot movement amongst the rocks. I waited, and then waited some more. It wasn’t to be.

Apart from some noisy birds in the trees, all other animals were being elusive. I suspect there were too many people in the park for animals to venture into the open. It’s a popular place for local people, and I met several families with young children enjoying a day out. At Bottlebrush Pool people were even swimming, which definitely reduces the chances of seeing one of the platypus that feed on crustaceans in these waters.

Valley of Diamonds, Crows Nest National Park, Queensland, Australia

Valley of Diamonds, Crows Nest National Park, Queensland, Australia

Valley of Diamonds, Crows Nest National Park, Queensland, Australia

Valley of Diamonds, Crows Nest National Park, Queensland, Australia

Valley of Diamonds, Crows Nest National Park, Queensland, Australia

Valley of Diamonds, Crows Nest National Park, Queensland, Australia

Valley of Diamonds, Crows Nest National Park, Queensland, Australia

Valley of Diamonds, Crows Nest National Park, Queensland, Australia

Crows Nest, an unusual Australian town

I’ll be honest. I was going to be unkind about Crows Nest, but that would be unfair. In the time I spent here, people gave me the sort of looks normally reserved for strangers walking into saloons in American westerns. That was just off-putting, but as I strolled around the pleasant village green, taking photos, a man without shoes walked over to me and demanded to know what I was doing.

Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

I assured him I was a tourist, and that taking photos was the job of tourists. I’m not sure he believed me, but lacking any hard evidence of criminal intent, he just glared at me and walked off without another word. I’m from the countryside and understand the general distrust of the outsider, so I kept a low profile after that. Luckily, Crows Nest more than compensated for this unusual encounter.

I was on my way to Hervey Bay, and only stopped in the town because I’d read that it was famous for a worm racing festival. Yes, they race worms in Crows Nest. I’d missed the festival, but I still wanted to have a look around and see the place that hosts a worm racing festival. I mean, who wouldn’t?

Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

A fishy tale, Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

A fishy tale, Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

War memorial, Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

War memorial, Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

The history of the town, is the history of the opening up and settling of the Australian hinterland by Europeans. The area was inhabited by the Dungibara Aboriginal group for millennia before the 19th century arrival of bullock teams, who camped here while hauling timber from nearby forests to the coast. The first family of settlers arrived in 1849, but their farm failed. It wasn’t until 1876 that Crows Nest officially became a town.

I say a town, in reality the 1881 census recorded only 35 inhabitants. Despite that, a decade later the railway arrived; by 1901 there were perhaps 500 people living in the area. There are only around 2,000 people today, 135 years after its founding. It’s rumoured to be the only Australian town to be named after an Aboriginal person, albeit one who was given an anglicised name: Jimmy Crow.

Jimmy Crow statue, Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Jimmy Crow statue, Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Jimmy Crow tree, Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Jimmy Crow tree, Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Jimmy Crow tree, Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Jimmy Crow tree, Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

There’s a statue of Jimmy Crow on the village green, next to a hollowed out tree. Legend has it that Jimmy lived in the tree and offered help and information to the teamsters and settlers. It was they who named him Jimmy Crow, and he’s the reason the town is named Crows Nest. An alternative theory is that it got its name from the original Aboriginal name for the area, Tookoogandanna, or “home of crows”.

There’s a heritage trail in Crows Nest, or at least the information board on the village green said there was. The library and art gallery where I should have been able to get information and a map, were both closed. I set off and wandered around for an hour or so. As luck would have it, I happened upon the site where the bullock teams used to camp, complete with a splendid bullock team memorial.

Bullock team memorial, Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Bullock team memorial, Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Bullock team memorial, Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Bullock team memorial, Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

Crows Nest, Queensland, Australia

I saw a little of the town’s pleasant streets and traditional wooden ‘Queenslander’ houses, before making my way back to the village green. After picking up a few things in the local supermarket, I headed 6km east to do a hike through the eucalypt forests in Crows Nest National Park.

