Africa Cycle Tour – Swaziland

Swaziland border to Nisela

I continued on past the border post with the aim to reach Nisela Game Reserve, 40km’s away. The tour guide I had met at the service station in South Africa told me it would be a good place to camp.

I was fairly tired by now so stopped for a half hour rest at the border town and bought some water. I had another funny chat with a local guy who couldn’t understand why I was doing this and then got back on the road.

The roads are equally as nice as South Africa along this section, well paved and with a wide shoulder. I was surrounded on all sides but what must be sugar cane fields, as loads of broken bits of sugar cane filled the road.

The locals walking this section didn’t appear to be as friendly as in South Africa, often not responding to my waves or greetings. They were likely just confused as to what I was doing.

After about an hour I took refuge in the shade of a bus stop and rested for a while to cool down. By now I had cycled over 120km’s and was quite exhausted so the last slog to Nisela was a tough one. I kept checking my Google Maps, wondering how I’m not there yet!

Eventually, a sign for Nisela appeared around the last corner and within a few minutes, I saw the entrance come up on the right. I cycled into reception, sweaty and exhausted, and checked in for a camping spot.

They had a function on in the main bar and dining room that evening so I had to quickly shower and get food before 6pm. I had a beer and sandwich and then ordered another beer to take away.

While sitting by my campsite two park rangers came up to me and for a moment my guilty conscience assumed I had done something wrong but they just wanted to borrow my bicycle pump.

Seeing as there wasn’t much else to do, I took a photo with a zebra and then got to bed very early, around 8pm.

Day 6: Short cycle to Big Bend

It was Monday now and I needed wifi to work but Nisela only had these ridiculous vouchers that give you 15 minutes of Internet with 100MB data limit.

I was still exhausted from the day before and didn’t want to cycle too far but luckily discovered that there was a backpackers called Entsabeni only 30km up the road near Big Bend. The receptionist kindly called them for me to confirm that they have wifi before I headed off.

As I’ve since learned, Google Maps is not very accurate in Swaziland so I missed the turn-off and ended up in a small village settlement where the backpackers was reported to be.

I really didn’t want to waste the day looking for the place so I decided to cycle back to a place called Lismore Lodge I had passed a few km’s back and see if they have wifi and a cheap bed. On the way, I thought I’ll quickly check one more side road and to my luck I discovered Entsabeni.

Unfortunately, Entsabeni is not actually a backpackers but more of a guest house, with only private rooms. They did have fast wifi though and I couldn’t be bothered to check elsewhere so I decided to spoil myself (and my budget) for one night.

I was the only guest so I had the entire place to myself and spent all day catching up on work. Around about 3pm they told me they would be closing the kitchen for the night, so I ordered dinner to be kept for later and at 4pm everybody went home, leaving the entire house to myself.

I hadn’t watched TV in months and they had satellite, so I ate and watched stupid sitcoms until eventually getting to bed a bit later than planned at 10pm.

Day 7: Uphill to Lobamba

Nodoby was around when I awoke at 5am but I had already paid the evening before so I packed had some coffee and got back on the road by 6am.

I knew today would be difficult because it was 100km’s, almost entirely uphill. It began off fairly calmly with a cycle through Big Bend and a minor incline that steadily became steeper throughout the day. It was still early morning so the first few hours weren’t too hot.

Around about 10 am it began to get hilly and hot, so I stopped to get some breakfast at a small roadside shop. I bought three cream donuts, water, Energade, chocolates and biscuits all for only R40 ($3).

After a half hour rest and feeling re-energized, I got back on the road. Quickly the hills began to come in succession, one after the other with each getting bigger than the last. It was now only 25km to Manzini, my planned lunch stop, but it was also 38 degrees Celcius and I was forced to stop at the rise of each hill and find some shade to cool down.

It took me almost two hours just to do 15km’s and get within the final, huge hill before Manzini. Here the shoulder was almost entirely gone and what was left of it was often filled with sand or scrub from bushes. As a result, I was often having to cycle in the road a little bit.

Around here many people stand on the road waiting for taxi’s, which hoot to indicate they have space to pick you up. Unfortunately, trucks also hoot when they don’t have space to pass you and need you to get off the road. In one case I didn’t move off the road, think it was a taxi hooting, and very almost got killed. The truck passed me so close its trailer scraped along my arm but it made no effort to slow down. I wobbled off the road briefly into some sand but didn’t fall and continued on.

From there on I was being very cautious to stay within the shoulder which at times wasn’t possible. I often had to stop and wait for a gap in traffic and then cycle quickly through sections that had no shoulder.

Eventually, a friendly guy stopped and offered me a lift, saying that this section is too dangerous to cycle and anyway, it’s far too hot. I didn’t argue. He even offered to let me stay at his place that night and take me into Manzini the following day. I should have accepted but I really wanted to try to get to my planned destination of Lobamba today as I was very short on time, needing to get home for Christmas.

