Another Saturday morning – refugees, terrorists and Masterchef

The full moon – taken with the Big Lens

Things have been happening in the world since we returned from holiday. I wrote my blogs, of course, as memories of our journey, but during that time, the world has faced new horrors. Especially in UK. We saw the brutal murder of innocent kids attending a concert in Manchester, the slaughter of people enjoying an evening near London Bridge, and now the terrible fire at the Grenfell Tower. This account in the Guardian is awful reading as people inside try to survive.

I’ve wondered for a while if I could be described as Islamophobic, and I think the answer is I’d probably be labelled as such. The Weekend Australian magazine today has an interesting article written by two people, a man and a woman, both born in Pakistan and raised as Muslims, who have renounced their faith. The woman’s story in particular resonated with me. She is a psychologist who has studied the Quran, and has lived in Muslim society, so she know of what she speaks. She says she is no longer a Muslim because Islam is essentially misogynistic. And I think she’s absolutely right. However, I’ll add that there’s a big difference between fundamentalist nut-jobs and people just wanting to live their lives.

I suppose some people will say the men who committed the murders in Manchester and London were nut-jobs. Could be, but people who shout Allahu Akbar as they shove a knife into somebody are terrorists. So is the fellow who took a backpack bomb filled with shrapnel to kill and maim as many as possible at a concert, in a location where it would do maximum harm. All in the name of God.

Man Monis, centre of the Lindt cafe siege which led to the deaths of two people, was undoubtedly a nut-job. But  people in Iran asked why we had allowed this known criminal to enter Australia? Apparently Iran had asked to extradite this man. If he’d been sent back, two people might still be alive, and a lot more would not have been traumatized.

Then we hear that men accepted into Australia because they feared being killed if they returned to Iran actually went back home for a visit, at least one to get married. When the minister cancelled their visas they appealed to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, who overturned the decision. Here’s the article in the Herald Sun. These ‘refugees’ deliberately lied to obtain visas in Australia. They should be packed off back to Iran (or wherever they came from) on the first flight.

We allow men in Australia to flout our law by having multiple wives (married under Sharia law, not Australian law) and even support the women and their kids through CentreLink. In other words, they are ripping off our welfare system.

And just the other day the Queensland government was apparently left ‘red-faced’ when a dinner for ‘movers and shakers’ in the Islamic community to celebrate the end of Ramadan included sauces made with alcohol. Okay, devout Muslims don’t drink alcohol. That’s fine. I want to know why the Queensland Government is hosting dinners for Ramadan? Does it host dinners for other religious minorities? According to the census, 2.2% of Australians are Muslim. But 2.1% are Buddhist, 1.3% are Hindu. Does the Government host special dinners for their feast events? Or do we only do it for the Muslims to prove we’re politically correct?

All this talk of food leads me to Masterchef. I said in a post a few weeks ago that I enjoyed Masterchef because it was about the food. I’m sorry to say that’s no longer the case. While we don’t have the sniping between contestants that seems to be the appeal in My Kitchen Rules, Masterchef is not about food either. We still get the occasional challenge where contestants come up with clever dishes given a list of ingredients. But several times already in this series contestants have been asked to complete ridiculously complicated dishes created by professional chefs (and no doubt a phalanx of sous chefs making each of the components) in a set amount of time, having been given a recipe pages long, and a taste of the original. One professional admitted it took 45 attempts to get his creation right. And amateur cooks, working alone, are being asked to reproduce these constructions in as little as 5 hours. It’s commendable that some actually complete most of the steps. So once again, the ‘contest’ is about how the participants shape up under enormous pressure.

Speaking of pressure, let’s put it on the table; some of it is contrived. Last year one of the contestants was an airline captain. This year we have a doctor, a GP. Yet early in the piece we were expected to believe these men lost their composure completely. Over a mistake in a kitchen? If that was true, I’d rather avoid the plane and the doctor’s surgery. Masterchef has become just another ridiculous reality TV show. And now the Ten Network is in receivership, this might be its last hurrah. Such a shame.

And now for a few unseen photos from the recent trip…

Cobbold Gorge is very narrow

A moorhen scudding across the dam

Pink and greys at dawn

Stoney creek falls

A whistling kite

 

Time to go home

Sunset from the train. We’ll be home around sunrise.

Sunday was to be our last day in Cairns. Pete and I passed on the half-day city tour – we’d been up this way for a week just a few weeks before and we thought we’d like to check out the city for ourselves. There’s some lovely colonial architecture in the streets beyond the esplanade along the foreshore, and lots of restaurants and shops selling anything from massage to T shirts to local arts and crafts. We ventured as far as the shopping centre next to the railway station, then meandered back, soaking up the relaxed sub-tropical atmosphere. I’m sorry I missed the Cairns Botanical garden – it’s reported to be a lovely place, and the markets were on there.

We went into one arts and crafts shop, attracted by a magnificent bronze sculpture of two humpback whales. Out of our price range, and we really don’t need any more dust-gatherers. However, it was fun chatting to the lady at the counter. She had a very positive feeling about the outlook for Cairns. This time of year was the lull before the busy times, when the Japanese and the Chinese have holiday breaks. Here’s a bit of info about Cairns. With pictures. We didn’t take any this day.

Although Cairns is built next to the sea, the bay itself is pretty uninspiring, especially at low tide. They’ve built a great beach pool which is popular with adults and kids alike. It was great to see families enjoying the surroundings.

We walked up to the ferry terminal, where we’d gone for our boat trip the previous evening. The Pier shopping centre surrounds a hotel and right around the wide veranda restaurants offered a variety of cuisines. It was one option for tonight’s dinner. We’d decided to forego the tour’s dinner, preferring to do what we were doing now – getting a feel for the city.

