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Articles Blog

Filtering by Tag: Australia

Whitsunday Islands, Australia

Karyn Planett

The Whitsundays are a magnificent stretch of islands that lie sprinkled off Australia’s Queensland coast like a shower of pebbles. Mariners the world over know of this waterway where 74 islands are studded with palms and wrapped in white sand. Some are little more than coral outcroppings, other boast world-class resorts. The real attraction for many, however, lies just beneath the waves.

Great Barrier Reef

The Whitsundays are a cluster of offshore islands stretching 200 miles between Townsville in the north and the town of Mackay in the south. Together, these coral specks form the Whitsunday Island National Park, part of the Great Barrier Reef.

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is acknowledged as the world’s largest living thing for, after all, it is alive. Washed by the warm waters of the Coral Sea, it stretches more than 1300 miles from the Torres Strait in the north to the Tropic of Capricorn off Queensland’s city of Rockhampton.

This reef was formed by countless millions of microscopic polyps whose skeletal remains stacked upon one another to form the structure. Live polyps continue the process to this day developing into such unique formations as “wrinkled brain,” and something called “elkhorn.” All this becomes the basis for other marine life including algae and a rainbow of tropical fish. Snorkelers and divers can easily identify such beauties as red emperors and butterfly fish, not to mention the angelfish we all know and love from our childhood tanks at home.

As discoverers and cartographers struggled to chart and name all these countless specks forming the Great Barrier Reef, they let their imaginations run wild. A close inspection of these charts will introduce the observer to the likes of Magnetic Island, Great Palm Island, Heron Island, Lizard Island, even Daydream Island. Then, not too surprisingly, there’s Shark Reef, Wreck Reef and Osprey Reef. It seems as though their creative genius ran a bit dry in short order.

Captain Cook’s Catastrophe

Everyone knows of Captain Cook’s accomplishments, few know of his missteps, so to speak. During his command of HMS Endeavor from 1768 through 1771, Cook and crew spent time in these waters charting the islands. While here, his ship suffered substantial damage after hitting a patch of coral. It was uncertain for a time, whether the craft could even be saved. Cook was forced to beach the vessel at nearby Cooktown, as it is now known, to make necessary repairs. The spot where Cook’s vessel actually suffered this humiliating accident is, today, called Endeavor Reef.

The Passage

The Whitsunday Passage is a narrow waterway, some 30 miles in length that stretches north-northwest from Cape Conroy to Double Cone Island. A mere two miles wide at its narrowest point, it requires the skill of learned seafarers to successfully navigate these waters. The broadest expanse measures only six miles across.

Waters here are as shallow as 84 feet deep, but also reach depths of 360 feet. Today’s navigational aides have done away with the need for look-outs perched high atop the ship’s masts or in crow’s nests, spyglass in hand. Our Captain maneuvers from the comfortable luxury of the bridge, surrounded by the highest-tech equipment found at sea.

Simpler crafts, such as sailboats and gorgeous yachts come to the Whitsundays in numbers. For their captains recognize that a cruise through this magical island maze is, according to many who have sailed here before them, one of cruising’s most rewarding experiences. 

Perth, Australia

Karyn Planett

Western Australia’s “City of Lights”

It was 1961. The United States’ manned space program was operating in full swing. Astronaut John Glenn had been selected as the first American to orbit the earth. While in flight, he and his craft flew directly over the Western Australian city of Perth. Though this was during the deep dark of night, it is said that Perth’s 1.2 million enthusiastic citizens flicked on the switches for every single working light bulb in the entire city. In doing so, these jubilant Australians signaled a luminescent hello to Colonel John Glenn from his land-based comrades below.

Lonely Isolation

Western Australia is by far the nation’s largest state. In fact, Alaska and Texas combined are not nearly as big as this 960,000-square-mile state. Note for comparison that India, while approximately the same in scale, is home to 700 million people. Western Australia, in contrast, is home to a mere 1.5 million. And those people choose to live there for a host of reasons including the glorious beaches (some 4,000 miles of them to be exact!) and delightful climate. In fact, the sun shines an average of eight hours each and every marvelous day.

