Taking the Tourist Trail. Part 3.

Kennedy Highway, Back of Beyond, QLD. 30th June 2015.

This is now my new slogan.

This is now my new slogan.

Leaving Georgetown, with repairs completed, I had planned to ride as far as Ravenshoe, a town at the southern end of the Atherton Tablelands. This is an area of tropical rainforest, rivers and waterfalls. It is about as different to the dust dry outback, where I’d spent the last week, as it’s possible to be. But the delay caused by the repair meant I didn’t have enough time. So I headed to one of the roadside camping and rest areas that are listed on the Wikicamps App I’d downloaded. The transport authorities provide roadside rest areas, and encourage people to use them. Some of them are big enough to camp in too. They often have toilets, but not always. They are beloved by the grey nomads and the one I reached, about twenty minutes before it got dark, was no exception. The problem they sometimes suffer from is traffic noise but if you’re tired enough that won’t matter. And I was.

Tragedy strikes.

Tragedy strikes.

So I got to Ravenshoe next morning and went to the tourist information centre. It was there that I realised Ravenshoe was the town where a café had got blown up by a gas explosion six weeks or so earlier. It was a tragic accident where a middle aged man driving a Ute had either a heart attack or a stroke, veered off the road and hit an LPG gas bottle at the back of the café and it blew up. A fireball shot through the building severely burning several people and so far two have died. I saw it on the news while I was at Phil and Trish’s in Brisbane but had forgotten the town’s name. When I was walking round the town later I saw a couple of notices in a shop. The first about counselling services available to anyone affected by the event. The second about a meeting inviting all those to attend who had volunteered their help following the event. I thought it touching, the way a small community like this instantly pulls together when tragedy strikes. I decided to use Ravenshoe as a base to explore the tablelands area. I’d decided I like the place.

A community pulls together.

A community pulls together.

The national phone company steps in to help too.

The national phone company steps in to help too.

The town centre camp site is part of a historic steam train enterprise so my tent was pitched across from some railway carriages, close to a signal, set at stop. So I did. Tent pitched, I got into conversation with Lauren and Peter, a couple who were sitting by their caravan, about our respective journeys and then, on their advice, I rode out to take a look at Millstream falls, apparently Australia’s widest single drop falls. They’re no Niagra, but they were nice enough, and I met a young couple there, he from Taiwan and she from Japan. No surprise to learn they’re on a twelve month working holiday.

Great Millstream Falls.

Great Millstream Falls.

On the way back to the camp site I went to see Queensland’s largest wind farm. The twenty five turbines were spread across the top of Windy Hill, just north of the town, and were doing a great job of turning the chilly breeze into green electricity, enough to power a town of 3,500 people. I love wind farms. I think they look great and they lift the spirit too. Well done Ravenshoe.

Eco power generation.

Eco power generation.

One thing my ride out had made clear was the absolute difference some hills can make to the nature of the terrain. The Atherton Tablelands sit amongst Australia’s Great Dividing Range. These hills separate the east coast from the outback in the north of Queensland. Their effect is to create a much wetter, warmer climate, where tropical rainforest thrives. Huge areas of it were cleared by logging and then for farming, but enough remains to make the region very attractive to visitors, especially those from the south of the country, where chilly weather prevails at this time of year. The grey nomads are here in droves and it’s clear that these small towns and the local tourist industry totally relies on them for their economic survival. I suppose I’m one of them really. The towns put themselves out to make them welcome, making sure there’s plenty of parking space for caravan rigs and plenty of tourist information. Even the government controlled tourist sights have parking spaces for the rigs.

Seen while out walking. Pretty.

Seen while out walking. Pretty.

Logging and tin mining were the two industries which gave birth to the towns in this area. Roads and rail lines were built to service them and thousands of people came to work in them. Towns started out as collections of tents and shacks then grew to become fully fledged communities, with schools, shops and churches. When the mines ran out cattle farming replaced them and the green fields also gave birth to a dairy industry, the only one to be found in the tropics. On the southern approach to the area there are even hot springs to be enjoyed.

Seen while out walking. Pretty nice.

Seen while out walking. Pretty nice.

I spent five days camping at Ravenshoe, touring around and seeing the sights. There are plenty of waterfalls to see, a real novelty after the outback. In fact, seeing a creek with water in it was a novelty too. Riding through the rainforest was nice, with the range of plants reminding me of New Zealand.

Seen while out walking. Pretty disgusting.

Seen while out walking. Pretty disgusting.

I spent a fair bit of time chatting to Lauren and Peter. They’re long term travellers, having been away from their home in Perth for abut six months, with another year to go. They’re having a new house built while they’re away. Peter used to be a motorcycle mechanic so we had plenty in common. I was pleased they were there because I was feeling a bit under the weather for a day or two and it was nice to be able to sit around and socialise while I rested up.

New found friends, Peter and Lauren. Thanks for all the tea and toast!

New found friends, Peter and Lauren. Thanks for all the tea and toast!

The area is renowned for its lakes and waterfalls and I spent one day riding around to a selection of them and wondering what the collective noun for waterfalls might be. I decided on a tumble of waterfalls but I’d welcome any better suggestions. Anyway, they were pretty enough and the forest surrounding most of them was very nice. Plenty of rainforest green, a marked change from where I’d been a few days earlier.

Little Millstream Falls.

Little Millstream Falls.

Millaa Millaa Falls.

Millaa Millaa Falls.

Ellinjaa Falls.

Ellinjaa Falls.

The weather was sunny but chilly at night. Not so surprising considering I was up at over nine hundred metres. The site had a camp kitchen, where there was a gas barbecue and a fire circle. It seemed to fall upon the caretaker to get the fire going near to dusk and people would gather round for an evening chat with a beer or glass of wine. I met some nice people there, all grey nomads, including a woman who, when she was thirty, had driven herself and her two kids in a minibus from London to Australia via Pakistan and India. I felt like a wimp. The caretakers at this, and similar sites, are volunteers who usually stay for six weeks. They’re grey nomads but they must have suitable qualifications and experience. As far as I could tell they only get free accommodation in return.

Part of the campsite area.

Part of the campsite area.

Railway collection.

Railway collection.

I took a ride out to the nearby town of Herberton, another place founded on mining. Tin this time, rather than gold. The visitor centre had a really informative museum attached to it, with plenty of storyboards explaining the mining activities in the area, as well as their effect on it. But it also explained what tin is all about and how important this fairly common metal was to ancient man. When it was discovered that tin combined with copper produced bronze, mankind’s development took a major leap forward because of the versatility of this new metal. So although not being precious, tin was always in demand, hence the development of this town.

Mine owner's house.

Mine owner’s house.

The Herberton Heritage Village is a collection of period buildings brought in from the surrounding area and preserved. They are full of period artefacts and tell the story of how life was for different people at the time of the mining boom. There is a very nice Queenslander style house, with verandas all round and beautiful furniture inside, once occupied by the mine owner. In contrast there is a very crude building of wood and corrugated iron, with huge gaps in the walls, once occupied by the miners.

If you were a miner you slept here.

If you were a miner you slept here.

Another is a slab walled police station, occupied by native police. ‘Slab walled’ describes a crude building method where uprights are driven into the ground, battens are nailed to the inner and outer edges and then slabs of wood are dropped down between them to form a wall. A corrugated iron roof is put on top and a quick and simple building is then in place. The native police were a force made up from Aborigines, under white supervision, who were used to control other Aborigines. There are plenty of shops with all the usual examples of what was sold in those days. In one of them I spotted a billiard table iron. I wonder whose job it was to use that?

Care to have your billiard table ironed sir?

Care to have your billiard table ironed sir?

Spread around the area was plenty of old machinery, mostly in very dilapidated condition. Tractors, traction engines and general mining machinery such as pumps etc. I headed down to see one very nice collection which was of some old John Deere tractors. There were six or seven of them and they get started up most afternoons. They’ve all been beautifully refurbished and look splendid in their green and yellow colours. On a blackboard outside the tractor shed was written the maths question for the day. Too difficult for me. Any takers?

Answers on a postcard please.

Answers on a postcard please.

John Deere took over this successful company.

John Deere took over this successful company.

While I was looking around the old schoolhouse I was highly amused when a large Sikh family sat down at the desks with the father acting out the role of teacher. There were some typical questions from that period written on the blackboard but I don’t know if that was the challenge he was giving them.

Dad instructs the family.

Dad instructs the family.

As well as mining this area was very important for logging. This was a big industry up on the tablelands because there was a huge amount of hardwood trees among the rainforest timber. Some of them were enormous and were very valuable, although at the same time very difficult to cut down and transport away. Before trucks became available they would be using teams of forty bullocks to haul the logs out. Almost unimaginable. There was a nice display of photos showing how these men, and sometimes women, would stand on a length of wood which had been driven into the tree they were cutting down. They’d stand on it, maybe ten feet off the ground, and swing their axes into the tree. Incredibly tough work. The cutters would often attend shows and take part in competitions. The photos showed them standing astride a short log, barefooted and swinging their axe between their legs to cut in half the log they were standing on. Quite amazing.

Many of these old traction engines were British made.

Many of these old traction engines were British made.

Back at camp Lauren and Peter invited me to share the Chinese meal they’d cooked. I could never refuse a free dinner! Peter also uses the Ozi Explorer mapping programme that Jim introduced me to so we played around with that for a while and I learned some additional tricks, including how to transfer the track logs from my GPS onto Ozi Ex so I can see the route I’ve travelled on the map. Very handy. I took a day off next day as I was feeling a bit crook and I just sat around chatting and resting. We all went to the pub for dinner that evening. The food was good, and cheap. When we walked in the pub I saw a row of stools, all with men sitting on them who were paying close attention to a row of TV screens up on the wall. There was pony and trap racing taking place and there were machines dotted around where bets could be placed on the races. I’d seen a similar thing in a pub I went to for a meal, in Mackay. It seems that drinking and gambling go together in Australia.

A bit of Aussie humour at the heritage village pub.

A bit of Aussie humour at the heritage village pub.

Peter and Lauren left the next day. I was sorry to see them go as we’d hit it off very well. When they’d gone I took a ride out to the not very impressive Milandra falls. They looked more like a weir than a waterfall. Much more impressive was the Curtain Fig Tree out at Yungaburra. Fig trees, as I think I may have already described, attach them selves to a living tree and then strangle it. Once the seed has been planted on a branch, usually by a bird, the fig drops roots down to the ground, often from ten or more metres up, and grows around its host tree until it has covered it up and taken it over. The host tree dies, the fig tree thrives. This particular example became extra big when its host tree fell over and laid against another, enabling the fig tree to take over both of them. It now has a massive width and depth, probably twenty or so metres across, and is well worth its star billing.

