Meeting the locals in Brisbane

Koalas – grey, furry, cute, most definitely not a bear but a much loved and treasured icon of Australia.

Altogether now…ahhhh!

A trip to this vast nation wouldn’t be complete without seeing a few of the fluffy bundles, and where better than a koala sanctuary, home to well over 100 of them and on the outskirts of Brisbane.

“I am not a bear”

Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary is only a small place – I was budgeting for just a few hours – but ended up spending my whole afternoon there watching the animals, playing with kangaroos, and even getting a hug from a koala.

It’s a great place to visit, and somewhere that I only discovered after I checked in at the Base hostel in Brisbane city centre. A few travellers had questioned why I was staying in Brisbane for a couple of nights. “There’s not much to do there” and “Its an awful place” were just two of the comments I’d helpfully had passed my way by people on tours or on the Greyhound as I have been making my way down Australia’s east coast.

The truth is, a former colleague of mine, Andy, now lives in the city, and it would be rude to just pass by without at least trying to meet up for a coffee. And besides, when you’re travelling, a stop-off is what you make of it. That’s why, when I saw a pamphlet in the hostel reception for the koala park – and someone holding one of the little animals – it shot right to the top of my ‘to do’ list in the area.

Greyhounding down the coast

Also near the top of my list was the task of spending as much time away from my dorm room as possible. Despite paying for a 10 bed dorm, someone somewhere thought they were doing me a favour by upgrading me to a four bed dorm. The only problem was that the three others in the room, two German guys and a Russian, quite liked their eastern European hardcore trance music. Their stereo, it seems, only has ‘loud’ or ‘loudest’ as settings.

Random giant kangaroo at the service station

Without so much as a hello, or even a glance up from whatever artist they were lining up next on the laptop, I walked in, dropped my bags, attempted to make a bed and then gave up, only to walk back out again. I took myself off for a wander around the city centre, taking in the atmosphere and meandering through the busy pedestrianised area full of people enjoying meals in bars and restaurants, sports fans watching the footy on big screens, and quite a few people heading out to nightclubs.

Back in the hostel, things had quietened down, and I worked out that I had been put in a room with three workers. They were carrying out cleaning duties in the hostel, working for their accommodation, a popular way of saving money while travelling when funds run dry. It meant that they were up at the crack of dawn, banging around and turning lights on, but I needed to be up early anyway to cram more sightseeing into my short stay.

Hello!

The journey to Lone Pine involved finding a public bus and taking a half hour ride out some 15km or so to the park, but it was well worth the effort. Set up in 1927 there were initially just two koalas being cared for here, called Jack and Jill. Now its an internationally acclaimed breeding centre, the world’s oldest and largest koala sanctuary, and the kindergarten enclosure was by far one of the best bits about the day.

Adult koalas, due to their low energy diet of eucalyptus leaves, don’t move around a great deal during the day, but the kids on the other hand are full of life. Leaping around from branch to branch, chasing after each other, trying to climb the fence to escape and general juvenile fun and games means they are very entertaining to watch. You could tell they were developing personalities, even at such a young age. One koala would happily climb to the top of the enclosure, standing proud as king of his castle for hours.

I watched a presentation about the animals, where it was revealed all 130 or so koalas at the park have a name – and the staff know each and every one of them. Now, one koala to the next looks pretty similar to me, give or take a bit of fluff around the ears, or perhaps a smaller nose here and there. However, there’s a way to tell each animal apart.

You have to look at its bum.

Yes, every koala has unique markings around its bottom, lighter shades of grey or white patches arranged in special patterns amid the dark grey fur. The staff revealed they have learnt to tell all of the koalas apart by working out pictures on each of the koalas to remember them by – one of the males sitting nearby was named thanks to his markings looking like a pair of eyes.

Next it was my turn to hold and cuddle one of the koalas. For $16 (£10) you get a photograph of the moment too, and with my hands held out, palms up and crossed together, Violet was placed in my arms.