As we drove he asked if I had seen any other cyclists in Swaziland and after thinking, I said no. He said that’s because nobody cycles here and as a result, the drivers probably don’t think to look out for cyclists. There aren’t even any scooters or motorbikes, so he makes a good point. He told me I was the only cyclist he had ever seen in all his time in Swaziland… and that I’m definitely crazy.

He took me about 10 km’s over the final huge rise into Manzini and went out of his way to drop me on the other side of town so I was closer to Lobamba. I thanked him profusely, gave him the address of this blog, and then headed off to find somewhere with wifi to have lunch and do some work.

The nearby KFC didn’t have wifi so I cycled a bit further and found a bar called Saltees. Although it showed up as having wifi on my phone, none of the staff knew the password. I stayed for one beer anyway and spoke to my waitress about my trip. Again, as with everyone, she struggled to believe me and told me I was crazy. She kindly helped me out by calling a nearby backpackers, Sondzela, to see if they had camping space and wifi – both of which they said they had.

I continued on in an effort to get to Sondzela but stopped along the way at a small, touristy looking restaurant since I was now starving. I ate a bacon and avo salad, drank two much-needed cold beers and since they had wifi, got some work done. Eventually, at around 5pm, I headed off on the last 3kms to Sondzela. However, upon arrival, the gate staff told me I can’t use that entrance unless I have a pre-booking. They said apparently there is another entrance around the other side, 10km’s away, that I must use!

I told them it’s getting dark and I don’t have lights (although I do) but they wouldn’t listen and sent me on my way. I couldn’t believe the stupidity of it – Sondzela was right there but I must cycle around to another entrance for no reason? Needless to say, I wasn’t going to give them my business and won’t be recommending Sondzela to anyone. The most annoying part is that the route I took is the only route that Google Maps shows to get to Sondzela – the route they described doesn’t appear anywhere on the map that I could see.

Fortunately, my friend had just told me about another decent backpackers called Legends that she stayed at previously but was a fair distance away. I had no choice but to push on through and luckily it was mostly flat until the last few hundred metres, so I arrived before dark.

The backpackers offered camping for R100 ($6) so I checked in and set up my tent in their very decent, shaded campgrounds. I cooled off in the pool for a bit and then grabbed dinner and few beers from the nearby store before heading to bed, exhausted.

Day 8: White water rafting

After checking some maps, I realized I wouldn’t have enough time to cycle through the mountainous regions of Swaziland and still make it back to my family home in South Africa in time for Christmas.

Since I was now in a relatively popular tourist area, it would be one of the few places I could potentially catch a bus from over the worst of the mountains and back into South Africa, so I decided to do that.

It was unfortunate because the mountains look lovely and I’m sure there are some amazing cycling routes, but the time of year was also not ideal – with high temperatures and flash storms. I chose to spend a day exploring Lobamba before heading off and resolved to return to Swaziland to explore further when I had more time.

I firstly arranged for a bus to take me and my bicycle to the nearby town of Nelspruit the following day, and then decided to do a half-day white water rafting trip.

The trip was decent and well organized although surprisingly short considering the R1,000 cost ($70). We only did four rapids, of which only one could really be considered a graded rapid (3+). The first two ‘rapids’ were essentially just fast flowing water and the second just a sluice down a weir.

We then reached the final rapid which was impressively big and my
paddling companion and I were thrown out of our raft, with me smashing my elbow into a rock fairly hard. Despite the pain, I was glad to have had the opportunity to face a rapid that was an actual challenge.

Afterward, we had lunch and beer provided by the tour group on the riverside and then headed back to the town. As an introductory taster course, it’s probably acceptable and the drinks at the end were a nice addition, but I still felt it was a bit over-priced for what it was.

Africa Cycle Tour – South Africa

Day 1: Mtunzini to St Lucia

I awake at 4am in the campsite in Mtunzini. I’m camping alone and nobody else is up at this time but the sun is rising and its light enough to see. I use the campsite ablutions and then slowly begin to pack up my stuff. I see no point in showering as I’ll be covered in sweat again by 6am.

I sort all my bike stuff out as best I can and strap it all on in various ways, take one last swig of last nights whiskey and head off into the slowly brightening day. I would like to cycle the N2 freeway to St Lucia as it’s the most direct route but there is a toll-booth coming on from the Mtunzini on-ramp and I’m uncertain they will allow me through. I choose to cycle through with confidence as if I do it every day and nobody appears to notice, although after about 50 metres I hear a muffled shout – oops, too late.

Technically, cycling on the freeway is illegal but I’ve been informed by some people on cycle forums that police are unlikely to pay any attention to you unless it’s within a city. I forge on fearlessly, 18-wheeler trucks zooming past within inches as the road’s shoulder varies in width from a few metres to a few centimetres.