Later that evening, after a drink at the Rattle and Hum pub, we went to pick a restaurant. One we’d had in mind, up at the Pier complex, was by now a jumpin’ venue for the junior dance crowd. Pass. We weren’t in the mood for haute cuisine, so we headed into the back streets to look at a few of the places we’d passed earlier in the day. We picked one and sat outside on the pavement with a burger, fish ‘n chips, and a glass of wine/beer. Perfect.

The following morning we were back on the train. That 20kg limit for a bag is strictly adhered to; one woman was turned away to take 1.3kg out of her suitcase. She would have put the items in her carry-on. Um…

At least this time we got to see some scenery. Rainforest at first, then cane fields, pasture, wetlands in between stops. After dinner Pete and elected not to turn our beds down. We hadn’t slept last time, and this time we were getting off at 4:57. Needless to say, we woke up at every stop to check the time, and a couple of hours before arriving we didn’t even bother trying to go back to sleep. We rolled into the station about half an hour late, and were home by 6:30 (approximately). Huge thanks to our mate and neighbour, Bruce, for hauling himself out of bed well before sparrow fart to come and pick us up.

Looks like a bit of storm damage in that paddock

Australian white ibises startled off a wetland

Serious wetland in late afternoon

A ploughed field, mackerel cloud

The sun has set – but the sky show’s not over. Look at the header picture

Thanks for coming with us. I hope you enjoyed the trip as much as we did.

It’s worth spending days in Herberton

The Barkerville pub – relocated to Herberton and still doing business

It was time to head home. After breakfast at Bedrock Village we packed our bags and ourselves in the bus and headed for parts East. Our only real stop (apart from morning tea at Ravenshoe)  on the way back to Cairns was at the historical village of Herberton. We’d heard good things about this place and were a little surprised we would only be here for an hour and a half or so. Once again, this was a labour of love built privately. Over the years, buildings and their associated artefacts have been added to the site, giving visitors a good look at what life was like for the pioneers and residents right into the fifties and sixties. For many of us, the items brought back memories of times past. The tickets last three days – and this site is well worth many, many hours. There’s so much to see. We only really scratched the surface and didn’t have time to go across the suspension bridge to the other side of the creek where more buildings and more collections hid among the trees.

Elderslie House – info further down the page

A side view of the house

Read all about it

The dining room

The childrens’ room

Where the poor people lived

Just a few of the shops and other buildings on the property

The Tin Pannikin pub, modelled on the Ettamogah pub in the long-running comic strip

All about the Tin Pannikin pub

The school house brought back memories

Could you pass this test?

Cobb and Co. did business in Australia for some time. This is one of their restored coaches from Victoria. Anyone else remember the TV show with Peter somebody?

Of course there was a farrier

Recruiting posters for WW1

Different sorts of recruiting poster

The toy shop had amazing doll collections

And teddy bears, too

I used to collect the flag matchbox tops when I was about 7

Cigarette cards were all the rage once

The dispensary was amazing with a hug range of bottles and jars, beautifully displayed

The butcher’s shop

The radio repair shop. Do you recognize any?

I remember these

I can’t recommend Herberton highly enough. It’s a credit to everyone who made it happen. I expect it will grow from here. One more time, here’s the website.

After our visit to Herberton we went to a historic railway station near a nice rest area at Atherton for a picnic lunch of sandwiches and cake before travelling the remaining distance back to Cairns. We made one unscheduled shop at a local ice cream maker. (Joe insisted). The ice creams, gelato and sorbet went down a treat. Pity I couldn’t take any home.

While we were there a few parrots landed in the tree in the property’s front yard. I ran for the bus for my camera and I’m informed that Jackie said to Lorraine, “I’ll bet they stay here till she gets back, then they’ll fly away.” And that, dear reader, is exactly what happened. I blame Jackie.

That evening we went out for a sunset dinner cruise. I don’t think anyone took photos. By the time we left port, the sun had set. The meal was a seafood buffet, the usual fare, including more fresh prawns. Entertainment was provided by a young man who played guitar and sang, but the music was so loud we couldn’t conduct a normal conversation at our table. I think most of us are well past that stage of our lives. A number of us walked the short distance back to the hotel, enjoying the pleasant tropical evening. The area between the CBD and the ferry port is lovely, so well developed with paths, lawns, gardens and water features.

Tomorrow would be our last day in Cairns.

Surprises and the Undara lava tubes

Yer ackshall Mt Surprise from a moving bus (Pete’s pic)

Today’s itinerary looked great, but sometimes things don’t go according to plan. This turned out to be one of those days. We all assembled dutifully to file onto our bus – driven today by Greg, one of Joe’s staff. Greg had been a bank manager in a previous life but he and his wife got sick of the vagaries of the big city, bought a caravan, and hit the road. They’d been itinerant for years, picking up work at places like Lawn Hill and Bedrock, conducting tours for people like us. He was probably around the same age as us, but also probably a bit fitter than most.

We were surprised to learn he’d be taking us on a tour of Mt Surprise! (Maybe that was the surprise) We’d already walked past the pub and the school, noted the other caravan park, checked out the gem stone store, and we’d been to the railway station. Then there was the remains of a WWII radar station designed to look out for attacks on Cairns or Townsville, and the monument to the miners who opened up the area. Still, we learned one teacher taught 21 kids from bubs to year six. Joe and Jo’s children both attended the school. Their son, Toby, was top of his class for all seven years. Of course, he was also bottom of the class, but they don’t talk about that. Which raises another point. When I was at school primary education was seven years. You went to high school in the year you turned thirteen (provided you’d passed – but that’s another story). That’s been changed so kids in year seven now attend high school. For bush families, that means another year of finding the money for boarding school – let alone the impact on an 11 year old forced to leave home.

Also, Mt Surpise has a second street! Which goes past yer ackshall Mt Surprise! As it happened, the flying doctor had just landed at the airstrip when we arrived there. The doctor was being driven into town, where a row of people waited at the clinic. The flying doctor comes here once a fortnight, so the locals need to organise any injuries or illnesses to suit.

