This recent section of the trip has seen us leave the outback proper and get reacquainted with the east coast. Before that we’d spent a few days in our northern-most location Karumba Point on the Gulf of Carpentaria which was hot and humid but gave us the most spectacular sunsets over the bay – best enjoyed with a glass of beer and wine we found (of course).
En-route to the east coast we made sure we had time to visit Croydon (not that one) which was a very interesting place (not something I ever expected to utter) and which was the site of Queensland’s last major gold rush in the 1880s. The town is largely laid out as it had been at its heyday with the Club hotel/bar still operating along with the general store which is the longest continuously owned and run store in the state. The latter was a fascinating glimpse into the past with the shelves effortlessly combining both current goods and historic artefacts. There are many other buildings like the court house and police station that are restored with original fittings and open to wander around to get a flavour of what life might have been like. It is certainly a lot less busy nowadays as the current hotel is the only survivor of Croydon’s 36 hotels which enabled lucky miners to celebrate their finds.
Anyway, we could tell we were nearing the coast as the traffic began to get busier, the roads more winding and varied and the cows much fatter with the greener and more lush fields to chew at.
Stop 1 – Port Douglas & Boats (and a scooter)
Definitely a sign we were back in ‘civilisation’ as Port Douglas (only an hour north of Cairns) is very much a tourist hub. Basing ourselves there for a few days gave us a nice break from the heat and the driving and also gave us chance to do some touristy stuff. The town has a nice selection of bars, cafes, shops etc and was lovely just to mooch about in. Our main reason for siting ourselves there, though, was so we could get ourselves out on to the Great Barrier Reef and so we could explore the Daintree Forest.
The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living thing on Earth – stretching over 2,300 kms – and our trip out to the outer reef off the Port Douglas Coast was a real treat. All snorkelling gear (including a stinger suit in case of jelly fish) was provided and the three sites that we were taken to as part of Opal Reef did not disappoint. It felt such a treat to be able to see all the different types of fish, colours, coral – it felt at times like you were swimming in a tropical fish tank – and just be an observer of it all. Stunning. We were out for a full day and the staff on the boat were great. A talk at lunch time revealed an interesting insight around the coral bleaching situation. Apparently, it is algae within the coral that gives it its colour and sometimes sea conditions change (temperatures rise) such that the algae moves on – leaving a colourless coral. When conditions return to be more favourable, then the algae can return/re-establish itself and when it does, then the coral ‘revives’. So rather than it dying, it can be more about it being vacated for a bit. There was no suggestion that the need for conservation etc isn’t there, but a rather different, and more positive, slant from other reports I thought.
Not content with one world heritage site, we then hired a scooter (told you there would be two wheel adventures too!) to explore another in the form of the Daintree – a continuous expanse of ancient tropical rainforest (the world’s oldest apparently) stretching uninterrupted for 1200 square kms. The only snag with tropical rainforest is that it rains which, on a scooter, is less than pleasant, but we had a good share of sunshine too and it felt the best way to experience it by a mile. Crossing the Daintree River was a real highlight – a croc had been sighted earlier – but the roads were fantastic. Just meandering through the most amazing trees, plants and flowers, sometimes climbing, sometimes skirting the coast but always providing the most amazing views.
Stopping for lunch at Cape Tribulation (and the furthest point before leaving the sealed road – the 300cc scooter was not the steed of choice for gravel tracks!), we saw the biggest stick insect I think I have ever seen – easily the size of my hand if not bigger – amazing. He’s there in the photo below, but you’ll have to look carefully…..!
The beaches were all most tempting but completely out of bounds due to salties (crocs) and stingers (jelly-fish) – all very frustrating! Beautiful all the same though.
The next day was affected by rain, so a mixture of café-based people watching and further exploration of the Daintree was felt to be the best combo. Mossman was another example of towns that still retain a look from bygone days and lovely to spend a bit of time exploring.
Stop 2 – Cairns & Trains (and gondolas)
Cairns itself is not the most exciting of places. Classed as a city but really a big town , it seems to have lost itself as it has developed as a tourist destination from which to explore the reef. Hiring a couple of cycles was the best way to have a good nosey around and although the town hasn’t much of interest to offer, they have developed a very splendid set of sporting venues – the memorial pool was very impressive indeed – and a very lovely esplanade with park and lovely artificial beach/lagoon (again, because the sea is off limits). The marina also contained some very big and expensive yachts and boats too so not all bad it seems.