There are lots of roadworks on this section of road so I spend the next two hours squeezing between construction barriers and piles of sand. Eventually, a newly-paved but as yet unutilized road appears on my left, so I take the chance and begin cycling on it, hoping my tyres won’t sink into the tar at any point. I pass a few workers and construction vehicles and nobody seems to mind so I continue, enjoying an entire four-lane highway to myself. Unfortunately, my luck runs out eventually and the tar road turns to unpaved gravel. I decide to test cycling in the stormage drain, which works fairly well but at various intervals, it disappears and I need to rejoin the crazy traffic.

By 8 am I reach a service station with a Wimpy and decide to stop for breakfast. For safety, I hoist my bicycle over the fencing of the outdoor seating area of the Wimpy so I can keep an eye on it from inside. Upon entering, I see a man wearing an official-looking shirt step outside and eye my bike. I ask him if it’s okay that its there, thinking him to be a manager, but it turns out he’s just a customer admiring my bike. A cyclist himself, he offers to buy me breakfast and we take a table together. It turns out he’s a land surveyor heading along the same route as me and even offers to give me a lift but I decline, explaining that it would defeat the object.

We get chatting about cycling and it turns out he’s good friends with a cycling blogger I follow called Blonde on a Bike – a woman named Bridget whom, he informs me, is, in fact, South African and lives in the nearby town of Howick. We eat together and I tell him of my plans, show him my blog and we swap Facebook contact details. I stupidly ordered a second coffee, thinking Wimpy still do free refills, and ended up costing him a bit more on breakfast than he expected. Kindly, he still refuses my offer to split the bill.

We go our separate ways and I fill up my water container before heading back out on to the road. The next section is far quieter, once I pass Richard’s Bay, and the road becomes a simple, dual lane bi-directional road with a very wide, comfortable shoulder. This is a big industrial logging area, lined with endless rows of tall gum trees and a never-ending stream of huge, logging trucks zooming past to collect the days wood. I still cycle in the stormage drain whenever I can just for added safety but it mostly feels like a nice country road out here.

As the day wears on, the heat increases exponentially and I begin to run low on water. Checking my map, I can see that there is a turn off slightly earlier than my intended turn off that weaves past a lake. I decide to get off the freeway here and hope to find somewhere to get water, if not from the lake as a last resort. I cycle on down a deserted road through what appears to be conservation area and eventually stop at a small guest house that advertises a stall. I don’t have any cash to buy water and tragically, their pump is not working. The guy also informs me that the only route to the lake is down a steep, dirt road – something I’ll undoubtedly struggle to get back.

I discard the lake plans and check Google maps. There appears to be a small safari resort up ahead and down a side road, so I head in that direction. It takes me along a very bumpy, sandy dirt road and I have to push my bike at sections, but I eventually arrive. There is nobody around but one of the farm hands point me towards a tap. I’m sure it’s borehole water and can’t be certain its potable but at this point I’ll take what I can get. I fill up and relax in the shade of a tree for a bit before heading back out.

It’s peak sun now at midday and I have to continue along a horrible, bumpy dirt road for a few kilometres before the tar starts again. On reflection, I should have just stayed on the freeway until my turn off – now I’m stuck in rural farmland. Just before I reach the tarred section a local guy on an old, rickety bicycle passes me and I decide I really need to up my game, so I start pedaling hard. Unfortunately, this shakes my bag free from my pannier and it crashes off on to the ground. Luckily, none of my stuff is broken, especially my laptop. I try to strap it on a bit tighter but I’m missing a bungee cord so it’s not very stable.

Eventually, after one more rest stop, I reach the tar road and plan to stop for lunch and a much-needed rest at the Spur steak restaurant in a nearby town a few kilometres ahead. I reach the Spur a sweaty mess and they kindly let me keep my bicycle safely inside the door while I eat. I decide its a good opportunity to do some work and fortunately, their WiFi is working for once. I order the cheapest thing on the menu, a chicken mayo sandwich, and get to it.

After two hours of work and copious glasses of water, I feel I’m rested enough for the last 30 kilometres to St Lucia. I figure it should only take two hours at most but little do I realise there is an endless stream of rolling hills between here and the coast. Despite my rest and feet, my legs are still broken and I’m pretty much drained of energy. More so, with each kilometre I head away from the freeway and towards the coast I become increasingly aware that I have to do this all again tomorrow in reverse. I figure I’ve come all this way, though, and it would be sad to miss out on St Lucia.

Eventually, after what seems like a hundred hills, I arrive in the small town of St Lucia and head towards a backpackers my friend has told me about. Unfortunately, they inform me they don’t have WiFi because there is a problem with the Internet across the entire town. I figure since I can’t work anyway I’ll just camp somewhere cheap and head back to the Spur in the morning for breakfast and work there. They direct me to another backpackers down the road that offers camping for R100 ($7).

