Cooktown to the Cape York Tip

Cooktown, QLD. 22nd July 2015.

Back with the time line now, after that little diversion, and here’s some background information regarding the next stage of my journey.
Cape York, which includes James Cook’s first Australian landing point, at Cooktown, was first settled by cattlemen in the 1860’s. More stations followed, especially after the Palmer River gold rush increased demand. No roads existed at that time, only local tracks through the bush. Supplies and export of produce was by sea. The geography is heavily influenced by the Great Dividing Range, low hills running north to south, and the huge numbers of waterways, especially on the west side. In the dry winter they are mostly waterholes but in the wet summer they create huge floodplains. The east side is drier and this is where the cattle stations were set up. Pearl fishing was the major maritime industry, not only on the east coast but also among the Torres Strait islands.

Very strange looking bird. An Emu, seen it the Lakefield NP.

Very strange looking bird, Emus, Seen in the Lakefield NP.

In the 1880’s it was decided to build a telegraph line to link Cape York, its cattle stations and settlements, as well as Thursday Island, in the Torres Strait, with the rest of Australia. In order to construct it a track had to be laid up the cape, from south to north. Completed in 1887, the telegraph line finally fell into disuse and was dismantled in the 1980’s. It had been upgraded to a telephone line in the 1930’s and had other improvements during WW2. Eventually modern radio technology rendered it redundant. But the access track is still there, albeit no longer maintained. The Cape was hugely important in WW2, when further development took place to accommodate the American troops and airmen stationed there.
The Peninsular Development Road runs up the cape and its main purpose was to open it up for development and to link the various towns on the cape to the rest of Australia. Prior to this the only link was by sea. Even now, sea transport has to be used because the road is closed for about four months of the year during the wet.

Lilies and birds in Lakefield NP.

Lilies and birds in Lakefield NP.

The cape has many national parks and they have great numbers of attractions, often only reachable by challenging 4×4 tracks. It isn’t just the Tele Track that provides a challenge, but that’s the biggie.
Thirty years with no maintenance changes a difficult track into a challenge and Australians love to test their 4×4 and motorcycle driving skills. So this route is now an icon for two and four wheel off-road fans. It’s renowned for its difficult surface and, in particular, its sometimes impassable creek crossings. It is reached via the PDR but is then bypassed for most of its length by much better, although much longer, roads. Even then, all these roads are unsealed. If you know anything about me by now, it will be that I like to have a go so the Tele Track was not to be missed.

Serious off-roading kit.

Serious off-roading kit.

As well as the Tele Track, Aussies like to make the journey up to the Cape York Tip, Australia’s most northerly point. It’s another iconic journey which can include the Tele Track if desired. The Gromads, towing trailers and caravans, don’t usually have that desire.
At the camp site in Cooktown I’d chatted to various people. Most campers are either on their way north to Cape York or are on the way back. Everyone is keen to share their knowledge and experience.

The very nicely graded road up through Lakefield NP.

The very nicely graded road up through Lakefield NP.

There are two routes that can be taken from Cooktown. The first is to head south west, inland, for the Peninsular Development Road, then north along it. This route is sealed as far as the beginning of the PDR. The second is to take a route that goes west along Battle Camp Road then either head straight for the PDR or divert north through Lakefield National park. Corrugations can be a real problem on the PDR. Road trains use it to get to Weipa, a mining town on the west coast of the peninsular.
The campers I spoke to had varying opinions. One said to stick with the PDR as it’s more scenic. Others said to avoid the PDR at all costs as it’s ‘rough as guts’. The map suggested the national park route would be more interesting so that was the decision. It seemed to me that keeping off it was the thing to do.
My ride through the Lakefield National Park was fabulous. The surface was dirt, packed down hard and with no particular challenges. That gave me the opportunity to watch the wildlife, mostly birds. White Eagles; some large, black birds which have red beneath their wings; beautiful, small green ones. At one point a large lizard ran across the track and seemed quite unconcerned when I stopped to take photos.

Hello Little Lizard!

Hello Little Lizard!

The track passes a couple of lagoons covered in lilies. The first one had plenty of white wading birds around the edge, feeding busily. The second one had so many lilies that the water couldn’t be seen. Unfortunately the flowers are out early in the day so there were none to be seen when I was there.
I stopped to look at Old Laura Homestead, unoccupied since the 1960’s and now a monument to the harsh life in the area. These places had to be pretty much independent, needing to be able make and mend much of their equipment. Supplies often only arrived every six months. The buildings had wooden frames with corrugated iron walls and roofs. I can’t begin to imagine how hot it must have been in the summer nor how noisy in the rain. Extremely hardy folk.

Wood and Tin. Hot and noisy.

Wood and Tin. Hot and noisy.

There are lots of National Park camping sites along this route but Queensland operates a stupidly restrictive system where you have to buy a permit to use them then have to pre-book a space. This can be done on-line or by phone. In most cases there is no phone signal in these areas so to travellers like me, who plan day to day, they are effectively unavailable. Very often people book them months in advance then don’t show up. Other states don’t use this system, preferring to use an honesty system and to have a ranger available to keep an eye on it.

Ural in Red.

Ural in Red.

The track eventually took me back to the PDR but just before I joined it I was passing a camping area when I spotted what I thought was a trike parked up. I turned back and headed across to it and discovered it was a Ural sidecar outfit, ridden by Karen with husband Dave as passenger. They’d ridden up from Melbourne and were doing the Tele Track. It was only a year old, nice and shiny red, with all the essential sidecar modifications on it, such as leading link forks. It looked really nice. We chatted for a while. They were waiting for some family members to arrive in a fourby. We hoped to meet again further up the track.

Pilot and passenger, Karen and Dave.

Pilot and passenger, Karen and Dave.

I joined the PDR at Musgrave Roadhouse, a convenient place to stop for the night. These places are a lifeline for travellers as they have food, fuel and camping. Some have accommodation too. They’re situated at intervals along the track, often near small communities. Truckers park up there too so they do a good trade while the road is passable. Only ten dollars for my little patch of grass and a nice, refreshing shower. Because they’re so remote though, fuel prices tend to be very high – typically 50 cents per litre more than the towns.
I bought a meal in the café and had an informative conversation with a trucker. He told me that American trucks are the most popular, usually Macks, but that they have to be built stronger for Australia, adding over two tonnes of weight in the process. Those that haul the road trains are over 600BHP but they need it as they’re pulling over eighty tonnes. By comparison, European trucks pull forty four. With three trailers on, they have a maximum length of 53.5 metres. That is one hell of a rig!

A creek crossing to almost look forward to, it's so pretty.

A creek crossing to almost look forward to, it’s so pretty.

The next section of the PDR was also ‘rough as guts’ but I had another card up my sleeve. One of my maps had shown a track that went north, leaving the Lakefield track before it joined the PDR and going through the Lama Lama National Park. This, and the Lakefield NP, both come under the banner of CYPAL – Cape York Peninsular Aboriginal Land. Many of Australia’s remote areas have been returned to the indigenous tribes that used to occupy them and they now manage them for their own benefit. Some are restricted and permission has to be sought to enter them, although this doesn’t apply to the national parks, which are jointly managed by Queensland Parks and Wildlife Services. All national parks on the Cape will eventually become CYPAL.

Musgrave Roadhouse, typical of the type. Fuel, food, camping. Just the basics.

Musgrave Roadhouse, typical of the type. Fuel, food, camping. Just the basics.

570kms to my eventual destination.

570kms to my eventual destination.

I left Musgrave Roadhouse in the morning, retraced my route for twenty kilometres, waving to Dave and Karen as they came towards me, then turned up the track towards Lilly Vale homestead. It was nicely graded but I was passing through the cattle station and there were plenty of gates to deal with. When I came to the homestead I stopped to chat to a woman there. Her daughter was there too so I asked her about schooling for her. She is home schooled, using one of several distance learning schemes that operate in Australia. I had seen quite a few families travelling around and the woman said that many parents just take their kids out of school while they see a bit of their country. There appears to be no embargo against doing this, it seems. Very different to the UK.

A cattle station homestead.

A cattle station homestead.

The terrain was mostly light scrub, with some bigger trees among it. I saw some emus, kangaroos and a good variety of birds too. The track twisted around and had some tricky sections, but generally was a pleasant ride. I met two other vehicles, stopped to chat to the driver of one of them, and made good progress with the idea firmly in my mind that this route was far more enjoyable than the PDR could possibly be.

The kind of sign that's common in the CYPAL area.

The kind of sign that’s common in the CYPAL area.

One fascinating thing I saw was plenty of Magnetic Termite mounds. In one of those interesting quirks of early discovery, naturalists realised that these very thin mounds were built on a north/south axis. For a long time they puzzled as to the reason. Why would termites want to take notice of the compass? In the end they worked out that the reason was simply to help them deal with the heat. In the morning the western side of the mound was out of the sun and therefore cool. In the afternoon the opposite was the case. The termites simply travelled along passages from one side to the other as necessary. A simple answer in the end.