The Place of Flowers, Girraween National Park

Girraween National Park, south of Ballandean, is a majestic place. If I hadn’t seen the rushing rivers, colourful wildflowers and massive granite boulders myself, I’m not sure I’d have believed Girraween was really in Australia. The name means ‘place of flowers’ in the Aboriginal language, and it was a riot of colour when I was there: a spectacular display of purple, pink, white, yellow and red illuminating the brown landscape.

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

The park has multiple trails that take you to points of interest and through lovely landscapes. I only had the morning, so wasn’t able to do the longer hikes, but the walks I did, covering around 10km of trails, gave me a good idea of the park. Close to the car park, easily accessible pools and boulders attract quite a few people. Further away, I hardly saw anyone and those I did see only brought bad news.

On one trail I met two women coming the other way. We exchanged ‘hellos’ and, almost as an afterthought, one said to me, “By the way, we just saw a red bellied black snake on the path.” A voice inside my head screamed, “A what? A red bellied black what? Run, run for your life.” It must be remembered, snakes don’t exist where I’m from, and my reaction was perfectly normal. As calmly as I could, I asked if it was a dangerous snake.

Clearly my eyes gave me away, because with more glee than was entirely necessary she said, “Oh yeah, very dangerous. About a hundred yards ahead.” This, it turned out, wasn’t the entire truth. They can be deadly, and are not to be taken lightly, but the red bellied black snake has the decency to avoid humans if at all possible. Not that I knew that at the time.

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

A little further along I met a woman walking alone and thought I should pass on the snake warning. She didn’t seem too worried, and said the very worst thing anyone could have said to me at that point, “The red bellies aren’t so bad, it’s the brown ones you need to be worried about. Don’t go into the long grass, they won’t thank you for stepping on them.” Long grass? There and then, I decided to stay away from all grass.

She was talking about the eastern brown snake, considered to be the second most deadly land snake known to humanity. It’s also known for being highly aggressive and notoriously fast. I’m not sure a stick is good protection against snakes, I picked one up anyway, but only after carefully checking it wasn’t a snake. It’s amazing how many sticks look like snakes.

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

There are eleven types of snake in Girraween, a fact they deliberately underplay in the tourist literature. To add to my sense of trepidation, there’s no mobile signal in the park. Get bitten by a snake – brown, black or any other colour – and you’re on your own. Quite frankly, it’s a miracle I’m still here to relate this tale.

Dangerous wildlife aside, Girraween is a fantastic place to hike. I was surprised by the amount of water in the park, there were several rivers, one of which I followed down to The Junction, where two rivers meet. The scenery along this route is beautiful, and for the first time on my trip I realised just how different Australia sounded and smelled. The bird song is unfamiliar, the plants and flowers have an unknown smell. Wonderful.

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

The real danger in Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

The real danger in Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Making my way back from The Junction I completed the Bald Rock Creek Circuit, before heading to the Granite Arch and the Pyramid. It was a hot day, and by this time I’d run out of water (despite the many warnings at the Visitor Information Centre). I decided it was time to head north on stage two of my journey to Cairns. I had a long drive ahead to reach Crow’s Nest, and onwards to Hervey Bay.

Before that though, I made a quick visit to Dr Roberts Waterhole, where I saw an eastern snake-necked turtle. It seemed like a fitting end to my time in Girraween.

Dr Roberts Waterhole, Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Dr Roberts Waterhole, Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Eastern snake-necked turtle, Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Eastern snake-necked turtle, Girraween National Park, Queensland, Australia

Wine tasting in the Granite Belt

I’d planned to leave early in the morning and have the weekend in the Granite Belt, but a night out with friends in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley ended late enough for me to watch the sun rise over the Brisbane River. I made it to the Granite Belt’s main town of Stanthorpe just in time to watch the sun set over the surrounding vineyards, wine from which was probably responsible for my late start.

