Trail Of The Unexpected: Off-road in Queensland
Bike down a mountainside or explore the shore: there's plenty of nature in Noosa.
Saturday 30 January 2010
"Get a bicycle," Mark Twain advised readers of his Taming the Bicycle essay, penned after he took tuition on how to ride the relatively new invention. "You will not regret it. If you live." Twain would have approved of being pushed off the top of an Australian mountain on a contraption little steadier than a penny-farthing.
And so I hung precariously from the back of a rented mountain bike, my posterior grazing the spinning rear wheel as the device hurtled dementedly downwards through Queensland rainforest. I'm afraid that I let out a low, wobbling wail. The pleasant beaches of Noosa seemed a long way below.
We had driven to the 265-metre summit of Mount Tinbeerwah, a 26-million-year-old volcanic plug, in a rickety 4x4 out of keeping with the well-to-do tourist town. A lofty breeze lifted the late morning heat. Climbers clung to the rock beneath us, and beyond them there spread a glorious vista of lakes and rainforest; a green thatch of eucalypts, bloodwood and wallum banksia, broken by vivid blue patches of water that stretched out to the South Pacific Ocean.
Helmet and gloves buckled, I selected the wrong gear and followed my guide Greg down the precipitous rock. Biker and shrubbery were to become intimately acquainted.
Our bone-juddering descent propelled us through creeks and vine forest. Kookaburras hooted with joy as we flew past; bush turkeys and large goannas scuttled for cover. Iridescent golden orb spiders looked on from their 10-foot sticky spirals, a bush baby snoozed high on a branch, and I managed not to squash a carpet python bunched by the path. (Twain would have had no such luck; he was renowned for running over dogs.)
Office life doesn't prepare you for this. It was like asking a battery hen to fly loop-the-loops. The first surprise was that you're not supposed to actually sit on the bike seat. (Doing so when going downhill at a 45-degree angle shifts your centre of gravity so that you inevitably go "end over", as the locals put it.) Bodily contact with the bike must be limited to feet on the pedals, hands locked loosely around the brakes, and only using the seat to press your sternum against, for balance. Quite unnatural. Miss a gear-change and you lose momentum, shuddering to a pathetic halt halfway up a climb.
That other 19th-century cycling enthusiast, HG Wells, mapped out mankind's destruction by aliens when he was idling around the Surrey countryside on two wheels. Goodness knows what unspeakable vision of the Martian apocalypse he'd have contrived had he been subjected to this.
And yet, after two hours' pedalling, the misery of being unfit, steaming hot and in mortal fear of impalement gave way to a strange joy – of weaving down steep crags, picking one's path over rocks and roots; and beginning at last to master one's steel charge.
Grazed, and plastered forehead-to-boots in mud, I decided that the other 130km of Noosa's bike tracks could wait. I hitched a lift back to town, and headed for the beach. At least with surfing, the water's cooler and it hurts less when you fall off.
The nutrients once blasted out by volcanic fire have left this low-rise town – 90 minutes up the Bruce Highway from Brisbane – a rich natural heritage: hundreds of acres of pristine parkland jutting into the ocean. Fraser Island, the largest sandbar on earth and a Unesco world heritage site, is visible across the water.
Canoe the dark tannin waters of the Noosa Everglades, into the Queensland rainforest interior to camp, and you can imagine the explorations of the first non-Aboriginal settlers. Insects drone madly around you, bull sharks cruise somewhere below (they can switch their kidney function to move from salt to fresh water), and the cypress pines and scribbly gums veer claustrophobically over the river. Raptors, especially brahminy kite, float on thermals above.
Then, of course, there's the other "wildlife". Setting out early on foot one morning to navigate Noosa's headland and sand dunes, I reached Alexandria Bay.
"A-Bay" is notable for two things: the vicious beach dump for surfers, just after the frothing rocks of Hell's Gates; and the gaggle of unclothed sun worshippers, affectionately known to locals as "white pointers" and "bronze whalers". We exchanged cheery pleasantries, passing one another shin-deep in the surf. That definitely wasn't marked on the coastal nature walk.
For those just passing through, Noosa might leave you with the impression that it is a sophisticated, moneyed sort of place, one which – aside from a few of the loopier surfers – has the heartbeat of a middle-aged, deckchair-bound relative. Here you can wake up and walk to the beach, visit boutiques or a gallery on Hastings Street, hit a bistro for lunch, and go back to the sand.
Travel essentials: Noosa
* Bridge & Wickers (020 7483 6555; bridgeandwickers.co.uk ) offers one-week packages to Noosa from £1,699 (until 31 March), including Etihad flights via Abu Dhabi, accommodation at the Sheraton Noosa and car hire. You can fly to Brisbane on Qantas (08457 747767; qantas.co.uk ), Emirates (0844 800 2777; emirates.com), Etihad (0870 241 7121; etihadairways.com ) and other airlines.
* Noosa Blue (00 61 7 5447 5699; noosablue.com.au ). Doubles from A$268 (£150).
Sheraton Noosa (00 61 7 5449 4888; sheraton.com/noosa ). Doubles from A$252 (£141), room only.
* Mountain biking tours down Mount Tinbeerwah start at A$69 (£39) with Bug Sports (00 61 7 5474 3322; bug.com.au ). *Go Ride A Wave (00 61 1300 132 441; gorideawave.com.au ) offers two-hour surfing lessons from A$55 (£31).
* EU passport holders can obtain a free electronic eVisitor visa ( bit.ly/ozvisa ).
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