Bike Down Mt Wellington

View from the Top

While it’s certainly not the only bicycle experience to tick off in Tasmania, or even on our bucket list, this ride does have a crucial element we can all appreciate: down. Bike rides are great but, unless you’re into pain and muscular glory, they’re even more fun when all you have to do is hang on, apply the brakes and let gravity do the rest. Add spectacular views over one of Australia’s most beautiful cities – or the chance to rip through some local trails – and this bucket list experience all but pedals itself. The peak called kunanyi/Mount Wellington (a dual name that respects the mountain’s Indigenous heritage) towers 1271 metres over Hobart. It features the Jurassic dolerite ‘organ pipe’ cliffs that I’ve seen on mountains in Argentina, South Africa and Antarctica, geological reminders of the days when all three were linked as the Gondwana supercontinent. More importantly for local residents, the imposing mountain creates a rain shadow, allowing Hobart to be the second driest capital in the nation, even though it is located in a rather wet state. Often capped with snow year- round, the summit lookout has significantly lower temperatures than downtown Hobart. You can also expect blustery winds, a sensational view and a dozen people wearing fluorescent vests standing next to mountain bikes. Under Down Under Tours run two to three descents of the mountain every day during summer, providing transfers, bikes, guides and a support vehicle. On the drive up, passing the remains of hard- wood trees destroyed in a huge mountain fire in 1967, our guide points out hazards to watch for.

‘We’ll be going down 21 kilometres. Don’t worry, I’ve rarely seen anyone break out in a sweat,’ he says, reassuringly.
Certainly, the weather is cooperating a lot better than my first descent a dozen years ago. I still remember the wind chill blowing through my bones, and the disappointing view of mist from the lookout point. Today I see Greater Hobart and its surrounds in all its glory – the city, hills, islands, ocean and Derwent River. I also see people arriving at the summit having pedalled up by bicycle, which must be spectacular fitness training and/or a horrendous form of physical torture. We hop on our bikes and begin the first descent to a spot where we can regroup, take some photos and adjust our seats for comfort. Two kilometres pass very quickly when you’re rocketing down a steep hill surrounded by alpine forest. We’re advised to keep left as we’re sharing the road with cars, and without lines in the road vehicles tend to gravitate towards the centre. We’re merely cruising down, taking corners as fast as our nerves can handle, with our support vehicle bringing up the rear. At
our next meeting spot, our guide Lainie points out an optical illusion. In the distance below is the gentle arc of the Tasman Bridge linking Hobart to the eastern suburbs. ‘If you stand the Tasman Bridge on its end, it would be taller than Mount Wellington,’ she muses, which seems illogical from way up here, but since the bridge is 1.4 kilometres long, it makes perfect sense.

As we continue onwards, the flora changes to reflect the altitude, although I’m too busy looking ahead and smiling with the exhilaration of speed. Bikers can opt for an off-road section next, which everyone in my group agrees would be a fine idea. Although there will be some peddling and tricky navigation over loose gravel, it’s an opportunity to experience the unspoiled natural environment off the paved road. Biking on forest trails, we reconnect with the road and continue into the suburbs that have been cut into the foothills. We stop at the Cascade Brewery to admire the old convict-cut stones, and pedal past the historic Female Factory (where thousands of convict women and children were imprisoned) before joining city traffic. Snaking through various neighbourhoods, we conclude
the ride at our departure point on Elizabeth Street. All in, it’s a two-and-a-half-hour round trip, although without the stops to regroup and chat, you could shave much of that time off. As a tour, it’s a fine way to orientate yourself around Hobart, and easily one of the world’s best commercial biking descents. Our short stint in the forest leaves me hungry for more. With its hilly surrounds, fresh air and great views, Tasmania offers some of the best mountain biking in the country.