Nothing like the more common misshapen lumps that termites normally build.

Nothing like the more common misshapen lumps that termites normally build.

The track eventually joined the road that runs from Coen, a small town on the PDR, to Port Stewart, which lies on the coast. Although in the wrong direction, I went down there for a look only to find no port to speak of and no activity. I could see a cattle station and the estuary of the Stewart River, but that was all. So I turned around and enjoyed a fast ride along the wide, well graded gravel road back to the PDR. On the straight sections it’s easy to ride at 100kph or more but you have to watch out for bends, dips and floodways. Piles of gravel can often build up on the bends, pushed out by trucks and fourbys. A good rider on a light bike would be having great fun under these circumstances, probably powering through the bends on opposite lock and in a controlled power slide. ‘That could be you Geoff,’ my imagination tells me. ‘Sod off’ my sensible head replies.

Creek crossing, not to be rushed at.

Creek crossing, not to be rushed at.

Dips occur when the road crosses a narrow creek, dry this time of year but often with a residue of stones and maybe sand. The floodways are bigger creek crossing where a concrete base has been laid. No problem with the surface but the road usually narrows down significantly at that point. So the rule is to ‘give it gas’ provided you can see what’s in front of you. It makes for interesting riding. Challenging sometimes, but fun always.
As I neared the PDR again I saw a sign saying Wunthulpu Cultural Centre, just by a turn off. Thinking there was a place to visit just up the track I took the turning. Twelve kilometres of twisty, rocky track later, having forded three creeks, I came out on the PDR opposite the building. I’d come up the old road, according to the girl inside.

A tale of 100 years of mistreatment.

A tale of 100 years of mistreatment.

I bought a coffee and read the display boards describing some history relating to the local tribe. It wasn’t very happy reading to be honest. Having been driven off the land where they lived the Aboriginals were more or less forced to work on the cattle stations that now occupied it, often for no, or very low, wages. Badly treated generally, the only positive was that it helped them maintain some contact with the land and gave them back some dignity, especially as they tended to be very good at it. Ironically their free labour helped to cement their misfortune because many of these cattle stations would have been uneconomic without them and would have shut down.

Estuary of the Stewart River, at Port Stewart. No sign of a port though.

Estuary of the Stewart River, at Port Stewart. No sign of a port though.

The small town of Coen contains the Sex Change Hotel, a garage-cum-supermarket and very little else. I bought a few bits I needed and carried on north, up the PDR. A nice twenty kilometres of asphalt brought me to the Quarantine Checkpoint, where all southbound traffic has to stop to check what is on board. The government is serious about stopping the spread of crop based diseases. Here they also hand out Cape York Information Packs, a very useful idea aimed at assisting northbound tourists, and full of useful and interesting information.

'I don't know why, but there it is,' as Harry Worth might have said.

‘I don’t know why, but there it is,’ as Harry Worth might have said.

Off the asphalt and onto the gravel, with plenty of corrugations to ‘enjoy’. I felt sorry for the fourby drivers as it’s harder for them to avoid them, especially it they’re towing. A bike can often find a ‘chicken track’ at the edge of the road and thereby get a smoother ride. Otherwise it’s a case of keeping the speed as high as you dare so that you float over them. Whenever I saw a road train or truck coming towards me I found it best just to stop, let it go by and wait for the dust to settle. Forward vision is impossible.
Eventually I reached my haven for the night, the Archer River Roadhouse. More camping, a fish burger for dinner and a quiet night in.
The next day was spent on the PDR and although the ride was relatively short, it was very, VERY annoying. After about 50kms I came to a sealed section of road and went to check that my fuel bladder was still on top of the pannier where I’d securely strapped it that morning. It was gone! Not as securely strapped as I’d thought. I swore, loud and long, before turning back to re-ride the track. This item cost around £70 and, more to the point, I was going to need the extra fuel it carried on a future ride I had planned.
I searched the track back as far as the roadhouse, turned round and searched again. No joy. Not happy. Nothing to do but carry on. I was very fed up so when I reached Bramwell Roadhouse mid-afternoon I decided to stop for the night. This was the point at which the Tele Track began anyway and I deemed it better to tackle that on a fresh morning, in a better mood. I told the guy at the roadhouse about my loss, just in case anyone had handed it in. Later on I was chatting to some fellow campers, telling them about it too, and some of them said they’d driven past it lying in the road. So it seems that someone saw it and stopped to pick it up. No more to be said then.

The kind of rig a Gromad might use on their journey up to The Tip.

The kind of rig a Gromad might use on their journey up to The Tip.

When I headed on to the Tele Track next morning it was easy to see why it’s regarded as such a challenge. The surface was deformed in many places, mostly by water, although it wasn’t difficult for a single track vehicle. I felt sorry for the fourby drivers though. In return I hope they felt sorry for me because much of the surface was loose sand and, back to my Mongolia experience, off I came. Several times. Coming off is all well and good. It was a familiar routine to take my bags off the back, pick up the bike, reload my bags and carry on. Then do it again!

Just like old times in Mongolia.

Just like old times in Mongolia.

There were several creeks to cross on the first section of track and at the first one I saw a couple of people just hanging around. I asked them if they were going across but they said they were just watching the fun. That was my first inkling of the challenges that might lie ahead. I got over the first four creeks with no problem. One was a bit deep so I took my bags off and carried them over. Firstly to make the bike easier to handle, secondly in case I dropped the bike in the water.
What made the day stick in my memory for all the wrong reasons was a series of minor but very annoying incidents caused by the nature of the track. The second time I came off my right side pannier collided with a termite mound. They are rock hard and the impact broke all three mounting straps. One temporary repair later and I was under way. Another fall tore the bag which contained my spare riding gear. I had a another that would do the job. The track is very narrow and riding close to the edge can’t be avoided. So the third incident was when the bag with my sleeping gear in it got caught by a tree and tore the bottom out of it. I didn’t notice it until later and then discovered my silk sleeping bag liner had fallen out at the same time. I was getting a bit fed up with this!

The fourbys don't have it easy either. This is Mick and Carly's.

The fourbys don’t have it easy either. This is Mick and Carly’s.

The last time I came off, things improved. I’d just removed the luggage, prior to picking the bike up, when a couple of fourbys came up behind me. I waited until they’d stopped and let the drivers help me to pick the bike up. This was where I first met Mick and Carley, Mike and Angela and their various kids. Mick offered to take my bags, immediately making my bike far easier to handle in the sand.

One of the approaches to Gunshot Creek.

One of the approaches to Gunshot Creek.

I pushed on and we met again at Gunshot Creek. This is one of the ‘biggies’ in terms of Tele Track creek crossings. It was easy for me because there was a small track down the bank, the water wasn’t deep and the exit was easy. But boy, was it ever different for the fourbys! All of the access slopes had big, muddy pools at the bottom of them. The steepest slope had the least difficult pool and that was the one used by most people, despite the fact that it looked the worst. Mike went down that one and was OK. Mick chose one of the others and proved how deep the mud was by getting firmly stuck in it. Mike came round and winched him out. Then we became spectators and enjoyed everybody else’s antics. We were seriously impressed by one guy who came down the steepest slope, same as Mike had, but with a trailer attached. That took plenty of courage and finesse.

The wrong way.

The wrong way.

The right way.

The right way.

We camped at Gunshot Creek and Mick volunteered to carry my luggage to the end of the track and on into Bamaga. Fantastic! A nice, light bike to ride. I knew there were yet more difficult creek crossings further up and I was happy to have my burden eased.
Next morning we carried on and had a much better day. The track was easier, with far less sand, and the three creeks we crossed didn’t present too much of a challenge. One was shallow but with a difficult exit. Another was a bit deep but with easy entry and exit. The third had a bridge over it.
The Tele Track joined up with the PDR again for a short way. Once back on it we came to Fruit Bat Falls, on Eliot Creek. We had en told how nice they are and it’s true. They are only about a metre high but they’re quite wide and have warm and shallow pools either side of them. Great for swimming so we stayed there a couple of hours and enjoyed a nice swim.

The ever so pretty Fruit Bat Falls.

The ever so pretty Fruit Bat Falls.

Further on there is a camp site at Eliot Falls. We considered staying there but as we hadn’t booked sites we decided not to. The place looked empty but there’s no way of telling who might turn up later, demanding to know what you’re doing on their pitch. So we carried on up the Tele Track, not bothering to visit the falls. The northern bypass road had veered off to the left and we were on what was reckoned to be the hardest part of it. Before long we came to Canal Creek and quickly decided to stay there. The creek was really nice, with small pools for the kids to play in and little runs of fast flowing water too, easily good enough to drink. So we decided to stay for two nights. The families wanted to let their kids have some fun. That was fine by me as I had some repairs to do.
We enjoyed a very nice evening, sitting around and chatting, enabling me to get to know my new friends a bit better. As referred to previously, they had no qualms about taking their school age kids away with them for a few months. I don’t think they were using any of the distant learning facilities that Australia has. They were just happy to let them catch up when they returned. The oldest is nine so I suppose it’s not too difficult.
Next morning I set to and repaired my pannier and did a few other jobs too. Then I decided to go for a swim. Please refer to the previous blog post, Swimming Against the Tide, in order to learn about that sorry incident. I’ll pick up the story again from when I arrived in Bamaga, via Eliot Creek, a helicopter and Thursday Island hospital.