Queensland’s Granite Belt sits high on the western side of the Great Dividing Range, a mountain chain that you have to cross to reach this fertile region. The lush, green countryside and rolling hills that spread out between the two county towns of Stanthorpe and Ballandean, came as a complete surprise. The whole area seemed to be covered with vineyards and fruit orchards.

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

I was staying in a lovely wooden house on stilts, with a wood burning stove to ward off the cold nights – much needed at an altitude of over 800m. An agricultural hub, and home to around 6,000 people, Stanthorpe was my first taste of Australian small town life. I headed into the town centre to see if the tourist information office was open, it wasn’t, so I headed to the next best thing, the pub in O’Mara’s Hotel.

I ordered a beer and took a seat at the bar alongside a couple of regulars. We were soon chatting about what I should see and do while there, the general consensus being that I should definitely do wine tasting in Ballandean, and that I shouldn’t miss the Girraween National Park. It turned out to be excellent advice … as was the chalkboard at the end of the bar!

The next morning, I did a beautiful scenic loop to Ballandean. It was such a lovely morning that it was a pleasure to be wandering the countryside. I came across wooden churches in the middle of nowhere, small villages, historic ranches and, of course, vineyards. Twice, I almost ran over large snakes, a reminder that life in these communities can be perilous. Finally, it was time to sample some Granite Belt wines.

Vines have been cultivated here for wine production since the 1870s, thanks to a far sighted, and presumably thirsty, Catholic priest of Italian descent, Father Davadi. There were lots of Italian settlers in the area who had the knowledge and skills to make wine, mainly for their own consumption. Over the last 140 years though, the Granite Belt has learned a thing or two about making good wines.

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Despite producing some of the highest altitude wines in Australia, the Granite Belt still has a low profile outside of Australia. The wines made here are growing in popularity though, and are increasingly well-known. The region is most famous for red wines, but I tasted a chardonnay at Tobin Wines in Ballandean that was spectacular. So good, in fact, that I carried two bottles of it back to the Netherlands.

“Passion” is a word often used in the wine business. The owner of Tobin Wines, Adrian, embodies it to an extraordinary degree. Basically, he’s an unapologetic wine fanatic. I wanted to try the tempranillo but, due to his exacting standards, the next batch won’t be available until 2020. Which was how I ended up with the chardonnay, and learning his philosophy that a superb wine is possible only if the grapes are of the highest quality.

Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

He’s a small producer, and some years has chosen not to produce any wine because he felt the fruit wasn’t good enough. Not that that should be a surprise, after he bought the vineyard he spent a decade perfecting the vines before producing a single drop of wine. After a fun hour with Adrian, I headed down the road to the region’s biggest and best known producer, Ballandean Estate Wines, for another tasting.

The Ballandean Estate is the area’s oldest producer, dating back to 1930 when Italian immigrant Salvatore Cardillo and his daughter Guiseppa settled here. Guiseppa married Alfio Puglisi, another Italian migrant, and the Puglisi family still run the business today.  They’re famed for their red wines and, if you’re going to find a Granite Belt wine outside of Australia, it’s likely it will be from the Ballandean Estate.

Brisbane, a rising star in the east

Brisbane seems to get a bad rap from Australians who aren’t from the city. While Sydney and Melbourne make the headlines and vie for top spot as Australia’s cultural capital, the capital of Queensland is more often the butt of jokes. This is Brisney or BrisVegas (Disney and Las Vegas puns on the nearby Gold Coast theme parks and casinos), home to banana benders (Queensland is famous for banana plantations).

It may just be sour grapes, but this might also explain why so many travel writers agree that Brisbane is probably Australia’s most underrated city. Maybe it was the jet lag, or maybe it was the friendly people, fabulous food and relaxed atmosphere, but I really enjoyed my few days in this buzzing town.

Southbank, Brisbane, Australia

Southbank, Brisbane, Australia

Southbank, Brisbane, Australia

Southbank, Brisbane, Australia

Brisbane’s defining feature is the Brisbane River, and much of the city’s life seems to revolve around it. Looping gracefully through the city it creates a natural boundary between the business district and the fashionable suburbs of Spring Hill and Fortitude Valley in the north; and the South Bank cultural hub, which rubs shoulders with the up-and-coming bohemian West End, to the south.