When I arrive at the backpackers, the camping section is under construction so they kindly offer me a bed in a dorm for the same price. It’s only a two-bed dorm and nobody else is there so I basically get my own private room for R100. The backpackers looks like it recently burnt down and so facilities aren’t great as most things are in various stages of reconstruction. I don’t mind though as I’m so tired I feel ready to go straight to sleep. I decide to have a brief look around town, quickly grab some food and then head to bed.

On my wanders, I come across a seafood restaurant that has half-price sushi on Wednesday nights. Despite it still being out of my budget, I can’t turn down a sushi special and there doesn’t appear to be much else in the town so I eat three small plates of various sushi rolls and drink two beers. Around about 8pm I walk back to the backpackers and fall asleep before my head hits the pillow.

Day 2: St Lucia

I decide to spend day 2 relaxing my legs after a hard first day. After getting to sleep at 8pm, I awake very early and have a coffee while doing some work. I then head off to Wimpy for breakfast and to try find some Wifi, but unfortunately, theirs isn’t working either. Instead, I just write content for some blogs I’ve been meaning to do while eating bacon, eggs and chips with tea – like a true Brit.

Eventually, I discover an internet cafe with a semi-decent connection and get the majority of the rest of my work done. I then head back to the hostel to check out and get my stuff. After a bit of deliberation, I decid to check into Monzi Safari’s backpackers rather than cycle far out of town to the caravan park. It’s a bit more pricey than I would normally do, at R220, but turns out to be a good choice.

Monzi’s has an incredible setup, with two lush swimming pools surrounded by beautiful, shaded loungers and well-equipped kitchen and BBQ area. They also do a free, albeit small, breakfast and allow guests to bring in their own alcohol – even offering fridge space!

I grab some much-needed supplies from the nearby shops, including bungee cords, a new cooking pot, bicycle lube and a knife for protection. I also grabb a six pack of beer and then spend lunch relaxing by the pool drinking for a few hours.

In the early afternoon I decide to use my spare time wisely and explore the surrounding beach area on my bike. I cycle down to the coast and investigate a few beaches, encountering some guys who have gotten their 4×4 stuck in the sand and then promptly driven into a tree. I offer to try tow them with my bicycle but they just glance at me and then get back to the car.

I then head south towards the Boat Club which takes me along a 4×4 only road that crosses a section of the beach. Despite my best 4×4 cycling efforts, I have to push my bike for a bit but am rewarded by an awesome wooden path through a nature reserve in the St Lucia estuary.

Coming out the other side, I discover the Boat Club where I chill for a bit and have a beer with a plate of chili poppers and test whether I can work purely from my phone. Turns out it’s not too hard.

I then head back to the backpackers for one last chill session and a few more beers by the pool. There doesn’t seem to much happening at the backpackers or in town so I decide to get an early night. Just before bed I receive a message from a friend warning of a potential riot blocking the route I need to take tomorrow. If the riot happens, I not only might not be able to get to my destination but could get caught up in the violence.

I decide to sleep on it and see if I can get more information in the morning.

Day 3: St Lucia

I awake at 6am and have an early breakfast, still uncertain about whether I should risk the ride into a potential riot. I’m not too concerned with actually getting caught up in the riot, just that it’s 30km to the N2 highway and if I get stopped by traffic police there then I will just have to cycle all the way back. I don’t really have time to wait a few hours for the protests to be over otherwise I won’t make my next stop before dark.

Eventually, I decide to wait it out one more day, which is unfortunate as I’m already a day behind and want to spend the weekend in Swaziland. Now, I’ll be lucky to get there by Monday, which means I might miss a day or two of work – money I can hardly do without. Unfortunately, with cycle touring it’s best not to plan to be somewhere on a specific date as you will almost certainly be late.

Fortunately, Monzi backpackers is lovely so I’m not too upset. I spend the morning getting as much work done as I can and then cycle out to explore the Cape Vidal nature reserve. Upon arrival at the gate the woman guarding says I can go in with a bicycle, however, she fails to mention that about 500m down the road there is another fence that clearly states “no bicycles allowed” and has a picture of lions, elephants, hippos and leopards. This gate isn’t manned or closed though, it just has one of those grids that animals can’t walk over, so I figure if there really are lions in here they would certainly have better security.

I cycle in a short way and briefly consider just ignoring the sign but in the end I chicken out, not wanting to be that idiot cyclist who gets eaten by a lion on the third day of his trip.
I cycle around the part of the park that isn’t fenced off along some pretty hairy sand roads and see some zebra and impala. Then I take a side road and discover a horse riding school with a pen full of beautifully kept horses.