Eliot Falls. No further comment!

Eliot Falls. No further comment!

So here I am in a very expensive lodge/hotel in the small town of Bamaga. I needed the rest time to let my feet heal before I could carry on. My bike, tent and all personal gear was still at Canal Creek. The police had brought back my wallet and passport, laptop but not the charger, a phone that wasn’t my Aussie one, and the folder with my journal in it. No wash kit or spare clothes.
I spent the time writing up my exploits and watching lots of TV. Endless news programmes running two main stories. One about Adam Goodes, an Aussie Rules footballer of Aboriginal origin. The second about an expenses scandal surrounding Bronwyn Bishop,the speaker of the House of Representatives.
Goodes, a nationally acclaimed sporting figure, had been suffering racist based booing from away supporters which had got so bad he’d temporarily taken a break from the game. He is back playing now.
The expenses scandal had some interesting parallels with UK politics. First the accusations, heavily denied. Then more accusations, still denied and support given by the Prime Minister. Then a forced and hollow apology from Bishop among voices of dissent from her party colleagues. Finally, her resignation, necessary to prevent her friend the PM from being politically weakened. No different to so many scandals in Britain. It seems it’s not just language and culture we share with Aussies.

Flesh eating plants. Scourge of insects and other politicians.

Flesh eating plants. Scourge of insects and other politicians.

One day I was walking down to the supermarket when a couple of fourbys pulled up and out jumped Mick and Cary, Mike and Angela. They were very pleased to see me, I was delighted to see them. I’d already spoken to Mick on the hotel phone but was able to thank them all personally and apologise profusely for all the hassle and inconvenience I’d caused them. They would have none of it and assured me the important thing was that it all ended well. Mick had already mentioned a little present that Shakira had picked out and she handed me one of those small plastic squares which you stick in the rear window of your car. It said: ‘Don’t follow me I’m lost too. Where the hell is Cape York, Australia.’ Very apt and very funny. I promised it would go onto my bike as soon as possible. I hope to meet up with them again when I get down their way during my journey. They had been up to the tip and were on their way back south.
On another day I bumped into Dave and Karen again, but without their Ural. It seems it had broken down as they crossed a creek, with water getting into the electronic controls. My first surprise was to learn that Urals now have electronics. Whatever next! I could only sympathise with them and I hope to see them again when I get to Melbourne.

Brad. Always worth another photo. I can't quite remember why but I quite like the guy!

Brad. Always worth another photo. I can’t quite remember why but I quite like the guy!

On Sunday I had a good, long talk with Brad, my police rescuer – as already described – and while I was there got a lift back to Canal Creek organised. On Monday I was taken up there by Alex and I was finally reunited with Doris and all my camping gear. Everything was exactly as I, and the police, had left it apart from the tent now being occupied by a small colony of ants. ‘Tenants’, as one of my friends commented. Nice one Bruce.
Alex had agreed to take some of my gear back so I got all that sorted out so he could leave and then got one with packing away my tent etc. I got talking to some people who were camping nearby and they said because no-one came back to the tent the previous night they’d contacted the National Park Ranger that morning to find out if the occupant was OK. They were assured he was. How nice of them. I’d already felt the benefit of the sense of community this journey creates among people on the Tele Track, and this was another example of it.

The Jardine Ferry. Thirty nine dollars for that?!?

The Jardine Ferry. Thirty nine dollars for that?!?

I took the bypass road on the way back to Bamaga, my feet being too sore to attempt the final part of the track. On the way I called round to have a look at Eliot Falls. After all that drama I wanted to make sure I actually saw them. The ride included crossing the Jardine River via the ferry. It is run by, and for, the Aboriginal community and is very expensive, considering the river is about twenty metres wide and the ferry takes three minutes to cross it. $39 return for a bike, $99 for a car. It seems pretty outrageous but the money goes to the community so I suppose it’s worth it. Maybe.
Back at the police station I sorted out my gear, loaded it onto the bike and finally set off to complete my journey to the Cape York Tip.
I didn’t have far to go as my destination was a campsite on the seashore in Punsand Bay. A delightful place where swimming in the sea could have been a real pleasure if it wasn’t for the crocs waiting to take snaps of you – and not with a camera.

The sign at The Tip.

The sign at The Tip.

The final leg of the journey up to the Tip took place next morning, using a short cut track which was good fun in a sandy, creek crossing kind of way. The terrain was very pleasant, riding through sun dappled woods on a very nice morning. There was a car park near to the beach and the final walk could be taken up and over a hill or, as the tide was out, along the beach and up onto the promontory where the sign was mounted. I chose the beach.
There were various people there, taking photos of the sign. I took some for a nice couple, they took some for me. We all milled around, admiring the scenery and enjoying the moment. I’ve now been to the east and north tips. West next, and then south.

Yours truly, finally there.

Yours truly, finally there.

I climbed the hill behind the promontory, where there were plaques and memorials attached to a monument, which people had left to remember loved ones. The views out across the bay were stunning on such a sunny day. There are islands close to the shore which also looked pretty damn nice too.

Looking out over the bay.

Looking out over the bay.

One of the islands in the Strait.

One of the islands in the Strait.

When I’d climbed down to the car park, I was just leaving when I met another biker. Scott is Canadian and is on a three month break from his Tasmanian job as an Adventure Activity Guide. He’s riding a BMW GS650 and as he was also staying at the campsite we agreed to meet up later.

I've ridden over four times that distance. I must have got lost or something.

I’ve ridden over four times that distance. I must have got lost or something.

Another very nice ride through the wood, but forgoing the sandy track, got me back to my tent. Time to make coffee and relax. My feet felt pretty good, despite all the walking in my riding boots. I stayed there three days in total and enjoyed some nice chats with Scott while catching up on some writing and generally relaxing. It was strange to think that a week earlier I had been swimming against the tide.

Swimming Against the Tide.

Canal Creek, Cape York, QLD. 27th July 2015.

It is necessary here to jump forward on the time line a little because there is a story that cannot wait to be told. Let me set the scene.
I’ve already mentioned the Old Telegraph Line (the Tele Track) and this story takes place on the second day of travelling up it. The track has several difficult creek crossings and I’d negotiated some of these in the company of two families in their fourbys (4x4s). Mick, Carley and Blake in one; Mike, Angela, Shakira, Deek and Jordan in the other. Mick had volunteered to take some of my luggage, which definitely made the soft sand much easier to deal with. We’d camped together at Gunshot Creek and at the time this story begins we were camped at Canal Creek, with plans to stay for a couple of nights as the location was so good.
On Monday morning I did some essential maintenance on my bike, while the families were having fun in the creek, but at about 15.00 I decided to go for a swim. The map showed that Eliot Falls weren’t too far away down Canal Creek, about two kilometres, and then the walk back to the camp site from there would be about the same. So far so good. Mick considered coming with me but didn’t want to leave the others. So he walked partway downstream with me, looking for good fishing spots. Walked? Yes, because at that point there was little water and mostly bare rock in the creek. My bare feet didn’t like the rock at all and I regretted not having shoes to put on. My outfit consisted of swimming trunks, a pair of swimming shorts over them, a T shirt and a hat.

Canal Creek joins Eliot Creek and I needed to have turned right up it. The red dotted line shows the track I would have walked back on.

Canal Creek joins Eliot Creek and I needed to have turned right up it. The north/south green line is the Tele Track, which would have taken me back to the camp at the Canal Creek ford.

Mick turned back and I carried on, eventually reaching water that was deep enough to swim in at about 16.30. The water was really warm and pleasant and I was enjoying the swim. After a while I came to some waterfalls, a double set, in fact, but there were no people around and no sign of public access to them. I knew the Eliot falls would have been busy and that there would have been a path there. So, I carried on swimming, beginning to wonder where on earth these waterfalls were!
Soon after 18.00 I decided it was time to turn back. Still no sign of Eliot falls and I’d given up on the idea of reaching them. And here is where I made one of the stupidest decisions ever. Instead of turning round and swimming back upstream I decided to take to the bush and cut across to the track. It was nearly dark. I had no shoes. What was I thinking of? Well, I was convinced the track was nearby and walking back would have been easier than swimming. So I took a bearing off the setting sun and the rising moon and headed north, back the way I’d come. Or so I thought.
Walking in the bush with no shoes wasn’t really a problem at that point. Grass stems sometimes got caught painfully between my toes, but that was all. What I completely failed to find was the track I was seeking. At about 20.30 I came across a stream and fought my way along it knowing it would take me somewhere, eventually. Something that stumbling around in the dark clearly wouldn’t. And as per all the text books, after about half an hour the stream joined a creek. I assumed it to be Canal Creek so started swimming up it. It took me about two hours to realise it wasn’t the same creek as the one I’d swum down. There were several features that were different. But I kept swimming upstream, it seemed the sensible thing to do. After all, I’d originally come downstream. At about 02.00 I came to another set of waterfalls and thinking there might be public access to these, I climbed onto the shore and settled down to wait for daylight. It wasn’t a very comfortable night.