The main reason for us being in Cairns, though, was to do the Kuranda Scenic Railway. Departing the following day from Cairns Station, the railway to Kuranda is an amazing feat of engineering and provides the most beautiful views whilst travelling in style through the Barron Gorge national park at a leisurely pace in 1720 class locomotives built between 1966 and 1970. Tim was especially excited as you can see!
Hundreds of men were engaged in its construction and when construction started in 1887, it was one of the most ambitious railway projects ever undertaken. Some remarkable points are highlighted through a very useful on-board commentary including Horseshoe Bend – a 180 degree bend marking the start of the steep climb up to Kuranda, 15 hand-carved tunnels and Stoney Creek Falls bridge – an iron lattice construction standing on three trestle piers, constructed in the mid 1890s with a stunning waterfall backdrop. Not bad at all.
Kuranda station is very traditional and maintains the look of its construction in 1915. Kuranda Village is a short walk away and is all about tourists – shops, cafes, restaurants and a hippy market which is very interesting (I swear the people in its shops had been there since the 60s), so all very nice for an hour or two but that was all it needed in my opinion. We did toy with visiting the reptile zoo, but a short encounter with a young lad with one wrapped around his neck outside was more than enough for me thank you. It also felt a bit disappointing that all you would get is the chance look at a slider or two in a glass case – didn’t seem quite right really given the location. Not that I was particularly looking for a more personal and off-piste encounter you understand.
The journey back down to Cairns was a treat indeed. Instead of going back by rail (which was a treat in itself) we took the Skyrail – a cableway of 144 gondola cabins travelling over 7.5 km above the tropical rain forest of Barron Gorge National Park. Completed in 1995, it provides a true ‘birds eye’ perspective into the forest canopy and silently glides over the tops of the trees and enables you to pick out different bird song.
There are two stations along the way which you can hop off and on from and take a closer look at the rainforest and also the impressive Barron Falls – not quite in full flow at the time of our visit but certainly water enough to wow all that observed it. What a day!
Stop 3 – Airlie Beach
Just a quick stop this one but worth a mention for the fact that it’s the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands. A lovely place in itself – and very popular with backpackers – there’s a lovely boardwalk that takes you around the edge of the headland from Abel Point Marina into the town itself. In a smilar way to Cairns, it has developed a lagoon/beach area as, despite the name, there is little beach to talk about (and it would have sharks and stingers no doubt) and so the lagoon provides an opportunity to enjoy some sea and sand. The main point of the place though is to enable trips out to the Islands and there were certainly plenty of takers. Not us this time though…
Stop 4 – Hervey Bay & Automobiles (and a barge)
A weekend of more fun and frolics with Will & Nicky – hurrah! This time 4×4 action on Fraser Island. Holy moley – where to begin???
Henceforth, Tim is not just Timmo but Timo (think teamo) – as in Timo Makinen of motor rallying fame. Not content with flying around on his offroad bike, he is now proving himself a bit more than useful at 4×4 rallying adventures too. Let me explain.
Exploring Fraser Island can only be done by 4 wheel drive vehicles – there is about a mile of tarmac road and that’s your lot. We picked up the trusty (not) steed which was a bit long in the tooth to be honest but cheap and then roared off to the airport to pick up the kids – very exciting it was to see them again too. Onwards to the ferry crossing for our 10.15 departure and first test for Timo which was to have to reverse on to the barge. Tick – done expertly and with aplomb if I may say so.
Test number two on departing the barge station on the Island was to navigate across the sand tracks to our resort and accommodation for the night. Flying around on sand is ‘interesting’ and slipping around in the ruts is also ‘interesting’ but the mighty Timo did fantastically well and we were soon checking into our Eco camping retreat and glamping tent for the night – felt like being back in school as we had gone for the double bunk bed option (cheaper) with our own bathroom but shared kitchen facilities. To be honest it was lovely and really nicely set out – right on the beach – and done to a high standard. Would definitely stay there again. All felt very hippy chic and set the tone for a ‘Four Go Mad on Fraser Island’ weekend.