The Curtain Fig Tree.

The Curtain Fig Tree.

This is how it got there.

This is how it got there.

While walking down to the fig tree someone spotted a possum, fast asleep up in a tree. A cute little creature which completely ignored the admiring crowd beneath it.

Cute little possum.

Cute little possum.

The Atherton Tablelands had been very interesting in many ways. They are a bit of a halfway house between the dry outback and the coastal rainforest. The trees and plants are very similar but because of its elevation – 500 to 1200 metres – the area is drier than lower down. The logging activities have cleared most of the ancient forest and the climate lends itself very well to dairy farming, a very unusual activity in this part of QLD. The area is very popular with the grey nomads, especially those from southern Australia where it’s cold at this time of year. It has plenty of history and heritage to offer the visitor, as well as wineries, cheese making and some very nice towns to explore. All of them have campgrounds, cafés, pubs and restaurants and try hard to make visitors welcome. They come across as friendly places with a good sense of community. Well worth the time spent there. The weather up there had been a bit mixed so I was really pleased to ride down into nice, warm sunshine. I headed to Paronella Park, another tourist attraction but one with a much more romantic history than your average tin mine. Here’s the story.

Paronella Park Castle.

Paronella Park Castle.

José Paronella came to Australia from Spain in 1913. He was from a relatively poor family and had been brought up by his grandmother on tales of the Catalonian castles that surrounded his home. Before he left he became engaged to a local girl, Matilda. He worked as a sugar cane cutter, well paid but hard work. Unlike his colleagues, he didn’t drink and gamble his money away but saved it and eventually started buying, improving then selling properties and cane farms. Eventually he made his fortune and, twelve years after leaving, he went back to Spain to claim his bride. But because he hadn’t bothered to write any letters nobody knew what had happened to him so Matilda had married someone else. To save the family honour he proposed to Matilda’s younger sister Margarita instead. So they got married and went back to Australia. José was determined to fulfil his dream of building a castle of his own so he bought some land from a farmer next to the Mena falls.

The Meena Falls by day.

The Meena Falls by day.

And by night.

And by night.

First he built a cottage for his family – he now had a daughter – then got started on his castle. It wasn’t big but was very fancy, with a tower, twin staircases leading up to it and a large ballroom behind it. This ballroom was where he held public parties, put on plays and showed films. Suspended from the ceiling was a spinning crystal ball which reflected the light from blue and pink spotlights. All this was in 1933 and the area didn’t get electricity until the 1950’s. So how did he do it? He installed his own hydro-electric plant, using the Mena Falls to power it. In the grounds he planted 7,000 exotic plants and trees. On a lower level, near to the falls, he built a swimming area and the nearby refreshment rooms had changing areas for guests to use. He created picnic areas and planted an avenue of Kauri Pines as a lover’s walk.

Kauri Pines grow very tall.

Kauri Pines grow very tall.

At the end of this he built a tunnel of love through a small hill at the other end of which was a smaller waterfall which he named after his daughter, Teresa. Surely this man was a true romantic! The whole place was opened to the public and was very popular. But tragedy struck, literally, in 1946. Upstream of the Mena Falls some woodcutters left logs in the river. These jammed the river, eventually broke free, swept away a railway bridge and the whole lot came crashing into Paronella Park. The refreshment hut and other facilities were destroyed and the grounds flooded. The family set to and repaired what they could and were open again within six months. Sadly, José died in 1948 but his wife, daughter and son carried on with the business. Margarita died in 1967 and the family sold the park in 1977. Very much the end of an era. More misfortune struck in the shape of a fire which destroyed the castle and ballroom, which suffered further damage in cyclones later on. The current owners discovered the almost lost park in 1993 while on a touring holiday and have taken on the massive and long term task of restoring it to something approaching its former glory. They recently refurbished the hydro-electric plant, so all power is now eco friendly once more. The restoration work continues.

The ruined castle by day.

The ruined castle by day.

Looking much better by night.

Looking much better by night.

I was very impressed by their approach to the structure of the entry fee. Firstly, it included one night’s free camping and although it was full from the point of view of caravans, such places invariably have room for a tent somewhere, and that proved to be the case here. Secondly, there were three different guided tours and because I was staying the night I could take advantage of all three. Thirdly, the ticket entitled you to revisit any time within the next two years to check on the progress of the restorations. What a great idea! The tours included a forty five minute guided walk around the grounds, with the guide relating José’s story. Very well worth while. There was a visit to see the hydro-electric plant, for those interested in such things. I was.

The refurbished hydro-electric plant. The water flows down a pipe from the falls.

The refurbished hydro-electric plant. The water flows down a pipe from the falls.

Probably best of all was an evening tour round the grounds to see the buildings and waterfalls floodlit, just as they were in José’s time. This gave a a very different view of things and made the general careworn feel the park presented in daylight completely disappear. The moss and lichen on the concrete walls, rails and steps had gone, replaced by a ‘moonlight magic’ kind of appearance which must have been how it looked to visitors eighty years before.

Hungary turtles.

Hungary turtles.

During the daylight tour we’d gone down to the waterfall and fed the fish and turtles with the food we’d been given. At night there were a greater variety of fish, including catfish and some large eels, and their behaviour was manic as they lunged at, and fought over, the food thrown to them. What a great idea on the part of the owners to make such a different aspect of the park available to us. When we went back to our meeting point we handed back the torches we’d been given, listened to a thank speech from Mark, the owner, and received a small gift. This was a cube of concrete retrieved from the ruins and given to us a s a memento. To my way of thinking the attitude of the owners is superb and I wish them every success with their project.

The stage in the ballroom. It's hard to imagine how it must have looked in its heyday. There is hope for its restoration.

The stage in the ballroom. It’s hard to imagine how it must have looked in its heyday. There is hope for its restoration.

Once the sun had come out next morning and dried the heavy dew off my tent, I packed up and set off for Cairns. En route I diverted to see Boulder Gorge, which Babinda Creek runs through. The creek begins its journey on the strangely named Baret Frere, Queensland’s highest mountain (1620 metres). The gorge is filled with huge granite rocks, hence the name. There is a designated swimming area at the picnic site close to the road but on the path which took visitors further along the creek were notices stating that this part of the creek was not safe for swimming, that people had died doing so and to please not join them! A fairly graphic message of which I took due note.

Boulder Gorge.

Boulder Gorge.

They seem to mean what they say.

They seem to mean what they say.

Onwards then, to Cairns, a city whose main purpose seemed to be delivering people out to the Great Barrier Reef, judging by the plethora of tour shops offering dive and snorkel trips there. I had some plans along those lines myself.

Taking the Tourist Trail. Part 2

Ravenswood, QLD. 26th June 2015.

European settlers, mostly British, began moving away from the coast into the hinterland in the mid 19th C, looking for land suitable for cattle and sheep farming. This process came about a little later in North Queensland and occurred as people moved up the coast and then into the outback. Unlike further south, were the weather is more settled, the outback has very wet and very dry seasons. This means that grass is thinner and less nutritious so vast areas of land were required to raise the profitable domestic animals. As far as the settlers were concerned the land was there for the taking, which is what they did, pushing the indigenous people out of the way, and squatting on the land.

Moving stock the traditional way.

Moving stock the traditional way.

The cattle and sheep stations are huge, often thousands of square kilometres. Cattle replaced the sheep in most areas because of spear grass. It causes sheep to become sick because the tufted part of the grass has hair-like tendrils on it and they get caught in the wool. When they become damp they start to spin and find their way in through the skin and into the flesh. Cattle are less prone to it, especially the short haired variety. They can affect all animals, including us. There is a story about a dog who had one of these spinners go right through him and out the other side.

When I left Ravenswood I took to a series of gravel trails, which short cut the road route.  Good riding and an interesting view of the fire risk warning system here in Australia. In NZ the risk level goes from low to severe. In Australia it goes from low, via extreme, to catastrophic! And they mean it too, given some of the news stories from last year. Despite the seriousness, I couldn’t help being amused by the signs I saw as I rode through a military training area.

Fire risk sign with a military twist.

Fire risk sign with a military twist.

I was heading for the Undara National Park to find out about the lava tubes. On the way I spent a night at a camp site in the village of Greenvale, another former mining town, nickel this time. At one time it was completely run down and was likely to be demolished until a millionaire businessman passed through in 1994 and decided to buy it from the mining company, thereby saving it. It is now a tourist attraction but is also helped by new mining activity in the region. In the village is a filling station/shop/café where I got a nice meal of grilled fish. I’d noticed that many places offer their fish battered, breaded or grilled, great for the health conscious eater. The absence of batter allowed me to have chips!

A typical outback roadhouse. Food and fuel.

A typical outback roadhouse. Food and fuel.

The wildlife changed as I moved north. The camp site had plenty of Galahs in residence and I’ve begun to see kangaroos in the brush as I ride past. Great as it is to see them they can be a real danger to drivers and, especially, motorcyclists. The standard warning is to avoid travelling at dawn or dusk because they have a habit of running out in front of vehicles at the last moment and invariably get struck by it and die. Not a problem for truckers, a major headache for bikers as they invariably come off worse. I saw at least a dozen dead ‘roos on, or next to, the road. I was definitely in the outback now. Nature in the raw. Just the road and the land it passed across, nothing else.

When you see a sign like this .....

When you see a sign like this …..

... on a road like this ....

… on a road like this ….

... you'd prefer not to meet one of these.

… you’d prefer not to meet one of these.

It wasn’t far to Undara Lodge and I’d rung up and booked a tour for the afternoon. Once the tent was up I enjoyed some of the free coffee while I waited. This site is very well laid out and every pitch has its own fire circle, with a billy holder at one side. It seems that Aussies like to get out and live their folk stories, so fire pits are very common. One really nice feature of this site is the railway carriages that have been converted into accommodation and facilities buildings. It seems the owner saw them one day when at a cattle market, parked up in a siding with grass growing around the wheels. He had them refurbished and trucked out to the camp site.

Imaginative use of railway stock.

Imaginative use of railway stock.

Undara Lodge is in a national park but the land used to belong to Whitewater Station, set up by the Collins family in 1862. When the lava tubes were discovered they began to take visitors to see them and the business grew from there. They lost the land when the national park was created but were given a seventy five year lease for running the tours. I mentioned before how tough life would have been for settlers. One fact I discovered was that before roads were built the return journey to the coast to get supplies took three months. Three months! It knocks ‘just popping down the shops’ into a cocked hat.
On the ride up I’d travelled along several roads whose name included ‘developmental road’. I stopped at a monument on the Hervey Developmental Road, named after the landowner who cut it through the bush. It enabled him to drive his cattle to market far more easily and as more stations were settled in the area the government took it over. For most of its life it was gravel but now it’s bitumen. I suspect the growth of trucking and the tourist trade has a lot to do with that. Most of the roads in the area have a similar history. The towns on the coast grew up partly to supply these stations and to ship out their livestock, so the roads became vital links for them. Essentially, they lived up to their name.