I swam through Twin Falls but didn't find Eliot Falls.

I swam through Twin Falls but didn’t find Eliot Falls.

It gets light about 7am so I had a good look around and found no sign of any tracks or access. One thing the daylight did reveal was that this creek flowed from south to north. I knew that north would be best, having swum a fair way south already, so I about turned and swam downstream. The map in my head had Canal Creek running west to east and our campsite should be north and west of where I was. It was a shame I didn’t keep going upstream because, little did I know it, I would have come to Fruit Bat Falls, a place we’d visited a couple of days earlier, which definitely had public access.

Eliot Falls, my desire to see them the cause of all my problems.

Eliot Falls, my desire to see them the cause of all my problems.

The going was quite easy and the water was warm at that point. I had it in my mind I was now paralleling the Tele Track and that it was likely this creek would meet it at some point. I later learnt I was right but that point was a long way off.
Once again, I passed the junction with Canal Creek without knowing it and just kept swimming, wading or bouncing down the various rapids. Because the rocks were so rough, I didn’t want to walk over them so I found the easiest method was to stick my feet out ahead of me, toes above the water, and let the current take me down on my backside, bumping from rock to rock. We’re not talking white water rafting type rapids here and it worked well enough despite the occasional knock.
As the morning went on I heard helicopters over in the distance and guessed they were searching for me. It meant that I had been reported missing by my friends and also brought home to me what a terrible night they must have had, wondering where I was. Nothing to do but keep swimming and that’s what I did. A nice, gentle breast stroke, letting the current do the work as much as possible.

Leaving this message was one of my better decisions.

Leaving this message was one of my better decisions.

Around lunchtime I came to a sandbank and was in the process of swimming past it when I had a brainwave. It seemed a good idea to help myself as much as possible so I got out of the water, found a stick and wrote a message in the sand, just in case the helicopter came down that way. HELP. 2807. –>. Help, today’s date and my direction of travel. I thought this would be enough to get any helicopter that saw it looking in the right place.
At 3pm I’d got fed up with swimming and decided to try for the Tele Track once more. At least I had the sun to navigate by this time. But after three hours in thick bush, with darkness approaching, I had to stop. It was too difficult to make much progress and I was now dog tired, struggling to lift my legs through the bushes. The track may only have been a couple of hundred metres further on, equally it could have been five kilometres. I had no way of knowing.
While I was lying on the ground once more, enjoying the occasional rain shower, I decided to head back to the creek in the morning. Apart from anything else, I was walking away from where my message indicated I would be. Not very sensible.
As on the previous night, I tried to find some grass and foliage to cover myself with. Once again, it proved to be very thin rations. Fortunately it wasn’t actually cold and although I was getting very little sleep, at least I was resting.

This was the type of bush I was walking through.

This was the type of bush I was walking through.

Daylight saw me heading back to the creek and eventually I was swimming downstream once more. The creek was getting narrower now so the water was flowing faster and the rapids were more frequent. The water was also a little colder, although still bearable. My rather sore feet were getting a bit more punishment from the rocks too. The other problem was the number of trees that were lying in the water, often with submerged branches. I could usually see part of them sticking out and it became a guessing came as to whether I should go right or left to avoid the submerged parts. I could hear the helicopters out again but still not close to me. I began to wonder, too, whether my family had been informed yet.
Around 13.00 I climbed up onto a rock in midstream for a rest and a bit of sun. Just as I got back in the water I realised my camera had fallen out of my pocket, into the creek. I fought my way back to the rock, looked around it and saw something shiny on the creek bed. But it was only a beer can. I was really, really upset. My camera is waterproof and had sat happily in my pocket for nearly two days. I’d taken some great photos during my river trip and now they were gone. A minor thing maybe, compared to the potential outcome of my predicament, but at the time it was a huge disaster.
After another hour of swimming I went up onto the bank to sit in the sun for a while. Suddenly I heard a helicopter coming down river. I leapt off the bank into the creek but by the time I’d done so it had gone. I stood in midstream, yelling at the pilot to come back – and he did. He circled me once while I jumped up and down waving my hat. No reaction to my efforts. He came around again while I continued to jump up and down like a lunatic and this time someone waved to me out of the window. My ordeal was over.

A selfie of Brad, the SAR coordinator.

A selfie of Brad, the SAR coordinator.

A short while later I saw someone wading downstream towards me. He wanted me to walk up towards him but I just couldn’t. He came to me and introduced himself as Brad. He was the police officer who was coordinating the search for me. They’d had to land on the bank about 600 metres upstream. Could I walk up there, he wanted to know. I had to say no. My feet just couldn’t take it and the current was too strong to walk against, especially across the rapids. He offered to take me on his back but I vetoed that idea. They were going to have to winch me up but that would mean a wait of over an hour. No problem to me now I knew I was going to be all right.
Eventually a bigger helicopter came back and hovered over the creek, the down draught from the blade throwing water high in the air. Too difficult, so I had to move across to the bank where there was less tree overhang. Chris, the winchman, came down and instructed me in what to do. He put a harness on me, a helmet, earplugs and goggles, and we were clipped together. A signal to the controller up above and up we went, me cuddling him as per instructions. Once level with the helicopter platform I was pulled inside, strapped into a seat and given a helmet with speakers and a microphone. I must say at this point that I was super impressed with the whole operation. It’s difficult not to look at these things dispassionately and to note how they go about doing their job. In particular I was very impressed by the skills Chris displayed at putting me at my ease and explaining everything to me. Truly professional.

That red blob swinging about in mid air is me and Chris.

That red blob swinging about in mid air is me and Chris.

The paramedic who was on board checked me over. All the vitals were good, he was pleased with my condition. Even though I felt fine I was being taken to the hospital on Thursday Island, in the Torres Strait, where the Search and Rescue teams are based. I didn’t really mind. After all, hospitals have cups of tea and food.
My son had been contacted, at 6am UK time on Wednesday, by the Foreign Office who’d received a message from the Consulate in Australia. Half an hour later they rang him again to say I’d been found. Fortunately he had yet to tell anyone else in the family so the worry was minimised. I was very pleased to hear that. I stayed in hospital overnight, had a nice long chat with my daughter, who rang the hospital, and was seen by the doctor in the morning. He said the cuts on my feet were already healing but gave me some antibiotics just in case I’d picked up any infection. I hinted at staying another night but he was having none of it.

Very sore foot.

Very sore foot.

During the morning I had a visitor. The editor of the local paper, The Torres News, came looking for an interview. We had a nice long chat about travelling and blogging, and I talked him through what had happened. It seemed he’d gone through this process many times and I was slowly getting the feeling I was just one of many idiots that need rescuing, something that Brad had already hinted at.

How the Torres News saw it.

How the Torres News saw it.

I had nothing with me but the clothes I’d been wearing at the time. I had to book a ferry ticket back to the mainland, which I could do over the phone with my credit card – fortunately the number is committed to memory. The hospital organised a lift to the ferry terminal and when we docked there were a couple of nice policewomen waiting to collect me.
They took me to the station in Bamaga, the main town of the north Cape York area, and Nicole set to trying to find me somewhere to stay. I wanted to be in the town, with ready access to shops and the police station, so I ended up in a very expensive hotel, close to all facilities and with wi-fi.
The search team had been based at Canal Creek, to the great delight of all the kids. Three helicopters and a State Emergency Service mobile control vehicle kept their eye goggling. Mick and the others left at lunchtime on Wednesday, feeling they could do no more there and were very pleased when Brad rang them to say I’d been found.
The police had gone through my belongings and brought items of value back with them, fortunately, so I now had money and my laptop, but no phone or personal belongings – sponge bag, change of clothes etc. The phone they found was my spare, which doesn’t work in Australia. But at least I was able to be independent again and the phone would take photos. Mick had volunteered to bring my gear and bike to Bamaga but the police said no – shame, as it would have been really useful.
I was in the hotel for four nights. I bathed my feet in Dettol and rubbed lotion into them trying to aid the healing process. I had no choice other than to walk the half kilometre into the town centre to get to the shops and to the tavern for a meal. The hotel had a restaurant but it was too dear for me. I think the walking helped and by Sunday I felt I could have ridden my bike again. All I needed was a lift back to Canal Creek to collect it.
Brad had said the police would do that so I went down to the police station hoping they could arrange something. No such luck. There was no-one there but a couple of locals said someone should be back in a while. So I hung around waiting and eventually saw someone round the back. I went down there and bumped into an off-duty Brad who invited me to join them all for their lunchtime BBQ. Afterwards we went into the office and he talked me through the rescue procedure and showed me how they log everything down. Here’s the run down.

