About Marianne McPhee
Marianne McPhee was born in London and has been a traveler throughout her life. She spent her summers in France and Spain on a boat, her teenage years living in the USA, and months backpacking through Europe and Morocco. She has spent eight months traveling through Thailand, Laos and Cambodia where she also taught English and then ventured to Australia for more exploration. She is a graduate from Boston University and currently works in the travel industry in London.
Latest Posts by Marianne McPhee
After almost five months in Australia, having sneakily avoided winter, I’m settling back into London life. When I think about my most recent travel adventure, I suppose I was able to see quite a lot of Australia, but really, I didn’t see half of it. This is one big country. I passed through five of Australia’s eight states and territories, saw cities, the ocean and the outback and I left thousands of miles uncovered. But what I did see, I’ll never forget.
I loved wandering through Darling Harbour or taking the ferry to Manly Beach in Sydney, exploring the great cafés and night spots in Melbourne, and hitting some of the fantastic museums in Canberra.
In the Northern Territory, I got a taste of what I’ve always imagined to be ‘real’ Australia (not that the cities are any less real) in the Outback. I walked around Ayers Rock and ran under its waterfalls after the rain, trekked through the Valley of the Winds in Kata Tjuta, and hiked around the rim of Kings Canyon. I drove past herds of wild camels, slowly backed away from a Western Brown Snake (one of the deadliest in the world), and evicted various lethal spiders that had found their way indoors.
On the coast, I got to see some music legends at the Byron Bay Bluesfest before heading up to the Whitsundays for a spot of sailing among these beautiful islands. I walked across pure white sand on Whitehaven Beach, and went snorkeling around the most amazing reef I’ve ever seen. The Great Barrier Reef isn’t world famous for nothing after all.
And finally I got to explore the famous Fraser Island – the largest sand island in the world, with its stunning freshwater lakes and abundant dingo population.
My list of Australian memories could go on, but the list of things I still want to see is even longer. It is almost impossible to really convey how fantastically huge and diverse this country is. I’m glad I got to see what I did, and I can’t wait for my chance to see more. The plane ride has never been more worthwhile.
So after I recovered from the shock of jumping out of the plane, I hit that annoying (for everyone else) stage where I could not stop talking about it. “I just jumped out of a plane! I can’t believe I just jumped out of a plane. Wow, that really just happened…” on and on it went. I did eventually get the hint, I promise, but not for a bit. You stop being aware of other people’s reactions to a thing like that after awhile…
I met up with the Fraser Island group (the ones that got stuck sorting out the 4×4s and doing the grocery shopping) and hopped into the back of our truck to head to the largest sand island in the world.
After navigating the bumpy (huge understatement) trails, and getting just a tiny bit lost, we found Lake Wabbe. Actually, we found a trail and a towering sand hill that promised to have a lake on the other side. I wasn’t so convinced. But we’d come all that way, so we started to trek up the sand. The steep, slippery, hot sand. When we finally made it to the top, it was totally worth the sweat. The view was fantastic, and luckily there was indeed a lake. Good thing because getting hot and sweaty after a shower free few days is not so nice… A family that had beat us there had boogie boards and the kids were surfing down the sand hill into the lake which made us all incredibly jealous. But we still all barreled down and collapsed into the cool water. Definitely worth taking a boogie board if you’re going though.
By the way – don’t touch the catfish. They’ll swim around you and act all friendly, but according to our Australian friend, they were armed with poisonous barbs. No thanks. According to the same man, Lake Wabby also has crocodiles. Apparently they’re only baby crocodiles, but then my question is, where the mama? Just sayin…
Every day in Fraser Island was spent speeding down endless white beaches, finding fresh water lakes, champagne pools and breathtaking lookouts, then firing up the barbecues and camping out in dingo-safe circles. The dingoes still got in, but they didn’t cause us any trouble. No babies being eaten here. We saw rays, dolphins, dingos, and the most postcard perfect places I’ve seen in awhile. An island paradise if there ever was one.