That same afternoon, Harry Nichols – local hero, up-and- coming Enduro World Series competitor and Discovery Parks brand ambassador – agrees to take me into the Meehan Range bike park in Clarence. It’s a popular play- ground of marked trails, tracks and jumps, although this time I have to pedal up to enjoy the down. Harry blitzes on runs named Corkscrew, Cliff Top and Smooth as Butter, and I do an awful job trying to keep up. I do, however, execute a couple of awkward wipeouts.
‘Please don’t do as I do. Just go where I go,’ I tell Harry. Harry tells me about the Maydena Bike Park, the country’s biggest gravity-based bike path, which opened up about ninety minutes outside the city. Tasmania has a welcoming community of mountain bikers, volunteers, bike shops and trail keepers; it’s the kind of destination that belongs on any enthusiastic mountain biker’s bucket list. As for the rest of us, all we have to do is sit in the saddle and start at the top of a mountain.

Click here for more info about the Mount Wellington Descent from The Great Australian Bucket List. 

How to Travel Australia with Kids

This month sees the publication of 75 Must See Places to Take the Kids (before they don’t want to go).    You see, while living and writing The Great Australian Bucket List, I was also travelling with my wife and two kids, aged 2 and 5, moving at a frenetic pace that very nearly did all of us in.  Family travel, I was learning, is an entirely different beast.   But we discovered some truly incredible wonders for all ages, gathered priceless memories, and also learned a thing or two.   To celebrate the launch of the new book, here’s some of that hard-fought wisdom for parents of young kids, and the people and family who support them.

75 Must See Places to Take the Kids (Published by Affirm Press)
  • There Are No Gurus

With due respect, any Mom or Dad who claims to have family travel figured out is delusional, likely fibbing, or paying someone a lot of money to look after their kids. The truth is: young kids do not give a flying crap about your best laid plans and intentions. Rather, they’ll make a crap while you’re flying (probably an explosive one, the kind that just violates a diaper).   Children under the age of five are frequently erratic, inefficient, agitated, annoying, moody, and instinctively know how to push your buttons. And this is before you take them on a stressful journey. Of course, you love them more than anything in the world, and there are moments of such tenderness, magic and wonder it makes all other forms of travel – backpacking, honeymooning, grey nomading – pale. But you will work for those moments, and pay for them in blood, sweat, tears and dollars. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

  • Flying

If there’s strategy, we tried it. Not letting the kids nap so they’ll sleep on the plane (they didn’t). Letting them nap so they’d be rested (they weren’t). Buying books, loading up devices, crayons for colouring in…the reality is that some flights are terrible, and some flights are not. Overwhelmingly, we found Jetstar’s crew to be sympathetic and helpful. Fellow passengers meanwhile could be broken down into several categories: a) We’ve been there and Thank God we’re not there any more b) How dare you bring your snotty kids on this plane and ruin my flight c) I’m right there with you and we’d chat but my kid is eating the tray that was last wiped down in 1997 …and d) Every cent I invested in these noise cancelling headphones was worth it. Never will time tick more slowly than when you find yourself on a plane with your screaming, inconsolable, jetlagged and overtired infant and toddler. The best thing that can be said for flying is that it eventually ends, you will land in your destination, it beats spending all those hours in a car, and with devices, flying today is very much easier than it used to be.

  • Driving

We drove almost 20,000 kilometres during our trip, and it definitely helped that we were in a comfortable Ford Everest. With direction from my toddler, I curated a playlist of 100 songs I knew my kids would enjoy, and adults might be able to stomach on endless repeat. We learned that snacks must be instantly accessible, along with wipes, and towels for sudden eruptions of projectile vomit on winding roads (watch for seismic clues like the kids being too quiet, moaning, or turning sepia). Good car seats are essential (we went with Britax) with the advantage of the kids being strapped in. Sometimes strapping them in was an easy process, and sometimes we’d lean in too close to fasten a buckle and get the open-handed slap to the face. Don’t blame the kid, you’re a sitting duck. GPS definitely takes the sting out of getting lost and provides some indication on how long the journey will take, not that this will stop the endless barrage of “Are We There Yet?”   Road games help, especially for the older kids. Drugs occasionally help, especially for parents.

  • Packing

Before you depart, resign yourself to the fact that you’re going to pack far more than you need. Imagining every conceivable scenario, you simply can’t help yourself. What if it gets unseasonably hot, cold, wet, dry, or buggy? If it does, you can deal with it with a quick visit to the store, mall or market. Our kids outgrew their shoes twice in 10 months. For almost a year, their wardrobe consisted of a small suitcase that seemed to refresh its garments along the way, when the holes and stains and smells overwhelmed the clothing’s usefulness. Even with a limited selection, our five year old would have meltdowns over her fashion choices, with a favourite dress or shirt cast out from one day to the next. Your best bet is to pack a travel uniform of sorts, with the same garment combo in multiples. Good luck with that.