Signs such as this one tempt Aussies to explore their heritage.

Signs such as this one tempt Aussies to explore their heritage.

At 15.30 we set off in our minibus with Tracie, our guide, at the wheel. She told us all about the Collins family, how they developed the land and about the creation of the national park. We saw a kangaroo and she explained about the six different types that can be found. She also told us about the problems with animals such as feral cats, dogs and pigs. These animals are allowed to be hunted as they are considered a pest. She told us about the spear grass too.

Arched entrance to a lava tube.

Arched entrance to a lava tube.

So what are lava tubes? The area has ninety four volcanoes in it, of many different types. The Undara Volcano was of the type that didn’t explode but was where the lava simply oozed out of the crater. It did this for a long time and at high volume, estimated to be 1,000 cubic meres per second – about enough to fill an Olympic sized swimming pool. It covered the landscape to a great depth and some of the lava ran along watercourses or depressions in the ground. In this instance the top level of lava cooled in the air and solidified but the lava underneath, now kept even hotter, continued flowing. Eventually it stopped but left behind it the tubes through which it had flowed. The longest one is 160 kms, the longest in the world. They were discovered in 1960 and studied by various geologists from Cairns University. Over time the roofs have collapsed in many areas, allowing trees to thrive on the water that flows through them. Looking over the landscape it is easy to see where this has happened because there are pathways of greener trees across it. Even so, the longest tube is still 100 kms and there are many sections that have yet to be explored.

The fig trees constantly search for water.

The fig trees constantly search for water.

Undara lodge have done a great job in making them accessible. By special arrangement they can even get wheelchair bound people down into some sections. We walked down wooden steps and along boardwalks into the tube. There are sections were roof collapses have just left archways but further on we walked into the tube itself. Water leeching through had left some amazing patterns on the roof and walls, looking almost as if they were cave paintings. Fig tree roots had worked their way along the rocky floor seeking water and they looked like the tendrils of some jungle plant coming to get us.

Bat or snake's bite?

Bat or snake’s bite?

In the second tube we visited we saw small bats hanging from the roof. This tube is damp, just right for the bats and just right for the snakes which hang from tree branches outside waiting for their meal to fly by so they can grab it. What a fascinating place and proof, if any were needed, that nature invariably provides greater wonders to behold than man ever could. We just have to wait a while – 190,000 years in this case.

Nature's random patterns.

Nature’s random patterns.

Another surprising revelation from Tracie was the explanation she gave for the obviously recent fire damage at alongside the track. The ‘dry’ (dry season) has just begun and bush fires are a huge risk to the outback. Three weeks ago, while the grass was still damp and mornings still produced dew, they set fire to the grass. The biggest surprise to me was to learn that they then leave the fire to its own devices, with only the most casual monitoring taking place. It seems that everything is damp enough for the fire to burn itself out quite quickly but its effect is to eliminate available fuel to any subsequent bush fire. The grass begins to regenerate, but slowly. The trees are charred for about two metres up their trunk so won’t catch light. Along with the tracks that provide fire breaks, the risk is reduced significantly. The fire spreads slowly enough for animals to escape it although birds of prey will tend to hover along the edge waiting for lunch to come their way ahead of the flames. It’s up to each landowner to undertake this process if they choose to. Undara Lodge protects itself by fighting fire with fire.

Iron in the fire.

Iron in the fire.

In common with most tourist attractions in the outback, their season runs from April to October. The wet season arrives soon after and access is very difficult and the heat and humidity can be extreme. Most of the clientèle are grey nomads but at the moment the schools are on a two week break so there’s plenty of families too. What a fantastic place to take your kids.
When I left Undara I diverted slightly to look at the Kalkani Crater. This is a ‘traditional’ volcano, and has a nice round crater with a path all round it. Looking across the landscape from its height of fifty metres, and using the interpretive signs provided, I could see many of the other volcanoes including Undara which, given how productive it was, just looks like a low hill in the distance. It was easy to see where the lava tubes ran by tracing the darker green trees across the horizon, marking the collapsed roofs.

At the Kalkani crater rim. Geological history.

At the Kalkani crater rim. Geological history.

As I headed north then west the terrain changed subtly. It became even drier, the scrub and trees thinned out and the grass was now lemon grass rather than spear grass. There were almost no dead ‘roos here, suggesting the land wasn’t productive enough to sustain them. It had got hotter too.
My destination was Cobbold Gorge, another one of nature’s wonders. It is situated on a large cattle station and twenty one years ago the owners started a small tourist business, with visitors bussed in from the nearest town. Today it has become a camp site and tourist centre with a variety of accommodation options. Good facilities once more, and a cheap enough rate for a man, a motorcycle and a tent.This was my seventh night in a row under canvas and pitching it is getting quicker all the time. Camping on sites like these is no hardship really and I’ll have several more nights in the tent before I see the inside of a hostel again. The road down to it was gravel and had become corrugated in places. I was very pleased that I had decided to renew my tyres.

Nice gravel track down to Cobbold Gorge.

Nice gravel track down to Cobbold Gorge.

One of the signs along it, giving us some idea of the number of stations the road leads to and also how remote they are.

One of the signs along it, giving us some idea of the number of stations the road leads to and also how remote they are.

I booked onto the three hour long Gorge Tour, starting at 13.30 next day, and settled down to relax and write for the afternoon. Next morning I even had a lie in and still had plenty of time to catch up on more writing.
We met for the tour at reception and boarded the bus with our two guides, Gemma and Jamie. As we drove down to the gorge area Jamie explained some of the history of the station and also some geological background to the gorge. We were outside the volcanic area and the rock is all sandstone. It seems that fissures opened up, probably caused by earth movement, and water took advantage of the new routes. Unlike others in the area, the river that runs through Cobbold Gorge is fed by underground springs, so never dries up. The level rises significantly during the wet of course, and this has the effect of clearing and refreshing the water. Normally then, the water is very clear but the wets over the last three years have been limited; 290mm of rain instead of the usual 900mm. The rain tends to arrive in a rush as the summer starts so although the annual figure seems to me to be quite low, its effect can be drastic. The Robertson River runs through the property. At the moment it is just a dry, wide, sandy riverbed but the water level marker posts on either side of the steep banks go as high as eight metres. That’s why these tourist places are seasonal.

Very little plant life on the top.

Very little plant life on the top.

A bark shedding Malalaca tree.

A bark shedding Malalaca tree.

We were going to take a boat ride down the gorge but first we walked up the sandstone escarpment through which it runs. On the way there I was fascinated by some Malalaca trees, or paper Bark trees. They constantly shed their bark in very thin layers which really do feel like paper. We walked past a termite mound on the outside of which were some ants. They looked most peculiar with their blue bodies and their backsides stuck into the air.

Blue arsed ants.

Blue arsed ants.

It was at this point that I realised the mounds I thought were ant hills actually housed termites. Jamie told us about their lifestyle. They spit out a kind of glue that binds the dirt together as they build their nests. There is a King and Queen inside. The Queen can live up to one hundred years and will have several Kings in that time. When the Queen dies the nest dies too and the termites go off to start again. The farmers like to see their nests because this type eats grass. The cattle eat the young, green shoots but can’t digest the older stalks. The termites can and as they digest them the protein held within goes back into the earth. How fascinating.

The gorge from above.

The gorge from above.

We climbed up the rocks, admiring a rather smudgy Aboriginal rock painting on the way, and came out on the top. There was not much to see but rock. And this is the point. I had expected to see shrubs and trees growing on it but there were very few. My guess is that it’s simply too dry most of the time for any to take hold. We could see more of the sedimentary layers of this former seabed, with different minerals running through them evidenced by changing colours. There were rocky outcrops but the area was mostly flat. It did look strange. We could peer over the edge of the gorge too, a taster for the trip along it. I’ll stop trying to describe it because the pictures do a far better job.

Our elecrtic motored boat.

Our elecrtic motored boat.

Once back down we walked to the boarding point and got into the electric powered boats. Curious as to how they charge up the batteries this far away from the main buildings, one of the others spotted some solar panels. Riddle solved. The ride through the gorge and back was fascinating. It isn’t very wide at any point but it still narrowed down to about two metres across at the furthest end. The most common mineral here is iron and the water that rushes through in the wet has polished the surface of the rock to a dark, dull sheen, very smooth to the touch. Up above the water line the vertical and horizontal stripes from the minerals looked amazing. I asked Jamie if the two halves of the gorge would fit back together and he said the geologists reckoned they would. I kept checking various parts, wanting to be convinced. I was.

In the gorge.

In the gorge.

The minerals colour the rock. It is worn smooth by floodwater, up to about five metres.

The minerals colour the rock. It is worn smooth by floodwater, up to about five metres.

As we crossed the river on the way back Gemma pointed out the Spear Pump, which goes down about 20ft into the river bed where it finds the stored water underground. It’s very safe to drink, having been filtered through layers of sand, and is pumped straight up to the accommodation area. Huge parts of Australia get their water in this way.
That was an excellent tour. I love geology and things like this fascinate me. To me it’s comforting to think that our planet just gets on with going about its business and the affairs of mankind don’t really matter one jot.

In theory, these rocks would mate up again.

In theory, these rocks would mate up again.

Calm and still down in the gorge.

Calm and still down in the gorge.

Back at my tent, just as I was cooking my dinner, a bus pulled in with a load of oldies on board. Their tents were unloaded and they put them up all around mine. I was surrounded by greybeards! Nice, friendly people though. They were on a seventeen day trip from Broome, Western Australia, to Cairns. The tents are shaped like beehives and very simple to put up. Peg the base to the ground, insert one pole in the middle and push it up, just like opening an umbrella. The trailer the bus was towing contained a kitchen and all necessary equipment.It looked like a great way to enjoy the outdoors without having to buy a 4×4 and camping rig. They were all well behaved too.

Greybeard's arrive en masse.

Greybeard’s arrive en masse.

My usual morning routine when I’m camping is to get up, eat, pack my gear away, take down the tent, load everything onto the bike and go. This particular morning all went well until I came to leave. As I got onto the bike the side stand snapped. I didn’t drop the bike or anything and I stowed the broken part and set off. The nearest town with a welder was Georgetown and Bushey, at Bushey’s Tyres and Mechanicals was able to undertake a repair straight away. All I had to do was take the stand off the bike. So I leaned it against an old forklift truck, took it off and twenty minutes later I put the repaired stand back on. I’d previously lengthened it by combining two stands into one and it had broken because I hadn’t strengthened the weld. Bushey did a proper job and I’m confident it won’t break again. It was cheap enough, at $20, but the most pleasing thing was that he could do it straight away.