Even though I left Fraser with a slightly bruised bum, camping on this stunning island was the best thing I could have done for my last few days in Australia. After this it was on to Sydney for one night before heading back to London town. Oh yea, and I showered once back on the mainland again. Best. Shower. Ever. Although my five days shower free were pretty unforgettable.
After my days on the Hammer, it was onto the bus for a 13-hour drive down Australia’s East Coast. After watching The Green Mile on the bus television, I did my best to get my dream on, but it’s not the easiest in a cramped upright seat. Oh well. Arriving at about 6 in the morning in Hervey Bay, I got picked up by the Palace Adventures hostel van and taken to check in. Two hours later I was sitting in the lounge room listening to the most painful government safety video. Ever. I was headed to Fraser Island that morning on a three-day camping trip to the largest sand island in the world. I tried my best to listen about dingoes, camping, cooking and driving on dunes, but if I’m honest, I was dozing off… Hey, what can I say, no sleep and a poorly-shot film doesn’t help with the whole staying awake thing.
After that, me and all the other backpackers were split into groups to go into the 4×4s. Then we were told about our chores for the morning. Go to the garage. Pick up the 4×4s. Inspect them. Pack the camping gear. Go to the supermarket and plan our meals. Fun. Times… Or…….
After we got our safety lesson, a man came in and gave us another option. I was way too tired to know what was going on and getting out of the morning chores sounded good so I raised my hand…and volunteered to jump out of a plane. Ummm what?
I’d always wanted to go skydiving, but it’s an expensive adventure and I never felt like I could justify the cost. But on this particular morning, I had less than a week left in Australia, and no time to lose. So there I was sitting there with my hand up taking one of four spots to get into a plane and fly over one of the most beautiful scenes
I didn’t really have any time to think about any fears I might have, which is probably best anyway. I got into the tiniest tin can of a plane with my instructor and one other jumping couple. Then before I knew it, a door was opened, a massive gush of wind hit my face, and two people were falling out of the plane.
A voice in my ear was saying “right, okay, left leg over, right leg over, cross your arms, let’s go!” Thank GOODNESS I had no time to pause (the man tightly strapped to my back wasn’t exactly going to stop moving no matter what I did) otherwise who knows what would have happened. But what did happen. Was amazing.
That first second of panic quickly passed on to sheer joy and excitement. It was unreal, and hard to describe, but now I can say that I jumped out of a plane, AND I got to skip the morning chores. Success.
Next, it was off to Fraser Island for three days of camping and swimming in rivers. I was starting to get used to this whole not showering thing…
Okay, it sounds gross. Five days, no shower, no soap. Definitely no sugar coating on this one – I was…dirty. Why, you ask, did I go five days without washing? One day, okay sure, two days starts to get a little iffy. But five?
Let me explain. In those less-than-clean days, I went sailing on a professional racing yacht, traveled hundreds of miles on an overnight bus, jumped out of a plane, and slept on an island covered in dingos. Not much time for showering.
After landing at Proserpine Airport, I grabbed my bags and boarded the bus to Magnums Backpackers. On the way, for the one and only time while I was in Australia, I passed a group of wild kangaroos! It was early and I was tired, but wild kangaroos in Australia, it would seem, are harder to come by than you’d first expect so I was pretty happy. During my one night at Magnums I took what I already knew would be my last shower for days. I did my best to appreciate every drop of soap, promise.
The next morning started Day One of what we’ll call the Back to Nature Period. It began on a boat. A 75-foot Maxi boat to be precise, called Hammer, that competed in a lot of huge racing events including the famous Sydney to Hobart races. I packed on board with a group of like-minded backpackers ready to finally see part of the Great Barrier Reef in the Whitsundays.
Unfortunately it didn’t start off exactly as planned since the first day was spent cowering in the pouring rain cutting through the waves. Luckily the sky cleared up enough for us to check out Whitsunday Island though, and its amazing beach. The sand here is pristine. Apparently, it’s so pure (98% silica) it was used to make the lenses for the Hubble Space Telescope. Other than that use, it’s illegal to take the sand away from the beach as the whole area is protected. Pretty neat, huh? Oh yea, and I went swimming in the ocean, naturally, as my shower-substitute for the day.
