16 Days of Brisbane

I’ve had a pretty good couple of weeks in Brisbane, although most of that is owed to a couple of people, the city probably only kept me amused for about a day before I ran out of things to do on a budget. Vicky and Darryl came through the city the day after I arrived and it was great to be catching up with the first people I’d seen from home for over 10 months. We were going to check out the XXXX Brewery (yeah, that’s four ‘x’s) but it was booked out, and I was feeling crap since I’d got off the smelly Greyhound the day before, so a chilled out arvo was had before checking out Fortitude Valley for my first beer in 7 weeks. There’s a wee Italian place near the top of the street, on the right as you walk up, that did really good gnocchi arrabbiata, not that I can really comment seeing as it was my first taste of the stuff.

Being a YHA member, I usually book into one of their hostels when I’m going to a new town, partly cause they’re never dumps, and they’ve got a good mobile website so I can book everything on the bus or train en-route if I’m feeling particularly disorganised. They’re hardly ever the cheapest hostel in town though – ‘course, sometimes they’re the only one – so after a couple of days I checked out the bunch of hostels literally next door. The direct neighbour – a wee house with a friendly but very old owner – looked like it might just have as much atmosphere as a funeral so I skipped on to the City Backpackers and got a pretty decent weekly rate for being in a city. That was for a 30-bed dorm though, which promised to be a new and interesting experience, especially for my nose, but that was balanced out by the hostel having a way better atmosphere than the YHA, as well as a really decent TV/movie room plushed out with surround-sound and leather sofas, and free internet in the dining area.

Eventually I got round to having a clear day to check out the city and headed for the City Hall, mainly so I could climb the Bell Tower and get a decent view of the city for free. That plan fell apart as I spied the gate across the entrance then saw the sign that declared the place was closed, since last November, for renovation, until 2012. The city hall apparently housed a museum and I coincidentally walked past the building it had relocated to and checked it out. It had an interesting interactive exhibition of a set of glass photographic slides presumed to be taken by Alfred Elliot between 1890 and 1921. That kept me visually entertained for a while but the jackhammer, ripping through the office next door, detracted from the ambiance somewhat. After that I pretty much walked around aimlessly, hitting the north bank of the river and checking out the botanic gardens before heading back through the city. I think it was the day after that I discovered the south bank and the idyllic Streets Beach.

So after 4 days I was pretty much done and bored of Brisbane but luckily was due for my second Scottish rendezvous, this time with an extremely jet-lagged Claire, who’d came over to do a year of her primary teaching degree in Brissy. I was going to leave at the end of the week but ended up staying for an extra one now that I had an excuse to go see films like Toy Story 3 (really funny, don’t believe it’s still not out in the UK) and Shrek Forever (really disappointing, especially after seeing Toy Story) and do some pretty epic walks round the city. We checked out a fair bit of the town south of the river one day before realising we were miles from anywhere, it was freezing and starting to rain, and did a wide circle round the north to check out Claire’s QUT campus – highlight was definitely Nandos, think that’s where most of my student loan would end up – and the Story Bridge. We didn’t bother walking over it cause we couldn’t be bothered with an even longer walk back home, but then felt bad watching the news that night to find out it was the 70th anniversary of the bridge opening.

We met some of Claire’s flatmates and then I learned that sometimes looking older than I am doesn’t guarantee I’ll get into pubs, and missed out on a great night watching Germany playing with Argentina, settling for a chilly midnight walk through the city to the hostel. I did a day-trip to North Stradbroke Island, realising it definitely would be better to have stayed on the island for a couple of nights to see it properly, although not in the climate of this time of year. There are lots of interesting things to do at the Culture centre, just across the river from the CBD, so I had a look round the art gallery, and we both checked out the history of swimwear exhibition in the museum. I actually got bored of that surprisingly quickly but at least Claire got to see that shot of Daniel Craig from Bond that she’d been hoping for. It took me a while to notice the posters for the Ron Mueck exhibition but it was a must-see, and the $12 was well worth it to get up close to the amazingly realistic and often evocative works in the modern art gallery.