By now it’s hot and lunch is calling, so I head back and decide to have a braai (BBQ) and see if any guests would like to join in. I buy some meat, beer and wood and head back, only to be told by the staff I can’t make a wood fire. Luckily, somebody has left some charcoal, so I make a small fire and begin to cook my food. Nobody is around to join, though, so I eat and drink alone and have enough leftover for dinner and possibly even breakfast tomorrow.

Then I just spend the rest of the afternoon lounging by the pool, drinking beer and doing a bit more work. I also finish my long overdue blog about sailing Australia. Although there are a few people hanging about the hostel, it’s mostly couples, unlike in South East Asia where most people are single and traveling solo or in a friends group. As a result, I don’t see any opportunities to link up with a group to go out with and decide to just watch a movie on the communal TV and get to bed early.

Day 4: St Lucia to Hluhluwe

Finally, it’s time to head off, so I awake early, pack my stuff and grab some breakfast. I’m done and on the road by 8:30 am.

Things begin fairly well, even though I have to cycle out along the same rolling hills I had come in on. Fortunately, I don’t have the headwind this time and with fresh legs, it takes half the amount of time it took coming in.

I fill up my water at a gas station just before the turnoff to the N2 and chat to the security guard who can’t believe that I live in a tent and am cycling to Tanzania. He says I’m crazy. I agree.

Once I get on the N2, the cursed headwinds return and for the next two hours I fight into them, moving about 5 km an hour up and down hills. Eventually, they recede somewhat and I manage to pick up the pace a bit.

After about 30km, I reach a fairly populated area that goes on for miles and has a wide sidewalk away from the street. This makes for an awesome cycle path and I ride along it for hours saying hi to all the locals I pass. They have little stalls selling pineapples and tea which remind me a lot of India but don’t have any cash on me so can’t buy anything.

Eventually, at around 1pm I arrive at a service station just outside Hluhluwe. I stop for lunch and have a nice discussion with a woman who is a tour guide in the area and kindly offers me some good advice about the hilly areas and where to stay in Swaziland. After a burger and coke, I refill my water and head off to do the last 6km to Bahati campsite. This takes me along a fairly bumpy dirt road which isn’t too bad but when I eventually arrive at the campsite, it looks closed. I decide to try continue on to a backpackers I can see on Google Maps called Bushbaby – closer to the centre of town. Unfortunately, after 4 more kilometres of bumpy dirt road, I reach a very deserted, rundown town and a sign for Bushbaby pointing back the way I have come!

Annoyed, I cycle back and ask some guys in a truck if they know where it is. We get into a discussion of my travels and again they can’t believe what I ‘m doing. The one guy even says “you are lying, you could not have cycled from St Lucia”. Haha, it’s not even that far!

Eventually, unable to find Bushbaby I ring the number of Bahati and a women answers. She asks my name and then opens the gate remotely to let me in, describing how to get to the campsite. It must be low season as the entire game reserve and campsite is completely deserted. I cycle past some impala on the way in and then set up my tent and go for a swim in the swimming pool.

For dinner, I try to make spaghetti with a tin of onion and tomato, only to realize that I don’t have a tin opener and have to settle for spaghetti and cup-a-soup. It begins to sound like a storm is coming so I move my tent under a steel cover and spend some time updating my blogs before heading off to bed.

Day 5: Entering Swaziland

I struggle to sleep because I’m camped on a concrete floor under the steel roof, so I awake a bit later than planned at about 4:30am and, after packing up, only get on the road just before six.

I get warmed up along the dirt road out of Hluhluwe and am greeted by local workers as they walk to the game reserves and farms. I reach the N2 fairly quickly and then pick up the pace, enjoying the wide shoulder and lack of headwind for once.

I am passed by the occasional truck and car along this section but otherwise, the traffic is fairly quiet. Eventually, after about two hours of straight roads and minor hills, I reach a slightly more built-up area that has a number of villages along the roadside. To avoid pedestrians walking in the street the council have built a smooth, wide pavement separate from the road that goes on for miles.

Since it isn’t too busy with pedestrians I decide to cycle along this. It gives the advantage of being away from traffic as well as putting me closer to the villages and locals, all of whom wave enthusiastically and shout “hello” or “sawubona” as I pass.

I stop around 10am at a service station in Mkuze and eat a ham and mushroom pizza for breakfast along with a coffee. Then I stock up on water and snacks, since this is the last stop for the next 50km’s or so to Pongola nature reserve where the Swaziland border post is.

After leaving Mkuze, traffic thins out drastically and I sometimes don’t see a vehicle for up to ten minutes at a time. Again the road is straight and long with occasional small hills until I get near to the border. Then it starts to climb steadily and doesn’t let up for a long while. After about an hour climbing I come over a ridge into a mountainous valley with beautiful, twisting roads snaking along the cliffside.

