Category Archives: On the road

Crossings and Crocs – a driver’s perspective

All respectable 4WD magazines highly recommend that any river crossing is walked to establish route, unseen obstructions and hazards.  We’re above a latitude running through Cairns and that is significant.  Guess who lives up here?  Yes, crocs.

Never mind telling me it’s a freshie.  It can’t eat you whole, or they won’t bite you, they’re crocs.

Even if you’re not freaked out by that, their bigger cousins are salties, estuarine crocs.  Saltwater crocs grow as big as a Holden Commodore and are at least as fast.  They eat you whole.

On the trip up to the area we stop for cuppas.  I get out, wander over to the picnic spot and there, right in front of me, is a ten foot sign saying, Warning – Achtung Estuarine Crocs inhabit this area.  They’ll eat you or tear off your arm.  It didn’t quite say that, but my croc phobia has me sprinting back to the ute.  

At every stop someone tells me a taller story about a croc near miss.  About how big, mean and sneaky they are. You see my dilemma?  We’re on a journey which is punctuated regularly with a croc infested creek crossing. 

 I’m encouraged to walk to the water’s edge at one crossing by Max and Malcolm.  They offer words of encouragement then, just as I’m settling down, Malcolm strips to his jocks and leaps in.  I almost faint.  Max howls with laughter and Malcolm continues to splash around, calling, “there’s no crocs here, come on in.”

Up here, if there’s water there’s probably a croc, I’ve been told.  Every time my fear subsides, a prank is formulated to restart my heart at an increased rate.  It’s a newfound pastime for Howard, who thinks up new impressions of reptiles, leaps out or sneaks around waiting to startle the unexpected… usually me.

We arrive at another crossing.  It looks like the site of an air crash.  Devastation on the banks, car body parts decorate the trees.  They could even be the Christmas trees displayed at a wreckers’ holiday party, baubles and tinsel replaced by Nissan bumpers, Landcruiser steps, the radiator and inter cooler from a large 4WD.  This is a place where the gods of the crossings have to be appeased.  The onward journey toll requires the traveller to deposit a body part.  We pass toll free!

I ask Max about a tale Malcolm related of a creek crossing years earlier.  Heather allegedly walked waist deep across a muddy brown fast flowing creek.  Max laughs. “What you have to remember is that if you smack a croc on the nose with a thong, job’s done, it’ll move away”.

I look at him incredulously.  “Oh, I agree, it’s not straightforward and it could get awkward if you catch the thong between your toes at a key moment.”  He strolls off under a cloud of cigarette smoke, chuckling loudly.  I can’t quite convince myself he’s joking.

Even though I’m joking about crocs, if you travel this way you’re going to invade the croc’s home.  He’s protected and must be respected.  Common sense has to prevail.  Read the Crocwise signs and give all due respect to these ancient and wonderful beasts and then you’ll enjoy a fantastic trip through the areas where they live.

Oh, by the way, our unpaid crossing… We notice hours later Howard’s number plate has gone.  The crossing gods have collected their toll.
Written by Richard

 Old Telegraph Track

Bramwell Station is a day’s drive away from Pennefather River.   The campground has space, shade and good hot showers.   In the late afternoon, we watch the station hands sorting weaners from their mothers in the cattle yards next to the campsite.

It’s a big night at the station.  There’s a smorgasbord dinner, with barbecued steak and sausage, a table groaning with vegetables and salads and a sweet sticky toffee sponge dessert.  Music gets us up on the dance floor, winning a bottle of wine for the first to dance.   Who would have thought the singer would include the theme to Gilligan’s Island in his set?

Malcolm and Roothie

A surprise guest at the dinner is Roothie, with his old Toyota Landcruiser, Milo.  He’s a four wheel drive legend and creates a buzz of excitement when he arrives with camera crew in tow.   Malcolm chats up Roothie, while his wife, Olive, makes a beeline for the handsome young camera man.

A high spot is the duet singing “Love Potion Number 9”.

The night is hot and steamy.  What sleep we grab is disturbed by the bellowing of the steers in the yard.    There’s a nervousness in the camp this morning.  Snatch straps are attached to the vehicles, just in case.  Today we are tackling the Old Telegraph Track.

Roothie and crew follow us out as we leave the campsite.  They are filming on the track today.

Old Telegraph Track

The track is narrow, tree lined, one car wide.  It is deeply potholed.   We soon arrive at Palm Creek, our first creek crossing.   A steep mud slide runs into a wet clay hole before levelling off into the creek.  The track runs through the creek to the left then up and out.

People are camped here, watching the attempts to cross.  “I wouldn’t take my tractor down there”, says Howard.  Cars are queueing behind us waiting to cross.

