Tag Archives: FNQ

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

Say hello to TC Debbie

The Coral Sea from Palm Cove

We’ve just come back from FNQ (Far North Queensland), after spending a week at Peppers Palm Cove resort, just north of Cairns. Normally I’d write about the trip and what we saw and experienced, but this time, I’ll start at the end, because the trip was cut short. You see, Debbie decided to visit.

When we arrived at Palm Cove, which is right on the beach, the view was gorgeous, as shown above. It’s a tropical climate, so cumulus stacks gather above the warm ocean, maybe moving inland for an afternoon rain squall. Standing out there gazing at the sea the sweat trickles down your skin. A swim would be nice, but the air is still and the ocean bath-tub warm – perfect for marine stingers. The crocs don’t mind, either, so you either swim in the stinger enclosure at the beach or use the pool at the hotel, which has a swim-up bar. It might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s such a waste of a beautiful beach.

It has been a strange summer all over Queensland from a weather point of view. Rain has fallen inland, the monsoon arrived late in the North, and around the sub-tropical Fraser Coast where we live, we’ve not seen such a savage drought. While we were up in the tropics we heard that Cyclone Caleb had been declared – only the third of the season! I don’t know why we thought it was in the Coral Sea, where we were, but it was actually far out to sea off the coast of Western Australia.

Maybe that mistake turned out to be prophetic.

On our second-last day at Palm Cove that idyllic beach scene looked like this.

A rain storm out sea

A massive rainstorm hung over the ocean on the horizon. And then we heard the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) was keeping a whether eye on a deepening low off the Queensland coast. We weren’t surprised. The sea’s always warm up here, but I’d heard thirty degrees. Maybe the coral reefs were praying for rain to cool them down. Standing on the beach it was easy to imagine some massive beast out there beyond the horizon, hovering over the ocean, sucking up moisture, swelling and strengthening. The clouds scudded by driven by a brisk south-easter, drawn into the dance around the as-yet-nameless storm. By evening her name was Debbie and our proposed visit to Cooktown, north of Cairns, was scratched. Cyclones are unpredictable beasts. Models showed Debbie heading for landfall in an area about 750 kilometres wide, but if she decided to veer north, Cooktown might be in the way. Even if she didn’t, we might reach Cooktown, but extensive flooding further south would make it a long, slow road home. And with predictions of Debbie becoming a high category four, or even a cat five before she crossed the coast, there would be flooding. This is a good explanation of cyclones.

Experiencing a full-blown tropical cyclone isn’t an item on my bucket list, but we figured we didn’t have to run for it straight away. We had one more day at Palm Cove – a Friday. The BOM wasn’t expecting the storm to hit the coast until Tuesday, and gales were not forecast until Sunday afternoon. If we left early on Saturday morning, we should be able to clear the danger area and make it home by Sunday night. On our way home we had intended to stay for a couple of days with a friend living high on the hill above Airlie Beach, roughly halfway to Hervey Bay from here. We’d have to cut the visit short, but he would understand. It seemed like a plan.

Ominous sky on Saturday

It rained heavily at Palm Cove on Friday night, but the next morning was dry, if ominous. The further we went, the clearer the sky became, at least as far as Townsville. From there on small patches of cloud appeared, all heading north like a flock of sheep being herded by an invisible sheep dog riding the wind.

Airlie Beach from our friend’s balcony

Airlie Beach in a good time

Airlie Beach is the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands, a cluster of island holiday destinations dotted around the Coral Sea with the Great Barrier Reef at their doorstep. The anchorage is usually full of boats, but not this time. Maybe a dozen moorings were occupied when we arrived at our friend’s place. The next morning there were about six – probably owned by people down south. The evening was warm and relatively calm enough to eat outside but as the hours passed, the wind picked up. When we went to bed we left the window open to get some breeze – at least for a little while. Maybe because of the way the building was constructed, the breeze growled like an animal looking for a way in, probing any crevice with fingers of air. With each gust the growl became a howl and every now and then, with a shriek of triumph, the wind burst through, sending the drapes flapping like a torn spinnaker. We were forced to close the window and turn on the fan, but even so, the wind entity prowled around the building, testing its defences, its howl underscored by the steady rhythm of the ceiling fan.

It wasn’t the best nights’ sleep either of us had experienced. We hit the road early, anxious to avoid any chance of striking floodwater. We had expected the highway would be busy with other people heading south, especially caravans, but the road was surprisingly quiet. We saw quite a few emergency crews heading north, mobilised by the State Government for the expected damage. We also heard that people in low lying areas in Debbie’s path had been ordered to evacuate – including homes in the lower parts of Airlie Beach.

We stopped twice at shopping centres, busy with people stocking up on canned food, water, and supplies like batteries. It was all very business-like, but then, cyclones are part of life in North Queensland, and while they are destructive, they also have an important role to play in the ebbs and flows of the environment up there. Floods feed the wetlands and the aquifers that get the farmers through the dry times, and the rain cools down the sea temperatures on the Great Barrier Reef. I wondered how farm animals would fare in the storm, and a farmer interviewed on the radio said he’d moved his poddy calves in close to the homestead, but that the cows seemed to know how to cope. I’m certain the birds and animals do, too. During our day out on Friday we noticed the birds were scarce. On the other hand, farmers growing cane, bananas, or vegetables would be keeping their fingers crossed. A cat 4 cyclone packs winds up to 279kph, and a cat 5 is (of course) even worse.

We turned into our driveway at home just in time to watch the sunset on Sunday. We’re safe and comfortable. Our very best wishes to everyone in Debbie’s path. Stay safe. Like they say on the radio, cyclones rarely kill people. Downed power lines and floodwaters certainly do.