Tag Archives: queensland

Inland to Bathurst Heads

It’s 10th June, Richard’s birthday.   We drive inland from Endeavour Falls along Battlecamp Road.   The red dirt is back.

The landscape has changed.  It’s the opposite to the rainforest.  The red roads gradually turn yellow as we drive through the low growing scrub and splash through the Normanby River creek crossing.

Old Laura homestead still stands.  A wide verandah tin and timber house, an old well, workers’ housing and the old forge remain.    The house is protected with chicken wire, to keep out tourists and perhaps the wildlife.  It must have been a hard existence living here in the heat, eking a living from the land.

Steel grey ant hills dot the country as we drive on from Laura.  This is national park land.  New regulations require all campsites to be prebooked online or by telephone.   This is bureaucracy at its best.   It’s totally impractical in an area with no mobile reception, public telephones or wifi.    It’s not in the spirit of bush camping to plan ahead and book the week in advance from Cooktown.   Plans have to change when a closed road, a vehicle repair or a fascinating side track delay the camper.   We shrug.  We will look outside the national park for our spot tonight.

The Kalpower River crossing is wide and flat, water tumbling down on the rocks below.  We drive on corrugated public roads through aboriginal freehold land.  The ant hills grow as tall as the scrubby trees.  Sculpted and impassive they look like druids’ standing stones dotted across an ancient woodland.  Wild horses gallop away as we pass.

There are two options when we cross the Marrett River, through the water or on a rough timber bridge, a few tree trunks slung across bank to bank.  Taking the bridge, we wonder if it will be strong enough to take the weight of the car.   Just to be sure we stall the engine as we cross and spend a few moments gazing down at the river, proving the bridge is strong.

Olive tells us tales of the old Kalpower homestead that is nearby.   It must be deep in the bush now, because our search is in vain.  There are no signs of habitation except an old Bedford truck that gave up the ghost many years ago.

Further down the road,a muddy four wheel drive approaches us, containing two young men.   Don’t bother trying to get to Bathurst Heads, they say.  They have been bogged down in a mud hole for three days and have had to winch themselves out.  The road is impassable.

We make do with a campsite just off the road, towards the river.  It’s a rough, scrubby spot.  Max heads off to the river to fish.   We make camp and get a fire started.

Richard, Dom and Beryl head down to the river to see how the fishing is going.  Richard, axe in hand, ready to fight off any crocodiles who may make their home here.  This morning we heard a crocodile story from the owner of the campsite.  A man was fishing in the river near the campsite and was grabbed by a four metre crocodile.  They had never seen one in that area before.  Male crocodiles have to find their own territory and move out into new areas as the population increases.

Rich and Max and axe

Luckily, the axe is not needed.   Max catches a lovely Mangrove Jack and a Bream, and Dom another Mangrove Jack.  The fish are cooked on the campfire for dinner.   The delicate taste of the fresh fish is better than any haute cuisine.

The mosquitoes are vicious.  Long trousers and sleeved shirts are essential.   They force an early retirement to our beds, after a fine ginger beer scone dessert, cooked for Richard’s birthday by chef Howard.

Cape Tribulation to Cooktown

It’s raining.  Cape Tribulation has a beautiful beach, fringed with palms.   The clouds are grey and the waters dull in the gentle light.    We run from the car in the rain, but do little more than glance at the beach before we are on our way again, on to the Bloomfield Track.  

The gravel track is steep.   Sharp climbs and rocky creek crossings provide our first driving challenge of the trip.  The track follows the coast along the edge of the Daintree Rainforest.  Tropical Tarzan vines hang down over the road and tangle around fan palms and tree ferns.  We speed over the track, as fast as the landcruisers will carry us.

Not everyone who passes by values the rainforest.  It’s sad to see styrofoam food containers and aluminium drink cans lying on the roadsides.  

We stop at an indigenous art gallery for coffee and a browse.   The art is not as impressive as the nearby waterfall, thundering down on the rocky river bed.

Further along the track, misty mountains rise up ahead of us. They create the heavy rainfall, about 7 metres a year, that is needed to sustain the Daintree rain forest.  

Lunch is at an old hotel with a long history, named The Lions Den.  It’s been a watering hole since the 1800s.  Check out the car park these days and it’s full of four wheel drive vehicles.  Like many outback pubs, the walls are covered with the names of past customers, backpackers and campers.   Is there a need to make a mark?  To be part of a travelling tribe?  How many return to find the names they scrawled years ago, to touch their youth?

On again.  Next stop Cooktown.

  
This is where Captain James Cook landed to repair his damaged ship, back in 1770.  There are memorials to Cook, including a life size statue on the waterfront.  The town grew to a major centre when gold was discovered on the Palmer River, but has now become a pleasant, but overlooked backwater.  Who knows, it’s time may come again.

At the end of the day we drive to Endeavour Falls to camp overnight underneath the palm trees.

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.

Motel California

You can’t always rely on the Internet to find last minute accommodation. Trust me, I know.

The motel comes into view as we drive around the corner. Grass is growing between the cracks in the concrete. Paint is peeling from the faded sign.

I climb reluctantly out of the ute. Heart sinking. Foolish optimism making me hope that maybe first appearances are deceptive. I’ve booked the motel for the eight of us to stay overnight before taking the ferry across to Hamilton Island. I need to check it out.

A paper sign is stuck to the window with Sellotape, handwritten in black ink. “Call Dave on 0431 254 876”. I peer inside the darkened interior. A figure moves slowly towards the door. A middle aged man, dressed in baggy trousers and a stained cotton shirt pushes the sliding door open.

We’ve booked rooms, I say.

He mumbles. You’ll have to speak to Dave in room 5. Just knock on the door.

