Charters Towers, Gold Rush history and Topless Raffles

What is a Topless Raffle, I hear you ask? Let me (try to) explain. It was still early as I walked along the main street of Charters Towers. The town was quiet, but I could hear music coming from the pub across the road from my hotel. I decided to investigate and have a nightcap. There were only a handful of people at the bar, and I didn’t really pay attention to them as I ordered a beer. I found a table and sat down.

It was then that I noticed something extraordinary: two women standing at the bar were topless. Even in Australia, this seemed unusual. A barman walked past, so I asked what was going on. He looked a bit surprised, but not half as surprised as I did when he said, “Topless raffle, mate”. I gave him a confused look. He was friendy and tried to clarify by saying, “Meat train, alcohol dollars, yeah?”

Topless Raffles, Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia

Topless Raffles, Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia

He looked again to see if I understood. I didn’t. He went back to collecting glasses. Back at the hotel, a little research unearthed the fact that topless raffles are common in Australia. Naked women raffle trays of meat (I think I misheard when the barman said “meat train”) to raise funds for local sports teams, or similar ‘good causes’. It was a fascinating, if bizarre and vaguely degrading, snapshot of small town life.

I arrived in the former gold rush town of Charters Towers late in the afternoon and found my way to the historic Royal Private Hotel. Built in 1888 and restored to its former grandeur, the Royal Private is one of the oldest buildings in town. It started life just after gold was discovered in the area, and has seen the town’s fortunes rise and fall along with the ore dug out of the ground.

Jupiter Mosman, an Aboriginal child and indentured servant to some gold prospectors, discovered the first gold in 1871. Gold meant only one thing: gold rush fever. Within months Charters Towers was booming, thousands of prospectors arrived in the hope of striking it rich. The town grew rapidly to around 30,000 people, making it the second largest in Queensland during the gold rush years.

It became a rich place, know to locals as ‘The World’, the legend being that you could get anything available anywhere in the world in Charters Towers. Money was lavished on buildings, and many heritage sites from that period still exist, including one of the first regional stock exchanges. These buildings take pride of place on a walking tour of the town. I walked the trail and spotted a museum.

Royal Private Hotel, Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia

Royal Private Hotel, Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia

Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia

Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia

Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia

Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia

Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia

Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia

Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia

Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia

Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia

Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia

Australia specialises in good folk museums. The Zara Clark Museum is no exception. Run by volunteers it tells the history of the town and has an interesting collection of items from the local community. Machinery and memorabilia about warfare, medicine, domestic life and agriculture are housed in two buildings dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

I had a fun time poking around, and had a thorough run down on the history of the town from one of the volunteers. It’s hard to imagine walking the quiet streets today, but the town hosted 15,000 soldiers during World War II, double the town’s current population. I can’t imagine what they did for entertainment, but I suspect topless raffles would have been popular had they existed in the 1940s.

View over Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia

View over Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia

Mining equipment, Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia

Mining equipment, Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia

Mining equipment, Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia

Mining equipment, Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia

Mining equipment, Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia

Mining equipment, Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia

Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia

Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia

I drove over to the Venus Gold Battery, where gold ore was crushed and processed. It opened in 1872 and closed in 1972, long after the gold rush had ended. I asked the ticket seller if I could walk around. “Tour only”, he said. I didn’t have much time, so I asked how long the tour was. “One and a half hours”, he replied. I had time, so asked when the next tour was. “Tomorrow”.

Hoping he’d take pity on me, I explained that I’d be in Cairns then getting my onward flight. “Well, have a nice day”, he said, and turned away. It was only 11am and there was only one other car in the car park. Surely, an extra paying visitor might be welcome? Apparently not. Yet another insight into small town life. With that, I departed Charters Towers to see if I could drive the 500km to Cairns in time to catch my flight to Perth.

Leaving Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia

Leaving Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, the night is dark and full of terrors

I once spent several nights in an old army surplus tent in the Masai Mara. As part of the induction to the campsite, I was told that a few weeks earlier a pack of lionesses had hunted down and killed a zebra not ten feet from my tent. They then spent several hours eating and sleeping off their feast. No one was harmed, but no one could escape their tent until the lionesses departed. Against the odds, I slept like a baby.

I figured a night under canvas on the magical Whitehaven Beach wouldn’t prove to be any different. How wrong I was. There may not be any lions but, as the character, Melisandre, says in Game of Thrones, “the night is dark and full of terrors”. The gusting wind rattled the trees above my tent, leaves tumbled loudly to the ground, birds screeched all night long, on the ground lizards and other creatures scurried around.

