243 years and one week after James Cook discovered the Whitsunday Passage we breezed into Airlie Beach, the tourist center of the Whitsunday Region.
We’d enjoyed a brief stop in nearby Proserpine where absolutely everybody seemed to be talking about (and was sick of) the weather. As you may have gathered by now, I have a mild obsession for this topic also so I was in my element and gladly exchanged meteorological information with practically everybody I spoke with.
It had been wet for some time already and the weather forecast remained at odds with the dry season that should have arrived already. This was of particular concern for the sugar cane harvest that was due to start. Sodden fields posed a huge problem for heavy harvest machinery as it gets bogged down in these conditions. Frankly, some fields actually looked like they might better be harvested by barge. You can’t help but feel empathy for the farmers.
Airlie Beach – Backpacker bastion
Airlie Beach is a lovely tourist base from where to explore the tropical Whitsunday Islands which are synonymous with beautiful palm fringed white sandy beaches, fancy resorts and yachts sailing into the sunset.
A couple of things struck us about this place. The first thing was the massive construction that had taken over the entire main street and has apparently been underway for over a year. It won’t be finished until end of 2013 at the earliest. It seemed out of proportion in terms of the construction size, impact and timing. Unsurprisingly, main street businesses were unhappy and several had closed their doors for the duration.
The second thing we noticed was the scores of backpackers. We haven’t seen them in any great numbers since Byron Bay, possibly due to our back-country routes but we were sure making up for it here where they seem to congregate and where the place is pretty much geared towards them. Oodles of twenty-something travellers (predominantly Germans, French and British from what we noticed) rule the place and strut their stuff around the town’s man made lagoon.
Since a swim in the ocean is still out of bounds for more than half the year, due to the presence of “marine stingers”, the lagoon is the preferred option (unless you want to don what looks like a full body condom to protect against the potentially severe effects from a close encounter with toxic jelly fish). Despite feeling and looking out of place there, we also hung out in the lagoon for a couple of afternoons, shamelessly damaging the average age. On that note, we were also reminded that, once you’re on the other end of 40, you gain a cloak of invisibility which, on the upside, is perfect for people watching.
Many of the backpackers seem to ‘live out of’ various vehicles (station wagons or some form of camper – typically underequipped, overloaded, and unserviced); they gather in the park areas around the lagoon making use of handy amenities such as BBQ tables, showers and toilets. And since they live a pretty public life, people watching soon morphed into a GenY crash course from which I learned that the average backpacker spends a great deal of time with personal hygiene (preening and grooming, especially among the males, took on a whole new level) and sartorial (re)arrangements, travelling with more than twice as much clothing as we do – we frequently saw it all spread out in front of us. I feel hopelessly underdressed now but I suppose it doesn’t really matter given aforementioned invisibility.
We had pondered a trip to the islands but gave it a miss as the weather conditions would have made for very rough sailing and neither of us felt an urge to part publicly with our breakfast. Actually most vessels seemed to stay in the harbour for much of our stay in Airlie except for a few snorkelling excursions.
Instead we made good use of our bicycles and explored the surrounding areas, many of which featured prominent “for sale” signage for real estate developments – several of them looking decidedly faded and possibly targeting time travellers as they advertised ‘completion dates’ such as 2009. Not sure what happened to the real estate boom. Suppose it went Kaboom!
If you’d mentioned the town of Bowen to me in the past, it would have conjured up images of the delicious and famous Bowen mangoes which were introduced from India in 19xx. I might have also thought about vegetables and various other produce that are grown here in vast quantities, but I most certainly wouldn’t have thought about images of stunning beaches dotted along a most beautiful coastline.
In fact, had we felt the need to bypass Bowen for whatever reason, we would have done so without as much as blinking an eye. But we would also have missed one of the great surprises on our trip.
The town lies pretty much smack bang between Mackay and Townsville and in terms of tourism is overshadowed by Airlie Beach, some 80 kms away.
The road into Bowen was moderately unspectacular (which wasn’t helped by the tasteless “Big Mango” on the highway – one of the oversized fruit that seem to function as tourist attractions on these shores) and we thought we might just stay for the day then head out of town again the following morning. But we were greeted by a ridiculously attractive shoreline that just blew our socks off.
Subsequent cycling explorations revealed a profusion of seaside awesomeness: large sweeping beaches fringed with coconut palms, intimate little bays, dramatic rock formations, a stunning headland, and a coral reef teeming with tropical fish a mere 10 metres from the water’s edge in Horseshoe Bay. Seriously, what more can you want?
We had to pinch ourselves and wondered why this area never made it onto our holiday radar. But the overwhelming feeling of ignorance gave way to a sense of gratitude for being there now and making the most of it. And thanks to our trusty steeds we got to know Bowen and its surrounds pretty well – our leg muscles also.
Apart from the irresistible charm of the various beaches, we were also drawn to the laidback tropical atmosphere which may be due to the demographic mix – what seemed to be an aging local population and a strong influx of seasonal harvest workers, mostly young backpackers on working holiday visas who are vital for the harvesting of cotton, tomatoes, eggplant, citrus and various other produce.
Hollywood in Bowen
The town had proudly played a key role as a set for the 2007 filming of Baz Luhrman’s epic “Australia”, which also had its world premiered at the Bowen Summertime Theatre – a delightful cinema reminiscent of South California’s classic movie houses, on Queen’s Beach.