Perth holds the dubious title of the “world’s most remote capital city.” How remote is it, you ask? It is so remote that many Sydneysiders have never even journeyed there. Perth, oddly enough, is geographically closer to the Indonesian island of Bali than it is to Sydney.

Early Settlers

The first European to lay eyes on this vast area was a Dutchman by the name of Dirk Hartog. That historic event took place in 1616. Following in his wake, over the years, were many seamen from the Dutch East India Company, some of whom who had been blown off course while sailing to Java, formerly Batavia. The noted British explorer William Dampier also arrived here, in 1688 aboard Cygnet, but he declared the entire area devoid of anything worthy, and sailed off in disgust. 

Close to 100 years passed before another Brit, Captain James Cook, sailed these waters.

This part of western Australia remained overlooked and underpopulated until 1827, when the London-based British Colonial Authorities grew suspicious of the French, whom they felt were interested in establishing a base there. That action, they believed, would threaten the British stronghold in eastern Australia. Therefore, the British authorities hurriedly sent out Captain James Stirling to demonstrate England’s presence in the area by building a British stronghold. He selected, for this fledgling community, a site along the Swan River some ten miles upriver from the sea. And within two years, the city of Perth was somewhat established, boasting a population of 300 permanent residents.

Unfortunately, not many others were eager to follow in their footsteps. In fact, only 3,000 residents called Perth home as recently as 1858! At that time, local government officials were forced to ask for convicts to be imported as a source of desperately-needed labor. Harsh conditions, lack of good roads, and unreliable communication all combined to add to the town’s feeling of isolation.

There’s Gold In Those There Hills

Gold was discovered in the 1890s at places called “Coolgardie” and “Kalgoorlie” found some 300 miles east of Perth. In fact, within one frenzied 30-day period during the goldfields’ greatest boom time, a staggering 200 pounds of this precious metal was mined. Waves of fortune-seeking prospectors flocked to the countryside. Telegraph and telephone service was brought in. A well-needed railroad was completed in 1917. Then, with the discovery of oil in the region, even more fortune seekers flowed in.

Over time, huge cattle ranches were built up providing not only enough beef to feed the nation but a surplus for exports as well. More money was to be made from the uranium mines that were later discovered. And, if these riches were not enough, in 1970 a productive diamond mine was also developed nearby!

All this glorious prosperity was not lost on the citizens of Perth and nearby Fremantle. Skyscrapers rose from the earth. Theaters and marinas were built. These sister cities truly blossomed, flush from the riches the land had provided.

But Perth and Fremantle really came into the limelight when the world’s eyes were focused on the 1987 America’s Cup race, held on the waters off Fremantle. The crew of Australia II had, in the previous race a few years earlier, relieved the United States of this prized sailing trophy which had been in American hands since the race’s inception, an incredible 132 years earlier. (Note, for the record, the Cup was successfully wrestled away from Australia’s competitive sailors and returned to American shores following the races off the coast of Fremantle. This coveted Cup then went to New Zealand where the competition will heat up again in a few short weeks.)

Perth today enjoys all the trappings of a vibrant, young, prosperous city glowing in the sun. And the port of Fremantle is its lively sister city.                                                                                                          

Hobart, Australia

Karyn Planett

Australia On Steroids

At some point near the end of the last ice age—some 10,000 years ago—seas flooded the lowlands connecting what is now Tasmania to the Australian mainland creating the notorious Bass Strait, a legendary body of water among the world’s racing yachtsmen. Its location astride the “Roaring 40s” of the Southern Ocean makes it the highlight of the annual Sydney-Hobart Yacht Race. During a freakish storm in 1998 five yachts were sunk with the loss of six lives during that race. Only 44 of the 115 starters were able to limp into Hobart.

The inevitable isolation of Tasmania allowed for the development of physical characteristics distinct from any other region in the world, flora and fauna as unique as a science fiction fantasy, and tales of the human condition ranging from the sublime to the bizarre.