The park along the South Bank is beautiful and well worth a few hours of strolling. It reminded me of its namesake in London, lively and energetic, with lots of bars and restaurants. It even has a ferris wheel that does a good impersonation of the London Eye. Unlike London though, Brisbane’s South Bank has an urban beach complete with swimmers and sunbathers.

Brisbane gets around 300 days of sunshine a year, which explains why so much of the city’s life is lived outdoors. Walk along the river from the South Bank to Captain Burke Park and the Story Bridge, and you’ll pass dozens of joggers, cyclists and strollers; on the river, sail boats and kayakers float past. No wonder it’s regarded as one of the world’s most liveable cities.

More than just liveable, it’s genuinely enjoyable. There’s a lively arts scene – the Gallery of Modern Art on the South Bank is excellent – a lot of live music, fabulous restaurants, and a thriving microbrewery culture as an addition to a vibrant nightlife. Add to that some fine parks – don’t miss the Botanic Gardens – and a couple of excellent universities, and it’s hardly a surprise that it’s Australia’s fastest growing city.

Brisbane River, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Brisbane River, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Queen Victoria, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Queen Victoria, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Street art, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Street art, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Originally founded as Edenglassie (a hybrid of Edinburgh and Glasgow in honour of its early Scottish settlers) in 1824, Brisbane began life like much else in Australia, as a penal colony. It was renamed for the governor of New South Wales, Sir Thomas Brisbane, in 1834, and quickly grew in importance and wealth once the penal colony was closed in 1839. It soon became the region’s major port and centre of commerce.

Brisbane still retains a lot of heritage buildings from this early European period. There are plenty of stone buildings mingling with the glass skyscrapers in the downtown area. Elsewhere, distinctive wooden buildings on stilts known as “Queenslanders” with wide verandahs to catch the breeze, can be spotted along the river and around the central districts. It makes for a dynamic architectural mix on a par with Brisbane’s cultural mix.

War memorial, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

War memorial, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

War memorial, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

War memorial, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

The Kangaroo Comet, an Australian road trip

First impressions are important and Queensland was living up to its nickname as Australia’s Sunshine State. The turquoise waters of Moreton Bay, illuminated in the early morning sun, definitely made an impression, particularly on someone arriving from a northern hemisphere winter. This was a much anticipated trip of travel firsts for me: a new country and a new continent that I’d not previously visited.

I arrived in Brisbane with a vague plan to drive north to Cairns, before taking a flight to Perth in Western Australia. I’d given myself eight days for the drive to Cairns, which on the map looked realistic. Three days into the journey, the scale of the undertaking was dawning on me. I wished more than once that I’d stayed by the blue waters of Moreton Bay. I reached Cairns some 2,912 kilometres later and never wanted to drive again.

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Islands, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Islands, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Islands, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Islands, Australia

Before arriving, I had a sense of Australia from the connections between it and Britain. It proved to be very different from perception. A strange cultural hybrid with hints of the UK, America and Asia that is uniquely Australian. It also has the power to redefine things. The word ‘big’, for instance. Or the term ‘middle of nowhere’. You can drive for hours without arriving anywhere.

There was one 400km stretch of road, north of the unloveable town of Rockhampton, where I thought I might die of old age before reaching Cairns. The mind numbing monotonous countryside was only occasionally punctuated by enormous trucks thundering past, and a variety of fauna in different stages of decay at the side of the road – killed by trucks thundering past.

Kangaroo road sign, Queensland, Australia

Kangaroo road sign, Queensland, Australia

Emu road sign, Queensland, Australia

Emu road sign, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Distances are so great that the government has devised ‘Fatigue Zones’ to help you stay awake at the wheel. You know you’re in a Fatigue Zone when the road signs stop being useful and start asking you trivia questions. I passed one which said, “What is the fastest land animal?” Either I fell asleep or there was a missing sign, because the next one I saw said, “Peregrine Falcon”.