Since Baz Luhrman’s new film, “The Great Gatsby”, played while we were in town, we figured that a movie night was in order. While neither the bloke nor I are particular fans of Hollywood productions, we nevertheless enjoyed a dressed up date night and wanted to show our support for this local cinematic institution. We also met Ben De Luca, the cinema owner with whom we had an interesting chat. He proudly showed us all manner of memorabilia including signed posters and many photos of himself with Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman etc. all of whom, he assured us, made the town and the movie theatre their home during the shoot. The film clearly was a huge buzz for the town and evidently put it on the map; the very same map that we embarrassingly never laid eyes on.
Unfortunately though, the movie theatre as well as many other businesses (in Bowen and other towns along our route) complain about the poor current economic climate. Typical comments are that business is down 30 – 40% and close to pain threshold.
Looks like the downturn, which never happened in Australia in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, is making an appearance at last.
A town planning grumble
I’ll apologise in advance for this pitiful grumble which I’m going to share with you. I’m doing so in the hope that it might be cathartic as I’m still not quite over it.
It all started when we were on a bicycle ride and decided to head ‘into town’.
“Where’s town?” I asked the bloke. As the master of navigation he is always my first port of call for GPS type matters. However, on this occasion he looked mystified. By way of a vague sort of response, he waved his hand in a direction that seemed to cover a good part of north Queensland. I suggested that we ask a local for directions, but should have known better. Being a bloke, he has this affliction that prevents him (or me, by association) from asking for directions – at any cost. So, instead of entering into discussions, he assumed this look of steely determination and rode off … towards the nearest hill, as it transpired. After huffing and puffing up a stupidly steep hill – to a bloody water reservoir of all things – he pretended to enjoy the 360 degree view. The hidden agenda, of course, was to get his bearings and find the centre of town. [NB: the bloke disputes my recollection of events]
Anyway, after we hurtled back down said hill and went on a series of tedious detours along unexciting roads, we eventually found a few streets that resembled something of a town centre. However, it was far from a hub; basically just a couple of very wide streets, with an unenticing streetscape, a few nice buildings and mostly boring looking shops. Everything seemed lacklustre and a million miles removed from the spectacular natural coastal beauty that captured us.
The commercial areas of town were hopelessly disjointed and gave the appearance as if they had grown without any consideration for the overall urban appeal. I shook my head in disbelief and wondered aloud if the urban planning had been carried out by a string of unskilled enthusiasts, rather than professionals. It’s possibly the worst case of urban planning I’ve ever come across.
Well, I feel better now – of sorts.
Having said that, I’d love to be a match-maker and introduce the Bowen Council to some town planning experts. It might be a marriage made in heaven.
On balance though, Bowen is a lovely area that has a lot going for it. I’m not surprised that many of the people we’ve talked to have chosen it as a place to escape the southern winter or, more permanently, for (semi) retirement altogether. Coastal real estate is eminently affordable, the climate is by all accounts superb and the beaches are top shelf stuff. It boils down to a pretty darn nice package. If we don’t make it back to our home base, you can come looking for us here.
It would have been no hardship to stay for a few weeks, we would have liked to, but there are a couple of interesting music/arts/lifestyle festivals on our horizon (Kuranda Roots near Cairns, and Bushweek Festival, way up in Cooktown) which we’re incorporating in our itinerary. So, time to move on, if we are to see anything along the way.
Townsville – city niceties with town goodness
Many years ago, when I was a postgraduate student in Austria, I had a chance encounter with a visiting professor from Townsville University who urged me to apply for a junior lecturing role there. I still vividly remember this exciting episode. In the course of my deliberations, I read everything I could find about the place and was quite taken with what I learned. The offer was clearly very tempting, however a surprise pregnancy changed our focus somewhat.
Fast forward a couple of decades and we’re on our way into Townsville at last. It was Queen’s Birthday Weekend and I was filled with a great deal of anticipation.
I might just as well say it upfront; the place most definitely lived up to our long-held expectations. Townsville seems quite right in every respect: it’s large enough to give it a big city feel (170,000 pop.) without the relentless pace, congestion and ‘soul-lessness’ that often defines the big smoke, it abounds in scenic beauty with attractive offshore islands, including the holiday destination of Magnetic Island, a river, pretty boat harbour and the striking Castle Hill – an imposing granite blob that dominates the city topography. Then there’s the fabulous recreational development along the Strand which seemed to be very popular with locals and visitors alike. It’s complete with spacious rock pool, various swimming beaches (including stinger nets), gorgeous landscaping & gardens, water park … you get the idea.
The town centre is equally delightful and includes a great number of historic buildings, most of them beautifully restored, which makes for superb cityscape with a distinctive character that oozes charm, history and the laidback tropical lifestyle which is further enhanced by the absence of skyscrapers. As far as city living goes, it ticks one hell of a lot of boxes.
We took in the Anderson Gardens which are essentially the city’s Botanical Gardens set in a beautiful space that was originally developed as an arboretum. As a botanical nut, I particularly enjoyed the World Cycad Collection and the magnificently created Cape York habitat.
Given our suddenly pressing schedule with the Kuranda Roots Festival starting this Friday, we had to leave town without further in-depth explorations but with very fond memories and with a few musings about how differently life would have turned out if I’d come to Townsville all those years ago.
As that other famous Austrian said “I’ll be baaack” …