It was great to be catching up with Claire and taking a few weeks out from the usual ‘hey where are you from? how long have you been here? Where have you been?’ conversations that dominate back-packing life to spend time getting to know someone a bit better. Once I found we both were into photography, that was it: we were straight out to the south bank that night trying to do long exposures of the skyline reflected in Streets Beach. Only then, talking to a security guard for the corporation-owned land, did I realise that Streets was the Australian version of Walls ice cream, and it was they who sponsored the beach and gave it its name. Eventually I had to go and opted for the train to Cairns, as I still hadn’t got into the back-packing mood after 7 weeks on the farm, and wasn’t feeling like hopping between hostels all the way up the coast, or spending much more of my money. On the last day that decision came back to bite me a little as one of Claire’s flatmates was doing a road-trip to Darwin could have given me a lift at least to Cairns. Travelling the west-coast taught me not to plan my travel past a few days, but on the east coast the best opportunities happen on even shorter notice.

Tasmania Day 15: Cradle Mountain

Today David was going to start his 5-day hike along the Overland Track, and we were were going to follow him as far as Cradle Mountain, although a ‘probably’ was quickly added to that plan as soon as opened the tent to find everything dripping in the pea-soup that had engulfed us through the night. As usual our plans to start early fell foul of me being the only one who was capable of getting up before 8, but in the dreich weather even I wasn’t in much of a hurry to get going, and neither was the car. It wasn’t as bad as our Lake Burbury experience though and we were eventually heading back into the national park after our night of exile.

We decided on a circuit starting from Ronny Creek, past Crater Lake, Marions lookout, and kitchen hut, where we’d branch off up the Mountain, returning via Lake Wilks and the west shore of Dove Lake. By the time we’d cooked a load of 2-minute noodles in the hut-with-a-view at Waldheim, it was pretty much midday, but at least we could see some blue sky. The board-walk over the relatively flat moor away from Ronny Creek felt almost too easy but we slowed down soon enough when we left the comfort of that. The day stayed a bit dull as we passed some falls and hiked up around Crater Lake but by the time reached Marion’s Lookout patches of sunlight were tracking across Dove Lake and illuminating the ever-looming Cradle Mountain. From there on till Kitchen Hut it was pretty easy going with bits of board-walk over the relatively flat Cradle Plateau.

I obliterated my noodles at Kitchen Hut, leaving only a tin of spaghetti to sustain me for the other ¾ of the hike, and thought it would be a pretty cool place to be stuck at if we’d been here in winter. The ascent up Cradle Mountain was pretty well straight to the point, aiming dead middle and heading straight up the slightly shallower lower slope before giving in to a gentler climb along the side of the steep boulder field of the higher slope. Hopping up and scrambling over each boulder was pretty fun we could see the view of the valley opening up with every step, justifying photo-stops every couple of minutes. As the track neared the peak we crested a sort of saddle, dropping down the back of the hill before tackling an even steeper climb, steep enough that having the weight of my camera bag on my back worried me a bit, especially when I thought about how I’d manage to climb back down some of rocks.

At the summit the day was perfect. Calm, sunny, fluffy clouds and a view that just went on forever in all directions, and a drop off the edge of the epic rock formations that seemed almost as immeasurable. I got my usual jumping shots out of the way while Kevin and David had a few celebratory games of shit-head. I can’t remember how hard going the walk down was, apart from finding the bit I almost couldn’t climb up as difficult to climb down with my camera bag as I expected, but I’m pretty sure our knees were shot by the time we got back to Kitchen Hut.