Other road signs have pictures of kangaroos. These warn you of the perils of hitting a kangaroo that has hopped onto the highway. Judging by the number of dead kangaroos I saw, the road signs aren’t working. The attrition rate for kangaroos on Australian roads is horrific; they should make road signs with big trucks on them to warn the kangaroos.

Whale watching, Queensland, Australia

Whale watching, Queensland, Australia

Whale watching, Queensland, Australia

Whale watching, Queensland, Australia

Agnes Beach, Queensland, Australia

Agnes Beach, Queensland, Australia

Cape Hillsborough National Park, Queensland, Australia

Cape Hillsborough National Park, Queensland, Australia

I didn’t see any koalas, living or dead, but there are road signs for them as well. Can you imagine running over a koala? Flattening the cutest animal on earth? Killing a koala is probably the worst crime a human can commit. At least that’s what I thought until I discovered they feed their own faeces to their young. These are the sorts of internal dialogues you have when driving 2,912km in Australia with only local radio for company.

Throughout the journey I met good people, ate good food, drank good wine and had great experiences – drinking wine from a small Granite Belt vineyard while watching the stars come out on Whitehaven Beach will live long in the memory. My one regret is that I didn’t have more time. This is a fascinating country full of natural wonders, and I wish I’d been able to see more.

Vineyards, Granite Belt, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Granite Belt, Queensland, Australia

Boat near Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia

Boat near Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia

Brisbane, my start point, is an energetic and attractive city with a lovely riverfront reminiscent of London’s South Bank; I visited the little known Granite Belt wine region; walked through extraordinary national parks; stayed in the historic Gold Rush town of Charters Towers; went whale watching off the coast of Fraser Island; learned the legend of the Bundaberg polar bear; and camped on Whitehaven Beach, one of the world’s most iconic.

It may have been 2,912km of hard driving, but Brisbane to Cairns was a brilliant trip…

2016, a year of travel in review

Reviewing 2016 is a bitter-sweet thing. There’s much that could (and has) been said about the last twelve months, but this is a travel blog and I’ll steer clear of geopolitics. I think of travel as a positive force, promoting understanding of places and cultures, and bringing people closer together. If 2017 is anything like its predecessor, promoting understanding is going to be important.

Viva la revolución, celebrating New Year in Cuba

Seeing Cuba before the death of Fidel Castro seemed to be the reason so many European’s were visiting Cuba at the start of 2016. That fear has now come true, with the world’s most famous politician bowing out in November. Cuba was a lot of fun, its people warm and friendly, what awaits them in an uncertain future remains to be seen.

Discovering Dutch castles

The Netherlands is not short on history, and historic towns with perfectly preserved medieval centres are seemingly everywhere. Castles, though, seem in short supply. I guess that’s down to a landscape without hills to build castles upon. Look hard enough though, and you can find a few beautiful castles dotted around the countryside.

Rome, a long weekend in the Eternal City

The Eternal City has over 3,000 years of human history and, as you walk the bustling and fascinating streets, much of it is on display. Attractions like the Vatican and Colosseum are ‘must sees’, but for my money this incredible city is best discovered by just wandering its neighbourhoods and eating the food.

Châteaux of the Loire Valley, France

The towns of Orleans and Tours are reason enough to visit this fantastically beautiful region of France, but surreal, fairytale  châteaux are the main reason people make the journey here. In the early morning light, the Château de Chenonceau is unmissable, but the history and stunning views of the Château de Chinon are even more impressive.

Back on the streets of Bangkok, Thailand

Squeezing in a couple of days to explore the sights, sounds and smells of Bangkok’s fascinating streets at the end of a working trip, brought me face-to-face with Khlong Toei, a food market with the power to amaze and churn your stomach simultaneously. Add a trip to Thonburi and a visit to some temples, and a weekend passes quickly.