As a visitor to Hobart, you may face your most daunting challenge yet, simply because there are just too many choices for a one day visit. Some historical highlights might help you decide.

European Settlement

Abel Tasman, the Dutch explorer upon whose “Sea” you have just traveled—was the first European to sight this island in 1642. The first settlement did not arrive until 1803 composed, in fine Australian tradition, mainly of convicts and their military guards. One of the world’s most notorious penal colonies was later established at Port Arthur.

Port Arthur is now Tasmania’s top tourist attraction but its history borders on the horrific. Its prison housed the hardest criminals Britain and Ireland could produce and, although it was conceived as a model prison where new theories of rehabilitation were tested, it had, by reputation, some of the harshest conditions existing anywhere on earth. Surrounded by shark-infested waters on three sides, it was sold as inescapable. Even so, one enterprising convict tried crossing its narrow land bridge disguised in a kangaroo hide. He failed to reckon on the half starved guards on duty who tried to shoot him for a meal.

It is said that the former prison is inhabited by ghosts and, indeed, a nighttime ghost tour is offered. Some of the ghosts may be those 35 victims of the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre—the worst mass murder in Australian history. Today’s bucolic fields speak to a gentler future.

Native Species

Tasmanian Aboriginals had occupied the territory of the island for some 35,000 years, but their fate at the hands of a colonial power was the same sad story replayed among indigenous populations around the world. Those who managed to survive European diseases were eventually wiped out during an episode known as the Black Line when colonists formed a human chain across the island to corral the remaining aborigines and remove them to Flinders Island. As a result there is almost no native culture preserved in Tasmania. The same fate befell some of the unique species that once inhabited this wild island.

Tasmania was once home to a marsupial resembling a wild dog. It had distinctive striping across its back and was known colloquially as a Tasmanian Tiger. It had earlier existed on the mainland but lost out to the dingo. Farmers, bounty hunters and collectors for overseas museums appear to have finished the job in Tasmania as well although there are, to this day, unconfirmed sightings.

Seemingly headed for a similar fate is the Tasmanian Devil, another marsupial resembling a small dog. It has a decidedly unpleasant temperament accentuated by a screechy growl. Devils are scavengers living primarily on road kill. Unfortunately they don’t seem to have the reflexes to avoid becoming road kill themselves. Despite efforts to preserve the species, the combination of disease and highways has reduced their population by 80%.

The Fun Part

Australians have a well-deserved reputation for being almost obsessively active. If anything, Tasmanians may take that to another degree. Owing to the variety of physical environments close at hand, trekking, mountain biking, kayaking, surfing and other water sports are all on the daily menu. Most can be enjoyed on nearby Mt. Wellington, which provides a dramatic backdrop to Hobart. Any number of conveyances can get you to the top, and whether you descend by foot for an up close look at the wildlife, or by skateboard for an adrenal rush, you’ll have earned your share of the other great Aussie pastime—eating and drinking. A stroll through the nearby, lovingly-preserved town of Richmond, or historic Salamanca Place, hard by the port, will reveal eateries and drinkeries featuring locally brewed beers, locally grown wines, and locally caught seafood sure to form an indelible memory to punctuate your day in Hobart. Battery Point speaks to 19th-century elegance with its tiny cottages and sweeping mansions.

Darwin, Australia

Karyn Planett

Australia’s “Top End”

“Farewell Australia! You are a rising child, and doubtless some day will reign a great princess in the South; but you are too great an ambition for affection, yet not great enough for respect. I leave your shores without sorrow or regret.”

Our dear friend Charles Darwin wrote these stinging remarks in his Journal during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, 1832 to 1836. He was sailing the local waters known as the Timor Sea. Perhaps our celebrated evolutionist was having an off day—not discovering any new species he could go on and on about. Even so, the affable Aussies would have said, “No worries mate! We’ll just name a whole bloomin’ town after you.” And so they did. And now you know. And now you’re here. So there you are.