At first she looked at me, putting her arms around my shoulder and clinging on to my shirt, before she was distracted by the camera. She was the weight of a small dog, but actually felt very stable and happy in the short time she was in my arms. Her fur was short, and slightly rough, and actually felt very similar to the koala cuddly toys that are available in all the tourist shops here. I gave her a rub on the back, before I had to hand her back to the koala keeper.

With a Skippy or three

The best thing about the park is how well cared for the koalas are – they are only ever held by the public for short periods of just a few minutes every few days, and all of the animals I saw seemed so happy.

“What have you got for me?”

That included the field full of kangaroos, jumping around all over the place as the sun began to set. It is their most active time of the day, and instead of spending money on food to feed them, I pulled up some grass and held it out. They loved it, and I got quite a few of them bounding over to me.

Somehow I had whiled away an entire afternoon at the park, spending much of the time taking photographs of the koalas. I took that many, my camera died – you just never know when you’re going to get the perfect shot. Besides, they are my mum’s favourite animals, so I had to get plenty of photos to keep her happy. The afternoon was a great way, towards the end of my stay in Australia, to spend some time with some of the country’s most famous animals.

Almost lost my bag…

There was another catch-up in store the following day, when I met Andy, a former colleague of mine from when I first started at BBC Look North. He’s the man who would operate the satellite truck out on location, transmitting live reports back to the studio, and in turn, out to televisions across the north east of England.

Another city, another mate to catch up with!

We only worked together for about a year before he left for Australia, eventually settling, having a family and making a life for himself Down Under.

We’d promised to try to meet up if our busy schedules allowed it, and thankfully he’d been called into Brisbane city centre to run an errand, and so took the opportunity to meet up for coffee.

We had a great time reminiscing about my early days in the Look North newsroom, and Andy appreciated the information I had about all the recent goings on that he’d not heard about. He told me all about the exciting life he’s had here, operating satellite trucks to broadcast sports events from across the Asia Pacific area, even beaming shows such as I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here to homes back home.

“Ant and Dec’s trailer was really close to ours. They’re really nice lads, would always give you a wave and a smile,” he told me.

Andy (eighth from right) and I (right of Pudsey) at Children in Need, Lincoln 2005

He told me how I join a huge list of former and current colleagues who have visited him, with around eight or nine mutual friends that have stopped by to say hello since he left Hull in 2006, who, like me, remember a good mate despite the miles between us these days.

“Its been amazing that I’m all this way from the UK, and I might not speak to someone for months, even years, yet they’ll drop by,” he said, smiling.

He admits it can be tough being away from family and friends in his native land, especially when it comes to bringing up a young family and the extra hands close friends can lend, but he’s really happy with his life here. And with near constant sunshine, beautiful scenery and a good job, its easy to see why he’s so happy, and I’m really pleased for him.

Saying goodbye again!

After a few hours of telling each other about our current lives, and remembering some of the television projects we worked on – including my first Children in Need outside broadcast in Lincoln in 2005, Andy had to get back to work. We had a few photos in the park near my hostel, before we said goodbye and promised to stay in touch.

With my Greyhound bus set to leave in a few hours time, I booked myself on an economy cruise through the centre of Brisbane to get some shots of the city. It was, of course, my usual trick of buying a regular passenger ferry ticket and just going for a ride. It was onboard a particularly fast ferry, a ‘fast cat’ catamaran to be precise, which afforded great views of the waterfront and exclusive yachts and millionaire riverfront villas that line stretches of the river.

Brisbane

It’s the equivalent of catching the number 16 bus in Grimsby and going for a ride to Asda and back, but it’s a great, cheap way of seeing a place, as well as it being quite fun.

Brisbane’s waterfront area

The fast cat was particularly nippy, and I stood on the front deck watching the world go by for two hours, before it turned around and delivered me back into the city centre with just enough time to collect my bags and head to the coach terminal.

Yet again, I was heading south on a Greyhound, this time to Byron Bay. I’m more than halfway back to Sydney, with Byron being my last full ‘east coast’ stop before hitting the city once again and preparing to fly out of the country.

Back on the road again

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Hikes, Hops and Mountain Tops

Heading to the mountains...