After a brief and thrilling downhill run, I have to climb again for another half an hour or so out of the valley and over the next pass. Fortunately, this is the last one and as I reach the bottom I stop on a bridge to rest and take photos.

It is scorching hot by now but I only have a few kilometres to go until the border so I figure I should get there by 2pm. I don’t account for one final, long climb after the turn off to the border. I’m so hot I can’t make it up the hill so I stop in the shade of a tree and almost finish my water while desperately trying to cool down.

I rest for half an hour before struggling over the last bit of the rise and coasting down into the nature reserve below. I fly over the animal grate and shoot into the park at full speed, noticing a number of impala and kudu skittering away on the roadside.

I arrive quite soon at the border post, which is tiny and deserted, so within minutes I have my passport stamped and leave South Africa. On the way out the security guard is very interested in my trip and chats to me for awhile. At first I think he is suspicious but he turns out to just be curious, tells me I’m crazy, and sends me on my way.

Goon With The Wind: Two Weeks Sailing in Australia

(with acknowledgment to Margaret Mitchell)

I’m in a Dan Murphy’s bottle store near Harbour Town in Australia’s Gold Coast region, just south of Brisbane. It’s brightly lit and cavernous, with row after row of wine, beer, spirits and any booze you could want. Tomorrow, I will join legendary New Zealand powerboat racer Jim Harris on his 42-foot catamaran for a two-week trip sailing in Australian along the east coast.

How do you stock up on enough booze for two weeks on a boat? In my mind, I imagine there may be many long hours with little else to do but drink.

Australia has the answer: Goon.

For as little as 10 Aussie dollars (£7.50) you can get five liters of questionable quality wine, all nicely and securely backed into an aluminum sack safely guarded by a cardboard box. It may not be Châteauneuf de Pap, but at least you can use the bag as a flotation device when you’re drowning.

Make no mistake – this is no South African ‘papsak’, or American ‘box-wine’, no siree – this is GOON. It’s an Aussie past time, a part of their culture. It may as well be on the friggin’ flag.

I buy two, just to be sure.

With the goon and I ready to go, I pack my life into a backpack and prepare for the morning departure.

Day 1

We depart around lunch time, pop open a few beers and sail up the waterways that surround Brisbane. On route, we stop at a services marina to get fuel and water. I learn my first bit of sailing skills – tying a knot off on a jetty pier – it’s a simple case of looping the rope under itself so it pulls itself tight.

That evening we anchor in a small protected bay, still within the Brisbane waterways, and have the first of many drunken dinners on the boat.

Day 2

I awake early due to my bed being located directly over the generator, which needs to be on almost constantly due to a problem with the batteries. By the time I crawl out of my bed we’re already moving and we have breakfast on the go. Throughout the day we gradually make our way out of the Brisbane shipping channel as massive container ships pass us and eventually break into the open sea in the afternoon.

We need to sail throughout the night for the next few days due to there being nowhere to anchor until Lady Musgrave Island, a few hundred clicks north. This means the two skippers need to take turns sailing through the night and we need to take turns keeping them company.

I opt to do the morning shift, so after dinner and a few glasses of goon, I get an early nights sleep. I awake at 3 am feeling relatively good, considering, and join second-in-command Rodney at the helm. It’s utterly pitch black and we sail by radar only, hoping there is nothing large floating out here in the ocean. I stroll out on deck briefly but the wind is howling and I can’t see a thing – if I were to fall overboard nobody would hear me scream.

As 4 am rolls around the sky slowly begins to brighten and I can ever so slightly see shimmering reflections off the waves. The sky morphs from dull yellow into bright orange and red and for the first time, I can see the horizon all around us and no land in sight. We are alone in the ocean and at its mercy – a new experience for me.

Day 3

Rodney heads to bed soon after daybreak and Captain Jim takes over. I make us coffee and begin to prepare breakfast as the rest of the crew stirs. The 4-berth boat has a tiny kitchen that is well equipped – with two gas cookers, a small oven, fridge, and a microwave. There is also a separate freezer to keep meat and other perishables. As we bob from side to side, I try to maintain my balance and successfully whip up some eggs and bacon for everyone.

We sail throughout the day, taking turns at the helm, and Jim teaches me a bit about fishing. He keeps two fishing rods permanently cast out the back of the boat and we need to listen for the sound of the reel in case of a catch. Presently, one of the rods start unraveling and Jim calls me to grab it and shows me how to reel it in. As I’m pulling in a small tuna, a shark leaps out the water directly over my line, trying to steal my catch! I manage to pull it in though and get a further lesson in skinning and gutting it.

By early afternoon we begin drinking, for lack of any other activity, and by early evening I’m ready for bed. After a quick dinner, I opt to wake at 3 am again and head off to sleep.

