When Captain Cook rocked up on Magnetic Island in 1700 he noticed that his compasses went a bit mental. He was so convinced the island had a magnetic force that interfered with his navigation, he quickly named the island after his assumption.
Although it turned out the Cookie Monster was wrong about the compass thing, over the years Magnetic Island has developed a powerful magnetic force over backpackers. And it’s easy to see why backpackers love “Maggie”, as the locals affectionately know her. The luscious, tropical playground is a convenient 20 minute ferry ride from Townsville and home to the largest population of koalas in northern Australia.
However, the species that first caught the attention of my buddy Amina and I was a pack of overzealous locals. Their babbling filled the local bus and it was immediately clear how happy they were to live on the island. They were the lucky ones. After helping us find our luggage, which had bounced off somewhere, they went on their merry way to the island’s RSL (hmm... perhaps the locals were just pissed!).
Either way, Maggie was gorgeous. The air was scented with eucalyptus and bouncy, green pillows of bush stretched for as far as the eye could see. One of the island’s claims to fame is that it has 320 days of sunshine a year. If you happen to visit when the sun isn’t shining then that’s down to bad karma and you should probably think about becoming a nicer person. We (obviously!) were blessed with blue skies and toasty crumpet weather.
Arriving at our hostel, we were not only greeted by the staff but also by a dazzling array of butterflies, a flock of parakeets, a possum waving its tail coquettishly at us and a host of golden daffodils (okay, scrap the daffodils – that was me getting carried away with Willy Wordsworth – but the rest is true).
Although we could have admired the wildlife of our hostel for hours, we were desperate to explore the rest of the island. Fortunately for us, with over 25km of walking tracks Maggie is a great place for bushwalking.
Even lazy people are catered for with shorter, less intense walks. So off we stumbled to the Forts Walk, which we had been told was an hour and a half walk with great elevated views of the island.
“Look! Look! Look!” cried Amina. “What? Where? What?” I replied. “Up there,” Amina said, pointing majestically towards a tree in the distance. As I looked high up into the eucalyptus tree I spotted the furry butt of a koala.
We both quickly scampered through some bush to get a closer look. It may not have been doing much but it was amazing to see the “icon of Australia” in the wild (fair dinkum, some may say).
In the evening we toasted our successful koala bear experience with a few too many drinks in the lively Base Backpackers bar. Our visit may not have coincided with one of the infamous Full Moon Parties but the atmosphere was electric and the party spirit contagious. The rest... is history.
Not many things can get me bouncing out of bed, but jet skiing is one of them.
We hired the jet ski from nearby Horseshoe Bay and after learning how to make it fly, we were off. Amina had kindly let me drive first because I was so god damn excited. As we raced past the empty beach and rocky headland I put my hand down on the throttle... “Where did that wave come from?” I thought. But it was too late.
Amina and I sailed through the air at a million miles per hour, slapping the water hard as we entered the deep blue. Unfortunately, Amina had the additional pleasure of me landing on top of her. A lot of spluttering later, I decided it was best to let Amina drive.
Following our near death experience we settled on a calmer activity next – a tour around the Bungalow Bay Koala Village. Our guide Tony was ridiculously knowledgeable about... well, everything, and he told us a bucket load of facts about each creature we came across.
First, we were introduced to the newest member of the Bungalow Bay family. Wombalina was a wombat fresh off the boat from Tasmania. She said a groggy hello before quickly retiring to her air-conditioned pad.
Disregarding the fragile newbie Wombalina, the tour was very interactive and we were allowed to hold the animals we met; koalas, lizards, snakes and crocodiles (if you wanted to that is, and if you didn’t, Tony did a great job of talking you into it!) As a snake wound its way around me and Amina, I thought, “What a scary, yet special, moment this is.”
Feeling the pull
It’s silly to visit Maggie and not have a venture under sea level. And as falling off a jet ski didn’t quite qualify, we spent the afternoon snorkelling in Arthur Bay. Snorkelling is great. It has all the perks of an aquarium minus the glass (which is definitely an advantage unless you meet a great white on your travels...).
Holding Amina’s hand we slowly worked our way out to sea. Strangely enough the fish we met on the way seemed to follow us and at one point it was difficult to see a way through the fish. “Aren’t they meant to be scared of us?” I asked Amina. But she didn’t reply because she was underwater, you durrf.
“Whoop de whoop!” Yes, mornings were good in Maggie. This time we had a champagne breakfast with pancakes, lamb loins, eggs, sausages (basically the whole she-bang) waiting for us. It was even better than that though. Whilst we were eating we would be introduced to some more of the island’s wildlife.