And then it was time to leave David to continue his first day on the Overland Track. At this point I didn’t think I’d see him again so it was sad to see him go, while we started to race against the sun, our hunger, tiredness to get back to the car. Through breaks in the cloud the mountain was glowing brilliantly in the later afternoon sun so my incessant snapping slowed us down a bit, and once we reached the fork in the track, overlooking Dove Lake, we both had a stop for a few minutes to soak up the view. Down at the lake side, we ended up running on the board-walk to shave a few minutes off our return, stopping at a little beach in the now fading light to dip our roasting feet in ice cold waters. The reason for our urgency was now more apparent, we were at the Dove Lake carpark, but still possibly had to walk along the road to the car at Ronny Creek, but our luck was in, and 5 minutes after we got to the carpark the last bus came.

Back at Waldheim we found the showers, and then found they were hot – if I could only have one hot shower in Tassie, this would have been it. After all that I was pretty well knackered, but not too tired to drive so decided I’d try to find one of the rest areas on the way to the north coast instead of trying to camp at the side of the road again. Going by the map we just had to stick to the road we were on and there would be two rest areas, but, in another example of Australian road-moronity, without ever turning off the road we were on, I found myself driving through a village on a different road, with no rest areas. So, a great day was finished with yet another night sleeping with the road-trains howling past..

Mount Buffalo

For over a month I’d been soaring over Mystic, using the looming lump of Mount Buffalo to the west to gauge how high I was, but I’d yet to make the mere 25km trip to the mountain. Leanne and Greg thought we could go up there and camp out for a night around their day off – being the owners of the hostel and the jewellery shop, and living in Bright, means they can get away with closing the shop and letting the hostel run its self every Tuesday. As the Tuesday came around, they couldn’t make it, but in their usual super-kind fashion they chucked enough gear in their 4×4 for Crystal and I to start a Polar expedition, and let us drive up to Buffalo ourselves. Seriously, I can’t go on enough about just how lucky I was to stay at their hostel and have them help me in so many ways.

Tuesday came, and Crystal – a Canadian who’d came to pick grapes at Boynton’s winery – and I headed out past Porepunkah, up the Mt Buffalo Road. As with most of Australia’s national parks there are fees for entering and I think it was about $18 for us to take the car in, which made it really surprising that to reserve a camping spot beside Lake Catani only pushed that up to about $25. The drive up is steep and winding: great since I was driving, but the trees blocked out most of the views of the lowlands that fell away around us as we headed to the plateau.

I’d only had my laptop for a week or so and was itching to try some time-lapse photography, now that I had a way of automatically triggering the camera. Lake Catani, surrounded by reeds, and with a few ducks and a canoe floating around in the ever-changing light, was too good an opportunity to miss so I perched the laptop on a rock at the lake’s edge and left the kit doing its thing for about half an hour, while I blitzed through the crisps I’d bought in the name of ’emergency supplies’. The campsite was set a few hundred metres from the lake, and when we found our site we realised the park ranger had given us one of the best spots, sheltered under trees at the edge of the site, with an unrestricted view of the lake. The tent Greg had packed turned out to be a small mansion, possibly visible from space, well, at least the other side of the lake.

Next we headed to The Horn – I didn’t know anything about where the best sights on the massif were so was trusting Crystal’s experience – first reaching the lookout, perched on the edge of a cliff with mist washing up the face. Thoughts of the Himalayas came to me as parts of the rocky landscape revealed themselves but for moments through the waves of mist. Up at the peak, the view was impressive, albeit over a landscape that felt anonymous to me as a new-comer to the area. The cloud-base not far above my head was breaking up the light across the plateau in a fairly interesting way so I tried another time-lapse, looking back across the Giant’s Playground to our next stop: The Cathedral.

We decided to climb the hill across the road from the Cathedral, as Crystal hadn’t been up it, but got distracted by a huge and precariously-perched rock and the prehistoric-looking landscape behind it, and ended up chilling in the calm sunny afternoon there for a while. We followed a track downhill a little bit and ended at a base of a hill made up entirely of massive boulders, so big I had to leave my camera at the bottom before trying out my pretty non-existent bouldering skills, but I managed to get up far enough to get a nice view over where we’d came from.

