Thursday, September 24, 2009

Diving the S.S Yongala (fish photo warning)

At the beginning of September as we made our way down the Qld coast I enquired with Yongala Dive as to their availability for a couple of dives on the famous S.S Yongala. They had one spot left on the day I was asking about. Did I want it? A quick conference with Payniac and a credit card to secure the booking and it was done.

*The beginning of my adventures on the high seas.

Now all we needed to do was find a nice spot to camp for the night. Unfortunately it was not to be with all bush camping options deemed unsuitable due to being too exposed, too swampy (=sandflies & mozzies), too smelly etc. And so began a 3 day unscheduled stopover in Alva Beach.

*Turtle snacking

Alva Beach is East of Ayr which is South of Townesville. It is the closest diving option to the Yongala. It's a tiny community with a caravan park, dive shop and a 'food shak' opened sometimes (not often). It's situated between a beach and a swampy wetland. The mozzies & sandflies were something else! It did have phone/internet reception so Payniac was able to do some work. Apparently the fishing is also very good. I was here to dive the wreck of the Yongala.

The S.S Yongala was a passenger and cargo ship on her way to Cairns in March 1911. A time before compulsory radios on ships. When she passed through the Whitsundays she never got word of the Category 5 cyclone they were heading into (Katrina was a Cat 5). All land communications had been lost and the Whitsunday lighthouse operator didn't know any different when he waved her through the passage.

On 23 March 1911 the Yongala sank to the bottom of the Coral Sea with all 122 souls on board, a prize bull and a stallion. The stallion was the only body that washed up.It is still considered the greatest Australian maritime disaster. The final resting place of the Yongala was unknown until the Americans discovered a "reef", a navigational hazard, in the 1943 during a minesweeping operation. It wasn't dived and confirmed as the Yongala until the Chubb safe was recovered from the vessel by an expedition in 1958.

*Fishscapes on the wreck itself. A very, very fishy dive this one.

Since then tens of thousands of recreational divers have been able to dive this piece of Australian history. It's considered to be one of the best wreck dives in the world.

The S.S Yongala sits in about 30m of open ocean 12 nautical miles from Cape Bowling Green. Nothing but sand for kilometres and oh, boy does it attract some life. With nothing around and regularly (and notoriously) washed with strong currents it supports a surprising amount of very large life.

*More fish. Heaps of soft corals and sponges just covered the wreck.

Diving the Yongala is one giant adventure From the 4WD trip down to the beach to the RIB being towed by a tractor into the surf to the exhilerating/bone shattering 35min ride to the mooring in the middle of nowhere and then the descent down the line when she looms up out of the gloom.

*A gigantic Maori Wrasse. Everything on the Yongala seems to bigger than average.

Dropping down to the sand we (my buddy for the day was Trevor) immediately saw olive green sea snakes, highly venomous but non-aggressive. Giant turtles, marbled rays as big as a queen sized mattress and a 4m tawny nurse shark resting inside the wreck plus a carpet of invertebrates covering every possible surface of the wreck. There was also a Qld groper the size of a small car. I quickly forgot my eneasiness about it being a grave and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Trevor and I managed two lovely long dives by swimming against the current in the protection of the deck and then drifting back to the mooring.

*Olive Green Sea Snake - again, oversized.

*An enormous turtle glides past.

My usual buddy, Andy, couldn't join me as it's an advanced or deep dive. Although he's an experienced diver he doesn't have the right certification. Besides it probably would have been too cold for him.

*Close up detail of some soft coral - so pretty.

That was my day on the Yongala. A fantastic day and well worth the effort if you're in the area.

That was way back in the beginning of September. We've grown tardy with the blog I'm afraid. There are at least 2 more posts but they will most likely be published after we get home. Our extended holiday on Fraser Island with limited reception and power (poor little us) put an end to blogging ambitions.

Today is our very last day of this round of our all Aussie adventure. We've learned heaps about ourselves, Australia, 4WDing and how not to cook a damper, and that sitting hammock style in the camp chairs is very bad for them. We've eaten countless ham sandwiches, weetbix and snags. We've been hot, cold, dusty, fly blown, infested by shield beetles, tired, stuck, frightened and loved almost every minute of it. It's hard to believe it's nearly all over. Looking forward to catching up with friends and family and looking back on this most incredible, awesome adventure with you Andy!

Stay tuned as we will have our run down the coast, the Fraser Island finale and probably some really cool statistics from the trip (like how few cakes of soap we've been through, most expensive case of beer in Oz etc).

Friday, September 11, 2009

Whitsundays weekend

I'm not really sure when it started, but it has definitely been feeling recently like the wheels of the trip are starting to come loose. Not falling off yet, but definitely wobbling a bit.

