Like many people, Denyse and I had always wanted to do a whale watching cruise. We had seen whales from our own boats in the Whitsundays and Cairns in the past, but never up close enough to feel that special bond with them.
Most years, our writing takes us to the northern parts of Australia during the winter and we found ourselves on the central Queensland coast, so that was our chance. Looking through the Queensland Caravan Parks Guide, the Fraser Coast Top Tourist Park, situated at Scarness in Hervey Bay, appealed to us. We were attracted mainly by its proximity to the beach but also to the hot pool and spa!
FRASER COAST TOP TOURIST PARK
This small park is rated four stars and re-opened some time ago after conversion from its past as backpackers’ accommodation. In 2012, it won the Hervey Bay Business Award for Contribution to Tourism. This was a real honour for a new park to win and it was great to see a backpackers’ turned into an award-winning caravan park.
The boutique park is designed for grey nomads – all sites are powered, there is no children’s playground and they do not take dogs. It is purely a tourist park with no permanent accommodation, which appeals to touring RVers. The park is easy to find and, while it’s just off a main road, there is very little road noise at night.
The limited number of sites means you may need to book in the busy times, especially the whale watching season from August to October. Tours can be booked through the office and most operators will pick you up from the park.
Fraser Coast TTP is run by experienced managers Liz and Rodger Clarke. Rodger helps get everyone on to their site, which is great as the sites are a bit squeezy. Nearly all the sites have slabs and the whole park is grassy. The managers have a policy of putting ‘whizz-bangs’ (small sliding door campervans) together on one side of the park, away from caravans. I loved this idea.
There is a 10m heated therapeutic mineral pool and separate spa, plus a huge recreation room, which was a night club in a previous life. The bar has been left as a feature. This room contains a pool table, large TV, a book exchange, wi-fi and computers, tables and comfortable seating and toilets. It would be an excellent meeting venue for caravan clubs who book into the park. Liz and Rodger are keen for groups of RVers to use this facility and will do what they can to assist, such as by providing Devonshire teas for morning tea. A group of us used it for happy hour on the cold evenings we were there.
There is a modern camp kitchen, which even has a pizza oven, and large barbecue, complete with an outdoor eating area. Rodger uses this for his fundraising sausage sizzles and other functions.
The main amenities block has been re-decorated and is kept very clean. The showers are large and have good water pressure. And the trolley in the laundry is a nice touch. We had good TV, mobile phone and broadband reception.
The Hervey Bay Bowls Club is next door. This huge club has under cover carpet greens and welcomes visitors but, unfortunately, it no longer serves meals.
The beach is less than a 200m walk away and you will find a coastal walking track, restaurants and shops. We enjoyed the fish and chips (and fresh fish) from Maddigans, which is within walking distance on the beachfront.
We chose a whale watching cruise with Jason and Virginia Brigden, who have more than 25 years’ experience, on their boat Whalesong. The catamaran is purpose-built for whale watching and cruises at a relatively high speed of 15-16 knots, getting you out to sea quickly.
They have two cruises daily, with pick-ups at Fraser Coast TTP. We chose the morning tour, leaving the park at 7.30am. The morning cruise supplies a cooked breakfast on board while the afternoon cruise includes a buffet lunch.
Whalesong left the boat harbour around 8am and breakfast of low fat chipolatas, bacon, tomatoes, quiche, salad and various types of bread was served as we cruised out to the whale grounds. Complimentary coffee and tea was available all day. There is also a licensed bar on board.
We spotted our first whales around 9am and the two juveniles played around the boat for about 15 minutes.
The skipper investigated several more distant sightings but, as soon as we were on the spot, they dived. We probably saw about a dozen whales blowing, but none very close up. Some whales were seen breaching in the distance, so the boat headed that way.
Feeling slightly disappointed, we were having morning tea in the cabin (a variety of small cakes and muffins) when the skipper spotted dolphins playing off the bow of the vessel. Dashing up on deck, we were entertained by a pod of around 10 dolphins. They were leaping out of the water, as high as the bow rail and calling to each other. They were quickly joined by four juvenile whales swimming around and under the boat. It appeared the whales and dolphins were playing together and, apparently, this does happen sometimes.
That was definitely the highlight of the day. The whales were almost close enough to touch, and having the dolphins there was magic. Time passed all too quickly and, after about 30 minutes, we had to return to port. Even so, we were late back, but what a show! We can now cross whale watching off our list.