Along with the usual suspects from the day before, we also met the cockatoos and had a more detailed look at Wombalina (who looked very happy and settled, you’ll be pleased to know). As I admired her blubbery belly I wondered how many more sausages it would take for my gut to look like that. Two or three should do it...
It was sadly time to leave our little Maggie and her animal children behind. As I walked onto the boat I felt a pull at the back of my left leg, something was tugging me back onto the island.
Perhaps, Cook had been right about the magnetic force after all...
The damage and the details: Return ferries to Magnetic Island cost $29 (Ph: 07 4726 0800, ); Beds at Bungalow Bay Koala Village (Ph: 07 4778 5577) cost from $28 a night; the hostel’s wildlife tour costs $17 (with backpacker card); jet ski hire costs from $80 for half an hour.
This article featured in TNT Down Under Magazine.
You go all the way to Australia to get away from the little rascals but somehow they always manage to track you down. Then again, when you temporarily live in the land of sun and beaches, can you really blame your parents for wanting a piece of the action?
My folks had kindly decided to spend my inheritance by bouncing around Australia and New Zealand for five weeks. For two of these weeks we’d be holed up together. Their impending arrival brought two thoughts to mind (which was already somewhat annoying because it was two more than I was comfortable with).
Thought one: how could I survive two weeks with them? Thought two: what was the best way to spend their money? Strangely I found that the more I focused my energy on thought two the less thought one bothered me. It’s true what they say; you’ve got to make the most of your parents because one day they’ll be gone... and you’ll have to pay for everything yourself. Things got off to a good start when we agreed to go to Melbourne. Despite living in Australia for over a year I hadn’t had the chance to visit this wonderful city.
My father is a cricket lover, so we started off with a tour of the MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground). The “Gee” is one of the largest cricket stadiums in the world and is conveniently located just a 15 minute walk from the town centre. The tour was surprisingly enjoyable considering how many times we were reminded of matches where the Aussies whooped our asses. Our grey-haired tour master not only took us to the pong-tastic changing rooms but also onto the field, where we could admire the magnitude of the ground. I looked over at my dad and was sure that he was mentally playing for England, thwacking a six high into the stand. “Go dad”, I thought.
But next it was time for mum to have some fun. For some strange reason my mum has a thing for Captain Cook. I know he “discovered” Australia, but who really cares about all that? It’s in the past. “But Joanna you wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Captain Cook,” my mum droned on. I didn’t say it but thought how the hell did she know where I’d be if it wasn’t for Captain Cook? I make my own decisions. Anyway to pacify the person who I really wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for we trundled off to see Cook’s cottage in Fitzroy Gardens. What’s cooking? Why the heck is the Yorkshire man’s family home in Australia? Good question.
Well, when the Cooks’ residence was put up for sale in 1933 some prominent Victorians bought it and shipped it over to Melbourne. As the cottage was so tiny James Cook had had to share a bedroom with his sister and parents (more than likely the reason why he ended up one of the world’s best explorers). In the garden stood a cardboard cut-out off the Cook family that you could stick your head through. We took photos of my dad pretending to be Cook’s sister Margaret. After all the cricket and colonialism action I decided that the next day we had to do something silly. The Eureka Tower was just the ticket.
It’s Melbourne’s tallest building and the world’s tallest residential building. Whilst the view from the observatory was breathtaking – the experience wouldn’t be complete until you go over the edge. I’m not talking about suicide (yet) but about the delightful little glass box they’ve built that slowly moves out of the building and dangles you above the world.
My mother decided that she’d already had enough excitement to last a lifetime so sat it out (hmm... what’s that animal that goes cluck and lays eggs again?) But dad and I boldly went where thousands had gone before. Everyone stood around the edge of the edge clutching onto the metallic bars at the side. We stood there for what felt like years and the expectancy caused a wave of nausea to surge through my body.
Shit I was scared. Thankfully dad was there to hold my hand – and mimic cracking sounds into my ear. The glass walls of the box were glazed over until we reached our dreaded destination. When the glass cleared I looked down at the city stretched beneath me. The fear had subsided but I still moved very tentatively around. I looked out at my mum who was watching from the observation balcony.
She waved and then pointed to the bottom of the box with a look of panic on her face. She mouthed: “It’s breaking.”
At that moment I understood why my parents annoyed me so much. It boiled down to the simple fact that they are both eejits. But strangely enough, as soon as I realised this, travelling with them became a lot easier.