Brad in mufti.

Brad in mufti.

Brad, as the coordinator, keeps a running log of everything that happens. Firstly to help keep track of events, secondly in case of an inquest!
They attempt to profile a missing person, to help them decide how and where to search. Age, gender, physical and mental condition all come into it. A child will generally behave in a certain way as would someone with dementia. They worked out, from my journal and my blog, that I was fit and could take care of myself. My friends had confirmed that impression, as had my friend Phil, from Brisbane, who’d directed them to my blog. They had found my details on their system and Phil’s phone number had come up.
They start a search at the last known position then work outwards from there. They knew where I’d headed to so that was the obvious place to start. Brad said that with someone like me they would have kept searching for five days before giving up. That’s comforting to know. Brad was in the helicopter that found me. They were searching Canal Creek again on the second day and he decided to extend the search area. That’s when they saw my message and came looking for me.
He showed me the terrain on Google Earth and I could see just how thick the bush is in that area. He reckoned I’d have been moving through it at 2-3kph and the Tele Track was about 15kms away at that point. It also became clear that the map of the area I had in my head was wrong. So staying with the creek was definitely the right thing to have done. I knew the Tele Track was west of my south to north route and was confident I would have found it eventually. He said I was right but it would have been a very long swim before I’d have come to it.

Keeping track of events on google earth. LKP is Last Known Position.

Keeping track of events on google earth. LKP is Last Known Position.

I worked out that across the forty seven hours I was out there I’d walked in the bush for eight hours and swum in the creeks for twenty three. The remainder of the time I was resting.
The helicopter Brad was in was just for tourists, with no winch facilities. They stuck around to watch the winching operation, undertaken by a much bigger, specialist machine. The pilot was struggling against a 35kph wind and Brad said his pilot was in absolute awe of the skill involved. I can safely say I was pretty impressed myself.
SAR undertake about one search per week, mostly at sea. Brad said I was the sixth person he’d personally rescued that year. I felt a bit less of a fool knowing that. I asked him what the cost was. He said these rescues can cost up to $1.5 million but mine was much less because they hadn’t deployed the indigenous trackers yet. So between us we estimated about $200,000. Fortunately I won’t be getting charged!
I told him I hadn’t thought it likely there’d be any crocodiles in that river because of the rapids, waterfalls, steep banks etc. He agreed, saying in the two years he’d been there only one croc had been sighted and that was only a rumour. Good, at least I was right about something.
So that about sums up my misadventures. It’s safe to say that I’m very grateful to everyone involved in my rescue. Their skill and professionalism is incredible. I feel stupid but lucky. I’m also very sorry about the worry caused to my friends and family. Please believe me everyone, I won’t be doing it again!

Shakira spotted this in a shop and persuaded Mike and Angela to buy it as a present for me Very apt.

Shakira spotted this in a shop and persuaded Mike and Angela to buy it as a present for me Very apt.

Cairns to Cooktown

Cairns, QLD. 13th July 2015.

I mentioned before that I hadn’t seen much of Cairns, and it was Wednesday before I was able to do anything about that. Since arriving on Monday I had had a frustrating time. Last time I was there I had ordered a couple of items off the internet, to be delivered to the hostel. They’re quite happy to accept letters or parcels providing you have a reservation there. One package had arrived but the second, and more important one, hadn’t. To make matters more difficult the wi-fi at the hostel was playing up, and had been since the previous Thursday. The staff at the hostel could do nothing about it as it was managed off site somewhere. Unusually, it seemed we were all in it together.

A nice picture to make me feel better.

A nice picture to make me feel better.

So it was Tuesday before I could start to chase my second package, which contained a fuel bladder. This handy item is rather like a hot water bottle in that it will store flat or even rolled up when empty but can be used as needed to carry extra fuel. The problem was that I couldn’t get hold of the company to find out where it was. I was due to leave the hostel on Thursday and I needed to know. Their phone went to an answering machine and their website was down. It wasn’t looking good. I finally got to talk to someone and was promised a call back, which never came. Then the hostel wi-fi crashed again. $%@+#*&!

Fresh seafood off the boat, at Cairns Marina.

Fresh seafood off the boat, at Cairns Marina.

On Wednesday I had to make a decision: wait for it to arrive, if indeed it had been sent, or leave without it. The option I took was to find a different supplier on the internet and order another one, on express delivery, hoping it would arrive on Thursday. Friday was a bank holiday. The bladder I ordered wasn’t exactly what I wanted, it was too big really, but I needed something in anticipation of long distances with few servos. I was very pleased when the hostel staff told me, Thursday morning, that my package had arrived. When I looked at the contents it was the original fuel bladder! It had been sent after all. Now I was going to have two. The second one didn’t arrive on Thursday anyway so I rang the company and they agreed they’d refund me when the bladder arrived back with them. The hostel staff said they’d be happy to send it back to them (for a small fee) so I was now free to leave with everything looking good. What a palaver. Had I been too impatient or too cautious? I wasn’t sure. These items are only available on-line so I had to act while I had an address to get things sent to.

Four 300BHP outboard engines strikes me as being pretty awesome too.

Four 300BHP outboard engines strikes me as being pretty awesome too.

On the Wednesday I finally got out and about in the town and took a walk along the promenade and out to the marina. I took advantage of a ‘Coffee and Toasty, $7’ offer – far too good to pass by – and then enjoyed admiring the ‘rich boys toys’ moored up in expensive rows. The town had taken great efforts to make the waterfront an interesting place. There were several sites presenting Aboriginal stories and legends; a great sculpture reflecting another of their tales; some very interesting info boards describing the history of the harbour. Born out of of the need to transport mining and farm products, it slowly changed from wooden jetties with different owners to a town run business with modern wharfs and warehouses. Growing pains included labour disputes, as workers flexed their newly collectivised muscles in the early 20th century fight against deadly and unfair work practices, and the meeting the needs of WW2 shipping in the fight against Japan. Many of the themes are shared with other ports along Australia’s north east coast. A very interesting walk.

Some Aboriginal 'Dreamtime' stories, well presented on indgenous wood.

Some Aboriginal ‘Dreamtime’ stories, well presented on indgenous wood.

Nice sculpture with an Aboriginal theme.

Nice sculpture with an Aboriginal theme.

I left Cairns on Friday morning, having stayed an extra night, and headed up the coast towards Daintree. I diverted into Port Douglas, a nice tourist town. There wasn’t much there to detain me but there was a nice view point up on the hill so I went up there and admired the view over the bay.
Next port of call was Mossman, where I went out to visit Mossman Gorge. This is another of nature’s presents to us all and had interesting walks in the bush and along the Mossman River. But of greater interest to me was the Aboriginal centre along the gorge. When I got to the visitor centre I just scraped in on the 13.30 tour – an advantage of being alone – The Dreamtime Gorge Walk. The part of the gorge we went to can only be visited with a guide and some of the cost of the tour goes to support the local Aboriginal community.

Sean tells us all. Behind him is a Red Cedar tree and bones would have been placed inside the hollow trunk.

Sean tells us all. Behind him is a Red Cedar tree and bones would have been placed inside the hollow trunk.

We were taken to the start by coach and Sean, our guide, told us something of the history of the centre. The excellent visitor centre had only been open three years, having been moved from further up the gorge. When we got to the start point of our walk we were treated to a traditional smoking ceremony. We were invited to walk around a smoking fire, to connect us to the ancestors and to welcome us to the land.
Our walking destination was Rex Creek, a tributary of the Mossman River. Sean told us that it has the second purest water in the world flowing down it. I had to ask the obvious questions; what makes it so pure and where is the most pure water to be found? It seems that this water falls as rain in Papua New Guinea, leaches down through the limestone rocks there and finds its way into aquifers which spread beneath the sea between the two countries. It then rises as a spring, forming Rex Creek. Amazing! Large parts of Australia’s water comes from similar underground reserves.
And the purest water in the world? That can be found in British Columbia, as one of the Canadians in the group was happy to confirm.

Mixing up the paint for body decoration.

Mixing up the paint for body decoration.

The youngest member of the group gets persuaded to be decorated.

The youngest member of the group gets persuaded to be decorated.

Sean explained many things to us about Aboriginal history and how they lived; how important the land was; social groupings; marriage etc. He also told us about the rainforest in which we walked. So here’s a rundown.
The rainforest has been around for about 140 million years. By comparison, the Amazonian rainforest is 7 million years old. It’s the remnants of what used to cover Gondwanaland. Of the nineteen unique plant species in the world, thirteen of them can be found here. In fact a fern, only recently rediscovered, had previously only been seen as a fossil.
One plant has a fruit that produces cyanide, which was used to stun fish by throwing it in the water. There is a plant called the Lawyer Plant because of the barbs on it. A modern name obviously.

