Sunday, 25 August 2013

Cairns and Cooktown

We came to Cairns on Saturday morning and found our way to my old school friend's home in Bayview Heights. Alison and her husband Fred have lived in Cairns for about 15 years and so we have seen little of each other since our retirement. Al and I - both early baby-boomers - started school together and we became even closer friends when my family and hers became neighbours in 1957. After all these years, it is wonderful that we are still so comfortable together, and many happy hours were spent reminiscing about our early life and also trying to name all the people in our old school photos. After about 55 years we didn't do too badly either!

We parked our van in their driveway in what was to turn out a fourteen day visit instead of the planned four to five days. Our car (damaged in Normanton) was assessed by our insurance company on Tuesday and we were told that repairs would be carried out and that it would be completed in about ten days. No worries, said Al and Fred - and so we began a most enjoyable stay in this surprisingly busy tropical city.

We dined out a few times, toured the city, visited the beautiful Botanical Gardens, and  took a day's trip out to the lovely reef island off Cairns - Green Island where I could have quite happily stayed on at the resort there.

Our hosts decided a trip up to Cooktown would be a good idea, so on Saturday morning we loaded our overnight bags into their 4WD car and we set off on the 5 hour drive up to Cooktown. We had visited this lovely little town once before and not a lot has changed in the intervening years. We checked into the Sovereign Resort where we had a very swish, modern two bedroom apartment.  Hot and sticky after our long trip, Al and I (and later Peter) tried out the beautiful pool in the Resort's tropical gardens.

Next day we visited the Cooktown Heritage Centre which is housed in a beautifully restored Convent. Inside is a trove of items relating to the early pioneering days and also much about Captain Cook's troubles when he sheltered the Endeavour at Cooktown to repair the coral reef damage to his ship over a six week period. The Endeavour's anchor is on display and, together with extracts from the ship's log, it is fascinating to think about that time and the efforts Cook and his crew went to, to effect repairs. There is also mentioned their description of either a Wallaroo or Wallaby - the best they could do was liken it a little to a greyhound!

A trip to the top of Grassy Hill gave us a spectacular 360 degree view of Cooktown surroundings. The reefs and islands and the astonishingly blue sea were just breath-taking. Cook would have had the very same view, but while we were oohing and ahhing at the vista, his notes were all about trying to see a safe passage through the surrounding reefs for his ship.

An afternoon visit to the historic cemetery was interesting. There is so much information on some of the very old headstones. It was sad to see so many infants and young children that didn't survive and quite a few had been drowned. A short visit to the Cooktown Family History Centre was an eye-opener for me. For such a small group (about 30 members), they have set up an astonishing good display and have published quite a few very interesting booklets on various aspects of the pioneering days. I bought a few for our family history library in Frankston.

Driving home we travelled along the Bloomfield Track through the Daintree Rainforest World Heritage Park. This road is unmade and very rough and it was necessary to find a good place to ford the many small bush creeks along the way. After several hours we eventually reached more open countryside and finally arrived at Cape Tribulation.

Cape Tribulation was named by Captain Cook in June 1770  after his ship scraped a reef north east of the cape now named Endeavour Reef.  Cook recorded "...the north point [was named] Cape Tribulation because here begun all our troubles". The beach itself is extensive and very beautiful and with the tide out we had quite a walk to dip our toes in the warm waters.

We ate our lunch at one of the picnic tables under the trees and were treated to a visit by a very inquisitive goanna about one and a half metres in length. Foreign tourists nearby were aghast when he sauntered up to their sandaled feet but the cameras were soon clicking when they learnt he was harmless.

From the Cape to Cairns, the road is sealed and so we had a much more comfortable trip home. We just had to stop though at a place just outside Cape Tribulation for home-made icecream. With flavours like Wattleseed, Banana, Blueberry, Passionfruit and Coconut, this little business set in a gorgeous tropical garden was doing a roaring trade. 

Our last few days in Cairns were spent re-stocking our food supplies and getting rid of the last vestiges of red dust which had infiltrated every corner of the van in the Gulf country.

On Thursday evening we took Al and Fred for a very special dinner at Dundees on the Cairns waterfront as a thank-you for their hospitality and on the Friday, as had been promised, our car was returned to us all repaired and shiny.

Sad to say goodbye to our friends, but pleased we could begin the long trip south, we left Cairns to continue on to new places on our way home.


Thursday, 15 August 2013

Croydon to Mareeba

From Croydon, we continued easterly until we came to Georgetown where we parked the caravan whilst we had a dusty drive down to Forsayth (another soldier's grave to photograph) and then on to Cobbold Gorge. We had heard such a lot about this place and so we treated ourselves to an overnight stay in a very nice cabin and had booked a morning walk with a guide through the bush and then by boat through the gorge.