Anyway, no time for hanging around, back in the trusty steed (well, actually it was already starting to make a clanking noise as if we were dragging a tree underneath – which we were not as we kept stopping o check) and off up the highway. By highway I mean beach. It’s the main route up the east side of the island and can only be done at low tide (obvs) and road rules apply – driving on the left, speed limit of 80 km/hr etc. Quite an amazing experience- ocean lapping in on one side, sand dunes on the other and 4x4s powering up and down. First stop was the Maheno ship wreck. After long and faithful service, the vessel beached in 1935 on its way to Japan for scrap – the tow rope snapped and here it has remained ever since. Quite a sad story and end really given that it is now just a skeleton eroded by the elements.
A few fine photo opportunities later and we were off again inland to Lake Allom – one of the smaller inland lakes – where the water is brown/yellow in colour as a result of tea tree ‘infusion’. Although not so inviting to look at, it was delightful to swim in – along with the turtles – and left your skin and hair feeling fantastic. Felt like you’d been in a spa! After a quick picnic by the lake we all climbed back into the 4×4 in order to get back along the beach highway before the tide got too high. Even saw a Dingo! A really excellent first day with a nice mixture of experiences – Timo was a star and Will was an expert co-driver (me and Nicky preferred the back seat out of the way!!) The evening continued to impress with a very nice dinner in the resort town (only one to choose from, so that was lucky) and a meteor shower in what was the best and clearest night sky I think we’ve seen since being in Australia – yes even better than Uluru.
Day 2 didn’t start well….. absolutely persisting with rain. Not namby, pamby rain but proper, full on rain. In true British style we decided to see if it would clear up after breakfast so first run of the day was only as far as the bakery to get some nice coffee and treats to add to our leisurely breakfast buffet. Unfortunately, even despite our eternal optimism, it didn’t clear up, the rain just got heavier, so we had to crack on anyway. We decided to head for another inland lake – Lake Birrabeen – with its crystal clear waters and white silica sand. Well, not in the peeing rain it’s not. However Timo and me had a swim anyway and it was really lovely. It was all very surreal as the white sand in the grey skies just looked like snow! In addition it was hard to get dry afterwards as rain on top of wet skin equals more wet skin. Anyway, to say that the road conditions deteriorated is the understatement of the century – they were extremely tricksy and we got bogged down in ruts on a couple of occasions. Luckily all those people on the island not in rental x4s have the full kit so we were winched out both times – but not before we had tried to dig ourselves out of trouble WITH OUR BARE HANDS PEOPLE!!! Both times Nicky and I got completely sprayed with sand and crap to add to our ‘back to nature’ look. It just didn’t stop raining, so each time you were needing to sort out the bogged down bits, you ended up even wetter. Problem also was there were mosquitos by the bucket full. My legs next day looked like some weird dart board there were so many bites. Bloody nature (not really). Anyway, as the conditions worsened, Timo-the-brave and Will-expert-navigator came into their own. We got some video footage of us piling through the puddles, sliding around all over the tracks, getting pretty close to the very lovely and ancient trees and generally flying by the seat of our pants. The very best shots/video however would have been the very last trip where, frankly, Timo’s hands on the steering wheel were dancing around at such a speed it’s a wonder his arms didn’t pop out of their sockets!! It was vital to keep moving at speed in order to keep momentum and having the fearless attitude needed to negotiate racing the Isle of Man, there was no one better to do the job. What a star. The last run would have provided the best shots if only I could have been able to take my one hand off the door handle and the other from over my eyes…it was epic and Timo and Will did us proud to get us all back in one piece even if the car sounded like a bag of old spanners. We had rung the hire company for advice and emailed them but they didn’t see fit to get back to us….. Might result in a less than complimentary review I reckon.
Anyway, after we had power washed and returned the heap of crap to the rental place (no one there to ‘have a word’ with – surprise, surprise), a hot shower, a nice bbq and lots and lots of beer/wine, we all laughed into the wee small hours about our adventures. The next day was much sunnier and altogether more Australia-like, so we decided to have a quiet one around the pool and at the beach bar. Enough adventures for one weekend. Sad to have to say goodbye to Will and Nicky and sad that we are now on the last leg of the tour. But let’s not try to think about that just now I reckon…
Next stop – Brisbane!