We have been whale watching a couple of times in the past and had limited or zero success. Our first attempt at Kaikoura, in New Zealand, was cancelled before it even got started due to bad weather. In Monterey, California, we managed to get out into the bay and did get to see the humps of a couple of humpbacks from a distance. We had better luck that same week while cycling along Big Sur when a pod of about half a dozen whales were visible from land but they were still too far away to be clearly seen. Maybe this time would be different, we thought.
Hervey Bay is billed as one of the premier whale watching locations in Australia, maybe even The World. The annual migration of the whales from Antarctica to the warm waters off the coast of Tropical Far North Queensland has earned the route’s nickname of ‘The Humpback Highway’. We were in the middle of the season and due to low numbers of tourists it was possible to book last minute and therefore get perfect weather. Surely with everything in our favour this time we could not fail ……. and we absolutely did not fail. What a day, from start to finish.
There are numerous outfits in Hervey Bay running tours of all sizes, from a couple of dozen passengers up to the huge boats catering for well over a hundred. When doing this type of trip we always seem to use the smaller outfits as we find that although they tend to have less facilities you generally get more of a personal experience. We chose to go with The Pacific Whale Foundation, which puts profits back into whale research which seemed another good reason to choose them.The vessel was a 12 metre RIB with about 20 passengers, and a few seats were left vacant for Covid safety.
As we left the harbour the water was like glass with clear blue skies above. The Captain turned on the power to the two huge outboard motors and we were soon flying up the coast of Fraser Island. To be honest the trip out on the boat on such a beautiful day was worth the money itself. We had only been going for about 15 minutes when the Captain spotted a couple of whales moving towards us in front of a sailboat. She navigated us a little closer and we got a great view as they swam by about 50 metres away and then disappeared under water with their tails, or flukes as they are called in the whale world, the last thing to vanish. We had never seen the classic sight of a humpback’s tail disappearing into the depths, so already we were impressed. She then said we would move on and try to find something better. “No no”, said Steve, “this is great, the best we have seen, let’s stay here”.
Another blast further up the coast of Fraser Island and we came across a couple of adults sleeping. This was the first time we have actually been able to appreciate the size of these huge creatures. They do seem pretty big when you start to get close up. We watched them drift around for a while, apparently with half of their brains switched off!!, before heading off again in search of more entertainment. “Looks like there is a bit of surface activity ahead”, declared the Captain, this turned out to be the second biggest understatement of the day. We had stumbled across two adults and a calf playing and the next forty five minutes were just amazing. It felt like we were in some sort of advertisement for whale watching tours. The calf just wanted to play and the adults were more than happy to join in. Up and down, tails out of the water as they were diving, noses out of the water as they came back up, laying on their backs, slapping their flippers and their tails in a non-stop performance.
Then as the Captain announced it was time to leave for our return journey the adults turned towards us, lined themselves up parallel to the RIB and cruised past just under the surface, no more than a couple of metres from the boat. It was definitely a goose bumps moment. They were four metres longer than our vessel and it felt like we could have reached over and touched them as they effortlessly cruised by. Even the crew were impressed stating it was the first time they had come so close all year!
We spent the return journey reflecting on everything we had seen. The sun was dropping low in the cloudless blue sky, as we raced across the flat calm deep turquoise water with the golden sand dunes and green forests of Fraser Island acting as a fitting backdrop. What a fabulous day. “This Australia place is really quite good”, said Steve, which was definitely the biggest understatement of the day!
With the Whale watching over and done with, we spent one more night camping at the local football ground who charged campers a nominal fee to stay in order to boost the club funds. We really have camped in some unusual and great places on this trip. It was then time to move on North again. We made a quick detour to the ginger beer factory in Bundaberg (we have seriously become addicted to this stuff) before arriving at our next stop of 1770.
Our plan on this drive up the coast was to stop at places which were a little more off the beaten track. 1770 is one of these and unusual in the fact the town is a number! In the year 1770, after Captain Cook first landed in Australia in Botany Bay, an area which has since expanded and is now known as Sydney, he continued up the coast and his next port of call was in a small bay which (probably through lack of imagination) was named after the year of the landing.
It is still a relatively small, but very beautiful place with amazing views from the headland. We also discovered a great walk which took us over three further headlands and across three empty beaches before lunch time and then on the way back we took time out to watch sea eagles cruising around the cliffs eyeing up their lunch. We had planned to stay a couple of nights in 1770 but ended up staying a third and could have easily stayed longer but our fear of missing out on other great places further north forced us back on the road.
Next stop, Blacks Beach. Here we stopped for a coffee and stayed two days! It would possibly have been more but we were run out of town ……. by swooping magpies! Seriously, we are not making this up. From Central Queensland to Victoria during the early spring the magpies start to swoop! Steve has experienced it before but to a much lesser scale. Here it was chaos! Sometimes walkers are targets, sometimes joggers, but mainly cyclists feel the brunt of the attacks. Out of nowhere they swoop down and either peck at the cyclists helmet or attack it with their claws in what can sometimes be a repeated onslaught. One day, on a two hour cycle, Steve encountered nine swooping magpies with the most persistent having six swoops. “It is pretty nice here”, he said on the third morning “but enough is enough, let’s go”.
If anyone is interested there are some good clips on youtube of these dive bombing birds, even a guy on a Harley gets a beating…. serious stuff!