On the itinerary we had expected to visit a cattle station to see dogs working cattle, and I had been looking forward to that. It seemed the arrangement with the dogs’ owner had fallen through, but nobody bothered to let the travel company (and its guests) know. So we had a couple of hours to kill before we visited the Undara lava tunnels – this one was on my bucket list. Yay! The word is pronounced un-DAR-a, by the way.

An Eastern grey kangaroo. She has a little one in her pouch. See the leg?

Here again, though, the itinerary had been changed. We had expected to take a walk up to the lip of the Kalkani crater, then visit three lava tubes. I’m not sure if changes were made since our party was in the older demographic, but we didn’t even see the volcano. However, Greg was good enough to stop the bus as we drove to the lava tubes so we could get some photos of kangaroos – one of the few chances I’d had on the whole trip.

The walkway into the lava tube. Note the lush vegetation in this microclimate

Greg took us to two lava tunnels, both fitted with walkways to take us down into the bowels of the earth. They were awesome. You can find out a little about the geology of the tubes here, or if you want detail, look here. But in summary, as the lava boils out of the volcano and pours across the landscape, the lava most in contact with the air cools and solidifies first, rather like the skin on a custard. Beneath the surface the heat is retained and the lava rolls on until the land no longer slopes down, or the volcano stops regurgitating molten rock. Behind the lava flow, a rocky tube has been created with a smooth floor. One of the lava flows extends for 160 km, making it the longest lava flow from a single volcano on earth*. Over the eons the tubes were covered, then revealed by erosion. Some of the arches covering the tubes gave way and these enormous caverns became home to bats.

Going down…

Note the little stream at the side. These tunnels fill with water when it really rains. Greg said he’d been swimming in some of them. What’s more, the roof provides no protection from the rain. It just drips on through.

The collapsed roof creates a pile of rubble. Without a walkway you have to clamber down those rocks

A lot of work has been carried out, finding and mapping the tubes. Greg told us geologists and speleologists are still finding more. In some of the caverns breathing apparatus is necessary, apparently because without adequate ventilation, bats using the tunnels use up the air and expel CO₂, which, being heavy than air, sinks. We were told a story about a man who went missing around Undara and was never found. It’s believed he entered one of these deep caves, went to sleep and never woke up.

The stories are endless. I asked about Aboriginal people and was told they fear the lava tubes, believing them to be the homes of evil spirits. A couple of Aboriginal women, training to be rangers, were brought down the tunnels. They were the last in and the very first out. That might also explain the indigenous stockmen avoiding narrow Cobbold Gorge. There’s a story about the walkway, too. National Parks employed men from a nearby minimum security prison to do the work. Most of the guys loved being out in the open air, doing something useful, but two of them decided to up and leave, taking the head ranger’s car, rifle, and credit car with them. They were eventually caught over in Western Australia, but not before they’d used the Nat Parks credit card to buy a bulldozer. The money was written off. The biggest headache, and the matter that attracted the most paperwork, was the theft of the rifle. The two abscondees were not returned to the prison – it wouldn’t have been safe for them, because, of course, after the escape, the whole project was cancelled.

It’s dark down there. Those are not paintings on the rock, it’s leached minerals

After inspecting the lava tubes we visited the Undara resort. Although the area is a national park, the Collins family, who owned the land until it became a park, had developed a resort for visitors. Being an enterprising man, Mr Collins acquired a number of railway carriages which were about to be burned for a nominal sum. He promptly sold the wheels and bogeys, and used the carriages as accommodation. Today cabins, a camping area, and a caravan park have been added to the carriages, but they’re still there, adding a bit of interest to the options. They’ve also been used to provide the dining area bar, and seating for guests.

The dining area

Seating in a railway carriage

The bar

We had lunch at Undara. I’m so sorry I didn’t take pictures. It was the best meal we had on the whole trip. We were served a simply delicious cream of root vegetable (I think) soup with a fresh warm roll. The main course was a variation on a ploughman’s lunch – a bowl of fresh, crisp salad placed in the middle of an oblong plate. At each corner of the plate was a small piece of ham and chicken, several cheeses, fruit, and condiments, all with another bread roll. It was lovely.

Undara resort was popular with the birds, too. A kookaburra and a currawong hung around, hoping for a morsel. I spied pale-headed rosellas, and a number of us tried to get a photo of a red-tailed black cockatoo who wouldn’t cooperate.

A kookaburra

Pale-headed rosella

Red-tailed black cockatoo

Later that afternoon Greg took as to White Water station for a late afternoon billy tea – properly made over an open fire. I suppose this was our ‘working cattle station’ visit. Sure, we saw some cattle. But our drive around Simon Terry’s place frankly provided more information.  Eventually, we came to a spot where a stream came out of the ground, forming a nice little creek. We stopped under a massive fig tree which must have been hundreds of years old. In due course the billy boiled. Billy tea is interesting. It doesn’t matter how black it is, it’s never bitter.

Greg lights the fire

The billy’s boiled

Once again on this trip I was surprised at the lack of wildlife. I’d taken my big lens specially and was grateful to the willy wagtail that performed a solo on a branch.

Willy wagtail

A bustard, well camouflaged in the high grass

Despite the disappointment of no working dogs and no trip up the volcano, it was a good day. And I can tick Undara off my bucket list.

