Scottish Highlands: Journey to Loch Ness

The Scott Monument in Edinburgh

Having travelled all the way north to the island of Orkney for a wedding weekend, I was now in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city, from where I would be departing the next day on a tour of the Scottish Highlands with small group tour company, Macbackpackers.

Arriving into Edinburgh early evening, I got the airport bus straight into the city and found my way to my city centre Travelodge accommodation for the night. All checked in, I headed out into the city to grab some food and find the meeting point for my tour the next day so I wouldn’t be panicking looking for it in the morning then it was back to my room to catch up on some sleep before the early start the next day.

Crossing into the Scottish Highlands

After getting breakfast from a nearby cafe the next morning, I checked out of my hotel and dragged my luggage through Edinburgh’s cobbled and steep streets to the hostel my tour would be departing from.

There were a few Macbackpackers tour leaving that morning and we all gathered in the hostel’s common room where we could help ourselves to drinks while we waited for our tour to be called. Gradually working out who else would be on the same tour as me, we started to bundle together, starting the introductions.

Our tour finally called and our names ticked off, we didn’t waste any time loading the minibus with our luggage and climbing aboard. I was pleased to see I wasn’t the only one bringing a medium-sized case along rather than a backpack – always a worry of mine when I join a group tour!!

After formal introductions on board, we were off out of the city, across the Forth Bridge and heading towards the Highlands. We made our first stop of the day at the side of the road by the Scottish Highlands welcome sign taking pictures with it and tasting the occasion with a shot of Scottish Whiskey!

An old blackhouse at the Highland Folk Museum

Our next stop was in the pretty town of Pitlochry where we all piled into one of the cafes recommended by our tour guide for lunch then we continued on to Newtonmore to visit the Highland Folk Museum. The open air museum recreates Highland life from the past and we attended an old ‘school’ where the school mistress sternly watched over us as we practised our handwriting before exploring the old working croft with its traditional blackhouses, old farm machinery and chickens milling around.

Chickens roaming freely at the Highland Folk Museum, and below, at Culloden Battlefield

The museum was used as a location in TV series Outlander which excited some members of the group who were fans of the show.

From the Highland Folk Museum, we continued north to Culloden Battlefield, our guide detailing the story of the Jacobite Rising in the 1700s, culminating in the Battle of Culloden. We had the option of buying a ticket to the museum or just exploring the grounds, most of the group opting for the latter.

Outside the visitor centre, we also had our first encounter with some ‘hairy coos’, or Highland Cattle, the famous long-haired and large-horned cows which we were all very excited about!

Spotting some ‘hairy coos’

We made one more stop at a supermarket just outside of Inverness to buy supplies for dinner which we’d decided would be a communal effort at the hostel then continued on to our Loch Ness-side accommodation pulling over once more for a quick photo opportunity at a viewpoint overlooking Urquhart Castle and the Loch. There was no sign of the Loch Ness Monster yet so with that, we went and checked into our accommodation where we were staying in dorms for one night.

View of Urquhart Castle overlooking Loch Ness and below, on the banks of Loch Ness

The hostel lay right on the banks of Loch Ness and after we’d made and eaten dinner, we fought through the mosquitos to walk down to the Loch, some of us paddling our feet while braver members of the group even took a quick dip in its freezing waters!

We spent the rest of the evening in the hostel common room continuing to get to know each other before retiring to our dorms, most of us getting an early night before the next day’s early start.

It had been a fun first day and we’d packed a lot in. Tomorrow we’d be taking a ferry across to the first island of our trip and we were all excited to continue our Scottish adventure!

Planning a trip to Scotland

About to board a Loganair flight to Scotland

I’ve spent a lot of time travelling in the USA, ticking off 49 of the 50 States so far, and travelling in Australia and New Zealand. I’ve taken plenty of city breaks in Europe too, travelling for concert breaks or just for fun. But I always feel I should spend more time exploring the UK. The events of the last year have given me some opportunity to do this and I had a great time visiting some of England’s National Parks last summer as well as making my regular annual visit to Pembrokeshire National Park in Wales but Scotland is a country I’d never spent much time in.

Travelling to the Scottish Highlands

When a Scottish friend from one of the Trek America tours I had done got engaged and invited all of the group to her wedding, it seemed like the perfect excuse to see some of this beautiful country. You see, my friend lived in Orkney, one of the northernmost islands of Scotland, and travelling there was going to cost a small fortune!

As much as I wanted to go, it almost didn’t seem worth it for just 2 nights. So I decided to extend my trip and take a solo tour of the Scottish Highlands while I was there.

Rather than taking a tour completely solo, I decided I’d rather join an escorted tour.

Some ‘hairy coos’

While I’d taken a few of these elsewhere – while travelling in the USA, Australia and new Zealand – I wasn’t at all familiar with any companies that operated in the UK. After researching the tours and companies on offer for a solo traveller on a budget, I decided to book with Macbackpackers on their 7-day Best of the West tour. The company aims it small group tours at the 18-40 age group and got excellent reviews and while I wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of staying in hostels again, I felt I’d be able to cope for 6 nights if it meant saving some money!