Nicely repaired. Strong, if not pretty.

Nicely repaired. Strong, if not pretty.

But isn’t it funny how life smacks you in the face and then puts its arm round your shoulder and makes it all up to you? I went to refuel and at the garage/café I bumped into Luke and Kasey, two thirty something Aussies who are taking a break from their work to travel around Australia on a Suzuki DR650. We had coffee and a long chat and have agreed to meet up at the rodeo at Mareeba in ten days time. I’ve been wanting to go to an Aussie rodeo and this event is part of a two week long country fair, with camping available at the showground. I was really pleased about that. So if my stand hadn’t broken when it did neither of those two things would have happened. Ain’t life grand sometimes?

Luke and Casey. DR650 mounted Aussie adventurers.

Luke and Casey. DR650 mounted Aussie adventurers.

Taking the Tourist Trail. Part 1.

Mackay, QLD. 12th June 2015.

Speed limits. Love them or hate them, they’re everywhere. Different states have different limits and in Queensland it’s 50kph in town and 110kph maximum on highways. In reality most urban limits are 60kph and most highway limits are 100kph. As with New Zealand, close to schools the limit drops to 40kph at relevant times of day. And it’s worth taking note of them because Aussie police do love their speed guns.
For my part I’m happy to ride at about 90kph, mostly to enhance fuel consumption. And so it was that having been guest at the homes of three great couples since leaving Brisbane, I became just another foreigner heading for the tourist treats and traps on the East coast of North Queensland. My first destination was the town of Mackay, over 450kms further north. On the way up there, just before the town of Rockhampton, I crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, which lies 23.5 degrees south of the Equator. I only realised it when I saw businesses with ‘Capricorn’ in their name and hadn’t spotted it on my GPS, although there’d been no signs that I’d seen. I was annoyed at missing the photo opportunity but I didn’t really have time to go back.

Cocky, the hungry cockatoo.

Cocky, the hungry cockatoo.

I stopped for fuel and coffee and was very amused by the warning sign on the Cockatoo’s cage at the servo.

You have been warned!

You have been warned!

There were plenty of warning signs at the roadside too. The Bruce Highway was entering some very flat, fairly barren terrain. Few bends, sandy scrub and very little on which to concentrate. The Queensland authorities are clearly very concerned about road deaths caused by fatigue and have signs telling drivers to take breaks. There are plenty of pull-ins and some businesses offer free coffee for the driver. There are even trivia questions to aid alertness. I saw two of these. The problem was they were the same questions both times. The same answers too, fortunately. You want to know what it was? OK then. What is Queensland’s floral emblem? I’ll answer it later for you.

How to stay alert.

How to stay alert.

In Mackay my rather run down hostel was full of Aussies, enjoying cheap accommodation while they looked for work. Not so many tourists here. The town itself didn’t have much to offer, especially in the rain, but I’d chosen it because it was near to Eungella, a place 90kms inland where I hoped to see waterfalls and platypus. I waited in the hostel for two days for the rain to go away. It poured down. I sat down. Luckily I had a blog to catch up on. Clouds, silver linings and so on.

A sign which explains why Australia is so strict on imported organic matter.

A sign which explains why Australia is so strict on imported organic matter.

Still cloudy but not actually raining, so on the third day I headed out to Eungella, way up in the hills. En route I went to visit Finch Hatton Gorge, a place Mitch had told me about. But I was beaten by a creek that had risen a bit too high for me to chance crossing. A feature of Aussie roads, even on main highways sometimes, is the presence of causeways that allow water to flow across them when creeks and rivers are running high. There are marker posts to tell drivers how high the water is and this one was at 300mm and flowing quite quickly. I decided not to chance it as I knew there’d be plenty of other gorges and waterfalls to see. I rode on up the hill, into the cloud and some rain, stopping at a couple of lookouts, where all I could see of the valley below was the cloud that covered it. Onwards to the Eungella National Park where a short walk took me to a viewing point by the river. And there I saw a platypus, just about, as it broke the surface for air before diving back down. I had a much clearer view of a couple of fresh water turtles swimming about. They are nothing like as big as their sea dwelling counterparts, being about the size of a large tortoise.

Freshwater turtles.

Freshwater turtles.

Back down by the bridge, where the road crossed the river, I joined some other people on lookout duty and this time we were rewarded by the sight of two of them, swimming and diving. Not quite near enough for a close encounter, nevertheless we could get a reasonable look at these strange creatures. The rain had become a little more serious now so I decided to head for lower, drier ground. The road up to the park was steep, twisty and narrow. Usually good news for me but this one had water channels under it covered with steel gratings. The channels lined up with waterfalls on the rock face, which helped to drain the steep, rocky hillsides. In particularly heavy rain the gratings would allow the water to overflow the channels onto the road. All well and good except they were invariably close to bends and were damn slippery in the wet!

The rather elusive platypus.

The rather elusive platypus.

Safely down, I stopped for coffee at a typical village store come post office come café before heading back to The Bruce for the run up to Airlie Beach. At one point I saw two bicycles laid down at the side of the road so I turned back to see if there was a problem. Up popped two young Koreans who were simply having a rest. I realised that both the bikes had trailers attached and they told me they’d bought the rigs on Ebay when they arrived. They’d just come from Airlie Beach and we chatted a bit before I wished them well and carried on.
I got a bed at the YHA hostel and took a walk along the town’s main street. This place is very much geared up for the tourist, especially young ones. Just right for me then. There were plenty of outlets offering sail or boating trips out to the nearby Whitsunday Islands, as well as the usual high adrenaline activities. Lots of touristy shops too. As with almost all Aussie towns, it wasn’t difficult to find the big supermarket for those essential supplies, only five minutes walk away.

Impressive sand dragon.

Impressive sand dragon.

After the heavy rain of Mackay it was great to wake up to a beautiful, sunny day. I spent it in a relaxed manner, walking around the shops and along the beach front. The local Lions had a bit of a market on the go there although not much of what was on offer appealed to me. But I did enjoy the sand sculptures a local guy had created and was happy to drop a couple of dollars in his collection box. Further along the front is a swimming lagoon. It’s filled with seawater and has nice facilities around it, great for families. These lagoons are a necessity along this coast as the waters are plagued by box jellyfish. These creatures are almost impossible to see but have tentacles that can be as long as three metres. Their sting isn’t fateful, although there is another variety of jellyfish that can be. However, it is very unpleasant indeed and hospitalisation is recommended. They have special first aid points where vinegar is kept available as it is the best form of immediate relief.

Serious stuff.

Serious stuff.

During my walk I finally made the decision to go on a boat trip out to the islands. I popped into one of the agents and settled on a trip on the Thundercat. This was in preference to going on a yacht, which would have been more interesting but slower. Thundercat would give me more time for snorkelling. The cost was a very reasonable $160 (£80), which included lunch and the supply of all equipment.
On the way up the street to meet the minibus next morning a guy coming the other way stopped me and asked if I was Geoff. He reminded me that we’d shared a room at the hostel in Wellington, way back in January. Matthew is a young American lawyer, taking a break from the rat race to see a bit of the world. It was good to see him again.

Thundercats are Go!

Thundercats are Go!

The minibus took me and others to the harbour, where we were kitted out with a lightweight wetsuit for protection against stingers. On the boat Connor told us what the day would bring and then Mike gunned up the two 300BHP outboards and off we went. Although it was a warm day the speed of the boat cooled things down although fortunately the sea was calm enough to avoid any spray. Our first stop was on the main Whitsunday island and we walked up a slight hill to the lookout where we had fabulous views over the island and across to some of the others. The sea was a lovely colour and the blue made a picture postcard contrast with the almost pure white sand. Connor told us that this sand had been drawn up by the sea from a deep hole in the seabed, formed by volcanic action. No more of it was coming up now but the sea was still slowly moving it away from these beaches to other places. So when it’s gone, it’s gone! The sand is almost pure silica and can be walked on regardless of the air temperature. The silica reflects the sunlight so the sand stays cool all the time. This makes it very special.

Beautiful Whitsunday Island beach.

Beautiful Whitsunday Island beach.

When we went down to the beach we found he was right. What he hadn’t mentioned was how soft the sand is and how wonderful is the feeling you get when you walk in it. So nice and cool on the feet, like nothing I’d ever felt before. Fabulous! I got chatting to a woman who was also on her own. German but living in Switzerland, Antje is a nurse who would like to emigrate to Australia but needs to improve her English. We paddled around in the shallows enjoying the sea and watching the swarms of tiddlers. And we also watched the sharks. Lemon Sharks. Up to three feet long and harmless, thankfully. I don’t think they could have eaten more than a toe had they tried, but I’m pleased they didn’t.

Harmless, despite being a shark.

Harmless, despite being a shark.

Back on the boat we headed out to the reef for our first snorkel swim. It was great. The Barrier Reef is easily as beautiful as its description, with all kinds of different corals in a variety of colours. It’s very strange to think they are sea creatures not plants. Australian authorities were very worried recently because UNESCO, who issue the World Heritage Site designation, were on the verge of declaring the reef as endangered. This would have devastated the area’s tourist industry because it would have meant no more trips like this one, as well as several other problems. Not least of which would have been the blow to Aussie pride. But it didn’t happen so we were able to swim with the very colourful fish with no restrictions. It amazed me that the coral we looked at during our second swim was only just off one of the island beaches. The water was a bit colder here so many of our group cut their swim a bit short and we were able to sit on the beach in the sunshine, eating fresh tropical fruit while we chatted. This is the life!

Colourful fish.

Colourful fish.

Colourful coral.

Colourful coral.

When I left Airlie Beach I took a ride out to some more pretty bays. Sadly at one small cove, down at the end of a dirt track, there was an abandoned settee dumped on the sand. For crying out loud, what is it that goes through these people’s minds?

It's not really a beach chair!

It’s not really a beach chair!

Back on the Bruce Highway I had a few hundred kilometres to cover so I turned up my music, settled down on my seat and entered that nice biker zone where the road unfolds in its own sweet way, the music player shuffles through the tracks as it sees fit and the engine and tyre noise become a background vibe, felt but not heard. Sometimes this is what travelling is all about. Keeping on going, just going.
When I was back in England I decided to invest in some earplugs which have speakers built in. It’s almost impossible to wear normal earphones under a well fitting crash helmet without suffering discomfort. These earplugs are custom made for my ears, as were my other pair, but the addition of earphones, and therefore music, takes riding pleasure up to a new level. Not cheap at £175, but proving to be worth all of it.