Sunset at Bedrock Village

Mount Surprise and a trip on the Savannahlander

Elizabeth Creek at Mount Surprise

We arrived at Joe and Jo’s Bedrock Village at Mt Surprise in plenty of time for a shower before dinner. We’d stopped there briefly for lunch on the way to the Gulf, but we’d only seen the reception area and the shop. There’s much more to the property than that. You can read all about Bedrock Village on the website, but I’ll just add a few observations. This place is really well thought out. Joe and his wife, Jo, started with an empty 10 acre paddock and built everything on the property from scratch. Apart from bays for caravans, Bedrock Village offers cabins. Some have multiple bedrooms – little cottages, really. But most are meant for couples. The simple, oblong, corrugated iron building was really well designed, with a living area with TV at the front, a sink and fridge, ensuite with shower and toilet, and a large bedroom at the end. The little details are what made it stand out – the toilet roll placed where you could reach it without suffering a hernia, two towel racks far enough apart on the wall so both towels had a chance of drying, a liquor licence that covered the whole site so you could buy a bottle of wine to drink in your room or in the lovely gardens, nightly campfire singalongs (if that floats your boat). And the people are nice. There are no permanent employees. Like most of the North, Bedrock village shuts down for monsoon season, December through March. But quite a few itinerant workers come back for a number of years because it’s a great place to work. The property is a credit to Joe and his wife.

Mt Surprise is a tiny town with only 65 inhabitants and nothing much to offer apart from the fact the Savannahlander has a station here. We’d learned the reason for the name on a board at the mineral museum in George Town. I’ll reproduce it here because it says a bit about how the white settlers felt about the indigenous people. This account is in the words of Cook Firth, son of Ezra Firth who first settled here in 1864.

“…On the bank of the creek were fires smoking with wood on and fresh water mussels roasting on the coals. The Aborigines heard the dray rattling on the basalt and got away. They camped there that night and then on to a big open black soil plain. In front they could see a long low mountain, but darkness overtook them, and they had to chain the bullocks to a tree. There was no water.

At daylight in the morning the off side leader, a poley bullock, had slipped his head out of the bow and cleared. Tom was a bullock hunter and he had set out to find the poley. He was a great tracker and just went around and picked up the bullock’s track and followed it straight to the lefthand corner of the mountain, around and along the sandy ground to a lovely running stream of water. Here was old Nobby, full and content. Instinct eh!!

Well, Nobby found the water for the party. Tom gave his horse a real good drink and had one himself, and as he was bending down he thought he heard voices. Well, he got on his horse and went steady up the creek. And heavens here was a camp of real wild Aborigines. Tom lost no time getting away with Nobby. They yoked up and came on. Father and others caught horses and went on up to the flat, and here were over 100 Aborigines naked and wild. When they saw the horsemen ride up, many of them dropped everything they had in their hands, and cleared for the scrub quite close by, others crawled up trees and some hid in the grass. From that day on Father named the place Mount Surprise and it is known so today. This was about 1864 and father took up about 300 square miles of country and settled there.”

The stream the bullock found was named Elizabeth Creek (after Ezra’s wife, Lizzie). It is why the Savannahlander has a station at Mt Surprise, and it runs 300 metres down from the edge of Joe and Jo’s property. Pete and I went to look, slipping through the fence and down a rudimentary path through the scrub. It’s rugged going, picking your way between the basalt crags sticking out of the ground. Another person from our party walked down this path and fell over. We managed to make it unscathed to a lovely watercourse of crystal clear water flowing between reed beds and paperbarks. It’s one of the few permanent watercourses around here. I had the big lens with me, hoping for wildlife (there wasn’t any). It’s not good for landscape shots, but the picture at the top of the post shows the stream and the railway bridge.

Later that day we piled into the Savannahlander, heading for Einasleigh, where we would take a look at the nearby Copperfield gorge. The Savannahlander actually operates from Cairns to Forsayth, going up the track we went down in the Kuranda scenic railway stage of our journey, Our driver/host, Will, explained that the trip was less comfortable than usual because the train usually has three carriages, which gives it more stability, but the carriages were stuck at Forsayth.

The train at Einasleigh

The view from the train

The controls

Will entertained us with a few stories as we rolled along pretty slowly through the grasslands. A film crew came along on the train for several trips to make episodes for a series of programs about Australian rail journeys. This is unfenced cattle country, and it’s common to see cows. They usually have the smarts to keep away from the train. But one cow must have realised she had a chance to break into show business and cut across the tracks right in front of the train. Will jammed on the brakes, and managed to do no worse than smack the beast on the rump. Unharmed, she thought better of life on the stage and bolted. And that was the only time he’d hit a cow in 8 years on the line.  Find out more about the train here.  Or take a look at the brochure. They even offer an outback pub crawl!

We were supposed to end our train journey at Einasleigh, but that pesky rain event got us again – the bus couldn’t get there to pick us up, so we boarded the train for the rest of the trip to Forsayth, which included a climb over a fairly impressive range of hills. It would have been hard work to lay the track here, involving considerable earthworks.

The Einasleigh pub. One local rides his mower to the pub for a drink.

Copperfield gorge with the road and rail bridges in the distance. Einasleigh used to be a copper mining area and the town had its own smelter.

This place was fascinating. It was easy to imagine the lava had cooled a few years ago.

Rockin’ round the mountain

It’s a long way down to this creek. The water will probably disappear very soon

We were ferried back to Bedrock Village in the bus just in time for sunset. That evening Joe provided the entertainment, playing his guitar and singing country songs.

Can you make out the giant crocodile we had to pass to get back to Bedrock?

 

 

The Gulflander – and wedgies!

The Gulflander at Normanton station (picture by Pete)

Leaving Karumba behind, we retraced the road back to Normanton, where we would board the Gulflander for a journey to Blackbull Siding, where Joe would pick us up after morning tea. The effects of the recent heavy train still lingered. We sure weren’t the only people on the train. It was jam-packed, with just about every seat taken. The Gulflander travels between Normanton and Croydon, a distance of 94 miles (152 km), which it covers in about 5 hours. The Gulflander is the only train in Australia which still measures its distances in miles.

