Adventures in Sydney’s Wild, Wild West

Indoor skydiving at iFLY Downunder in Penrith - photo by Rob McFarland

Indoor skydiving at iFLY Downunder in Penrith – photo by Rob McFarland

Sun-Herald, Australia – March 8, 2015

“Keep your arms folded and your legs crossed,” says the attendant. “Just imagine you need to go to the loo.” This last piece of advice is unnecessary because I need to go to the loo with impending urgency. My heart is also thumping like a base drum and my stomach is doing cartwheels. As the capsule door closes I glance in wide-eyed terror at the chute next to me to see a small child grinning with unbridled glee. The countdown begins – “3 … 2 … 1″… and then the bottom literally falls out of my world. The trapdoor opens and I plunge down a 12-metre near-vertical drop before being catapulted around a 360-degree loop at almost 60 km/h. When I finally come to rest in the exit lane, my diminutive racing partner is already sprinting back up the stairs to do it again. I stagger off in search of counselling.

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Boy’s own adventure

Skydiving over Wollongong - photo by Rob McFarland

Skydiving over Wollongong – photo by Rob McFarland


This is not how I’d normally spend a Wednesday morning. I’m perched on another man’s lap in a miniscule plane with no seats. Behind me my instructor is tightening a series of straps while whistling with the nonchalance of a man who does this for a living. We hit 14,000 feet, the door opens and we’re out.

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Review of Rydges Sydney Airport Hotel

View from room at Rydges Sydney Airport Hotel - photo by Rob McFarland

View from room at Rydges Sydney Airport Hotel – photo by Rob McFarland

The Sun-Herald, Australia – June 2, 2013

Finalist, 2013 ASTW Best Australian Story under 1000 words

Travel descriptions can evoke a wide range of emotions. At one end of the spectrum sit terms such as “overwater bungalow”, “champagne breakfast” and “free upgrade”. At the other end lurk “overnight bus journey”, “flight delay” and “cavity search”. Coming somewhere in the middle is “airport hotel”.

It conjures up an image of somewhere you stay out of necessity, not by choice; a place to endure an inconvenient flight connection rather than frolic for a week drinking mojitos.

So it is with subdued expectations that I head out to the airport on a Sunday afternoon to check out the new Rydges Sydney Airport hotel.

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Freestyle Escape cooking school, Sunshine Coast, QLD


Preparing toppings in Freestyle Escape's outdoor kitchen - photo by Rob McFarland

Preparing toppings in Freestyle Escape’s outdoor kitchen – photo by Rob McFarland

The Sydney Morning Herald, Australia – May 4, 2013

It was with some trepidation that I signed up for a cooking class at Freestyle Escape. The last time I ventured into a professional kitchen I rendered a salad inedible by liberally garnishing it with peppercorns (I thought they were lentils).

But the minute I arrive at Martin Duncan’s outdoor kitchen perched high in the lush Sunshine Coast hinterland, my fears are allayed. It would be hard to imagine a more idyllic spot for a class. In fact, the sweeping views prove to be so distracting that twice during the course of the day I almost lop off the end of one of my fingers.

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A night on the Great Barrier Reef

Aerial view of Great Barrier Reef - photo by Rob McFarland

Aerial view of Great Barrier Reef – photo by Rob McFarland

The Star newspaper, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – May 19, 2012

Finalist, 2012 ASTW Best Australian Story under 1000 words

There’s a feeling you get when you say goodbye to family or friends after a long night of entertaining: a mixture of sadness because they’re going and relief because you can finally relax and put your feet up. That’s exactly how I feel now as I watch Fantasea Wonder retreat towards the horizon.

Six hours ago I was one of 120 passengers who boarded the high-speed catamaran at Hamilton Island and made the two-hour cruise to Reefworld – a floating pontoon permanently moored over the Great Barrier Reef. All day we’ve enjoyed snorkeling and diving, made use of the pontoon’s underwater viewing chamber and taken trips on its semi-submersible to gaze at the amazing variety of coral and fish.

There’s been the option to take a helicopter joy-flight over the reef and we’ve feasted on a barbecue lunch under the warm Queensland winter sun.