Day 4

When I awake this time, Jim is behind the wheel. We have some coffee and he teaches me how to read the instruments and navigate the boat. As before, we sail on blindly into darkness putting our trust in the radar. Just before the sun begins to rise, Jim heads off for much-needed rest and leaves me to navigate alone. Fortunately, the boat has auto-pilot so navigating mostly just means keeping an eye on the controls and the horizon.

Soon after Jim leaves, I hear one of the fishing reels unraveling. The cartridge the line coils around makes a loud whirring noise as a fish yanks it out to sea. With no time to wake Jim, I grab the reel and start cranking the handle like mad, pulling in what feels like a whale. Eventually, I get the fish close enough for a good look – it’s a small tuna. I reel it in anyway and attempt to get the hook out its mouth but just as I do so it flops right out my hands and back into the ocean. The one that got away!

A short while later the crew awakens and I regale them with the story of how I lost our dinner, which is met with skepticism at best. We eat breakfast and continue to sail throughout the morning until we reach our first stop of the trip, Lady Musgrave Island.

Lady Musgrave Island is a tiny atoll off the coast of Bundaberg with a large, enclosed coral reef and a small circular island around 1000 metres in circumference. A narrow entrance has been cleared through the coral so that boats can enter and anchor within the reef. We carefully navigate in and find an available buoy to tie up to before lowering the small coastal access boat (called a tender). We all squeeze in and begin chugging off to explore the tiny island.

The island is host to a small diving campsite, a selection of birds and a bizarre amount of sea slugs crawling in and out of the coral. We cross from one end of the island to the campsite in a few minutes and then walk around the circumference back to the boat, exploring a curious lookout point along the way that reminded me of that old HBO show Lost, about the mysterious deserted island.

On returning to the yacht we decide we should set off again and sail through to the Percy Isles where we will anchor for the night. We set off in a northwesterly direction and with autopilot guiding us, settle into a lengthy, boozy lunch. Upon arrival, we dock in a calm, secluded bay just off the Percy Isles and have a relaxing night on the boat.

Day 5

We head around to the main Percy Island in the early morning and dock offshore from the entrance to the lagoon. After breakfast on the boat, we jump in the tender and head to shore. The main island in the Percy Isles features an amazing, decades-old wooden A-frame structure built on the beach which is a popular stopping point for boaties sailing in Australia.

The entire structure is covered inside and out with the names of sailors, their boats and the dates they came to shore – inscribed on whatever bit of driftwood or material that was available at the time. Some of the oldest ones date back as much as 50 years! We explore the A-frame for a few minutes and then begin the two-hour walk inland to visit the 100-year old homestead built high up in the centre of the island by early settlers.

The walk takes us up a relatively steep incline through thick forest before breaking out into a stunning view across to South Percy island. We arrive at the homestead and are greeted by a collection of goats and peacocks. The current occupier welcomes us in and offers us some lemonade which we graciously accept and provide him with a gift in the form of a bottle of wine – something that is, no doubt, hard to come by out here.

After a brief chat about the history of the island, we say our thanks and begin the walk back down along a slightly different route. As we descend, I see a number of small snakes or similar creatures scurry off the path into the bushes. The end of the path takes us to a small inlet that hosts a boathouse and jetty but since its low tide, the entire thing is dry. A few sailboats sit propped-up on the seabed looking like bizarre shipwrecks that somehow didn’t fall over.

Once back I decide to get some exercise and swim back to the boat, which proves to be easier than I expected. I then get a beer and kayak back to the shore to enjoy it in the A-frame before boarding and preparing to head off through the night to our next destination.  

Day 6

We sail through the night again and I join Captain Jim in the early morning as the sun begins to rise. Suddenly the reel starts spinning on one of the fishing rods and I jump up to pull in whatever catch we have. Jim stops the motor so it’s easier to pull in the reel but as a result, the boat begins to turn slightly with the wind. This causes the fishing reel to drift sideways and get caught up in the propellers of the wind generator, which sits high up on a pole at the back of the boat. We watch helplessly as the line coils around the propeller and grinds the entire thing to a halt.

Seeing no other option, Jim climbs up and begins trying to unravel the tangled line while I hang on loosely to the remaining line, the fish having now escaped. While I’m busy pulling in the remaining line to retrieve the tackle, Jim manages to free the tangled line. However, this causes the propeller to spin up again and smash him in the head, inflicting a huge, bloody gash above his eye. He falls on to the deck grasping his head and stumbles off towards the kitchen swearing, but I’m unable to help as I have both hands gripping the remaining line. While frantically trying to get the line reeled in I shout after him to ask if he’s okay but he returns momentarily clutching a wad of tissue paper to his head and swearing like only a sea captain can.