If I'm being honest it was probably after my trip back to Sydney, but things have slowly become less coordinated than usual, planning where to stay has become more of a chore and I've struggled with the non existent boundaries between work and personal time. It sounds ridiculous but I long for weekends even though I am only supposed to be working 1 day per week. We even managed to leave our saucepan behind at Alva Beach, which is the first thing we've lost since before Christmas.

So the other day we each focused on things we were looking forward to when we got back to Sydney, and also the things we will miss the most from the trip. Thankfully both were long lists!

We last wrote from Alva Beach where Ness was launching out on to the Yongala wreck for a dive.

This freed me up for the day to go exploring on land.

I looked at the map and decided to make my way to Burdekin Falls Dam, Queensland's largest. It turned out to be a mere 460km round trip from Alva and to be honest probably wasn't worth the trip. Poor research from me but I did get to listen to Dr Karl on Triple J and also managed to read the whole paper in peace and quiet while scoffing Maccas when I got back to Ayr.

We were both pretty glad to be pushing on from Alva Beach caravan park. Definitely one of the better value facilities we've stayed at, and none of the pretension of Mission Beach, but we did have a few issues. Be wary of any place with signs in the dunnies advising the old people that it's unhygienic to wash out pisspots in the hand basins.

An example of our poor recent planning was that first stop was Cathu State Forest, roughly 100kms past the turn off to Airlie Beach. 100kms which I promised we'd retrace the next day so we could visit the Whitsundays.

Cathu turned out to be a beautifully quiet spot and we're glad we went there, just would have made a lot more sense to go after Airlie rather than before.

It was well worth making the trip back to Airlie. After a relaxing afternoon of Ness washing clothes and me doing work we booked ourselves on a tour for the following day and then headed over the road for another counter meal.

The tour was absolutely sensational and we were blessed with a clear and calm day. First stop was Tongue Bay for the short stroll up to the Hill Inlet lookout. Next back on the boat for the cruise round to Whitehaven Beach for some time to relax and for Ness clean her jewelry in the fine white sand.

After lunch we headed around to the North side of Hook Island for some snorkel action. To top things off we were treated to some whale action on the cruise home.


Next time Russell, Freddy and Paul invite me on a sailing holiday in the Whitsunday's I hope I have the common sense to accept!

We sneaked out of Airlie Beach early on the Sunday morning and headed down and then inland to Eungella National Park.

After watching lots of turtles (but no Platypus this time) at the Platypus viewing platform on Broken River, we got back on the dirt roads to seek out a quiet bushcamp at The Diggings.

After the hustle and bustle of Airlie it was awesome to be away from the crowds again, the rainforest was amazing, and the sun was streaming through the tree tops. The seemed to be a slight mist as we headed round a bend which made the sunlight look even more beautiful. As we rounded the corner however we realised it was smoke from a ute which had overturned after coming the other way too quickly and hitting the bank (if they'd gone the other side it was an almost vertical drop down with no crash barriers).

We couldn't see anyone at first but luckily everyone was OK. We lent them our winch extension strap and they were able to right the ute, and then drag it to the side of the road (they'd bent both axles and oil was coming out of the exhaust so they weren't going to take it far).

Excitement over we carried on our way to find the only others at The Diggings were a family of daytrippers having a picnic. There was even a nice pile of timber ready to go next to a firespot so we were able to take the chill out of the mountain air.

If you're ever up this way we definitely recommend this as a top spot for a bush camp. Sheltered from the strong winds, and wildlife galore. Just beautiful.

We strongly considered stopping an extra night, but we had to push on for our date with Fraser Island (which had been prebooked since June). We headed back to the Bruce Highway through more stunning Queensland agricultural land (mainly sugar cane fields) and then on to Byfield National Park, just short of Rockhampton.

We stopped at Upper Stoney Creek in the State Forest which was a beautiful spot to ride out a couple of days of unusually ordinary weather. The camp site was set under pine trees, which had thousands of pine cones on them. Less each morning as the strong winds shook them free, some of them hitting the car (and putting a nice dent in the roof). Never a dull moment.

Next day we headed on further south past Bundaberg (home of Bundy Bear) and on to Woodgate Section of the Burrum Coast National Park. While the Bruce is in parts a fairly boring road, we spiced things up with a few experiments with the car.

The first one was to test our long held theory that when the fuel light comes on there is still 15 litres in the tank (as it usually takes 75 to fill her up if you go straight to a servo). When the light came on we were over 80kms from the nearest station, which per the theory should be OK if you stick to 80kms/hour and turn the air conditioning off. (The theory would predict that 15 litres x 6 km/l = 90kms range). Of course this depended on the road being flat (so there was no sloshing of fuel around the tank), and the fuel intake being at the lowest point of the tank.