When it was much smaller this sapling was bent and tied to form this direction post. It points the way.

When it was much smaller this sapling was bent and tied to form this direction post. It points the way.

The Aboriginals have many uses for many different plants, in common with most forest dwellers. They would move up into the hills in the summer, to escape the heat and find food, then move back in the winter. Other than that they would tend to live in the same places.
Aboriginals have occupied the land for over forty thousand years. Different racial groups evolved over time across Australia but the anthropology is similar all over. North Australians have been trading with people from Asia for over seven thousand years and were introduced to the Iron Age by them. There was some intermarrying too.
There are many different languages and that tends to define the social groupings. Within the language groups there are clans. Men and women live separately but come together often for social events and to discuss clan affairs. Men can have several wives and women several husbands. In this way children will have many parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents etc. Both boys and girls go through initiation ceremonies and around the age of nine or ten the boys are sent off to live with another clan. Within a language group each clan will have particular responsibilities for certain ceremonies. The boys have to learn these and will then o to live with different language groups. By the time they return, in their mid-twenties, they will be able to speak about twenty different languages. This is one reason why, apart from personal or trade disputes, Aboriginals rarely fight each other.

Male quarters for this area. Not very salubrious!

Male quarters for this area. Not very salubrious!

It took the incoming Europeans about one hundred and fifty years to almost completely destroy this culture and it is only in the last fifteen years or so that Aboriginals have been allowed back onto some of their traditional lands and to revitalise their traditional ceremonies. The ceremonies are all about the relationship with the land, ancestors and nature in general. They were a deep rooted part of the culture, which is why they were so important.
In this area the first points of conflict between Aboriginals and Europeans centred around logging. Once the gold in the area ran out then Red Gold, Red Cedar trees, were what Europeans went for. This activity really tore into the heart of the local culture because it affected everything the Aboriginals relied on for life. No wonder conflict grew. They used to bury the bones of their dead in the base of cedar trees and the loggers took these knowing they had a value to collectors. Today Aboriginals are trying to get them back from the various museums and universities.

These paths have been used for thousands of years.

These paths have been used for thousands of years.

The tour finished with tea and damper (scone) and I must say it was easily one of the most interesting couple of hours I’ve spent in some time. I was pleased to have learnt so much, delivered by Sean in a non-judgemental way, about Australia’s more ancient past.
It was only a 35kms ride to the village of Daintree, on the Daintree River – Croc country!
The campsite I was at also accepted bookings for the river trips run by Crocodile Express. $28 for the trip, with a second one thrown in for free. Or, to put it another way, we can’t be bothered to collect the money twice! One left from the jetty by the campsite, the other from the jetty by the ferry. So I got onto the 09.45 trip and began to learn about another of Australia’s ancient inhabitants. Crocs are now protected in Australia so are able to thrive.
We took a slow cruise upstream, on the lookout for whatever wildlife there was to see. There were a couple of pelicans about; some very pretty, blues Ulysses Butterflies; a tree snake, almost impossible to see in its camouflage colours.

Well camouflaged tree snake.

Well camouflaged tree snake.

Eventually we saw a croc, lying on the bank but half submerged. They will go in the water to keep cool or on the bank to get warm, depending on the time of day. So here’s some croccy facts.
There’s two types, estuarine and fresh water. The freshies are small and almost never attack a human. Their teeth would do some damage but they’re not killers. The salties, on the other hand, are big. Males can be eight metres long and females six, but are more likely to be six and four metres. They can live up to two hundred years, more likely to be one hundred and fifty. About one hundred is average. They are survivors from the Dinosaur age and their survival skills are phenomenal. Their heart rate is forty beats per minute but they can stay under water for up to six hours by reducing that to two beats per minute. They will eat fish or mammals, what ever comes along. If they get a good meal, such as from eating an adult wild pig, they may not eat again for up to a year. Under normal circumstances they don’t see adult humans as prey but they are territorial and can sometimes be seriously hungry. The trick is to avoid needing to have the discussion in the first place! The scales on their back act like solar panels and absorb energy from the sun. Crocs are the least cruel of killing animals. Their pray will die very quickly from the bite and/or by drowning. It seems they get a bit of a bad press in being accused of cruelty. Although they generally prefer the salty, estuarine waters, they can be found a long way inland, maybe 120kms, as they search for food. Than can move overland if they need to and sometimes get stranded upstream in a creek or waterhole after the wet.

Big, old and ugly. But that's how things are in Croc land.

Big, old and ugly. But that’s how things are in Croc land.

Females build nests then lay around thirty eggs, only one of which will reach adulthood. If the eggs don’t get eaten then the hatchlings may get killed by a sibling – all crocs come out of their eggs with jaws already snapping – or eaten by a hungry male. If the eggs incubate at exactly 32 degrees they will all be males. Above or below that temperature, they will all be females. It tends to balance out.
That was a great boat trip and when I got down to the ferry, the second one was even better. We saw a big, old male on the riverbank. About six metres long and ninety years old, our guide reckoned. We also saw two females, one of them swimming around looking for a place to rest up on the riverbank.

Super pretty Kingfisher.

Super pretty Kingfisher.

There were plenty of interesting birds around too. Sea eagles flying overhead; a small, yellow nectar eating bird was flitting around collecting spider’s web with which to build its nest; a beautiful, bright blue kingfisher, only two inches long and fishing busily. Finally, another tree snake and this time we could see its amazing yellow-green markings, perfect for hiding in the foliage. Superb value for money really, given how much we saw.

Croc proof, we were assured.

Croc proof, we were assured.

I queue jumped onto the ferry, crossed the Daintree River and carried on up the coast towards Cape Tribulation. On the way I stopped at Marrdja Boardwalk, a visitor attraction just by the coast.
From the road the boardwalk goes into tropical rainforest, then crosses a creek where it enters mangrove forest. The two ecosystems sit side by side, separated by the creek, and they couldn’t be more different. Strangler figs, very tall fern trees, baskets of life etc. Many of which I’d seen before in other places. In the mangrove area, mangrove trees, with their weird root systems. They have a real struggle to survive in the salt water and use special techniques to help them. For example they store the salt they absorb in dying leaves which, when they fall off, take the salt with them. Some of the roots are like hollow pencils which stick up above the water and draw in oxygen. Fascinating stuff.

Tropical rainforest Strangler Fig.

Tropical rainforest Strangler Fig.

Mangrove swamp Eco-system.

Mangrove swamp Eco-system.

Once at Cape Tribulation, where the bitumen surface ended, I found a holiday centre which also had dorm beds. I was very glad of that as I was developing a very sore throat and fancied a bit of comfort. That included finding a local pub which served a very nice beef lasagne. I figured I was worth it!

The Bloomfield Track, with a Fourby toughing it out.

The Bloomfield Track, with a Fourby toughing it out.

The Bloomfield Track took me out of Cape Tribulation up towards Cook Town. It’s 4WD only, just what I like to ride. It was rough and challenging in places, with a couple of creek crossings thrown in, but was only 30kms long and was fun while it lasted. It being a Sunday, the road was busy with weekenders, some of whom were driving a bit ‘on the edge’, too much so at times, I thought.

A common sign when entering Aboriginal areas.

A common sign when entering Aboriginal areas.

Once back on bitumen I came to the Aboriginal town of Wujal Wujal. Nearby was the very nice Bloomfield Falls, well worth the short diversion. Quite high, very pretty. It’s very difficult not to like a waterfall. I met a French couple there so, once again, I had a practice and got a compliment.

Nice.

Nice.

On the way to Cooktown is a very famous pub called The Lions Den. These days it has a camp site and it’s all about tourists, but it used to be a place for miners and stockmen to spend their money. The walls are covered in memorabilia from travellers, such as number plates, photos of half drowned 4x4s and scribbled mottoes and messages. While I was walking around I was approached by a couple, Richard and Bev, who had seen my bike. They both ride Suzuki DR650’s and travel all over Australia on them. We had a good chat and as they live down on the Gold Coast I hope to be able to call in and see them later in my journey.

Lions Den pub - outside.

Lions Den pub – outside.

And inside.

And inside.

One more roadside stop, at a viewing point for the Black Mountain. This is a 260 million year old granite rock formation, born of volcanic eruptions beneath the ground. The covering rock has weathered away leaving a high hill of peculiarly shaped rocks and boulders. There are some fauna there unique to the area and it is a special place for the local Aboriginals. It also marks the northern perimeter of the tropical rain forest.

Black Mountain.

Black Mountain.