Graphic reminder.

Graphic reminder.

But every engine needs fuel and every rider coffee, so I pulled in to top up. When I settled down in the very nicely set out picnic area, with my drink, I got chatting to a French couple who were in Australia on work visas. I even practised my French with them and was told I had a good accent. I’ve no idea when I’ll use it again but it’s nice to know all those lessons didn’t go to waste.

Good advice and I took it.

Good advice and I took it.

Mitch had mentioned to me the Burdekin Bridge, a road and rail bridge across the Burdekin River. Its an interesting piece of construction and looks as much like a Meccano model as anything is ever likely to. I had to stop for photos of course and to enjoy this sculpture in steel and grey paint.

Impressive road and rail bridge.

Impressive road and rail bridge.

I reached the day’s destination of Townsville in plenty of time and went to check the first of two hostels I’d selected. Reef Lodge got my vote as it was nearest to the town’s facilities and had good rooms. I don’t often write about places I’ve stayed in but I liked this one because it had a bit of a Buddhist theme and they grow herbs, which guests can use. A very nice touch.
Townsville expanded as the area was settled. It was a well used port, less busy now that there are good roads, but still important. It very much came into its own during WW2, as I shall describe later.

Sealink get around a bit, don't they.

Sealink get around a bit, don’t they.

Something to take seriously in this part of Australia.

Something to take seriously in this part of Australia.

A short ferry hop from Townsville is Magnetic Island, a name chosen by James Cook because it seemed to have a strange effect on the ship’s compass. I chose to go there because it has several very nice bays and a place where I could cuddle a koala. Sealink run the ferry, it wasn’t dear and when I disembarked there was a bus waiting which took me across the island to Horseshoe Bay. This is the largest on the island and has a great beach with plenty to do. I fancied going out on a guided kayak trip, which would have given me some much needed exercise, if nothing else, but it was all booked up. So I settled for lying on the beach, soaking up the sun and watching the parrots, until it was time to go to Bungalow Bay, a tourist park and animal reserve.

Noisy, squabbling parrots.

Noisy, squabbling parrots.

I really enjoyed it. We were introduced to a cockatoo who would sit on your arm and take a seed from between your lips without touching them. I was surprised to learn they live to over one hundred years old and will likely have several owners in that time, to whom they become very attached. We saw a wombat and learned that because they burrow underground they have developed the ability to produce square poo, so that it doesn’t roll down the slope back into the burrow. We also learned that they have a bone in their backside so that if they get chased by a dingo they run to their burrow then stop just as they are almost inside it. The poor, dumb dingo thinks he’s got his meal and bites the wombat backside only to discover his dinner has armour plating. We held some lizards, one of which has a tail which is heavy and solid and is shaped just like its head. Predators bite the wrong end, quickly to let go before their teeth break, and the lizard carries on with its day. I was given a crocodile to hold too. All of a foot long and only eighteen months old. No dramas as long as I held it correctly.

Wombat.

Wombat.

Cuddly Koala.

Cuddly Koala.

We saw several koalas in their pens and eventually one was brought out and passed around the group for photo opportunities. They’re quite laid back animals. It seems the eucalyptus leaves they eat don’t contain very much protein so they aren’t especially energetic. They sleep a lot and don’t mind being held and cooed over. Lastly we played with a couple of pythons. Once again, they had to be held correctly but were very docile. I’m sure you all know that the ‘slippery snake’ reputation is a myth. Their skin is very dry and it was easy to feel the powerful muscles just underneath. I can understand why people like them as pets, having now been up close to one. Before we left we each received our framed photo of us with a koala, something that I’m sure must delight the kids who go there. As is usually the case with these places, our guide was very knowledgeable about her animals and I felt that for these, captivity was no hardship.

Playful Python.

Playful Python.

The sun sets around 17.30 this time of year and I wanted to go up to see a WW2 fort which had been built at the top of the island’s highest hill. As it was now 16.15, I needed to get a move on. A walk up a steep, stony path got me to the point where the track up to the fort began. A two hour round trip of four kilometres, according to the helpful sign. Spurred on by the sun now sliding down the sky towards dusk, I made it up there in twenty minutes. It was hard work getting up the rocky steps at the top but I made it in plenty of time and was rewarded with a spectacular sunset. It was one of those where the clouds are spread across the horizon and the sun lights the sky through their filter or shines across the sea every time the clouds are far enough apart to allow it. There was a group of young Brits up there too (English, Scots and Welsh) and we all enjoyed a spectacular light show. Fabulous. It doesn’t matter how many times you see a great sunset, I don’t think you can ever tire of them.

Cloudy sky at dusk.

Cloudy sky at dusk.

Sundown.

Sundown.

That was a fitting conclusion to a day that had been instructive, informative and tiring. I was happy for the bus to get me back to the terminal, the ferry to get me back to Townsville and my legs to take me back the short distance to the hostel. I was knackered!
As if I hadn’t walked enough, the next day found me striking out for Castle Hill, a huge sandstone bluff which overlooks the town. There isn’t a castle on it but it would have been a great location for one. I found my way to the bottom of the Goat Track and was not very delighted by the sign that said there was one kilometre and thirteen hundred and fifteen steps to be trod to get me there. And the steps were uneven and high. About half way up, at a viewing point with a seat, my legs said ‘Not today Geoff, we’ve had enough after yesterday.’ So I sat and admired the view then went back down. I didn’t feel too bad about it, having had a good workout the previous day. Let’s be honest, I’m not a goat. I don’t even have a goatee.

A Buddhist flavour to the Reef Lodge hostel.

A Buddhist flavour to the Reef Lodge hostel.

The Museum of Tropical Queensland made a less taxing alternative. On the way there I’d walked through the main shopping area and was puzzled because all the shops were closed. Saturday simply does not seem to be a big shopping day in Australia, with most shops closing at lunchtime. I did learn later that the edge of town malls would have been open and busy though.
The biggest exhibition in the museum was about HMS Pandorra. It had been sent out, with extra crew and rations, to recover HMS Bounty, of mutiny fame. It was assumed to be still where the mutiny took place and the plan was to use the extra crew and rations to sail it back to England. HMS Pandorra got to Tahiti, where thirteen of the remaining Bounty crew were located and arrested. They were forced to leave behind their Tahitan wives and children and the ship sailed off to search for The Bounty. But it had sunk soon after it left Tahiti and, long story short, The Pandorra suffered the same fate. It struck the Barrier Reef off the North Queensland coast. Thirty one crew and four of the thirteen prisoners were killed but the others managed to sail the small ship’s boat across to the Dutch East Indies and thence made it home. Most of the prisoners were found not guilty, or were pardoned, and a couple of them subsequently rose to high rank in the navy. The reason for all the Australian interest in this story is that the wreck was discovered in the 1980’s and many artefacts were found. The display included a lot of these but also described how they were recovered. There was an interesting section about the development of deep sea diving technology too, which came into its own in the late 19th C.
Other exhibitions were about the Barrier Reef and ancient fauna, such as dinosaurs. A bit inland from Townsville is a very productive fossil hunting area. Maybe that’s something to visit while I’m in the area.

Get your kilt on.

Get your kilt on.

Sunday seems to be market day in this city. At least, some Sundays are. A few hundred metres along the main street from my hostel the road had been closed and a Sunday market was in full swing. Lots of food stalls, many of them private sellers it seemed. People selling clothes and jewellery too. But perhaps the most eye catching display was the one celebrating Australia’s Scottish day. On or around the 1st July Australians of Scots extraction are encouraged to ‘go native’ and wear their tartan. What particularly caught my eye was that the tartan on display at the information stall was that of the Clan Buchanan, the one my wife and in-laws are part of. I had a nice chat with the woman running the stall and paused to watch the young dancers while they gave us all a demonstration. I thought their pink and purple patterned kilts looked great on them, but I don’t think they’d have been much good to a Highlander trying to dodge the English Redcoats in the glens.

Memorial archway.

Memorial archway.

On a beautiful, sunny day a walk along the promenade often appeals. Townsville’s is very well laid out, taking the form of parkland interspersed with children’s play areas and public swimming facilities. The part nearest to the town is dedicated to the ANZACs who fought in WW1 and subsequent conflicts. There are some very tasteful memorials and I especially liked the display about the dozen Victoria Cross holders that came from the city.
There is also an informative display about the Battle of the Coral Sea, where American and Japanese aircraft carriers, along with their support ships, fought for supremacy of those waters. Although the Japanese were reckoned to have ‘won’ it, the battle marked the end of their naval superiority and was the beginning of the end of their Pacific activities. It was strange to learn that none of the ships involved actually saw their counterparts, or came within gunnery range. The battle was fought by the aircraft from the carriers with their bombing attacks.

The battle of the Coral Sea.

The battle of the Coral Sea.

On the same theme, at the end of the promenade lies Fort Jezzine. Named after a battle which took place in Syria, this fort was the American and Australian joint forces base for the fight against Japan. Townsville was chosen for this role because it had such a good harbour. There were eight jetties and at one time there were sixty four ships either at the jetties or at anchor out at sea waiting their turn. General MacArthur had his HQ there too. WW2 was kind to the city because it lifted it from the doldrums and it has never looked back. The Japanese tried to bomb it over three successive nights in July 1942 but were unsuccessful. But learning this did go some way to explaining why Australia and the US seem to be so close. From a normal population of 30,000 people, the war boosted that to over 100,000. It’s only when you look at a map that you realise how close Papua New Guinea, occupied by Japan, actually is. It’s probably true to say that without Australia’s assistance, America and her allies would not have been able to defeat the Japanese.

Close knit alliance between two nations.

Close knit alliance between two nations.

But enough doom and gloom. This day was sunny, many people were out enjoying it – both families and youngsters – and it was mid winter and fathers’ day too. The whole area is a terrific community space and there was a real aura of pleasure, fun and relaxation. A very nice way to spend my last day in this city.
While I’d been walking round the market I’d spotted a barber shop, haircuts at fifteen dollars. Very cheap indeed but unfortunately I didn’t quite make it there before they closed. So on Monday morning I was down there soon after 8am getting a trim. The woman was a bit of a misery but brightened up when I began to ask her questions about all the military paraphernalia she had spread around the shop. She collects it simply because she likes it and it definitely makes her barber shop different to any other I’ve ever been in. She gave me a leaflet about a military collection, which is in a town I’ll be passing further north. One to look out for.

Anna, a Polish biker who I met at Reef Lodge.

Anna, a Polish biker who I met at Reef Lodge.