Normanton station (picture by Pete)

An interior – before it filled up (picture by Pete)

All along the way, as we rattled through the usual Savannah country, watched by interested cows, the driver gave commentary about the train and the sidings where it stops. This is gold country, long since mined out. But the train still carries mail for at least one property.The importance of this little railway, and why it’s still here, is that during the wet season it was the only way of getting through to Normanton. The railway is built with steel sleepers, one of the few tracks still using them. Because of this, the track doesn’t get washed away in the annual monsoon. Most of the track is the original, put down between 1888-91. The little train carried mail and much-needed supplies to settlements cut off by the monsoon for months at a time.

As we rocked and  rolled along the track, three older gentlemen sitting near us who were travelling with another group, took the opportunity for a bit of extra sleep. They left us at Critter’s Camp, so named by the fettlers for the creepy-crawlies which swarmed there.

The Gulflander at Blackbull siding

It took about two and a half hours to make it to Blackbull Siding, a distance of 56 miles (90km). Sorry, I don’t remember the details of the stories about two murders committed here, and even Professor Google wasn’t able to help me. Somebody had their head blown off, the other was a jealous husband who tracked down his wife, who had absconded, doused her in petrol and set her alight. Morning tea at Blackbull was self-serve, in the souvenir enamel mug. Grab your tea bag or instant coffee, then line up for hot water heated by the engine at the back of the train. That done, take a seat and sip, while munching on your defrosted Sarah Lee muffin. Then we were back on the bus. You can find out more about the Gulflander here.

Croydon turned out to be much more interesting than I’d imagined. Like so many of the little towns around here, it had its start as a gold mining town. These days, that’s all over – but they do have the Gulflander, and in keeping with that historical context, the people in the town have produced their own 15-minute film about the town, which is shown to visitors at the information centre. It seems Croydon at one time had the largest Chinese population in Australia outside Sydney. The Chinese came to wherever the gold diggings were, but prejudice prevented them from mining, so they turned their efforts to a much better way of earning a living – they supplied the miners with fresh produce. Their market gardens thrived. Today, only a few foundations mark the spot where China town used to be. The man who narrated this bit of Croydon’s history in the film is a descendant of a Chinese who married an aboriginal woman.

A wedgetailed eagle

A wedgie flying away

During the drive from Croydon to Joe’s property at Mt Surprise I finally had a chance of a good photo of a wedge tailed eagle. Four of them – we’re guessing mum, dad and the kids – were perched in a tree after they left road kill. One of them hung around for long enough for me to get a few shots off. It’s my best shot so far. Further down the road we came across another wedgie on road kill. I was in the wrong spot to get a decent photo, and with sundown fast approaching, the light was against me, but it’s always a thrill to see these majestic birds.

We’d be staying the night at Mt Surprise and taking a ride on the Savannahlander tomorrow.

 

Karumba – of barramundi and ghost nets

Karumba – dawn on the Norman River

Karumba lies on the Norman River where it enters the Gulf of Carpentaria. In its heyday, it was the main port for the prawn trawlers plying their trade in the Gulf, but these day the big companies use motherships to process their catch. Still, fishing is a big deal here, especially for prawns and the much-prized barramundi, a wonderful eating fish. Karumba is also an important port for the live cattle trade exporting beasts to Indonesia. Apart from that, the CBD is a block of shops along the main street, one of which is a brilliant bakery.

We stayed at the Karumba Lodge resort, a flash name for a not-so-flash premises which is well past its best days. The accommodation is an add-on to the pub which has two bars – the suave bar and the animal bar, which probably gives you a hint. Some of the ladies in our group were not impressed with their rooms, which needed a good clean and some new fittings. Joe took us for a run (in the bus) to the more salubrious part of town at Sunset Point which boasts a large new pub, but it is several kilometres from town. It’s popular for people wanting to watch the sun set into the sea (while eating fresh prawns, a schooner of beer at their elbow), and for fishermen after barra. Our tour leader told us they used to stay at a motel out here, but people complained it was ‘too far from town’. Uh-huh. I think I would have preferred to stay at Sunset Point.

Nest with parent whistling kite

One positive point about Karumba Lodge was that the units opened out on a wide lawn above the Norman River. Some of the ever-present kites had nested in a row of large gum trees, one so old that mistletoe had grown over the nest’s structure, making it even harder to spot. I found the other nest because it had a chick, which was demanding food.

Baby bird is hungry and looking for Mum and Dad

Parent bird portrait

Later that day we visited the Barramundi discovery centre. The establishment tells tourists about the fish’s fascinating life cycle, but its main role is to breed stock to replenish the local fisheries. It’s not a farm, barra don’t respond to farming, despite attempts. Everyone knows how salmon spawn in rivers, eventually move to the sea, and eventually return to the place where they were spawned. Barra are similar – but different. Spawning takes place in a river estuary when three factors coincide – the water temperature, the full moon, and the approach of a storm. In the Karumba area the water temperature has to be 33C. Tests have shown that while spawning can take place a degree either way off that, the results are significantly poorer. What’s more, the temperature isn’t the same for all barra. For example, in the fishery near Townsville, spawning takes place at 28C. This means that if you take a fish spawned in Karumba to Townsville, it will live quite happily – but it will not spawn. Our host told us the fish kept for spawning in tanks are aware of the phase of the moon, and when a storm is on its way. When conditions approach ideal, the female stops eating. The water in the tanks is sourced from the estuary, and no chemicals are used. Some of our group took the opportunity to feed a barra, but before they did so, they had to sanitize their hands to prevent any contamination to the tank water.

Another thing about these fish – they are all born male. At some point, some of the males become female. Nobody knows why, or how. The females are much larger than the boys and fertilisation is actually pretty boring – she expresses her eggs, then a few of the boys release smelt over them. In the tanks there are six males to every female. In the wild – who knows? Once they are fingerlings the baby fish hide in the mangroves, which is sensible, because everything will eat them, including their siblings. After a time they move up the rivers to live their lives. That’s the importance of the full moon (high tide – lots of food) and the storm – lots of water in the rivers. Eventually, the grown fish will make their way back to their spawning grounds, to start the cycle again.