We were in Hervey Bay for a week mid-August, which is just at the start of the whale season. You may see more whales if you visit a bit later in the year.
The commentary by Rachael during our cruise was excellent and, it turned out, she had conducted whale watching cruises in New Zealand before coming here.
We can certainly recommend this cruise, as well as the dedication of the skipper and crew in finding whales. Having had a charter boat ourselves in a past life, we can appreciate
that Whalesong is well-designed to get you quickly and in comfort to the whales, and it provides an excellent viewing platform from several areas.
The Fraser Coast TTP is in Scarness, a central part of Hervey Bay. There is a large shopping centre containing Woolies, Big W, Coles and many specialty shops about 2km away, while smaller supermarkets, shops and restaurants are within easy walking distance of the holiday park.
Only 200m away, the beach is excellent for walking and fishing. On one of our beach walks, we saw a female osprey dive, pick up a fish in its talons and carry it to a tree above us, still wriggling. While balancing on one leg, it quickly dispatched it and ate some to lighten the load, before flying off with it. It kindly allowed Denyse to take several pics.
We saw many poisonous toadfish caught by people fishing from the beach and jetties, but also some bream and whiting. There are many other attractions at Hervey Bay, including a visit to Fraser Island. We recommend a drive along the beachfront to Point Vernon, and back south to Urangan Pier and the marina.
Although we may have been a little early in the season, we were very pleased with the whales and dolphins we saw.
We found Fraser Coast Top Tourist Park to be a great central base, as well as having that great warm, therapeutic spa and pool to relax in at the end of the day, during an unusually cold winter for Queensland.
One of the highlights of a trip to Hervey Bay is, no doubt, a visit to nearby Fraser Island – 15km off the coast. This sandy paradise is World Heritage-listed and is a popular destination, but be prepared: this is a trip for serious adventurers with serious 4WDs (or pedestrians) only. At 123km long, Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world. The island is restricted to high-clearance fourbies because all the roads are sand, so those with smaller vehicles will have to leave them at home and visit on foot.
Car barges (which also take foot passengers) leave regularly during daylight hours from River Heads, east of Maryborough, and Inskip Point – a 15-minute drive south from Rainbow Beach. While the River Heads crossing is closer to Hervey Bay, the trip takes between 30 and 50 minutes, while the trip from Inskip Point can be made in 10 minutes.
Camping and driving permits are essential and you’ll need to buy these, either online or from ParksQ, before you travel.
Once you’ve got all that sorted, though, it’s time to leave the mainland behind.
While driving along white sandy beaches and traversing sandy bush tracks are a huge drawcard of the island, there is also plenty to do if you don’t have the requisite 4WD. There’s a multitude of walking and mountain biking tracks (guided or otherwise) and walking is really the best way to get up close and personal with the magnificent landscape, which includes rainforests, lakes and long, beautiful beaches.
Fishing and boating are also magnets for visitors.
There are many lakes and ponds on the island, but Lake MacKenzie, with its white sandy shores and sparkling blue water, is one of the most popular. It covers about 80ha and is serviced by picnic tables, camp grounds, toilets and barbecues.
There is a range of privately-run accommodation and campgrounds at Fraser Island, as well as several ParksQ-managed bush camps. – Laura Keys, Caravan World deputy editor.
·Hervey Bay is 290km north of Brisbane on the Bruce Highway. Fraser Island is about 15km off the coast of Hervey Bay and accessible by ferry/barge and airplane.
·Hervey Bay’s Whalesong Cruises: Operated by Jason and Virginia Brigden, who can be contacted at PO Box 620 Hervey Bay, Qld 4655, 1800 689 610, www.whalesong.com.au, firstname.lastname@example.org.
·For everything you could ever need to know about Fraser Island, including vehicle access and camping permits, visit www.nprsr.qld.gov.au/parks/fraser.
·Inskip Point to Fraser Island vehicle barge – 15-minute drive from Rainbow Beach to Hook Point. These barges run from 6am to 5.30pm and the trip time is about 10 minutes. No bookings required. Visit www.rainbowbeach.info/barge.html.
·River Heads (east of Maryborough) to Kingfisher Bay and Wanggoolba Creek vehicle barge – trip time is between 30 and 50 minutes. Bookings required on 1800 227 437, www.fraserislandferry.com.au, email@example.com.
Originally published in Caravan World #516, July/August 2013.