Then it was more cold and more rain, but as backpackers do, we kept in good spirits. The good thing about rain is it makes for great sunsets. Our skipper hung a canopy over the boom to create a shelter and a group of us slept on deck since 20+ people cramped into a very small indoor space makes for one hot, uncomfortable night.
Day Two: it was time to don the snorkels and flippers (and all-in-one stinger suits) and check out why this Barrier Reef is such a big deal. It’s true that I wasn’t at the outer reef, but this place is pretty fantastic. I’ve never seen such huge coral formations, full of colour and ENORMOUS fish and clams! It was truly breathtaking. After stopping at a couple of different spots around the islands and swimming around as much as possible since, of course, this was my ’shower’ for the day, we raced another boat into harbour. And won. Oh yeah.
The Whitsundays were stunning, it was the perfect start to my Back to Nature days.
Next it was on to the overnight bus (after a bit of a deodorant application) and on to Hervey Bay where my morning plans were scuppered by a persuasive man with a parachute on his back…
What do you do with three days off work when you’re living by Ayers Rock (Uluru, or just the Rock) in the middle of nowhere Australia? You drive four hours down a big long road and find Kings Canyon. Another fantastic natural feature of Australia’s middle, and only slightly closer to any kind of civilization than my home by the Rock was.
My friend Gareth and I rented a car, and after a delayed start, found the road to Kings. Okay, it is the only road out of Yulara, so I guess it wasn’t that hard.
In two months living in the desert, I never got sick of it. It takes your breath away every time you get a real chance to see it – to see how truly vast this place is. Our first stop was Gareth suddenly pulling over on to the shoulder to see the herd of wild camels that were loitering by the side of the road. I always expected to see kangaroos around here and there are a few, but mostly we get camels by the dozen. They eventually ran off after I tried getting a little too close.
We eventually arrived and headed to the pub. Kings is a much smaller community than Yulara and we quickly identified the staff table. Gareth found a friend who had transferred from the Rock to here, so after enjoying a few we headed off to bed a bit later than intended as we wanted an early start for our hike around the canyon.
We had good intentions, but nothing ever happens as planned, especially when it’s early in the morning, so we headed off around midday. We stopped by reception to get a map and guide, and all the staff insisted that we were starting too late; the sun was at its height by now of course and the climb was going to be too hard in the heat. Thing is, we were leaving the next day and gambling on the fact that we were going to be able to get up early again would have been pretty stupid considering our failure that day.
After thinking about it, we decided to go for it anyway and just load up on water. The hardest part about the Kings Canyon climb is the very beginning. Before you get anywhere, the first thing you have to do is get up to the top, since the walk starts in the valley. No easy staircase here – this was Heartbreak Hill. After being appalled at my own fitness level, we made it to the top eventually. The walk around the rim is stunning. Simply stunning.
Unlike the Rock, Kings isn’t a sacred site for the Aboriginal tribes around here, so there’s no controversy connected with walking around. Climbing around the edge, and sitting on a ledge hundreds of feet above the ground – unreal. If I’m honest, while I love the Rock, the scenery you get on the Kings rim walk is far superior – it is NOT worth missing if you head to the middle. We checked out the domes, created naturally over years by erosion, and sat by the water in the Garden of Eden. I can’t emphasize enough how fantastic the hike was; we were definitely pleased to have decided to go for it. Especially the next morning…
We woke up the next day to rain. It rarely rains in the Outback (it is a desert…) but when it does, it really does. It poured. I was the lucky driver, so I had to navigate roads that were completely flooded since the ground here hardly absorbs anything. A small comfort was the fact that even if I hydro-planed off the road, there wasn’t exactly much in the way for me to hit. I didn’t though. I did have to drive off road around a herd of cows that didn’t feel like moving however.
We stopped at Curtin Springs on the way there and back – a huge cattle station with a tiny pub and guesthouse that owns another fantastic wonder – Mount Connor. The Rock has become famous because of its historical significance to the Aboriginal people, but the fact is that just about everything else around here is far more impressive, visually. The Olgas, Kings Canyon and Mount Connor are all a lot more fantastic. Sorry to disappoint if you all thought that Ayers Rock was the greatest thing around these parts. Not the case. Kings Canyon flooded that day and closed down.