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Nature is really noisy. In the pitch dark night, all the noises were amplified to become terrifying creatures creeping up on me as I ‘slept’. I know I eventually got some sleep, because I definitely woke up as it started to get light in the morning. It was a relief to discover I was still alive. To celebrate, I went down to the beach and splashed into the water to wake myself up.

The few boats that had moored here overnight were gently bobbing in the turquoise waters. The beach was completely empty and the only sound was of waves rolling onto the sand. It was a beautiful scene to gaze upon, the picture of an idyllic tropical paradise. I wandered back to the tent and made myself some breakfast, the forest seemed empty of any of the previous night’s terrors.

Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Near the campsite is the start of a trail that runs over the top of Whitsunday Island to Chance Bay, a sheltered cove on the other side. After breakfast I set off to explore the hinterland. It was humid inside the forest, but I eventually emerged into an open area on top of a hill. The views over the island were fabulous. I plunged back down the track and back into the claustrophobic confines of the trees.

The track brought me to a beautiful small beach in a perfect cove. There was a single boat moored up, which must have spent the night in the bay. After the sticky interior of the forest, I cooled off with a swim in the water, and then just sat down on the beach for a while. It was very peaceful. The people on the boat emerged and were preparing for a day’s sailing. I waved ‘hello’ and set off back to my side of the island.

Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Chance Bay, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Chance Bay, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Chance Bay, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Chance Bay, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Chance Bay, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Chance Bay, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Chance Bay, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Chance Bay, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Chance Bay, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Chance Bay, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

In my absence, Whitehaven Beach had been transformed. It was 10.30am and the first day trippers had arrived, a large boat was disgorging 50 or 60 people, who immediately fanned out to find their own spot of white sand. I made myself a coffee and watched as a few more boats arrived and deposited their passengers. A sea plane landed and came to a halt just in front of me. The tranquility shattered.

My own boat wouldn’t arrive for another three hours, so I took the opportunity to walk the length of the beach again. After all, it may be some time before I get to spend time on a beach as glorious as Whitehaven.

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Boat to shore, Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Boat to shore, Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, scenes from a tropical island

Arrival at Whitehaven Beach is a little surreal. The luminous white sand, blinding sunshine and brilliant blue water all combine to disorient. Sailing boats and sea planes are moored in the sheltered water of the bay, their passengers picnicking on the beach. The most striking thing though, was the sand between my toes. It’s like nothing I’ve experienced before, like walking on satin. It’s so fine it squeaks as you walk.

The pristine white sand is 98 percent silica, the purest silica sand in the world. It’s not just exquisite, it’s unique. Not even elsewhere in the Whitsunday Islands are there beaches of this quality. This is something of a mystery. Nobody can say for certain how the sand got here but, most likely, it drifted here millions of years ago and became trapped on the island.

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Campsite, Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Campsite, Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Wildlife, Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Wildlife, Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

I found the island campsite, set up my tent in the shade of the forest at the edge of the sand, unpacked my gear and got acquainted with some of the local wildlife. The lizards were doing a passable impersonation of Komodo Dragons, at around a twentieth of the size. There was one other tent, home to a Canadian couple, other than that the island was mine. Or it would be once the day trippers went back to the mainland.

I found my hat and headed to the beach. The campsite is at the most southerly point of Whitehaven Beach, it’s the busiest area, probably because there is an ecological toilet block hidden away in the woods. There weren’t many people, but I felt like solitude and set off on the 7km walk to the far end of the beach. I was soon alone with just the breeze and ocean for company.

I came across a couple who’d flown to the beach in a red helicopter, now ostentatiously parked on the sand. I’ve never seen a helicopter on a beach before, but I imagine it’s quite an exciting thing to do. I stopped for a chat, they didn’t offer me a glass of the fizzy wine that’s part of the heli-picnic package, so I carried on my way towards Hill Inlet at the northern end of the beach.

Here, I found myself utterly alone. I swam in the warm clear water, sat down on the beach and just looked out to sea for what seemed like an eternity. The blues, greens and turquoise of the water merged with the blue of the sky, white sails occasionally crossed the horizon in from of me. Time seemed to stand still. I finally got up and wandered around the headland to reveal the beautiful Hill Inlet.

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Helicopter, Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Helicopter, Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Walking back, I could see boats coming and going, sea planes taking off. It looked like a hive of activity, but by the time I reached the campsite most of the day trippers had left. As the sun began to sink the beach became deserted, I opened the bottle of Granite Belt red wine that I’d brought with me, and I watched the sun set with a couple from one of the boats that were moored off the beach.

