Tag Archives: Far North Queensland

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. 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 heavier 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 card 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.

  • Reference

Sunset at Bedrock Village

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