But while 120 people made the trip out, only 119 are going back. Sadly, someone’s been eaten. I’m kidding. I’ll be staying here overnight.

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Adventure on the Murray River

Paddling the backwaters of Lake Mulwalla - photo by Rob McFarland

Paddling the backwaters of Lake Mulwalla - photo by Rob McFarland

It was supposed to be a hypothetical question. When I ask Jack: “What would happen if the engine failed now?” I didn’t expect him to reply: “Let’s find out.”

I wouldn’t be so worried if we were in a car or a boat. But we’re in a two-seater plane – and we’re at 760m (2500ft). Jack powers back the engine of the Piper Tomahawk and then, with a grin, tells me we’re about to attempt a dead-stick landing.

I try to hide the look of sheer terror on my face. I don’t like the sound of the word “attempt” and I’m even less enthusiastic about a landing with the word “dead” in it. But I’m in safe hands. As an instructor, Jack has flown for 34 years and has racked up more than 12,000 hours in the air. After a couple of sharp, banking turns to lose height, he glides in and touches down smoothly.

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Wet and wild in Tasmania

Tasman Peninsula coastline

Tasman Peninsula coastline

My mother warned me about not getting into cars with strangers. But she never said anything about boats. Which is why I’m hurtling at 60kmh through some of the roughest seas in the world with a man named Mick. Right now, I’m wondering whether I’ll ever see my mother again. I’m also concerned that a full English breakfast wasn’t the smartest choice.

Mick seems to know what he’s doing, though, and the boat is certainly up to the job. Custom-built specifically to take on these sorts of waters, the 12.5-metre inflatable RIB has a military SAS-style hull and is powered by three 300hp Mercury outboards. It’s incredibly manoeuvrable and so fast it inadvertently set a record for crossing the Tasman while it was being delivered.

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Island Paradise – Lord Howe

View of Mount Gower

View of Mount Gower

You know you’ve arrived somewhere a little different when a beaming Qantas representative jumps on the plane and cheerily welcomes you to your destination. He’s clearly happy with his lot on Lord Howe Island and it’s not difficult to see why.

Lord Howe, between Australia’s east coast and Norfolk Island, was designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 1982 for its “rare collection of plants, birds, marine life and exceptional natural beauty”. The surrounding waters were declared a marine park in 1998.

What this means in real terms is spectacular scenery, unique wildlife and stunning vistas wherever you turn. I lost count of the number of times I was stopped in my tracks by yet another perfect postcard scene.

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Crusing Australia’s Top End

Sun Princess Lido deck

Sun Princess Lido deck

It was with some trepidation that I accepted an invitation to sail from Darwin to Fremantle aboard Australia’s newest cruise liner, Sun Princess. Being single and under 40, I’m not exactly your typical cruiser.

I said yes for two reasons. The first was the opportunity to experience the biggest and most luxurious liner ever to be based in Australia. Sun Princess was the world’s largest cruise ship when it was launched in 1995. Accommodating 2000 passengers, it’s now been refitted and tailored for the Australian market so the electrics and on-board currency are all Aussie.

The second was the itinerary. Numerous ships visit these shores each year but very few tackle Australia’s north-west coast. Sun Princess would be visiting exotic, far-flung spots I’d only ever read about: Broome, the Kimberley, Exmouth and Geraldton.

I had only one concern: the food. Cruise passengers eat on average 10 to 12 courses every day. I had visions of strolling up the gangplank at Darwin and being rolled back down it in Fremantle. So I set myself a challenge: could I cruise for nine days and not put on any weight?

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Forage & Feast at The Lake House, Daylesford

Trout Meuniere

Trout Meuniere

My teammate spots it first: a handmade sign on the side of the road advertising fresh eggs for $3.50. Perfect. I slam on the brakes and we both jump out and race up the drive. Time is of the essence. We’re already half an hour late and we have no idea where the other team is. On the house’s front porch is a fridge and an honesty box. We need proof, though, so while I pose holding a carton of eggs in one hand and pointing animatedly towards the fridge with the other, he takes a picture with a disposable camera.

This, of course, is when the front door opens. If the owner is in any way fazed by the sight of two grown men taking a picture of her fridge full of eggs, she hides it well.

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