My next destination was Charters Towers. In October 1871 it didn’t exist. Not even one little house. Twenty years later its population was close to twenty five thousand and its streets were full of grand buildings. All because of gold. It sounded fascinating and well worth a look. Once away from the city, the road straightened out and began to run through outback country. Mostly flat with small trees and shrubs alongside the road. Cattle country, judging by the number I saw. A road sign warned drivers that this road was used by road trains and to allow plenty of room for overtaking as they can be up to fifty five metres long. That is big! They can be towing up to four trailers. I really wouldn’t want to have to reverse one.

They mean it too.

They mean it too.

I’ve downloaded a very useful App for my phone called Wiki Camps. It lists all the known camp sites, rest areas, roadhouses and free camping areas throughout Australia. I used it to locate a free camping area which is next to the Burdekin River, about twenty kilometres before Charters Towers. There are no hostels or other cheap accommodation in or near the town anyway, so it was time to dig out the tent.
The approach to the Macrossan Rest Area is well signposted because, as with other main roads, the Flinders Highway is big on telling drivers to rest and on telling them in advance about opportunities to do so. I pulled off the road, down a wide track and came to an open area, crossed by a number of tracks. The sign just before the camping area said ‘No Motorcycles’. I ignored it. There was a variety of rigs parked up, with a selection of grey nomads in attendance. There is a toilet block but the water is stated as being non-potable. I had read that it is delivered from the town rather than being taken from the river, but because it’s stored in a tank, isn’t safe to drink. I filled up my water container anyway and then found a nice little hideaway lower down, right next to the river. No crocodiles to worry about this far inland although something definitely visits my little corner, judging by the poo pellets lying around. Once I’d set up camp I headed in to town to join the gold rush.

Aussie humour.

Aussie humour.

First port of call is always the visitor centre, where I watched a series of videos about the town. It is named after William Charters, the Gold Warden for the area, and the towers (tors), that can be found near the town. Gold was first discovered by some prospectors when their horse bolted. They sent their Aboriginal horse boy to get him back and he spotted some gold rich quartz in a creek. When they went to the nearby gold mining town of Ravenswood to register their claim, the secret was out and the rush started. People came from all over Australia and, indeed, Europe. Many got rich, only to lose it all again on other mining ventures which came to nothing. There was no end of scams and greed often overcame good sense. It was Mark Twain who said that a mine is just a hole in the ground with a liar at the top. How true.

Charters Towers Stock Exchange building.

Charters Towers Stock Exchange building.

Many others came to open support businesses – equipment suppliers, grocers and butchers, hotels and whorehouses. The town claimed to have the essential four G’s; Gold, Goats, Girls and Grog. It also claimed to be ‘The World’, as in ‘Everything you could want in the world can be found here’. At the time that was probably true.
A stock exchange was set up as a way of trying to control some of the worse scams. It enabled people to buy shares in various mines and projects and was so busy that at one time the world gold price was set there.
I walked around to look at some of the buildings and then took a ride up to The Tower, the biggest hill outside the town. It was the site of a plant which extracted gold from iron pyrites, something that I wasn’t aware could be done. It seemed to involve many chemicals that struck me as very dangerous, such as cyanide, but it produced a fair bit of gold. That plant shut down in the 1920’s, along with most of the mining operations around the area, and during WW2 the hill had various storage facilities built on, and into, it for army use. It acted as a sattelite depot to support the main activities taking place in Townsville.

Storyboard for the town.

Storyboard for the town.

The visitor centre also organise walking and bus tours so I decided to do my best to get into town for the 9am walking tour, then take the 11am bus tour.
I was very proud of myself because I managed to get up and organised in time to be in town ready for the tour. Which wasn’t on. There isn’t a 9am tour on Tuesday’s. Feeling slightly cheated, I booked the bus tour and then the walking tour at 1pm. With a couple of hours to kill I went for a walk down to Lissner Park, one of the town’s ‘green lungs’. I was fascinated by the amount of birds up in some trees and the noise they were making. A closer look made me realise they weren’t birds but bats. Fruit Bats, or Flying Foxes. And they really do look like foxes too. There was at least a hundred of them, hanging off the branches and making a terrific noise if disturbed. I’ve heard that they’re very smelly creatures and are something of a pest in certain areas of Australia.

Flying foxes.

Flying foxes.

I got chatting to a Singaporean couple, Phillip and Joanne, here on holiday. These are the names they use in their business, rather than their Chinese names. We chatted for a while and I’ve got their contact details and an invite to call on them when I get to Singapore. Very nice people, around the same age as me.

Phillip and Joanna.

Phillip and Joanna.

On the way back to the visitor centre I called in at the Miners Cottage, one of the original buildings in the town. It is full of memorabilia and information and the guy who runs it gave us a demonstration on how to pan for gold. I had to leave there early to get back for my tours. Here’s what I learned from our guide.
As the town grew many fine buildings were built, both public and private. Banks set up branches there, a post and telegraph office was built as well as a courthouse. Several fine hotels were built too. One of them, The Courthouse Hotel, found itself bereft of business when the courthouse was moved into the main street. The owner’s solution was to move the hotel too.

Imagine moving this complete building 300 metres.

Imagine moving this complete building 300 metres.

It took him five days to move it the three hundred or so metres, on steel rollers, to it’s current position on the main street. It was a huge operation and to make matters worse, in order to meet the requirements of his liquor licence he had to continue to serve food and drink each evening. The licensing authorities clearly didn’t like him because they then tried to cancel his license, claiming he would have to reapply as his hotel now had a new address. He fought them and won the day in the end.

Town centre department store. Look at the ietm third from right and tell me what that means, if you can.

Town centre department store. Look at the ietm third from right and tell me what that means, if you can.

The much desired gold in the area wasn’t alluvial, which tends to be on the surface. It was reef gold, and was held in quartz rock which generally lies underground. The initial discovery was lucky because the quartz reef happened to breach the surface at that point. These reefs tend to be fairly narrow but long. A miner would stake his claim, which is fifteeen feet square, and dig, hoping to be above the reef. It was usually the case that a number of people would combine their claims, so improving the collective chance of striking the reef. There were three main reefs but access to them became ever deeper as time went by. The deepest shaft was of 3,000 feet and the deepest direct shaft i.e. straight down, was of 2,600 feet. Dynamite, hand tools, candles, barrows, carts, pit ponies and sheer muscle power were the order of the day. It quickly became the case that a huge amount of investment was required to stand any chance of success, hence the reason for the stock exchange. Once the ore had been removed it had to be crushed and treated to extract the gold. More on that later.

Mineral rich quartz rock.

Mineral rich quartz rock.

The population included around six hundred and sixty Chinese, who suffered a lot of racism from most of the miners. Only sixty of them worked in the mines, the rest being market gardeners, supplying the town with much needed vegetables. They were also very good at reworking the tailings and extracting gold that had been missed first time round. This was one of the reasons for the miners’ dislike of them.
When the gold ran out, not long after the turn of the century, people went elsewhere and the population shrank to 5,000. Cattle farming helped keep the town going and after WW1 some of the big houses that mine owners had built were bought by schools and used for boarding purposes. There are currently eight boarding schools in the town and they employ around 12% of the population, which has settled at around 8,000. Our guide, Erica, was very knowledgeable and gave us a satisfyingly full account of the lives and times of gold diggers.

Shane and Teresa, from Gold City Motorcycles.

Shane and Teresa, from Gold City Motorcycles.

On the way back to my camping spot I called in to a Suzuki dealer I’d seen earlier to talk about much needed new tyres. He had a good selection, and the prices seemed reasonable so next morning I went back there ready to take advantage. I talked to them about using a corner of their workshop to carry out a service once the tyres had been fitted, and they were happy to help. Shane and Teresa run the business and they concentrate on supplying off road Suzuki bikes and quad bikes to local farmers. They also sell petrol powered equipment, such as chainsaws, and all kinds of related tools and equipment. I was impressed by the way they’d built up a good business by concentrating on a specific market. Teresa even agreed to let me plug my lap top in for a charge up. She said to me to come back about 1pm to get the tyres fitted so with some time to kill I went to visit the Venus Stamp Battery.

What the Venus Battery was all about.

What the Venus Battery was all about.

Finding a reef and getting the ore up to the surface is one thing, getting the gold out of it is another and this is where stamp battery mills come in. They took the ore from the miners and weighed it, at a cost. Then they crushed it using a battery of five heavy weights which pounded the ore at a rate of seventy times a minute. Water was mixed in so it formed a slurry, all at a cost. It took seven tons of water to crush one ton of ore. Mercury was added to the slurry and it attracted the gold. The mercury then stuck to special copper plates that the slurry passed over and the gold/mercury mixture in turn got trapped by thin woollen sheets – potentially the origin of the Greek story about Jason’s Golden Fleece. Then the mixture was heated up so that the mercury evaporated away and what was left was the gold. That went to the assay office for further treatment. The mercury was cooled and condensed, then re-used, but any deficiency got charged to the miner. Because Venus Mill took ore from many mines they took great care to keep all products separate but miners were allowed to watch the process to satisfy themselves that they weren’t being cheated. Later on the mill introduced a system which enabled even more gold to be extracted from the tailings – waste ore – which involved the use of potassium cyanide. What with this, and the abundant mercury fumes, life expectancy of the workers there was short. The mill owners weren’t worried as there was always a queue of willing replacements. They just sat back and got rich, at least as rich as the mine owners.

The stamping part of the stamp battery. There were seven of these in a row.

The stamping part of the stamp battery. There were seven of these in a row.

Given the milling costs, the transport costs and the digging costs, it’s no wonder that gold is so expensive. Over the years though, these mines delivered millions of ounces of the precious stuff.
I was sitting in McDonalds, drinking coffee, when I got a phone call from Teresa at the bike shop. ‘Where’s your bike?’ she said. ‘In the car park here at McDonalds,’ I said. ‘We’ve been looking for it to fit your tyres.’ Ah, it seems I had misunderstood instructions. I should have gone, the bike should have stayed. I was only up the road and was back there in no time. The tyres were fitted and I got on with changing the oil plus a few other small jobs. I bought the oil off them of course, along with some other things, and the bill was very reasonable. I was delighted with the afternoon’s work especially as my rear tyre had been illegal for at least he last two weeks. I especially enjoyed chatting to one of the young mechanics there who, when ever I told him something that impressed him, would say ‘Aw, true!’ in an awed manner. I like that expression.

Post, groceries, coffee, fuel. A typical small town outlet, still in the original 1870's building.

Post, groceries, coffee, fuel. A typical small town outlet, still in the original 1870’s building.