We ended up at the Chalet to watch the sunset from the top of monumental drop into the gorge. We were really on the wrong side of Buffalo as the sun was setting over by the Horn lookout, but at least at this side the landscape of the Ovens Valley was much more recognisable, stretching from the Eurobin – where I’d worked on a berry farm – back to Bright and the Mystic Launch. Back at the lake I thought I’d be warm enough with my roll-mat and a few blankets, but about an hour in I had to go back on that plan and get the sleeping bag out before I went hypothermic.

Deciding the view from the Chalet at sunrise would definitely be worth getting up for, we did exactly that and I set up a time-lapse at the hang-gliding launch ramp. The launch ramp is just a 5-meter timber ramp rolling off to the sheer +500m drop to the bottom of the gorge in a ridiculously scary fashion. I tried to stand on it but dared only put one foot on the sloped part of it. While the laptop and old camera were doing their thing, the sun broke through the clouds casting some amazingly strong and focussed rays across the valley, keeping me fixated with the other camera for the next hour. It was good to be sitting in one spot, focussing on one scene, instead of running around from place to place trying to capture as many sights as possible while not really giving any one them the attention it deserved to create a truly decent shot.

I was pretty sure I was rostered on at the brewery for 1pm that day, giving us time to pack up and check out one or two sights on the way back to Bright. I’ve found some brilliant spots, both in Australia and back home, just by taking the more obscure roads, and that thinking led us down a dirt track with the perfect mix of corners and crests to make haring along it really fun. Luckily Crystal seemed to trust my driving along the road that branched off near the snow-clearing station and led to a few walking tracks that led back in the direction of the Cathedral. We didn’t make it as far as we wanted as I was worried about not making it back to Bright in time and it’d definitely be worth a revisit. The worrying was well-justified: getting back to Bright at 11.30 I phoned in to check when I was starting, ’15 minutes’, oops..

Day-Tripping North Stradbroke Island

On Monday I thought I’d knock off my first Lonely Planet ‘highlight’ of Queensland and check out Stradbroke Island, just off the coast in Moreton Bay, not far from Brisbane. In a nutshell, staying a couple of nights would have been way better. I left my camera at Claire’s place for all of Sunday so recovering that meant I didn’t leave Roma St station till 10.30. The train to Cleveland took most of an hour and by the time I got to the harbour I’d realised that I’d not be on the island till well after 1 as there was a break in the hourly-service over lunch, a feed I’d half-hoped to have in some nice cafe overlooking the pacific ocean. The Stradbroke Island View cafe filled a hole, and a half-hour, though, and gave me time to work out what the deal with all the ferry options was. There seem to be at least two companies that run a regular passenger service but the lady at the cafe told me the one that didn’t do the vehicle ferries ran to the island a bit quicker, which sounded like just what I needed.

So 3 hours after I’d left Brissy I was on the island, but of course now I had to get a bus to the other side to see the interesting stuff. Talking to Asaf – an Israeli who was day-tripping from Brisbane as well – about how I’d been travelling with an Israeli in Australia, it was funny to hear him ask for my friend’s name on the grounds that ‘it’s a small country, sometimes you know people’. Usually I’m explaining to people from outside the UK that Scotland is actually big enough that I don’t know everyone in it. The bus from from Dunwich to Point Lookout took about 20 minutes without much stopping so even if I’d been on the island overnight and had, say, a bike to explore the place on, I’d still have needed all my time to get round the island.

I didn’t really have much of a plan for the island, but luckily had been told at the info centre that the Gorge Walk was worth doing, and it was. The views down the beaches, the gorge and of the blowhole were pretty nice, and the blowhole really sounded like what I’d expect a whale to sound like. I checked out a bit of the village on the way back to the bus stop, there wasn’t a lot going on but then it is winter. With the sun now heading down I could either get the bus back to the ferry and be back in Brissy before dark, or check out Amity Point and be cruising back to the mainland at sunset, but I wasn’t really feeling like exploring what could just be another couple of beaches, in winter, so back to Brissy it was.