For the record, the naming of the town Darwin is in fact attributed to two different Captains of the Beagle, a John Lort Stokes and a J. C. Wickham. Whatever. The year was 1839 and each fellow had sailed previously aboard the Beagle with Darwin.

Northern Territory

Now this is the perfect place to test the philosophical question, “if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around, would there be a sound?” There is almost no one around. In the NT, as it is called, approximately 1% (200,000) of Australia’s entire population lives on 20% (1.35 million square kilometers) of the nation’s land. And, technically speaking, this land is not a state like Queensland or Victoria. In days gone by, this region was administered by New South Wales, then South Wales, and finally the federal government beginning in 1911. Though Canberra still administers to some business, for the last quarter century the territory has been declared self-governing.

The NT has two distinct areas—the tropical (think Crocodile Dundee) northern Top End and the parched (think Road Warrior) deserts of the Red Center. Between them is something that has been described as Mother Nature’s attempt at a barbed-wire fence where you’ll find Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Alice Springs. Connecting them is a ribbon of highway that beckons backpackers, cattle trucks, kangaroos, and wayward adventurers out for a bumpy ride.

Early Explorers

With sea days ahead, you should pick up a book detailing the history of the region’s early exploration by white settlers. You’ll discover the first European to lay eyes on this coastline was Jan Carstenzoon, a Dutch fellow sailing on the Arnheim in 1623. The whole area remained uncharted and unexplored by Europeans for generations. Anthropologists believe, however, that the Larrakis Aboriginal people have lived in this region for many thousands of years. In fact, some scientists propose the tribes in the Top End are among the world’s most ancient races. Today, these people represent one-fourth of the Territory’s 200,000 inhabitants.

The Aborigines’ story in the NT is much like it was elsewhere across the land. One hundred years ago, the majority of the Aboriginal people were housed in Christian missions or restricted to reserves set up by the government. Those who did find work lived on cattle stations or in town. Today, the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act is in effect. In 1976, this measure was passed returning the land to the original owners and they now own approximately 50% of the NT.

Back to the explorers. There was a good German fellow named Ludwig Leichhardt who reached Port Essington (just north of Darwin) by traveling overland from Brisbane in 1845—think no room service! There were other adventurers with names like Eyre, Sturt, Gregory, Mitchell and Howitt poking about the continent around this same time. It is Burke and Wills who remain Australia’s most famous explorers for it was they who traveled from Melbourne to something called Camp 119, south to north across the vast island continent, to within a stone’s throw of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Their exhausting tale is well worth reading in the days ahead.

We also can’t forget John McDouall Stuart who blazed the trail south to north in 1862 linking Port August to Darwin, which was then linked by underwater cable to Java and all the nations beyond ten years later. That was a great day for Australia and set the stage for the city’s modern day history.

In the cool evening air, why not stroll along the Esplanade or sit under the Tree of Knowledge, a sweeping banyan revered by Buddhists worldwide, so old it could tell many tales. If it fell and no one was around to hear, it may well still report a powerful sound.

Cairns, Australia

Karyn Planett

Reefs and Rainforests

Right. It’s “CANS” like beans, not CAIRRRNS. Armed with this information you can saunter with a purpose once ashore. With a jaunty “G’day”, you’ll greet locals accustomed to welcoming those who come by sea. It started long ago when Captain Cook sailed these waters aboard H.M.S. Endeavor on Trinity Sunday, 1770, hence the name Trinity Bay.

And speaking of coming by sea, the Coral Sea to be exact, do you know you’re now closer to Papua New Guinea than to much of the rest of Australia? And, isolated. A somewhat inhospitable terrain forms a natural boundary to this region what with the Tablelands and all. But, more on that later.

A Sleepy Little Backwater Town

Cairns is the capital of the “Far North” or the “Deep North” or the “FNQ--Far North Queensland” with 65,000 year-round residents. It’s a jolly town, blending older stilt houses (built to catch cooling breezes) and holiday bungalows with respectable hotels and eateries. Surrounding the city are rainforests, cattle ranches, sugarcane and pineapple plantations as well as macadamia groves.