The door to room 5 is closed. The curtains are pulled over. I knock.

No response. Knock again, calls Beryl.

I knock again, louder. The door opens. I see a bed. The sheets and blankets are pulled to one side, pillows piled in the centre.

We’ve booked rooms, I say. At this point I’m contemplating my escape plan.

Dave, hair sticking to one side of his face, taps the side of his head.

Give me a minute to get my head together. Just give me a minute.

He closes the door, then quickly reopens it. His face confused.

You have to give me a minute to get my head together.

We’d like to see the rooms, I say. He fumbles in his pocket and drops a handful of keys into my hand. Look at 3, 5 or 6.

I look at the jumble of keys. I can see two with labels marked 3 and one with a label marked 9. Room 9 is nearby. I turn the key in the lock and look inside. The room is a mess of bed clothes, a mop and bucket stand by the door. I close the door quickly. No way are we staying here.

He said look at room 6, says Beryl. As I walk over to the door marked 6, I hear Howard call out. Lovely gardens you have here.

The small dirt area in front of the motel building is sunbaked. A few lonely weeds struggle to find life in the desolate strip of soil.

A strange noise is coming from room number 6. My feeling of foreboding increases. I walk towards the door. Hand ready to turn the handle, I stop and listen. Silence, except for the strains of a familiar song playing in my head. “Welcome to the Motel California, such a lovely place, such a lovely face…”

There is a key to room number 6, but the door opens as I turn the handle. Two beds. A view. It looks all right, says Beryl. Inwardly I admire her chirpy optimism. I wish I could share it.

The red counterpanes on the beds look old and tired. The carpet threadbare, well worn. Turning back the bedclothes I see biscuit crumbs.

A sound comes from the bathroom. I turn my head. A cloud covers the sun and the room darkens. I take one step forward. The door to the bathroom slowly opens. I step back in surprise as much as horror.

“There’s plenty of room at the Motel California, any time of year, you can find it here.”

I run quickly from the room and thrust the keys back into Dave’s hand. It’s not what we are looking for, I call, as we drive away.

What did you see? Asks Richard. I look out of the window at the figure of Dave receding in the distance. The doorman is just visible behind the smeared glass entrance door. A shiver runs down my back, I’ll never tell.

“You can check out any time you like. But you can never leave…”

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.

Opal fields

The Bourke bakery’s range of apple cream cakes, pies and turnovers is impressive.   It’s too much of a temptation not to buy a few for morning tea.  A trip to the historic Bourke port and we’ll be off.

This was once the largest inland port in the world, shipping wool on the Darling River.  Little remains, but a timber wharf that stands high above the current river flow.   People of Bourke’s great days would not have believed that the busy port could become almost a backwater.   In the 21st century, river transport has all but ended and the timber structures that were once a hive of industry support only the feet of curious tourists and day trippers.

Leaving the old port, we drive alongside the Barwon River and stop at Brewarinna for morning tea and Bourke’s apple cream cakes.   This Barwon is not our familiar Victorian river, but a longer water course, extending 700 km through New South Wales.   Here at Brewarinna it contains aboriginal stone fish traps that are reported to be more than 30 thousand years old, perhaps the oldest man made structure in the world.   The fish traps were so successful the town was an important aboriginal meeting place in times gone by.

Turning away from the Barwon River, we head to Walgett and then to Lightning Ridge.  We are in opal country.   Olive has heard of an interesting little mining town off the main track, and we take a detour through cypress pine plantations to the tiny town of Cumborah.  It is littered with fascinating old trucks, cars and houses, most of them for sale.

Olive

Soon after the town, we take a turn off the road and on to a dirt track, signposted “opal fields”.  Little do we know, but we are about to enter another world.   Opal miners live here.  They lease small parcels of land from the Department of Mines for exploration and excavation.  They are seeking the black opal and their fortunes.

It is a world apart.   Our first stop is the Grawin “Club in the Scrub”.  A golf club, but not like any we have seen before.   Rocky fairways lead to red sandy greens.  The club house is timber and tin.   The club members are like extras from Mad Max – but on their day off, enjoying a social drink and a chook raffle with friends.

Club in scrub

Howard, Beryl and Suzanne strike up a conversation with a friendly type in the car park.   We are soon off on an ad hoc tour of the mines and the local community.   Bernie, our new friend and guide, leads us into a maze of narrow rocky roads.

Opal fields road

This is a world away from mainstream Australian life.   Old machinery comes here to die.   Beneath the ground, the area is honeycombed with old mine workings as miners follow the opal seams looking for their fortunes.

The chalky white rock dug up from underground mine excavation litters the landscape.   The world turns white and dusty.  A moonscape marked by quirky handmade signposts.  “Cars with brakes give way”.

We drive between tin shacks and old machinery.  If there are millionaires here, they are disguised well.  This is a handmade, manmade world without the restrictions of suburban life.   It feels post-apocalyptic.   Forget modern technology, here it is man, rock and the diesel engine.  If they can repair, make do or recycle they will.

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Bernie proudly takes us home to show us his prize opal, worth 100 or at least 50 thousand dollars.  Cut and set in a gold pendant for his wife, his eyes twinkle when he opens the velvet covered box to display it.   “She loves it, but you can have it for fifty, I need to upgrade the rig”.  He’s got the bug.  Introduced to opal mining by his father at fifteen, he’s itching to dig into a new lease and who knows, maybe find the seam that will add his name to the list of opal millionaires.

We feel honoured to be taken into his confidence and his home.   It’s a relief nonetheless to emerge from that chalky underworld and make our way to set up for the night at Lightning Ridge.

Thanks Bernie, I hope you find the big one, you deserve it.