Just like buses, when travel opportunities come, they all seem to turn up at once. This past fortnight has been amazing, putting us across five states across Australia.
From the sleeping on the Great Barrier Reef at Reefworld we join one of the world’s great rail journeys—the Ghan—in Darwin travelling all the way down to Adelaide.
Then we head up again to Uluru to see the launch of the world’s biggest permanent drone display. Finally, closer to home, we’re off to the Hunter Valley in NSW for a wine experience like no other.
Jim & Christina
Our epic fortnight of tremendous travel begins with a flight to the the beautiful Whitsunday Islands. In particular, Hamilton Island. This is our base for the night before the real adventure in the morning.
We’re travelling with a few amazing travel writers to explore the Great Barrier Reef in a very cool way.
Staying with us at the expansive Reef View Resort are Pam Wright, Carolyne Jasinski, Kate Webster and Rebecca Weisser.
After a dip in the pool, a stroll on the beach, a sunset cocktail at One Tree Hill and an enormous dinner at one of the hotel’s restaurants Coca Chu, it’s off to bed for an early cruise.
This morning, we’ve sailed to Reefworld—an vast three-story pontoon where day-trippers can come to experience the reef (Hardy’s Reef in fact) in person.
There are snorkelling and scuba experiences here but also a semi-submersible boat with windows in the hull or a viewing room that’s on the lower deck below the waterline.
Dive instructors here are absolutely brilliant and can guide you down for a scuba dive even if you have no license or previous experience with a regulator. They literally hold your hand all the way.
But soon, the ship that brought the day people in sets sail again leaving us chosen few to enjoy Reefworld and the tranquility of the open sea. Not to mention the virtues of the open bar and a delicious four-course dinner.
Reefworld has become Reefsleep!
On the top deck are a dozen sleeping pods—kingsize beds that you can zip an igloo canopy over at night. It’s glamping but like nothing you’ve seen before.
But if that’s not good enough for you, you can sleep below deck in one of the two Reef Suites.
These underwater suites not only have their own full bathrooms, they look out into the deep through floor-to-ceiling windows right at the foot of the bed. There are even glass panels in the floor.
All too soon it’s time for us to leave, but what a way to depart! We’re going by helicopter. Flying over the Whitsundays is one of the most amazing scenic flights you can take.
The colours of the reef and the water, and the swirling sands of Whitehaven Beach, which has won awards for the most beautiful beach in the world so many times, make your heart sing.
But why are we leaving in such a hurry, you might ask.
We’ve got a train to catch!
From Hamilton Island, we make our way up to Darwin where we will board the mighty Ghan Expedition train, travelling from the Northern Territory all the way down to Adelaide, a 3,000km three-night-four-day trip taking us through some of the most isolated remote places in the world.
We’ve never spent this much time on a train before and have only slept on one by accident! On board is exactly how we were hoping it would be: plenty of old-world charm, amazing staff and surprisingly comfortable beds.
Our restaurant car—the Queen Adelaide Restaurant—is all white table cloths, dark timber booths and art deco detailing. And the food (we have nine meals on board) are all beautifully plated and honestly delicious. I don’t know how the kitchens do it.
Joining our little troupe are more amazing travel writers: Di Webster, Fiona Harper, Ivy Carruth, Katie Spurgo, Kerry van Der Jagt, Sue Sloane and Emily Weaving.
One thing people have asked us about the Ghan is ‘but what is there to do when you’re on the train?’
To be honest, it doesn’t feel like you’re on the train that much. Most of the travel happens overnight or when you’re eating. Days are spent outside exploring the different stops. For the Ghan Expedition (north to south) we stop at Katherine, Alice Springs, Telegraph Station in the outback and Coober Pedy. But those experiences are another story.
After a week of bobbing around the Great Barrier Reef, zooming about on a helicopter and charging through the middle of Australia in a train, the hardest thing for us is getting our land legs back!
Once were back in Sydney, it’s just a one-night sleep then we’re back at the airport ready to leave again. This time, we’re heading to Ayers Rock Airport and Uluru for one of the most incredible things we’ve ever seen.
Over the last five years, Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia has been working with the local people, Anangu, to create a way to tell a part of their story.
Anangu, who are from the Yankunytjatjara Pitjantjatjara land, which includes the Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park, have led the way in bringing an ancestral songline from their history to life that they have called Wintjiri Wiru, meaning ‘beautiful view on the horizon’ in Pitjantjatjara.
With the help of the best drone and lightshow creators in the world, Anangu tell the Mala Story, a creation story of what happened to their predecessors.
The 1269 drones, seven projectors and five lasers that light up the night sky above Uluru animate the story in the most incredible way (I think I swore throughout the 25-minute show!) making this not only the first of its kind but also the biggest permanent drone show in the world.
It’s amazing to be at the launch of this display that will now run twice a night every night forever, sharing the story with visitors and showing them that to come to this special place goes beyond Uluru. After all, it’s not so much about seeing this place, it’s about understanding.
And the Anangu are keep to use this amazing show to keep their stories alive for future generations to learn.
Anangu share the Mala story, from Kaltukatjara to Uluru, through a drone, sound and light show designed and produced by RAMUS.
While we’re here in the Red Centre, we have some other fun stuff to do. As well as seeing sunrise over Uluru, we’re treated to a guided walk around Uluru with Anangu elder Sammy Wilson, who talked us through the Mala Story that comes from features and paintings of the rock.
We’re also invited into a conference to hear from those who formed the Anangu Working Group, heads of Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia and Bruce Ramus, who designed the look of Wintjiru Wiru.
It’s a fascinating conversation, and we learn so much about what the story means and what the entire project means, to so many people. But also just how much work, time, effort and capital have gone into making it happen.
This is Tali Wiru. Meaning ‘beautiful dune’ in Pitjantjatjara, this unique dining experience takes us up to the dunes of the desert looking out at Uluru.
From the shack kitchen come a range of superb delicacies that bely its size and remoteness, serving us while we relax under the blaze of the stars as night falls.
It’s yet another incredible experience in a long line of them since we first landed here. And it makes it just that much harder to leave.
Back in Sydney, we get ready for our next trip, this time to wine country; we’re off the to the Hunter Valley to Pokolbin and Scarborough Wine Co!
We’ve been invited to meet with the wonderful Sally and Jerome Scarborough—second generation wine-makers who we met for the first time in 2015.
We’re here to learn about the new premium wine range to come from this inimitable family-run winery, and also a new experience that goes way beyond a simple wine tasting.
We’ll give you more details later, but essentially, this experience sits you down with either one of the top cellar door staff or Sally herself and takes you through the new range known as Keepers of the Flame as well as the incredible Obsessive Range in virtual tastings.
But you also get to explore the vines and learn more about the geology, viticulture and process of the most important part of wine-making: growing the grapes.
We were also really interested to hear how Jerome, who took over from his and Sally’s dad Ian ‘Scarbie’ Scarborough a few years ago, is turning to more natural and sustainable methods of land management and grape-growing.
If you’re lucky, you’ll even be six foot under, learning about the soil substrates around the Scarborough vineyards in Jerome’s new soil pit! Seeing the land in this cross section makes everything clearer.