The wonderful world of Hieronymus Bosch, Netherlands

The work of medieval Dutch artist, Hieronymus Bosch, is strange and sublime in equal measure. To mark the 500th year since his death, the small museum in his home town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch managed to bring most of his surviving works together for a blockbuster exhibition, and created a wonderful Bosch trail around the town.

Learning the méthode champenoise in Champagne

To truly understand the méthode champenoise you have to go underground into the the hundreds of kilometres of Épernay’s champagne houses. To fully understand where the fizzy stuff comes from, you have to explore the champagne routes that weave their way through the beautiful countryside between Reims and Troyes.

48 hours in Seoul, Korea

Exploring Seoul could take a lifetime. A visit to the Love Museum made me realise that understanding Korean culture could take several more. Seoul is a pulsating and friendly city that, from the moment you arrive to the moment you leave, seems to hold you in its grip. Explore ancient palaces by day and modern nightlife districts by night.

Bruges, the Venice of the North

A well-preserved medieval centre, beautiful canals and magnificent churches, makes Bruges just about as picturesque as it’s possible to get in Europe. It also happens to be home to some good museums and is the epicentre of Belgian beer culture. With over two million visitors annually, try to come outside the main tourist season.

Brisbane, Australia’s new world city

Brisbane came as a complete surprise. I arrived for a conference thinking I wouldn’t like it, and left thinking I might want to live there. The picturesque river front has an urban beach and a fun atmosphere, there are bohemian areas with microbreweries and great restaurants, and weather that cultivates a vibrant outdoor culture.

Spending a night on Whitehaven Beach, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, on Whitsunday Island in the middle of the Great barrier Reef, is perhaps the most exquisite strip of white sand anywhere in the world. The near-pure silica of the sand is matched only by the brilliant aquamarine blue of the water and a beautiful location amidst 73 other islands.

Exploring Granada’s fascinating Moorish history

Spain’s Andalusia region is filled with extraordinary historic towns and villages, but few can rival the sheer majesty of Granada and the former stronghold of Moorish Spain, the Alhambra. Throw in a beautiful old town filled with maze-like streets, and a tapas culture second to none, and Granada is a place to top any bucket list.

A Christmas Carol in Dickensian Deventer

It’s hard to believe as you walk down the picturesque and medieval-looking Walstraat in Deventer, but thirty years ago this street in the historic Bergkwartier was run down, unloved and impoverished. It’s even harder to imagine during the annual Dickens Festival, when the area transforms into 19th century London, and hundreds of local inhabitants wear Victorian dress and become characters from the novels of Charles Dickens.

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Deventer’s Dickens Festival is unique in the Netherlands. It’s deservedly famous (around 140,000 people visited it this year), yet no one I know could tell me why a small Dutch town has an festival dedicated to a Victorian-era British novelist. The official website gives few clues as to how and why this 26 year-old tradition stared, and online searches were equally unhelpful.

What is clear, is that Dickens never visited Deventer, and there seems to be no known connection between him, any of his work and the town. This lack of connection troubled me. Why was there a weekend-long Dickens Festival in a small town in the eastern Netherlands?

Walking down the Walstraat during the festival a couple of weeks ago, I stopped to allow a gang of street urchins past, and found myself chatting to a man wearing a checked waistcoat, lounge coat and bowler hat. Under normal circumstances this would be a warning to quickly move away and possibly call the authorities. These, however, were not normal circumstances. A fact underlined as the black-robed Ghost of Christmas Future walked past.

My new acquaintance knew the history of the festival. Thirty years ago, when the area was decaying and run down, someone bought the whole of Walstraat and renovated its buildings and surrounding area. Shops and businesses were encouraged to move into the street. The crowning glory of this regeneration was the launch of the Dickens Festival to promote the area nationally and internationally.

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

This information raised more questions that it answered. Who was this mysterious benefactor, and why did he choose to launch a Dickens Festival to promote the area? Answering these questions is probably less important than the fact that it was clearly a brilliant idea: one which has contributed to reinvigorating this historic area and left behind a strange but wonderful cultural legacy.