Later, I sat on the beach and watched as billions upon billions of stars rolled out across the dark sky. There’s no light pollution on Whitsunday Island, dense galaxies of stars appeared in all their glory, and the cosmos seemed to be laid bare above me. It was heartbreakingly beautiful. I sat and pondered the mysteries of the universe, the main one being the slice of fortune that had deposited me in this place.

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, where superlatives fail

In Costa Rica, I once passed a bizarrely incongruous road sign pointing towards Liverpool, an English city with a famous football team in which I once lived. Thanks to European colonialism this happens quite a lot, but nowhere quite like in Australia. Look at a map and many of the names on it also exist 10,000 miles away in the northern hemisphere. It’s a strangely familiar, yet disconcerting place to travel if you’re British.

For this reason, I visited the Cumberland Islands. In 1770, when Captain Cook passed through here he did what all explorer-cum-empire builders do, he named things. He sailed through the area on what he thought was Whit Sunday. Many of the crew on the HMS Endeavour apparently came from the English port town of Whitehaven, situated in the county of Cumberland. The Duke of Cumberland just happened to be brother to King George III.

Scamper at Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Scamper at Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

It was this improbable set of circumstances that, in a place so remote from the original, seventy-four islands sitting alluringly in azure waters off the coast of eastern Australia became known as the Cumberland Islands. It’s also why the biggest island was named Whitsunday Island, and the 7 km beach of near pure silica that graces it became known as Whitehaven Beach.

At the time of Cook’s voyage, Whitehaven was a major British port, heavily involved in trade with the colonies of North America, including the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Whitehaven’s ships exported coal, but also transported slaves from West Africa to the Caribbean and North America. They returned with sugar, tobacco and rum. Today, global trade has passed Whitehaven by, and it’s a forgotten backwater.

Shute Harbour, Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Shute Harbour, Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Shute Harbour, Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Shute Harbour, Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Shute Harbour, Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Shute Harbour, Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Shute Harbour, Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Shute Harbour, Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

It could be worse, the county of Cumberland no longer exists. It merged with its neighbour, Westmoreland, to become Cumbria in 1974. It’s an attractive place with the Lake District National Park at its heart. It even has some pleasant beaches, albeit much colder and with far less appealing water. It’s also where I was born, which is why I felt drawn to these familiar names on the wrong side of the globe.

Amongst the Cumberland Islands you can find the isles of Carlisle, Brampton, St. Bees, Scawfell, Penrith, Derwent, Keswick, Calder, Cockermouth, Workington and Wigton. It’s like a roll call of places from my childhood, familiar yet utterly alien in the waters of the Coral Sea. To be fair, Cook didn’t name all of them. This was left to Captain King when surveying the area in 1820.

Sailing through the Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Sailing through the Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Sailing through the Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Sailing through the Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Sailing through the Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Sailing through the Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Sailing through the Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Sailing through the Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Sailing through the Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Sailing through the Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

I don’t wish to be unkind to the place where I grew up, but there is nothing, absolutely nothing, even remotely similar about Cook’s Cumberland Islands and the places after which they are named. In fact, there has rarely been a more blatant misrepresentation. If you’ve visited Whitehaven Beach, a visit to Whitehaven the town is going to be a big surprise … and not only because you’ll need about seven additional layers of clothing.

I arrived late to Airlie Beach, the buzzing resort town that is a tourist hub for the Whitsunday Islands, as they are now known. In the morning I’d be heading over to Shute Harbour, from where SCAMPER Island Camping would take me to Whitsunday Island. I’d booked a camping spot at the National Park campsite on Whitehaven Beach and would have two days as a castaway on the island.

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Scamper at Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Scamper at Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia

I’m not sure words alone can do Whitehaven Beach justice. It’s an extraordinary and beautiful place that has to be seen to be believed. As we came around a headland the beach revealed itself: a strip of almost luminous white sand wedged between the exquisite blue and turquoise water, and the lush green of the tropical forest. I’d expected it to be beautiful, but this was way beyond expectations.

Cape Hillsborough’s elusive kangaroos

Cape Hillsborough is a small but atmospheric national park. Two beautiful crescent-shaped beaches are fringed by tropical forest; dramatic rocky headlands, with giant volcanic boulders that seem to have tumbled down the hills that form the backdrop to the beaches; trails take you around the peninsular to ancient Aboriginal sites. The thing most people come to see though, are the kangaroos.

If you’re lucky, at sunrise or sunset, there’s a chance that Cape Hillsborough’s famous beach-loving kangaroos will show up. These kangaroos (and wallabies) must be some of the most photographed animals on the planet. Queensland’s tourist literature features them at almost every opportunity, making it seem like there are a constant parade of kangaroos wilfully wandering in front of tourist cameras.