We then had a few days in one of our old favourites of Airlie Beach. This is where we met our Dutch friends, Mark and Lisa, back in March. Back then the place was like a ghost town, probably the most affected place we have personally seen during the pandemic. Now it was a hive of activity again, not quite back to normal because of the lack of international travellers, but with everything open, campsites almost full and trips to the beautiful Whitsunday Islands back and available. The place was buzzing. Plus, with only minimal numbers of the kamikaze magpies, Steve was able to get out for some longer rides in peace.
One morning in Airlie Beach we woke up and heard a strange tapping sound on the roof of the van, so we got out of bed, got dressed and went outside to investigate. The sky was dark and something strange and wet was falling on our heads. “I think this is what they call rain”, said Sarah. “Oh yes, I remember, didn’t it do that for a few days back in June?”, said Steve. “What are we going to do for the day?”. Large areas of Australia do get rain at certain times of the year, in fact severe flooding is a major problem in some places, but it is possible to plan your trip around the country avoiding ‘The Wet’, as the rainy season is referred to. This is pretty much what we have tried to do. Having lived in the UK, we feel we have had our fair share of the wet stuff and, as such, avoid it if we can. But occasionally, like the day in Airlie Beach, it just catches up with us! We did, however, have plenty to keep ourselves busy including e-mails, the blog and the dreaded shopping. We both find it quite easy to avoid and put off shopping as neither of us, especially Steve, are that keen on it. One big plus out of this particular day’s shopping, however, was that Steve managed to pick up a fishing rod. This was also a big plus for Sarah as now he might stop annoying her on the beach while she is enjoying a good book! After a brief lesson by the store assistant, a few youtube videos and armed with equipment some of which he had never heard of including hooks, sinkers, spinners, trace wire and a slab of frozen squid, he was good to go.
Cycling however is still Steve’s number one sport so the following day when normal service was resumed and the sun came out he was off on a long bike ride. While he was out and about he stumbled across a nice looking place called Dingo Beach. He came rushing back into the campsite from his bike, jumped off and said “Sarah, pack up we are moving on”!
Dingo Beach and the adjacent beaches of Hideaway Bay and Froggies Beach make up part of the peninsula of Cape Gloucester and what a brilliant location it is. The area had a real feeling of remoteness but was still only 40 minutes drive from the hustle and bustle of Airlie Beach. We have been on so many fabulous beaches that it is easy to get complacent, but this place was something special. It was like being on The Whitsunday Islands while still on the mainland. We could go on and on about how we loved it here but instead we will just post a few photos. Steve said if he could only go to five places in Australia this would definitely be one of them!
We had stayed so long at Cape Gloucester that we only had a couple of days left to travel the 400 miles back to Cairns. We had no plans as to where to stop so Sarah did some research and spotted what looked like an interesting location at a place called Balgal Beach. It turned out to be a great beach for a walk, but this place was all about the campsite Sarah found. Since we started in the first campervan back in February we have been using an app called Wikicamps. If you ever come and camp in Australia you must use Wikicamps. It lists almost every campsite in the country, from free basic roadside locations to the big luxury every facility included sites, with fees, reviews and photos included. It also shows places of interest, dump points and a whole host of other things and it works offline. Don’t leave home without it!
This time Sarah found one on a golf course, with only space for about a dozen vans, so we were lucky to get in. The site also had a bowling green. It seems every town in Australia, no matter how big or small, has a swimming pool and a bowling green and they are mad for it. After parking up and having a brew we had a lovely walk on the beach and then Steve decided to go for a run around the golf course. Now we have seen a fair bit of wildlife so far on this trip and kangaroos and wallabies have featured high on the numbers count. However, never have we seen them in such large numbers or size as around the golf course. On his run Steve tried to count them but gave in and ended up estimating he saw upwards of 150 ‘roos. Some of them were massive, well over six feet tall and quite imposing as they stood upright watching him closely as he ran past. He was so impressed, the following evening he took Sarah around the course (walking not running!) and there were at least another hundred out and about.
We decided to stay another night at the site, for three reasons. Firstly, Sarah was desperate to have a game of bowls, secondly, it was cheap as chips at A$5 (£2.50) per person, and thirdly, Steve had found a hill about half an hour’s cycle away which went up for 12 miles. He was never going to be able to resist that one! After he returned from his ride, tired but happy it was time for the bowling challenge.
We paid our green fees of A$2 (£1) each and with the temperature rising well into the 30’s we strolled onto the green. “I’ve never played this before”, “What are the rules”, ”How do I hold the bowls?”, were all questions Sarah asked as she set up for the game. “This is going to be a walk in the park”, thought Steve. However, two hours and two games later and Steve had been thoroughly beaten … twice. What made it worse was the rest of the campers had been watching and when they found out Sarah had won Steve had to endure an evening of Aussies taking the p!$$ out of him, an activity they are pretty well practiced in! After a couple of ciders at happy hour in the bar, another great day had come to an end.
The following morning we made our way up the last few miles of coast to Cairns where we were returning the campervan. We have had nine amazing weeks which far, far exceeded our expectations. From the gorges, waterfalls and crocs of the Far North, along the endless, empty roads of the Outback with it’s quirky pubs, down to the Red Centre and it’s iconic monoliths and back to the amazing beaches of the Queensland coast, we have had an absolute ball.
Now it is back to the apartment where we were before. We plan to stay there for a month or so to get a little rest and make some plans for the immediate future. This pandemic thing appears to be rising again in Europe and is having an impact on our plans once more.
Steve: “You know I let you win at bowls don’t you? And I was a bit dehydrated and dizzy from my cycle”.
Sarah: “Whatever, I played with one eye shut…. loser!” 🙂