Cairns was just a blip on the horizon for eons. Then, someone discovered gold and tin further inland and it grew into a city that serviced these industries. Cane fields were planted, then coffee, and these crops were trained to Cairns for shipment abroad. A community grew though this spot was too far from Australia’s bright lights and biggish cities to be much of a lure. That was until 1980 when an enterprising tourist board identified Cairns as not only a destination in and of itself but more popularly as a jumping off point to the Great Barrier Reef that stretches 1200 miles from Papua New Guinea to the Tropic of Cancer.

Cairns is without great local beaches, so visitors usually pass the day meandering about. Its famous Esplanade lies directly opposite the waterfront from Trinity Bay. Locals recite stories about Wharf Street, at the southern end of the Esplanade, when it was known as the Barbary Coast due to its cast of shady characters and disreputable ruffians. That was in 1876. Today, this promenade is benign, perfect for bird watching (brightly-colored tropical birds perch overhead) or picnicking. But don’t forget that CAN of beans!

The Reef Beckons

Most visitors catamaran to the reef for the day--to snorkel or dive, or do some deep-sea fishing. These waters are labeled “the black marlin capital of the world.” From August to November anglers catch these 1,000-pounders that are buggers to land. Tuna, sailfish and barracuda ply these waters, as well.

The Great Barrier Reef is the “world’s largest living structure” and is bright with color, alive with rainbows of fish, and a visual treat like no other. Don mask and fins for you won’t want to let this rare opportunity pass you by. Not wanting to get wet? You can still enjoy the view aboard a semi-submersible or watch “Finding Nemo” if you’re truly a landlubber.

Butterflies Flutter By

The Atherton Tablelands, a 3,000-foot-high plateau of the Great Dividing Range, are named for John Atherton who built his farm here in 1877. High above the steamy mangrove flats surrounding Cairns, this mountainous area is noted for waterfalls and deep gorges. Toward the end of the 1800s, sugar cane was introduced to these mountains. As mentioned, growers needed to transport their crop to market. So powerful men with picks and shovels cleared rain forests, bridged gorges, penetrated jungles and skirted waterfalls to construct a railway line from the cane fields to the port of Cairns. This project, completed in 1888, took four years.

Ultimately, the line was abandoned when more efficient transportation was available. Today, the former sugarcane train chugs that same 20-mile run through 15 tunnels, across 40 bridges, past waterfalls, a climb of 1,076 feet en route to the town of Kuranda, “Gateway to the Atherton Tablelands.” Some 600 residents, mostly farmers, live there. It’s also home to the Butterfly Sanctuary with more than 1,500 tropical butterflies including the nation’s biggest, the Ulysses Butterfly. The Kuranda Station itself is quite lovely--decorated with tropical plants and hanging ferns.

Docs and Ducks

Other options for visitors to Cairns include the Royal Flying Doctors Service, a service that provides medical care to the remote regions of Australia by visiting homesteads and communities in need. You can stop by their Cairns’ facility, even climb aboard a Queenair aircraft once used by the flying docs.

Or, you can hop aboard a “duck”, an amphibious WWII Army boat that motors along while you search for goannas, turtles, fish and eels. Just don’t say, “quack quack” if you want to keep your dignity in tact.

Brisbane, Australia

Karyn Planett

Bugs and Beaches

Brisbane’s famous for a host of reasons but two curiosities seem to leap off the page. First, bugs. There’s something called a Moreton Bay bug that resembles a crayfish and the locals love it. So, too, their Southbank Parklands that feature Australia’s only inner city beach. This keeps her 1.7 million residents particularly happy on those steamy sub-tropical days where a whisper of wind just can’t be found.

Brisbane is vibrant and historic, draped lovingly along the banks of the Brisbane River upstream from Moreton Bay. Her grid-pattern streets are ideal for out-of-towners as the east/west streets are named for kings, and north/south streets for queens. You just gotta know your royalty.

