Thursday, 30 June 2011

Hard Up Down Under

Travel feature for The Skinny

My bags are packed, I’m ready to leave. Australia, I’m done. You’re turning me into a Scottish stereotype. Friends warned me that 23 days here – 10 in Melbourne and Sydney, and 13 backpacking on the east coast above – would be woefully insufficient. It was plenty. Backpacking isn’t really possible here at the moment. Let me clarify – it’s entirely possible to trudge about with an overstuffed backpack on, sleep in fusty dorms of twelve and live off a relentless diet of pasta with tomato sauce every night. But it’s futile. You may be living like a tramp, but you’ll be spending like a king.

“The economy’s too bloody strong,” was the frustrated explanation of Roger, a hostel owner who was taking me and only me to his empty accommodation one night. Well, it was low season, and other hostels were busier, but it’s true to observe that Australia has never been more expensive for a visitor than it is now. A pound used to buy two-and-a-half Australian dollars, now only one-and-a-half. So a low-range hostel dorm bed, $30, used to be a reasonable £12, but is now £20. That’s only the start. If you like to travel with a guidebook, bring one with you and guard it like a second passport: they’re $40 to $75 here. A sandwich, wee bottle of coke and pack of crisps will cost $15 (£10). It’s the same for a pack of cigarettes, and if you can find a pint for less than five quid, you’ve chanced upon happy hour. Prepare to go hungry, sober, or insolvent.

It’s fine if you work here. Many of the travellers I’ve met here have been working, too. The minimum wage is $15 (£10), but bar staff can expect at least $20, and one former barman told me he earned $57 per hour on Easter Sunday. That’s forty bloody quid!

The main attractions on Australia’s east coast are, I should say, free. Beaches are free. Swimming is free. Surfing is free (if you have a board). I saw a lot of beaches. I lay under the sun. The sun is free. Queensland is “The Sunshine State” (disclaimer: sunshine may also be received or distributed in other states). Also free and occasionally available: rain. One tourist brochure gave me inspiration for how to enjoy Queensland’s beaches: “Build an old-fashioned sand castle, creating priceless memories to share with loved ones”. So I’ll build a castle with turrets and a moat, I thought, and take pictures and post them to Facebook or something? But I didn’t want to shell out for a bucket and spade. I wavered, and chose lunch instead.

I spent money to see other beaches. I paid over $300 – that’s the going rate – for two days and a night on Fraser Island (coastline, above), the world’s biggest sand island. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site – like the Grand Canyon and Angkor and Stonehenge and central Edinburgh – which means the UN guarantees it’s cool. I won’t disagree with the UN. The main highway on Fraser Island is 75 Mile Highway; it’s also called 75 Mile Beach. It runs the entire length of the island. Depending on the Pacific tide, 75 Mile Beach is up to 100m deep (or “wide”, if you’re driving along it) with another 100m of chaotic, shark-infested surf, and a 20-50m wide mirror in-between, constantly shrinking and being refreshed by the sea, reflecting the sky and clouds above. I called it 75 Mile Mirror. Contrary to bible advice, some wise men have built hotels upon the sand; they’re perfectly stable. Three buffet meals were included in the deal, so my new friends and I stocked up on nutrients, eager to improve our calories-to-dollars ratios. At night, groaning, we trundled back to 75 Mile Beach. Twenty miles away from the nearest settlement, the sky was as clear as I’d ever seen. While on the lookout for wild dingoes, we stood on the highway and watched shooting stars slice the Southern Cross. Stars are free. Meteors are free.

75 Mile Beach is not the best beach on Fraser Island, certainly. For a start, it’s a highway: all the tourist traffic uses it to get anywhere. One destination requiring most of its length is the Champagne Pools, a gathering of smooth rocks which form four or five perfect little swimming pools of frothy sea water, not champagne. While most tourists were distracted by the pools, repeatedly topped-up by the gracious sea, there were two idyllic golden sand beaches just metres away, uninhabited even while tour buses were parked nearby. Inland, a hundred metres high and through miles of rainforest, is Lake McKenzie (below), a freshwater lake of deep blue with immaculately white sand verges. Such a beautiful spot could never be a secret, so there were dozens of other people around, even in low season. But it’s easy to walk a little and find space. We were there for about an hour.

I paid to visit another beach too, for about an hour. Among the Whitsunday Islands, a thousand bus minutes up the coast, is Whitehaven Beach (below), famous for having 99% silica sand. Every travel agent in town referred to it as one of the top five or ten or three beaches in the world. CNN voted it the No.1 eco-friendly beach in the world. OK, let’s disagree with CNN. Every day, dozens of ferries make four-hour round trips shuttling tourists to this beach, bypassing many other lovely-looking and empty beaches on the way. In what way is that eco-friendly? Being a practiced skinflint by now, I bought the cheapest ticket to the island I could find. I paid sixty quid ($89) for a choppy two-hour ferry ride, on which a young boy was thrown against a bannister and lost a tooth, and lots of people vomited, to spend one hour on this beach. It was indeed a very beautiful beach, impossibly fine white sand and gently turquoise waters. I was just dozing, when a boat landed not twenty feet in front of me. “Right guys, everybody off, here it is, the number one beach in the world! I’ve got footies and frisbees, who wants one?" But Whitehaven cannot be the number one, ten or fifty beach in the world, because it is publicised as such. It is immodest. The best beaches don’t gloat about themselves. The best beaches keep mum. And the best beaches don’t eject you back onto a ferry after a quid-a-minute stay. Whitehaven isn’t even the best beach in Queensland – I may, or may not, have already referred to that already; not telling.

Millions of beaches, beaches for free. What else is there to the east coast of Australia? The Great Barrier Reef – which also has the UN’s stamp of approval – is a huge attraction for scuba divers. I can’t dive, so I can’t comment. It’s probably amazing. You can snorkel too, and kayak with dolphins, and skydive. You can eat steak pies or fish and chips or pasta. You can watch the royal wedding in a pub among Union flag-waving oi-boys and tiara’d daddy’s princesses from the home counties. You can watch a bloke with a guitar setting up and predict, correctly, that he’ll kick off with Wonderwall. I am aware which Queen’s land this is and so on; but it’s still a little disappointing to be 10,000 miles from home and have days which could have been had in Margate. Sydney’s exciting. Melbourne’s really cool. I hear the west coast is wonderful.

Best of all? New Zealand is only a thousand miles away.

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