A Queensland Odyssey

Week Three

By Karen Johnson, for Out of the Kaje #4 (June/July 99)

Day 15 – Whale Watching, Bundaberg

This was the day I’d been looking forward to, as we were going whale watching with Lady Musgrave cruises. If you want to go out and see the whales at Fraser Island, I’d recommend this company highly. Almost everybody who goes whale watching leaves from Hervey Bay, so the boats from there are very large and crowded. Our boat from Bundaberg was smaller, but with fewer passengers, so everyone got plenty of opportunity to see the whales and I got some great photos. The whales also tend to congregate towards the north of Platypus Bay, so this boat has an advantage over the competition, which take that much longer to get to where the whales are. They also have a courtesy bus, which picked us up from the motel in the morning, and took us back again after the tour.
The ride out to Platypus Bay takes about an hour and a half. The first part was quite bumpy, but once we got out to the bay we were sheltered by Fraser Island, so it was much smoother.
There are strict laws governing the way the Whale Watching boats act around the whales. There’s a maximum of 3 boats to one whale, for example, and the boats have to circle slowly at a distance rather than crowding in and upsetting them. We were very lucky, because we saw a number of boats circling around a pair of whales almost as soon as we got to the Bay, so we joined the queue. The whales were a mother and baby. The mother was fairly quiet, but the baby was practically doing somersaults. It was playing games, and it kept going for about an hour while we watched. I used a whole roll of film photographing the pair, but a lot of them only show the splash left behind as the baby disappeared under the surface after a leap.
After lunch, we cruised around for another hour or so without seeing any more whales, but we did get a good look at part of Fraser Island that you don’t usually see – the far northern end. We were just about to tun around and go home when we saw another pair of whales swimming around quietly. According to our guide, it was actually the same pair. I’ll take her word for it – all whales look the same to me! I think the baby must have worn itself out this morning in that case, because it was just lying quietly on the surface.
We had a smooth trip back to Bundaberg, and got back to the motel at around 4pm.

Day 16 – Lady Musgrave Island

One word to say about today – Wow! Actually there’s another word you could add to describe the trip out to the island – Ugh!!! 2½ hours on a pitching boat isn’t exactly my idea of pleasure, but it wasn’t too bad. The sea was said to be dead calm, but it didn’t seem like it while we were cutting diagonally across the swell. Now I know why Lady Musgrave Tours warned people to take anti-seasickness measures in the advertising brochure! I was pretty much OK thanks to my little white pills, but a lot of people, especially the kids and the Asians tourists, weren’t. Some of the latter were so desperate to get off the boat in the afternoon that they handed over large sums of money to fly back in a small seaplane which had been running aerial sightseeing trips.
There isn’t actually a lot at Lady Musgrave Island, but it looks exactly like I imagined a coral reef ought to. Because it was the holidays, there were about 50 other boats there, but the lagoon is so big that there was more than enough room for everyone.
The tour boat doesn’t actually dock at the island, but rather at a large private pontoon in the lagoon. While you’re there you eat a lavish buffet lunch, and choose from a number of water-based activities including snorkelling, trips to the island, and short cruises in glass-bottomed and semi-submersible boats. Alternatively, you can sit around in the sun on the pontoon, but that sounded a bit boring to me.
A semi-submersible is very strange from the surface. It’s long and narrow, and when you get on board you climb down a ladder then squeeze onto the benches so you can peer out the portholes (which are UNDER the waterline, giving a clear view of the coral and fish.) It’s a bit claustrophobic at first, but once the boat starts moving you’re too busy looking out and admiring the view to notice. We saw a bunch of turtles swimming around and one big one resting on a coral bommie (big coral mounds which turtles believe were created just to act as cushions. They lie on them to snooze, and gradually squash a big dent in the top.)
The fish in the lagoon have got good memories – they know what time the boat comes around, and they hang around the pontoon at just the right time to get fed (it’s their reward for showing off for the glass-bottomed boat, which they did on cue.) I was going to give snorkelling another try, and got as far as putting on the flippers and mask, but then I found that I couldn’t bring myself to get into the water because it was far too deep. Instead, we went over to the island on the little boat, but the boat couldn’t pull all the way up onto to the beach and we had to wade through the last few feet. Then we walked across the island, and back to the pick-up site via the beach.
As I said earlier, there isn’t a lot at L.M. Island. At one stage there were a few buildings and they mined guano there, but now it’s a national park. If you want to camp overnight, the tourist boat will drop you off and pick you up again when you’re ready to go. I’m not sure why anyone wants to stay there though – there’s nothing on the island except dead white coral, big leafy green trees, and about a million nesting gannets, and it smells dreadful!
All the things we saw today were fascinating, but about halfway back to Bundaberg we were lucky enough to see one to top the lot – the boat almost ran into a pair of snoozing whales! We stopped dead at the regulated distance, and just sat there watching them for almost an hour. Everyone got a really close look too, because the crew shepherded us right down to the bow in groups of 20 (there was no room for more) and we got some FANTASTIC close-up photos.