Max goes first.  Down the slide and to the left.   He tries to climb the steep exit out of the water and doesn’t make it.  He winches out.  Malcolm and Olive are through and then it’s our turn.

Richard is revved up, ready to go.  I’m gripping the door handle.   We scramble down the mud slide into the creek.  The ute rolls from side to side.  Richard turns the steering wheel left and we are driving up the creek.  The water is not too high, then the steep slope out is in front of us.   My heart pounds.  The engine revs climb and we shoot up the slope, rocking from side to side.

I can tell you, if I could have opened the door and got out, I would have done so there and then.   Christine, you would have had your eyes tightly closed.

I glimpse the track as we leave the creek behind us.  There’s a deep pot hole on one side and a huge lump of clay on the other.   The engine roars, one wheel drops into the hole and the ute twists sharply to one side.  We fly forward at an angle.  I can see only the sky.  Time slows down.  There’s a loud bang and we shoot out of the exit, landing on all four wheels.

Getting out, I look back at the vehicle.  It seems to be intact.   I hear later that our brand new ute missed a tree by a few inches.

I decide I’m not a fan of hard core four wheel driving.

The rest of the group make their way across without mishap.  Our Old Telegraph Track experience has started.

Where the rainforest meets the reef

The roads hug the coast in Douglas Shire, steep rocky cliffs running along sandy beaches, like a tropical Great Ocean Road.   Turning away from the ocean here you do not see mountain ash and tree ferns, but dense green walls of sugar cane, neatly clipped and standing to attention like a sailor’s crew cut.  The air is as warm and steamy as a gardener’s hot house.

The entry to Port Douglas is grand, lined with mature palm trees.   It’s a much bigger town than I’d imagined, a tourist Mecca.   The wharf is busy, with boats offering crocodile spotting tours in the waters nearby and ocean going yachts bristling with equipment and the scars of past voyages.

  
A white timber clad church stands on the bay.  It dates from 1880.   The little church is cool and peaceful inside.  The east window looks directly out to sea, framing the view to the Great Barrier Reef.  I wonder how many have sat in these pews, what stories they could tell of the history of Port Douglas.  Who was married here?  Who tried to save the church when it was destroyed by cyclone in 1911?   The building keeps its secrets.

We walk through the main shopping street, passing tourist souvenir shops, ladies clothing stores and hotel bars in colonial buildings.   Moccas famous pies live up to their reputation and draw a succession of hungry customers into a side street for lunch.

From Port Douglas we once again pass through lush green sugar cane country.   Cane trains stand loaded with harvested cane.  We are in the wet tropics now.  Clouds sit on top of misty tropical mountains.  We see banana orchards, each bunch wrapped in its own protective bag.

Stopping at Daintree village we wander down to the river.  Two fishermen tell us tall tales of man eating crocodiles.  They are not joking.   The number of signs warning of crocodiles is increasing as we travel north, as are the tales of attacks.  We take the warnings seriously…

The utes queue up for the old cable ferry that takes us across the Daintree River to Cape Tribulation.  It’s a steep climb up the other side.  Now we are truly in the world heritage Daintree rainforest.  

The forest is dense around us.   Strangling figs clamber up the trunks of fan palms, seeking the light.   Elephant ear vine leaves spread out to capture the few rays of sun that break through the rainforest canopy.  The forest glistens and drips in the steamy atmosphere.

  
We take a walk in the rainforest with Cooper Creek Wilderness Tours.   Almost immediately a cassowary crosses our path.  Strange flightless birds, in the same family as the emu and kiwi, they have a horn like growth on their heads, bright blue necks and red wattles hanging down below.   Standing 1.5 metres tall they could be intimidating, but Big Bertha completely ignores us as she strides purposefully past.

The rainforest tour is fascinating.   We see primitive spiders that gather up their silk at night and camouflage themselves to look like thorns on the branch of a tree.   We hear about the yellow cyrus, the toxic white walnut, the zombie fungi and a tree that expels cyanide gas when chopped by an axe.   I am amazed by the height of the fan palms.  Here they form the rainforest canopy, a roof top of green that shades the plants below.  So tall, so high above us, we would need binoculars to spot birds or canopy dwelling marsupials.

Unfortunately, feral pigs cause damage to the rainforest that will never be healed.  While vines grow quickly here, many plants grow so slowly they can never recover when seedlings are wiped out by a wallowing pig.

Howard and I spy another rare creature here, a short, elderly, bearded Japanese man, in the rainforest with a film crew.   Dr Suzuki, we presume.

