Esther's travel diary part two - authentic vs. shallow tourism in Queensland

by Esther Whitehead - Aug 27, 2018

For the next chapter of our journey we ditched the 4WD and compact caravan (Mike, who lent us his 4WD, needed it back - how rude) and the next stop was a flight to Cairns from Brisbane. In stark contrast to our previous destination Carnarvon Gorge, Cairns - like Queenstown - is where you pass over the art of creating your own experience to others, which, to me, is an ironic way to spend your leisure time.


Our intrepid travel correspodnent - Esther Whitehead

This is about heavily managed, programmed vacations, where 24-7 commercial activities and FOMO (or Fear of Missing Out) are on the menu - and it felt thrust upon us. Our planned stay of less than 12 hours suited us just fine. I’d like to hope our scepticism is not typical and that most visitors arrive, fall in love with the place and get on with booking activities for every moment of their stay (just like I did 20 years ago to the month!) and that the whole process seems both “natural” and “independent”.

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Cairns - shades of Queenstown

Only travel experience, age and working in the industry can turn you into the cynic, I suppose. The distance from home gave us the impartiality to see that Queenstown is on a par with Cairns and that if we want “authenticity” in tourism and “diversity” in economy, thrusting a certain type of tourism down people’s necks isn’t going to achieve it.

Having picked up our new home on wheels for the next 24 days, we drove north to Cape Tribulation. The best advice we were given for travelling long distances was to stay for longer periods at any place we liked. That is, if you like it, don’t move on, the grass ain’t greener. And, whatever you do, don’t drive every day. This meant not booking ahead and playing everything by ear. We had about a week north of Cairns, in The Daintree and beyond, spotting Cassawaries, the odd snake, lots of crocs and turtles (six out of the world’s seven turtles live in the Great Barrier Reef). For me, the time we spent close to nature was incredibly moving and humbling.

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Wazza at the Platypus Bush Camp - the office is open

The aim was to be close to nature whilst keeping our impact low. All campsites are well equipped and cost anything from $18 to $55 per night for three people. Australia got 10/10 from me for providing appropriate infrastructure for its travelling tourists. Freedom camping is not allowed in most parts of this region but permits from central government can be bought for national parks.

We then went inland through the Atherton Tablelands and headed south through mountain bike country and volcanic land. A stopover at The Whitsundays wasn’t actually planned but when we heard of the Derwent Hunter, a beautiful double-mast sailing ship with a wealth of fascinating history and an impassioned crew, we felt it was a must-do.

We’d arrived in Airlie Beach two days before race week - the day Sea Shepherd’s “Steve Irwin” ship came to shore to support the rally against Adani Coal Mine. We have been following and supporting the people’s movement against Adani for some time. Whilst the Australian government seems hell-bent on investing in an ecological disaster for the Great Barrier Reef, they simultaneously (and controversially) gave $450 million to a tiny not-for-profit organisation to “protect” the barrier. It’s clear that the majority of locals in Airlie do not want a destructive coal mine in the region.

The Derwent Hunter ship

The Derwent Hunter - respect for the ocean

The skipper of the Derwent Hunter is the niece of the owner of the boat and she and her crew inspired us greatly, so we booked a trip. The respect they had for the ocean, the land and the wildlife was second to none. You can also take part in a simple marine survey, which is an easy 10 minute observation of the fish life and coral life you see whilst snorkelling. This data is fed back to the GBRMPA(1) on a weekly basis. Cyclone Debbie took its toll on the Whitsunday’s Reef last year, but the coral is already regenerating.

Having stumbled across a brochure for a “unique” place to stay just south, in the inland Eungela National Park, we telephoned Wazza at Platypus Bush Camp. His slightly caustic response was actually part of his charm! We stayed three nights, walking, hanging out and helping out with the ‘WWOOF’ers. We met loads of interesting Europeans (peak season for them here in Queensland), we cooked our food on the fire, we played, we took hot rainforest showers (best shower in the world), we idled in the sun with a glass of wine, we chatted with Wazza and we learnt a little about his way of life.

La Case de Wazza MR

Wazza's Platypus Bush Camp - where the lifestyle is SLOW

SLOW is the order of the day - and Platypus Bush Camp is just that. Staying in a place which is an extension of its owner, it’s clear that it’s been crafted over time and with love. Like any true craft, it reflects its maker – just like Paradise Trust near Glenorchy (which we had the pleasure of managing for a couple of months last winter) reflects Mandy and her team..

