Category Archives: Travel

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

Back to Kuranda

Halfway to Kuranda, looking back at Cairns

Last time we were in Cairns we took the trip up to Kuranda, a tourist village at the top of the mountains, via cable car going up, and by the Kuranda scenic railway going down. This time, we were driven up a steep, winding road to the village, with a short stop at a lookout over the Barron Gorge. Like last time, I was struck by the size of the chasm the river had carved over the eons. But the several waterfalls, which were probably quite substantial in reality, looked like trickles in comparison.

I wrote a blog about our last visit to Kuranda and it’s probably worth reading it (here’s the link) to give you a comparison to this one. For a start, the weather was completely different, being actually fairly cool, and with low humidity, as opposed to last time’s sultry conditions. The rain that had lashed the coast still threatened here and there, but ended up to be no more than a couple of showers. Perhaps for that reason the village was much less crowded.

It’s a DC3, but it didn’t crash here. It was a prop for a film, and moved here as something to look at

All in all, we’d seen most of it last time. We’d been to the walk-in aviary to see the birds, weren’t all that interested in the other animal displays, so we mooched around enjoying the atmosphere and talking to the locals. Pete’s good at that. While I was taking pictures of the DC3 above, Pete was talking to a man selling ice cream from a van. He was about our vintage, an old sailor who had served on HMAS Sydney (the third one) and he knew his naval history. He mentioned HMAS Sydney 1, which sank the German raider Emden in WW1, and HMAS Sydney 2 which sank, and was sunk by, the German raider Kormoran in WW2.

We found a gemstone and fossil museum and went down to take a look. It was fascinating. The owner had turned his hobby into a job and he was more than happy to tell us about the copy of an allosaurus skeleton guarding his shop. Needless to say, he has ammonites and coprolites and all the usual pretty stuff like amethyst and agate.

There’s a distinct German flavour to parts of Kuranda. One shop sells German small goods, including a few varieties of German sausage served in various ways for lunch. I opted for käseknacker served in a hot dog roll with fried onions, no sauerkraut, eaten with fingers. Pete, always much classier, had his sausage on a plate with German potato salad and sauerkraut, eaten with a knife and fork.

Kuranda is full of arcades and stalls selling souvenirs, clothes, books – you name it. Pete bought a recipe book for “Indian style” food, and I couldn’t go past a bag with a baby elephant on it. I don’t need another bag – I’ll frame the picture.

Eventually we headed for the train to travel back to Cairns. This was much more comfortable than the sauna-like conditions we endured last time, when every seat on the train was filled. We had an entire carriage almost to ourselves, maybe 25 people in all. We were in the classier service, too, drinking several glasses of champagne and munching on salted macadamia nuts as the train eased its way down the mountain.

The train’s locomotives are decorated with the indigenous people’s Dreamtime story of the origin of the gorge. You can read it here.

After we were returned to the hotel, Pete and I went for a wander. The Mantra Esplanade Hotel has seen better days, but it’s in a great location, right at the start of Cairns’s food and entertainment district. Restaurants and bars, dive and tour shops, and souvenir places line the street. Every kind of restaurant imaginable is along there, offering food from cheap and filling to Masterchef stuff. There’s also a wonderful place called the Night Markets where you can pick up all sorts of tourist bargains as well as take away food from stalls. We found a T shirt shop selling T shirts for as little as $8 – they had stitched designs as well as the usual stuck on patterns and – get this – they were made in Australia. I bought 3.

Dinner that night was at another sporting club offering a seafood buffet. It was an improvement on the previous evening, but frankly we would have preferred to stroll down the Esplanade in town to see what caught our fancy, at our own expense. It’s much more fun and involves you in the life of the city. Organised eating is fine when there’s little to no choice, like in an outback pub.

We’d come across plenty of those in the rest of our journey.

Heading North again

The Spirit of Queensland at Cairns

About a month ago Pete and I drove up to Far North Queensland for a week’s holiday at Palm Cove, a little north of Cairns. We enjoyed our week, but had to curtail any other activities because Tropical Cyclone Debbie came calling. As it happened, she crossed the coast further south and wreaked havoc and massive floods down into the South-East corner of the state, and NSW. We had already planned our next trip, a train odyssey with a small group up to Cairns and across to the Gulf of Carpentaria, and we were pretty hopeful that after that very late cyclone the weather would return to normal programming; ie warm and dry.

Weighing in at Cairns

But Mother Nature can be a fickle old lady. Just before we started our new journey north the weather forecast predicted a significant rain event which would impact the northern coast, and then penetrate inland. Rainfall in the hundreds of millimetres was expected. Oh well. The skies were clear when we arrived at Maryborough West railway station to board the Spirit of Queensland for our journey to Cairns.

