Tag Archives: Mount Surprise

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?