It wasn’t long to Cooktown now and once there I discovered that the one and only backpacker lodge was full. Plenty of room at the campsite though. There were very strong gusts of wind blowing across the site and getting the tent up was a struggle, with one of the poles smacking me across the head at one point. But perseverance won through and once I’d got some shopping, with some all important cough medicine, I had an early night.
Cooktown didn’t exist until the Palmer River gold rush. But it was known to have a good harbour and good access to inland areas. How was this known? Because it was the first place in Australia where James Cook came ashore. He hadn’t planned to but an argument between the Great barrier Reef and the hull of his ship forced his hand. He spent forty eight days there, undertaking repairs on his ship and exploring the local area. It was a fantastic opportunity for his botanist, Joseph Banks, to collect plants and study local animals. They decided kangaroos were quite tasty!

Up at the top of Grassy Hill.

Up at the top of Grassy Hill.

They had mostly friendly relations with the local Aboriginals and gained the impression of a well ordered society which lacked in nothing important to life. They discovered they weren’t in the least bit impressed by the usual offerings of beads, cloth and trinkets. Cook voiced the opinion that he rather envied them and wished that European life could be as free of the desire for possessions for their own sake.

Dinky little lighthouse, lovely view.

Dinky little lighthouse, lovely view.

The story of Cook town is a typical gold rush tale. The Endeavour River (the only river that Cook actually named) made a natural port and in 1873 a ship arrived and the town was thrown up in the usual tent and shack style. Most of the passengers headed straight to the gold fields, which grew to have around 15,00 miners in it by 1875, 10,000 of whom were Chinese. The town’s population hovered between three and four thousand in its heyday, although by the 1930’s that was down to four hundred or so. The Chinese tended to do best at mining because they would pool their resources and were very thorough. As usual, they set up market gardens and opened stores too. At one time over one thousand per month were arriving from Hong Kong and South China. They suffered dreadful racism in Cooktown, as they did in most places, but the families stayed there for several generations.

Cook statue, on the foreshore.

Cook statue, on the foreshore.

After the gold had gone mining of other types kept the town ticking over, as did logging and cattle. The roads in the area were very bad initially but were improved gradually during the first half of the twentieth century. But what saved the town from complete decline was tourism. Some foresighted townspeople realised the potential of this growing industry, especially once a bitumen road linked the town to Cairns. Within the town was a former convent school, slowly going to ruin, and the town council acquired it for a nominal sum. They converted it into the James Cook Museum, now run by the National Trust of Queensland and rated as the second best in the state. A coup in terms of boosting tourism was to successfully lobby for the Queen to include Cooktown in her 1970 Australian tour. During her two hour visit she officially opened the museum.

The view up the Endeavour River.

The view up the Endeavour River.

I found the museum a fascinating place. As well as the Cook story, it has displays on the gold rush, an indigenous gallery, the story of the convent and of the town. It displays one of the Endeavour’s anchors and cannons, thrown overboard to help float the ship off the reef and subsequently found by dive teams.
I enjoyed the Endeavour Gallery the most, which covered the fascinating story of wreck and recovery. I particularly liked the large wall boards which had quotes from the diaries of Cook and Banks. Their struggle to release the ship from the reef, sail it up the coast for five days to the Endeavour River, and effect repairs on it, makes for fascinating reading. It shows what a truly great seaman Cook was, as well as his general humanity.
Another place I visited was Grassy Hill. It offers a 360 degree view of the area and Cook came up there often as he tried to work out a route that would escape the sandbars and shallow reefs which blocked his way to the open sea. There is a lighthouse on the hill too, imported from Birmingham in 1885. It’s a peculiar little building, effectively a lamp mounted on top of a corrugated shed. On the road up the hill are various displays telling the Aboriginal story of their dealings with Cook and Banks.

Banks' thoughts on the locals.

Banks’ thoughts on the locals.

In the Cooktown History Centre are some displays which are purely about the town’s history. The gold rush, Chinese businesses and lifestyle, how the town was nearly destroyed in the 1949 cyclone. Workaday stuff compared to the glamorous Cook, but much more real to the people of the town. I think one of the saddest displays is an honest account of just how badly the indigenous people were treated by European settlers and their governments. Being forced off their land, families torn apart, virtually forced labour on cattle stations etc. A real stain on Australia’s history and there are still many outstanding issues to be tackled.

The Musical Ship.

The Musical Ship.

Please bash here!

Please bash here!

More cheerfully I enjoyed a visit to the Botanic Gardens which have some fine examples of Australia’s more notable trees and plants. Laid ut at the beginning of the 20th C, it fell into run as the town declined but was rejuvenated as the tourism dollar worked its magic. There is a section which includes an example of all the plants that Banks collected in 1770. Above all, I was actually able to look at a Cooktown Orchid!

The infamous Cooktown Orchid.

The infamous Cooktown Orchid.

Down on the foreshore there is a living history trail and I admired the statue of James Cook, a cairn that marked the spot where his ship was beached for repairs and a memorial to the many Chinese who came here. In particular I enjoyed the musical ship. This brilliant piece of practical art is a ship made from rubber and plastic and which has on it loads of different percussion type instruments on which kids large and small can pick up the sticks and have a bash. Drums, a xylophone and so on. A great idea and good fun.
So that’s Cooktown. Boom, bust and recovery, just like many others. But it does have a special place in Australia’s history and now has a growing population of over two thousand. Three cheers for the Grey Nomad and adventure traveller Dollar.

Memorial to the Chinese.

Memorial to the Chinese.

While I was at the campsite I chatted to several travellers who were heading north up to Cape York or, more usefully, were on their way back down. I got loads of information about road conditions and good routes to take. The main road up the Cape is the Peninsular Development Road. It’s unsealed and is used by large trucks. It therefore suffers from a very corrugated surface. ‘Rough as guts’ was one description of it. But I learnt of some very nice alternatives to take so will be looking forward to some nice riding.
Since leaving Cairns I’d really begun to feel that a new chapter was opening up in my journey. I’d had a fascinating few days, especially with regard to natural history. I was delighted to have learned something of the indigenous people at last and am looking forward to learning more. It’s becoming clearer how Australia was when it was part of Gondwanaland, demonstrated by the ancient tropical rainforest. I’ve reached a point on the map where the only forward direction from here will take me north to an area with challenging riding and the ‘must ride’ Old Telegraph Line.
Goodbye towns and convenient living. Hello to roadhouses, bush camping and deep creek crossings. Come on then, let’s get going!

Nice piece of street art.

Nice piece of street art.

Cairns and Cowboys.

Cairns, QLD. 7th July 2015.

After fifteen nights camping I needed some time and space to sort out my gear, do some washing and buy a few bits and bobs. The YHA hostel had a secure place to park my bike, a roomy dorm and a laundry. It was also just across the road from a shopping centre. Just the job.
Reception told me of a medical centre just down the road where I could get a medical organised, at short notice. Was I sick? No, but I wanted to learn to scuba dive and someone of my age needed the OK from a doctor. I walked down there and booked one for the next morning.

One of my roomies was a French women called Kristen. She was on a six week tour of Australia. She had an unusual means of transport in that she would fly into a town or city and then run around it to see the sights. She’s a keen runner, she said. You must be, I said tiredly. She rides a BMW1100R back in Paris, so at least we had motorcycles in common. She also had an interesting English accent. Something else we shared, possibly.

Street sculpture.

Street sculpture.

Next morning I went down to the medical centre and got thoroughly checked out by a nurse. He tested blood pressure, lung capacity, eyes, ears etc. All OK. Then I went in to see the doctor who gave me that crossed arms signal which means, as we all know by now, you go no further. It seems that because I take broncho-dilatory medication for asthma I can’t go diving. The risk of my airways closing up because of the unusual pressure, and the effects of cold water, are too great. I was very disappointed as I really wanted to have a try at something so very different but it’s just not to be. The only bright side to it is that a $55 medical saved me paying out for a $950 course and whatever other related expenses would have come along further down the line. One has to look on the bright side I suppose.

To lighten my load and my mood a bit I posted my Motorcyclists Atlas of Australia off to Phil and donated my Lonely Planet Guide of Australia to the hostel’s book shelves. I had given very little usage to either of them and felt much better for having shed a kilo or two from my luggage. Good to have something positive.

I also watched the third game in the State of Origin series on TV. NSW had won the second game, three weeks earlier, so this decider was necessary. And what a game it was, provided you were a Maroon that is. Queensland absolutely slaughtered NSW, with a score of 52-6. Considering how well they’d played in the second game, this was a defeat of some note. I really enjoyed watching it, especially as QLD is now my state of origin too.
On a damp Friday morning I headed out of Cairns, feeling a little guilty because I hadn’t seen much of it, and headed back to the Tablelands and Mareeba. The road there was one I was looking forward to riding. I didn’t need a motorcyclist’s atlas to tell me that. Just looking at the map would be enough to get any red blooded rider salivating. But in no way does the map do it justice.

The map doesn't do the road justice.

The map doesn’t do the road justice.