Now let me tell you about the ghost nets.

A quick look at a map will tell you Australia is very close to Indonesia and as Indonesian fish stocks run low, Indonesian fishermen take the risk of venturing into Australian territorial waters to fish. They use nets, some of them kilometres long. If the Australian border force or the navy comes across them, they know they’d better get out of there fast. So they cut the nets loose because if they’re caught with fish, they have no defence against a charge of illegal fishing. But the nets are still there, floating in the currents, catching fish and other sea creatures which are never harvested. The carcasses rot – fish, dolphins, turtles, sharks – whatever. Once a net like this is in the Gulf of Carpentaria the currents take it round and round the Gulf, sometimes throwing it up on a beach at high tide, drawing it back at the next high tide. Indigenous communities are assisting in the important task of finding these nets and getting them out of the water. Read all about the problem and what’s being done about it here. By the way, yes, they’re going to be Indonesian nets. Any Australian trawler losing a net is in for a mountain of paperwork, and lots of nasty questions.

In the evening we went on a sunset dinner cruise. We piled into the shallow draft boat, me toting my camera with long lens. While we were served a glass of wine our hosts set the scene by placing pieces of fish on a feeding platform at the front of the boat. The local kites, both black and whistling, are always ready for a free feed. Soon we were surrounded by swooping raptors which were actually difficult to photograph with the big lens.

A whistling kite swooping in for a feed

A rusting hulk in the mangroves

Further down the river a croc basked in the late afternoon sunshine near the river bank. A distant white-bellied sea eagle perched on a branch saw us coming and headed off for quieter parts. We passed the wharf where cattle are loaded for export. We were told about a rusting trawler jammed into the mangroves. (Storm? Poor seamanship? Mechanical error? Insurance claim? Who knows?)

Our hosts served us wine, beer, and an assortment of nibbles, and later we helped ourselves to hot food and salad before going out into the Gulf itself to watch the sunset. I’ll finish this post with pictures and commentary.

A pair of Jabiru storks. Our hosts helped raise one that had been the runt of the litter. Fred has survived well and he and Wilma have raised several clutches.

This stork is flying in to join his mate at the free meal

This pair of black kites (with the swallow tails) are giving a whistling kite a hard time – it was (I’d guess) too close to their nest. The whistling kite is fighting back

This big croc is not at all perturbed by the boat’s presence. We saw a lot more crocs in the dusk, just sets of glowing eyes in the spotlight. That’s how hunters used to kill them – spot the eyes and they were sitting ducks to a high-powered rifle.

Sunset. There’s high cirrus cloud, but nothing to make the sunset spectacular.

Through the outback to the Gulf

On our last morning at Cobbold I managed to get a photo of the moon on its back, Venus beneath her, with the orange glow of the sun just a whisper on the horizon. The pink and greys didn’t show up today. After breakfast we hit the road again in our bus, heading for Karumba on the Gulf of Carpentaria with Joe’s stories to keep us company.

Our first stop was at George Town, where Joe did the obligatory town tour. It’s all part of understanding the outback. When you look at a town’s medical clinic, it’s more than a building. It might be the only medical assistance available for hundreds of kilometres. The Government, in its wisdom, has cut back funding for medical staff all over the state – but while we might complain about longer waiting lists in town, take a nurse or doctor out of these places, and more than one life might be at risk. Bureaucracy strikes again. If it wasn’t for the Flying Doctor, which is not government run but does receive financial support, medical help would be even further away.

We stayed in Georgetown for a while to visit the Ted Elliot mineral collection. This incredible display was accumulated by one person over a lifetime, with many pieces sourced from places around here. Much of the area was opened up for mining of gold, tin, and semi-precious gem stones before the cattle arrived.

Ammonites and other fossils

Mainly local agate

Back on the road we encountered cattle, of course, as well as the ever-present kites riding the air currents above towns, or clustered around road kill. But I was surprised at the lack of kangaroos and other wildlife. I suppose that unexpected rain brought benefits for the animals, too, so they didn’t have venture close to roads.

They don’t run sheep out here. People have tried, but the native spear grass put paid to every attempt. The seeds form a spiral to dig into whatever surface they land on, securing themselves with backward-facing spines. I’ll leave you to imagine how that works in sheep’s wool. Cattle are not affected by the grass, but herds were decimated when the cattle tick was introduced from Asia, especially the English breeds. These days graziers run tough breeds like Herefords and Drought Master. Most breeds have American Brahman blood – a breed resistant to ticks and able to survive the harsh conditions out here.

Cyrus cranes were quite common in the grasslands. This is parents with a chick (right)

Next stop was Croydon, where we wandered around and bought lunch. There are a couple of pubs benefitting from the arrival of tour groups for lunch, and rather than join the throng, we wandered up the road to an old general store claiming to be the oldest shop in Australia (yeah right) which had been fitted out as a museum of sorts, as well as selling everything under the sun, including take away food. Once again, this was a chance for we tourists from the prosperous coast to give a little back to the bush.

The old general store

From here we drove on to Normanton, last stop before we reached the Gulf. It’s the town where the Gulflander train heads off, so we’d be back here soon. It also has some lovely old Queensland buildings – and it holds the claim for the largest crocodile ever shot. A fiberglass model of what the croc would have looked like, an 8.63m (28ft 4in) behemoth, stands outside the local council offices. Here’s an article about the beast and the woman who shot it. Well worth reading, by the way. It gives a glimpse into another way of life, and the issues of working for conservation of crocs. I’ll admit I was sceptical about the creature’s reported size. On our visit to Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures recently we were told that a croc over 6m is very unlikely. But the Guinness Book of Records seems to have accepted the claim. The locals say there’s a monster croc out there right now. Here’s a story from the Townsville Bulletin. However you see it, swimming in the Norman river doesn’t sound like a great idea.