Day 17 – Bundaberg to Toowoomba

It takes quite a long time to drive from Bundaberg to Toowoomba, and we had to take a slightly longer route than we’d planned, because the Burnett Highway was blocked halfway between Gayndah and Goomeri. A semi-trailer had overturned and they were waiting for a helicopter for the driver. After asking directions from the police, we drove back a little way and then went down via Kingaroy. The road was quite pleasant but there wasn’t much to see. Kingaroy is right in the middle of the peanut and wheat-growing belt, and the town’s major tourist attraction seemed to be a van selling Kingaroy peanuts in various forms.
From Kingaroy to Toowoomba the road is quite scenic. You drive over the edge of the Darling Downs past 6000 different farms, and finally you get to Toowoomba. Toowoomba is perched on the edge of a cliff, and you get great views at every turn. There’s a two-hour tourist drive along the Edge, and we drove around a very small (30-minute) section to enjoy the view. The main lookout, called The Edge, was very near our motel. They’ve recently built a restaurant complex overlooking the cliff there, and it would be a great place to eat because the view is marvellous. You can walk around there, but we didn’t because it was already 5pm. We also went to the Heights, which is an isolated bluff with more great views. There are walking tracks there as well, but again, we couldn’t stay long. The reserve gates are locked at dusk because there’s no lighting, so after that you could easily fall off the cliff!
Our motel was lovely, and there was only one thing about it that I didn’t like. A previous occupant of the room had obviously been a heavy smoker, and the cleaner had lavishly sprayed air freshener around to cover the odour. It was practically deadly, and I mean that literally! I opened the door to deposit the first bags, and then fled the premises until we could get a fan from reception.
The motel’s restaurant specialises in African and Mediterranean foods and it has quite an exotic menu, but they also do steaks of various kinds for the more conservative. The garden outside the window was floodlit and it was a very pleasant place to have dinner.

Day 18 – Toowoomba to Armidale

The road from Toowoomba to Armidale is extremely scenic. Everywhere you look there are great boulders and rocky outcrops sticking out of he ground. The road winds around between hills/mountains for miles and miles, and some bits are very steep.
We planned to get breakfast along the way but there wasn’t anywhere good to stop for hours. The first possible place we passed through was Stanthorpe, but there didn’t seem to be cafés, so we drove on to Tenterfield, where I noticed a roadside sign advertising a cute little teashop. We stopped and had some breakfast that was well worth waiting till 10.30am for.
The rain clouds were threatening all day, and a little while after we got to Armidale they opened in force. Armidale is a very pretty little place full of old buildings, but we didn’t see a lot of it because of the rain. The town has a heritage drive to show you all the landmarks, and we tried to go on it, but the map we got from the information centre wasn’t very good and we got instantly lost. We turned the wrong way on the very first street and ended up following the signs for the shorter ‘heritage walk’ instead. I transferred the route to a better (ie readable) map, but by then it was raining too much to see anything anyway, so we went back to the motel and watched videos. The Cotswold Gardens motel is very nice. It is furnished in country cottage style, and it’s very effective – much nicer than some of the other motels we’ve stayed at. We had a lovely, but rather expensive, dinner in the restaurant, and finished up with coffee and port in front of the open fire.