Called the Gillies Highway, this road climbs from sea level to a height of eight hundred metres. It does this over a distance of twenty kilometres as it climbs up the Gillies Range. On its way up, this road takes you round two hundred and sixty three bends. Go back and read that again. No, I didn’t bother to count them! As I rode through the valley on the approach to the climb I was stuck behind a truck and two slow moving cars. But the clouds parted, the sun shone for a moment and the road straightened out enough to let me overtake the two cars. Then the truck turned off just before the climb started. It was mine! A nimble bike, even with loaded with luggage, is still a nimble bike and Doris and I had a fine old time as we hit bend after bend, of varying angles, at varying degrees of lean. I wasn’t out to break any records but believe me, we were having fun. I came up behind the occasional car but they pulled over when they could and let me past. Thanks guys, that was much appreciated. That was easily the best bit of riding I’d had since New Zealand and my grateful thanks go to Mr Gillies.

Back to a saner road and riding style, and soon I was in Atherton and a coffee stop at MacDonalds. Considering the town is the one the tablelands are named after, it didn’t seem to have much going for it and I didn’t hang about. Soon enough I reached Mareeba, one of the biggest towns in the area, and headed for the rodeo showground. It was $25 for a weekend pass and $10 per night for camping. I thought that was very reasonable for three nights camping and two days entertainment. Even more so when I looked at the programme of events and found they went on for two full days, starting at 8am each day. At the end of the normal events on Saturday was a Battle of the States, with competitors from QLD and NSW reliving the State of Origin rivalry. Something to look forward to.
I was shown to a pitch in the family area – read quieter – and just got my tent up before the rain came again. As the afternoon wore on the campground got very full and during the evening camp fires and loud music from the party area seemed to be the order of the night.

The large rodeo arena.

The large rodeo arena.

Saturday was dry and sunny and it wasn’t long after 9am before I was sitting in the stands experiencing my first rodeo. So what goes on? Well, it involves cowboys, cowgirls, horses, bulls, calves ropes and barrels. Here’s a brief description of each event.

Breakaway Roping – the rider chases a calf out of the trap, lassos its head and the rope breaks away from its connection to the saddle. Run against the clock.
Team Roping – two riders chase a calf out of the trap. One lassos its head then the other has to lasso its rear legs. Run against the clock.
Rope and Tie – the rider chases a calf out of the trap and lassos its head. He then has to bring it to the ground and tie its four legs.

Look out calf, I'm coming to get you!

Look out calf, I’m coming to get you!

Steer Wrestling – the rider chases a steer out of the trap, jumps off his horse and grabs the steers horns, then wrestles it to the ground. A second rider rides on the other side of the steer to prevent it breaking away sideways. Run against the clock.
Steer Undecorating – the rider chases a steer out of the trap and has to pluck a ribbon off its back. Run against the clock.
Barrel racing – the rider races their horse round three barrels set out in a triangle. Run against the clock.

An agile horse.

An agile horse.

And a determined rider.

And a determined rider.

Bucking Bronco, bareback – the horse is released from the chute with rider on board and he has to stay on until the klaxon sounds after eight seconds. Points are awarded for technique provided he lasts the eight seconds.
Saddle Bronc – as above but the horse has a saddle on it.
Bull Ride – as above but with a big, bad bull.

The chutes from where the broncs and bulls leap out.

The chutes from where the broncs and bulls leap out.

Many of the events had female and junior classes, and for the 8-11’s some assistance was allowed. The two events where the rider got thrown off a horse had pick-up riders who stayed close by and provided the rider with an escape route once the klaxon had sounded. With the bull ride the rider had to jump off and there were distraction clowns whose job was to keep the bull away from the rider. All of these techniques worked surprisingly well. There were various riders in the arena whose job was to capture stray horses and guide the steers, bulls and calves back through the gates into the pens. There were also a couple of comedy clowns who were easily the lamest, unfunny clowns I’ve ever seen. Half hearted attempts to get the crowd involved, very unfunny ‘jokes’, generally a waste of space. If I was involved in organising it I’d be asking for my money back.

Two very unfunny clowns. In fact the distraction dummy was funnier, especially when one of the bulls tore it apart.

Two very unfunny clowns. In fact the distraction dummy was funnier, especially when one of the bulls tore it apart.

As well as the arena events there was a woodcutting competition. Having read about these at Herberton I was keen to watch these guys in action. There was log cutting, horizontal and vertical, and log sawing. One man and his axe or two men and their cross cut saw, all done against the clock. The logs were stacked up ready for selection and preparation, and each competitor prepared his own log. For the horizontal cut he would mark any large knots, then select and mark a cutting zone. Next he would mount the log on a stand and cut flat areas at each end on which to stand. The five competitors had time handicaps applied, presumably based on previous performance. One competitor was eighty one years old and had been competing for sixty years. I think he was there just for luck as he wasn’t competitive any more.

The five axemen of the apocalypse.

The five axemen of the apocalypse.

The winner was a big Aboriginal guy who started last but finished first, cutting through his log in less than thirty seconds. The vertical log cutting and the sawing competition were similarly fast and furious. Technique is important but so is strength. The axes and saws are made from special steel and there is clearly a whole range of technical speciality sitting behind the muscle power.

Muscle man, with good technique.

Muscle man, with good technique.

Similarly, watching the rodeo events made it clear that skill with a rope and skill at controlling a horse is the difference between a lucky lasso throw and always catching the calf. I think there’s a fair degree of courage involved in hurling yourself off your horse and onto the horns of a steer before wrestling it to the ground, but even so, watching this event across two days made it clear that consistency pays off too.

Sometimes he stays on ....

Sometimes he stays on ….

.... very often he doesn't.

…. very often he doesn’t.

As for the guys riding the broncs and bulls, I don’t know what protection they were wearing but it needed to be good otherwise the propagation of the species would surely take a nosedive in this area. Those broncs and bulls sure could jump! The riders were marked on technique but I’ve no idea how that manifested itself. To me it just seemed to be hang on and hope. All of it was interesting and some of it was very exciting. The crowd was supportive of all competitors and increased in size as the day wore on. As it was the last weekend of the two week school break there were plenty of families around too.
After the Battle of the States had finished on Saturday evening there was a very good firework display.
Outside the main arena was a good selection of fairground rides and any amount of food stalls. One sold baked potatoes and I took advantage of it on both days. A very nice selection of fillings at a very reasonable $10.

Those bulls sure can jump!

Those bulls sure can jump!

I was very impressed with the whole event. It was superbly organised, everything ran to schedule and there were lots of different things to enjoy. On Saturday this included live music which started about 9pm and went until about 2am. I surprised myself by sticking around until 1am. There were two bands on and when one completed their set, the other started up. They swapped over like this all evening so there was live music all the time. One was only so-so in terms of talent but the other was really good. They played plenty of rock classics along with some songs I’d never heard. They had the crowd really jumping and I was out there dancing too. A terrific way to end the day.

Ride him cowboy. Yeeha!

Ride him cowboy. Yeeha!

Sunday was a repeat of Saturday, rodeo wise, although everything was finished by 5pm. It was another day of absorbing competition and the final results were very close run. No entertainment on Sunday so I had a quiet evening in my tent reflecting on the weekend. I didn’t really know what to expect from it all beforehand. I’d only ever seen these events in films as a backdrop to a story, which doesn’t really mean much. There’s no doubt they’re exciting to watch and I enjoyed it very much.

A log, a saw. It must be the log sawing competition.

A log, a saw. It must be the log sawing competition.

The one area of doubt is whether rodeo events are cruel to the animals involved. The answer probably is ‘Yes, to some extent’. There’s no doubt they feel some stress during the events although I don’t suppose it’s long lasting. Animal welfare groups accuse the organisers of using cattle prods and so on to provoke the animals. I’ve no idea how true this is. Is it more cruel than other animal based sports, such as horse racing or show jumping? All of them have their detractors. The fundamental question is whether it’s right to use animals for entertainment of any kind. I’m not going to pass comment. I enjoyed what I saw and no animals suffered any obvious hurt, that’s all I can say.

The distraction clowns earn their keep.

The distraction clowns earn their keep.

 

Monday morning took me back down towards Cairns, along another nice, twisty road. Not so much fun this time as it was too busy. Once back down below I headed for the Australian Museum of Armoury. I’d been told about this place by the barber in Townsville so I thought I’d have a look. It was very impressive, with a wide range armoury from WW2 and just after.

A beast of a bike.

A beast of a bike.

British, Australian, Russian and American tanks, artillery, armoured personnel carriers etc. All very well laid out and with high quality information panels. I was approached by a guy who had seen my bike outside and we chatted about places we’d both visited in Britain and Europe. He was a mining engineer and gave me some useful info about some of the areas I was heading to.

Appropriately styled reception counter.

Appropriately styled reception counter.

Big, British battle tank, the Chiefton.

Big, British battle tank, the Chiefton.

Is it possible for a tank to be described as 'pretty'?

Is it possible for a tank to be described as ‘pretty’?

Back at the YHA, I settled into the dorm and went into to the showering, laundry, shopping routine again. Familiarity and comfort once more. Nice.