We arrived at the resort mid-afternoon and sat outside admiring the view when our 'neighbours' -  the retired people in the next cabin invited us over for a chat and a nice glass of red. After about half an hour we got around to asking their occupations before retirement.  Another startling coincidence for us -  the wife had worked in schools and the husband had been an electrician. This is the second time this has happened to us on this trip. We must attract them!
Next day after breakfast we joined the morning tour group and travelled by 4WD coach into the bush some distance away. Our knowledgeable guide was a mine of information on the history, flora and fauna of the area and on the way we passed the grave of John Corbett, an early settler in this area who had died and was buried in the bush. Everyone stood around quietly only for me to dispel the reverential silence by pointing out that the spelling on the headstone was in error - 'Who's body is buried here' which should have been 'Whose body....' - oh dear, I can't help myself! After about an hour, we were taken down into the gorge to board a very silent narrow boat through the astonishing gorge - so remote it was only discovered about 15 years ago.

Along the banks of the creek and on the massive rocks, several freshwater crocodiles were sunning themselves - so still we all thought they were 'props' until with a sudden swish of their tails they disappeared into the water. The gorge itself is a beautiful waterway rarely if ever without water even in drought. It is very narrow in parts so the boats were long and narrow to fit, and being electric powered, they moved silently along.

We returned to the resort, had lunch then drove back to Georgetown to our caravan.

Next day we meandered on eastwards and gradually the landscape changed from the dry, red dusty plains to small hills with more trees and vegetation. The hills we travelled up were so gradual we didn't realise quite how high we had climbed. But the trees became taller and the vegetation more lush and at a place called Archer Creek - quite far from any town - we came to an area off the road and beside a bubbling creek which allowed 'free parking for 48 hours'. This meant any travellers were welcome to stop here overnight (free of charge) with the only facilities - a very basic toilet.

However it was a very pretty, shady place and so was quite popular with other caravanners, RV-users and campers. Some people were already set up by early afternoon and one even had a market tent selling clothes and another lady provided hair cuts for $10! By sundown approximately 30 assorted campers were well set up, some with a few outdoor fires to sit around. Of course with no electricity, we relied on our LP gas for cooking and battery operated LED lamps for light so I was still able to have my half hour of reading before an early night.

I must say that despite piling on the bedclothes, it was FREEZING overnight, so very quickly first thing in the morning the gas oven was lit and the door left open for ten minutes or so to warm up the caravan. I didn't envy those sleeping in tents.

Continuing along the Savannah Way towards the coast, we came to Mareeba and decided to stop a few days here. As it was the first place we had come to in quite a while that didn't have water restrictions, it was a good chance to wash down our caravan which was still just about covered with the fine red dust from the outback roads. A trip to the local supermarket stocked up our supplies and the park's washing machines gave us nice fresh clothes.

Coffee, as well as many tropical fruits are grown in this area and so one day we visited the Australian Coffee Centre at Skybury not far from Mareeba. We had a delicious coffee while waiting for the next tour then had a guide show us the plantation and tell us all about growing and processing coffee. Papaya, banana, limes and pineapples are also grown on this farm by a family who came here from Zimbabwe about 25 years ago. As well as a few bags of coffee beans, we also brought some delicious lady finger bananas, and a papaya - a fruit which we hadn't tried before.

Onwards to Cairns to stay a while with long-time friends, Alison and Fred. The few days planned for Cairns has since turned into almost two weeks as our car is in for repairs here. More about our stay in Cairns in the next posting.


Saturday, 3 August 2013

On to Isa and the Northern Outback.

Leaving Winton we travelled 240 kms till arriving at McKinlay mid afternoon. A tiny place with a very well known pub thanks to the film 'Crocodile Dundee'. The only park was behind the pub so we settled in and as we noticed the pub provided evening meals, we decided to dine out. The drinking bar of the pub is pretty much the same as it was during the movie. However there was quite a nice, old-fashioned room for dining painted in shades of green with William Morris design curtains and matching oil-based tablecloths which I'm sure Crocodile Dundee never saw. Shortage of tables meant we were asked to share with another couple and would you believe - the wife worked in a secondary school office and library and her husband was an electrician. Same as us! What are the odds in such a remote area of Australia?

Next stop was the city of Mount Isa known to the locals as 'The Isa', and known all over Australia for decades as THE mining city. They mine copper, lead, zinc and silver and for many years the deep underground mines have been a mecca for miners to earn big money. It is an extremely busy place with a thriving shopping centre, traffic lights, and all the attractions of a big city. We took advantage of the supermarkets and stocked up on supplies, then booked into the major event for travellers - a trip down a mine - in this case it was The Hard Times mine.

With about 20 others of mixed ages we were given a briefing from a retired miner, Bill, and were then kitted up with disposable overalls, hard hat, miner's belt to which was attached a heavy battery pack to power the light on our hard hats. Finally we were given gumboots and we were ready for our photo session before 'going down'.  We were given a really good idea of the work that miners did in the 1950s and 1960s and the equipment used then. Such a hard, heavy and dangerous line of work, in spite of the many safety rules and we were told of many stories about accidents in the mines.