Day 19 – Armidale to Coonabarabran

From Armidale to Coonabarabran you go through some very pretty country, and some quite boring country. Tamworth is a dump, but it’s a dump with fancy motels. I think they’re only used during the Country music festival, because there’s nothing interesting there for the rest of the year.
When you get close to Coonabarabran the countryside gets a bit more interesting. The road runs through a pine plantation, but it’s not the common or garden pines you see everywhere else. There are bunya pines, bristle pines, and some funny pines with bristles that hang downwards. You also go around some very rocky hills.
Coonabarabran is a very small town, and the main reason people stay there is because it’s the jumping off place for the Warrambungle Mountains and the Siding Springs Observatory. The skies in this area are extremely clear, so it’s the perfect place for an observatory. As well as the large observatory, there’s also a small tourist one called Sky-watch. We were going to go tonight, but we decided to wait because it’s a bit cloudy. Instead we went to look at the ‘crystal cave’, which is a small museum of zeolites or ‘thunder eggs’ collected in the Warrumbungles area. Some of them are very pretty, and they’re supposed to be unique. The same colour ones grow in other parts of the world, but they aren’t nearly so big and impressive.

Day 20 – Warrumbungles

Today was a very busy day. We went to the park, up to Siding Springs, and out to Sky-watch for star watching. The Warrumbungles are more impressive than I had expected them to be, but you can only see them fully from the Central Valley, or from the lookout right at the park entrance. It’s only a gentle walk from the car park, and the track is carefully graded so that even disabled people can manage it. I saw several lizards on the walk, and a deaf couple who came along after us spotted a koala right near the path. I never would have noticed it myself, but it was sitting up in the fork of a tree pretending to be a stuffed toy. It looked straight at me and blinked. So cute!
The main walks in the Park are all very steep and rocky, which is only natural considering the landscape, but there are also some shorter ones, and we wandered around near the visitors Centre watching the wildlife for a while before we went to have lunch at the picnic area. As we were sitting in the shade enjoying our delicious picnic hamper, we saw another family who wasn’t so lucky. They were having a BBQ, and while they were cooking it, a currawong swooped down and carried off a whole bread roll in each claw!
We stopped at Siding Springs on the way home and trudged up to the telescope. It’s big but not particularly awe-inspiring, because in the daytime it just sits there. The educational exhibits looked interesting but it cost quite a bit to get in and see them and it was nearly closing time.
After dinner we went out to Sky-watch and paid $10 each for an astronomy session. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see very much because it was quite cloudy, but Heather was pleasantly surprised. She hadn’t expected to be able to see anything through the telescope, but she could see quite well. We saw Jupiter with a couple of moons – someone said they saw 5, but I only saw 2 myself; Saturn (you can actually see the rings as a fuzzy disc); and in a break in the clouds I saw Alpha Centauri, which is one of the stars in the Southern Cross. It’s actually a binary star, and you could easily see the two parts through the telescope.

Day 21 – 23

From here on in, it was all over bar the shouting. From Coonabarabran, we drove to West Wyalong (a long and boring drive through the largely flat and featureless country.) From West Wyalong, the next stop was Cobram. The motel was very nice and the room was terribly roomy, but there’s a stockyard just outside the town, and when we arrived the wind was blowing in the wrong direction… The motel manager said it only happens a few times a year, but it was pretty dreadful for 30 minutes or so. Next day, we drove the rest of the way to Melbourne, arriving at lunchtime on the 12th October 1996.

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