We left the coast and the incredible Great Ocean Road behind us to move inland and on to the Grampians, a national park and huge area full of mountains and waterfalls known for its outstanding natural beauty.

The drive itself was an experience, with long straight roads scything through open expanses of farmland as we left Point Fairy behind us and made our way towards Halls Gap, a small town right in the middle of the mountain range.

The Grampians loom on the horizon

For mile after mile, cattle farms and gum trees dominated the flat landscape, but a few hours later, mountains began to appear on the horizon. For much of the journey, the three of us have been listening to an Australian singer called Matt Corby thanks to a couple of CDs that we’d bought Siobhan for her birthday. While it wasn’t for a few days yet, we decided we’d let her open a couple of presents along the way.

As we began to rise above the surrounding countryside, we passed through areas that had been clearly affected by bushfires at some point in the past. But as we pulled into our first tourist point in the Grampians, it was another natural disaster which surprised us.

Eek!

We found ourselves at Silverband Falls after being tempted by the brown tourist signs advertising a waterfall. There was a slightly worrying warning of falling limbs as you enter, but despite Siobhan’s fears she may end up legless (a not uncommon problem when we’re together) we presume it meant from the trees.

As we worked our way down to a slow meandering stream in the valley, some stepping stones had been put in place to cross to the water and rejoin the pathway on the opposite side. It was there that we came across a sign and some remarkable photographs – part of the path was closed, the stepping stones were in place of what was once a permanent bridge, and the dead trees, branches and debris that was scattered around was all thanks to a huge storm that hit the area last year.

Dead trees and driftwood piled high

We walked along the path at the side of the stream, struggling to comprehend the damage and destruction that had been caused by the storm and floodwater that had gushed through the valley just over a year ago. Great gulleys had been formed down the hill side, with broken trees and branches littering the ground. Huge piles of driftwood were gathered around anything strong enough to withstand the force of the water. Huge rocks had been washed down like pebbles, yet the waterfall at the end of the walk was almost a trickle falling over the side of the cliff face. How different it must have been when Mother Nature was showing her true force.

Just a trickle of a waterfall

Just a few minutes up the road, we went on to find a lake set in a bowl between the mountains, a lake that just opened up before us as we made our way into the car park. There was hardly anyone around, and the place was silent. The water level had clearly receded in recent weeks and months thanks to a drought, but it provided ample opportunities for photographs.

Siobhan at the lake

Chilling at the lake

From the lake it was a relatively short drive to Halls Gap, but we were on the lookout for somewhere to eat. We came across an adventure golf place, and I was sent in to scout it out. Not only did it look like a great place to bring out the competitive spirit in us all on the brilliantly laid out crazy golf, but it had a lovely little place to stop and have some lunch, and at good prices too.

Out comes the competitiveness between us!

After a chicken and avocado toasty, some potato wedges and salad, it was time to grab a putter and take to the greens. True to form, I’d already promised Matt I would beat him, but we both knew Siobhan could be a dark horse when it comes to sport. Especially when much of it is down to luck – and there was no shortage of it needed on the 18 holes at the course. After the first couple of holes, where apart from some devilish gradients to trap the ball, it was a simple putt, the course changed into one of the most difficult I have ever seen.

Concentration...and pot luck

With steep runs down past water, jumps, rickety wooden tubes, nasty traps and some almost impossible accuracy needed in places, it proved to be a great laugh. After I got the first hole down in two, I took an early lead that I managed to hold on to for much of the game, while Matt simply had a shocker.

Fore!

Siobhan, on the other hand, kept the pressure on me, and when it comes to sport, as many friends know, I tend to bottle it when the pressure gets going. And bottle it I did, throwing away a healthy lead on a stupid hole where you had to guide the ball through a tiny gap. It meant Siobhan emerged from the last hole victorious, but at least I wasn’t last. That was Matt’s job.

Victorious Siobhan...

Matt and his big L, for 'Loser'

The owner of the golf course also pointed us in the direction of the best place to stay in the town, at a camping site slap bang in the middle of the area, surrounded by hills, trees and wildlife.