King Of The Explorers

Our beloved Captain James Cook first sighted nearby Moreton Bay while charting these waters aboard H.M.S. Endeavor during his first "voyage of discovery." Cook searched but failed to find the mouth of this freshwater river, known today as the Brisbane River. Two decades later Matthew Flinders retraced Cook's route but also failed to locate the outlet to the bay. Eventually, in 1823, it was discovered by John Oxley. He was the surveyor sent by the Governor of New South Wales to locate a suitable site for a penal colony to house incorrigible convicts who committed crimes after being banished to Australia for earlier convictions. One year later, those prisoners arrived to build a settlement at a spot known as Redcliffe Peninsula. Unfortunately, the combination of hostile Aborigines and little fresh water forced many convicts from Redcliffe to present-day Brisbane, 14 miles upriver from Moreton Bay. Anthropologists report that Jagera, Ngundadnbi and Turrbal Aboriginal clans had lived in the Brisbane River area for a considerable time prior to these Europeans.

By 1839 Patrick Logan, the Garrison Commander, completed plans for this new town called Brisbane. Logan ordered the Redcliffe penal settlement abandoned in 1842 then opened up the area to settlers. Brisbane prospered, then declared her independence from New South Wales in 1859. Statehood was granted in 1901.

The city was named after the Scottish soldier and astronomer Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane, Governor of New South Wales from 1821 to 1825. Today, Brisbane is the capital of Queensland and is Australia's third largest city.

Squares and Obelisks

Sadly, a disastrous fire destroyed most historic buildings constructed before 1864. Later, dozers made short shrift of rundown buildings making way for gleaming highrises. Even so, there’s plenty to admire. Visitors must make their way to ANZAC Square, (between Ann and Adelaide Streets) dedicated to the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. The Shrine of Remembrance, Eternal Flame and WWII Shrine of Memories are worthy of a pause. The John Oxley Memorial obelisk (between Victoria and William Jolly Bridges) marks the spot where Oxley landed in 1823. A “must-see” is the collection of Corinthian columns at City Hall. Built of Queensland sandstone, this is Brisbane's showplace. Parliament House, (George Street) with its sandstone French Renaissance-style from 1865, is also worth a stop. It’s still used today by the Queensland Parliament.

The Old Windmill, the city's oldest structure, was built on Wickham Terrace in 1828 by a gang of convicts. It was originally designed to crush corn but never worked properly so Captain Logan ordered it turned into a treadmill. Then, in the 1920s, the treadmill was removed and the base became a meteorological post and signal tower. Newstead Park features the city’s oldest house (1846) as well as a memorial to Lyndon B. Johnson.

Along The Waterfront

Brisbane is actually built along a peninsula with the sea on one side, the lazy Brisbane River on the other. It’s ideal for an endless parade of rowing sculls and kayaks, yachts and sailboats, tugboats and ferries, cruise ships and paddle wheelers. Lining the riverbank is a rainbow of flame trees, jacarandas, tulip trees, frangipani, and bougainvillea--all nurtured by the subtropical climate.

Local people, and visitors alike, take time for a cool respite in the Botanic Gardens that front the riverbank next to the Parliament House. During the days of the penal colony, this was officially a 50-acre government garden. In 1865, it was converted to a Botanic Garden, Queensland’s cradle of horticulture. The government built new botanic gardens at Mount Coot-tha following eight floods between 1870 and 1974 that washed away important plant specimens. From there, you can see the surrounding seven national parks plus everything between the Great Dividing Range and Moreton Bay.

Another important sight along the river is The Queensland Cultural Center -- the new, slick complex housing the Queensland Art Gallery, Concert Hall, Lyric Theatre and Queensland Museum. Residents are aptly proud of this impressive salute to the arts.

Those venturing outside Brisbane often visit the Australia Zoo, home to the nation’s famous “crocodile hunter”, the late Steve Irwin. This 60-acre facility features over 1,000 native and exotic animals. But before you go, don’t forget a plate of “bugs”, an order of Queensland mudcrab, and a chilled Australian wine to wash it all down.