  • Eating

The restaurants of Australia seem convinced that the most important food groups for every growing child are chicken nuggets and chips, pizza, mac and cheese, fish and chips, chicken nuggets served with mac and cheese, and pizza served with fish and chips.   Basically, all the essential minerals and vitamins one can get.    Of course, any time we ordered something that wasn’t from the Kids Menu, the kids would take one bite, and the bill would take a bigger bite. This is why we did a lot of cooking wherever we stayed, which not only saved us money, it also saved our sanity.

  • Accommodation

Self-catering cabins at holiday parks (we had wonderful stays with Discovery Holiday Parks) and two bedroom apartment rentals (we stuck with Oaks Hotels) served us much better than a traditional hotel room. Kids need the space, you need the kitchen, and holiday parks come with jumping pillows, pools, playgrounds, and most importantly, other kids for yours to play with. We used an ultra-light, easy-to-assemble travel crib from Valco Baby which ensured our two year old had consistency. He’s a good sleeper, but our five year-old frequently ended up in our bed, and I frequently ended up in her bed, a sofa, and one time, on the floor in the closet. You do what you got to do.   Kids thrive on routine, and travel is all about shaking that routine up. Everyone has to give or take to make it work on the road. By everyone, I refer to parents giving up everything, and the kids taking as much as they can.

  • Activities

I’ve written several “bucket list” books that investigate unique experiences, and I’ve built my career as a writer who chases the extraordinary, a Connoisseur of Fine Experiences.   You can visit a beach, wildlife park, waterpark, or museum anywhere, so I had to dig a little deeper for activities that could include my kids. Stuff like standing beneath a snarling lion inside a cage or hand feeding Bluefin tuna in South Australia.   Stuff like swimming with baby crocs or in natural jacuzzis (NT),   being inside a glass box hanging off a building or panning for gold (VIC), kayaking off Fraser Island or feasting in a shipping container food market (QLD), sailing with dugongs and chasing quokkas (WA), petting stingrays and braving the world’s steepest railcar (NSW) and jumping on modern art and staring down ferocious devils (TAS). Of course, the kids loved the beaches (the Whitsundays, Bondi, Byron Bay), the wildlife parks (Caversham in WA, Cleland in SA, Wildlife Habitat in QLD, the Melbourne Zoo), the museums (Scienceworks and the Melbourne Museum in VIC, Questacon in ACT, the Maritime Museum in Perth) and waterparks (most of the Discovery Holiday Parks we stayed in, the Oaks Oasis).   But most of all, they loved ice cream. Because in the end, it didn’t matter what incredible activity or destination we ticked off, the best part was just being together, spending quality time as a family that we’ll always look back on with joy, wonder, and inspiration.

Despite the challenges – the meltdowns, the pukes, the frenetic meals, lack of sleep, intense drives – my family managed to breathe deep, laugh, play, capture memories we might only appreciate later, and celebrate the incredible Australian opportunities that came our way.

You can buy 75 Must-See Places To Take The Kids at Booktopia and Dymocks. 


The Aussie Art of Getting High

Australians love the idea of being at the top of buildings and bridges. It’s an grounded in unique locations, over-proportionate attention to personal safety, slick marketing, huge opportunities for commercial profit, and less cynically, the chance to do something unusual.  Depending on your age, interest and physical ability, it will range anywhere from “wow, that was one of the most thrilling adventures of my life!” to “wow, I can’t believe I just paid for… that?”  Here’s a handy round up of the bucket list options in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Gold Coast and Brisbane. 

Sydney Harbour BridgeClimb


 The most iconic climb in the country is one slick operation, capable to funnelling in full tour buses in one end and successful bridge climbers holding mementos out the other.   Processed through a series of efficient assembly line-like stages, you get suited, briefed and safely, attached, and then walk a series of ladders, gangways and arches. The view of the Opera House and the Sydney CBD is worthwhile, and if you’re a visitor, you’ll learn much from the running commentary about the city and history of the bridge. You can climb at dawn, twilight, night or during the day, with a variety of flexible packages designed to eliminate whatever excuse you have for not doing climbing atop the world’s largest steel-arched bridge.   Millions of people have done it, over 4000 couples have got engaged, and the oldest climber was 100 years old.