To save a bit more money, I booked the tour through Touradar during one of their sales using credits I had with them from previous bookings to bring the cost down even further!

Ancient standing stones on Orkney Island

The tour left from Edinburgh on Mondays so I decided to join the one that left after the weekend of the wedding meaning I’d fly to Orkney on Friday, leave for Edinburgh on Sunday evening and start the tour on the Monday morning, arriving back in Edinburgh where I’d spend a few more days, a week later.

Deciding I’d need a break from hostels along the way, I booked a city centre Travelodge in Edinburgh for the nights either side of the tour within walking distance of the hostel the tour departed from. The hostels used along the tour were pre-booked through the company although the price wasn’t included in the cost of the tour, we had to pay cash upon arrival at each one.

With our accommodation in Kirkwall on Orkney Island sorted for us by our friend, I was excited for the trip, ready to explore somewhere new and ready for adventure!

Back in Sydney for 24 hours

Back in Sydney

I was at the end of my 5 week trip to Australia’s east coast and having spent an amazing week in Sydney for New Year at the start of my adventure, I was excited to return for 24 hours, even if I would be there by myself this time rather than with a group of my best friends.

It had been a long day, spending 12 hours sat on the Loka minibus travelling from Byron Bay and we finally arrived in Sydney early evening.

After being dropped at Central Station, I said goodbye to the few passengers that had been on the bus with me and set off for my hotel near Museum Station.

That evening, I took a stroll up to Circular Quay.

View of Sydney Harbour Bridge

It was a lot quieter than it had been on my last visit and as I approached the Opera House, I couldn’t help but think about the Opera Bar New Year Party I’d attended there just weeks earlier. Since then I’d seen and done so much, visiting Airlie Beach and the Whitsunday Islands and then Townsville and Magnetic Island on the way north to Cairns with one of my friends and then travelling southbound on my solo adventures passing through Tully Gorge National Park, back to Airlie Beach and stopping at Emu Park, Fraser Island, Noosa, Brisbane and Byron Bay.

It really had been the trip of a lifetime!

Off to catch the ferry to Watsons Bay

And it wasn’t over yet. With my flight back to the UK not leaving until late evening, I was planning to make the most of every last minute of my day in Sydney. Wanting to see part of Sydney I hadn’t seen before, after grabbing some breakfast, I walked to Circular Quay and took a boat across to Watsons Bay.

Above, arriving at Watsons Bay, and below, on the coastal walk

Once there, I followed the path from Marine Parade behind Watsons Head Beach and along to a viewpoint overlooking the bay of Camp Cove from where there were great views of Sydney in the distance. Walking past another small bay, Lady Bay Beach, I then picked up the South Head Heritage Trail, a looped path which took me past Hornby Lighthouse and more beautiful coastal views.

At the Gap Park

After completing the looped track, I returned to where I’d started by the ferry wharf and then walked in the other direction up to the ocean cliffs known as The Gap for more amazing views. Continuing my walk along the cliff tops through Gap Park, I made it as far as Macquarie Lighthouse before returning to the ferry wharf.

Walking to Macquarie Lighthouse

Back by Watsons Bay Beach, I spent some time sat in Robertson Park people watching and enjoying the views before deciding to use my transport day pass to return to Sydney CBD by bus. Along the way, I hopped off at another of Sydney’s coastal suburbs, Rose Bay.

After wandering along its main street, I found my way to the beach and sat there relaxing, soaking up the last few rays of Australian sunshine before the end of my trip.

Taking a stroll around Darling Harbour

Arriving back in the city with a bit of time still to spare, I took a final stroll around Darling Harbour before returning to my hotel to pick up my luggage and make my way to the airport. It had been an amazing trip, one I’d never forget but for now, it was time to wave Australia a fond goodbye.

Byron Bay

I was a few days off the end of a 5 week trip to Australia. Starting in with a group of friends in Sydney for New Year, I’d since travelled north to Cairns with another friend, stopping at Airlie Beach for the Whitsundays and Townsville to visit Magnetic Island before going on a southbound solo travel adventure, joining a flexi-tour with Loka Travel and making stops at Tully Gorge National Park, back in Airlie Beach and at Emu Park, Fraser Island, Noosa and Brisbane.

After spending the morning in Brisbane, I was now on board the Loka minibus heading to the last stop of my trip before arriving back in Sydney, Byron Bay. Although I was again the only passenger travelling south from Brisbane, we made a pick up at Surfers Paradise where 2 girls I’d briefly met earlier in the trip jumped on board and it was nice to briefly have someone to chat with.

A quick tutorial before kayaking

Arriving in Byron Bay early evening, I checked into my private en suite room at the YHA and went out to explore, walking along the beach as the sun stated to go down before grabbing a pizza and heading back to my room.

The next morning I was up early to head to the beach. I had booked a dolphin-spotting kayaking expedition which I was really looking forward to.

Kayaking in Byron Bay

After a quick tutorial/recap on paddling and kayaking, I partnered up with one of the other solo travellers in the group and we boarded our kayak, paddling out to sea with the rest of our group. It wasn’t long before we spotted our first group of dolphins swimming past. It was really exciting being so close to them.