Having sailed once more throughout the night and most of the day, we anchor at lunch time just offshore from another small, uninhabited island. The entire coastline around here is dotted with small islands with varying degrees of habitation, although many are in protected conservation areas and don’t allow any construction. We briefly explore the small beach and I attempt to discover the source of some rustling in the nearby bushes, but to no avail.

The cliffs overlooking the beach appear to be inhabited by some kind of small bird that makes a bizarre sound, almost like a laser gun from an old 90’s computer game. Although we can constantly hear them we never manage to actually see one. Eventually, we retire to the boat for a beer. Since we are anchoring here for the night we can all happily get drunk without anyone having to stay sober to drive.

Day 7

We arrive at Mackay Harbour very early in the morning, before the marina is even open, and have breakfast on the boat while waiting to refuel and get a mooring. Once settled we head out to restock on basic supplies like food and goon. Once in town, I find a Red Rooster with Wi-Fi and get some much-needed work done while eating somewhat dry chicken and chips.

Then we hit the bottle store, stock up on beer, whiskey and wine and head back to the boat. We spend a pleasant night in the marina wining and dining in style on quality fresh goon and the spotted mackerel Jim caught the previous night while he entertains us with tall-tales of his years sailing in Australia.

Day 8

As soon as the tide is right the next morning, we head out of the marina and set sail north for the Whitsunday islands. We set course for Whitehaven beach, a popular spot for tourists and locals alike. Upon arriving we tender to the shore and take a walk down the beach amongst the throngs of tourists. It feels odd to be around crowds of people again after a week of almost complete solitude on the open ocean.

We then continue on to a small inlet where we moor for the night. Apparently, there is a path over the island that takes us to a beautiful viewpoint of Whitehaven estuary but the tide is so low now that we are unable to get the tender to shore. We decide to try again in the morning and settle in for a night of goon, whiskey and loud power ballads, no doubt annoying the surrounding boaties.

Day 9

After a rather hungover breakfast and copious amounts of coffee, we splutter to shore in the little boat and begin the hike over the island. It’s quite busy as a few day trippers have arrived in the morning and chosen to do the same. It’s a lovely walk though and the view is totally worth it, the ocean appearing a spectacular aqua colour from the increased vantage point. We take several photos from the various viewing platforms and then head back.

On the way to the boat, Jim spots a friend and they chat about where the best spots for snorkelling are and he tells us about some giant sea turtles he saw that morning in the nearby river that comes into the bay. We head off to explore and although we see the occasional head, the water is a bit too murky by now to get any good photographs underwater.

We reboard the yacht and head off to another small bay where we explore some old aboriginal caves and then watch dolphins swim around the boat after the sun sets.

Day 10

Today we head off to Airlie to do some shopping and explore the town.  We moor in a bay around the headland from Airlie and catch a bus into town while Jim stays aboard with Rodney to do some repairs on the engine. I need to get some work done, so after a rather lame McDonalds lunch, I chill at the famous Magnums pub while the others go shopping for more goon.

Back on the boat, we decide to head to Hamilton Island where Jim’s wife, Carlene (who came up with the fabulous name for this article), is flying in to meet us. We dock in the exceptionally posh harbour and I proceed to stink the place out because I need the toilet and don’t realise the valves underneath the boat are still open. Fortunately, we don’t get evicted, yet, but I feel sorry for any fish in that harbour. Goon does weird things to your digestive system.

That evening we hire golf carts (standard transport apparently) and head up to one of the highest points on Hamilton Island with spectacular 360 views around the entire collection of isles. There is a band playing old pop covers and a bar serving some kind of pink lemonade cocktail. It’s all very congenial in comparison to the time we have spent at sea drinking cheap bourbon and box wine. After a mind-blowing sunset, we head back down to have dinner on the boat and apologize to the goon for cheating on it.

Day 11

After doing some much-needed washing and a spot of shopping, we explore the island a little further before returning the golf carts and preparing to head out again. This time we are on a mission to find some good snorkeling spots and head off to Haselwood Island, which Jim’s friend has recommended.

Unfortunately, the swell on the main reef is very choppy so we have to moor around the corner in a smaller bay and wait for the wind to die. Luckily we manage to find a fairly decent section of reef along the coastline of the bay and got some good snorkeling in there just before the sun begins to set.

Day 12

The following day we attempt Haselwood bay again but are unable to anchor successfully, so head off to Butterfly bay, which is a popular snorkeling spot. Despite the popularity of it, I find it to be murkier and with less impressive reef than the previous bay. We do manage to spot a few giant sea turtles though before heading back to anchor in the calm waters of the small inlet where we explored the aboriginal caves.

I decide to kayak around another small inlet I had seen earlier to explore for more reefs and discover a beautiful, calm little bay protected from the wind. No reef though but some interesting birds flying about.  We enjoy a final, boozy night on the boat, chilling with cockatoos, polishing off the remaining goon and reminiscing on the past two weeks.