Adelaide Oval Roof Climb


This one befuddled me with the fearsome language “Take on an Icon!” and redundant safety precautions.   Last time I checked you don’t have to strap yourself into a harness, cover your rings in medical tape, remove every object from your person, take a breathalyser, and wear an overall to climb up a ladder, or walk a gangway. It probably wasn’t fun dealing with the insurance companies on this one, who surely imagined every conceivable scenario of the silliness one could get up to on a stadium roof. The Oval is fetching, particularly if you take the tour and spend the extra dough during an AFL or cricket match. Spending a few minutes on the seats overlooking the pitch is total bucket list. I did a 2-hour Twilight climb, watching the Riverbank light up and the fruit bats fly across the city.   All I could think of was a: do we really need all this safety stuff, and b: it would have been great to have done this on a game day. 

Q1 Skypoint Climb


 Queensland’s Gold Coast is has long sandy beaches, and squirmy canals that shape the city’s character.   The best place to see them is from the Q1 Observatory, and better yet stepping outside for the highest external building climb in the country.   I followed the typical routine as dictated by the stringent requirements dreamed up by the geniuses of insurance liability: light jump suit, safety harness, breathalyser, cameras and phones in a lock box. There’s points for the high-speed elevator that gets you to Level 77 in just 42.7 seconds. From the Observatory, it’s 140 steps up a walkway to the summit, safely locked into a railing. Here you can lean over the beach of Surfers Paradise, gaze down a 270-metre vertical drop, and wonder why no-one is climbing to the top of the other tall buildings that frame the coastline. It’s a 90-minute experience (including the safety briefing stuff) and your ticket includes access to the less exposed but just as scenic Observation Deck.  You can read more about SkyPoint adventure here.

Eureka Skydeck’s The Edge


The Eureka Skydeck is another observation deck, boasting the fastest elevator trip in the southern hemisphere, and floor-to-ceiling 360-degree views of the city from 285 metres above the ground. There’s an outside area to grapple with Melbourne’s erratic weather, a kiosk, some befitting touristy-things. Recognizing its lack of edge in the thrills department, Eureka also offers The Edge, a moving glass cube that extends out the 88th floor and suspends above the city. Anchorman Ron Burgundy might say you’ve been trapped in a “glass cage of emotion.”   My young kids didn’t have any scary problems when the glazed windows cleared (with a sound effect crack for good measure) to reveal Melbourne beneath their feet. Then again, they are my kids.   Couples have been known to propose and those with a fear of heights, well, shouldn’t be doing stuff like this in the first place.

Story Bridge Climb – Image Courtesy Visit Brisbane


Brisbane’s storied landmark is the only bridge climb that lets you abseil your way down. The three-hour tour operates at dawn, dusk and twilight, and lets you scale to the top of the Story Bridge for 360-degree views of the twinkling city, the Glass House Mountains and south to the Scenic Rim. Suitably impressed, you’ll head over to the southern pylon for a thirty metre- abseil down into Captain Burke Park. The adventure, of course, is tailored for ’bucket list enthusiasts’.

Balloon over Canberra

It’s hard to imagine dozens of hot-air balloons taking off each year from the grounds of Westminster or Capitol Hill,  floating above the hallowed halls of the nation’s political power.  But, while Australia’s politics is a hybrid of both the UK and US political systems,  Canberra is definitely not a hybrid of Washington and London.  Instead, the nation’s capital is its own distinct place, one that is accessible, fun, and definitely open to playing with balloons.   The Canberra Balloon Spectacular is the annual event that brings together over two-dozen balloonists from around the world, departing over nine days each March from the lawns of Old Parliament House.  Visitors and locals are invited to hop in the basket for incredible views, and tick off a bucket list experience soaring in the skies.  Which is exactly what I intended to, showing up for a 6:15am flight as the sun approached the horizon.