The evening light is growing dim.  We need to catch up with the rest of the party who have gone on ahead of us.   We have planned to meet at Noah’s Beach.  So we leave the wilderness tour and head down the winding unsealed road to find the campground.  

When we arrive, it is dark.  Driving around the wilderness campsite we peer at the campers in each of the sites.  No, we don’t recognise them.  Back on the road, we decide to circle around again.    I glance at a sign board at the entry, there is a piece of paper flapping in the wind.   

Stop!   I look at the paper, it says “See you at Coconut Beach.  M & O, M & H, D & S”.  

Where on earth is coconut beach?

We drive down the road, looking for a sign.  A voice crackles over the radio, “Turn right at Masons Store”.   

Turning right after Masons Store we find the lovely Cape Trib campsite on the beach and are reunited with our convoy.

Worse things happen at sea

Let go the mooring line!

She’s away.

Richard puts the yacht into reverse and we move away from the mooring.   A stiff morning breeze blows across the water.   The crew are up and about, ready to sail to Stonehaven Bay on Whitsunday island.

Crunch, clonk, clank.  All heads turn.  What was that? 

A grinding noise is coming from the stern as Richard pushes the motor into forward gear.   The mooring is drifting away to port and we are being carried north by the tide.

I can’t get any forward gear, he calls.   He pushes the lever forward again and the crunching noise grows louder.  

Can we pick up the mooring again?   

I don’t think so Debbie, it’s over there.  Malcolm points at a blue dot on the water in the distance.

Richard shouts, I can get reverse.   I’ll try to reverse back on to the buoy.

Yachts will reverse under motor, but steerage is poor, especially into the wind with the tide against you.  We are moving, but the mooring is out of reach.

Shall we put up the foresail?  I ask.  We’ll at least get some forward motion then.

Let’s keep trying the engine, I don’t understand what’s wrong with it.  It sounds terrible.

The yacht is holding its ground against the tide in reverse, but we just can’t get any forward motion.   

I look at the inexperienced crew around me.  Many of them have not been on a sailing boat before.  Sailing to another mooring is an option, but not an attractive one.  We are on a charter boat in unfamiliar waters.  While the channels are deep around the islands, there are hidden underwater obstructions, coral reefs and rocks.

I feel a little sick.   Not from seasickness, but from a sinking feeling inside me.  I have brought these people out on to the water to experience the exhilaration of sailing, to share something I love, only for the yacht to fail us on the first day.

I decide to call the charter company on the VHF radio.   We can hold our position in the deep channel under reverse gear quite safely for some time.  If the engine fails altogether, we will put the foresail up and sail into the main Whitsunday channel where there is plenty of water.  We are safe, but it’s getting uncomfortable out in the channel with the waves rocking the boat from side to side.  We could see some green faces if we don’t get moving soon.

Richard keeps working to try to get the gears to engage.  No joy.  We have to accept the gears have failed and we will have to suffer the ignominy of a tow back to port.

I pick up the VHF microphone.  Sunsail, Sunsail, this is Rhythm, Rhythm, over.   

Rhythm, this is Sunsail base, go ahead.

The radio exchange continues.   Sunsail Base asks us to get back on to the mooring if we can.   They will see if they can send a boat out to assist.    The conversation ends.

I ask Beryl to sit below and listen to the radio and let me know when Sunsail calls back.

The mooring buoy is truly out of reach.  I am soon calling back on the radio to request assistance again.  We’ve been sitting out in the channel for 20 minutes and no sign of the rescue boat.  The boat is bouncing around on the waves and although everyone is upbeat, we all know this is not a good situation.  I consider the option of putting some of the crew to shore in the dinghy if seasickness hits.

Sunsail are on the radio, calls Beryl.   I go down below and explain our situation again.   We switch to mobile phone to finish the conversation and they confirm a fast boat is being sent to tow us back to the marina.  We spend another twenty minutes bobbing up and down in the deep water before we see the fast boat coming towards us in the distance.   

There are two men on the boat.  It’s a charter fishing boat with two huge 220 HP engines on the back.   The younger man jumps aboard the yacht as they come alongside.  He first tries to put the engine into gear, to prove to himself that there really is a problem.  The crunching and grinding sounds convince him quickly.

He ties the two boats together side by side.   I’ll steer, you provide the power, he shouts to the older man in the fast boat.

The engines roar and we begin our journey back to base.  Lance, the younger man, is a kiwi.  He chats to us as the boats drive forward into the wind and waves.  Every so often a wave crashes over the bow of the fast boat, showering the helmsman, John, with water.  Lance roars with laughter.  You owe me a beer for this, calls back John.

