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