This was probably a pub, beautifully restored. The crocodile replica is behind the cars.

Pete went to the public toilets  and found this common sight. Green tree frogs like the damp conditions 🙂

We were on the last leg of the trip to the Gulf fishing port of Karumba. We passed the golf course just before sunset, where large groups of local macropods were enjoying dinner on the fairways. We would be enjoying our own dinner soon – fresh caught barramundi with crispy chips and a salad. Yum.

Cobbold Gorge – a hidden treasure

 

The huts at Cobbold

The accommodation at Cobbold Gorge resort is basic, but quite acceptable. We stayed in a hut built of corrugated iron, with air conditioning and an en suite bathroom. As I said yesterday, the resort has a restaurant and bar. What more could you want? I woke early and hearing the sounds of pink and grey galahs, went out for a look. They were perched in a dead tree, catching the first rays of the rising sun, so they were in silhouette. But I noticed a second tree in a place where I could get the sun behind me.

After breakfast we went off to see the famous Cobbold gorge. The owner of the property, Simon Terry, found the gorge in the early nineties. You might find that hard to imagine, but if you look at the aerial photo, taken from the station’s helicopter, you’ll see it’s very narrow, therefore easily missable. Simon apparently showed the gorge to family and friends, and got the idea he could make the place into a tourist attraction. Tourists, after all, are not as susceptible to the rigours of climate and market conditions as cattle. So he and his family sold half their herd and developed the resort. It’s a credit to them all. A great little oasis in the scrub.

But even tourists can be affected by weather events. I mentioned last time the travellers in the Savannahlander who had to take a coach when the train could not return to Cairns due to flooding. Here at Cobbold the resort had to contend with a flooded river, which we had to cross to see the gorge. Normally at this time of year the river is a succession of water holes, and the crossing is simple. What to do? Like most property owners out here, the Terrys have a helicopter. The cattle station (its name is Robin Hood) covers 500 square miles, which isn’t big by local standards. Mt Surprise station is 660 square miles, and further west the properties are much larger. But you can spend a lot of time mustering on horseback on 500 square miles. Then there’s tank and fence maintenance and so on. A helicopter makes sense, and it earned its keep in preventing a whole lot of disappointment to a bunch of tourists. We were ferried 600 metres across the river in the chopper, in groups of three. Once twelve of us were on the other side our local guide took us to the creek running through the gorge and we boarded a narrow, shallow draft boat.

The gorge from the air. The boats are visible at the head of the creek, bottom left

Crossing the flooded Robertson River

The head of the gorge

It’s very, very narrow.

A couple of things stood out for me. We visited Geikie Gorge a while back, and noted the mud nests of tiny birds clinging to the overhanging rocks there. We also saw a lot of other bird life. But while Cobbold contains fish and fresh water crocodiles, we didn’t see any birds. The mud nests I noticed belonged to hornets. I would have expected, too, to have seen some evidence of the indigenous people here – rock art or similar. But there was nothing. Talking to Simon’s wife, Gaye, I learned that the local mob (tribe) were no longer around to answer any questions. They, and their language and culture, no longer existed. And that’s the sort of story nobody ever told me at school. Gaye did say, though, that in the past aboriginal stockmen working on the property wouldn’t go within 3 miles of Cobbold Gorge. Which says a lot in itself. This website will give you more information about the gorge.

It’s believed the gorge was formed after an earthquake cracked the rocks. The water in the creek found a new path to the river via the resulting split, and the rocks wore down over the millenia.

In the afternoon a couple of new-found friends and I went on a half hour helicopter ride to see Robin Hood from the air. The sandstone scarp where the gorge runs its course is very different to the rest, where the cattle feed. We also flew over an enormous dam. It’s an area rather like Wilpena Pound, a natural amphitheatre with only one exit. In this arid country where water is a finite resource, Simon dammed the exit. Now they have a large, reliable water source to fill the tanks for their stock.

The river and the scarp of sandstone country

The dam from the air

After lunch we came across a couple taking their pets on tour with them. That’s not unusual in itself – except these pets were a pair of Eclectus parrots. The man explained the female was called Modo because of the hump on her back (as in Quasimodo). He’d bought her from a breeder who cautioned him before he entered the aviary, warning him she would attack. Instead, she settled right on his shoulder. It was a done deal. The love and trust between the man and the parrot was just stunning to see. The male was wearing a little coat because he had a skin infection. It was quite obvious he adored his Mum. They are even house-trained, telling their human when they needed to poo. The couple has a special harness in their vehicle with perches for the two birds. And the leashes are more for the bird’s protection, in case they’re spooked and fly away. (There are a lot of raptors out here.) The leash is elastic so they won’t be jerked to a halt.

A pair of visiting Eclectus parrots

Later in the day, Simon took us out for a look around the property in a 4X4 bus, explaining some of the facets of running a cattle station along the way. The beasts look great, knee deep in quality feed. There’s no doubt the folks out here care about their cattle. After all, that’s how they make a living. The silly knee-jerk cessation of the live cattle trade to Indonesia on the basis of a sensationalist TV report a few years ago, affected the bush severely. Many graziers were brought to their knees, some never recovered. As we drove, we noticed a cow carrying an injury, and passed that on to Simon. He said that cow had broken a leg early on in life, but out here it’s not uncommon for beasts not to be included in a muster, and she hadn’t been noticed for a year or so. By then the leg had healed, although she walked with a limp. But she was in good condition, showing no sign of pain, so they let her go. She’s had three calves since then.

We ended up at the dam we’d spotted from the air, had a belated afternoon cuppa, then headed back to the resort. We would be moving on early the next day.