Leaving Mt.Isa and its busy-ness behind we headed north into the bush and unmade roads and finally came to Gregory Downs. The pub has been operating since the late 1880s and most grey nomads stop for a cool drink, enquire for caravan parking (to the rear of the pub!),  a chat with the locals and other travellers not to forget the two or three friendly dogs wandering around. I think the Gregory Downs pub might just be the only pub I've ever known to sell homemade icecream and the local aboriginal children lined up for a treat. Once settled, we had the job of dusting out the van. The fine red dust seeped into just about every nook and cranny in the van.

Next stop was Burketown right up near the Gulf of Carpentaria. Burketown is believed to be the basis of "Willstown"  a very amenity-challenged town fictionally developed into a successful and growing community to become A Town Like Alice by Jean Paget, a character created by Nevil Shute in his bestselling novel of that name.

It is a quiet little town and very popular with holidaying fishermen many of whom arrive with their caravans and 'tinnys' (aluminium small boats) during the winter months to fish for the famed barramundi. (This fish is highly prized for its beautiful delicate flavour). The shady caravan park is lovely and peaceful - except when a large flock of very noisy corellas (native birds) take possession of the trees. Our caravan park neighbour half demented by the continuous loud squawking had an ingenious contraption of a tin box filled with rattling stones which he hauled up into the branches (like you would raise a flag) to try and scare off the birds. Did it work? Nup!

These days Burketown is the administrative base of the vast Burke Shire Council. There is a small supermarket, a combined butcher and baker, small cafĂ©, service station and, of course, a pub. Unfortunately the pub burnt down last year and a new pub is presently being built. A small library, a kindergarten and a neat and tidy primary school are among the few facilities in the town.

The town is also popular with glider and hang-glider pilots during  September and October  who like to 'surf' the Morning Glory cloud which appears in September and October - a big moist cloud that rolls in and which glider pilots love to 'surf'. We liked our short stay in Burketown. Just on the outskirts we came across a large flock of Brolgas - large graceful and they looked wonderful.

The road next travelled was east along the Savannah Way - about 200 kilometres of mainly unsealed road to Normanton (think lots and lots of fine red dust - called 'bulldust' which managed to work its way into every nook and cranny of our caravan). Guess what we spent a fair bit of time doing when we finally got to the park in Normanton? A reward for the hard travelling along this road was the vista of the beautiful Leichardt River named by an early explorer Ludwig Leichardt during his first expedition in 1845 but who disappeared during a later unsuccessful expedition to cross the continent in 1848.

We booked a trip on the little Gulflander train which travels between Normanton and Croydon and which only travels one way on Wednesdays and returns the following day. This is quite an experience for train aficionadas and when three carriages were packed with people we began the trip. Because this part of the Gulf country is often inundated with floods, an ingenious method of laying inverted steel sleepers meant the rail line was never washed away in 125 years. However, it is definitely not a fast smooth ride taking five and a half hours to cover the 156 kilometres to Croydon. The driver, Ken, (aka the Normanton Station Master, Savannah guide and train driver) kept us entertained with facts about the line and stories of the people connected with it and we stopped for half an hour for a morning coffee and muffin along the way. We got to keep the enamel mug inscribed with The Gulflander as a souvenir.

At Croydon - a very small town (once a gold town), we stayed at the very old Club Hotel. Definitely not Hilton standard but extremely interesting nonetheless. Dinner at the pub that night was delicious Barramundi, chips and salad. Sunset from the veranda bar was spectacular.

Of course next day, we had to return to Normanton with another five and a half hours of noisy and bumpy rail travel. However, when we returned it was to find our car had been vandalised with a rear back side window smashed and several side panels also dented by rocks. The local Police quickly apprehended the culprits - two 10 year old Aboriginal lads from out of town! Too young to be charged but the local Normanton people where horrified and couldn't stop apologising to us. Luckily the kids hadn't managed to get into the car, so nothing was stolen. Hopefully, we'll get the window replaced in Cairns in about a week's time. In the meantime it is sealed up securely with the ubiquitous duct-tape. If that is the worst that can happen to us on this trip, then we'll be satisfied.

We still managed to do a bit of sight-seeing around Normanton and one day drove to Karumba right on the Gulf of Carpentaria to actually see the Gulf waters. This area is well known for the huge crocodiles in the ocean and rivers and so despite the heat any swimming is done safely in swimming pools. There is a model of an enormous crocodile in the main street of Normanton based on a monster which was caught back in the 1950s - amazingly by a woman.

All our washing of dusty bedding and clothes completed, we are now on our way again. Today we drove along the Gulf Development Road eastwards, and once again we are in Croydon. This time it took us less than two hours to get here!