Kangaroo, Cape Hillsborough, Queensland, Australia

Kangaroo, Cape Hillsborough, Queensland, Australia

Cape Hillsborough, Queensland, Australia

Cape Hillsborough, Queensland, Australia

Cape Hillsborough, Queensland, Australia

Cape Hillsborough, Queensland, Australia

Cape Hillsborough, Queensland, Australia

I arrived at Cape Hillsborough on a 500km drive from the Capricorn Coast to Airlie Beach. It wasn’t exactly the most direct route, but I thought it would be fun to see kangaroos on the beach. Leaving the main highway, I found myself on small roads passing through fields of sugar cane. It seemed to get more and more remote the further I went, until I found myself driving on a gravel road.

There was sugar cane as far as the eye could see, and occasional farmhouses with horses in paddock. Just when I thought I’d somehow been transported back to Cuba, I came to an intersection with a paved road and made my way the last few kilometres into the national park. The moment I stepped out of the car I saw two kangaroos. They weren’t on the beach but it seemed like a good omen.

Cape Hillsborough, Queensland, Australia

Cape Hillsborough, Queensland, Australia

Cape Hillsborough, Queensland, Australia

Cape Hillsborough, Queensland, Australia

Cape Hillsborough, Queensland, Australia

Cape Hillsborough, Queensland, Australia

Cape Hillsborough, Queensland, Australia

Cape Hillsborough, Queensland, Australia

I’d arrived in the afternoon and only had a couple of hours before sunset. I walked to the beach, strolled from one end to the other, then around some jagged rocks to a second beach, that at high tide is only accessible by a trail over the hill. As the sun set, I found myself standing alone on the beach in a natural amphitheatre of wooded hills. The ocean was like my own personal orchestra. It was magnificent.

I drank in this unique atmosphere and wandered back to the main beach. I hoped by now that the most famous kangaroos on the planet would be gathered for their ritual perambulation. I wasn’t alone, seven other people had appeared from somewhere, but where were the kangaroos? I waited, hoping beyond hope that I’d not made the journey for nothing, but not a single marsupial showed up.

Cape Hillsborough, Queensland, Australia

Cape Hillsborough, Queensland, Australia

Sunset, Cape Hillsborough, Queensland, Australia

Sunset, Cape Hillsborough, Queensland, Australia

Sunset, Cape Hillsborough, Queensland, Australia

Sunset, Cape Hillsborough, Queensland, Australia

Sunset, Cape Hillsborough, Queensland, Australia

Sunset, Cape Hillsborough, Queensland, Australia

It was getting dark and I still had an hour or two to drive before I could rest for the night. As I walked through the car park, something moved in the growing gloom of evening. There, not six feet from my car, was a wallaby. I managed to take a quick photo then it hopped off into the trees, and I drove off through the cane fields into the night.

Wallaby, Cape Hillsborough, Queensland, Australia

Wallaby, Cape Hillsborough, Queensland, Australia

Beachcombing along the Capricorn Coast

The perils of arriving unprepared after dark in a small Australia town couldn’t have been better illustrated than my arrival in Yeppoon. I wouldn’t have minded so much, but I hadn’t even intended to visit Yeppoon. The decision to go there was made for me by the fact that I’d been driving for what seemed like forever, and was desperate for somewhere to spend the night.

Singing Ship, Emu Park, Capricorn Coast, Queensland, Australia

Singing Ship, Emu Park, Capricorn Coast, Queensland, Australia

I hadn’t booked accommodation, but Yeppoon is a popular destination and a jumping off point for the Keppel Islands. It has its fair share of motels, hotels and B&Bs, plus it was hardly high season. The first place I tried was closed for the night, but there was a number to call. I called, there was no answer. I could see another hotel and went off to see if they had a room.

Their office was also closed. I called the number provided and someone answered. Despite the evidence of my eyes, they said they were full. I tried other places with similar results until, finally, I found a B&B willing to answer the phone and give me a room for the night. It was a little out of town, but it was now after 9pm and I no longer cared.

Beach at Yeppoon, Queensland, Australia

Beach at Yeppoon, Queensland, Australia

Strange fruit, Yeppoon, Queensland, Australia

Strange fruit, Yeppoon, Queensland, Australia

Beach at Yeppoon, Queensland, Australia

Beach at Yeppoon, Queensland, Australia

The next morning I woke to discover my B&B was right on the wide arc of beach that stretches for over twenty kilometres north of Yeppoon. It was a beautiful day so I set off for a walk. Other than a few dog walkers, the beach was empty and so peaceful that I lost track of time. A couple of hours later I returned to the car and set off on the next leg of the journey to Cairns.