Whilst these low-key tourist settings are a tribute to their makers, it’s in an unpretentious and humble manner. It requires time to take it all in, to see the beauty amongst the haphazard, and to understand its relationship to its maker. It’s a labour of love. In a way, it’s like visiting Old World buildings. I think this is why I love Europe so much - when you enter an old building, you not only step back in time, but you see the craftsmanship, the detail, the sheer time taken and the love, that has been put into it. I’m not referring to landmarks perhaps built by enslaved hands, but the more modest, yet still beautiful, buildings crafted by families hundreds of years ago and still standing proudly today. In many ways, “La Casa de Wazza” is just the same, described as “rustic” at best, and basic at worst. His love of nature, art and people is what shines through. It’s how he’s intertwined these in a self-sustaining way amongst the forest which gives the setting its charm. I did get a bit of a shock when I went to the loo- what first looked like one of those horrible plastic sticky toilet cleaners, turned out to be a green tree frog! They love to live there, and they also release peptides, which are antibacterial and anti-viral; ha ha, natures own cleaner!

Platypus Bush Camp

Eco-tourism at the Platyus Bush Camp - no excuse for getting lost

In the name of productivity, modern life has cut ties with nature, with slowness, and with true craftsmanship. If you long to get away from it all, then come and stay here. If you love it, just stay! This 20 acre plot of native rainforest with 1.5km of gurgling river, teaming with fish, dragonflies, platypus and more, is for sale (2) and a house in Queenstown could be sold to buy this outright. Wazza will only sell to the right person though. He says to me whilst smoking a spliff, sitting in his “office”, that he will be sad to say goodbye, it’s 25 years of “blood, sweat and tears”. The highlights have been the cyclones and floods, he says with a cacophonic laugh, and the people. Guests who have left as lifelong friends, those who have contributed to the artwork, the buildings and huts, and the history. He’s seen many a wrecked office worker stay here and leave changed. Young lads who feel connected here, working with their hands, being close to nature. They’re given guidance but it’s not prescriptive. I asked if the artwork and poetry was his: “Shit no, I am a delegator, I don’t have an artistic bone in my body, but I know how it should look and feel. I leave others to contribute their talents. I just tell them what I want and this is the result.” It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but for us it ticked the boxes – Wazza liked us, so we were ok! I didn’t bother checking out Tripadvisor – apparently there are very varied responses!

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A sea turtle in the ocean near Cape Tribulation

The whales were calling us and we felt we couldn’t miss seeing them at this time of year when they’re teaching their calves in the warm sheltered waters near Fraser Island. We booked on, what turned out to be, a very special boat trip, not only because of the whales but also the amazing people. Our chatty seven year old son Ted, got talking to a crew member because he was wearing a Hei Matau (Fish hook) necklace so Ted thought he may be Kiwi.  It turned out Radim wasn’t Kiwi, but had lived and worked in Queenstown, where he met his girlfriend Megan, who had worked at Remarkables Ski Field (also a crew member). This wonderful couple worked two seasons in Queenstown and whilst I didn’t know them, we share mutual friends. Megan’s sister-in-law is the founder of Boomerang Bags and her sister Nicole Mclachlan, is a Marine Conservationist with Sea Shepherd Australia. Radim and Megan have settled in Hervey Bay, focusing on cherishing marine life and raising awareness of these magnificent creatures. Megan, focuses on the positives, whilst her sister campaigns against the negatives. Her plight is supporting people’s wellbeing through her teachings of Yoga, and supporting the protection of our oceans through sustainable tourism. Meeting these wonderful people and others like them, was a highlight of our travels, we’ll be staying in touch.

Heading inland sets some distance from the masses and there are endless National Parks to visit. We didn’t even scratch the surface, which is great; it gives us the aspiration of another road trip, another time.  I can honestly say, I have never seen such beautiful waterfalls, and such abundant wildlife as we did in some of the Tablelands. They compare very well to The Galapagos Islands for me with regards to endemic wildlife.

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Esther Whitehead with son Ted and Wazza

Because the Tablelands rise abruptly from the valley floor to 900-1000m, they have their own microclimates and own species….acting similarly to an island, where we see accelerated evolution of species, known as the ‘island rule’ so there are animals and plants found only in the Tablelands. Whilst it’s less dramatic than Darwin’s famous Galapagos, it’s really incredible to see such abundance and uniqueness only a few kilometres from civilisation (sorry, can’t call the town of Dingo, civilisation!)  These National Parks in Australia are so special, and so accessible, they are a wonder to behold. 

My hope is that over the next decade Queensland politicians see the light, and that Australia’s political situation becomes more stable. This country has so much to offer beyond its mineral wealth and agriculture, its natural assets host breathtaking flora and fauna and for us, the exploration is not over yet. We’ll be back!

(1)  Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Association

(2)  Buy a slice of heaven- but only if you keep it bush! or email [email protected]

Main image - up close to a humpback whale off the coat of Queensland. Esther Whitehead.

If you missed it: Here's part one of Esther's travel diary.

Esther Whitehead, Crux contributor and long-term Queenstown local, isn't afraid to tackle big issues like mental health and poverty in her articles. As managing trustee of the Dyslexia Foundation of New Zealand, she is a strong advocate for equity in education. Locally, she is the founder of the Sustainable Queenstown Charitable Trust, which aims to inspire change through community engagement and provide environmental solutions. In research beginning next month, Esther will look at how local businesses are meeting the Tourism Industry Association's sustainability commitments. 

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