Cut a long story short we finally made it to a servo, despite a long slow up hill for the last 10 or so kilometers. But it was a close call, and one you'd think we'd try to avoid again, but the same thing happened the next day! When you get used to there not being any servos you are a lot more careful. When you see them every day you get complacent.

Burrum Point provided another example of the shortcomings of the Queensland EPA's online camping booking system in that obviously when the system is down you can't book. And if you phone in your booking they use the same system so can't book you either. The helpful lady recommended finding a caravan park or risk being fined by a ranger. Luckily the awkward converasation with the range never eventuated and we got some all important sand driving practice in the way in and out of Burrum.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Winding our way home

And so, the end is near; and so I face my final blog entry ...

Not quite folks, we've got just over three weeks to get back to Sydney and plan to squeeze as much in as we possibly can. But it is starting to feel like.

Some hippie friends of mine are setting off on their big lap adventure today so we'll have someone to follow when we get back ( if you're interested).

They are "a family of four on a journey through Australia, powered by waste vegetable oil and a touch of solar". With us having only got this far with the benefit of a huge inefficient diesel engine, I'd say their blog is definitely worth keeping track of. Unlike us, they do have a satellite phone (what are hippies coming to?). Good luck Brett, Nicole, Kaiden and Jamala - hope you have an awesome adventure and looking forward to seeing some photos!

We are currently holed up at Alva Beach, departure point for Ness's trip to dive the wreck of the Yongala tomorrow. The Yongala is another one of the hundreds of Top 10 dive sites.

Despite having completed 110 dives, I'm only PADI certified (aka allowed) to dive to 18m. While this certainly isn't a problem at the more relaxed resorts in Indonesia, and even in WA, they take things a bit more seriously in Queensland and it did mean I was capped on Taka and I don't want to hold Ness back (the wreck is at 15m at its shallowest). It's not, repeat not, because I'm scared.

Our first stop after dropping Jimmy at the airport was Mission Beach Hideaway caravan park. This was the first van park of the trip where I felt seriously under-dressed. Being priced for the overly wealthy end of the nomad spectrum ($42 per night), there was a distinct lack of riff-raff, but there was lot of peace and quiet.

Despite the promise of three bars on my mobile phone, the next G internet was appalling, coming and going on the breeze and frustrating the bejesus out of me. What should have been a pretty simple piece of work took hours. Dealing with the odd IT issue in the office will be a breeze after this.

Tourism numbers are down apparently 25-40% which meant the bars and restaurants along the strip were all pretty quiet. We did our bit for the recovery and my stress levels by eating and drinking out every night.

We didn't see a Cassowary during our time on the Cassowary Coast.

Apparently there are only 1500 left in the wild (compared with 3000 giant pandas - which have also eluded us so far), which means there would have to be significantly more signs warning of cassowaries than cassowaries themselves.

We did drive carefully though - hitting a roo is one thing, but a cassowary would be pretty tough on the conscience (although probably easier on the troopie than hitting two giant pandas).

The local towns on the Cassowary coast compete for the annual Golden Gumboot award - which goes to the town with the highest rainfall .

Tully got 7.9m in 1950, which compares to the average 750mm for London and 1250mm for Sydney. Who would have thought that Sydney gets more than 50% more rain each year than London?

The big difference with Sydney I suppose is it tends to fall in big downpours, and rarely when Australia are in front in the cricket.

We had a very peaceful night at the campground in Tully Gorge and drove up to the end of the gorge the next morning and watched some of the white water rafts being lowered down in to the river.

The pier at Cardwell, with a glimpse of Hinchinbrook Island to the right (the largest island national park in Australia).

On Saturday we moved on to Wallaman Falls campground in Girringun National Park. At 268m, Wallaman Falls are the highest single drop falls in Australia.

We walked briskly down to the foot of the falls - 1.6km in around 35 minutes. Despite being off the gaspers for over two months, the climb back up nearly killed me and took quite a bit longer than they way down.

Some inquisitive turtles came to check us out on the Banggurru walk - a much gentler proposition adjacent to the campground.

A beautiful white-lipped green tree frog at Jourama Falls.

At Jourama we camped under a very productive fig tree which seemed to be fueling a brush turkey population explosion. We had at least a dozen of them scratching away all afternoon, taking it in turns to fly up into the branches to dislodge more fruit to the waiting hordes below.

All of the camping in the wet tropics has been sensational, Jourama only ruined by some inconsiderate irish/pommie chavs carrying on like pork chops well into the night.

As time is precious we now need to plan very carefully how we spend the next few weeks. We have a week booked on Fraser Island and we're hoping to get a couple of nights on Whitsunday Island camping on the beach. Any suggestions on must see destinations between here and home very welcome!