My landlady had given me a map and told me about a route along the Capricorn Coast to Emu Park, home to something called the Singing Ship. It was in the wrong direction for Cairns, but a Singing Ship was too good to miss. The road to Emu Park is along the Coastal Scenic Highway, with sweeping vistas of the Capricorn Coast. It takes you past small harbours, sleepy communities and empty beaches.

Wreck Point, Yeppoon, Queensland, Australia

Wreck Point, Yeppoon, Queensland, Australia

Wreck Point, Yeppoon, Queensland, Australia

Wreck Point, Yeppoon, Queensland, Australia

Capricorn Coast, Queensland, Australia

Capricorn Coast, Queensland, Australia

Capricorn Coast, Queensland, Australia

Capricorn Coast, Queensland, Australia

South of Yeppoon the road climbs to a cliff top called Wreck Point. In 1848, the Selina sank off the coast here, giving the point its name. In 1849, the Selina and its cargo of cedar logs was raised by another ship but couldn’t be moved. Instead, they left a crew member, Evan Owens, at this isolated spot to keep the wreck afloat. He had enough food for six weeks and a promise of their return.

They never returned. At a time when no European settlers lived in the area, this was a potential death sentence. Abandoned to his fate, Owens survived five months before being rescued by another ship. Setting off again, I passed through the oddly named Cooee Bay and Rosslyn, stopped at Keppel Bay Marina and had stroll on Kemp Beach. Finally, I arrived in the village of Emu Park.

Keppel Bay Marina, Capricorn Coast, Queensland, Australia

Keppel Bay Marina, Capricorn Coast, Queensland, Australia

Keppel Bay Marina, Capricorn Coast, Queensland, Australia

Keppel Bay Marina, Capricorn Coast, Queensland, Australia

Capricorn Coast, Queensland, Australia

Capricorn Coast, Queensland, Australia

Emu Park, Capricorn Coast, Queensland, Australia

Emu Park, Capricorn Coast, Queensland, Australia

Emu Park, Capricorn Coast, Queensland, Australia

Emu Park, Capricorn Coast, Queensland, Australia

The famous Singing Ship is a monument to Captain Cook, who sailed past here in HMS Endeavour in 1770. It sits on top of a headland where, exposed to the ocean winds, concealed organ pipes create eerie, atmospheric music. From here you can walk down a boardwalk to the recently built and poignant World War I Anzac Memorial.

The trip set me back even more time and I now faced a 500km drive to Airlie Beach, the departure point for Whitsunday Island. I decided to break the journey at Cape Hillsborough, famous for kangaroos and wallabies that visit the beach – photos of which adorn Queensland’s tourist literature. Another diversion, but I’m a sucker for a kangaroo on a beach…

War memorial, Emu Park, Capricorn Coast, Queensland, Australia

War memorial, Emu Park, Capricorn Coast, Queensland, Australia

War memorial, Emu Park, Capricorn Coast, Queensland, Australia

War memorial, Emu Park, Capricorn Coast, Queensland, Australia

War memorial, Emu Park, Capricorn Coast, Queensland, Australia

War memorial, Emu Park, Capricorn Coast, Queensland, Australia

War memorial, Emu Park, Capricorn Coast, Queensland, Australia

War memorial, Emu Park, Capricorn Coast, Queensland, Australia

Town of Seventeen Seventy, the ‘birthplace of Queensland’

It was when leaving Bundaberg that the full horror of my situation made itself clear to me. I’d spent a happy few days in southern Queensland visiting vineyards, trekking in national parks, whale watching and sampling Australia’s finest rum. In doing so, I’d used up half the available days of my road trip to Cairns. Even if I went the most direct route, I still had 1,400km of the journey to complete.

I wasn’t planning on taking the direct route. This left two options, abandon all hope, change my onward flight to Perth and return to Brisbane; or, accept that I was going to have a couple of very long days of driving. North of Bundaberg, things start to get a little remote, distances are impossibly large, the trucks seem bigger as they hurtle past, and there was more than one occasion that I wished I’d opted for option one.

Agnes Water, Queensland, Australia

Agnes Water, Queensland, Australia

Town of Seventeen Seventy, Queensland, Australia

Town of Seventeen Seventy, Queensland, Australia

Town of Seventeen Seventy, Queensland, Australia

Town of Seventeen Seventy, Queensland, Australia

The only thing that drove me onwards was my campsite booking on the spectacular Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island. Even that was 800km of driving and a two hour boat ride away. I told myself it would be worth it when I could feel the fine white sand between my toes, and was swimming in the aquamarine water of the Cumberland Islands. North it was, but not before I’d visited the curiously named, Town of 1770.