Ballooning already features on The Great Australian Bucket List, with a chapter about ballooning over the Murray River in the Barossa region of South Australia.  For those who have never hopped in a basket, it’s a far gentler adventure than one would expect.  Ballooning gives one the sensation of quietly floating, free from the noise of engines or the speed of other forms of flight. Hovering over lakes and rivers, you won’t so much ripple the water below.  Pilots are at the mercy of wind and thermal currents, able to navigate altitude if not direction.  This is why conditions are so crucial for a successful flight, and why early mornings are favoured before the heat of the sun plays havoc with air currents.  Seeing the sunrise in a wicker basket hundreds of metres in the sky is also instantly memorable.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t a perfectly blue-sky morning when I met my fellow flyers and pilot in the lobby of the Questacon Science Museum at 5:45am.   In fact, it was misty and overcast.  Still, the winds were calm enough for a greenlight, which is more than I can say for my half dozen other attempts at ballooning around the world.  Pilots release a helium balloon and carefully monitor what it does as it rises into the atmosphere, a low-tech but effective means of reading the conditions.  My flight is with Balloon Aloft, and we drive to a field to unpack the balloon and basket and get ready for the flight.  Passengers assist by holding the balloon envelope while the pilot blasts heated air inside.  These gas-powered blasts sound like mini-jet engines, powerful enough to fill the envelope in about 15 minutes. The gas blasts keep the balloon flying, and warm passengers in the basket.   There’s a lot of anticipation as the envelopes fill up, pulling the 8-person basket upright.  Once critical mass is achieved, there’s little time to dawdle.  We scamper into the partitioned sections of the basket, and away we go.

The early morning chill dissipates with each blast from the burners, as slowly we rise to see a stunning view over the capital and surrounding valleys.   Surrounded by other balloons gives me a sense of scale and distance, the colours of the envelopes brightening up the skies for balloonists, as well as onlookers and early morning commuters below.  The distinct road ring that surrounds Parliament Hill showcases the careful planning that went into the capital, while Parliament Hill itself looks somewhat bunkerish and fortified from above.   We drift with the current towards the artificial Lake Burley Griffin that flows in the centre of the city (named after the American architect who won the award to design Canberra).  After a 45 minute flight, the pilot signals the perfect spot to land adjacent to the National Rock Garden.  We’re instructed to brace for the landing, which can be smooth or bouncy, depending on conditions, and the skills of the pilot.  This morning, our Balloon Aloft pilot is on form.   He keeps the balloon upright long enough for support teams on the ground to hold it down long enough for us to climb out, and the balloon quickly deflates.   We all assist in the folding of the envelope, and are shuttled back to the lawns of Old Parliament Hill for a buffet champagne breakfast awaits.  By mid-morning, the balloons have landed, the pilots and passengers are trading stories, and a few more bucket lists have been ticked.

The Canberra Balloon Spectacular is part of the city’s annual Enlighten Festival.  You can also book your scenic flight and find out more info with Balloon Aloft Canberra.

Sunrise with Roos in Cape Hillsborough

Getting up in the very early hours of the morning is often difficult, especially when your kids have woken you up four times in the middle of the night. You want to hit snooze on your alarm clock, and you want to hit snooze on life. The best experiences make you bounce out of bed no matter what time it is, because you know it’s going to be special.   Such was the case at 5am one morning in Mackay, and despite her late night antics, I was relieved to see my daughter share my enthusiasm.   We hopped in the car and drive 40 minutes north on a winding pastoral road to Cape Hillsborough Nature Tourist Park for one of the most special sunrises in the country.

It all started over a decade ago, when kangaroos and wallabies showed up on a particularly beautiful beach just prior to the egg-yolk sun breaking on the horizon.   The park’s owners started feeding the roos, and about a dozen guests came to share the fun each morning in the glow of a quintessential Australian coastal sunrise. Then word got out.  Qantas featured the experience in an in-flight safety video, travel writers like myself showed up, and next thing you know, hundreds of people are gathering on the beach each morning. All well and good, but not everyone has the good sense to let a roo do its thing. As with all wildlife, it’s important to keep a safe distance, and refrain from feeding sugary crap to animals that can become increasingly aggressive because of human interaction.  Roos have been known to attack overzealous and idiotic tourists, as well as they should.   Shortly after our sunrise in Cape Hillsborough, authorities and the park owners have decided it best to regulate the experience, charging a fee for live commentary from a guide about the region’s history and wildlife conservation.