Maryborough West is (um) west of Maryborough, in the middle of not much at all. It’s a station and a few houses, and we were due to catch the train at 7:28pm. We didn’t quite believe the advice to be there an hour early for luggage and what have you, but we arrived faster than we thought we would and dragged our luggage up to the office at around 6:45. As expected, the place was unattended, so we kicked our heels in the waiting area. There’s no waiting room, just an undercover area with a few benches and a vending machine for cold drinks. Be that as it may, the local mosquitoes thought it was excellent. They were there in their squadrons and some of them were so big if a couple of them worked in tandem they could have carried us away.

A railway person arrived at about 7:10. The man weighed our bags, which were well under the 20kg allowance. I have to say I thought it was a bit odd to fuss over weight. I understand that’s important on an aircraft, but on a train?  Having attached the luggage labels, he informed us the train was running 20 minutes late, so we retired to the benches and the mozzies.

We eventually boarded at around 8pm. The train basically has two classes – economy, where you sit up for the whole trip, and rail bed, where your seat converts into a flat bed. It’s a bit like business class on an aircraft. Steve, who was lovely and as camp as they come, welcomed us onto the train and showed us our seats.

Everybody else had already eaten dinner, so all the lamb rump was gone. Chicken Kiev it was. Note the challenging movement of the tray.

Plenty of room to stretch out – but not the most comfortable seats

It’s a long journey, taking a complete 24 hour day from Brisbane to Cairns. But we had our tablets for reading, and the train had its own entertainment system, once again rather like an aircraft, but with a more limited selection. If we got bored, or wanted a drink or a cup of coffee, we could walk through to the club car. Our car had two toilets, and even a shower room.

Lunch. Smoked chicken and salad, with strawberry mousse. The food was pretty good.

At night, of course, there’s nothing to see out the windows but your own reflection, and that does tend to get a bit tedious. We watched a show or two, then turned in for not the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had. There’s a major difference between air travel and train travel. Once you’re in the air, unless you hit turbulence, air travel is pretty smooth. Train travel – at least on this train – is like being in constant low-level turbulence, with the train rockin’ and rollin’ on its tracks. Being a single line, it also had to slow down and speed up at intervals to allow for other traffic. And then there were the stops; at least ten of them. Eating was sometimes a challenge, and so was sleeping, even though the bed lies completely flat.

It’s raining out there

The big danger overnight was that the rain would cause flooding at Rockhampton, which could prevent further travel north. Fortunately, that didn’t happen and next morning the staff had us up early to convert beds back to seats, and serve breakfast. Outside the rain came down, obscuring pretty much everything more than a short distance from the tracks. This far north the views should have been picturesque. If you could see them. Back to the movies and TV shows, and a few rounds of Solitaire on the tablet. We reached Cairns only about half an hour late and were taken to our hotel close to the city’s main CBD. We were bussed to a venue for dinner – a cafeteria style arrangement at one of the sports clubs – roast meat and veg. I wasn’t impressed. If the intention was to have the group get to know each other, sitting at a long table in a noisy venue isn’t going to work. But hey. We’d made it this far and the rain had virtually cleared from the coast. Tomorrow would be another day.

A catalogue of travel

The bay reflects the clouds as the sun rises

The world’s something of a train-wreck at the moment isn’t it? You can see it happening but you can’t bring yourself to look away. I don’t have anything particularly cheerful to say, so I won’t say much. I’ve promised Himself I’d make a Dutch apple tart tomorrow. Fair’s fair, after all. He’s making Peter’s Famous Chicken Soup tonight. That’ll keep us going for a few days. We don’t waste food in this family. We haz a freezer!

Apart from that, for those who care I’ve started on a new story. And for those who don’t care, I’ve catalogued our travels so you (and I) can easily find a stop along the way. You’ll see a link at the very top of my website that says ‘TRAVEL’. If you click on that, you’ll get a table of journeys we have made. Click on one of those and you’ll get a list of where we went. You can opt to start at any point and journey along with us by clicking the links at the bottom of the post, or whatever scratches your itches.

I had a lot of fun reading my own posts as I put the catalogue pages together. (Don’t tell anyone, but I reckon I did a great job 🙂 ) I fact, I’m very sorry I deleted the posts from earlier trips.

 

 

The aftermath

ex-tropical cyclone Debbie wreaks havoc down the east coast

Cyclone Debbie has certainly cut a swathe through the holiday islands of the Whitsundays and their gateway, Airlie Beach. Bowen and Ayr bore the brunt of the storm and that takes nothing away from all the smaller places in the way. Cane fields, vegetable crops, and banana fields were flattened, destroying farmers’ incomes for at least one season – to say nothing about destruction of infrastructure and homes, loss of power, stock losses and the like. And then there’s the native wildlife who have to hunker down just like we humans. She was a massive storm. Here she is from the ISS.

Cyclones travel in a clockwise direction, and this was a huge storm, so after Debbie crossed the coast anything within eight hundred kilometres or so to the south was going to get wet. Mackay and Rockhampton were well in the zone and suffered substantial wind and water damage. With rainfall of hundreds of millimetres the rivers rose and roads were flooded. Even Hervey Bay copped the end of an outlying cloud band, although 80mm of rain without gale-force winds was actually welcome. As a side note, while Pete and I would have been quite safe at Cairns, we wouldn’t have been able to drive home. And that is why we hurried home when we did.

After they cross the coast cyclones rapidly downgrade to a tropical low, and the clean-up starts in their wake. It doesn’t mean the danger is over, though. The models suggested three tracks after Debbie crossed the coast, all tracking south. We expected her to come down through the interior, but the lady had other plans. I’ve never seen anything like it. Gale-force winds and very heavy rain all the way down the east coast of Australia from Mackay. Inland from Mackay, over a metre of rain fell in two days. The cyclone made landfall on Tuesday lunchtime. On Thursday the State Government closed all schools from just north of Bundaberg to the Queensland border for two days. Businesses followed suit. Our local bank closed its doors at 10am to give staff the chance to get home and off potentially flooding roads. Falls of five hundred millimetres were expected around the Southeast corner of the state, along with gale force winds. It was unprecedented. Australia is used to cyclones – but not one that does a left-hand turn, taking it down into heavily populated areas.

As usual, Hervey Bay fared well enough. Although rainfall this March (396mm or roughly 16″) is the third highest monthly rainfall we have experience in our time here, the previous two months were so dry that the rainfall is still well below the average for this time of year. I’m sure residents further south won’t be saying the same thing.

I thought I’d finish this clean-up post with a few things from our trip I hadn’t mentioned.

The view over Townsville from Castle Hill

Driving up to Cairns, we stayed overnight in Townsville, where Pete had his very first Mexican meal in a busy restaurant in Palmer Street. I love Mexican food, but Pete has never been interested. However, it was his suggestion – and he enjoyed it. Next morning before we moved on we drove up to Castle Hill, overlooking the town and with views to Magnetic Island just across the water, and to the hills surrounding the town.

Castle Hill from the city

From Palm Cove we drove up to Port Douglas. It’s only about forty km following the Captain Cook Highway along the coast. The road seems to have been built on a ledge between the sea and the mountains, twisting and turning with every cove and inlet. Port Douglas is mainly a resort town, with golf courses and hotels. One hotel (the Mirage) was famously built by Christopher Skase before he fled his debtors and went to live on Majorca. For us, the place didn’t have much to offer. It seems to be a jumping-off point for the Daintree and the reef. But I took some pictures.

Looking south from Port Douglas. The longest of those sandbars is where we stopped to take a picture (see below)

There’s no doubt the coastline is picturesque. I’d asked Pete to stop (on the way back) at a stopping place where I’d noticed a great photo opportunity, which he did, safely. I’d hardly got out of the car when a car horn honked. Some idiot had seen the view and decided to stop, with a car right behind him. The driver of the offending car pulled to one side to let the other driver pass. This is all happening just near a curve, too. The offending car moves back out into the road. For a minute I think it’s going to turn around, doing a three-point-turn, but another car comes along and our mate drives off, with the person in the passenger seat holding their phone out the window. It was a great picture, but really, people, I wouldn’t have thought it was to die for her. Or even sustain an injury.

A storm is gathering over Port Douglas – not Debbie, just a normal tropical storm

On our way back from Hartley’s croc park we stopped to take pictures of these weird rock sculptures. I have no idea what they are for, but I’d guess they’re a bit like the padlock fad, where lovers attach a padlock to the wires on a bridge. However, just as the authorities have been forced to cut away the padlocks, which in those quantities can weigh a great deal, sometime a storm will hit these piled up stones and scatter them back on the beach.

No idea what these ‘sculptures’ are meant to signify

That’s it for this journey. Be sure to join us next time we venture away from home. If you want to go back to the start of this trip, here’s the link. Say hello to Cyclone Debbie