Over the next hour we were lucky enough to spot a few more dolphins as we paddled across the bay.

Dolphin spotting

It was soon time to return to shore and we were challenged by the group leaders to try and ride one of the waves in. Like many of the other kayakers, we instead managed to capsize ours, both being thrown into the surf as our kayak made it to shore without us and causing me to lose my sunglasses in the process!

After making a quick stop back at my hostel room to dry off and change, I walked into town and found a cheap replacement pair of sunglasses before going to meet a friend who also happened to be staying in the area for lunch.

While there, I go a message from a tour company I’d book an evening wildlife-spotting activity with saying that due to the predicted storm coming in, they were cancelling that evening’s tour. Unfortunately, as it was my last evening in Byron Bay, I wasn’t able to reschedule the tour but the refund at least gave me a bit more money to spend on the remaining few days of my trip!

After lunch, I decided to do the walk to Cape Byron Lighthouse, a lighthouse perched above the bay.

Above, the most easterly point of Australia, and below, views along the lighthouse walk

It was quite an easy walk but as I made my way there, the weather started to change, the bright blue sunny skies being replaced by dark, storm clouds and just as I reached the lighthouse, the rain started to fall. By the time I reached the halfway point back to beach, the rain had gone from light drizzle to a full on storm – torrential rain, thunder and lightening and for the second time that day, I was soaked to the skin and in need of a change of clothes!

Making it safely back to the hostel, I stayed in my room waiting for the rain to subside, making a quick trip out between downpours to grab a Subway sandwich before ducking back to my room again!

Byron Bay was a really pretty place and I’d really enjoyed my all too brief stay there. I was up at the crack of dawn the next morning to go and wait for the Loka minibus to pick me up for the final journey of my trip. And it was a long one, a 12 hour drive back to where I started 5 weeks earlier, Sydney.

24 Hours in Noosa

I was into the last few days of a 5 week trip to Australia. So far I’d spent a few days in Sydney with friends over New Year, travelled to Airlie Beach for the Whitsundays, Townsville and the neighbouring Magnetic Island and Cairns with another friend and was now travelling solo, heading southbound back to Sydney on a flexi-tour organised with Loka Travel. After stops at Tully Gorge National Park, returning to the Whitsundays, a day in Emu Park and a trip to Fraser Island, I was now en route to Noosa on Australia’s Sunshine Coast.

Visiting Noosa

I began the day at Rainbow Beach, my base for my visit to Fraser Island, where I was picked up alongside a few other Loka passengers by a Loka minibus. So far,I had struggled to find fellow Loka travellers heading the same day same, spending the first few days of my trip pretty much just me and my tour guide.

Today wasn’t any different as I soon realised that every other passenger on my bus was being dropped at a nearby train station from where they’d be heading northbound to Emu Park making me the only passenger travelling southbound to Noosa!

On the beach at Noosa

There were two Loka guides on board the minibus, a driver who was new to the company and another more seasoned guide who was training him, so I at least had someone to make small talk with about my trip so far along the way. But once there, I was by myself again. I checked myself into the YHA where, for the first time all trip, I was finally taking the plunge and staying in a communal dorm.

I was put in a 4-bed co-ed dorm and while it was nice to have someone to talk to, the others in my room were a lot younger than me and I soon realised that their only plans for the day involved bars and drinking whereas I wanted to use the short amount of time I had there to see some of the area.

With the sun shining, I decided to spend the rest of the morning down at Noosa Heads Beach.

Above, and below, starting my walk along the Noosa Heads coast path.

After a spot of sunbathing, I couldn’t resist a dip in the sea although I soon started to regret that decision as the huge waves repeatedly sent me flying! Managing to drag myself out of the surf, I spent a bit of time drying out before taking a walk into town in search of something to eat.

Noosa was pretty and had a really nice feel to it. After wandering around, I decided to take a walk along the coast path to Noosa National Park.

Above, and below, walking along the coast path

I followed the path right around the coast past lots of pretty little bays to Alexandria Bay then along to Sunshine Beach before cutting through a residential district back to the hostel.I’d been a bit worried about taking the walk by myself but it was either that or not see it and there were plenty of people about also walking along the coast path so it was fine.

It was early evening by the time I got back so after popping back to the hostel for a while, I went out to get pizza for dinner. The next day was going to be Australia Day and I’d be heading to Brisbane late morning. I wanted to spend a few hours walking along the river the next morning so to make sure I was up in plenty of time, I decided to call it a night.

The next day, after checking out of the hostel, I was up to take a stroll along the river.

Australia Day celebrations along the riverside in Noosa

I was surprised to see lots of gazebos up along Noosa Parade with Australia Day celebrations already in full swing and it was a really great atmosphere.

After my walk, I returned to the hostel and went to meet the Loka minibus ready to travel south to Brisbane.

I’d really enjoyed my visit to Noosa and wished I’d had a bit more time there to take my time exploring a bit more. I’d definitely like to return there someday.

A trip to Fraser Island

Fraser Island was one of those places I’d wanted to visit for along time but despite numerous visits ‘Down Under’, I’d never yet managed to fit it into any of my trips. But this time would be different. I was travelling southbound along the east coast of Australia, from Cairns back to Sydney (where I’d spent New Year’s Eve just a few weeks before), and after stops in Tully, Airlie Beach and Emu Park, I was now heading to Rainbow Beach from where I’d finally get to take a trip to Fraser Island.

Rainbow Beach

I’d left Emu Park at the crack of dawn to catch the train from Rockhampton station. Until now I’d travelled with the same Loka tour guide since departing Cairns but once I reached Gympie today, I’d be saying goodbye as from this point forward, I’d be travelling on the Loka minibuses, driven by a different guide on each leg of the trip.

It was a long journey to Gympie, especially as unlike the other trains so far ,this train wasn’t equipped with an entertainment system so I couldn’t keep myself occupied watching films. When I arrived at Gympie, I just wanted to get to my Rainbow Beach accommodation and spend the afternoon relaxing.

Instead, as I was stood outside Gympie station wandering where the minibus was, I got a message that it was running late. It was a boiling hot day and there was no shade and nowhere to shelter from the sun. I watched as every other passenger stood waiting for a taxi or lift until I was the only one around.

On the dunes at Carlo Sand Blow

Over an hour later, I was finally met by the Loka minibus, late after picking up the northbound passengers also heading to Rainbow Beach today. It was nice to meet some fellow Loka travellers even if they did already all know each other after travelling together for the last few days and we chatted and swapped stories on the way to the hostel.

The next 3 nights would be split between Rainbow Beach and an overnight stay on Fraser Island. After my first night at the Rainbow Beach hostel, I’d have to check out of my room, pack a small overnight bag for Fraser Island and check my main luggage into storage for a night then after returning from Fraser Island, retrieve my luggage and check back into the hostel again for my final night in the area.

Watching the sunset

I’d managed to make a last minute change to my Rainbow Beach room upgrading from a dorm room to a private en suite. After checking in, I had a quick walk down through the town to the seafront and back. It was already early evening and our Loka guide had invited us to meet back at the van for a trip to the nearby Carlo Sand Blow to watch the sunset.

Normally, a guided walk would have been offered getting us there in time to sandboard on the dunes before sunset but as we’d arrived late, we wouldn’t have walked there in time so instead our guide drove us there.

The sunset was really pretty and it once again gave me the opportunity to talk with some of the other Loka passengers. On the way back, having been warned how expensive the cafes and restaurants of Rainbow Beach were, we stopped off at a local chip shop to grab food before heading back to the hostel.

White sands and crystal clear waters at Lake Mackenzie

The next morning, after a pancake breakfast at the hostel, I checked my luggage, grabbed my overnight bag and went to check in for my Fraser Island tour. After boarding our coach, we were taken to the car ferry departure terminal to make the short crossing across the ocean to Fraser Island. We were able to leave the coach to wander around the ferry and enjoy the views as long as we were back on board just before arrival.

Once on Fraser Island, we driven to our first stop of the day, Mackenzie Lake where we were split into 3 groups – day trippers, one-night stays and 2-night stays, other one-night stay passengers from various departure points other than Rainbow Island joining our group. We then had some free time at the lake.

Above, and below, Central Forest Rainforest

After changing into my bathing suit, I made my way down the path to the lake and couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. The bright blue lake sits on a beach of white silica sand like that on Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsundays. I spent some time swimming in the crystal clear waters before drying off on the beach then meeting back at my designated coach to continue our tour of Fraser Island.

Next up was Central Forest Rainforest Walk where we followed the way-marked path through the greenery.

A lunch stop at one of the island’s hotels was next and we spotted some of the island’s infamous dingoes as we drove across the beach to our destination.

In the afternoon, we went on a walk to another lake, Lake Wabby.

Walking across the dunes to Lake Wabby

The lake lies at the bottom of the huge dunes of Hammerstone Sandblow. Once there, we had the option to swim in the lake but as the weather had clouded over, I decided to just spend some time sat on its bank relaxing and getting to know some of the other passengers in my group.

The lake has lots of ‘pedicure fish’, the fish that nibble the dead skin off your feet, and some members of the group decided to sit with their feet dangling in the water as we sat chatting.

Above, almost at Lake Wabby, and below, at Lake Wabby and hiking back

After leaving the lake and walking back to the coach, we were taken to our hotel where I was allocated a triple room to share with two German girls. After getting to know each other a bit, we all went to dinner meeting up with the rest of the group before some of us went for drinks at a nearby bar.

Above, the SS Maheno shipwreck, and below, on 75-Mile Beach

The next day after breakfast, we checked out of our hotel and met back up with our coach driver and guide for another day touring the island. Our first stop of the day was to see the SS Maheno, a shipwreck on 75-Mile Beach that has become a Fraser Island tourist attraction.

Then we drove further along the beach to see Red Canyon and the coloured sands and hiked up to Indian Head to take in the sweeping views.

Views from Indian Head

Our next stop was at Champagne Pools. Parking up on a cliff, we followed the path down to the beach where the rocks in the shallows had formed large rock pools, the water bubbling over the top like a natural jacuzzi as the waves crashed over the top.

Walking to Champagne Pools

After swimming and relaxing in the pools, we followed the path back up the cliff to where the coach was parked and a picnic lunch was waiting for us.

Waves crashing in at Champagne Pools

We had one more stop on Fraser Island at Eli Creek, a freshwater river which eventually runs into the ocean. After parking up, our guide got out a variety of inner tubes and explained that the creek acts like a natural lazy river! We took it in turns to float along the creek through the rainforest, some of the group choosing to swim down or wade through it instead. It was a really incredible experience.

Heading back to Rainbow Beach

My amazing Fraser Island adventure had almost come to an end. We were dropped back at one of the Island’s resorts for refreshments and to await our assigned coaches back to our departure point. Once on board the coach, we were taken to the ferry terminal to make our return trip back to Rainbow Beach.

It was already early evening so after recovering my luggage and checking back into my hostel room, I went to grab a, rather expensive, pizza from a local cafe and called it a night.

One day in Emu Park

A stay on Australia’s Capricorn Coast

After spending New Year’s Eve in Sydney, I’d spent a few days in Airlie Beach to explore the Whitsunday Islands, Townsville and Cairns before beginning my journey south back to Sydney. I was travelling with flexi-tour group Loka Travel and after visiting Tully Gorge National Park and returning to Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays, my next stop was on the Capricorn Coast in the town of Emu Park.

Meeting a baby crocodile at Koorana

We were travelling to Emu Park, a small town on Australia’s Capricorn Coast, on an evening train that already wouldn’t get us to Rockhampton station until the early hours. So, arriving at Proserpine station just outside of Airlie Beach, to find out our train was indefinitely delayed, wasn’t ideal!

Despite choosing a Loka flexi-tour in the hope that I’d get to meet and travel with others on the same route as me, I had once again found that there was a lack of passengers heading southbound and this time, found myself the only traveller heading to Emu Park.

Above, and below, meeting the residents at Koorana Crocodile Farm

While a couple of others would be on the train with me, they were continuing further down the coast so while we waited for the train to arrive, I spent some time with my Loka guide – who’d be at Emu Park with me – what the options were for my full day there.

One of the options was to take a boat out to Great Keppel Island for the day to explore and snorkel on the reef but as I’d spent a lot of time on my trip on islands – I’d already visited the Whitsundays, Magnetic Island and Green Island – I decided I didn’t really want to do this, especially as I’d be visiting by myself. Another option was a tour of a nearby cave system but as I’d been to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in the USA, I was told I’d probably be disappointed by these! So instead, I decided I’d spend some time in and around Emu Park itself for the day.

The train eventually arrived almost an hour late and we settled in for the long journey. As the train was a long distance sleeper train, each seat was equipped with an entertainment system so I passed the time watching films before falling asleep.

Emu Park Beach

We arrived at Rockhampton station in the early hours and were met by someone from our Emu Park accommodation to take us to Emu Beach Resort. I was pleasantly surprised by the rooms which, for budget accommodation, felt like absolute luxury after the series of hostels so far.

The next morning, we began our day in Emu Park with a visit to Koorana Crocodile Farm.

After an introductory talk about the farm, we were taken on a guided tour in small group to see some of the huge crocodiles that lived there. An interesting way to spend an hour!

Above, and below, memorials, monuments and the Singing Ship at Emu Park

After our croc farm tour, we were dropped back in Emu Park itself where my Loka guide gave me a brief tour before we grabbed lunch at a local cafe then in the afternoon we got dropped at Bluff Point to go on a ‘turtle walk’, following the walking track up on to the cliff top from where there were beautiful views across the bay to Great Keppel Island and we could spot turtles swimming in the surf below.

We had to cut the walk short due to the stifling summer heat and rather than following the track round in a loop, instead retraced our steps back to the car park to meet our left back to the hostel. That left us with a few hours of free time to spend around the pool and relaxing before we headed out again in the evening.

Above, and below, an evening at a ranch

My Emu Park stay included a visit to a local ranch. On the northbound trips, one of the 2 nights in Emu Park is spent camping at the ranch but the train times travelling southbound didn’t allow for that so instead we’d just be spending the evening there.

Upon arriving, I made friends with the extremely cute farm dog and was kitted out with a cowboy hat to wear then shown how to make traditional ‘beer bread’ which we’d be eating with our beef stew dinner later that evening.

A sunset stroll

Then, while the stew was being prepared, we took a walk through some of the local land and I was told some of the indigenous history of the area before we watched the sunset and walked back to the farm. After eating our beef stew dinner sat out around a camp fire under the stars, we were dropped back the hostel where there was the option of going for drinks at the hostel bar.

As it had been a busy day and we had a 5am start the next day, I decided to get an early night instead.

Emu Park had been a fun, if a little random, stop on my southbound trip along Australia’s East coast and one of those places I would probably never have thought about visiting otherwise. From here I’d be travelling to my next stop at Rainbow Beach from where I’d be setting off for a trip to Fraser Island, part of the trip I’d been looking forward to for a while!

A Tully Rainforest Adventure

I’d now been in Australia a few weeks. My trip had been broken down into three parts: New Year in Sydney with some of my best friends; two weeks with one of my Trek America travel buddies travelling to Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays, Townsville/Magnetic Island and Cairns; and now I was about to begin the third leg, a (kinda) solo adventure, travelling back down Australia’s East Coast all the way back to Sydney.

Visiting Tully Gorge National Park

Rather than book myself onto a small-group escorted tour like I had on my previous solo-travel adventures to the USA, this time I had opted to go somewhere between escorted and completely solo backpacking with a “flexi-tour”. I chose to book with Loka Travel – part of the New Zealand Stray Travel company – as they seemed to offer a good compromise between fully escorted tours and doing it completely by myself.

They operated for small groups rather than the coach loads of rival Oz Experience, so I’d have people to travel with, using a mixture of trains and their own minibuses for transport with each leg accompanied by a tour guide. Unlike on a fully escorted tour, travellers aren’t tied down to a set itinerary but can stay on for extra days at any stop then hop onto the next tour passing through and their was a dedicated, easy-to-access booking site to reserve hostel rooms, experiences or spots on the next train/bus either in advance or as you go. As I knew I had to be back in Sydney by a certain date to make a flight, I mapped out my route in advance and pre-booked all my travel and accommodation.

The first leg of my tour would be from Cairns to Tully where the company offered an exclusive Rainforest Experience. We’d be travelling to Tully by train from Cairns station.

After meeting my guide, I was eager to find out who else I’d be travelling with only to find out that there was just one other passenger on this leg of the trip with me! I know the website said small groups but that wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind. I was told that after spending New Year in Sydney, a lot of travellers were heading north to Cairns rather than travelling in the opposite direction like I was.

It didn’t spoil our fun though. Arriving in Tully late morning, we were met by our Indigineous rainforest guide and taken to a local supermarket to pick up supplies for the evening’s BBQ meal and breakfast tomorrow before we headed to Tully Gorge National Park where we’d be setting up camp for the evening. Not being a huge fan of camping, I was glad this was a one-night experience but I tried to throw myself into it as much as possible!

That afternoon, we were taken down to Tully River where we told we would get to ‘play’ in the water. This turned out to mean body-rafting through white water rapids and, much to my initial horror, wading out to waterfalls and sliding down them, plunging into the water at the bottom like they were giant water slides! We were obviously given all the necessary safety gear – life jackets and safety-helmets – and our rainforest guide acted as lifeguard while our Loka guide demonstrated how to manoeuvre through the rapids and, despite my initial reservations, I absolutely loved the experience and had a really fun afternoon.

Back at the camp, we took a walk along a calmer section of the Tully River before returning to have a traditionally prepared BBQ meal, our chicken cooked in leaves from the rainforest. We spent the next few hours chatting and amusing ourselves with card games until it was dark enough for the final activity of the day – going on a snake hunt.

Like with the body-rafting earlier, my initial reaction to finding out what we were doing was along the lines of “We’re doing what?!” but apparently, our Indigenous guide was an expert at finding and handling wild snakes so I went along with it.

I can’t say I was disappointed though when we failed to see a single snake on our drive. It was worth the drive at least to see the beautiful star-filled sky as we pulled over on a bridge across the Tully River for one last attempt to spot a snake before returning to camp to bed down in our tents for the night.

Surviving a night in the tent without seeing a single spider or any other scary minibeast, we were up at the crack of dawn for a fry up breakfast before being led into the rainforest by our Indigenous guide for an interpretive walk.

Our guide explained to us the importance of the rainforest to the Indigenous peoples and how each parts of the trees and plants that grow there are traditionally used in Indigenous culture. It was a really interesting way to finish off our rainforest experience in Tully.

After our walk, it was time to pack up camp and load up the van as we were transported back to Tully station to await a train to our next destination. For me, this would be another visit to Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays just a week on from my last stay there and I couldn’t wait to go back!

A few days in Cairns

Spending 3 days in Cairns

Having spent New Year in Sydney, I’d travelled north to Queensland to met a friend, spending time in Airlie Beach to explore the Whitsunday Islands then hopping on the Greyhound to Townsville. After a few days exploring Townsville, including a visit to the nearby Magnetic Island, we were back on the Greyhound, travelling north again, this time to the city of Cairns.

About to leave Townsville for Cairns, and below, on the way to Green Island.

After a few nights in a hotel in Townsville, we were back to hostels in Cairns, staying in a private en suite room at the Cairns Central YHA. The hostel was located opposite a shopping mall and just a short walk from the seafront so we spent the afternoon familiarising ourselves with the city, wandering down to the seafront, past the famous Cairns lagoon and shopping.

Above and below, arriving on Green Island

The next day was going to be our last day together on the trip as my friend was flying back to the UK and I would be continuing my trip, travelling south back to Sydney alone before flying to New Zealand to begin a tour of its North Island. We wanted to do something fun for the last day and had decided on a morning trip to Green Island for a spot of snorkelling followed by an afternoon at Cairns Aqua Park to tackle its giant inflatable obstacle course.

So the next morning, we were up early to walk down to the marina and catch a boat over to Green Island. We had caught the early crossing to give us plenty of snorkelling time on the island but were disappointed to find that the snorkel hire hut didn’t open to coincide with the boat’s arrivals meaning we had to waste the first 45 minutes hanging around waiting for the shutters to go up!

It was worth the wait though as once we’d hired our snorkel gear and stinger suits, we made our way to a small cove where we’d bee told we’d have a good chance of seeing turtles and within seconds of starting to snorkel, a turtle did indeed appear!

Above, spotting turtle, and below, enjoying Green Island.

We’d been hoping to see one all trip but on all our snorkeling or kayaking adventures so far had let disappointed so we were ecstatic to finally get the chance to swim along side one on our final day!

After the excitement of seeing the turtle, we spent a bit longer snorkelling in that area before making our way to a more popular beach for a bit more swimming and sunbathing before catching an early afternoon boat back across to Cairns.

After briefly going back to the hostel for a quick change and lunch, we caught a taxi to Cairns Aqua Park, just outside of the city.

At Cairns Aqua Park

The park offers awake-boarding pool with artificial waves along with an inflatable obstacle course in a large lake. After grabbing life-jackets and listening to a safety talk – during which we checked there were no crocs in the area! – we were left to attempt the obstacles ourselves, a task a lot more difficult than it looked!!

The obstacle course was a lot of fun but way more tiring than we expected. Once our time slot was up, we got a taxi back to the YHA and after freshening up, walked back into town to find somewhere to eat out for our last evening together.

First stop on the Atherton Tablelands Tour

With my friend catching an very early flight out of Cairns the next day, I awoke alone in our hostel room. Upon arriving at the hostel a few days earlier, I had made use of their in-house booking services to arrange an Atherton Tablelands small-group excursion for my day alone in Cairns so after a pancake breakfast, I waited outside for the minibus to turn up.

I always worry on these tours that I’ll be the only solo traveller but with the company aiming itself at backpackers, there were plenty of us and we had a great day all hanging out together.

Lake Barrine

The tour took us out to the rainforest where we took a short walk to see the famous Cathedral Fig Tree. This was followed by a quick photo stop at Lake Barrine before we drove out to Crater Lake.

Here, we had the chance to take a walk along the lakeside trail and take a swim in the lake before a buffet lunch.

Beautiful Crater Lake and, below, at Milla Milla Falls

After lunch we drove to Milla Milla Falls, the waterfall famous from the Peter Andre music video, where we spent some time swimming out to the waterfall and sunbathing on the shore before our penultimate stop at Dinner Falls. The last stop of the day was at the tour company’s hostel accommodation for it’s 2 and 3-day tours where we were provided with afternoon tea before heading back to Cairns.

Back at the hostel, I began packing for the next leg of my trip only for my suitcase to break.

At Dinner Falls, and below, spending the morning at Cairns Lagoon

I had passed the Cairn’s night market a few days before so decided to take a walk down in hope I could pick up a cheap case to tide me over for the rest of the trip. The busy market was definitely worth a look around with arrange of stalls selling a variety of souvenirs and other items. I found what I was looking for and dragged the case back to the hostel, stopping off to grab a pizza for dinner on the way back.

The next day, would be my final day in Cairns. I spent the morning down at Cairns Lagoon, an experience way more positive than my experience at Airlie Lagoon. The site was a lot more attractively laid out than Airlie’s lagoon, the water seemed cleaner and its temperature was a lot better.

That afternoon I had booked a white water rafting session with Raging Thunder Adventure Company out at Barron River.

Above, off to white water raft, and below, rafting on Barron River

I was picked up in a minibus along with other groups from the hostel and taken out to the company’s headquarters where we were given a safety briefing, given our safety equipment and put into groups of 6 for our rafts. As many of those taking part that afternoon had come as part of escorted tour groups like Contiki, as one of the few solo travellers, I was added to a group of five to make up the numbers.

Despite not knowing anyone else in my tour group, I had an amazing time rafting down the river. I had rafted once before, in Wyoming on my Trek America tour, and loved it then but this was way more intense and exciting with us even being asked at one point to leave the boat and body-raft through some white water.

Exhausted, I returned to the hostel that evening for a quiet night in ready to begin a new solo travel adventure early the next day.

Townsville and Magnetic Island

Our 3-night Townsville itinerary

On the Greyhound to Townsville, and below, exploring Townsville

I was a couple of weeks into a 5 week trip to Australia’s East coast and after spending New Year in Sydney, I had since spent 5 nights based in Airlie Beach to explore the Whitsunday Islands. Now we were sat on a Greyhound bus, early on a Sunday morning, making our way up the coast to Townsville. The Queensland town would be our base for the next 3 nights and we planned to spend the afternoon we arrived in the local area, then a day visiting a nearby animal sanctuary and one day visiting Magnetic Island.

We had high hopes for Townsville after reading about it being an up and coming, bustling place to visit so after checking into our hotel, we headed straight back out to see what the town had to offer.

Sculptures along Townsville seafront

We were immediately struck by how quiet it was everywhere. It was Sunday and some of the stores seemed to be closed, others about to close for the afternoon so we walked down to the seafront. Here too, there were very few people about. Passing the marina, we then followed the path alongside the waterfront passing a few sculptures dotted along the front, a large children’s play area and outdoor pool, and a small beach.

We were hoping to find somewhere to eat at but instead had to settle for an ice cream from a truck near the beach.

Walking back towards the centre, we passed the Museum of Tropical Queensland. With very little else open and feeling we’d already see a lot of the town, we decided to go in and spent the next hour looking around. The museum had some natural history exhibits and some exhibits on the history of the region and was an interesting way to spend a bit of time.

After our visit to the museum, we crossed George Roberts Bridge across Ross Creek into South Townsville, still hoping to find somewhere to eat. Finding everywhere closed or deadly quiet, we instead settled for ice cream before walking back to our hotel, spending the evening doing laundry and ordering in Dominos!

For our first full day in Townsville, we had made plans to visit Billabong Sanctuary just outside of the main town. We’d bought a ticket which included a return journey in a minibus, the driver picking us up just across the road from our hotel that morning.

At Billabong Sanctuary

I’d visited animal sanctuaries on my previous visit to Australia and getting to hang out with the kangaroos and wallabies had always been a highlight of any trip so I was excited for the day. We expected to spend the morning there and maybe be back in Townsville mid-afternoon to explore a bit more and see if it was any more alive on a Monday but our visit to the sanctuary took actually took all day and when the last minibus left a bit before the sanctuary closed, we wished we could stay a while longer!

Hugging a wombat

The sanctuary wasn’t any bigger than those I had visited in other parts of Australia but rather than leaving visitors to look around at their own pace, it offered the option of a program of animal meet and greets throughout the day. We attended most of these timetabled events which included feeding huge cassowary birds, cuddling a wombat, holding various reptiles, a talk about the crocodiles as we watched them being fed by the brave keepers and a turtle race.

Feeding a turtle

The reason we didn’t want to leave at the time of the last bus back was because it clashed with a meet and greet session with the dingoes which we would have loved to do! But we really loved that there was so much to do and there were plenty of kangaroos and wallabies to hang out with between the scheduled events!

It was worth visiting Townsville just to go to Billabong Sanctuary!

Back in Townsville, realising that there wasn’t a great deal to do for the evening, we found a local cinema and made plans to go to an evening movie screening. We again struggled to find somewhere to eat, eventually making do with a hotel restaurant just across the road which offered a cheap 2-course menu and making it in to the cinema right before the film started!

Feeding a resident bird

The next day, we were down at Townsville marina early to catch the ferry across to Magnetic Island. Arriving on the island, we made use of the local bus service there, buying a day ticket and hopping on to reach Horseshoe Bay. We’d done some research on what Magnetic Island has to offer but hadn’t made any definite plans on how we would spend our day there.

Seeing the Bungalow Bay Koala Village as we got off the bus and having enjoyed our time with the animals at Billabong Sanctuary the day before, we decided to visit the sanctuary.

Inside, we were given a talk on some of the animals housed there and given the opportunity to interact with them, feeding some of the birds, stroking a koala and holding some of the weird and wonderful reptiles and other Australian creatures (I don’t recommend holding a spiky echidna!!). While we would probably have enjoyed this more having not had similar experiences at Billabong Sanctuary the day before, it was still a fun way to spend an hour.

Above, and below, beautiful Horseshoe Bay

From the koala village, we walked the short distance downhill to the stunning Horseshoe Bay. Here, we hoped to find some water-based activities to do before having some lunch. Seeing pedalos lined up on the shore we enquired about hiring one only to be told they were for children only.

Having kayaked in Airlie Beach just a few days earlier, we didn’t want to hire one of these again and weren’t brave enough to try the jet-skis so instead we decided to just go for a dip in the ocean to cool off. This was cut short when, not having stinger suits to protect us,we saw a jellyfish and couldn’t get out of the water quick enough!

At Alma Bay

Drying ourselves off, we went for lunch at one of the cafes lining the beach before catching the bus along to the pretty cove of Alma Bay then walking along to the nearby Geoffrey Bay, a long sweeping bay part of the Marine National Park Zone.

With time rapidly passing us by, we caught the bus further around the island to Picnic Bay. Here, we grabbed drinks and ice cream from a bar overlooking the beach before catching the bus back to the ferry terminal and returning to Townsville.

Ending our day on Magnetic Island at Picnic Bay

We’d enjoyed our day on Magnetic Island but as pretty as all the beaches were, they had all started to blend into one and we did wish we’d spent more time planning our day, maybe doing some of the many walks the island has to offer or hiring snorkeling gear.

Back in Townsville, rather than another inevitably unsuccessful search for somewhere to eat, we made do with the McDonalds near our hotel.

Then it was time to pack and have an early night ready for a dawn start to catch the Greyhound to our next destination, Cairns.