My last day at Bluesfest, I spent most of the afternoon enjoying the time with my friends before I headed off. After a few drinks at the festival camp site, Kat and I headed off to see Tribali and I’m SO glad we did. You already know that I enjoyed every day and every band of this festival, but nobody got me dancing and hyped up like Tribali. Absolutely stunning world-music band from Malta, with enormous amounts of energy and an almost equal amount of instruments. Guitars, bongos, didgeridoos, mouth harps, drums, even a conch shell at some point. They were a totally mixed bunch of people going nuts on stage and sounding great. And they’re the only band who popped confetti so they get points for that too.
Later on in the day, Kat, Danny and I went to meet Tribali which was great. We also met Nick Kickstand who gave me his CD after he jammed out on his bongos with the band.
After the energy of Tribali, we couldn’t help ourselves, so we headed back to the Narasito Pan Pipers yet again and jumped around to the pan-piping/blues singing bunch.
At night, we camped ourselves at main stage, seeing Blue King Brown, Fat Freddys Drop and Crowded House to round off the night. Blue King Brown sang their heart out – they were a band to make Bob Marley proud. A soul, a purpose, a message, and definitely some music you could sway and nod your head to. You know the kind.
After them it was Fat Freddys Drop. I hadn’t heard of them before, I have to admit, but Kat had assured me I’d love them. She was right. The highlight was probably the trombonist who came out looking FINE in an all white suit and an energy he seemed to have a lot of trouble controlling. In fact, he had a lot of trouble controlling the suit too… he ended up in a vest top and boxer shorts by the end, but to say he enjoyed himself would be an understatement. His enthusiasm definitely rubbed off. I’ll thank Kat for that one.
Finally was Crowded House. Ahh my last act. Another one I wasn’t too familiar with – they’re homegrown Australian. Although I did recognise “Four Seasons in One Day” and “Fall At Your Feet.” My old boss from Longitude, Tapa, had recommended them so I thought I had to check them out. They were a great band, definitely of a different generation I have to admit, but I was just enjoying the time with my friends at my last day here before heading off for more East Coast fun. And I enjoyed it just as I wanted to.
So that was it, the Byron Bay Bluesfest was over for me. An epic four days in one of my favourite Australian towns. Even if I didn’t spend much time IN the town…small detail.
Saturday at the Bluesfest I took a bit of a break from running stage to stage. When I arrived, Kat and I briefly met up with our new friends Ben and Danny, then I left them to head to the press tent as I’d been told I had an interview slot with Bela Fleck.
I was pretty excited about my interview – Bela Fleck is arguably one of the best banjo players in the world, and had recently done a tour around various parts of Africa, studying the banjos origins and playing with local orchestras and village kids as he traveled. I saw Bela Fleck live back in Maryland when I was about 15, so I was really excited about the prospect of getting to meet him in person. I know he isn’t the most high profile musician of the week – but any interview was great for me, and this was a blast back to my high school days, plus I couldn’t wait to talk about his travels in Africa.
I was duly escorted backstage and shown to a table to wait patiently for the man to arrive. Delay after delay after delay later, it started to become pretty clear that it wasn’t happening. Mr. Fleck was running late and ran out of time before he had to get on stage. It was disappointing to have been missing so much good music in the meantime, but the silver lining was Poor Man’s Whiskey did a little improv jam session backstage after one of their interviews. So at least I got to see a little music, and hey, can’t complain about a more or less private backstage show, right?
After that, I finally made my way back into the festivals and located my friends again. I had time to briefly check out a bit of Bela’s set before we headed to the Mojo Stage to stake out our spots for the night. First one was the Buena Vista Social Club – a great latin orchestra that makes you wish you knew how to salsa. The problem I had with them was, that while they are GREAT musicians, and their music is top quality, it isn’t the type of music I particularly enjoy listening to for a full hour. They sing in Spanish, eliminating any chance of singing along, and maybe it’s my ignorance, but I simply cannot enjoy that chilled Latin beat for more than a few songs before I want something a little different.
