In Queensland, Catherine Smith ventures out of her comfort zone, and drinks and dines with awesome artisans.
Let my tale be a warning to Gold Coast visitors: do not let nice men in khaki talk you into things you do not want to do. They do it by stealth. A friendly hello, a wee bit of a pat, then next thing you know you've got 3m of python wrapped around your neck and you're trying to swallow your hysteria because you don't want him to get agitated and strangle you by mistake.
My behind-the-scenes visit to the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary had started with all the right signs. I'd happily lined up for my first cuddle of a koala. It was a big moment for me, but I'll admit that the furry one just didn't seem as keen on making friends as I was. Maybe it was that I was the last in a line of cooing tourists - the animals are carefully handled, and the seven stars of many an Instagram photo are rotated so they only get 20 minutes or so out on display. He was the size and proportions of a fat cuddly baby, with a slight pong. I could have kidnapped him if he'd shown me the slightest bit of interest.
My guide had suggested speeding up our circuit of the park to make it back to the entrance gate in time for the python-holding. So I deliberately dallied at the marsupials cages ("Look, a possum. Don't see many of those about"), begged the bird people to show me every feathery trick (that cheeky parrot was something) and joined legions of excited schoolchildren feeding the kangaroos in the open paddock.
More cuteness, although I couldn't get over how the joeys were tumbled upside down and backwards into their mamas' pouches, legs and tales swinging precariously.
I even hovered safely above the giant crocodiles making (false) admiring noises. I lingered for far longer than necessary at the animal hospital. Funded by a foundation, it is one of only two hospitals treating and releasing native wildlife, some 7000 birds and beasts a year. The admissions list was a blast - the dehydrated turtle awaiting ambo delivery, a crook croc or two, lots of lorikeets awaiting foster care.
But still I got my timing wrong and, much as I tried to scuttle past, keeper Beau was kindly waiting for me at the snake meet and greet. Though my face doesn't show it this was a turning moment for me: I have met my biggest fear and survived. For the record, a living python skin is far softer and lovelier than the dried stuff of a handbag, and that pulsing muscle feels extraordinary. One thing off the list.
I was on a roll.
After snakes, my second biggest fear is heights. So naturally masochistic me had scheduled a tree-top walk in the Tamborine rainforest. Those distant misty mountains in the western hinterland are less than an hour's drive from the coast, but are light years different. The hilly roads wind through teeny settlements, houses tend to the wooden country shack rather than glitzy Gold Coast bad-taste school of architecture, and many shops are well shut by 4pm mid-week. Try not to snigger at the signs warning you about the danger of the steep hills - clearly these traffic engineers have never driven in the Coromandel or out to Piha. There's nothing alarming here, but I guess Aussies are used to wide, flat roads. Instead, the adrenalin flooded my body as I tottered around the steel bridges right at tree-top level, some 30m above ground at the
. I believe my guide, Brendan Moore, whose family built the park, may have been explaining about the clever French engineering that suspended hundreds of metres of steel mesh from a couple of cables the thickness of my wrist, he may even have pointed out the rare plants, the butterflies lovingly re-habitated, a thrilling Aussie bird or two. I have no idea, as I was clinging to the handrails with my palms sweating so hard I couldn't clutch a pen.
Back on safe ground, Brendan was kind enough to point out my kind of wildlife, a ground-hugging bush turkey. The eco gallery, with an updated history of the first nation people of the area, was also soothing and calming after my trauma and I was ready to press on.
Blissfully, the other highlights of Mt Tamborine were much more me. I spent the happier part of a day at coffee plantation, a brewery and cheese spot, with a pause for lunch at one of the most glorious restaurants ever.
was established some 26 years ago, but it is the owners of the past 10 years, former Kiwi Kees van Rijssen and his wife Maria who have created what Kees modestly calls the "McLaren of coffee".
Horticulturalist Kees reckons his coffee stacks up against the finest from South America or Ethiopia, thanks to the terrific soil from the extinct volcanoes, the climate and his bio-organic growing principals (handily, my new friends the pythons get rid of mice and bush rats, eliminating the need for poisons).
The couple has spread the word, creating the East Australia Coffee Company with other growers, roasting and marketing the beans. Kees loves his trees as much as Maria loves her road-side cafe housed in one of the few genuine old Queenslanders left in these parts.
There's more artisan goodness a-brewing at a striking modern building on the edge of a neighbourhood known as Gallery Walk.
I'd recommend you skip said Walk and head straight to
, the cellar door of the cracking Brissie craft brewery, for a tasting platter of their best.
As I was driving, I was keener to spend time next door at the Witches Chase Cheese Company where British master cheddar maker Michael Reeve had recently arrived to teach the locals a thing or two. Though the soft cheeses (and icecreams) were good, the real interest is in Michael's multiple versions of cheddar, inspired by his homeland varieties like Cheshire or Leicester.
After a gorgeous lunch degustation at the Songbirds Rainforest Retreat I could see why it has scooped national awards. The food by Dutch chef Jasper Kan has a distinctly Asian twist, appropriate to the Bali-style open-sided restaurant surrounded by lush tropical bush.
He adds greens grown on site to glorious organic meats, keeps the food simple with only a slight twist (watermelon and feta lifted by a drizzle of lime oil; shizu leaf with the sashimi tuna), but then finishes with a satisfying European flourish of raspberry souffle.
I'd not expected so much of my off-beach experience, but conquering two major fears and eating and drinking with some pretty cool craft people, made for a good day. Worth repeating every winter, I reckon.
Getting there: Qantas flies daily from Auckland to the Gold Coast.