What’s in a name? Quite a lot if you were once an overlooked, out-of-the-way place known to almost no one as Round Hill. Everything changed for Round Hill in 1970 when, on the bicentenary of the landing here of James Cook and the crew of HMS Endeavour, the town voted to change its name to reflect this momentous piece of Australian history.

Cook Memorial, Town of Seventeen Seventy, Queensland, Australia

Cook Memorial, Town of Seventeen Seventy, Queensland, Australia

Town of Seventeen Seventy, Queensland, Australia

Town of Seventeen Seventy, Queensland, Australia

Town of Seventeen Seventy, Queensland, Australia

Town of Seventeen Seventy, Queensland, Australia

Town of Seventeen Seventy, Queensland, Australia

Town of Seventeen Seventy, Queensland, Australia

Cook’s landing at Round Hill was only the second time he’d set foot on Terra Australis, as Australia was known before his voyage of discovery. It was his first landing in what is modern-day Queensland, hence its rebranding as the ‘birthplace of Queensland’. The town is tiny, just a few houses and a marina, but the name seems to have worked to attract tourists, who flock here for the laid back atmosphere.

The area is surrounded by national parks and is a jumping off point for the Great Barrier Reef. I would have stayed for a few days, but time was short and I needed to cover more ground towards Cairns. I did a lovely hike along trails with views over the ocean in the Joseph Banks Conservation Park – Banks was the botanist who sailed on the Endeavour – and strolled along the beach before heading off again.

Town of Seventeen Seventy, Queensland, Australia

Town of Seventeen Seventy, Queensland, Australia

Town of Seventeen Seventy, Queensland, Australia

Town of Seventeen Seventy, Queensland, Australia

Town of Seventeen Seventy, Queensland, Australia

Town of Seventeen Seventy, Queensland, Australia

Before arriving in Town of 1770, I’d stopped for lunch on the beach at Agnes Water, one of the region’s nicest and most accessible. On the drive between the two something uncanny happened. I drove past a kangaroo signpost, stopped and took a photo of it. 200m further on there was an actual kangaroo by the side of the road, looking like it might hop right in front of me.

Agnes Water, Queensland, Australia

Agnes Water, Queensland, Australia

Agnes Water, Queensland, Australia

Agnes Water, Queensland, Australia

Agnes Water, Queensland, Australia

Agnes Water, Queensland, Australia

Agnes Water, Queensland, Australia

Agnes Water, Queensland, Australia

Compared to Town of 1770, the sleepy hamlet of Agnes Water is a thriving metropolis. There’s some uncertainty whether the town is named after a ship, the schooner Agnes, that sank off the coast near here in 1873, or for the daughter of the first European settlers to arrive in the area, Agnes Clowes.

It’s a popular place and, thanks to the Great Barrier Reef blocking the waves north of here for the next 2,300 kilometres, Agnes Water can claim to be Queensland’s most northerly surf spot. After a long walk down the beach, which stretches for over 5 kilometres, I sat down on the sand and had lunch. Small sand dunes behind me, crashing waves in front. Perfect.

Agnes Water, Queensland, Australia

Agnes Water, Queensland, Australia

Agnes Water, Queensland, Australia

Agnes Water, Queensland, Australia

Agnes Water, Queensland, Australia

Agnes Water, Queensland, Australia

Agnes Water, Queensland, Australia

Agnes Water, Queensland, Australia

Entering Bear Country, Bundaberg Rum Distillery

Visiting the Bundaberg Rum Distillery is a serious business. At the distillery gate are lockers into which all electronic items must be placed. Cameras, phones, torches, car keys, all are locked away. In fact, you’re not permitted to carry anything with a battery or that can make a spark. That might seem draconian, but it’s sensible when it might ignite the highly flamable ethanol-laced alcohol stored behind the security fence.

In 1936, a lightening strike on the distillery did exactly that. In a matter of seconds tens of thousands of litres of alcohol, worth a street value of a couple of million dollars, was ablaze. The buildings were destroyed, and burning alcohol and molasses poured into the nearby Burnett River, killing thousands of fish. It took nearly three years to rebuild the distillery, which remains on the same site today.

Bundaberg Rum Distillery, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg Rum Distillery, Queensland, Australia

Polar Bear, Bundaberg Rum Distillery, Queensland, Australia

Polar Bear, Bundaberg Rum Distillery, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg Rum Distillery, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg Rum Distillery, Queensland, Australia

All the security isn’t just there to prevent fire though. Rum is big business and Bundy Rum is the most popular brand in Australia. Behind the security fence is Australia’s rum motherlode. Not only are there 10 million litres of molasses, the sugarcane waste product and raw ingredient of rum, but also 300 barrels of ready to drink golden liquid stored in bonded warehouses.