This morning however, my daughter and I walk along the gorgeous coastline towards a crowd of people gathered up ahead.   The animals are already on the beach, and the sun is just about to make its splash.  International tourists are obviously more taken with the sight of kangaroos and wallabies, but regardless of your experience with the marsupial, it makes for a very special wildlife encounter, in a very special place, and at a very special time of day.  Memory cards are put to work as cameras big and small do their best to capture it.   Clear orange light during sunrise makes for epic shots. It’s the so-called golden hour for photography that we rarely take advantage because it’s too damn early.   My daughter is captivated, if a little chilly from the ocean breeze. It’s all over in about five to ten minutes, the animals scatter into the bush and the people towards their cars or more conveniently breakfast in their cabin, hut or motorhome inside the Nature Park.   Nobody can deny that despite the time of the day, it’s a sunrise well worth getting up for.

Swim with Rays and Sharks

Surrounded by rays and sharks

There’s some pretty slick experiences on The Great Australian Bucket List, and some quirky additions too. I researched activities and destinations online, in libraries, with the help of tourism organizations and local advice, and sometimes, I just followed my nose. We were driving up the Central Coast of New South Wales to Port Stephens when I saw a sign along the highway that read something like the title of this post: Swim with Rays and Sharks. Now I’ve dived with rays and sharks, and I love this big creatures, so when I Googled Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters and discovered this was an activity I could do with my kids, without heading out to sea, my bucket list antennae started pinging.

The smooth ray hug!

Sharks and stingrays get a bad wrap.  Although horses and kangaroos kill far more people than sharks each year, the ocean’s apex predator gets ravaged in the press, and… then there’s the Steve Irwin thing.  The reality is that most animals are harmless if you leave them alone and don’t give them a reason to attack. Although that doesn’t stop rays and especially sharks being slaughtered, according to one report, around 100 million sharks are killed each year, which is having a devastating impact on the marine eco-system. Husband and wife team Ryan and Lia Pereira are working hard to change our perception of these creatures.   They took over a hands-on shark and ray aquarium in Port Stephens and have turned it into Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters, devoted to busting harmful myths, and educating visitors about marine conservation.  With over 200 animals, we couldn’t wait to slip on a wetsuit and get into a series of pools with curious Southern Eagle Rays rays, friendly Port Jackson sharks, cuddly Blue Spotted Mask Rays, massive Smooth Rays and 3-metre long Tawny Nurse Sharks.  The kids were freaked out at first, some of these creatures were bigger than them after all, but after a while my daughter warmed up to the cuddles of a huge curious smooth ray, yes the same species that resulted in the tragic death of Steve Irwin.   The indoor facility itself is a little rough around the edges, with the feel of a two young kids doing their best to make a difference despite the operating costs. Given the challenges of operating a tourist attraction with the central draw being creatures that inspire fear and awe, it looks like it would make a great setting for a movie or TV show.

The kids are not convinced, yet.
Feeding a 3 metre-long nurse shark: Tick that one off the bucket list!

There are three main pools, including a little pool for the smaller kids to stand and also feed the rays, a larger pool where you can get a birds eye photo of yourself surrounded by swirling rays, and a large pool adjacent with the Nurse Sharks. There’s also touching pools and various displays to educate visitors about the different creatures. Wet suits are provided by the facility, and the utmost care is taken to ensure the animals are healthy and looked after.

Ryan and Lia’s devotion and passion for their animals is inspiring, and the lessons they impart on visitors of all ages is vital.    In the words of David Attenborough:  ““No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”

Learn more about Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters

Directions to Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters: When leaving from Newcastle follow the signs to Nelson Bay, at Salt Ash you will precede through 2 Roundabouts. About 5 minutes later you will find a Caltex on your left, directly after it turn left onto Marsh Rd. Follow Marsh Rd for about 4 minutes then at 686 turn right into Irukandji. All in it’s about a two and half hour drive from Sydney.