The rest of our time together was spent in perfect harmony. So my advice to anyone who has to travel with their elders is to take everything they do and say with a pinch of salt... then head to a nice restaurant and get pissed (on them).
SYDNEY: THE BLUE MOUNTAINS
This article featured in TNT Down Under magazine.
As I looked out over the Blue Mountains National Park I realised that it could have been a lot worse for those Three Sisters.
I’m not saying that being turned to stone (as the Aboriginal tale recalls) by your own father would be a nice experience, but Tyawan had only been trying to protect his daughters Meehni, Wimlah and Gunnedoo from an evil monster. I don’t think immortalising them in stone was part of his plan. Either way, he did give his children a glorious home.
The Three Sisters look down upon luscious, bouncy pillows of green that spread out as far as the eye can see. Above them, a few clouds cast shadows over the eucalyptus trees that reflect their famous blueish hue.
After living in Sydney for a few months, the Blue Mountains welcomed me with a much warmer greeting than I had anticipated.
The scenery was beautiful, but I needed more. I wanted to climb into it, be a part of it, hug those heroic cliffs.
Abseiling would make my dreams a reality, and funnily enough, my reality a nightmare and my nightmare a dream again. It was clearly the way forward, or down at least.
Abseiling is a weird term. It comes from the German word abseilen, which means “to rope down”.
However, as this definition doesn’t do the activity justice, my own definition is “an activity underrated in its ability to terrify you to the very core of your existence. Your next breath solely relies on a piece of string that dangles beneath your own jittery legs”.
It may be a scary process but it is a surprisingly simple one. All you have to do is grasp the rope behind your back and then loosen and tighten your grip according to how fast your feet are moving.
Although I didn’t really understand the physics of it, I decided it was probably something you shouldn’t think too hard about.
When instructor Timmay (that’s how it was spelt on his anti-brain splattering device) started pitching up next to a 30m drop, where the cliff actually inverted underneath us, I decided that this was interesting.
I can recollect standing with just my tip toes on the edge of the cliff knowing it was time, to heed the great words of Fat Joe, and, “pull up our pants and do da rock-away. Now lean back, lean back...”
Things weren’t going too badly, until I made the foolhardy error of looking over my shoulder. Although the cliff-side view was majestic, never had the term “don’t look down” made so much sense.
Back to looking at my feet and soon an ecstatic bundle of nerves had made it to the ground alive. A couple more abseils, a whole load of high fives and “woo-hooooo’s” later, this game had got easier.
Never so easy that when Timmay used the phrase “cruise down” it was to be tolerated. I know that Aussies are laidback fellows, but the only laidback thing about abseiling is the position.
One particularly hairy moment was when I fell into the Coffin Slot (it was called that). A small gap in the mountain had taken me by surprise and instead of bouncing over it I decided to fall inside, and have a little sit down.
Face to face, rather than butt to face, with the beautiful scenery, I found myself both frightened and exuberantly happy.
After six abseils we’d come a long way (metaphorically and literally) so it was a long way back up to the bus. As luck would have it, just a five-minute walk away, a train was waiting for us.
Not your average train (as the sign points out) but the steepest incline railway in the world. On our roller-coaster of a ride back up to the top, I reflected on a roller-coaster of a day.
You haven’t properly done the Blue Mountains until you get lost. Suffering from a special spacial disorder made this all too easy for me. “Haven’t I seen that somewhere before? Okay, I’ve definitely seen that before... Oh bollocks.”
Despite getting lost a lot, I thoroughly enjoyed my trek along the Prince Henry Cliff Walk that started at Echo Point and finished at Katoomba Falls.
Eventually finding the falls drenched in sunlight, I sat on a rock. I could have sat there forever. Whilst listening to the sound of the water cascading down the falls, I fell for that tiny part of the Blue Mountains.
Dramatic horizons are great, but sometimes it’s the tiny pieces that make them up which are unforgettable.
Before my visit to the Blue Mountains I’d always thought of myself as a bit of a beach babe, not really bothered about rocks and stuff.
Abseiling, a cliff-side walk and a few blissful minutes by a waterfall had managed to change all that.
The damage & the details: Blue Mountains YHA (Ph: (02) 4782 1416, www.yha.com.au) has beds from $26; abseiling with High ‘N’ Wild (Ph: (02) 4782 6224, www.high-n-wild.com.au) from $99; a day return train ticket from Sydney to Katoomba (Ph: 131 500, www.cityrail.nsw.gov.au) cost $16.80 (after 9am).