Each of those barrels has a value of around AUS$7 million. Multiply that by 300 and you have rum with a street value of $2.1 billion just sitting there waiting to be drunk. It’s no surprise that security is tight. Each barrel is made from American oak, harvested from the same area of the Appalachian Mountains that provided the wood for Bundy Rum barrels in 1888, when production first started. Continuity is important in the distillery.

Rum first arrived in Australia over a century earlier, on board HMS Endeavour, the British Navy research ship Captained by James Cook. In the early years of Australia being a penal colony, rum was easy to find, but was still shipped from England rather than produced here. Tales of chronic drunkenness in the fledgling colony were rife well before The Great Molasses Crisis of 1885 kick started domestic rum production.

In the late 19th century, Queensland’s economy was already heavily based on sugar production, with 166 sugar mills in operation. The only problem was that refining sugar leaves behind a sticky, sweet by-product: molasses. So much molasses was being produced in Bundaberg it was flowing into the Burnett River. Luckily for drinkers everywhere, a solution was found: build a rum distillery.

Bundaberg Rum Distillery, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg Rum Distillery, Queensland, Australia

Polar Bear, Bundaberg Rum Distillery, Queensland, Australia

Polar Bear, Bundaberg Rum Distillery, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg Rum Distillery, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg Rum Distillery, Queensland, Australia

We were shown around the distillery by two enthusiastic guides, who seemed to specialise in irony. To add some spice to the tour, the guides insisted that we all shout ‘huzzah’ or ‘poppycock’ when we liked or disliked something they were telling us. It’s quite a short tour, but informative, and it comes with two complimentary glasses of rum in the gift shop bar. Something that got the loudest ‘huzzah’ of the day.

The on-site rum museum was recently given an $8.5 million refurbishment, and the result is a fascinating interpretive experience. The centrepiece of the museum are six 75,000 litre oak vats, which have been decommissioned from maturing Bundaberg rum, emptied and turned into part of the exhibit. Each one is like a separate room telling a part of the Bundaberg rum story.

Bundaberg Rum Distillery, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg Rum Distillery, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg Rum Distillery, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg Rum Distillery, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg Rum Distillery, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg Rum Distillery, Queensland, Australia

What about Bundaberg’s incongruous, iconic Polar Bear? I hear almost no one ask. Somewhat disappointingly, the mystery behind the legend of the Bundy Bear is that it was just a marketing ploy thought up by a marketeer, Sam McMahon. McMahon is an Irish surname anglicised from the Gaelic name “Mac Mathghamha”, meaning “son of the Bear”. That is the origin of the bear, at least according to the modern-day marketing spiel.

Bundaberg, a town with spirit

I first came across the name Bundaberg in an isolated pub somewhere north of Fort William in the middle of the Scottish Highlands. The name, and the famous Bundaberg Polar Bear, adorned the hat of a young Australian woman who was travelling through the Highlands with a friend. As the evening wore on, and more single malt was drunk, drinking stories started to be told. Including tales of Bundaberg’s famous rum.

I don’t remember at what stage in the night we struck a deal to swap her Bundaberg cap for my St. Patrick’s Day t-shirt. All I know is, I woke up the next morning with a stinking hangover, wearing a hat with a polar bear on the front, and without my t-shirt. I had to drink quite a lot of Guinness to acquire that t-shirt. It was a sad loss, but it seemed like an appropriate way to part company.

Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Pub sign, Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Pub sign, Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Ever since that drunken night in Scotland, I made a promise to myself that one day I’d visit Bundaberg and see where my new hat came from. Over the intervening years the hat travelled with me like a lucky charm until it was lost, possibly in another drinking-related incident. I may not have been able to proudly wear it when I eventually arrived in Bundaberg, but I brought the spirit of that night in a Highland pub with me.

I drove up to Bundy, as Bundaberg is affectionately known, after watching whales in Hervey Bay, and there was a subtle change in the landscape. I passed more and more fields of sugar cane and, occasionally, long and slow sugar cane trains. Queensland is famed for sugar cane, the further north you go the more cane you see. In this area, much of it is destined for Bundy’s rum stills.

Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Catholic Church, Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Catholic Church, Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Anglican Church, Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Anglican Church, Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg’s a town of around 70,000 people, and has a small town feel. The area was first surveyed by Europeans in the 1840s, by James Burnett, who gave his name to Bundaberg’s slow moving river. The town was finally founded in 1870, and plenty of graceful colonial-era buildings still line the streets. Timber was the first major industry in the town, but sugar quickly took over.