We pass a white monohull, from the decks two people wave.  They live full time on that boat, Lance tells us.

He makes a few phone calls as we motor along, trying to find us a replacement boat.    It looks like the only option is a catamaran.   Neither Richard or I have sailed one and they have a reputation as floating caravans amongst serious sailors.   But, we can tell it’s going to be the only option if we are to continue the sailing holiday.

As the two joined boats enter the marina, I feel relieved, but a black cloud descends on my mood.  It is so disappointing I can hardly speak.   I’m not good company.

At about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, we hear the new yacht is ready.   It is a 38 foot cat, named Alida.   To our surprise it is John, the helmsman of the fast boat, who shows us around her.    He tells us he owns the company which has just taken over the local Sunsail franchise.    No wonder Lance was so amused when his new boss took a soaking on the way back to port!

My mood lifts as we head out on the water again.   The sun is setting over the ocean when we find a sheltered anchorage at Cid Harbour on Whitsunday island.  We are back at sea and tomorrow is another day.

Roma cattle sales

The markets at Roma are on a huge scale. About a million cattle pass through the sale yards and spelling pens each year. Today more than 8000 cattle will be sold.

I walk along the metal gantry above the yards where the cattle are penned. Angular steel pens stretch out into the distance. The smell of manure is sharp and sour. The calls of the cattle blare out. Their mix of tone and pitch like a ragged brass band tuning up before a gig.

Brahman

The animals are grouped together into lots for sale. I watch with interest a group of Brahmans, milky white with flop ears and hump. An unusual sight in Victoria, they are common in Queensland. A group of Herefords sniff through the rails at the unfamiliar cattle next door. A solitary Droughtmaster bull stands and stares. Most of the animals are remarkably calm, despite their strange surroundings.Roma hand sits it outl

The proceedings are carefully orchestrated for speed and efficiency.

Sale yard officials are colour coded. Pink shirts are auctioneers. Spot them and you know where the action is. They jabber and gesture in an arcane ritual as unintelligible to the uninitiated as a witch doctor’s chant. As they move through the yards, a team of four, they conduct the movements in this agricultural dance.

Roma auctioneer

Blue shirts are yard hands, both men and women, driving the animals through the yards by waving old grain sacks on poly pipes. They stand on the overhead gantries above the cattle, waiting for the metal gates to open by remote control like lock gates letting the flow of animals through the system.

Roma yard

Buyers wear a mix of pastel coloured shirts, some checked some plain. They gather at ground level, moving from pen to pen to assess the quality of the stock for sale. An almost imperceptible nod or wink can buy a pen of thirty steers. To the untrained eye the buyers’ faces look impassive, their movements slow and cautious. A counterpoint to the frenzied pink shirted auctioneers.

Everyone wears a white akubra hat.

Snatches of conversation. “It’s been a patchy season.” “Good price for cows.” “Export market’s holding up.” “Prices are booming in the U.S.”

A yard hand named Fish stands and chats as we watch the sea of cattle move below us.

He’s worked at the sale yards for 35 years, starting when he was fifteen. They talked about selling them off a few years ago and there was an outcry, he says. They stay in the Shire’s hands, for now.

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Its hard work but he loves it. Every market day the auctions run from 8am until 8pm. There are private sales using the yards and a significant business spelling cattle in the yards. There is always work to do and he knows the ways of the sale yards well. It’s a good life.

Road closed

We wake to the mournful cawing of a crow. It feels good to be in the bush again.

Dom has been tending the fire in the night and the embers are hot and glowing. The campfire is welcome in the cool air and we warm ourselves around it.  The toasting fork comes out and we enjoy buttered toast for breakfast.

We’ve heard rumour there’s been a heavy fall of rain in the area and some of the roads may be closed. Driving towards Wilcannia I imagine rain on this road. It’s little more than a deep rut cut into the red earth. Water would run through here like a river.

Sweet little kids follow attentive nanny goats into the bush as we pass. A big old roo reclining in the sun lifts his head to watch. The road becomes more rutted As we drive on. There’s a road sign on an unsealed side road to Bourke. Taking a quick detour to check the sign posted nearby, we see it says “Road Closed”. This is not promising.

Our plan today is to tour along the Darling through Tilpa, and on to Bourke along the river route. When we reach Wilcannia, we find there has been 70 mm of rain and the roads have been closed. There’s a heavy fine for using a closed road, $1000 a wheel, we are told. Add to that the risk of getting bogged, and of damaging the road for other users. There’s no option, we have to change our plans and drive to Cobar and take the Barrier Highway to Bourke.

