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

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