Bundy doesn’t attract many tourists, but it’s a surprisingly picturesque place with palm tree-lined streets. There are a couple of good museums, including to aviation pioneer, Bert Hinkler, who in 1931 was the first person to fly solo across the South Atlantic. Bizarrely, the house in which he lived forms part of the  museum. That is, the house he lived in in Southampton, England. It was shipped here in 1983 when threatened with demolition and reconstructed brink by brick.

Memorial to Bert Hinkler, Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Memorial to Bert Hinkler, Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Memorial to Bert Hinkler, Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Memorial to Bert Hinkler, Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Burnett River, Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Burnett River, Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Burnett River, Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Burnett River, Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

I walked around the town centre, had a delicious breakfast in one of several good coffee shops, and found my way to the Burnett River for a stroll along its banks. At Bundy, the river is wide and slow moving, but this is deceptive. Originating in the Great Dividing Range, the river is prone to flooding. Recent flooding in 2010-11 and 2013 caused huge damage in Bundaberg and elsewhere along its course.

I’d have liked to have spent a bit more time in Bundaberg but the siren call of the road, and my ridiculous schedule to reach Cairns, beckoned me. There was only one thing I had to do before leaving town, the one thing everyone has to do when they visit Bundy … tour the Bundaberg Rum Distillery.

Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

An unusual sight, Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

An unusual sight, Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

Sailing with the Giants of the Ocean

Every year one of nature’s great spectacles takes place off the coast of eastern Australia. Around 16,000 Humpback whales travel some 10,000 kilometres to breeding lagoons on the Great Barrier Reef. Here they give birth and mate before attempting the return journey with their young. On their way back to feeding grounds in the Antarctic, around half of the whales stop in the sheltered waters of Hervey Bay.

Hervey Bay is protected by the immense Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island, and is probably in the top three places on the planet for seeing Humpback whales. Here they rest, socialize and play with their calves before heading south. To be in a small sailing boat surrounded by mothers and their calves breaching, spyhopping, lobtailing and slapping their fins on the water, is a magnificent experience. One I will treasure for many a year.

Humpback whales, Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia

Humpback whales, Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia

Humpback whales, Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia

Humpback whales, Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia

Humpback whales, Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia

Humpback whales, Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia

So good are your chances of spotting a whale in Hervey Bay, around 80,000 people come here every year to see them. That itself is something of a miracle. Globally, over 250,000 Humpbacks were killed by whalers, bringing them to the brink of extinction. When commercial whaling was banned in 1986, the original population on the east coast of Australia had plummeted from around 60,000 to 100.

Humpbacks can live up to 50 year, and I find it extraordinary that they are prepared to tolerate the whale watching boats. They exhibit no residual fear, or antipathy, and sometimes come thrillingly close. An adult female can measure 18.5 metres in length, and top the weighing scales at 40,000 kilogrammes. When they are coming directly towards your small boat you have reason to be concerned.

I arrived in Hervey Bay at night after a long drive from Crows Nest. I’d booked a self catering apartment but, when I arrived, the office was closed. Luckily there was a sign on the door saying ‘Bell’. Next to the sign was the door bell. I dutifully rang it and a disgruntled looking woman opened the door. I explained I’d booked a room, she looked at me like I was an imbecile.

I was confused by her obvious annoyance. She said, “You’re Paul, right?” I replied that I was. “Paul Bell, right?” Correct again. She then pulled the envelope with the word ‘Bell’ written on it, that was taped to the door, off the door and handed it to me. Inside was my key. I tried to explain that, because it was next to the door bell, it wasn’t obvious that it was intended for me. Her withering look silenced me.

Whale watching, Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia

Whale watching, Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia

Whale watching, Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia

Whale watching, Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia

Remnant of the past, Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia

Remnant of the past, Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia

Driving and watching, Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia

Driving and watching, Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia

I’d arrived late, I’d annoyed the owner, I had a self catering apartment but no food, and the nearest supermarket was closed. At this point I threw in the towel and headed to a nearby pub I’d spotted on my way to the apartment. As I relaxed with a beer and ordered food, I made plans for an early start and my trip into Hervey Bay. Tomorrow would hopefully be a day to remember.

There are many operators offering whale watching trips, but I wanted a small boat that offered a more personal experience. I sailed with Blue Dolphin Tours on their sailing catamaran skippered by the owner, Peter. They sail with no more than twenty people, although the day we went there were only eight of us. We started at 7.30am and the trip lasts for around 8 hours, giving lots of time to spot whales. You also get a tasty lunch.

Whale statue, Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia

Whale statue, Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia

Shark statue, Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia

Shark statue, Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia

It was a great experience. Not only because we saw lots of whales, including two groups that came together right next to the boat, but because it was glorious to be sailing on the open ocean in fantastic weather. I can heartily recommend it.