The town of Ravenswood was next on my list to visit. It wasn’t far away but it was lunchtime before I got there. It always seems to take me ages to de-camp and get going. It is another former gold mining town but was smaller than Charters Towers although established a few years earlier. All of the town centre buildings here are from that era. It would have made it a very interesting place if it wasn’t for the fact that a lot of the original buildings had been disassembled and moved elsewhere. This practice was not uncommon and is probably quite easy as the buildings were wooden and had been brought to the town in kit form in the first place. The information map marks the site of various significant buildings but it doesn’t mean much to gaze at a patch of empty grass.

White Blow quartz outcrop.

White Blow quartz outcrop.

I took a ride out to White Blow, an outcrop of quartz rock. It was of the type that miners hoped to find when they went digging. This outcrop had been exposed by erosion although it contained no gold. On the way back into town I stopped at a lookout point which enabled me to gaze down into the modern open cut mine, now flooded. This new mine saved the town. The population had dropped to one hundred but was boosted to four hundred when a mining company decided to go for gold once more. The work is still ongoing and is about to be expanded.
By now I’d decided to stay the night so made my way to the camp ground, sited on the town’s showground. There I met Woody, a one legged Vietnam Veteran, who is caretaker and money collector. After we’d had a bit of a chat he gave me back the money I’d handed him and said I could camp for free. I’m not really sure why he did it, but it saved me $15. Thanks Woody, you’re a pal. The facilities were there for me to take a hot shower, much needed after three nights wild camping.

Woody tells it how it is.

Woody tells it how it is.

I went for a walk around the town and found my way up to the cemetery. It told me two stories. One gravestone from the early 1900’s had the names of three children on it who all died very young. A second one, from the same era, told the story of Irish immigrants, come to find a new life and who also died relatively young. Life was harsh and tough for some.

Life was tough for many.

Life was tough for many.

A typical immigrant's tale.

A typical immigrant’s tale.

As a counterpoint the school still operates out of the original buildings and the schoolmaster’s house is the oldest building in the Charters Towers district. At least the buildings managed to survive, even if many of the people didn’t.
I decided to go to the Imperial Hotel for my evening meal and it was Pizza night. It was delicious and I actually had to leave a slice. Pretty much unheard of! There were two barmaids there. Kiake is from Hamburg and Kym comes from near Reading. She said it was great to hear an English accent after so long away. There were some mine workers in there too and we all had a great time chatting and joking. The landlord used to play music professionally and he got his guitar out and sang a few Aussie folk songs for us. This was my first time in an Aussie outback pub and I thought it was great.

Kym and Kiake. Imperial Hotel barmaids.

Kym and Kiake. Imperial Hotel barmaids.

I’d learned much about the activities of men in the area but now I was going to move north a little and find out what nature had been up to.
And the answer to that trivia question? The Cooktown Orchid.

Moving on up the Mother Road

Brisbane, QLD. 5th June 2015.

Highway 1. The Mother Road.

Highway 1. The Mother Road.

In America the Mother Road is the fond nickname given to Route 66. I’ve discovered that many countries seem to have one. A road that everyone knows, uses at times, and relates to always. In Russia it’s the Trans-Siberian Highway, running from Moscow to Vladivostok. In Australia it’s Highway 1, which circles the country, connecting all state capitals,  and is much loved by ‘grey nomads’, with their big 4×4’s and caravans. It truly is a ‘mother’ of a road. At 14,500 kilometres it’s nearly four times longer than Route 66 (3,900kms) and 3,000 kms longer than Russia’s best effort. The world’s longest road, in fact. It will be a constant reference point for me, even though I probably won’t quite ride all of it. On its journey through Queensland it’s called The Bruce Highway. Nonetheless it was time to start. So what I did next was to ride west instead of north, completely ignoring it.

Craig. A lucky meeting thanks to Johnny Depp.

Craig. A lucky meeting thanks to Johnny Depp.

When I wheeled my bike out of Phil’s garage petrol leaked out as soon as I turned the tap on. Thankfully it wasn’t the float needle again but a leaky pipe. Easily fixed and I set off for Beenleigh to meet Craig, the Face Book friend who’d put up his selfie with Johnny Depp. Craig had come to Australia from England aged eighteen and simply didn’t go home again. He works as a satellite engineer for Telstra, the biggest phone company in Australia. His work takes him all over the country and he is a keen 4×4 explorer. Recently he passed his bike test and he now has a Suzuki DR650, which he’ll use for some adventure travel. He was full of information about places to visit and routes to take. He’s a very enthusiastic guy and I’m sure he’ll have a great time exploring on his bike. I needed to get some supplies and went to the local Woolworths. By the time I’d finished there it was 15.45 and I needed to get going. I’d hung around too long. Where was I going? West, over to the town of Crows Nest. I was visiting Jim, the guy I’d met at Phil’s father-in-law’s lunch. He’d invited me to stay and I rarely say no to that. But 184kms lay before me and it tended to get dark, and cold, well before 6pm.

Poor Jessie got his leg caught in a Dingo trap.

Poor Jessie got his leg caught in a Dingo trap.

I entered Jim’s address into my GPS, selected ‘Fastest Route’ and got cracking. Thanks to the motorway, albeit some of it tolled, I made it there by 17.15. Pretty good going. Jim welcomed me, introduced me to Jeanette, his wife, and we all sat down to talk.
Before long they were telling tales of their camping holidays up at Cape York, in the deserts and in the National Parks. Their knowledge is vast and I was wishing I had the aural equivalent of a photographic memory. In Brisbane I had bought a Michelin map of Australia, which is surprisingly detailed and is excellent for route planning. I marked down some of the places they were telling me about with a view to including them on my visit list. One very useful thing Jim put me onto was a mapping programme called Ozi Explorer. I copied the software onto my laptop, later updating it via a download site. It has several different varieties of maps and is interactive. As well as having search facilities and so on, the maps allow me to place waypoints on them, form those into a route and then copy that across to my GPS. This is a fantastic facility and means I can create a route to anything that is shown on these maps. GPS mapping is generally geared up to street addresses, although they do include points of interest such as fuel stations. But my free-from-the-internet maps don’t show places such as tourist sites, camp grounds etc. But now, I have the technology. Thanks Jim!

Jim and Jeannette.

Jim and Jeannette.

Although the night was cold – five degrees lower than the coast, Jim announced – the daytime was sunny and warm and Jim and I went for a walk. His property covers one hundred acres, all woodland, and Jim spends much his time looking after it. He thins out trees, does his best to eliminate a bush called Lantana, a pest plant, and generally helps the natural woodland to flourish. They live off-grid, apart from their phone line, and have solar PV and solar thermal to provide power and hot water. Heating is from a wood stove, naturally, and water comes from rain, stored in two tanks and filtered before use. There is a creek that runs though their land and is formed into a pond by a dam, originally built by Chinese labourers in the 19th C for gold mining purposes. This should provide a reserve water supply but unfortunately the pond is mostly full of sand, driven downriver by the floods of 2013. Huge areas of Queensland suffered and Jim’s small corner didn’t escape. Jim is trying to find someone to take the sand away, at their cost but which will then free for them to sell or use. I think that’s what’s known as bartering. The track past their house was also washed away and has had to be realigned and remade.

Chinese built dam wall. Note the sand where water should be.

Chinese built dam wall. Note the sand where water should be.

His land borders Crows Nest National park and we continued our walk on through there. It is famous for its granite formations, waterfalls and Rock Wallabies. Granite rocks and water falls are easy to locate but wallabies less so, and we were out of luck that day. The authorities have closed off some access points to the gorge, through which the river runs, after a young man died while swinging from a rope across it. Being a bank holiday weekend there were plenty of people about and we found some rubbish that had been left behind and took it with us.
There’s an oddity here. The bank holiday is to celebrate the Queen’s birthday, and is usually on the second Monday of the month. Some states have it in September because the June date clashes with other holidays. So it’s important to Australians and yet in Britain we don’t bother. I thought this very strange until I remembered that we already have Whit Monday around the same time. Still, even as a republican, I’d be willing to give it a go!

Crows Nest National Park.

Crows Nest National Park.

Jim was telling me that they get bush fires from time to time and he speculated that the granite in the area might attract the lightning that usually starts them. I thought he was probably right. Granite does tend to be metallic and it’s often left exposed at high points because of erosion. Either way, one of his ongoing jobs is to keep a decent fire break between the woods and his property.
After a another great meal from Jeanette, I set to creating waypoints to my next couple of destinations. I wanted to follow some gravel trails, unlikely to figure on my standard GPS mapping, and got it all done successfully, with some tutoring from Jim.
Phil and Trish had been to the cinema to see San Andreas Quake and enjoyed it. I managed to download a 2D copy and we watched it. I wish I hadn’t bothered! It really is appalling, with a weak, derivative plot, poor acting and a bad script. I guess its saving grace would be the special effects in 3D, but I really don’t recommend it.
Fortunately Jim and Jeannette enjoy engaging in a healthy political discussion so we had a good time ripping apart Tony Abbott, Australia’s Liberal (same as the Tories but more right wing) prime minister. That was good fun. I’d had a great time up at Crows Nest and enjoyed their hospitality, but the time to go always comes along, doesn’t it?
When I left next morning, having said my goodbyes, I was chased off the premises by Jim’s two dogs, Clancy and Jessie, who up to that point had been very friendly. And Jessie has only three legs! Not motorbike lovers, obviously.

The trails have their fun moments.

The trails have their fun moments.

The Ozi explorer-to-GPS experiment worked pretty well, as I hit the cross country gravel trails on my way to Boreen Point, heading for the camp site on the shores of Lake Cootharaba. A few minor glitches popped up, with the GPS sending me in circles a couple of times while it tried to make sense of a waypoint I’d put in, but all worked out well in the end.

Famous enough to have a road named after him.

Famous enough to have a road named after him.

The campsite was run by the local authority and catered for all types of camper. There was no-one in the office so I put my tent up and got sorted out. When the office opened I discovered the charge was fixed at $24 dollars for two people with no discount for singles. That was dear. The woman glibly told me there was a cheaper one further on but I wasn’t about to pack everything up again. At least there was a phone signal there so I could use my phone to get on the internet, something that hadn’t been possible until I bought an Aussie phone card. A good decision.
It rained overnight so while killing time waiting for the tent to dry I worked out another route using Oziexplorer, with a bit of help from Jim, via the phone. My destination was Woodgate Beach where I was to be spending a couple of days with Charles and Janette, friends of Jim and Jeanette’s. But trouble was looming in the shape of a GPS that kept losing its connection with the 12 volt feed from the bike. The GPS will run from its own batteries but they don’t last long. A slightly annoying problem, starting a few days before, had become a major issue. It didn’t matter with regard to reaching Woodgate Beach, but it was going to be a problem ongoing.