Back on the bitumen. The highway is busy with traffic. Grey nomads in caravans jostle with huge trucks. It’s not what we were hoping to see today. But the highway does not disturb the wildlife.   Indigenous kangaroos are outnumbered by the imported goats. We see hundreds of them, all well fed, healthy and leading kids.

A B Double truck drives up the tail of our convoy, urging us to move faster. Caravanners slow ahead of us. We are caught between them. Malcolm engages the truck driver on the radio. Howard in the lead calls out when the road is clear and we overtake the caravans one by one.

At lunch we are accosted by cheeky apostle birds hopping on to the picnic table at the truck stop and swooping on crumbs. The birds are so named because they live in family groups of twelve, like the twelve biblical apostles.

It’s a long tiring journey to Bourke, but finally we arrive. The caravan park, Kidman Camp, is way out at the back of Bourke. It is worth the trip. Showers, kitchen, laundry and a lovely quiet camping spot.

A bus to the local bowling club picks us up for dinner. It’s Chinese food with Tracy and Caitlin. A tower of brightly coloured balloons perches on a half empty table of local girls. They are here to celebrate the 18th birthday of a fragile looking girl with pale skin and long blonde hair. We raise our voices to join the room singing happy birthday, and wish her well.

The bus back to camp takes a circuitous route through the suburbs of Bourke to drop off the locals after a night of pokies at the bowling club. It’s hard to get a feeling for the town we are in, having seen so little of it. I think I will reserve judgement on Bourke until I can spend more time here.

The Long Paddock

The flat, featureless saltbush plains stretch into the haze on the horizon. We are driving the Cobb Highway, the Long Paddock. Since the 1840s drovers have been driving cattle along this track, from stations in Queensland to the markets in Victoria.

The vegetation offers little relief to the traveller’s eye. The drought tolerant, mineral rich saltbush puts on no airs and graces. It’s not an ostentatious plant. It hides its value beneath its dull grey-green scrubby appearance. Plain but highly nutritious, sheep grow fat and healthy on it. It dominates these plains.

At Hay we stop to visit the historic timber woolshed, moved stick by stick from Darling Downs to become a tourist attraction and home to the shearers’ hall of fame.

The wool industry has had mixed fortunes in Australia of late. Animal rights activists condemn the practice of mulesing as barbaric and cruel. The wool industry claims it is essential, extending the life of sheep many years by preventing them from becoming flyblown.

The debate is heated and insults are thrown both ways.

While the romance of the shearing shed loses its appeal at home, overseas markets, especially China and Russia, are increasing demand for wool and prices are buoyant

Billy, the demonstration shearer at Hay, is defensive. He is part of the marketing arm of a major industry and defender of a romantic bush ideal. Highly skilled, he shears a lamb in minutes. His strong arms are in control, the young animal relaxes and calmly accepts his actions.

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The worn timbers of the woolshed, the scent of lanolin and the raw earthy animal smell of the sheep, evoke another world. I fear for sheep that may in the future be shorn by robots in a factory to six sigma efficiency. I hope Billy and others like him continue their craft. Rough and basic this life might be, but these men work closely with the sheep and lambs, they know them, understand their ways. Let’s hold that relationship dear, for all its faults. Let’s cherish the good in that and build on it.

As Hay disappears in the rear view mirror, emus scatter alongside the road, their tail feathers bouncing like ladies bustles behind them. Driving north, the sun is high and reflects on the bonnet of the car, raising the temperature. Soon we long for cuppas and ice cream, and make a stop at the small town of Ivanhoe.

While Richard checks out the list of road closures and the Connoisseur ice cream, I admire the art works displayed in the shop windows along the Main Street. An initiative at the local correctional centre has created remarkable line drawings of bush characters. Each drawing was created on grid fashion with each artist assigned a square of the grid. A clever teaching method that produced great results.

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The saltbush plains are behind us now, the roads are iron red sand, unpassable in the wet. A frosting of green pick contrasts with the red dirt to create vivid colour combinations. The country is alive with emus, goats, sheep and kangaroos, all feeding from the minerals held in the rich red soil. The pale wintry colours of Victoria are forgotten as we speed onwards.

As the afternoon draws on we begin to look for our first bush camp of the trip. Howard does it again. “We’re stopping here”, crackles the radio as the utes turn off to the right. 500 m off the road, we pull into a beautiful treed clearing, partly protected from the wind by mounding sand. There’s plenty of wood for the campfire and soon we are cooking dinner together, enjoying the warmth of the fire and the conversation. As I retire to bed, I hear a male voice raised in song, a beautiful Italian operatic aria rings out across the sands, combining with the faint song of nature as the wind whistles and moans in the casuarinas.