Babinda Boulders – beautiful and dangerous

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Pete and I and our friends drove 60km south of Cairns to the little town of Babinda. It’s right on the Bruce Highway and I remembered noticing the sign that said ‘this way to the boulders’ or words to that effect as we’d passed through. We turned west from the highway and drove through a pretty little town, then up into the hills to the boulders.

It’s a lovely location with nice lawns, toilets, and changing rooms in the magnificent rain forest setting, and a number of visitors were already there. First appearances were deceptive. We’d expected a mass of (um) boulders and a turbulent stream. What we saw was a wide, shallow pool perfect for swimming, a lovely spot but rather underwhelming.

But that was just deception.

We followed the track to Devil’s Pool through the rain forest, admiring epiphytic ferns and fungi, walking past unconcerned brush turkeys scratching in the leaf litter. All the while the river chuckled in the gully next to the path. Most of the walk was easy enough but there are some stairs in a few places. And strategically placed benches for those who need them.

The first lookout gave a much better idea of why the place is called the boulders. These mountains seem to be piles of rocks covered with vegetation. Scrape the vegetation away and you get boulders. Add water and time and the boulders are shaped and smoothed. At this time of year, before the wet season, the river was low and we could see the obstacle course time and water had created. Deep drops, cauldrons and overhangs had been carved.

Water plunged down in one place and came out again somewhere quite different. Get caught in one of those and you might never get out. It was easy enough to imagine what it would look like with a torrent pouring down from the mountains. All those deep hollows would be filled and the dangers invisible.

Which raises another point. The water for these falls and others in Queensland comes from the mountains. It might be raining up there, but not down here. Somebody might be enjoying a swim on a nice day, when suddenly the water level rises, sweeping away everything in its path. We’re talking about something like this.

At least nineteen people have died in the area since the 1950s. The latest was in October, 2020, when a Brisbane man’s body was found just downstream from the Devil’s Pool. Here’s the story. It gave me goosebumps reading that. Especially after having read the aboriginal story about the boulders. Here it is.

Note the white spirit of Oolana in the river

The legend of the boulders tells the creation of Oolana’s Pool, also known as the ‘Devil’s Pool’. This story is told by Wanyurr Yidniji elder Annie Wonga [and copied by me from a sign at the site].

“A long time ago, Oolana, the beautiful young wife of an elder of the Wanyurr tribe, fell in love with Dyga, a handsome young man from a visiting tribe. The two lovers, knowing that tribal lore forbade their union, ran away together. After having been discovered camping by the creek, Dyga returned to his tribe. Oolana, however, threw herself into the water, which became a swirling torrent. The ground opened up and huge boulders were cast into the air. Today the boulders mark where Oolana drowned.

Oolana’s spirit is believed to reside here today – she continues to call for Dyga to return, enticing wandering travellers, especially men. Over the years, a number of young men have drowned at this place. So please heed the cultural warnings – do not enter Oolana’s Pool and respect this spiritually significant place.”

The story reminds me of others, like the Sirens of Greek mythology and the Lorelei on her rock beside the Rhine. The spirits are always beautiful young women, intent on luring foolish young men to their deaths. In boring reality, of course, the legends have evolved as warnings to the living about genuinely dangerous places. It’s pretty silly to ignore them – but, too often the stories are dismissed as folklore.

The Pool

It was now about mid-morning, so we went down to the Babinda township for coffee. As usual, some of the eateries were closed and the one we went to had a lass on duty making sure not too many people went into the shop at once. All this bureaucracy must be costing a fortune. Col signed the café’s covid-19 tracing records for all four of us. We sat outside and watched the local cop being accosted by a woman about something outside his jurisdiction. I guess it happens everywhere.

The track to Josephine Falls

After coffee we visited Josephine Falls, about 12km south of Babinda. To get there we passed through the township of Bartle Frere, named after Queensland’s highest mountain which was right there in front of us. Josephine Falls is another well-sign-posted spot where visitors can go swimming without any fear of aboriginal spirits. It’s a walk of about 1.2km through the rain forest to get there with a slow gradient uphill. There are two lookouts and two safe places to swim. Even so, the falls have their own dangers. Visitors are warned to “Stay clear of the restricted access area as serious injuries and deaths have occurred here. Penalties apply. Water conditions can be unpredictable and hazardous. Obey all safety signs and only swim in the designated area.”

The Falls, complete with natural water slide

It was no surprise the waterfall wasn’t exactly a torrent but at least it looked like a proper waterfall and not a trickle. A parched North Queensland is waiting for the Wet.

Back in Cairns we went to the large local shopping mall for lunch at Subway. It might not have been exciting – but it was cool.

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