We pulled up in the camper and jumped out. The sun was beating down, with some late afternoon warmth. We got chairs out of the van, pitched the tent, and relaxed for the rest of the afternoon. Matt and I pulled out yet another gift for Siobhan, this time a bottle of bubbles that I had cunningly disguised by wrapping it inside my backpack daypack. It went straight into the fridge for later.

Birthday bubbles

One of the first things we all noticed at Halls Gap was the amount of wildlife. There were many famously Australian kookaburras hanging around, while cockatoos and magpies, with their strange garbled songs, were everywhere.

Kookaburras

About an hour after we arrived, and as the sun began to set behind the mountain, suddenly there was a cry of ‘kangaroos’ from Siobhan.

Sure enough, a family of kangaroos hopped into view in front of us, making their way across the grass and stopping to eat along the way. A few of us went over to take photographs, while still keeping a safe distance, while one daring couple went over to try to give them some food, despite all the advice, warnings and signs around the place telling us not to.

Kangas in the campsite

It was great to see the kangaroos in the wild, and suddenly it felt like I was properly in Australia again. The animal is a national icon, and I spent a while just looking at them and watching as they happily hopped around, stopping to eat grass, all under the watchful eye of who I presume was dad, laying on the ground and giving me an occasional glance nearby.

There was another interesting character we met too – a one-legged duck that we gave the original name of ‘One Leg’. We first spotted him when he came flying towards us and made a perculiar crash landing near the tent. When we saw him hopping back towards us from his crash site, we soon realised why. Somehow he’d lost a limb – we don’t think it was related to the falling limb signs in the woods earlier in the day – but he had clearly been surviving quite well. All his duck mates did seem to have turned their back on him though, so, always a sucker for poorly animals, we pulled out a loaf of bread and gave him some of the end.

'One Leg'

It was quite something to watch as he hopped over to the bread, flung it around in his beak, ate a bit, and then hopped off to wherever it had landed again, repeating the process over and over until it had all gone. But little One Leg would quietly hang around, waiting for more scraps, looking at us forlornly as if it knew we would take pity yet again and cave in to giving him more of the Coles wholemeal loaf. I know we would have done, had the neighbouring camper not sparked up a barbecue and tempting the disabled duck off for a burger.

We were tempted across the road for pizzas that night, spending the evening out on the decking with dinner, wildlife, and planning for the following day.

Another bit of Australian wildlife we found

With a strenuous day of walking and climbing ahead, we made the pledge that night to get up early the following day. It was, as usual, a pledge we failed to keep, and instead we found ourselves making the ascent up to the Pinnacle, one of the highest points in the Grampians, in the middle of the day. It was a bit of a scorcher too – after the disappointment of the weather in Melbourne when Matt and Siobhan arrived, along with the cloud, wind and rain for part of our time on the Great Ocean Road, I was glad that we were now getting some nice warm weather.

On the way up to the Pinnacle

The ascent up to the Pinnacle wasn’t difficult, but it was a good old fashioned scramble in some places. Rocky outcrops, a stream, great little bits to climb, overhangs to duck under – it was a fun climb up. At one point, Matt and I clambered on top of a rocky shelf, grabbing some great photographs with the landscape behind us. It was amazingly quiet too, just the noise of a gentle breeze and the occasional bird on its way through the valley. You had to look where you were walking too – there were scores of lizards baking out in the sun, most of which would quickly dive under rocks the moment my size 10s went anywhere near them.

Cooling down in the cool cavern

On the way up we came across around a dozen people on the way back down, all of whom said it was worth the effort. We took a breather and a drink in the originally named Cool Cavern, which, as the name suggested, was refreshingly cool and it was nice to get out of the hot midday sun for a while.

Matt and Siobhan at the top

Back on the walking trail, there were a few bits that would leave us puffing and panting, but then when we got to the top, all the energy and exercise was forgotten. As the name suggests, the Pinnacle was a fantastic rocky overhang, leaning out high over the rock face. You could see for miles, a fantastic view of the lake stretching out below, mountains opposite, Halls Gap nestled among trees in the valley, and a horizon stretching out for miles across the flat Victoria countryside beyond.