As you walk around the streets, scenes from daily Victorian life merge with scenes straight out of the pages of Dickens’ novels. This is a fantastic event that brings alive a sense of Christmas far removed from the traditional (and overly commercial) Christmas fairs that have proliferated across Europe.

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

At one point I passed a group of carolers performing on the street, inside the church a band played and sang songs. A dandy with a perfect lipstick kiss on his cheek tried to attract the attention of passing women, and glamorous Victorian ladies promenaded through the cobbled lanes. A family did laundry the hard, traditional way, and another street band knocked out crowd-pleasing sing-alongs, like the Wild Rover, Cockles and Mussels, and the Leaving of Liverpool.

Passing the church, a couple of working women wearing bonnets appeared, blackened teeth, laughing drunk and what sounded like whooping cough. The two of them roared around the crowds, acting out a scene more fitting for Hogarth’s Gin Lane. It was brilliant. As they entertained the crowd, I had to remind myself that they weren’t actors, but people who lived here. That’s what makes the Dickens Festival so special.

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

A winter wonderland at Deventer’s Dickensian Christmas

Every year, over a weekend in December, the historic Dutch town of Deventer plays host one of the more unusual events the Netherlands has to offer. The medieval centre of this lovely old town is transformed into the 19th century world of Charles Dickens. The novels and characters Dickens is so famous for, are brought to life by over nine hundred of Deventer’s inhabitants, who parade through the streets reenacting scenes from the novels dressed in period costume.

Death of Little Nell, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Death of Little Nell, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

This little slice of Victoriana is a lot of fun. Now in its 26th year, it  attracts more and more people every year. Deventer is home to around 100,000 people, and over the Dickens Festival weekend the population more than doubles. Around 140,000 people are estimated to have visited this year. That makes for a bit of a crush in the narrow streets, and makes getting there early worthwhile.

The route through the streets is flanked by stalls selling glühwein, wintery food like roasted chestnuts, and Dickensian souvenirs alongside more ‘traditional’ retail opportunities. As you wander along cobbled streets, scenes from Dickensian life unfold before you; or, in the case of the half dozen people cycling around on Victorian bicycles, hurtles at you in a homicidal manner.

Victorian couples promenade through the streets, wishing each other a “Merry Christmas”; bands of chimney sweeps and Oliver Twist-style pickpockets roam around trying to extract money from people; troops of school children parade through the crowds with their fearsome looking teachers; choirs gather near the church to sing carols; parents push period perambulators down cobbled lanes; and street urchins sit in doorways looking woeful.

It all adds up to one of the most unique and entertaining Christmas fairs I’ve visited. It’s certainly a big improvement on the majority of fairs, which seem to be inspired only by commercialism. What makes it so special is that everyone in costume is a local resident. You regularly see people emerging from their houses in full Dickensian dress, or popping home after a circuit of the festival streets.

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Street urchins, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Street urchins, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

While a lot of people simply parade through the streets as generic Victorians, some are easily identifiable as Dickensian characters. Many of these perform scenes from the novels throughout the streets. One of these mobile plays is the funeral of Little Nell. I kept coming across the funeral cortege, pushing a coffin while the mourners wail and cry. Every so often they stop, open the coffin and reveal the ‘body’ inside.

Elsewhere, chimney sweeps run through the lanes, soot-covered faces and brushes in hand, or can be spotted on rooftops. The ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future walk silently through the streets. The Artful Dodger and his gang lurk amongst the crowds. Queen Victoria makes an appearance flanked by British soldiers in their red uniforms. A shepherd herds a flock of sheep through the streets – the sheep ate the Xmas trees. It all makes quite an impression.

Death of Little Nell, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Death of Little Nell, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Death of Little Nell, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Death of Little Nell, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Death of Little Nell, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Death of Little Nell, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Death of Little Nell, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Death of Little Nell, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands