Sea change weekend – whalewatching off Fraser Island

Every August in Queensland we have something called The Royal Queensland Show, better known as ‘The Ekka‘. That nickname comes from the fact that the Show is an exhibition of Queensland’s agricultural roots (“bringing the country and city together for a true celebration of agriculture”). When we finally went, two years ago, we saw a bloke shear a sheep, a woodchopping contest, and a piglet run around a track and launch itself into a bucket of water, and those were among the least strange things we saw. The usual line about the Ekka is that it’s a good place to catch the flu, given the sheer crush of numbers, so if anything was going to be cancelled this year, the Ekka was. But we still got the day off work. What’s more, it was moved to Friday to allow people to make a long weekend of it and go off somewhere and support the hard-hit tourist sector. Considering the dearth of travelling opportunities this year, we decided to take the Monday off too and spend a couple of days up the coast. We’d do some whale-watching in Hervey Bay and see the city of Bundaberg, which is further north (nearly 400kms from home) than we’d ever driven before.

Tina, Mary Poppins, and Eoin in Maryborough

Marys and meat pies

In the event, Brisbane proved harder to get out of than the EU that busy Ekka public holiday morning, but we finally got up to the Sunshine Coast hinterland in time for lunch. Road trips mean meat pies, which are disgusting. In Yandina we stopped for pies, which Alexander and Eoin love. On days out, in towns up and down the east coast, I watch them consume these things and think of crows pecking at a wallaby smothered in tomato sauce by the side of the road, and I wonder where I went wrong. From Yandina it was a long road up to Maryborough, with plenty of roadside billboards advising us that Pauline has the guts to tell them what you’re thinking, and that Clive says it’s time to give Labour the BOOT.

To the extent that Aussie towns have a story to tell, or some heritage aspect to them, it’s usually one of hard yakka, or gold mines – some satisfyingly wild west-y, tough-as-nails legacy. I love all that stuff. Once in Jondaryan, we watched an old timer shear a sheep. In Highfields we kept our arms by our sides as an old timer (not the same one) showed us these great old carriages and did some whipcrackin’. Speaking of old timers, we stayed with one in Moonbi, NSW, who made (and sold to tourists) clay models of dunnies (outdoor toilets), and in fact had written two books on the subject. If I had my way, there’d be an old timer drinking a mid-strength on the Australian flag. Maryborough’s claim to fame, on the other hand, is a bit more genteel: the woman who wrote Mary Poppins, PL Travers, was born there. Even though she emigrated to England when she was in her twenties and wrote all her magic nanny books there, she grew up in the bush here in Queensland and in New South Wales. Incidentally, la Poppins isn’t the source of the ‘Mary’ in Maryborough: it’s the mighty Mary river that flows through her that gives the city her name.

Fraser Island is the world’s largest sand island, and Hervey Bay is the town opposite it. To keep costs down, we’d booked into an Airbnb a little out in the country, away from the seafront apartments and resorts, which tend to be a bit sterile. As we were having breakfast on the balcony on Saturday morning, an Eastern grey kangaroo and her joey bounced across the yard to the consternation of the house Shih Tzus. I envied Rob, the owner, this native zoological display but then, unlike us, he’s never had a koala just mosey across his property (to the consternation of the house Moodle).

Bundy via Gin Gin

Australia is quite a large place, all told, so unless you keep pushing out west, like a nineteenth century pastoralist into the Darling Downs, or north, to the Gulf of Carpentaria like Burke and Wills, or just all around the blessed country like Matthew Flinders, you’re not going to see it. It’s an relentless, exhausting business, finding Australia. Northwest of Hervey Bay there’s a small town called Gin Gin (population one-and-a-half thousand), which, as luck would have it, Eoin happened to have picked for his school Humanities (‘liveability of towns and cities’) module, so we swung by the Gin for our morning flattie. From there we figured we could get to Bundaberg the scenic way, over the old iron Burnett river bridge, and come back a little inland of the coast later in the afternoon. If we were going to be based in Hervey bay, that close to Bundy, we were going to push on up to Bundy.

Eoin at the Bundy Barrel

It’s cane country up there, and narrow-gauge cane railways criss-crossed our path in and around the towns of Childers and Gin Gin. What do they need all that sugar cane for? Well, Bundaberg is famous for two things, at least to me: Bundaberg Rum, and Bundaberg Ginger Beer. Even though it’s (virtually) non-alcoholic, the latter is called ‘beer’ because it’s brewed in the same way as real beer is. Those of us, like myself and Tina, who haven’t been too badly affected by the lockdowns and isolations of the past five or so months have a duty of sorts to help keep alive some of these tourist businesses that have been doing it hard. We spent big in the Bundaberg Rum shop (the tours had all been cancelled): two bottles of rum, a fancy twin-pack of glasses, and a wifebeater (singlet) for me. And in the ‘Bundaberg Barrel’ too: socks, and two cases of ginger beer.

In the Bargara Brewing Company we got chatting to – yes – an old timer. I asked him if they got crocs this far south. “Sure do, mate. At least we used to.” If we were to go into the hotel at Tiaro, upstream of Maryborough, about 80kms south of here, we’d see photos on the wall attesting to the presence of crocodiles around those parts. Which made us consider with alarm the time we’d swum in the Mary down at Kenilworth a few years ago. Nowadays they remove them and send them north, back where they came from, as part of the Qld Crocodile Management Plan. Not very Crocodile Dundee, I know.

We’d have liked to have spent more time in Bundy, if only to get to the bottom of the puzzling sign we saw outside a music shop that said “Accordions available – restrictions apply – limit: two per family”, but like I say, if you want to see Australia, you gotta keep moving. Bundy’s nearest coastal strip is the town of Bargara, which looked like a good place to nurture the sea change fantasy for an hour or so.

Spy hops and pec slaps

Something like one in three of the more than twenty thousand humpback whales that migrate between their winter breeding grounds near the equator and summer feeding areas near Antarctica stop into Hervey bay around this time of year. Having recently read Moby Dick I’m now a bit of an expert on whales (even though you come across some funny notions about what whales are in the book).

“To be short, then, a whale is a spouting fish with a horizontal tail. There you have him.” – Moby Dick, ‘Cetology’

Hervey Bay has humpbacks, not sperm whales, which is what Moby Dick was. And they’re mammals, not fish, just for the record. They have horizontal tail flukes, not vertical ones. Not that that’s the defining characteristic of mammals, but if all else fails it’s the one sure way to tell if what you’re looking at is, say, a whiting or a whale. Also, whiting don’t do ‘spy hops’, ‘pec slaps’, and all the spectacular things whales do. I mean, they might well do those things, but no-one cares.

Up periscope!

Sunday dawned with fine weather, a relief after Saturday’s winds and rain. We’d booked a whale-watching excursion, by far the most exciting thing any of us had done, or – it’s safe to say – will ever do, with our lives, and I was glad, for my sake and the kids’ (Tina has more experience sailing – she could look after herself) that the weather was good. It took us a full hour in a powerful boat with four Yamaha engines of three hundred and fifty horsepower apiece to get out into the bay between Fraser Island and the mainland to where the spouters were. When we finally found some, the skipper killed the engine and we watched in reverential silence as the pod…didn’t do much. They were easy like Sunday morning, did some fluke up dives, and we moved on after a couple of minutes. Still and all, that was the first time I’d seen a whale blow, and that was something at least. From Cape Byron, the easternmost point of mainland Australia, maybe 500kms south of here, we’d actually seen a pod playing with some dolphins a few years ago, from up on the lighthouse, but they’d been a good distance off shore, so this was special. We were close enough to have been able to identify individuals (recognised by the unique marks and colours on their tail flukes. If whales had passports, they’d have a photo of their flukes in them, not their faces, and that’s not just because they don’t have faces).

Large ‘spouting fish’ with Fraser Island in the background

Incidentally, it was a little disappointing that the people who spotted some had just said “There! Over there!” and not “There she blows! There go flukes! Lower away!” In a few minutes, though, a new pod was spotted, and again the boat’s engines were killed while we bobbed and waited for something to happen. Which it did, this time.

We oohed and aahed as this pod did a triple breach and some pec slaps, and I caught a few nice spy hops (where a whale raises itself vertically, rotates around its longitudinal axis to see what’s going on, like a periscope, and then sinks back down again) on camera. They danced and jumped and slapped and did the Fosbury Flop. I’d always though of whales as lumbering goofy dimwits plodding through the treacley gloom, groaning and squeaking at each other, but no longer! For all their size, these limber leviathans could really move, and were clearly having fun.

This went on for about twenty minutes, before it was time to return to Urangan. It took a solid hour just to get back, during which the stomach unease I’d felt as we bobbed up and down watching the display subsided. Reactions on board had ranged from the poor seasick teenager in the row in front of us who spent most of the trip with her head in a paper bag, cradled by her anxious mother, to the six Indian guys who whooped it up pretty much from the moment we left the Urangan marina. We’d been lucky. Not just with the whales’ display (the two operators kept saying that was one of the best they’d seen in five years) but also with the weather.

Chrysler Imperial (left) and unknown cool vintage car

Despite the resident cetologist keeping watch up front all the way back, we nearly ran one over on the way back, which answered the question I’d been considering all morning – how do the boat operators know where the whales are, and that they aren’t going to just surface right below us? And the answer, of course, is they don’t. So we’d been lucky there too.

On the way out of the marina, we saw another last whale, a huge, American-type car, which was pulling in to park (beside another red vintage car – see picture). The thing was only humongous. According to the owner it’s a Chrysler Imperial, ‘63 vintage, and his is one of only two in Australia. You can book a tour (he drives, mind) but I think we’ll stick with the Kia for the time being.

Tourists in our own back yard

Al in the banyan. Remember – this is all just one tree. If you look closely you can see a bluey (rainbow lorikeet) in the foliage on the left

One of our themes on this blog is ‘show your kids the world‘. At home, Al is a normal teenager, in his own world of heavy metal and video games. Left to his own devices, he’d never willingly go outdoors. But these trips prove to us that you can take the sullenest of teenagers and bring them to a park that has a Banyan tree, and they’ll disappear into it in seconds.

On Monday we left for home again, having felt we’d seen something really special. A lot of the wildlife of Australia can be either too reclusive (koalas are surprisingly hard to see in the wild), too dangerous (brown snakes, redback spiders, aforementioned crocodiles, etc.), or else way too abundant (cane toads, and poor ol’ kangaroos on the roads). Not that humpback whales are endemic to Australia, but we’re an island nation and whales are part of our make-up. There are ninety-nine things to do in Australia we still haven’t done, but as of this weekend seeing whales ain’t one.

We came home via Gympie, then Eumundi, one of our favourite small towns in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, not least because of the great Berkelouw Books, purveyors of new and second-hand fare. Support your local bookstore, or watch it disappear. I suppose you could say the same about your local rum distillery, ginger beer factory, and whale-watching operator, too. This coronavirus uncertainty is dragging on longer than anyone thought it would: for the time being, all our travelling will be done within the confines of Australia, and maybe even just within Queensland, so we have to adapt to being tourists in our own back yard for the foreseeable future.