We made it!

After our workout to get up to the top, we spent a while up there taking photographs and enjoying the view. Thankfully there were metal railings to hold on to at the top of the Pinnacle, and they were needed too – it was easy to feel a bit giddy thanks to the height and lack of anything around you. There were also some giant flying ants that had a habit of dive bombing you, and efforts to bat them away usually failed.

I can see the pub from here...

Looking out over the range

Thankfully, the walk back down to the car park only took half as long as the long hike up to the top. It might have been something to do with the reward of a drink and a bit of leftover pizza we’d kept in the fridge from the night before, but once we got there we savoured the treat.

Beautiful Grampians

Next up was another viewpoint, a place marked up as Boroka lookout. It was around half an hours drive through beautiful woodland from the Pinnacle, and there was nobody there when we arrived. Yet again, the view left us speechless. For the sake of driving just a few kilometres, it gave us a whole new perspective on the lake and the mountains that we had just been standing over. Now, they were in the distance to our right, and looked even more spectacular.

At the viewpoint

By now, ice creams were calling, but first there was another waterfall to see. As Siobhan quite rightly pointed out, we were fairly ‘waterfalled out’ but I was assured McKenzie falls was particularly impressive. Unfortunately, it also had a particularly impressive steep descent down to the bottom of the falls, but going by the sound of water crashing at the base, along with the river that snakes its way over boulders and rocks at the top, we knew it would be the best of the lot.

McKenzie Falls in the Grampians

With the sun glinting from the white foamy water as it tumbles down the rockface, the tip offs about it being the most spectacular waterfall around proved right. Like most places in the area, there was evidence of the huge storm that hit last year – a mass of twisted trees, branches and metal from a collapsed bridge were cordoned off to the left of the waterfall, a trail that follows the river simply washed away. With driftwood littered all over the hillside and down the face of the waterfall, it must have been quite something to stand where we were, looking up at the torrent that surely would have been streaming over the top.

The trek back up to the top was probably the hardest of the day, and all of our legs were aching and tired by now. It wasn’t helped by the steep steps and long stretches of uphill pathways back to the car park, but there was however an ice cream shop where we all enjoyed a breather and a refreshing ice lolly. It was there we decided to head back to the campsite to enjoy the rest of the afternoon, with a barbecue to look forward to.

Campsite cooking!

I say barbecue – it was actually more of a fry up if I’m honest. The campsites all have public barbecues, either free or for a small contribution of a dollar or so for the gas.They are completely different to what you’d imagine though, and are pretty much just a hot plate for cooking on. Its outside, so I guess that makes it a barbie, and rather than throwing shrimps on it (that’s one for my Aussie readers, mainly because I know how much the saying is both a) wrong and b) a great way of winding you up) we slapped a couple of burgers and some eggs on it. I was chef, Siobhan was on salad and bread duty, Matt was photographer for a while.

Yes, we'd both agreed not to shave for the week...

It wasn’t long before we had some familiar faces by our side – good old One Leg showed up for a bit of bread, while a kookaburra kept a close eye on any scraps that were going spare.

Laugh, Kookaburra laugh...

Despite our best efforts to find a pub that was open in the town, Matt and I ended up going for a quick beer at one of the nearby restaurants, while Siobhan got an early night. All the fresh air and exercise had taken it out of us all, although we had a sneaky suspicion that the combination of Matt Corby and the motion of the campervan was to blame for much of our lethargy over the last few days. We all ended up in bed early though, and tried to get to sleep.

With a few of my friends that kept me awake...

Only in the pitch darkness, just as my eyes were closing, there was a strange noise outside.

“Padump, bop. Padump, bop. Padump, bop.”

It was accompanied by a munching sound, similar to that of a horse or a cow. I slowly opened the zip to my tent, only to see a huge kangaroo just a few metres away. I looked around further to see a whole family of eight were dotted around me – a fantastic sight, and in the moonlight I sat with my head out of the tent, watching kangaroos and trying to savour the moment. I know in a few months time, it will be times like this that I’ll struggle to believe.

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