Obviously this is a personal taste – and there were plenty of people in the crowd that would have vehemently disagreed with me. Unfortunately for us, everyone in front of us was there for the same reasons we were – to get as close as possible to the stage before the headliner. Jack Johnson. Yes, I know, I know, I’ve already seen him play once this week, but how can you say no to seeing him twice?? He was just as great the second time around too.
Day Two of the Bluesfest, just as Day One, I spent my time moving between tents discovering a handful of fantastic artists. Kat and I also took a break from the main stages to explore the rest of the festival, including the Original Musician Competition. We took a seat on the grass to watch the Mojo Bluesmen – two guys, one with a guitar, one with a loudspeaker as a microphone and harmonica. The harmonica player looked a bit like a plump sheepdog, but other than that they were pretty great. At the Avett Brothers performance we met two brothers, Danny and Ben who we hung out with the rest of our time at Bluesfest. They were Australians who spend most of their lives skiing and snowboarding around the world. Tough life. When we met them, they were back in their home country for the summer tour season including, of course, Byron Bay.
I was definitely getting used to festival life.
Chilean band, the Martinez Trio are a father and sons group led by Victor Martinez. I have to say I didn’t know that when I saw them performing on the Apra Stage at Bluesfest, but it makes a lot of sense. It was clear that they were purely loving their time together on stage, completely wrapped up in their music.
The three men seemed to be improvising the entire performance, although I can’t believe this was anything but a well rehearsed show. I’m not a musician, but even I understand that for three individuals to play together so seamlessly at the sheer pace that these guys were playing at is damn well difficult. Their hands blurred across the guitar strings as they played separately, then two at a time, and finally together. And apparently a guitar isn’t just a guitar… it’s the percussion too. Who knew… With ‘nothing’ but three guitars, close your eyes and you could have a full band in front of you. This was a family purely loving their time on stage together.
I’ve already alluded to this, but while the Bluesfest was brimming with jaw-dropping talented musicians, the actual ‘blues’ musicians seem to be the minority. but Joe Bonamassa is certainly one of them. This really seemed to be what a modern blues and rock band should be, with real ‘blues-y’ lyrics (about losing things mostly…) fantastic guitar solos and a man who has clearly spent a lifetime loving and mastering his talent. It’s great to see someone of such renown and experience still putting everything into each and every performance.
At times, Joe’s hands were up in the air, eyes closed, totally focused on belting out his songs. Perfect Bluesfest band. Plus he was pretty grateful to be there since apparently it was his first time in Australia. “Anyone who knows my name in this country is a miracle, so thank you” he said.
The Avett Brothers
The Avett Bros were yet another band I didn’t know about, but they were one of my favourite performances of the week. A total mix of bluegrass, country, rock, pop and a lot more, this was sheer rowdy, infectiously crazy music. The brothers (Scott and Seth) plus standup bass player Bob Crawford along with the rest of their band have an electric stage presence. This was their first ever weekend in Australia and I’m certainly happy they came. Their most popular song and their big single is ‘I and Love and You’ but there was plenty to love.
I briefly stopped by the Jambalaya Stage to see a few minutes of Imelda May – an Irish woman with a rich soul voice that probably belongs in a different era, but sounded damn good in this one. She rocked out in her stylish tight black and white outfit, while her guitarist enjoyed the show in a rather loud Hawaiian shirt. But hey, the clothes don’t make the music. Thank goodness.
I left Imelda May’s stage early because I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to see at least a few minutes of Jeff Beck live. You couldn’t help but feel a bit humbled and in awe listening to this guy. He has influenced and inspired some of the most famous musicians of the last five decades. Now I get to say I watched him play, including all the greats. Even a rendition of ‘Over the Rainbow.’
John Butler Trio
This was the big event of night. Australia’s most successful independent musician, John Butler Trio was the local hero of the day. His set was great and he definitely knew how to get the audience moving. Personally, I loved the improv (sort of) drum session. I knew this was one of the ‘tricks’ of their show, but it was still fantastic. As was John Butler’s acoustic solo songs – just him, his hat and his guitar in a spotlight.