Plenty of signs but no bears.

Plenty of signs but no bears.

I was warmly welcomed by Charles and Janette and shown to my quarters. Not a room but a small house. When they retired and bought the land they lived in this house while they built the new one, which they now occupy. It’s a handy place to stow guests and I was very comfortable.
They have retired but spend a fair bit of their time as volunteers for the SES, the State Emergency Service. Janette organises various functions, such as training, Charles is a supervisor and is therefore kept pretty busy too. The state provides most of the equipment – vehicles etc. – but lots more is funded by the local community. The crews are all volunteers, most of them retirees, as far as I could tell, and they go to assist at emergencies such as floods, fires, searches and so on. This is community giving in a very real sense and must be very rewarding for all those involved. I was impressed by the whole operation. Jim is involved in a similar voluntary public service. He is part of the Rural Fire Service for Queensland.

Charles' retirement 'job'.

Charles’ retirement ‘job’.

And the vehicle that goes with it. This is a typical Aussie 4x4 Ute.

And the vehicle that goes with it. This is a typical Aussie 4×4 Ute.

We went for a drive in the Kinkuna National Park, where I learned more about various trees and also about the surface of some of the forest trails. Sand! Not to my taste at all but Charles and Janette assured me that most of the tracks I planned to ride would be firm and easily passable on my bike. I was pleased to hear it. They’ve travelled extensively too, and exploring the outback in a 4×4 seems to be a big thing in Australia. The Gray Nomads generally stick to the asphalt and haul a big caravan to live in. I think getting out and exploring your own country is a fine thing to do. Well I would, wouldn’t I?
We had a nice drive around the local area. One of the primary industries here is sugar cane growing. There are huge areas of this crop, stretching as far as the eye can see. North Queensland has so much of it that there is a half-gauge railway network that enables it to be conveyed to the sugar mills. It is harvested by machine and put into wagons for transportation. Oddly, there are sections that have been cut, surrounded by others still growing. Charles explained that the sugar mills are co-operatives and they decide what areas to harvest and when.

Home of a famous Australian rum.

Home of a famous Australian rum.

We went to the nearest big town, Bundaberg, where there is a rum distillery, which is very famous in Australia apparently. I was amused that it was across the road from the local sugar mill and round the corner from the cooperage. A thoughtful piece of planning on someone’s part. On the downside, this industry has a darker history. It relates to the Kanakas, a pejorative name given to South Sea Islanders, who were used as indentured slaves up until that system was abolished. Even then, they were persuaded to come to Australia to earn money, which was very often denied them after their three year service was finished. Under its ‘White Australia’ policy of the early 20th C the government repatriated most of these islanders, only allowing certain categories to remain, such as those who had married white Aussies. Charles pointed out a ‘Kanaka Wall’, which was made from the boulders these people had to clear from the land to make it usable. One of Australia’s stories of shame.

Be careful at harvest time.

Be careful at harvest time.

When we got back Charles got his welder out and repaired the crack Phil and I had noticed in the pannier rack. Charles is an expert welder and used to sell the machines and train the operatives, among his many other engineering talents. I was in good hands. Meanwhile I tried to sort out the loose connection problem on my GPS. At first I thought it was the socket on the cradle mounted on the bike. But my efforts brought no reward. I’d had the foresight to buy another GPS while in the UK and when I substituted it, all was well. What a shame. I’d had that GPS unit since I went to Africa in 2009 but it had been getting more and more cranky recently. The time had come for its honourable retirement.

Down at the sea turtle centre. No turtles, but a big spider weaving its web.

Down at the sea turtle centre. No turtles, but a big spider weaving its web.

Because I’d used a toll road on the way to Jim’s I had made some enquiries with the road toll company, to see if I needed to pay it. I’m pleased to say that I received an email telling me it was too much trouble to attempt to collect tolls from foreign registered vehicles. They are always paid electronically, so over the phone or via the internet is the only way to pay. Good news, and a few dollars saved.

A common enough road sign.

A common enough road sign.

The previous evening, when out for a walk, we had seen kangaroos in the streets, a common sight as people tend to feed them. It makes them too tame and is as annoying here as feeding foxes is in the UK. There were none around this time.

The real thing, seen in the street.

The real thing, seen in the street.

In the evening we went over to dinner at a neighbour’s house.  Harry and Eleanor are a great couple and have travelled pretty much all round the world. They prefer to backpack and, just to make me jealous, told me all about their trip to the Antarctic. We had a very enjoyable gathering with a very nice home cooked meal. I really feel privileged at these moments, being made very welcome by strangers and leaving with new friends made.

Charles and Janette, great hosts.

Charles and Janette, great hosts.

Charles and Janette had to leave for appointments early next morning so I popped back to Harry and Eleanors for ‘second breakfast’ and more travel chat. They make a lot of their own basic foods, such as a breakfast mixture made mostly from buckwheat. Very nice too. They asked me if there was anything I needed to aid my travels, a question that experienced travellers would understand the significance of. As it happened, I didn’t. They’d already fed me twice, who could ask for more? But I was very grateful to have been asked.

The very well travelled Harry and Eleanor.

The very well travelled Harry and Eleanor.

My next destination was the town of Gladstone, where I’d been invited to stay with Melissa and Mitch. Melissa is Jim and Jeanette’s daughter and I was looking forward to meeting her. My route took me near to the town of Seventeen Seventy, named after the year that James Cook first sighted Australia. I’d never been to a town named after a date before so I felt obliged to pay a visit. It wasn’t actually anything special but there was a nice café near the seafront, where I bumped into Scott and Alison. He was on his BMW650GS and Alison was in her car, on holiday. We enjoyed a nice chat about journeys we’d undertaken, and would like to, and Jim invited me to visit his medium sized station where he runs beef cattle. ‘Medium size’ equals a quarter of a million acres. That’s worthy of an exclamation mark!

Scott and Alison.

Scott and Alison.

Named after the date that James Cook first sighted Australia.

Named after the date that James Cook first sighted Australia.

By the time I left Seventeen Seventy it was 15.45, with 130kms to travel. I’d done it again. But I was soon back onto the A1 and was able to push on at the 100kph speed limit and reached Mitch and Melissa’s before dark. And once again, I was made very welcome. Mitch works at the local power station and Meliss is a teaching assistant. She’s also big on birds and has several different types of parrot, cockatiel and unidentified others in cages, both inside and outside the house. Mitch is big on bikes and has several varieties of KTM and Honda in the garage, a genus much more familiar to me. All of the bikes are off-road orientated and there are some for the kids too. There’s four of them, although I only met the younger two, Matthew and Sophie. She quietly gave up her bike after having a bit of an ‘incident’ involving a stuck throttle and a shed. No injuries but she now prefers to ride the pony, which is easily accommodated on their two acre plot. They bought the land then did what many Aussies do, which is to build a house to their own design.

Melissa has her birds.

Melissa has her birds.

Mitch’s KTM990 has a 52 litre tank on it and this is the bike he uses for his annual trip to Phillips Island, off the coast of Melbourne, where he watches either the Moto GP or World Superbikes. He travels with a group of friends and over the years they’ve devised routes which are almost totally through the bush. We’re talking several thousand kilometres here. Australia’s like that. I met some of them when they came over for a BBQ later. One of the other bikes is a KTM450, in Super Motard style, which Mitch races locally.

It's not difficult to see what Mitch enjoys.

It’s not difficult to see what Mitch enjoys.

Mitch came in from work at lunchtime next day and he took me out for a tour round. Gladstone is a place full of industry, the biggest of which is probably the Queensland Alumina Limited (QAL) plant, which dominates the seafront area. Bauxite is the third most common earth element and Australia has plenty of it, accounting for much of the red colour which typifies the barer parts of the country. It is transported to plants such as this in huge trains, anything up to two kilometres long, which often have six engines to move them – two at each end and two in the middle. Almost unimaginable, although I did see a similar train in Mauritania once, hauling iron ore.

Big and red. The QAL bauxite smelting plant.

Big and red. The QAL bauxite smelting plant.

Other industries include a plant which produces explosives, hydrochloric acid and cyanide on the same site, something that would scare the pants off me if I lived anywhere near it. Coal comes in to the power station by sea and there is shipping and docks which support it all. Most of the land for the docks is reclaimed and the company that owns it has made many efforts to provide recreation areas close to the seafront for the townspeople to enjoy.

The coal fired power station where Jim works. One of Australia's biggest at 1800 megawatts output.

The coal fired power station where Jim works. One of Australia’s biggest at 1800 megawatts output.

A new, and very large, project is the construction of a gas storage and liquefaction plant on an island just off the coast. The natural gas will be piped 540kms from southern Queensland, then transported to export markets once liquefied. A lucrative business and Mitch told me it brought about a huge increase in the town’s population, some thing akin to the gold rush days. It struck me that this is a common story in Australia, with various types of mining bringing boom times to various towns, invariably followed by a massive slowdown as the mines dry up. It’s already happening in Gladstone. Thousands of workers, along with their families, came to build the gas plant infrastructure, pushing up property prices and rents, as well as swamping local services. They’re extremely well paid too, so have money to spend locally. But things are settling down now because the numbers have reduced as the work nears completion. Rents are going down again and the buy-to-let investors are struggling. Every cloud has a silver lining. More industry is on its way though, encouraged by some new infrastructure, as well as that which is already there. Generally good news for the area.

Melissa and Mitch.

Melissa and Mitch.

That evening Mitch took me out again to show me the QAL plant by night, all lit up like a small city. I’m sure his power station bosses are very happy with that, especially as this one is privatised. On the way back we collected Matthew and friends from Boys Brigade, y taking me on a little trip down memory lane in the process. They still march and play bugles, just like I used to.

Melissa and birds.

Melissa and birds.

Mitch and Melissa took many holidays with Jim and Jeanette on their 4×4 trips, as well as many of their own, and we spent the evening talking about routes and places to see. The first outback trip on my list is up to Cape York, at the northern and of the country, and I was therefore keen to listen to their advice as the road is mostly dirt. They reckon I’ll be OK as long as the water levels in the creeks aren’t too high. The road isn’t big on bridges, it seems. But the biggest warning was to look out for crocodiles. They’re fast and clever. Apparently if you go to the same place on the river bank a couple of times they’ll lie in wait for you. They can leap out of the water up to a couple of metres too. I’ll take these warnings very seriously, you can be sure of that.
Mitch, Melissa and the kids went to work next morning, leaving me to sort myself out and leave when I was ready. I headed back down to the Bruce Highway, fuelled up and moved on up the Mother Road once more.

Three very pretty Galah Cockatoos. Quite common now in urban areas.

Three very pretty Galah Cockatoos. Quite common now in urban areas.