 

West towards the Gulf

Lake Eacham, a volcanic crater lake in the Tablelands

After our brief visit to Cairns it was time to head West, over the tropical highlands and on to the Savannah. We would be travelling in a Toyota bus designed to carry 20 people. Joe, our driver, wore jeans and a battered Akubra with sweat stains and a turned-down brim. He’s a real Outback bushy, with knowledge of his country to share in his slow drawl. He put our luggage into the trailer while we filed on board.

Although these buses have 20 seats, I’ll say right now everyone in the group was pleased there were only 16 of us. The bus has a row of single seats down the left side and a row of double seats down the right, with an aisle in the middle. Sounds okay, but anyone sitting directly behind the driver has their knees around their ears. Same thing happens with the second last seats, over the back wheels. The seats are far from comfortable, and there’s not much room for carry-on items. The spare seats were used for storage. The configuration also makes it well nigh impossible to implement the tried and true method of shifting passengers around a tour bus so everybody has a go at the best (and worst) seats. The way it’s meant to work on a standard bus is all the rows are numbered on both sides at random (eg 4, 9, 12, 2 etc). Each day, the people move to the next row after the one they were sitting in. Eg those who were in row 4, which happens to be on the left at the back of the bus, move to row 5, which is on the right at the front. It works well – but not if you have 7 rows with 2 seats, and 6 rows with one. There were 4 couples, one group of three, and five singles in the group. In the end, we agreed that the couples occupied the same seats each day, while the singles rotated through the rest. We were over the back wheels – but we got used to it.

The Atherton tablelands. Rainforest and rich farmland.

Joe drove us out of Cairns and up another winding mountain road to the top of the tablelands while we admired the lush green tropical rainforest. The Atherton Tablelands were originally volcanic, with rich soils and a plethora of waterfalls. Our first stop of the day was meant to be a short toilet break at Lake Eacham, which is one of the many crater lakes in the area. But we ended up staying rather longer than we intended when one of the group wandered off in the wrong direction. Joe and our group leader, Jenny, both went off looking for the lady. Fortunately, she was found unhurt – although Jenny took a little longer to recover from her fright at losing a passenger. Joe had actually said not long before we stopped that he’d never lost anybody on a tour. I suppose there’s a first for everything.

Joe is a veritable encyclopedia about everything in this country. He was born and raised out here, and his love shines through. He told us about trees (using latin names) and what grew on which soil, and gave us a potted history of the towns we went through. Every town where we made a stop he first did a drive around the streets, pointing out highlights like the main pub(s), the school, the hospital or clinic, and any other points of interest. We stopped for morning tea at Croydon after just such a tour. (I was going to say short tour – but these are small towns – the tours are always short). But it was great, because we got a much better picture of life out here than if he’d set us down outside a café and picked us up again after 20 minutes.

The other thing Joe talked about was the problems of living out in this country. He told us about Mt Garnet, which was a thriving mining town during the boom a few years ago, until the mine closed. The miners left, taking their kids with them. The school population dropped from 140 to 40. The pub, bereft of custom, struggled on for two years, them went into receivership. And so it goes. He told us other stories, too, how bureaucrats in the Big City kill the little places with their regulations. The cattle stations spend all their profits on compliance standard and the ensuing paperwork, which means they employ less men. Out here many of the best stockmen are indigenous, but the jobs have dried up.

We drove past a paddock that used to be the town’s golf course. Joe explained that the clubhouse was owned by two elderly sisters who lived in town. They leased the premises to the golf club for $1 a year. But then the pension asset test came in, and the old ladies lost their pension because they owned too much property. The arrangement couldn’t continue, so the club closed.

Another example Joe talked about was holding functions in small towns. They’re an important part of living out here, bringing families together and raising money for community causes. We’re talking about fetes, barbecues, maybe a competition such as camp drafting. But the State Government has decreed that if alcohol is served at an event, external security MUST be brought in. These days having a few of the local farmers – or even the local cops – providing security isn’t enough. It would have cost the town $30,000 to fly in suitably accredited people from Cairns. These towns are already doing it hard, financially. Where would they get that sort of money?

Wherever we stopped for a meal break, Joe gave us an hour or so to look around. I think it’s important to these little towns to have tourists come to visit. For a start you learn more about the people who don’t live on the coastal fringe, and whatever money we spend – for food and drink, and maybe souvenirs – helps the economy tick over.

The roads out here vary from good to dead ordinary. For some distance the highway was the usual bitumen, with a well-marked lane in each direction. But sometimes it dwindled to a wide gravel road with one lane of bitumen in the middle, and sometimes there was no bitumen at all. Oh – by the way, where there’s one line of bitumen in the middle, trucks have right of way. Since it’s a major arterial, B-doubles are not uncommon. The roads are the responsibility of the local councils, but they don’t have the rate payer base, therefore the funds, to maintain these vital links without State or Federal help. Here in Queensland most of the voters live in Brisbane. Guess where the roadworks are concentrated?

We stopped for lunch at Joe’s own property, Bedrock Village at Mt Surprise, which offers accommodation for travellers in the form of a caravan park and holiday cabins. We were going back for a longer stay later, so I’ll explain more about that then. At this point we started to get a feel for the impact of the rain event which swept across the Gulf from Cairns to Karumba a few days before. You can travel on the Savannahlander train from Cairns to Forsayth, but one group had been brought up short by flood water over a railway bridge, so they were forced to travel on by coach.

Saw these two amorous butterflies at Joe’s

From Joe’s place we carried on to our evening stop at Cobbold Gorge resort. On the way, we paused for a drink at the Forsayth pub, just over the road from where the Savannahlander stood. We would be taking a trip on that train in a few days.

Joe at the Forsayth pub

But for now we drove the rest of the way over pretty awful roads to Cobbold Gorge resort. The Terry family have done a great job in making this part of their property inviting to visitors. After we put our luggage into our lodgings we rushed to the bar overlooking a lovely dam for a well-earned drink before dinner.

The bar area at Cobbold Gorge resort, with horizon pool and dam.

The dam at dusk